Saturday, September 17, 2005

My Dinner With Aaron; or, Christopher's Continuing Adventures in Public Transit

As some of you may already know, during my recent job hunt I had to choose between two very attractive offers. The choice basically came down to, "Do I want the better job with more career opportunities, or the job in San Francisco?" Nothing against the South Bay at all - I love it here, I knew I'd love it here, and it's so much better than KC that the extra comparison to San Francisco really isn't needed. Still, I love San Francisco. It's my favorite American city, a beautiful place filled with wonderful people; it is safe, and easy to get around in, and has an incredible amount of resources considering its physical size and population (less than 0.75 million people in less than 50 square miles).

I had fun fantasizing about selling my car and living in the city. Ultimately, everything I read pointed me to the conclusion that, while visiting SF is a lot of fun, living there would just require too many sacrifices financially. I'm toying with the idea of living in SF and commuting down here, but not on my current salary. For now I'm content to live my life in San Jose, and occasionally venture north to explore.

Given the enormous pull SF had on me during my job search, it now seems surprising that I didn't go there at all in my first two weeks here. This is mainly because I was busy with my moving stuff. Also, going to SF really is a weekend venture... it takes at least an hour each way to get there, and to make that feel worthwhile I'll want to spend a good chunk of time up there.

In this particular case, I had the opportunity to do it on a weekday. Aaron, a fellow Computer Science major from my days at Wash U, is a SF native and had returned here after graduation. In a surprising turn of events, he was leaving SF for Cerner shortly after I left KC for Rocket Mobile. We decided to meet up in the city before he left to catch up and to let me pick the brain of a city insider.

I love public transportation, almost as much as I love walking. I plan to never drive into SF if I can avoid it. I live about 5 minutes away from the San Jose Dridiron station, the main terminus of Caltrain service into SF. (This leg will get even better in about a month when I'll be able to walk a block to light rail, then take the rail to Dridiron.) Trains leave regularly, and during rush hour Caltrain operates "Baby Bullet" trains that get you into the city in under an hour, as opposed to the normal 90 minutes. And SF may have the best municipal transit system in the US. I'm sure this is open to debate, but I've never been disappointed in it (even after my experiences on this fateful night). Streetcars whisk you to the most popular destinations, and a good bus sytem fills in the gaps.

After some coordination, I eventually decided I would catch a 5:30 baby bullet, which would get me into SF by 6:30. I would take the Ocean Beach line to Embarcadero, then transfer to any one of three lines that would take me to West Portal. From here I'd be a short walk from a Peruvian restaurant Aaron had eaten at before and had recommended. Each line would take me roughly 15 minutes, so I told Aaron to expect me around 7:15, thus adding some buffer time when waiting for a connection.

I left work around 5:00 PM that Wednesday, an early departure for me. I knew from experience that getting into San Jose would be a breeze, so half an hour would be plenty of time to navigate the unfamiliar station and find my train.

Well. Even the best roads have their hiccups, and 280 had a major one this early evening. It's the first and only time I've had trouble getting into San Jose, and I'm still not sure what the deal was. Based on the time, the heavy traffic should have been going in the opposite direction. For whatever reason, I crept along at about 5 MPH for most of the way there. I finally arrived at the station exactly at 5:30. For once in my life, I hoped that the train would not be running on time.

For the first time in my life, I failed to pay for my parking. It cost $1.50, which is a good deal, but the machine didn't make change and I wasn't going to give it a fiver - I'd rather risk a fifty dollar parking ticket, call me weird. I sprinted across the street and into the station.

I love technology. I really do. But when it doesn't work, it really doesn't work. I spent a good 5 minutes wrestling with the automated ticket machine. Fortunately, it accepted credit and debit cards; unfortunately, it didn't accept MY credit card. I tried over and over again, then eventually flipped it around and inserted it the other way. Of course, this caused the card to get stuck in the reader, and I spent another few minutes attempting to extract it. Finally I finished and, having paid for a "day pass" to Zone 1, moved into action.

Of course, I had missed the train I wanted, but another bullet was scheduled to leave in 25 more minutes. In retrospect I should have taken the time to make change and return to pay for parking; instead, I made myself comfortable. At last, we lurched off.

The ride itself went well - the tracks are smooth, passengers are quiet and polite, and while the train got full I got to keep my seat. Unfortunately, it's not a very scenic route - not exactly ugly, either, just a lot of strip malls and rundown fences. Still, I enjoy seeing anything new for the first time. Next time I'll bring my PSP.

Speaking of which, I definitely saw more PSPs used in public this one evening than I had altogether up until then. Mostly guys my age using them, first on Caltrain and later on the Muni. Makes sense - it's even more portable than a book, and it's hard to resist the combination of music, games and movies.

I debated whether to call Aaron letting him know I was delayed, and decided against it. Although I was arriving behing schedule, there was still some buffer built into it. Also, I figured I could take a few more minutes' lateness and claim to be "socially tardy" or whatever.

At first, things seemed to be going well. Even though I hadn't made the Caltrain / Muni connection before, I quickly figured it out and caught the Ocean Beach line right before it left. I picked a nice seat by the window and settled down. I had looked at the transit schedules the day before and worked it out - about 15 minutes to Embarcadero, then transfer to K, L, or M line, then another 15 minutes to West Portal. Simple!

Not so much. I am still not sure how this happened, but I missed the Embarcadero stop. I didn't know it at the time, of course. I listened to all the station announcements, and looked at all the signs, but completely missed it. For those of you who haven't used it before, for a portion of time all the streetcar lines move underground and become subways. I recognized that I was in the subway, and was pretty sure that Embarcadero was at the edge before the lines diverged and became streetcars again. So I waited and waited, as the car became more crowded, until we passed through the Castro and once again ascended to street level.

I was concerned. But, being the passive person I am, I didn't want to leap out of the car and take a line in the other direction. So I waited and waited, hoping that I had been wrong about the layout, that Embarcadero lay ahead and I just needed to wait a bit longer.

I gave up on my plan once we passed a sign pointing the way to Golden Gate park. Just then, a streetcar passed going in the opposite direction. "Crumb!" I thought. "Now I'll need to wait another 15 minutes for the next one!" I went ahead and got off at the next stop anyways, realizing I definitely wouldn't gain any time by continuing further in my errant path.

(The one redeeming feature of this whole mess is that I had seen that sign to Golden Gate Park, which would give me confidence in my next journey to the city. Please see the post entitled "Peace Love Music" for more details on this subsequent expedition.)

I only needed to wait for about a minute, though, until the next car came. It was nearly empty, which made sense given that the prior car had just come by. I made a call to Aaron, apologized profusely and gave him my updated ETA.

The annoying thing about my missed connection was that, even after having missed Embarcadero, I could have gotten off at any one of the next four stops and still made the transfer. Because I had mentally put Embarcadero at the wrong end of the subway, though, I had lost my chance. Now that I felt reasonably sure of where I was going, I resolved to get off at the first stop and do my transfer there.

From here on out, things worked fairly smoothly. I think it was the Hamilton station when I switched over to the L line. From here it was a straight shot to West Portal.

I disembarked and looked around. The streets are kind of funny in this area, but I oriented myself and walked the half block to Fresca, where Aaron was patiently waiting, more than 45 minutes later. We went in, chatted with the hostess, and began the enjoyable process of perusing the Peruvian menu.

Dinner itself was enjoyable, doubtlessly aided by the fact that I was incredibly hungry. I had a dish whose name I prompty forgot, it was a sort of roast beef thing with good potatoes and corn. Kind of comfort food, I guess. On rare occasions like this when I don't need to drive afterwards I always try to try new beers, and had a great dark stout that was surprisingly sweet. (Sweet as in sugary. Though it was also sweet as in totally awesome.)

It was also nice catching up with Aaron. He asked for and received some pointers on navigating the unique corporate culture at Cerner. I got some warnings and advice about the Bay area. At the end I handed over my copy of "Hiking KC," my lifeline for two years in the city. It was originally a gift from my friend Arline, and I'm glad that it will coninue to get use even after I'm gone.

We parted ways and I headed back to the subway. One thing that still bothers me about the Muni is the way some of their entrances work. Unlike, say, the CTA in Chicago, depending on how you enter a streetcar you will need and receive totally different passes or receipts, and I've yet to work out how they... well, how they work. You're supposed to be able to transfer to any other line within 90 minutes of paying a fare, but if you start on the street level you don't get a pass that opens the turnstiles, just a paper receipt. I assume there's some way to do it, but I have yet to work it out. In any case, I was past the transfer time anyways and so paid again, though I still want to figure out how it works. Probably should have asked Aaron. (If you know, please pass it on!)

I caught an M line back to downtown, then transferred to the Caltrain line. I was really nervous. The second-to-last train left at 10:00, and it was already 9:50 when I boarded. Again, I knew it was supposed to take 15 minutes back to the station, and again found myself in the odd position of hoping that the train was running behind schedule.

For the second time, no such luck. I arrived promptly at 10:05PM, and would have to wait until midnight for the last train. The depot is actually pretty nice, and I would have enjoyed waiting there, but I was too keyed up. I decided to get BACK on the streetcar and head over to Market Street - not to do clubs or anything, just to walk around and see it up-close at night.

I went back and re-boarded. I waited about 10 minutes on board and they still hadn't moved, so I got off. It was clear that the lines didn't run as often this late at night, and I wasn't relishing making a choice between heading back very early anyways or missing a departure and thus missing my last chance out of the city.

Instead I decided to walk around. The CalTrain depot is technically in SoMa, or "South of Market," which is generally thought of as one of the riskier areas of SF. From what I'd seen on the way down and back, though, it looked safe. I was in a spot near the harbor on the east side of the city, just a few blocks from the new SBC ballpark where the Giants play. I crossed the street and headed north.

There's a nifty memorial in front of the ballpark for the victims of the September 11th attacks. I walked past and admired the architecture. They made a good job of making it look nice, with lots of brick and good colors.

Further north, there was a nice, small city park. At the far end was an entry to the harbor. It looked like the sort of place that would be closed to the public, but there were no signs or gates opposing me, so I went on in. I didn't pass a single other person as I walked past all the private boats at anchor. The bay breeze was incredibly refreshing without making me chilly. I walked further in, then turned at a right angle to enter a pier. This jutted really far into the water. Eventually I reached the end, where I paused for a few minutes and did slow 360 degree turns. The city was beautiful and from here seemed utterly silent. I could see the awesome lights of the Bay Bridge still further north, and twinkling lights of little boats out at sea, and more city lights from the far coast. Everything looked perfect.

This was by far the most peaceful moment of my evening. Refreshed, I headed back the way I came and eventually made my way back to the street. From here I could have headed further north along the waterfront, but instead decided to cut across King Street and work my way back. There are some very new-looking and, I'm sure, unbelievably expensive condos in this region, many with names like "Ballpark Heights." You can also see the expected high-end restaurants and shops that thrive in such neighborhoods.

Foot traffic was light this late on a Wednesday night. I passed a few pedestrians, some walking their dogs. About halfway back to the depot I cut through another park further north, then worked my way back parallel to King. This was an area that, while still not seedy, definitely lacked the polish that the shoreline had.

I completed my circuit with about 30 minutes to spare. I picked up a copy of "The Onion" (America's finest newspaper), my first time seeing the local content in the San Francisco edition, as well as both independent tabloids. Thus armed with plenty of reading material, I boarded the train and made my way home again.

As Kingsley Adams once said, "It's an experience. Pity there had to be so much of it, though." I had a great time and would still have gone if I'd known of all the obstacles in advance. I like to imagine that, every time something like this happens, I'm building up good transit karma for the next time I need it.

The End.

Oh, but here's a postscript while I'm thinking of it. You Wheatonites may remember "Christopher's Adventures in Driving." This was my pitch for a soap opera, filled with comedy and tragedy, based on my experiences learning to navigate the streets of Wheaton. I moved to Illinois at the age of 16, and had never driven on a one-way street before. My fragile Minnesota mind had a difficult time adjusting to Wheaton, where things were generally laid out on a grid system, but with enough exceptions to throw you off when you were unprepared. Invariably when we would go out my Junior year, someone at point A would say, "Hey, let's all go to Point B!" I would grab one or two other people who were feeling lucky or masochistic. We would head out, and after a hilarious-in-retrospect series of missed turns, misreading of street signs, deliberate misdirection by my erstwhile companions, we would arrive at Point B half an hour after everyone else, whereon Scott Wyngarden would make fun of me for not realizing that Gary turns from a two-way into a one-way street. Fun times. Anyways, while I complained loudly at the time of how confusing it all was, I really do enjoy getting to know the layout of a new city. I do look forward to more Adventures in Transit in the next year or two to come.

As a final note, while I really do enjoy writing up these things, I'm finding it hard to justify the amount of time it takes to do these mini-travelogues. I'll probably just do highlights from now on - that is, not list everything that happens to me on a weekend, just the best thing every month or so.

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