Illustrations by Mark Ulriksen
On Monday, May 23, Michael Suniga lost his teeth on a bus in Watsonville. He'd removed them to chew gum, wandered off the vehicle to inquire when it would be departing, and returned to find someone had swiped his dentures. "I had bad luck all May, man," he says with a toothless cackle.
June has been no better. A man who'd purchased a fighting cock from Suniga — that's how he keeps afloat, along with drawing disability checks — stiffed him. "He owed me a lotta money — hundreds. But the cops nailed him before I could. And I got a whole bunch of eggs that need to be incubated." Suniga knocks back a slug of E&J Brandy from a single-serving bottle after I open the cap for him. It's not quite 11 a.m., and the 23 King City bus is rumbling down Highway 101 between stops in Chular and Gonzalez, making local pickups from the cul-de-sacs of remote towns dotting the vast agricultural landscape. Suniga grins and extends a pointed finger, preparing to recount another tale of woe. Instead his head bobs forward, his eyes close, and the bus rocks him to sleep.
Biking and busing between Greenfield and Salinas to visit his doctors — and overworked dentist — is part of Suniga's routine. It is not mine. But, on a recent Monday, I was in the opening stages of a transit odyssey — an attempt to venture from San Francisco to Los Angeles using only public transportation.
My route is the brainchild of transit blogger Matt Nelson, a baby-faced 24-year-old who grew up in an Arkansas town where the closest thing to mass transit was a Chrysler Town & Country. After relocating to transit-rich San Francisco, he founded www.californiastreets.org.
Among self-professed transit nerds, devising Rube Goldberg–like routes necessitating dozens of bus or train rides to travel even short distances is a matter of pride. Many itineraries are strictly theoretical: No sane human will undertake Nelson's 68-hour S.F. to L.A. route via Yosemite.
Nelson's 32-hour, 14-transfer trek from this city to Los Angeles seemed crazy, too, at first glance. Going over it again and again, however — nah, still crazy. But it was too late. I was smitten. Just as the mountaineer George Mallory famously uttered "Because it's there" as his rationale for attempting Mount Everest, the notion of leaving the S.F.-L.A. route unchallenged ate away at me. I can't climb a mountain. But I can sit in a bus. And while Mallory's obsession led to his dying on a mountainside and transformation into a human Popsicle for 75 years, the worst thing that could happen to me was a night (or two) in a central California bus depot or an impromptu lesson on what manner of steroids to inject into fighting cocks.
As Suniga snores, I figure that my attempt to travel to Los Angeles on public transit will simultaneously answer two questions: Can you do this? And who would do this?
The N-Owl pulls up at Haight and Fillmore at 4:11 a.m. Somewhat surprisingly, it already has 16 passengers. Not surprisingly at all, the bus is already thick with the official Muni odor — BO ineffectively masked by Old Spice with hints of pee. Sunflower seeds are scattered beneath the seats and the floors are already movie theater-sticky. A man wearing a Philadelphia Eagles knit cap repeatedly smacks himself on the forehead; his pensive expression indicates some elusive knowledge is on the tip of his tongue. The driver's eyes meet mine. He exhales deeply. "It's Monday," he sighs.
Knit cap man stumbles off the bus at Fourth and King streets along with all the other riders. It's a shade after 4:30, and the Caltrain station glows like a beacon. Every last soul on the 4:55 train to San Jose is blearily staring at something: a computer screen, a newspaper, or simply straight ahead in an early morning stupor. No train car has more than three riders seated in it; it's a tight-knit club, and the passengers and ticket-checkers are on a first-name basis.
A young man wearing a black undershirt plops down in the seat across from mine. He has two phones clipped to his shorts, meaning he officially has more phones than shirts. He whips out a laptop and methodically bangs away at the keys. John Antoigue doesn't call what he's writing a diary: "It's more just facts." He documents life's minutiae: Bought eggs at Safeway. Watched Smokey and the Bandit on Net-flix. Chatted with weirdo reporter. Stuff like that.
A creature of habit, Antoigue daily runs the 2.4 miles from his home near City Hall to the train station in his Earth vegan shoes. He sprays Brut deodorant on his underarms — two pumps each side — dresses, and disembarks in Palo Alto, where he manages a hotel. Before we can delve into the finer points of his documented existence, he's off the train and hustling into the darkness. The sun rises 15 minutes later. Fittingly, we're in Sunnyvale.
The train reaches San Jose's Diridon Station hours ahead of my next transfer — I've allotted plenty of time in case Caltrain suffers what the French sensitively call "an accident of person."
A man with a fishing pole joins me on the 55 Monterey Express bus and whips out a cellphone. A painstakingly detailed discourse on the nitty-gritty of angling ensues. He describes the locales he fished, camped, and "drank beer and stuff" in Shasta County; the weekend's weather conditions; his strategies in selecting bait — even sharing what manner of worm he deemed appropriate. His monologue stretches past a quarter of an hour, and he still hasn't caught anything yet.
A familiar sensation comes over me. Just as every time I watch a production of The Merchant of Venice, I think maybe this time — surely this time — Shylock will emerge victorious, I begin to pull for the rainbow trout on the angler's line. It is, as ever, a futile endeavor. Shylock will always finish a forced convert and broken man, the fish end up in the frying pan, and the angler yammers unceasingly at 7:55 a.m. It's in the script.