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Catching Up!


JUNE! Summer Solstice, mid-year and one more month until the anniversary of the bay area Bridge Toll increases. And maybe, just maybe this month will finally bring an end to the cold and gray rainy days.

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 1 – The day begins with a fabulous rainbow arching over San Francisco Bay. Still plenty of clouds out there, a huge puffy white cloud show. Our driver took 3 of us and happily accepted $1.25 from each one. I always find that tacky and annoying. Especially when it’s not acknowledged.

TUESDAY, JUNE 7. This morning KBLX Radio says “It’s Finally Here – the Summer of 2011”, and indeed it looks like the rains are finally gone. I’m in a big Ford van. A very large guy driving – maybe 300 pounds. This big vehicle is a good fit for him. He’s wearing a short-sleeved white t-shirt, khaki cargo pants and little square glasses. I narrowly missed a ride in the van in front of him – a van with a sliding door and a double row of rear seats. They had just loaded up with 3 passengers and then I saw the driver signal for ‘one more’, so I dashed over. I thought he’d signaled for me to get in the driver’s side so I walked around the van, and – no door. By the time I came back to the other side (maybe 2 seconds), another rider from the line had already jumped in. Wow. You can’t hesitate or falter in the Vallejo line!

THURSDAY, JUNE 9. I’m in the back seat of a black Lexus sedan. The two guys in front are large Hawaiian-Kahuna-looking fellows. Both with very short-cropped hair, wearing black t-shirts. Appropriately, ‘California Girls’ by the Beach Boys is playing on a CD. As I slide into the back seat, the driver reaches back to scoot the remnants of his McDonald’s breakfast out of the way. It’s a great CD and we enjoy it all the way into the city, the driver thrumming his hand in rhythm on his substantial thigh. “Do You Love Me – Now That I Can Dance?” and “The Game of Love” takes us across the Bay Bridge. I leave the car and this jolly, relaxed ride to the strains of “Let’s Go Surfing Now”, another great by the Beach Boys.

TODAY, JUNE 14. Lots of cars, no wait, and a lovely June morning. My ride is a Honda 4-door sedan, well-used. Actually ‘poorly used’ would be better. Torn rear seat pockets, stains on upholstery, and a little pile of accumulated garbage on the floor behind the driver’s seat. I see a Snicker’s wrapper, Rold Gold pretzel package, Talking Rainspring Water Bottle, Crystal Geyser Very Berry Flavored Water bottle and much wadded up paper debris. The driver is a super tall long-legged guy, attempting to disguise his male-pattern-balding by shaving his head. The weather gets cooler as we approach the city and a massive fog bank is resting out on the ocean. The city glows white in reflected sunlight against the dark foggy background. Today Michelle Obama visits the Bay area, at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland. Our front-seat passenger is a youngish Asian lady with long, shiny, fragrant hair that she frequently strokes and tosses around. She plugs into a music device and headphones for the trip. it’s a great day to carpool – gridlocked toll plaza and heavy sluggish traffic in the other lanes. We’re in the city in 40 minutes.

Would You Like to Come, too?


TUESDAY, MAY 17
A very gray, chilly day, reminiscent of November. I join a line of about 20 riders and we slowly shuffle up to the head of the line. As I get close I see about 8 cars suddenly pulling up. What starts to happen is that riders approaching the line, stop approaching and just start getting into cars (hey!). The way the Vallejo line is set up is that the road where drivers approach is right next to the sidewalk where riders walk up to the line – makes it easy to kinda cheat and just jump into a car without walking up to the end of the line. When my turn comes I walk past a couple of cars that already have their quota and suddenly a lady’s head leans out of a car window and says, “Would you like to come, too?” As though she were inviting me to come along on some fun outing or great adventure. She had a cheery British accent and that made the invitation sound even more appealing.

So I and all my baggage pile into the other half of the back seat, already occupied by an Asian-American guy, who had been one of the afore-mentioned cheaters. “Kind of a free-for-all out there today”, I comment. “Yes, we’d noticed”, the British lady turned around and said, rolling her eyes in the direction of the fellow next to me.

As we started off, she introduced herself, “Caroline” and her non-British friend, the driver, also introduced herself, “Susan”, so of course I did too. We all smiled and drove off. The front seat passenger, the British lady, had very long hair in dreadlocks, many piercings, no makeup and was curled up in the seat eating some sort of fruit and cereal meal from a glass bowl. She was wearing well-worn and strategically torn jeans. The driver had Harry Potter red-rimmed glasses and was wearing an odd-looking crocheted black hat interspersed with small white fabric flowers and a pair of bright red gloves.

They both apologized for a broken rear window, the small part of the rear window, right next to where I was sitting. An attempt had been made to repair the missing glass with a piece of plastic and lots of bright yellow tape. Which hissed and flapped as we picked up speed. I asked how it had happened, and they were a little vague, but Susan said, “it actually came in handy this morning. I’d left the car keys locked in the car all night, so I was able to get in and retrieve them!” What good luck. You never know when a broken window will come in handy.

The front car seats were both covered with a black furry seat cover and on the top of each seat was a tie-dyed jersey jester hat. Lots of little clutter and objects were spilling out of the drink holder between the 2 seats.

In spite of the Mary Poppins ambience and general feeling of recycled chaos, or maybe because of it, the ride was very comfy and secure. The flower-headed driver drove us safely along in her well-used Toyota sedan as she and her friend chatted away, non stop. Unfortunately I could not hear them because the patched rear window was becoming undone and the effect was like being in a wind tunnel.

My Asian companion never said a word and in fact, barely moved. He kept his hands folded over a leather briefcase he held on his lap, occasionally tapping out an accompaniment to some inner rhythm.

When we pulled up to the stop in San Francisco, I realized I could not open my door. The rear handle had broken off. Susan quickly got out of the car and opened the door from the outside. “The car has a lot of interesting features,” she said. Both ladies chuckled. And so did I. I thanked them for a very pleasant ride and went on my way. Cheerio!

Carpooling Surveys – From Berkeley to Vallejo to Marin County


It seems as though everyone’s interested in taking a survey about casual carpooling this spring. The University of California was passing out survey forms last month at the Vallejo carpool line – they’re compiling information on the effects of the first year of bridge tolls on carpools. The information will be available around July 1, the anniversary date of the toll taking. (stay tuned)

Last week two ladies from 511 Rideshare had a little table set up at the Vallejo carpool line, passing out questionnaires to riders. “We’re following up on last year’s survey”, the smiling Rideshare lady said. The 21 questions on the self addressed, postage paid mailer survey ask everything from ‘How Often Do You Commute by Casual Carpool’, to ‘Annual Income’. Remember that 511 Rideshare is run by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority, the same folks who brought us the tolls for casual carpool.

We talked about the surveys in my ride that day (a spic-and-span Honda sedan), the driver an American Airlines employee wearing little wings on her jacket lapel. The other passenger, a lady in the front seat, refused to take the questionnaire. “Last time I filled out one of those they started charging toll! Uh,uh, not again.” “Anything they can do to get money from us, they do!” she added. I mentioned the express lanes (existing carpool lanes that are gradually being converted to single-driver/toll lanes throughout the northern California carpool system). Neither of them had heard about that.

“I make so many trips back and forth to the airport”, the airlines lady said. “If it weren’t for the carpool lane, I just couldn’t afford to do it, time-wise or money-wise. But I don’t know if I want to be paying toll in an express lane.”

We all agreed that the carpool lane/system is being exploited to produce additional revenue. An unwise-move, I believe, that may eventually wipe out carpooling altogether.

There’s yet another survey/questionnaire in the works. This one I heard about through Gilda, a reader of this very blog. Gilda lives in Marin and is a regular commuter to San Francisco. There has been no casual carpool set up in Marin County and Gilda has diligently pursued a way to make it happen.

She e-mailed me a few weeks ago with great news. “I am delighted to report that TAM (Transportation Authority of Marin) is now in the planning stage of creating and possibly launching a carpool program in Marin!” Gilda has been invited to be a part of that planning process and that is where the questionnaire comes in. TAM will compile the results and hopefully get those rides and riders going!

If you live in Marin and would like to participate, go to http://www.MarinCarpool.com and take the survey. It’s very short and concise, and easy to do.

Gilda says, “I hope you’ll join me in this exciting possibility to finally bring carpooling on a grand scale to Marin resulting in a far better quality of life for us all.” Kudos to you Gilda! And to all of us who carpool.

A Toll-Tale of the Blue Truck and The Black Truck


Tuesday, May 10
A couple of months ago I was waiting in the rainy, shivering March line with the other casual carpool riders and when I got to the head of the line, a black pick up truck pulled up and I trotted over to get in. And then stopped. A large white sign was taped to the passenger side window. “THIS IS A SINGLE PASSENGER RIDE. THE TOLL IS $2.50”. Or something to that effect.

The effect being very in your face, and very ‘I’m only doing this so I don’t have to pay the toll’. I walked on past him to the next car, and noticed everyone else did the same thing. I saw the black truck there again a few days later and the lady behind me in line said “no one’s going to ride with him”. She was right, people just walked right by him.

A couple of days later my ride was a blue pick up truck, a Chevrolet, the kind with a small back seat. I and another rider got in with our $1.25 in our hands. “No way” the driver said. “I never charge. You got a free ride today.” And he laughed. He’s got his own construction business and feels like he’s getting enough of a break by being in the carpool lane and enjoying the reduced toll. A jolly guy, in spite of the fact that he makes the godawful drive from Sacramento several times a week.

This morning, once again, I saw the black truck sitting, with riders walking past it. Same truck, but this time the driver was a woman, who was not making eye contact with any of us. I studied the sign on the truck window more closely. “Casual Carpool Riders Pay $2.50. Cash Only. Must Have Exact Change”. I wish I had the time to stand and watch to see if anyone actually gets in that truck. Maybe, someone desperate for a ride, if no other cars pull up.

$2.50 is still a cheap commute to San Francisco from Vallejo, but that’s not what’s bothering me (and apparently other riders) about this. Just think if riders had the same attitude: “No toll from me unless you turn the heat up, remove the child seat that’s digging into my ribs, clean the trash off the floor, and uh, can you get something else on the radio?” “And oh, can you drop me off closer to my work?”

None of us likes the toll that was imposed on the Casual Carpool last July 1, but we seem to be stuck with it. For the most part, drivers and riders alike have accepted the fact and are civil to each other about paying and collecting. The drivers in the black truck appear to be taking advantage of that and the reality that Casual Carpool is part of a larger community of people who are after all, just getting to and from work so we can pay our bills. Because we good-naturedly accept the shortcomings of the commute system and the inconsistencies of the rides and riders does not mean we will easily put up with the kind of attitude the black truck people are sending out with the mean-spirited sign in their truck window.

It sure makes the daily commute much more bearable when a driver like the guy in the blue truck not only gives us a little break on the toll, but gives us something to chuckle about on that long ride, and it reminds us that we’re all in this together.

THE CARPOOL MIX


TUESDAY, APRIL 26, 2011
A sunny morning, short line of riders and I’m soon settled into the comfy back seat of a big, shiny white Nissan Maxima. I turned down the first ride (car was small, filthy, driver looked unfocused) and was glad I did. I no longer have qualms about being a bit picky about my rides. I am paying my way, after all.

We take off on this lovely morning, three ladies. The driver, an African-American lady in her 40s, with a stylish short, spiky hair-cut, designer dark glasses, power suit and the front seat passenger, a diminutive Asian lady in her 50s, a beige cloth coat, and me in the rear, the Caucasian lady dressed-for-the gym-before-work Commuter Gal. The casual carpool throws people together at random, sometimes in funny ways.

Like the day I saw an impeccably dressed fellow, perhaps 50-something, squeeze into the back seat of a brilliantly colored VW bug. The two guys in the front seat, who were together, were chuckling around with their wild hair, tatoos, and loud sounds coming from the tape deck. From the look on his face we could see the passenger had realized his mistake too late as they zoomed off. Or the lady rider who always had a box of kittens with her and usually a large bag of bird feed as well. She would interrogate the drivers about the car’s temperature and choice of music before she accepted the ride. I used to see her clutching her kitten-carrier and feeding the pigeons at the old Transbay Terminal. She once told me she rounded up stray kittens to take to the SF Humane Society.

I often see car pools out there on the freeway made up of unlikely combinations of people – serious readers as passengers and a very flamboyant driver jabbering on her cell phone; an older, solid driver with a young girl in the front seat meticulously applying her make up and a large angry looking lady in the back seat on an animated cell phone call. Or a construction guy’s pick up truck with a pair of Montgomery Street executives squeezed in the rear and front seats. For a long while there was an immensely over-weight and odiferous passenger who would barely be able to climb into the unfortunate waiting car, and once he did the entire passenger side of the car would lower at least 6 inches. I was the rear seat passenger with him once. Only. I haven’t seen him for awhile.

Usually the mix is not so dramatic and much of the time the ride with strangers is not so strange – we are all sharing the agony of getting up early and having to commute for the better part of an hour or more just to get to work. Most of us share a sense of humor about the commute and its frustrations and enjoy the exchange of conversation or just the the quiet time to read and ponder.

Today’s comfortable ride was fast (for the carpool lane, anyway – about 40 minutes), and we 3 ladies expressed our thanks and wishes for a good day to each other as we left the car and went on our way.

Riding in a Fit


Wednesday, March 30
So this morning I thought I’d come in a bit later and see if the long line of riders that I encounter at 6:45 a.m is any different at 7:15 a.m. Yes! No waiting! I hopped right into the back seat of a snappy Honda Fit. Since this is a car we are considering purchasing, I was especially happy to have a close up look at this car as a passenger. I have seen very few of these on the road. Our driver was an intense kind of guy looking very much like Charlie Sheen. He had a killer grip on the steering wheel and was hunched over like Mad Max. His subdued clothing color, slate-colored dress shirt, dark grey trousers, complimented the black and gray interior of the car.

I commented on the short line as I got in and explained I was trying a later departure. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years,” he hollered. “There’s no pattern, no pattern at all! Sometimes there’s a line, sometimes there’s not!” Okay.

Our front seat passenger got in and we were on our way. The Fit seemed smaller than our Hyundai Elantra, but leg room was ample and the seating was very comfortable. The Fit is a hatchback and I checked out the space behind the rear seat. It is smaller than a conventional car trunk, but one of the rear seats of the car folds down, allowing more luggage/hauling space.

The driver loves the car. “I have a $98,000 Mercedes – it’s been in the shop 4 times already. I’ve got 60,000 miles on this Fit and it hasn’t needed a thing. I get 37 miles per gallon on the freeway.” All good stuff to consider.

To my amazement, we see a California Highway Patrol take off to corral a carpool lane cheater, lights flashing as he herds the hapless single driver over to the side of the road. I’m amazed because I rarely see CHPs out here, or anywhere. And then, about 5 miles further down the road, it happens again! Another CHP car pulls over a carpool cheater. This must be the Carpool Crackdown day for the 80 Freeway.

Our Mad Max driver moves right along, even taking the 40 mph zone on the construction part of the Bay Bridge at 50 mph (whee – a thrill on that curve! my life quickly flashing before my eyes) and we are in the city within 45 minutes. He kindly extends the ride up to Market Street where I catch my bus and he zooms off. In a Fit.

Out Like a Lamb


Tuesday, March 29
It’s a golden California morning and the view from the carpool is of velvety green hills, dotted with yellow and purple wild flowers – thanks to above normal rainfall over the past weeks – we’re at 113% above average rainfall for the season. I’m enjoying the ride from a big Toyota Highlander and a comfortable ride it is. There were about 60 of us waiting for a ride this morning, a 15 minute wait. I’m riding with 2 other passengers. Two ladies in the back seat. The driver is a casually dressed red haired guy, probably in his 50s, navy blue sweatshirt, casual dark pants, styrofoam coffee cup in the drink well. A string of kukui-nuts hangs from the rear view mirror.

A weird commercial on the radio for bacon and ice cream at Denny’s starts us talking about food. “A friend of mine told me about a vegan restaurant in the Mission and I tried it, even though I’m not vegan”, the driver says. “And it was delicious!” I agree that the occasional vegan dish is fine, but even though I’m not much of a meat eater, I could never give up cheese and eggs. (Or whipping cream for that matter.) “The Mission is full of wonderful food,” I add. “Arizmendi Bakery, The Pie Shop and several terrific taquerias.”

We talk about the frustrations of preparing healthy meals at home while being a commuter. “There’s no time.” “That’s why you need Trader Joe’s,” the driver says. I lament that there is none in Vallejo, or Benicia. “I’ve heard that either a Trader Joe’s or a Fresh and Easy is due to open in Vallejo”, he tells me. I tell him I sometimes stop at the Pinole Trader Joe’s (on the commute route home) but sometimes the temptation to stop at the nearby In N Out in Pinole is too great to resist. We all agree In N Out is delish.

We’re crossing the Bay Bridge under a beautiful blue clear sky, such a treat after the endless gray days. Warmer weather is predicted this week, and our stormy March is going out like a lamb.

A Long Way from St. Louie


FRIDAY, MARCH 18
Delighted to step right into a car with no wait this cold drizzly morning. I recognize car and driver from an earlier ride this week. This is an older Lexus, very comfy and warm. Dad is driving and his little boy is sleeping in the back seat. Similar situation as another ride this week, with a dad driving to work and taking his son to school in San Francisco. Like the other dad, they are somewhat new to the area and to the Casual Carpool. “I might switch him to a Vallejo school after we get to know the area better”. We chat about the weather, carpooling and then discover we have both lived in St. Louis. He was born there and lived there until 1999, when he moved – first to Las Vegas, before coming to San Francisco.

I lived in St. Louis for only 5 years, arriving a few days before the Kennedy assassination and leaving for California in 1967, the year the St. Louis arch was completed. We have a great time talking about the grand old city on the Mississippi River. “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League” was the old reference to St. Louis when the St. Louis Browns baseball team was there, apparently not doing very well, when Anheuser Bush and over 50 other breweries were brewing the beer, and when George Warren Brown started what became a huge shoe manufacturing industry (remember Buster Brown shoes?) in St. Louis. “The breweries are pretty well gone”, he says. I imagine most of the shoe factories are, too. It’s hard to find a pair of shoes made in the U.S. today. And the St. Louis Cardinals have redeemed the the city’s baseball reputation by winning the World Series – 10 times! In 1926, 1932, 1934, 1942, 1944, 1946, 1964 (when I lived there), 1967, 1982, and just a few years ago in 2006.

He misses St. Louis. “I liked Las Vegas – it was a lot of fun, but I’ve never really felt at home in California. St. Louis is my town.” Turns out he’s a singer, part of a group who sang with the Temptations in Las Vegas. “That’s why I left St. Louis, for the job in Vegas. It was a great time.”

He was at rehearsal last night, getting ready to audition on the new Simon Cowell talent show this fall – The X Factor, the British show that spawned American Idol. How’s that for a Casual Carpool ride!

Welcome to the Casual Carpool


WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
The long line of riders moves along as the cars pull up and I get into a bright orange VW sedan. A boy about 8 years old is in the back seat, on his way to school in the City. The driver is relatively new to the Casual Carpool – he moved to Vallejo from Treasure Island about 2 months ago. “Even with the $600 in gas and tolls each month, the house we found in Vallejo is a much better deal than we could have gotten closer to the City”.

He comments on the number of single drivers who ‘cheat’ and creep into the carpool lane. “I’ve never seen the highway patrol on this freeway.” I tell him about the proposed express lanes that will gradually become part of California’s carpool lane system (single drivers can use carpool lanes by paying a toll – see my June 24, 2010 blog “A Carpool Lane By Any Other Name is an Express Lane?”). We discuss whether it will reduce congestion (probably not), but that it will put more dollars into the transportation agencies’ budgets. “And reduce the effectiveness of the carpool lane”, I add.

We talk about living on Treasure Island. “Not good” he says. The housing is small, ugly, and robberies are a common occurrence. “They’re military barracks, and they all have sliding glass doors which are real easy to break into.” Plus there’s no amenities, like grocery stores, banks, libraries, etc. He’s happy they moved.

A most unusual and strange looking squat action sort of figure sits on his dashboard, pressed against the windshield. It is a fierce bright yellow. “What is that?” I ask. “Oh, it came with the car. I like it there looking out at the freeway. It keeps me company and watches out for me.” We laugh and agree it looks like an angry pac man.

“So how is the Casual Carpool working out for you?” “I like it. My time is important to me, and the carpool saves me time. I appreciate riders giving me money for the toll, although not everyone does. Some people just give me a quarter, some people give nothing, but most people are okay. It’s a good system.”

March Views from the Carpool


TUESDAY, MARCH 8
It’s a gray morning with a dramatic, moody sky full of clouds and glimmers of the sunrise. I’m comfortable in the back seat of a Honda CRV (an unusually roomy and comfy SUV). The driver is a mellow relaxed fellow in his 30s. Long light brown pony tail, a short bristly beard, wearing jeans. The front seat passenger is a 60s something lady who settles into a book. Traffic’s heavy but we’re all trudging along at about 50 mph. “I’ve been driving the casual carpool for about 3 years and it’s great”, he says. He started carpooling “the last time gas was $5 a gallon”. (Looks like we’re about to go there again.)

Nearing Berkeley I see the tide is way out with lots of muddy shore and a variety of gulls and small water birds plodding about in the mud. We zoom past the gridlocked toll plaza and join very congested bay bridge traffic. Wow – the new bridge is shaping up and that tower is beginning to loom!

In a couple of months, around Memorial Day, all drivers on the bridge are going to shift lanes when the Caltrans bridge crew nudges the eastbound traffic lanes over (that’s traffic headed towards Oakland, away from SF) to make room for more construction. The lanes will change where the bridge ends, or what Caltrans called the ‘Oakland Touchdown’. This is the area where eastbound drivers emerge from the darkness of the lower deck into daylight; the change should be a minor one – nothing like the S-curve going into the city that was implemented in the fall of 2009.

You can check it out in greater detail at http://www.baybridgeinfo.org. The new span, all $6.3 BILLION of it, is scheduled to open in both directions in 2013.