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  • Waiting for a ride

Wednesday, March 10 Runaway Toyotas

Vallejo California 7:15 a.m.
The cold weather remains (42 degrees), but it’s sunny and clear and a glorious morning. I get in the front seat of an older Toyota sedan. Both driver and rear seat passenger, Asian-American fellows, are jabbing away at their cell phones, the driver sporting an i-phone.

Off we go and the portable GPS sitting on the dash guides our way down the 80 freeway and tells us we’re going 39 mph as we cross the Carquinez Bridge. ‘Light Rock Less Talk’ radio tuned in very loudly and the driver’s body language suggests no talk in the car. Okay.

I’ve been checking out the message boards on the never-ending Toyota crises – the latest being the guy in San Diego with the runaway Toyota Prius that was tearing along at 94 mph. I always thought if you just turned off the ignition, the car would eventually coast to a stop, but it sounds like (from some of these message boards) that doing that on a Prius might make you also lose power to the brakes. In the case of a Prius, you ‘push’ the ignition off with a small button.

However – some folks suggested that the San Diego driver should have shifted into Neutral, which would have disengaged the wheels, and the car, although with racing motor, would not have continued to be propelled forward.

The solution that the Highway Patrol gave him – to use both hand and foot brake – ultimately worked. Hopefully none of us will face this terrifying situation, but if you ever do, remember to use both brakes and shift to neutral, if you are able to function at all going 100 mph!

I was surprised to discover that nearly a million Prius have been sold since they appeared in 2000. I’d thought there would be more.

I’ve been checking out the cars in the other lanes today and it looks like about 1 out of every 3 cars, at least today, on this freeway, is a Toyota. Just fyi.

We’re at the 80 overpass nearing the Bay Bridge approach and the sun is OUT! A mile or so ahead on the freeway and bridge I can see the long line of cars moving along toward the City, sparkling and reflecting in this great sunny morning. My beautiful white egret is standing below by the marshy pools, head cocked, watching for his breakfast.

We move past the toll plaza mess and are in the City by 8 o’clock.

March 9 Cold and Clear Tuesday

Vallejo 6:40 AM
35 frigid degrees but I see a wonderful lineup of many warm cars. Mine is a 2-door Honda and I hop in the front seat. The driver is wearing a MUNI (San Francisco’s City Bus System) uniform and when we exchange greetings I say, “You’re a MUNI lady!”. Her response is an unenthusiastic groan. I ask which route she drives and she says she’s not driving anymore – that she’s doing something else for MUNI. I can tell she doesn’t want to talk, and especially not about her job, but she does admit she’s glad she’s not driving a bus anymore.

There’s a bright blue cut-out-tree air freshener hanging from the mirror, marked ‘New Car Scent’, and a funny little stuffed green frog toy swinging from her keychain. KBLK Radio.

It’s a crisp sunny morning and we’re moving along at 55 mph. The driver’s cup of coffee smells delicious.

Nearing Berkeley I can see all the way across the bay and there’s a huge freighter leaving under the Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz is sparkling and it’s one of those almost painfully clear days – so clear that you can practically see in the windows of all the buildings on San Francisco’s hills.

7:45 AM and we arrive at the drop off on Fremont Street. I ease my sore muscles out of the cozy car and head off to the gym and work.

Monday, March 8 Sharing in Silence

Vallejo 6:40 a.m.

I played hookey Friday, which made this Monday all the more painful as I groaned my way out of bed at 5:30 a.m. Back to the gym this morning, so I’m here early again. Looks like this may become my new time of departure. Cold winds this morning and all night – they rattled our old house. I’m in the back seat of a dark blue 4-door Toyota Corolla. 30-something woman driver, dressed in a black sweatshirt and black trousers. She has her head in her cell phone as I get into the back seat and gives me a distracted good morning greeting. She puts away the phone and off we go with KBLK on the radio. What a great haircut she has! Very stylish short bob – it looks terrific. A Safeway bag with several boxes of Tampons lies on the back-seat floor; her black jacket on the seat next to me.

No chatting today. The side rear view mirror reflects the front seat passenger who is sitting very still staring straight ahead.

I like a bit of conversation, and also like some quiet time too, so I can read, text, blog, or just sit and collect my thoughts. But today we’re silent.

I read a recent article in the NY Times about the new cab sharing in NYC. The news story is at (http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/23/want-to-share-a-cab-with-a-stranger/). This Sunday’s (March 7) Times included a column on the program, which officially began last Friday, from city critic Ariel Kaminer who tried out the program. It’s a good and funny story – read it if you have a moment. (“Sharing a Cab Ride is Hard Enough. But Words, Too?” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/nyregion/07critic.html?src=twr). Kaminer describes the oddness of being squeezed together in “100 cubic feet of space without speaking to one another”.

Ha – we do it all the time here in the casual carpool lane.

Light and fast traffic today. We whiz past the flowering pink and white fruit trees all abloom in time for the first day of Spring on Sunday.

We’re in San Francisco at 7:30 and I’m off to the weights and bikes at Club One.

Thursday, March 4

Vallejo 6:40 AM Cold – its 44 degrees!

I’m early today. I’ve just joined a Club One gym and am going to see if I can get in a workout before work. So it’s been a mad dash out the door and to the carpool. The rhythm of the commuters on the freeway over here is different – these are the get-to-work-at-8 am people.

It’s a free for all at the carpool line! Not so many cars and the ones that are pulling up for passengers are being stopped by riders walking up to the pickup line. Meanwhile I am standing at the line watching this mess, freezing my ** off and getting antsy about getting to the gym and work on time. It straightens out in a few minutes and the line of cars moves up to where it belongs.

I get into a Jeep – a real, military style Jeep. Square and all no nonsense metal. I’ve heard these are not the safest ride on the freeway; that they tend to be top heavy and tip easily. Oh well, here I am. A faded Jack in the Box head bobbling atop the antenna gives me a sightless stare.

The mirror decor here is a lovely rosary made of tiny shells with a beautiful thick silver cross attached. A can of coke and chapstick await their turn in the drink well next to the driver. I noticed when I got in that this jeep smells like a saloon – it’s not the driver – must be a booze spill somewhere at some happy point.

On the freeway overpass near Richmond a group of demonstrators stands holding a giant sign that says SCHOOLS – NO WAR. Today is a the Day of Action in Defense of Public Education protest by teachers, students and other educators, protesting the cut in funding for California’s educational system. Thousands of demonstrators are expected to make their message heard throughout the state.

The Jeep driver is a friendly fellow with a red mustache. He says he’s been driving every day only recently. Before then sporadically. He’s a San Francisco fireman with a knee injury, so until he has surgery and is recovered he’s on light duty and his hours are more commuter conventional. “This driving is killing me!” he says. We agree it’s a hellish commute. The jeep is noisy and we holler to hear each other.

We discuss the Toyota troubles. “Do you think they’ll bounce back?” I ask. The fireman says it’s not the Toyota corporation he worries about, it’s all the individual dealers and the economy in general that troubles him. A small sedan abruptly cuts in front of us near the bridge approach and the driver mutters under his breath. I say, “what do you expect, it’s a Toyota!”. We both laugh.

The sun is winning against the fog as we cross the bridge at 7:30. We’ve just passed a weary and small flock of magnificent Canadian Geese resting and feeding at the Eastshore marshes near the freeway.

It’s going to be a beautiful day in San Francisco and it looks like I’ll be on time.

Wednesday, March 3

Vallejo 7:20 AM
A stormy day. About 40 cars are lined up waiting for riders. I’m in the back seat of a Scion. I love these funny looking box shaped cars! Lots of room, easy to step right into, plus they look like cartoon cars. The young woman driving checks to be sure I have enough leg room before we take off.

The car shows evidence of small children. There’s a child’s book, small plastic toys, a Parenting Magazine on the floor of the back seat. A silver cross hangs from the mirror and a photo of a toddler-aged little girl is propped up on the recessed part of the dash.

I see from the large display on the dashboard that our speed is between 13 and 20 mph. Traffic is slow, of course, with the rain. This is going to take awhile.

I sit back and relax with my English murder mystery, “O Gentle Death” by Janet Neel.

March 2 A wet, endless commute

Vallejo 7:15 AM
It’s really pouring and I run to my ride. Another VW Sedan, a 4-door today. I realize once I’m seated in the back seat that it must be a smoker’s car. Cough, cough. The car smells bad.

The driver’s big black briefcase is on the back seat next to me. There’s a small re-cycling situation on the floor – a grouping of empty plastic water bottles and a few aluminum soda cans are in and around a square plastic box. The driver reaches around behind the seat and plunks an empty lime green plastic drinking glass into the container as we start our journey. He looks good in a rust-colored corduroy jacket and dark brown trousers. The front seat passenger is a handsome young islander looking guy in a great slightly damp trench coat – the kind with all the epaulets and belts and buttoned tabs. I see he’s carrying a bright red umbrella – a nice touch.

The driver must have a sore muscle. He periodically leans forward and pulls up his shoulder. I study his face in the rear view mirror and decide he looks a bit like a ravaged and very tired Michael Caine.

We’re off to a fast start, going 60 mph, passing the other 3 lanes of very slo-mo traffic, but the fun ends within a few miles and we’re crawling along with everyone else. The car pool lane is now as full as the other 3 lanes, which means that either there are many more carpoolers this morning (NOT!) or there are people cheating – single drivers sneaking over into our lane. But they’re safe today; in this downpour it’s hard to see who’s in a car. I don’t see the highway patrol out here, which is a break for the cheaters. The fine for being in the carpool lane with fewer than 3 people starts at over $300 and doubles and triples for repeated offenses.

KNBR Radio has a discussion going on about Senator Bunting from Virginia who is single-handedly blocking unemployment benefits for 100,000 people today. Perhaps his concern over spending money we don’t have is well-intentioned, but where was he when the war in Iraq was costing us over $200 million a day and dumping us into the mess we’re in now?

We’re moving slightly faster as we get into the last leg of the trip. It is really a deluge out here on the road. The car windows are all fogged over and the stale smell of cigarette smoke wraps around us like a mildewed blanket.

We slow down again at the final curve before the bridge, past the Eastshore State Park that runs 8 1/2 miles along the East Bay shoreline (see http://www.ebparks.org/parks/eastshore for the whole story on what is called the most outstanding achievement in the history of open space protection). Moving at only 5 mph past the marshes at the edge of the road, I can see skinny-legged sandpipers browsing through the grasses.

Here we go now moving quickly past the toll plaza’s 18 frozen lanes of gridlock and onto the bridge. The bridge is a soft gray tunnel of rain and fog, Alcatraz is barely visible out there in the Bay, and then the City’s landmarks begin to emerge – the Transamerica pyramid, the Bank of America monolith, Coit Tower. We’re finally here at 8:45 and I thank the driver, happily breath in some fresh air before maneuvering myself and umbrella to the bus stop.

Monday, March 1

Vallejo 7:25 AM
Late. But there are about a dozen cars waiting. I tuck myself into the back seat of a shiny white 2-door VW Jetta. The driver and lady in the front seat are chatting and seem to know each other. I’ve ridden with this driver before, but in a different car. He’s a really big guy – maybe 400 pounds and more than fills the driver’s seat. The front seat passenger, his friend, or partner, is a tiny curly-headed lady. A styrofoam cup in the cup holder between their seats is filled with small sweets – York’s peppermint patty, Snicker’s, Hershey’s.

This is a new car and very comfy. A stylish child seat is on the back seat next to me, with a two-toned color scheme of salmon and gray, in an attractive rounded shape I haven’t seen before. Also looks very new.

KCBS radio is on, but it’s hard to hear in this car – could be snow tires are making the noise.

Very few cars are at the toll plaza on this gray, chilly first day of March. Amazingly, we arrive at the drop off in San Francisco at 8:15 a.m. A quick, safe, uneventful sweet ride.