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  • Waiting for a ride

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.”

No Fun, No Heat, Just a Ride


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 16
I’m wedged in the back seat of a Honda CRV next to a child seat, the kind that seems to be permanently attached. There is barely enough room for me and the little seat is digging into my ribs. It’s horribly uncomfortable plus, I cannot attach my seat belt – whatever the connection is has been taken over by this contraption. The driver does not acknowledge the fact that there is not an adequate seat for an adult in the back of this huge SUV, nor does she respond to my question about a seat belt.

It’s a cold, wet day and there’s no heat in this car. The driver is a plump be-spectacled woman in her late 20s, early 30s. Her long dull brown hair is pulled back in a pony tail. No make up, no frills. No heat.

The passenger in the front seat is a guy with a shaved head who is about the same age. Both of these folks are wearing dull gray and black clothing. Combined with my physical discomfort, these 2 people are so drab and emotionless I feel like I’m in a prison van. About half-way through the ride the driver rolls down her window and icy air fills the SUV. Fortunately, just as I’m about to complain, she rolls it back up. These kinds of rides, and happily they are few, make me feel like a piece of cargo. It’s just a ride.

Traffic is heavy and sluggish; we’re moving at about 20 mph. Plenty of time to admire the beautiful bay. Lavender-grey and white puffy clouds filter the morning sun and the city softly glows across the choppy winter waters. A solitary snow-white egret hunches over the shallow shoreline pools by Emeryville.

We zip past the gridlocked toll plaza at 60 mph and are in the city by 8:15 a.m.