Updated: Dec 2, 2020
San Francisco has always been a bit off its rocker. And now in the marathon months of a pandemic, it seems that San Francisco is off its meds as well. At least that’s what it seemed like last time I rode a Muni bus down the circus canal of Market Street.
After an injury, I had my shoulder pulled apart, rearranged, then sewn back together like grandma’s quilt, I’ve been spending excruciating weeks in the chambers of physical therapy located near the Embarcadero. Unable to ride my bike while recovering, I’ve been funneled once again onto the city bus. The therapy itself has been trying enough with a very capable PT expert named Lindsay who very cheerfully and adroitly manages to wrench my arm as if she were twisting the wing off a roasted turkey. (How is it that some of these powerhouse people only top off at about five foot three sometimes?)
“You’re doing good, Mr. Perez! It’s a painful process, I know.”
“I just want to swim and ride my bike again!” I say through gritted teeth.
“You’ll get there, Mr. Perez!”
For the most part, Muni bus rides during the times of Covid have been relatively tame. Gone are the times when you have to shoulder your way past backpacks and body odor as you wedge into the armpits of life. Now we have almost empty coaches much of the time with most everyone doing their best to respect the space and wear the goddamn mask. But even in these times, if you ride long enough, sooner or later the magic dust of the Barbary Coast sprinkles through the doors, whipping up a new spiked punch bowl of San Francisco kooks.
Stepping onto the T-line at Market and Church, I was happy to see it sparsely populated with just a few passengers; a giant construction-worker dude in the back on his phone, a small Asian lady clutching her shopping bag and nervously peering over a surgical mask the size of a paper plate and larger than her head, and an old man in one of the middle disabled seats on the left, seated with his cane. I took a seat in front of the Asian lady and settled in for the ride. It only took to the next stop for the spiked punch ingredients to start climbing aboard.
First up, the doors open to an elderly woman dressed in full retro hippie “flower child” garb with beads, peace signs, and paper flowers adorning her hair and necklaces. She was wearing a face mask sporting a picture of Jerry Garcia and struggling with a giant art easel on a flimsy tripod. The thing looked like a broken umbrella. She climbed aboard and made her way to the other side of the old man with the cane, and sat down while fumbling around with the tripod/easel until she had spread the legs to completely block the aisle. Hanging off the easel were many ornaments of sorts, stars and half-moons and such, all of them made out of the crinkled bottoms of soda cans. I knew this because of the psychedelic glitter writing swooping across the easel stating, “Soda Can Love Amulets! - $10 dollars!” Kind of a steep price for soda can bottoms, I thought, but good on her! This is what survival looks like. She was doing something about it.
Next stop, doors opened to another elderly lady. This woman was even more rickety than that broken umbrella tripod due to badly twisted feet and being bent in half by a humped spine. She seemed in pretty good spirits though, the spirits obviously blooming from her brown paper bag spouting the twist cap of a cheap wine bottle. With surprising drunken accuracy, she swung herself into the seat just in front of me and on the other side of the man with the cane and started talking very loudly to - well - the entire bus. Her voice was as ear-splitting as a parrot’s. Not even the shredded facemask she was wearing could hope to muffle it.
“I LOVE this god damn city!" she broadcasted in a slur. “Baghdad by the Bay still LIVES, I tell ya! San Francisco, open your GOLDEN GATE!!!”
With that, she unscrewed the wine cap and leaned back so far in a pull off the bottle that when she finally sprang back, she almost toppled into the man with the cane, who barely moved, only lifting his cane to block her if she wobbled any closer. He quickly went back to calmly looking forward.
Next up. Doors open again to madness. This time a bald sinewy dude that seemed pretty jacked on crank. As he climbed up, he bugged his eyes around the bus in intense suspicion while hoisting an enormous suitcase that had to be yanked through the doors. His tank top was soaked in sweat on a cold foggy day. The punch bowl just got a shot of rotgut. For some reason only a tweaker brain could fathom, occupying the seat in the very front of the bus was his hectic quest. He tried to shove the giant suitcase by the hippie ladies' art easel, almost tipping it over and knocking a few of the soda can amulets off. This activated the parrot lady with the wine.
“THIS IS BAGHDAD BY THE BAY, BUSTER! YOU CAN’T DO THAT IN THIS CITY! YOU GOTTA TAKE THAT BAG TO THE BACK! BAGHDAD TO THE BACK OF THE BUS! BAGHDAD TO THE BACK OF THE BUS!”
I exchanged glances with the small Asian woman with the paper plate surgical mask still sitting behind me. She had the same astonished look as I had. We became friends. Then the tweaker dude started backing away from the parrot assault as if it were dumping acid onto his overloaded circuit board. He tried to bungle his giant suitcase up the steps to the back of the bus, and after several minutes of banging the damn thing around like an enormous pinball, he simply gave up, stood there, and started singing…? It was more like scream-singing, actually. It was as loud as he could and was his only defense to the onslaught of parrot badgering.
“MY VOICE IS BIGGER THAN YOUR VOICE! MY VOICE IS BIGGER THAN YOUR VOICE!”
Then the tweaker dude started marching in place and swinging his arms while belting out his BIGGER VOICE louder and louder. That’s when the giant construction dude in the back couldn’t take anymore and joined the punch bowl. He leaped to his feet holding up his phone, which started squawking out sounds of a rooster crowing! A GOD DAMN ROOSTER CROWING! Again I met eyes with the Asian lady behind me. I could see the same question in her eyebrows. What the hell is going on?? Our newfound friendship deepened.
Meanwhile, the drunk parrot lady started passing the wine bottle to the soda can hippie lady (who also drank deeply and seemed to be fully enjoying the show) while the old man with the cane calmly ducked the bottle that was grazing his head. The bus driver never even looked up. Just another day on the job.
Next stop the doors opened and now the bus driver came to life, shouting at the tweaker dude that he had to either get his suitcase out of the aisle or get off the bus. It was like he was opening the screen door and trying to swat the wasp out. This time it worked. The tweaker dude made an instant tweaker choice and bungled his way off with the same clamor that he had bungled aboard. The bus drove on in a new capsule of silence for the next few stops. Even the rooster crowing stopped.
Then came the headliner act. The bus pulled into the next stop with a person waiting at the front door. We waited for the wheelchair ramp to slowly fold itself out of the bus onto the curb. Beep beep beep! Then the next passenger wheeled on and slowly came into view as the ramp lifted her. It was another elderly lady, and I was pretty sure she was even crazier than the parrot lady just by the thick crown of blue eyeshadow caking her eyelids as she peeped out over a rhinestone bedazzled face mask that spelled out COVID - 19 in sparkling letters. She wore dozens of giant necklaces draping her neck and bracelets jangling up both her arms to her elbows. She was pushing an equally bedazzled stroller with no baby in it at all, no sir! It was for the cat that she was cradling in her arm. THE STROLLER WAS FOR HER CAT! The cat was also adorned with a gaudy rhinestone cat collar and flashy sweater. And to tie it all together with a big fat “crazy cat lady” bow, THE CAT WAS ALSO WEARING A FACE MASK! I turned to see if my new friend behind me was seeing this, and we both broke out in laughter! We were now friends for life. The grand entrance even quelled the drunk parrot lady and hippie soda can lady’s conversation as the whole bus now knew that they had just been out-kooked. Even the man with the cane seemed taken aback as his eyebrows elevated just a touch.
“And the Off Your Rocker During Covid award goes to…”
Right on cue, the rooster crowing started back up, adding the appropriate cartoon soundtrack to our big happy punch bowl of San Franciscan kooks! The bus rode on.
Stepping into the bright and cheery physical therapy clinic, I was met by Lindsay, my energizer PT trainer.
“Are you ready to work, Mr. Perez? How was your bus ride today?”
“Oh, just fine, Lindsay,” I answered,” just another day in our fair city!”