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Life on the Underground Failroad 

Wednesday, Jan 22 2014

Sometimes, when you need to remember why you love San Francisco, it's helpful to visit a city where things do work. Recently I went to Hong Kong, another high-tech burg with too many people, too little space, and excellent dim sum. There, whooshing around on immaculate subways and regaling myself with the city's redundant transit options, I came to appreciate the most vibrant, humane, and absurd aspect of living in San Francisco.

The godforsaken Muni.

Yes, Muni is a decrepit network of shabby streetcars clattering through graffiti-sprayed tunnels, of trash-filled buses groaning their way up our steep hills (or at least trying to). To even catch a Muni train from downtown, you must first descend into a labyrinth of urine, feces, and amateur musicians.

But the Muni misery we endure is, I argue, what makes San Francisco great. Or at least what makes us whatever it is that we are, which often seems great. Ride our transit, and you will witness the hardiness and tolerance of the city dweller in her hostile home environment: evading the wrath of surly bus operators, fighting the urge to shush needlessly screaming passengers, maintaining a stoic outward appearance despite finding herself trapped in a metal can that reeks of stale Steel Reserve and fresh butt.

They do not have any of that in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, the cars of a subway train are connected with no doors, forming one clean, extended, unpartitioned corridor. Can you imagine such an arrangement here? Within five minutes, some park denizen would be rolling the length of the train on his skateboard, trumpeting profanities while soliciting cash for his daily bud. Or some punk kid would relieve himself into a Snapple bottle and start a train-length bowling game, with the bottle for the ball and some techie's $300 loafers for the pins. And if the young and semi-employed were not running through the train drunk and/or in their underwear — which is unlikely — they'd be Occupying it to keep designer chain stores off Valencia Street. So I'm sorry to say it, Hong Kong, but there's more to urban life than clean, smooth, open subway trains, even ones that hold lots of people and arrive on time every two minutes. We San Franciscans prefer randomness — not just abstractly knowing that anything can and will happen at any time, but making sure that it does so on our daily commute.

Perhaps the biggest thing Muni reveals about San Francisco, though, is our incredible tolerance for failure. They say failing is the key to success? Let's remember that the next time a broken door on the inbound L-Taraval holds up the entire city's ride to work. Or when the next bus driver ends his shift in the middle of a route and leaves 40 people stranded on a hilly street in a quiet neighborhood: We're on the way to success, folks. It's about four stops ahead. The next 21-Hayes will arrive in 17 minutes, unless it doesn't.

Yet this chaos is a blessing — one we mostly fail to appreciate. Increasingly, newcomers to our city are cheating themselves out of this great unwashed Muni adventure. They live here, or claim to, and yet never plop their ass down in those puke-orange seats, never discuss the epistemology of The Little Mermaid with a 50-year-old man sporting facial tattoos and a Mickey Mouse cap. You meet a lot of crazy people on the bus here, but the ones who never ride it are the craziest. They pay all that money to reside in this one-of-a-kind circus, and they don't even bother to visit the sideshow.

Ian S. Port is the Music Editor for SF Weekly.

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Ian S. Port


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