MUNI Diaries: 14 Mission Drama

Dear Readers, this is the transcript of the story I told at the MUNI Diaries Live event at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco. What a blast! It was the first time I’d been to a live show, although it’s been going on for 11 years now. Check them out on munidaries.com and listen to the Muni Diaries podcast where I can be heard telling more MUNI stories.

Have you ever had a young person stand up to give you a seat on the bus? Show of hands.

OK, a few of my boomer cohort is here. Were you looking around thinking the seat was meant for someone else? Like oh no, not me, I’m not old? Did you take the seat or refuse?

See, I think this is a good indication of how we feel about aging.

Me, I’m all about owning old. I’m old and proud. And I’m taking the damn seat. I deserve the seat. Standing up on the bus is hard when you’re old.

So my bus stop where I get on the 14 Mission or the 49 Van Ness is at Richland Avenue. It’s in Bernal Heights at the end of the Mission and just before the Excelsior. You can usually get a seat going down town. But try to catch the 14 at 7th and Mission. Or anywhere downtown. Finding a seat is not easy and most are already being sat in by old people. With shopping bags.

One day I got on the 14 to come home. The bus was packed. No young person got up to offer a seat (it doesn’t happen that often). Then I spied one spot on the far back bench. This was one of those buses whose back seat was just a plastic bench with molded depressions for seats. The empty seat was right between two very large men who overfilled their own seats leaving a narrow slot.

I squeezed in. I’m taking the damn seat.

Now I think of myself as a big woman. That’s my self image. Big and strong. But when I sat down between these two gigantic guys I felt like a pickle slice in the middle of a double cheeseburger.

As soon as I sat down I could smell that one of them had really bad BO but I couldn’t figure out which one. I felt barely able to breathe sandwiched in between these two huge guys. But I thought to myself it’s only BO and I can survive it. BO is natural at least. Not some new men’s scent made from toxic chemicals.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m taking little shallow breaths of air through my mouth and then holding my breath in between. And I’m keeping the damn seat.

The guy on my right was awake, staring straight ahead. No ear buds. No eye contact. Handsome, brown skin, square head, buzz cut. I thought he looked like a construction worker. I used to work construction and I can usually tell a construction worker by their boots. I’m not talking about those new unlaced Timberlands the hipsters wear with their perfectly ripped blue jeans. Construction workers’ boots are dirty. I can usually even tell their trade by the detritus left on their boots. I pegged this guy as a painter. I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. But I could see he didn’t want conversation.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

The guy on my left was a bruiser. He was a black guy missing most of his front teeth. He was wearing a baseball cap and drinking from a can. He had several bags of groceries sitting next to him so he was taking up the whole rest of the back bench on the bus. He had frowned as I sat down and didn’t offer to move over or move his grocery bags to give me some room.

I asked him what he was drinking. It had a red and black label and it took me a minute to realize he was drinking beer on the bus. He said, “It’s Miller.” And then I could see that it said Miller on the label but it was some kind of Miller I’d never seen. He said, “It’s high end Miller.” The six-pack sat on the seat next to him.

I asked him where he lived and he said Daly City. Nobody can afford to live in San Francisco anymore. I sympathized. As the bus made its way up Mission Street we talked about development in the Mission. Skateboarders did tricks on the steps of the old armory. Folks hawked their wares from blankets on the sidewalk outside the navigation center near 15th Street.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

His name was Kenny. He said he was 55, originally from Philadelphia. He had been shopping at the downtown Target store at the Metreon. I said you take the 14 Mission down to San Francisco from Daly City to go shopping! He said I really like riding on the bus and being able to sit back here and drink my beer and get kinda drunk and nobody bothers me. Then he said well nobody would bother me anyway. I’m 280 and six foot three.

Kenny told me he worked at the new UCSF hospital in Mission Bay. I never found out exactly what he did. It did seem that he had some contact with patients in the hospital. He confessed that he’d been having some emotional problems lately.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

Kenny wanted to give me something. Take a beer he said. I demurred. At 24th Street a preacher with a bullhorn harangued passersby in Spanish.

Then I was trying to breathe the air in Kenny’s direction because I finally figured out it was the other guy that smelled so bad. And then Kenny could smell it too and so he started talking loudly about the guy and how bad he smelled. This made me a little nervous because, while I’m a big strong woman, I’m not 280 and six foot three. And I’m in between them. Was Kenny trying to start a fight?

Also it made me feel bad about the BO guy. So I tried exercising my empathy circuit. I learned about it from Josh Kornbluth. You know the monologist? He is making a series of videos about brain science called Citizen Brain. Americans are losing the ability to empathize, but Josh says we can turn it around. It’s just about trying to understand how the other person is feeling.

BO can’t kill me. BO can’t kill me.

So I’m thinking that the BO guy is a construction worker and is coming home after work. He can’t help it if he has BO. I could empathize. When I was a construction worker I came home on the bus. But I never smelled that bad. Except there was that one time when the electrical crew I was working with refused to come close to me because of how I smelled. I was trying to beat a cold by eating raw garlic. They said it was coming off my skin. Have you ever had a crew of construction workers tell you to your face you stink? I have. I gave the BO guy a sympathetic look. Still staring straight ahead.

But Kenny wouldn’t let it go. He wanted to prove to me that it wasn’t him, that it was the other guy who smelled. He said loudly, “You know my mom never let me smell like that. She told me when I was 14 that I had to always take a shower and use deodorant every day and of course I couldn’t smell like that working in the hospital because it would not be tolerated.”

I could see he didn’t think I believed him. But I wished he would change the subject.

Then he did something pretty weird. He pulled out the front of his size quadruple X T-shirt to expose his belly and underarm. “Come on. Smell me,” he commanded. I must have looked surprised. “No really,” he said. “It’s not me.” He was holding out the T-shirt, beckoning. What could I do? I wanted to reassure him and I wanted him to stop talking about the BO guy. So I bent forward, stuck my head under his shirt and took a whiff. In fact he did smell pretty good in there, kind of like soap. When I emerged from under the shirt I was laughing so hard I had trouble maintaining my composure after that.

Kenny offered me the beer again and for a minute I imagined what fun we could have riding MUNI back and forth to Daly City and drinking beer in the back of the 14 Mission.

But I was tired of trying not to breathe. Glad to get up and leave when my stop came. But a little sorry to leave my new friend Kenny. He said, “To think that I didn’t want you to sit here.” I said, “Why didn’t you want me to sit here?” He said, “Because I like to do my man-spreading thing on the back of the bus.”

As I was getting up he flashed me a big smile. He said “Hey hey hey” and held up his fist. We fist bumped.

I was still laughing. I was thinking I was glad to be old and glad I took the damn seat.

The Palace of Fine Ants

San Francisco, 1966

By Eric Johnson

At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.

We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape.  No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools.  Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.

Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it.   Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened.  It felt as if you could never budge it.  Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising.  An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw.  Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.

And then, another sensation of the Many Tons.  At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison!  A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….

I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.

I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.

At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.

There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.

Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.

How the Lesbians Invaded

We had been powerless tenants, evicted with no recourse, and then we became agents of displacement. There was no in between.

My collective household of four lesbians had found a place on Castro Street, one of those original Victorians with high ceilings and elaborate wood trim, an abandoned coal fireplace and a parlor whose big sliding doors opened to double the size of the room. It was rumored that the apartment had come up for rent because the previous tenants had been busted for selling weed and were all in jail. We embellished the story to claim that the famous Brownie Mary had lived there. She may not have lived there, but she had certainly been there in spirit. It was the seventies; the Castro was becoming a gay men’s mecca. During our time there a housepainter engaged to paint our building ran a brothel turning tricks in the building’s storage room. He painted that building for months.

We fondly remember political gabfests at shared dinners, Seders in which we sang all the way through, inventive costumes at Halloween parties (in the year of Anita Bryant I came as a lesbian recruiter). For a time our costume du jour at home was simply a vest, a way to show off a billowing bush and legs as thickly furred as animal pelts (we were hairy and proud!). We danced and sang along to Stevie Wonder and Lavender Jane Loves Women. There was much laughing and also much crying. Passionate love affairs abounded. Creating a new culture calls for invention. We tried out nonmonogamy, polyamory. We felt we were on the cutting edge of a cultural transformation.

dyke collective_0001
The original collective: me, Pam, Ruth S and Ruth M about 1978

When the gay male couple from New York, or maybe LA, bought the three-unit building in 1978 they immediately evicted us. We had no recourse; rent control was still a few years off. We found a smaller apartment on 29th Street just off Mission in the neighborhood we now call La Lengua. Our landlords were butchers, brothers who ran a shop on Mission right next to what later became Cole Hardware. Weirdly, the buildings on 29th Street and Mission Street were connected. Our apartment always smelled like dead meat, like something had died in the walls.

We liked the spot—right behind the Safeway parking lot and across the street from the Tiffany gas station. Pauline’s Pizza was just across Mission and Mexican restaurants like Mi Casa proliferated. I bought my work clothes at Lightstone’s; the post office was right next door. The building’s ground floor held a printer’s shop and the second floor was just a big meeting room that was rented by Union Women’s Alliance to Gain Equality (Union WAGE) which allowed other organizations like Tradeswomen, Gays for Nicaragua, Lesbians Against Police Violence and the Briggs Initiative opposition to meet there.

My collective of four politically active dykes—me, two Ruths and a Pam—was happy. We cooked and ate together and invited interesting people to share dinner. Jews and militant atheists ruled. I learned about Jewish culture. The Christmas tree was relegated to a bedroom. It was bliss, except that with visiting lovers and pets (one a gigantic great Dane) and parents and friends the place was just too small. Finally we decided that we either had to pool our money and buy a bigger place or split up the collective. Ruth M decided to pull up stakes and live with her lover and so my lover Nancy became part of our collective.

37 29th st
37 29th Street about 1978

We were earnest idealists; we were gay activists; we had just lived through the horrors of the Moscone Milk murders and Jonestown and the election of Reagan. We were committed to live ethically and, even in the midst of what felt like political chaos, we fervently believed we could change the world, ending US imperialism, racism, police violence, and discrimination against women and gays. We were part of a collective movement that emphasized cooperation and consensus decision-making, a radical departure from capitalist organization that resulted only in winners and losers.

We listed our requirements for the new house. Ruth had to have a garden. I desperately needed a garage to store my electrical contracting tools and supplies. We had to be close to public transportation. We didn’t want a fixer upper; no one had time for that and I was the only skilled tradeswoman. We were committed to collective living and we also fantasized about eventually dispensing with private property. What if we could donate the place to a land trust so that our dream of a lesbian nation could live on into future generations?

We negotiated a contract. What would happen if one of us died or ended up in jail or for some reason couldn’t make her payment? How would we sell and buy shares in the building? What if we needed to make repairs or improvements? We listed all contingencies. We were good at processing—we were lesbians!

We imagined a larger single-family house, one with four real bedrooms, but then when we found the three-unit place on the south side of Bernal Hill our imaginations blossomed. We would no longer have to share one bathroom and one kitchen, but we could still cook and eat together whenever we wanted. Instead of negotiating for time to call each of our telephone trees on our shared phone, each could have her own phone.

The listing price was $135,000, an incomprehensible amount. A hundred thousand then felt like like a billion now—you couldn’t get your head around it. Still, we dug deep and came up with the down payment, only because Pam was able to borrow money from her family. Then we wrote up a new contract to repay Pam by the month. We got pretty good at writing contracts.

As soon as we took possession in 1980, our place in the property hierarchy changed. We became agents of displacement. All three of the units were occupied. Each of us had to evict tenants before we could move in and none of us could afford to pay both rent and mortgage for long. Oh the contradictions! I talked with the couple in “my” unit, offering to help them find a new place. Our exchanges were friendly and civil, and they soon found new housing. But Ruth couldn’t even get the tenant in “her” unit to open his door, though she could hear him spewing expletives from the other side. She resorted to lawyers and eviction notices.

We weren’t the first lesbians to move to Bernal Heights. Political activist Pat Norman and her large family lived up the block. A lesbian couple had settled just around the corner on Andover. But there were four of us, and with friends and lovers coming and going we were hard to ignore. People in the neighborhood noticed. Homophobia took the form of nasty notes left on car windshields, DYKES graffiti on the building. Two neighbors who grew up on the block, guys about my age, made it clear they understood what we represented—a lesbian invasion. Years later, when our relationship had grown friendlier, one of them confided, “We were watching you.”

As much as we wanted to live collectively, the house on Richland restricted collectivity. Having separate apartments led to fewer shared meals, less knowledge of each other’s daily lives. I retreated into the dreaded merged lesbian couple relationship. After a few years the original members began to sell their shares and move out while others bought in. At the cusp of the 80s our world changed. That frantic hopeful creative collective time was ending.

But we are still here. Since the birth of our dyke-owned dream, we have aided the lesbian colonizing of San Francisco and particularly Bernal Heights. With each refinancing (too numerous to count) and buyout, our property underwrote the purchase of new female-owned houses. When we started, four single women buying property together was rare and suspect by financiers. Tenants-in-common was not a typical way to hold property. Since then it’s been adopted by the real estate industry as a way to make buying of increasingly expensive property possible for groups of unrelated individuals.

We were agents of change, the leading edge of a new wave of homeowners in the Mission and Bernal Heights. But change is not new to our neighborhood. As one of the authors of a small history of Bernal Heights, I researched its historic demographics. Irish squatters displaced the Mexican land grant Californios. European immigrants made homeless by the 1906 earthquake and fire moved earthquake shacks here and built new homes. Southern Italians colonized the north side of the hill. Germans, Swedes and Italians built churches here for ethnic congregations. Mexicans and blacks found a neighborhood free of racist covenants and restrictions, although Bernal was not outside redlining boundaries. During the economic downturn starting in 2008, big banks (locally based Wells Fargo gained our enduring hatred) evicted scores of homeowners, most of them people of color. Now houses on this block are selling for millions and the techies are moving in.

The life we built is changing. Pat Norman retired, sold her house and moved to Hawaii. My long-time friend on Andover, the first lesbian I met in the neighborhood, just sold her house and moved to Oakland. And now I’m selling the apartment where I’ve lived for 37 years in order to colonize a neighborhood in Santa Rosa. Our particular experiment may be ending, but the neighborhood is still full of dykes.

In Bernal Heights, lesbians found an affordable generally accepting environment. At one time I heard that the neighborhood was home to more woman-owned property than any neighborhood in the country or in the world. Who knows; that may still be true.

Still Standing

Ruth S was the first to live in the top floor apartment after our collective household of four lesbians bought the three-unit building on Richland Avenue. She confided that in big storms it felt like a boat on the sea. You could get seasick with the rocking.

386 Front
It’s a weird looking building

I’ve now lived in all the flats—A, B and C—and I can testify that Ruth was not exaggerating. One afternoon, lying on my bed in the far southern reaches on the lowest floor of the four-story building, I could feel a gentle rocking. It might have rocked me to sleep had I not been worrying about its source. There was no wind. I could see the blue sky from my window. Later I asked my partner D, whose bedroom was on the top floor in the far northern corner, what she thought might have caused it. Sex, she answered rather sheepishly. “We were having sex.”

As amusing as this was, to have knowledge of my house partners’ sexual habits by just lying on my bed in a distant part of the building, it concerned me greatly about the constitution of our home. Was it going to fall down? And if so, when?

With this question in mind, I invited one of my building inspection coworkers to come by and have a look (I didn’t tell him about the sex). I just felt there was something terribly wrong with the way this building had been constructed. What could the problem be and how might we fix it?

Of course he had no idea. The walls had long been closed and I didn’t at that time have the energy for a big project that included opening walls and inspecting structural members. But I had at various times opened pieces of walls to pull in low voltage wiring or to try to parse out what the builders might have had in mind.

I first moved into the lowest unit, apartment A, in 1980 with my lover Nancy. We noticed immediately that the kitchen floor’s angle was far steeper than, say, the angle of repose for raw eggs. Whenever we dropped anything liquid it would run so quickly from one side to the other that the cook would have to dive to the floor in order to catch it before it disappeared into the framing.

The interior had been finished, but badly. We could see that the previous owner had covered the kitchen with quarter inch sheetrock, painting it all a bright yellow so that no one would notice. The sheetrock covered the window trim, making you wonder what he had been trying to hide. Nancy was a carpenter and I an electrician. We couldn’t stand not knowing what was behind the quarter inch. And we wanted to even out the kitchen ceiling, which had a mysterious soffit hanging over the entrance door. One Saturday while I was away at a tradeswomen meeting, Nancy demo’d the soffit (it had seemed like a simple quick job) and I returned to a kitchen full of rats’ nest material and rat poison boxes from the 1920s. We could only guess that a previous owner had built the soffit around the rats’ nest to avoid cleaning it up. After that we did not open walls with such abandon.

RatsNest
Rats’ nest inside the ceiling

But later I did have to open the kitchen wall. Investigating a short, I opened electrical boxes trying to figure out where the kitchen outlet was fed from with no success. I finally pulled off a piece of the quarter inch sheetrock thinking I’d find a pipe or a piece of electrical cable leading to another outlet. Instead I found that someone (clearly not an electrician) had run not cable but two wires stapled directly to the wooden original kitchen wall and then covered the whole mess with the quarter inch sheetrock. The wires disappeared under the sheetrock. Where did they go? There was no telling. This discovery horrified me. No electrician or anyone concerned with fire hazard would ever have done such a thing. It meant that we could hang a picture on the wall and short out a circuit or start a fire. But there was nothing to be done then. I patched the sheetrock and made a mental note to never hang a picture on that wall. It wouldn’t be till 20 years later that I would have the money and gumption to open the walls to see what was really inside.

386 Richland
So that’s where the wire went!

After closing up the kitchen wall and vowing not to think about the wiring, Nancy and I lived together in Apartment A for a couple of years before experiencing a devastating breakup involving our mutual best friend who lived across the street. Nancy was the first of our original collective of four to be bought out.

We all had thought long and hard about all the possibilities of home ownership, drawing up a contract that spelled out how collective members would be bought out and how new owners would be chosen, how much monthly “rent” would cost and the amount of homeowners’ dues. We even consulted a lawyer from which we learned that contracts drawn up between people are whatever the people agree to. In other words, the lawyer was no help. What we failed to understand was the concept of equity as it relates to real estate. Our idea was that each member’s equity was equal to all the money she had put into the pot, including monthly mortgage payments. None of us had owned real estate. We didn’t understand that most of the payment went toward interest on the loan. So we ended up buying Nancy out for more than her actual equity. But it was a good lesson. We became real estate mavens.

Then I moved in to apartment B. At the culmination of a lovely housewarming dinner, I turned on the coffee maker and all the lights went out. The electrician’s house, my friends laughed, like the unshod cobbler’s kids. That was the start of a long journey of discovery that would shock my electrical sensibilities and make me wonder why the building had not burned down in an electrical fire long before my time here.

Wires live inside walls and ceilings and so without opening up walls it would be very difficult to understand what was going on, but I could surmise that the apartment was served by only a single circuit. That in itself was troubling and there was no way of knowing the quality of workmanship or the condition of the wiring. At least the old fuse panel had been replaced with a circuit breaker panel so the wires were protected from overload. I wasn’t prepared to start a construction project on my home at that time in the early 80s. That would have to wait until after my retirement as an electrical inspector. My job as an inspector required me to explain to other home owners and business owners that their faulty electrical wiring could cause a fire. Every time I said, “If you don’t fix this problem, a fire could result,” I would think to myself, “My own home could burn down!” I didn’t know the half of it.

Over the years collective members sold their shares, others bought in and sold out until I was the only one left. It wasn’t until the year 2000 that I had the time and inclination, and also a partner who wanted to get her hands dirty, to begin to open walls and really see the structure. What we found was worse than anything I’d imagined: no studs in half of the third story apartment, bearing walls cut off at the garage level causing the building to sag in the middle (the answer to the raw egg question), a monstrous electrical fire hazard.

As we deconstructed the building, we kept wondering why it is so oddly shaped, why construction methods differed from floor to floor and room to room, why floors were different heights in adjacent rooms, why floor and ceiling joists sometimes went north and south, sometimes east and west, why when wall coverings were removed we could see sky through cracks in the exterior walls.

 

 

Then one day when I was standing across the street looking at the building I had an epiphany. Our home was never a plan in some architect’s mind. It was a collection of buildings set on top of one another, cut off, pushed together, raised up, and without benefit of removal of siding, spiked together with a few big nails. Suddenly all the mysteries we’d catalogued made sense. Our four-story three-unit building had probably begun life as a homesteader’s shack in 1893, the year of the newspapers that had been pasted on interior redwood walls as insulation. We read the San Francisco Call as we uncovered the walls. 1893 was a very interesting year.