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In Transit: From S.F. to L.A. via Public Transportation 

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011
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The 55 rolls through San Jose, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy before depositing passengers at the Prunedale Park and Ride, a smallish parking lot tucked among a eucalyptus grove, the freeway junction, and a cracked, weedy street. There are no restrooms in sight, so I ask the Caltrans crew towing a traffic cone-orange Porta-John if I can use theirs. "What for?" the foreman asks. This question catches me off-guard; there are only so many things to do in an outhouse. After admitting my need for the facilities, permission is granted. I was asked only because "one time a guy put graffiti in there." Ah. That had not occurred to me. But, if it had, I probably wouldn't have answered the foreman's question by stating "I intend to vandalize your Porta-John."

The 29 Salinas glides up at 10:02. After not quite six hours on the road, we've traversed just about 100 miles. A handful of men emerge from the shade of the bus shelter to board. Most of them are toting bags stuffed with clothing; well south of San Francisco, we have solidly passed the point where passengers are riding transit because it's convenient or environmentally responsible. This is the trip of last resort.

Tony Perez's car broke down, and he has taken a series of buses from Los Banos, where he lives with his wife and three children. He's toiling in a Coca-Cola warehouse near Salinas and crashing with family during the week. His story is interrupted by the HAL 2000 monotone of his cellphone: "Excuse me, boss: You have a text message." He wanders off the bus with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. To his right is a store adorned with an unintentionally ironic sign: "HEAVEN ON EARTH. Everything on Clearance."

When the driver cuts the engines and staggers off to use the john at a Soledad Taco Bell, a pair of tangerine-sized furry heads squeeze out of Kim Rodriguez's purse. A friend discovered the weeks-old kittens abandoned on the railroad tracks, their eyes still shut. But an auto body shop is no place for a pair of mewing kitties, so Rodriguez is stuck babysitting cats on the bus. Again. "Always I'm the one who gets abandoned kittens," she says wearily. "I'm the one climbing a tree or hearing them crying under the truck. Always." Sparky and Astro are the only male animals on the bus, and Rodriguez is the only woman not clutching several small children and bantering in Oaxacan. The driver emerges from the Taco Bell restroom, which he presumably did not vandalize. The kittens are hurriedly crammed back into the bag.

Grapevines give way to brambles, which surrender to pavement. The large bus navigates ever smaller streets in ever smaller towns. At one point, we enter a strip mall and actually drive through the alley behind it, inching past flattened cardboard boxes and apron-wearing men smoking cigarettes.

The coach eases past the cemetery, the trailer court, and the electric blue tent of the visiting Circo de Mexico. It shudders to a halt in front of the dialysis center at Mee Memorial Hospital in King City at 18 minutes after noon. According to the schedule, I should be finishing my journey in Los Angeles exactly 24 hours from now.

The signs marked "Downtown" lead me past several blocks of taquerias, carnicerías, and other establishments ending in "-ia." Downtown abruptly ends, however, at a massive corrugated iron warehouse featuring a large clock stating the time as 6:20 — which it will be, in some six hours. The site once hosted a train station where Errol Flynn and other Hollywood notables used to roll into King City to hobnob with William Randolph Hearst; the media titan once owned Connecticut-sized tracts of land nearby and maintained the "Hearst Hacienda" in the Valley of the Oaks. Now, according to an orange-helmeted worker, we are standing at a washing facility for the plastic boxes used to transport crops from the field. When asked how long the clock has been broken, he cocks his head. "The clock is broken?"

My itinerary calls for a four-hour layover in King City, which prompts the question: "What do you do for four hours in King City?" If you're me, you head to City Hall and ask to speak to the folks in charge. Queried where King City got its name, city manager Michael Powers and finance director Jim Larson point to a portrait of Charles Henry King, a white-bearded gent bearing a resemblance to Frank Morgan, the actor who played the Wizard of Oz. Yet neither administrator could explain the significance of the rather odd artwork directly across from King in City Hall chambers: an oil painting depicting a dilapidated two-story house. "That's just pretty," Larson ventures.

Larson volunteers to take me on a walking tour of downtown. King City's wide streets were originally laid out by the Spreckels sugar company, and its denizens raised sugar beets. Italians and Swiss Italians subsequently transformed the region into a dairy center. Now, however, some 86 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and most folks are growing salad vegetables.

You can learn a lot on a walking tour. Larson touts the municipal golf course he hasn't visited because he doesn't golf, and we pass the bars he's never set foot in because he doesn't drink. His passion, it soon becomes apparent, is amateur dramatics. He's a member of the Stage Hands, a local community theater group, and recently played the captain's messenger in Mister Roberts. His character, at one point, drunkenly attempts to smuggle a goat aboard the U.S.S. Reluctant. In an agricultural town like King City, it was no problem casting a goat thespian for the role.

This is more of King City than most folks will ever see. From the highway, all that's easily visible is the hulking water tower and "what used to be the garlic processing plant," Powers says. When asked what that sprawling complex does now, he smiles sheepishly. "We're trying to figure that out." At the end of the month, that won't be Larson's concern. The city's finance department is being outsourced, as there aren't the finances to sustain it. He has no job prospects lined up. "But it's okay," he says. "I'll find a new job." It's a mantra many in King City have been forced to adopt.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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