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Wednesday, Jul 14 1999
The Existential Bus-Based Karma Test
On July 24, at Pier 93 in San Francisco, more than 100 Muni bus drivers will gather and, in a series of competitive exercises, test their driving skill, knowledge of safety rules, and other abilities in a competition known as the "Muni Rodeo." San Francisco's top three bus manipulators will go on to a regional competition in Sacramento on Aug. 7, where they will have the chance to become the one West Coast representative at the national public transit drivers competition in Orlando, Fla., on Oct. 9.

For the last 24 years, the Muni Rodeo has been little-known outside the transit agency. But this year's rodeo is busting out to a wider audience, thanks to the unabashed nature of the new Muni boss, Michael Burns (or, as I like to call him, "The Gray Fox"). Just last week, he decided to open the rodeo to the transit system's biggest critics -- elected officials and members of the press -- inviting them to the event, where they will have the opportunity to drive genuine Muni coaches through an obstacle course.

Of course, these critics will travel a different obstacle course than the professional drivers of Muni. And the exact form of that course has yet to be determined.

That leaves plenty of time for me to make some suggestions.

I'm a big believer in karma. What's sent around should, indeed, come around. I therefore think each politician and media type participating in the rodeo should be subjected to a truly challenging obstacle course. And by challenging, I mean a course that tests shortcomings, idiosyncrasies, and all the other behavioral tics and character flaws that any reporter or public official regularly focuses on, and exploits, in others.

For example: Phil Matier, the smug items-man for the Chronicle and shouting head for Chron television property KRON, owns some of the most important journalistic real estate in San Francisco. Yet the Matier and Ross column (co-produced with hyperactive-golden-retriever-puppy cohort Andy Ross) remains shallow and gossipy, taking few risks, threatening little insight -- even as Matier, all 5-foot-5 of him (give or take), struts around the Bay Area, growls in people's faces, and generally behaves with the panache of a suburban bowling league bully.

Bearing that in mind, picture this: Phil Matier assigned to drive a rattling Muni bus down a darkened ghetto street with garbage-drum bonfires and gunshots in the distance (a primitive touch; think 1970s South Bronx). Gangs of sullen, well-armed youth wait at each bus stop with out-of-date transfers. To top it off: Matier's lone passenger is a psycho with an aluminum baseball bat who screams conspiracy theories while banging his head and bat alternately into the sides of the bus.

Now isn't that satisfying just to think about? And who wouldn't enjoy actually watching Matier's mini-macho sneer change into a pair of quivering, parched lips? Not to mention all those sweat flecks popping up like morning dew across his balding pate.

So imagine how gratifying it would be to see all your favorite San Franciscans struggle through their own, individualized, existential Muni obstacle courses.

No, don't bother. I'll imagine for you.

Guest Driver: Supervisor Amos Brown.

Course: Brown must drive a bus in a circle as incontinent homeless people thrust shopping carts into his path. Simultaneously, X Game skaters will perform tricks off his coach's roof.

Goal: Dodge shopping carts and facilitate skaters' tricks.

Prize for Succeeding: A set of full Xtreme skater gear -- board, helmet, kneepads, and all.

Punishment for Failing: Having to wear the outfit at every public appearance for rest of life.

Guest Driver: Po Bronson, author of books and articles about Silicon Valley and self-absorbed marketing genius. (If you doubt the latter assertion, check out

Course: Bronson must drive a straight line, backward, under two handicaps: The rearview mirrors will be set so he will be able to see everything, except for his own face; and, more cruelly, Mr. Bronson's ride will not be mentioned by any major media outlet. (Bronson's feat will of course be reported by the San Francisco Examiner, but the paper will be prohibited from referring to Mr. Bronson in print as, "The foremost American bus driver of our age," "Handsome and hunky wheelman for the city's transit agency," or "The hottest new talent to hit any American street in a hundred and fifty years." The paper will also be forbidden from using the phrase "not since Hemingway.")

Goal: To drive for 10 minutes without engaging in self-reference, self-love, or self-promotion.

Prize for Succeeding: Renewed respect by peers.

Punishment for Failing: Must write next book about interesting people.

Guest Driver: Warren Hinckle, Independent "columnist."

Course: A shuttle loop from Tosca in North Beach to Ireland's 32 in the avenues to Shannon Arms in the Sunset to the Dovre Club in the Mission.

Goal: Complete route in less than a week.

Prize for Succeeding: Marginally increased self-respect.

Punishment for Failing: Isn't being Warren Hinckle punishment enough?

Guest Driver: Terence Hallinan, district attorney for the City and County of San Francisco.

Course: A straight line, forward, no obstacles whatsoever in five-mile radius.

Goal: To drive in a straight line for seven seconds.

Prize for Succeeding: One week's freedom from ridicule in my column.

Punishment for Failing: See Hinckle item.

Guest Driver: Edward Epstein, City Hall reporter for San Francisco Chronicle.

Course: Must zigzag through traffic cones as Mayor Willie Brown beats him violently over the head with a ball-peen hammer.

Goal: To express even the slightest form of dismay about the mayor's violent attack.

Prize for Succeeding: A horsy ride on Willie's knee.

Punishment for Failing: To watch someone else get a horsy ride.

Guest Driver: Willie Lewis Brown. Jr., mayor of the City and County of San Francisco.

Course: Mayor Brown must drive from Candlestick Point to Market Street, mostly along Third Street, calling out each stop and explaining to each entering passenger why the best possible economic development plan for a depressed part of town focuses on cutting a football stadium deal with a man who 1) is about to be indicted on charges of felonious stupidity and sleaziness, and 2) does not have full control over the football team the stadium will house.

Goal: To explain himself without once claiming the press is racist, the public is racist, or the bus that he is driving is racist.

Prize for Succeeding: Four more years.

Punishment for Failing: Keep bus route for rest of eternity.

Guest Driver: Bruce B. Brugmann, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Course: Anywhere he chooses to drive, so long as he powers his electric bus from a non-PG&E source. (At the starting line, Brugmann will be given 1 ton of cow waste, an iron drum, plastic tubing, firewood, lighter fluid, and one match.)

Goal: Obvious.

Prize for Succeeding: The entire populace of San Francisco, declaiming at once, "You have been right about everything all along, Mr. Brugmann, and we are sorry we thought of you as a clinically obsessed whack-job for so many years."

Punishment for Failing: Must be Willie Brown intern. (Thong optional.)

When I chatted with her last week, Muni spokesperson Sharyn Saslafsky said that the Muni Rodeo would grow too unwieldy if activists and other San Francisco semicelebrities were allowed to compete. She is right, of course. But I respectfully suggest opening the contest to two "wild card" San Franciscans, chosen by Internet ballot. This year's nominees:

Guest Driver: Larry Martin, international vice president of the Transport Workers Union.

Course: Must drive N Judah line streetcar at rush hour under command from a faulty computer.

Goal: Answer all passenger questions about breakdowns without claiming the computer, or the computer's designer, is a racist dog.

Prize for Succeeding: Massive, citywide sigh of relief.

Punishment for Failing: Muni general manager job.

Guest Driver: Andrew Sullivan, chairman of Rescue Muni.

Course: Must drive any bus on any bus line -- from the very back seat.

Goal: Stay on schedule.

Prize for Succeeding: A brand-new Muni uniform.

Punishment for Failing: Must be roommate for life of Larry Martin.

I know what you all are thinking. What about me? What karmic justice do I deserve? I have a fairly obvious conflict of interest in answering this question, and thus open a new contest. I hereby invite, in hard copy or e-mail form, a proper, Muni-related punishment for my sins against journalism and logic.

Ground rules: Must be clever. Must be absent excessive bile and malice. Cannot be submitted by Kevin Keating, anyone who knows Kevin Keating, or anyone who admires, even in the least little bit, the so-called activism of the larval yuppie known as Kevin Keating.

Good news: The top five entries will win something. Bad news: I'll pick the something.

About The Author

George Cothran


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