There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Thank you, very much

Thank you for contacting Regional Transit. Bus operators are required to de-board all passengers, secure the vehicle, and shut the doors for any scheduled break. If you need additional information please feel free to contact me at the number listed below.


Robert H. Beverly
Customer Advocacy
Sacramento Regional Transit District
916.456.1752 fax
A driving wind chilled the 45 degree air temperature to 33 degrees. The rain felt like sleet as it stung exposed flesh.

The No. 82 bus was parked and dark with the doors closed. No driver in sight. Three of us -- me, a woman and a man -- had arrived on the outbound train at 7:20 p.m. We were all getting very wet and very cold very quickly. The No. 82 wasn't scheduled to leave until 7:28 p.m.
Thank you for contacting Regional Transit. Bus operators are required to de-board all passengers, secure the vehicle, and shut the doors for any scheduled break. If you need additional information please feel free to contact me at the number listed below.


Robert H. Beverly
Customer Advocacy
Sacramento Regional Transit District
916.456.1752 fax
The three of us milled around in the rain outside the dark bus. I was hoping a driver would magically appear. I don't know what the woman was thinking. She had the hood of her jacket pulled tight around her face. The other member of our party was drunk. My first indication of how drunk he was came when he hit me.

And then he kept hitting me around my shoulders and upper arms. I looked at him. He stood about six inches shorter than me, and was skinny for his size. Looking at him slap my jacket I wondered if he was knocking some of the water off. That would be helpful, I thought.

He didn't say anything as he hit me, each blow noticeably more forceful. I got the impression that this was a drunken version of greeting. I was struck with a mental image of two drunks knocking each other down saying hello. While I tried to ignore the guy he managed to get one arm around my neck in a drunken embrace.

"It's just too cold to stand out here," I told the guy.

I walked over to the nearest bus stop shelter, my albatross hanging from my neck and banging on my back. Once we were sheltered from the wind, the guy lost interest in me. He found a white plastic bag and searched through it.
Thank you for contacting Regional Transit. Bus operators are required to de-board all passengers, secure the vehicle, and shut the doors for any scheduled break. If you need additional information please feel free to contact me at the number listed below.


Robert H. Beverly
Customer Advocacy
Sacramento Regional Transit District
916.456.1752 fax
The woman waiting with us for the bus watched silently. When my albatross and I went over to the bus stop shelter, she followed. But the guy pounding on me clearly dismayed her. She went back into the rain, returned to the shelter and left again. Eventually she walked to another shelter and waited alone.

The guy lost interest with the bag and returned to me. He said something that didn't make any sense. He hit my shoulder a couple of times and said something else.

"It is just too cold," I told him as I watched the wind turn the rain into waves of knives.

Thank you for contacting Regional Transit. Bus operators are required to de-board all passengers, secure the vehicle, and shut the doors for any scheduled break. If you need additional information please feel free to contact me at the number listed below.


Robert H. Beverly
Customer Advocacy
Sacramento Regional Transit District
916.456.1752 fax
In the distance I saw a round shape emerge from the dark. It looked like a large beach ball. As it got closer, I could distinguish the oversized umbrella and equally round driver. She wasn't in a hurry. Her progress, viewed from my frozen perspective in the bus stop shelter, appeared glacial.

The drunk left me and walked to the bus. He met the driver as she arrived. They appeared to say something to each other. It was too far away for me to hear and frankly I didn't care. Then the guy disappeared. I guess it wasn't his bus.

I got to the bus at the same time as the woman who had been waiting. We didn't wait to be invited aboard by the driver. We didn't even wait for the driver to turn on the interior lights. We took seats and tried to warm ourselves.

Thank you, very much, Sacramento Regional Transit.

The opposite of happiness

"There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along," Richard Brautigan wrote in his short story, The Old Bus. "It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing."

But what is it when your bus is missing? What is the opposite of that "certain happiness," that "specialized" happiness. Worse, how do you describe seeing the back of the bus, knowing you won't make your appointment because you missed a connection?

Today, I needed to be at my dentist's office at 8:30 a.m. for a cleaning. My dentist thinks my teeth are in such dire need of attention that I'm required to get them cleaned four times a year. Of course my insurance company disagrees, but that's another story.

I made the cleaning appointment for 8:30 a.m. six months ago because I had found a combination of my No. 82 bus and the No. 30 bus, along with a half-mile walk, got me to the dentist's office at exactly 8:30. Transitarian denistry at its finest.

By 7:24, I was waiting at my bus stop. The stop is less than 2.5 miles from the start of the route. In the year that I've been riding the No. 82 bus route, I've found that the buses are more often early than late. But twice in that year I have waited for a No. 82 bus that never arrived. Sure, that is just two buses out of hundreds, but that doesn't seem quiet as reassuring as it should when you have to be someplace at a specific time.

The No. 82 is scheduled to be at its first timing point, the next stop from where I was waiting, at 7:27. Today, the bus wouldn't reach that point until 7:34.

Having fretted about the possibility of the bus not arriving at all, I was cheerfully willing to forgive and forget when the bus was just seven minutes late. But that was a mistake.

In order to get to the dentist on time, I have to catch a No. 30 bus at Sacramento State scheduled to depart at 8:07 a.m. The No. 82 is scheduled to arrive at 8 a.m. I knew from past experience that the schedule was tight -- just seven minutes leeway -- but on my previous trips to the dentist I had made the connection without problems.

When the bus was already seven minutes late less than three miles into its route, I should have started thinking about possible alternatives to the No. 30 connection.

Instead, I read my book.

When the bus was eight minutes behind schedule at its next timing point, I should have put the book away and looked to see if I could catch light rail at 65th Street and get off at 29th Street in time to make my appointment.

Instead, I read my book.

When the bus finally arrived at Sacramento State at 8:11 a.m., I got off, not realizing that the No. 30 had already departed. Had I stayed on the No. 82 until the 65th Street light rail station, I could have boarded the 8:18 inbound train and arrived at 29th Street station at 8:25, with plenty of time to walk to 30th and P streets.

Instead, I watched the back of the No. 30 in the distance, waiting at Carlsbad and J streets for the left turn light to turn green.

How do you describe seeing the back of the bus, knowing you won't make your appointment because you missed a connection?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Bus driver appreciation day

I don't know where I got the idea. Maybe it was part of the childhood folklore that insisted that you couldn't hit a moving target when playing Army. But somewhere I decided that if you walk in the rain you don't get as wet as you do when you just stand in one spot.

My new job responsibilities necessitate a slightly different schedule. It is easy enough to know when the bus will arrive; it's something of a challenge to figure out when you must start getting ready to finish on time. With half-hour interval service you don't want to miss the bus.

So today I was early. Five minutes to be exact. Looking at my watch in the rain, the hood of my jacket pulled tight to shield my naked cheeks (why did I cut off my beard?), I pondered my options. Stand in the rain? Walk to the next stop? Stand in the rain and get soaked? Walk a half-mile to the next stop and get less soaked?

I walked. I jammed my hands in my pants pockets and kept my head down as I splashed down the sidewalk.

About three-quarters of the way to the stop I heard the distinctive whine of the bus engine. I turned and looked up, and there it was coming up the street. There was no way I could make it to the stop before the bus.

I keep my bus pass in my pants pocket. I pulled out my pass only to discover I had pulled out my employee pass. I put that back and pulled out my Starbucks card.

Now I was getting a little frantic as the bus bore down on me.

Finally, I got it right and pulled out my bus pass and waived it in the air for the driver to see.

The driver, a woman, made an unscheduled stop and let me on.

As I boarded I thanked the driver. It was 9:41 and the bus was right on schedule for its 9:42 timing stop around the corner.

I think I'll just stand in the rain next time. The marginal benefits that might be imagined from moving in the rain, don't come close to outweighing the chance of being stranded between two stops.

When I got off the bus at 65th Street I made a point of going to the front of the bus and thanking the driver again.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Change of jobs; change of looks. Why not? Actually the change of jobs is mostly on the organization chart, but it does end my fledgling writing career.

In honor of the change, I whacked off my beard. Boy was that a shock. I haven't seen my upper lip since 1971, when I entered Navy boot camp. It was simply shocking to realize how much I look like my father. How'd that happen?

Since I have a kid who wants to be an artist I commissioned a new caricature of myself to use on this blog. Here's what he came up with.

(turn and face the strain)
Don't want to be a richer man
(turn and face the strain)
Just gonna have to be a different man
Time may change me
But I cant trace time
Meanwhile in the blogosphere, there's an interesting post about Sacramento Regional Transit's contract negotiating strategy. Read it here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War on the bus

Finished George Crile's masterful "Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History." As regular readers of this blog will realize, spooks and wars are two topics that fascinate me. And Crile's book has both as it tells the story of the United States' covert war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

In the last 12 months I've read "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House," Valerie Plame Wilson's attempt at a memoir along with "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War" by Bob Drogin. I read "OSS: The secret history of America's first central intelligence agency" by R. Harris Smith; "No Other Choice," the autobiography of George Blake, who spied for the KGB against the West; and "Breaking the Ring: The bizarre case of the Walker family spy ring" by John Barron. Even in my rare fictional outing, I read John Le Carre's "The Mission Song."

I bring all of this up as a way to underline my opinion of Crile's book: It is simply superb. It is by far the best book I read in 11 months of riding the bus to work.

If it were not all true, it would be unbelievable.

Rep. Charlie Wilson, a liberal Texas Democrat with a self-destructive streak that mixes booze and beauty queens, becomes the patron of the Afghan warriors, on a mission to find a way to shoot down the Soviet Hind helicopter gunships. Gust Avrakotos, a street-tough CIA agent, refuses to kiss up to the dandies who control the CIA bureaucracy and manages to land a job supervising what would become the biggest covert war ever waged while his bosses were focusing on the ill-fated war in Nicaragua. Mike Vickers, a young former Army Green Beret just starting out in the agency, is given a chance to design and execute a military strategy and ends up turning ragtag Afghans into techno-guerrillas who take the war to the Soviets.

And then there are the women: the leggy Charlie's Angels who work in Wilson's Capitol office; Joanne Herring, the right-wing Texas socialite and honorary Pakistani consul; Carol Shannon, Charlie's belly dancer who entertains the Egyptian defense minister; Playboy centerfold Liz Wickersham, who has an important role in a Las Vegas hot tub; a Nordic blonde named Cynthia Gale Watson, whom Charlie introduced to everyone as "Snowflake"; and Annelise "Sweetums" Ilschenko, a former Miss World contestant and Charlie's fiancee until Snowflake answered the phone in Charlie's hotel room one day.

"What brought us together," Gust Avrakotos famously says, "was chasing pussy and killing Communists."

It's no wonder Hollywood wanted to make a movie out of this material. I haven't seen the Tom Hanks version of Charlie Wilson's War, but I can't imagine how it could possibly come close to capturing more than the surface of Crile's book.

Afghanistan was the Soviet Union's Vietnam, and the CIA's covert war was America's attempt at payback.

The Soviets were supposed to be providing support to the independent Afghan government. It was, in fact, their puppet government. The Red Army was supposedly just serving as advisers and suppliers of the Afghan army, which had been close to 100,000 strong at the beginning of the war. Now, after the tremendous infusion of Soviet arms and money, it was down to 30,000, and units were defecting en masse to the mujahideen. Once the Soviets had determined that the Afghans wouldn't fight, they'd found themselves with no choice but to take over the fighting. It had been the same for the United States. And just as in Vietnam, the Soviet infantry hadn't been organized to cope with a dedicated, cunning, and increasingly well-armed guerrilla force. To compensate, the Soviets, like the Americans before them, had grown increasingly dependent on air power.
Of course, today, in hindsight, the enthusiasm -- and the tons of ammunition and weapons -- we showered on the mujahideen seem more than ill-advised.
Afghanistan was the largest and most successful covert operation ever mounted by the CIA. But the scope and nature of this campaign has still not registered in the consciousness of most Americans. Nor is it understood that such secret undertakings inevitably have unforeseen and unintended consequences, which in this case remained largely ignored. None of the sponsors of the campaign, least of all Charlie Wilson, has ever felt responsible for the path the CIA-sponsored jihad has taken; perhaps that's because their intentions were so pure and because the specific objectives they sought were initially so overwhelmingly successful.
This book tells the story of Wilson's ability to get hundreds of millions of dollars for the covert war against the Soviet Union, the battle within the CIA to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that felt WWI rifles were all that the Afghans needed against the Soviet Army and a staggering world arms supply chain that linked China, Isreal, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, England and others to supply the jihad in Afghanistan, a war run mostly by the Pakistanis, who were busy at the same time creating the Islamic bomb.

This is an excellent book on so many levels. Just fantastic.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bodies Revealed on the bus

Saturday, I took the bus from my house to the Bodies Revealed exhibit on Alta Arden in the old CompUSA building.

The wife, a vegetarian who feels looking at bodies flayed like so much beef is distasteful, wasn't interested in going. So I set out alone to meet a couple we know who have been to several exhibits like this -- connoisseurs of the art of body plastination, you might say.

Before I offer my impression of the exhibit I need to say something about getting to the exhibit by bus -- on a weekend with a specific arrival time a prerequisite. This is not for the faint of heart.

I first turned to Google Transit and discovered there were two options: One required four buses and took an hour and seven minutes. The other only required two buses, but it took an hour and 22 minutes. RT's online route finder had the two-bus option, but not the four-bus answer. Instead, it offered a third option, a three-bus trip that would take an hour and 28 minutes.

Google Maps suggests that driving the 5.8 miles from my house to the exhibit would have taken 14 minutes. But what is time to a transitarian?

I brought my book and took the shortest option -- and four different buses. I arrived on time.

Getting home was dependent on when I got out. Each hour, at 10 minutes before the hour, the stars aligned and a No. 23 bus could pick me up and drop me off for a No. 82 bus, and I could arrive home less than an hour later.

Unfortunately, I got out of the exhibit at 12:57, too late to catch the best route. Instead, I walked over to Arden Fair and waited for the scheduled 1:20 p.m. No. 23, which arrived at 1:34. I got off at El Camino and Watt and walked over to Watt and El Camino. The bus that goes by my house wouldn't arrive for another half hour. Instead, I took a bus that goes down Watt to the Watt/I-80 light rail station and got off at Edison and walked a mile and a half home. It wasn't raining and I had some music to listen to. I made it home by 2:38. That wasn't bad, but it was a sorry example of the extremely limited weekend service. Thankfully, I wasn't trying to do this on Sunday. It is just not possible then.

The exhibit itself was disappointing. Bodies Revealed is a knockoff on the original Gunther von Hagens Body Worlds. All of the full bodies on exhibit were males. While the bodies did offer an excellent opportunity to examine muscle structure, efforts to show internal organs in place were much less successful.

Looking at the Asian features of the bodies reminded me of pending legislation to outlaw these exhibits.

Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, has introduced Assembly Bill 1519, which would prohibit the commercial profit and public display of human bodies or remains without the documented informed consent of the deceased or next-of-kin. According to Ma, exhibitors who put on these shows often obtain bodies from China.

My friends offered that the Body Worlds exhibit does a much better job. Unfortunately, the exhibit in San Jose closed on Jan. 26 and the next California Body Worlds exhibit will be in Los Angeles in March.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Why I prefer transit

Friday was simply perfect again. And the relaxing, if damp, ride to work and back was in marked contrast to the day before.

Thursday, the wife needed to have her Honda Civic Hybrid shopped around to get estimates for the repair of some damage caused by a parking lot fender-bender. Since the wife works in Rancho and the shops we have used are in West Sac and midtown, I got the assignment.

After more than 11 months without driving to work, the trip in the rain during the morning commute did nothing to convince me to give up the convenience of taking the bus. Who designed that transition between Business 80 and Highway 50, where two lanes of Highway 50 are merging just as Business 80 traffic arrives and, just to toss in a fun adventure, Highway 50 traffic is trying to cut across the merging mess to get to the 16th Street exit? An eggbeater, indeed.

Sure it took half as long to drive downtown than it takes to get there with Sacramento Regional Transit, but that missing half-hour was my reading time, my relaxed preparation for the drudgery of my workday.

There is much that RT could improve -- more frequent service, better communication with customers, increased supervision on light rail -- but the overall experience makes riding the bus a reasonable choice for people like me who find their homes and workplaces convenient to existing bus and light rail lines.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Farting around with the guys

The guy who chases co-eds isn't going to like this news from the Associated Press:

MEXICO CITY - Groping and verbal harassment is an exasperating reality for women using public transportation in this sprawling capital, where 22 million passengers cram onto subways and buses each day. Some men treat women so badly that the subway system has long had ladies-only cars during rush hour, with police segregating the sexes on the platforms.

But that hasn't helped women forced to rely on packed buses, by far the city's most-used form of public transportation — until this week.

Acting on complaints from women's groups, the city rolled out "ladies only" buses, complete with pink signs in the windshields to wave off the men. ...

On Thursday, passengers on one of the female-only buses spent most of their trip down the capital's tree-lined Reforma Avenue chatting or putting on makeup, instead of fighting off unwanted male attention. ...

Women-only buses or subways have been rolling for years in India, Brazil, Japan and other countries. Mexico City finally took the action as part of a growing responsiveness to complaints about discrimination against women, Montiel said. ...

Some women, like Maria Elena Sanchez, have learned to take matters into their own hands. A 47-year-old office messenger who uses public transportation all day, said she carries a sewing pin for protection.

"I always carry the pin so I can defend myself from abusive men," she said — adding that she's had to use it twice this month alone.

Traveling only with women, she said, makes her feel more secure and allows her to relax a bit on the way to work.

"I don't think I will use the pin on these buses," she said, giggling.
Having watched the way the guy who chases co-eds annoys women, I can sympathize with the idea. But I'm wondering about the other buses.

"Chatting or putting on makeup, instead of fighting off unwanted male attention" is how the reporter describes the women-only bus scene. What does the guys-only bus look like?

Are the guys horsing around, snapping towels at each other? Are they singing their favorite soccer team's song? Is there a lot of farting and belching?

Can there be any civilization without women on the bus?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

RT's communications deficit

Sacramento Regional Transit is in the midst of contract negotiations. But of course you don't know that. At least you don't know that if you monitor

Back in December, the RTDriver guy posted that the district had failed to convince IBEW Local 1245 of the merits of its offer. On Dec. 10, the members voted against the offer 202 to 1.

Today, contract flu apparently decimated the ranks of RT mechanics, with nearly all of them calling in sick.

The details of the sick out are being distributed to reporters and news outlets. Here's what Matthew McGuire is reporting at From The Capitol:

Nearly all of Sacramento Regional Transit’s crew of 40 mechanics called in sick this morning in an apparent job action related to their ongoing contract talks with the provider of light rail and bus service in Sacramento, RT officials said.

RT spokesman Ed Scofield said supervisors handled fueling and other early morning chores, and all light-rail trains and all but two bus lines operated normally. Scofield said a bus assigned to Route 1 in the Sunrise Mall area missed two runs, meaning riders waited 30 minutes, rather than 15, for their bus to arrive.

A bus assigned to Route 51 along Broadway missed one run, resulting in a maximum wait of 30 minutes, RT said.

Scofield said more mechanics, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, could call in sick for later shifts today, but RT officials were preparing to have supervisors fill in.
Service is being disrupted. Riders are left wondering what's happened. And nothing is said on RT's Web site.

There's nothing under "Service Status Alert," despite the promise:
Frequently Updated

RT makes special efforts to provide timely information to our customers including updates through our call center and web site. Updated information will be posted to the web site ( and through our call center 321-BUSS (2877) on a regular basis.
There's nothing under press releases, even though a press release is obviously in circulation.

I have no idea whether RT has offered its workers a fair deal. I don't know if the unions are featherbedding and otherwise keeping RT from improving efficiency. What I do know is that RT has a real problem with its commitment to serve its riders if it can't do better at keeping riders informed.

UPDATE AT 5 P.M.: The Bee had the story on its Web site by 9:29 a.m. KCRA had the story up by 7:32 a.m., with updates at 12:17. The KCRA story, however, was hardly worth the effort, at least what was left after the "update." The MSNBC version of KCRA's story was posted at 12:34 and just as useless.

Still nothing at

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A little more historical perspective

What became of Charlie of the MTA?

P.S. Thanks, Roger


It was wet and a bit steamy at times, but I rode to work and returned home without incident. I even had some bonus good fortune.

Finally, I get to write about an ordinary perfect commute.

Scroll down and see Sweet and sour transit or The smell, but not of success or If you haven't got something nice to say . . . or just about any of my recent posts about my experiences riding to work and back on Sacramento Regional Transit. Jeeze, you'd think I was some sort of enophile of whine.

I left for work a little later than usual this morning. It was raining steadily but there was little wind. I consider the wind more daunting than the rain after Weathering transit on Jan. 4.

The bus was four minutes late, but I'm not going to complain. The driver was having a hard time. Only one windshield wiper worked -- luckily the one on the driver's side -- and the defroster didn't appear to have any effect. I haven't seen that much steam on the inside of a vehicle window since my days of drive-in movie dates. Eventually, the driver had to open some windows to get some air circulating.

The No. 82 bus managed to arrive at 65th Street on time, which I'll call my good fortune. Normally, I take the next train downtown, which today would have meant standing around for several minutes in the rain. But because we were not late, I was able to walk over to a No. 38 bus and start downtown almost immediately. I know, it's such a small thing. Why do I make such a big deal of it? Having a bus make a connection with only two minutes between the scheduled arrival and the scheduled departure is worth celebrating. To add icing to this cake, the No. 38 bus dropped me off at P and 22nd, a block closer to my office than the 23rd Street light rail stop. The extra rain waiting at the start was compensated for by the shorter walk at the end.

Riding home was even better. I got out of a meeting just in time to catch a train. The train had an extra car, which meant more open seats and better odds of having an uneventful trip. And when we arrived at 65th Street station a No. 82 bus was waiting at the curb with the engine running and the driver inside keeping the coach nice and toasty warm.

So, there you have it. It is possible to ride to work and back home without having (too much) to complain about.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, 2008

It should not surprise that a transitarian -- an avowed hopemonger -- would support Barack Obama for president. Below is a video from Obama's speech Sunday, Jan. 20, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., and an excerpt from his remarks.

I can think of no better way to celebrate King's day and his dream?

[T]hat is what is at stake in the great political debate we are having today. The changes that are needed are not just a matter of tinkering around the edges. They will not come if politicians simply tell us what we want to hear. All of us will be called upon to make some sacrifice. None of us will be exempt from responsibility. We will have to fight to fix our schools, but we will also have to challenge ourselves to be better parents, and turn off the television sets and put away the video games. And our men have to be home with our children. That too is part of the challenge that we must make. We will have to confront the biases in our criminal justice system, but we will also have to acknowledge the deep-seated violence that still resides in our own communities and in too many of the hearts of our young people and we must break the grip of that violence wherever we see it.

That is how we are going to bring about the change that we seek. That's how Dr. King led this country through the wilderness. He did it with words -- words that he spoke not just to the children of slaves but to the children of slave owners. Words that inspired not just black but also white; not just the Christian but also Jew and Muslim and Buddhist and atheist; not just the Southerner but also the Northerner.

He led with words, but he also led with deeds. He also led by example. He led by marching and going to jail and suffering threats and beatings and being away from his family. He led by taking a stand against a war, knowing full well that it would diminish his popularity. He led by challenging our economic structures, understanding that it would cause discomfort. Dr. King understood that unity cannot be won on the cheap; that we would have to earn it through great effort and determination.

That is the unity -- the hard-earned unity -- that we need right now. That effort, and that determination, that can transform blind optimism into hope.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

A little historical perspective

Time to put the cork back in the whine and step back and gain some perspective.

Imagine if Sacramento Regional Transit had a fare structure that collected fares when you exited based on the distance traveled.

The story of Charlie of the MTA as told by the Kingston Trio


Saturday, January 19, 2008

If you haven't got something nice to say . . .

Friday night I was looking forward to a quiet, uneventful transit experience to match my quiet, uneventful morning commute. I figured that after all the bad vibes I've been spreading, the least I could do was show that most commutes are just quiet and uneventful. Ride transit; save the world.

At 6:35 p.m. I was ready to start home. My ideal train connections are on the hour and the half-hour, which leaves me enough time to walk to the station. So it wasn't a good time for catching the train, but there's a bus that stops in front of my office building at 6:46 and goes all the way to 65th Street station. The hitch: It takes the same length of time as if I waited at my desk until 7 p.m. and then walked to the train. Friday night, I was tired and I didn't want to sit at my desk for another 15 minutes. I decided to take the bus and use the extra time to read.

I was standing in front of my building at 6:41 p.m.

I was standing in front of my building at 6:46 p.m.

I was standing in front of my building at 6:55 p.m.

And then I walked around the block to the 23rd Street light-rail station and caught the train to 65th Street.

I have no idea what happened to the No. 38 bus that was supposed to arrive at 21st and Q streets at 6:46 p.m. But when I got to 65th Street, there was a No. 38 parked off where drivers leave their buses when they are on a break.

And since the No. 82 driver had locked up the bus and left on break, I had the opportunity to stand around in the cold for 10 minutes thinking about Sacramento Regional Transit customer service. Yes, the bus driver was following the rules. That makes me feel sooooo much better.

Tonight, I figured if I couldn't say something nice about commuting by bus, I'd say something nice about panhandling.

Local comedian Keith Lowell Jensen has made something of a career out of answering the question: Can you make a real living panhandling? Now, he has finished a movie about his experience. It is called "Why Lie I Need A Drink."

The world premier will be March 7th at the Crest Theater. Doors open at 7:30 p.m.; the film starts at 8:30 p.m. You can purchase tickets online here. Or buy advance from the Crest and pay no service fee. Call 44-CREST. Tickets are $2 more if purchased the day of the premier.

Why lie, it's a free ad for the guy...


Thursday, January 17, 2008

The smell, but not of success

I see myself as an advocate for transit. I am not an unbiased observer. Ride transit; save the world. But some things just really test my ability to play Pollyanna while riding Sacramento Regional Transit.

Tonight, for example, I sat down in the last vacant seat in an otherwise standing-room-only outbound train. No good fortune goes unpunished. I immediately realized why the seat was vacant.

The odor struck me first. Like the shock wave of an explosion arriving before the sound of the blast, I was overwhelmed before I even noticed the guy sitting in the next seat, his back against the wall of the train and his arm hanging over the back of his seat.

This was full body gym sock at the end of the school year never been washed odor. It could have stood up by itself in the corner.

The smell was bad enough, but fate requires that something that bad must be accompanied by a running commentary. At least the guy wasn't loud. Most of what I assumed was a blow by blow description of his living nightmare could hardly be made out above the noise of the train. But then he asked a woman across the aisle from him what she was reading.

"Rolling Stone," she said.

The guy said something in response. It sounded like he was telling her he had once read every word in a magazine.

"Can I read it?" he asked her.

The woman demurred. She had just purchased the magazine and wanted to read it herself, she explained.

The guy's attention span didn't last as long as the woman's response, and he was back into his low-level running commentary by the time she finished.

I kept my head down and tried not to breath through my nose as I read my book.

"What are you reading?"

It took me a couple of beats to realize the question was directed at me.

I looked up to see the guy waiting for the answer.

"Charlie Wilson's War," I told the guy and immediately tried to escape back into the book.

"Show me the cover," he said.

I don't keep the dust jackets on books I read on the bus. The book's cover is blank white. I showed the guy the book's spine.

"That's one of my movies," he said, but his train of thought derailed and he crashed back into commentator mode.

The other day The Bee reported "RT is seeking law to get tougher on troublemakers."

The proposed crackdown, patterned after a Portland, Ore., transit system program, would be one of the toughest remedies in California against nuisance behavior and the riding public's fear of crime on mass transit.

Sacramento RT officials want to make it a misdemeanor crime for offenders to show up at light-rail stations or on trains and buses for a few months.

They can be arrested for trespassing if they violate the ban.
I'm not convinced that a new law is going to make up for the biggest problem: lack of supervision, especially on light rail. If there's no one around to enforce the law, what's the point? RT needs to hire and deploy more fare-checking officers.

Still, do you suppose the legislation could be expanded to cover personal hygiene under the "nuisance" category of grounds for banning? Enforcing that might do a lot to convince riders that RT does care about their comfort.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sweet and sour transit

I had to work late tonight. I was tired, and it was cold as I waited for the outbound train. I wasn't in a pretty frame of mind when the train finally pulled into the 23rd Street station.

When the door to the car opened I realized I would have to wait for an elderly gentleman to negotiate the stairs before I could board. He moved in slow motion, a cane in one hand while gripping the stair rail with the other. His descent didn't reach the second stair before the doors started to close.

I jammed myself in the doorway to prevent the doors from closing, and a guy inside pushed the exit button. The combination of efforts managed to buy the old man enough time to get off.

I was hoping the driver was watching his mirror when I gave him a middle-finger salute as I boarded.

Really, there must be a better way to run a railroad.

My temper was still simmering when I left the train at 65th Street and walked to my No. 82 bus. The bus was parked with the door open and the motor running. Inside, were two women and a man. But no driver.

This made me smile. To understand why, you have to appreciate Sacramento Regional Transit's rules.

According to the RT spokesman who answers the mail at, "Bus operators are required to de-board all passengers, secure the vehicle, and shut the doors for any scheduled break."

And, sure enough, some drivers do this. More than once I've stood in the cold waiting for a driver to open up a bus. I wrote about my least favorite driver's predilections here.

So having a warm bus to wait in tonight made all the difference.

Some drivers are more equal than others -- despite RT.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Transitarians without pants

For seven years, a group of anti-pants New Yorkers have held an annual No Pants Subway Ride, which has attracted more than 200 participants. On Jan. 12, a similar event occurred on the Washington, D.C., Metro.

According to this story:

About 75-100 participants, and at least as many press/onlookers/voyeurs, met at Dupont Circle before being split up into two groups, heading down to Metro and taking off in both directions. Once on the trains, the pants came off, with directions from organizers Elizabeth Ody and Richard Julian to act as nonchalant as possible.

The gender mix appeared to be about equal among the leg-barers, and there was a surprising range of ages. As for underwear fashion, for the guys, boxer briefs seemed to outnumber regular boxers, while the ladies displayed a good mix of styles. No thongs were spotted, and no arrests were reported.
When is this coming to Sacramento?

Just a dash of good fortune

"Oh, shit. Here comes the train," I said out loud as I watched the train roll out of the fog and into the 65th Street light rail station.

I had left for work a half-hour later than normal and the chance to shave 15 minutes off my commute had me crowding the bus exit. Another passenger stood between me and the door. He looked over his shoulder. I must have appeared like a crazed bus rider because once the door finally opened the guy stepped down and quickly moved out of my way.

Off I dashed. As I ran across Q Street and into the station I wondered how long it had been since the stars had aligned and my bus was early at the same time that the train was late. It happened so often last year when I first started riding the bus to the train that I got spoiled. Now, I seldom take this later bus.

I made it to the train with time to spare, a little good fortune to start the day.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

RT's disaster customer service

On Jan. 11, The Bee published a postmortem on the Jan. 4 storm and how well public service agencies handled the emergency, including Sacramento Regional Transit. Having spent too much time during that storm waiting for a bus that never arrived, I feel I have some perspective on the topic.

Mark Lonergan, RT's chief operating officer, gets a prize for understatement with his quote, "Our biggest problem was letting riders know what happened and where they need to be."

But the problem isn't just on rainy days. This happens any time a traffic accident or construction causes a detour on an established route. RT's dispatch center knows when detours occur; RT customers should, too.

When the entire downtown light-rail grid was knocked out by the recent storm, RT had the presence of mind to add an announcement about the outage as the first thing people who called 321-BUSS heard. But when localized flooding and a downed tree caused my regular bus, the No. 82, to skip the first two miles of its route -- which includes my stop -- nothing was said. When I finally got through to a live person at 321-BUSS, the customer service rep didn't know anything was wrong with my bus route. The service rep had to call dispatch to find out what was going on.

Obviously, the first thing to fix is the distribution of information.

Back on Oct. 22, my scheduled bus was unusually late. When I tried to get information from 321-BUSS, I was told that the service reps are not allowed to call the dispatch center until a bus is more than 15 minutes late.

Think about that a moment. The people RT pays to help customers are not immediately told when something happens. Why?

How big a deal would it be to create a Web page, for instance, that listed all of RT's 97 bus routes and its two light rail lines? Administrators of the page could click on a route and add a note when service is disrupted -- detours, bus breakdowns, traffic accidents -- and then everyone with access to the Web page can see where the current trouble spots are. There are any number of "features" that could be added to make this easy to administer. And imagine merging the trouble alert content with the Google Map and Google Transit service. Detour? See the new route displayed with the disabled route.

With a web-based centralized service status operation, once dispatch knows something, then the 321-BUSS operators know it. And once the information is in a database, then all sorts of opportunities follow.

Lonergan told The Bee that RT is experimenting with e-mail alerts. It is not far fetched at all to imagine a system that would allow regular RT riders to subscribe to alerts for specific routes. For instance, I would want to receive alerts for the No. 82, No. 30 and the Folsom to downtown light rail line. When an alert is posted to a route on the Web page, an e-mail could be sent automatically to subscribers with no extra work by anyone other than a computer.

This is so '90s technology. RT could even use '80s technology and add route information to the 321-BUSS automated system.

Imagine calling and hearing, "For information on current service outages and other important news, please press 1. (Systemwide announcements play such as the storm closure of downtown light rail.) For information about a specific route, enter the route number." No long waits on the line until you can get a live person to call the dispatch center.

Lonergan told The Bee that RT's efforts to expand customer service alerts have been slowed by lack of money. I appreciate that RT doesn't have extra cash to pay for innovation. But there's a point where customer service demands a certain level of investment. The storm outage demonstrated the need. RT needs to meet that need.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Riding the bus to America

There's a new immigrant woman riding my bus to the Winterstein Adult School. Each day I have seen her this week she has been wearing the same outfit -- thin, summer-weight pants and matching jacket-like top that extends to mid-thigh. Over that she wears a puffy down jacket and a thick knit cap. She's the picture of America, a tossed salad of foreign and domestic influences.

The other morning she was displaced by the arrival of a blind rider and went looking for a new seat. Eventually she stood in the aisle next to a seat and looked at the man in the seat with a silent question. He smiled at her and nodded, inviting her to sit. She returned his nod as she sat.

The man was an Average Joe, tall, beefy -- a blue-collar type, the sort of guy I expect would be fun to share a beer with.

As the bus approached the Winterstein school, the lady asked the guy to pull the stop request. He did, and the bus immediately pulled over, several blocks short of the school.

We've been here before. Last month, another Winterstein student, this one an Asian lady who travels with a fellow student, was having a Dickens of a time. We last saw her and her companion standing by the side of the road. Too timid to admit their mistake when they pulled the stop-request cord one stop early, they got off the bus and hiked to school.

But on this occasion the tall stranger next to the woman came to her rescue.

"Sorry," the guy called to the driver. "Next one."

I could see him mouth "It's OK" to her. He even patted her on the shoulder. "Really. It's OK."

I'm a big fan of immigrants. I'm an even bigger fan of immigrants who ride my bus to the Winterstein Adult School. They are a diverse crowd -- tomorrow's Americans.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Three cheers for RT's tech guys

I subscribe to a mailing list that discusses Google Transit, and this message arrived today:

Dear All,
I don't know where to post this so I am posting it here. I use DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit). My trip requires me to transfer at various stations. Due to variation in schedule and traffic condition, I find myself waiting more than 15 mins at times.

I am thinking of making an application which can display route timings for a specified route only. This can run in a mobile phone and alert me about the next bus schedule. I want some help. Is there a way I can query for route information using google transit website?


Joe Hughes (no relation) replied:

You're in luck! DART is one of the agencies that's taken the lead in making its raw schedule data available to the public for developers like you to use; the DART feed is available here:


As an aside, I'm happy to report that Sacramento RT and Orange County Transportation Authority recently joined the set of agencies that are making their feeds available for developer use:
I am very happy to hear that Sacramento Regional Transit is making its route information available to developers who create the sorts of applications that will make riding transit even more inviting.

Of course, the voices of darkness whisper in my ear about the dismal service, the declining ridership and the general bad rep that RT has in the community. But the light of transitarian optimism still shines, however, dimly. Pollyanna lives!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Anything for a Vote on the bus

Finished reading "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises In U.S. Presidential Campaigns" by Joseph Cummins. Those who read history for its value as trivia for cocktail chatter will find this book priceless.

Cummins explains that the 2004 presidential election postmortems moaning about how sleazy presidential campaigns had become prompted his research. Are presidential campaigns more vicious today?

After a year and a half spent researching and writing "Anything for a Vote: Dirty Tricks, Cheap Shots, and October Surprises In U.S. Presidential Campaigns," I can happily answer that question with a resounding No. Presidential elections haven't gotten worse -- they're just as dirty now as they've always been.
hearken back to 1800 and the rematch between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. Jefferson hired a writer named James Callender to attack President Adams:
Adams, he wrote, was "a repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," and, most interesting, "a hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensiblity of a woman."
The book offers an excellent survey of American presidential politics, with just enough historical background to explain the flavor mud being splashed about. I appreciated the new insights into historical figures. For instance:
When one reads about Davy Crockett's career in politics, one gets a very different picture than that of the honorable homespun hero of the 1950s TV coonskin cap fame. Crocket was a Whig attack dog, the Ann Coulter of his time.
I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the 1920 campaign between Warren G. Harding and James Cox. Cummins describes Harding as "the most libidinous candidate to run for president until Bill Clinton."
When Republican operatives decided to nominate the fifty-five-year-old Ohio senator, they asked if he had anything hidden in his personal life that would "disqualify" him from winning the presidency. Harding asked for some time to reflect on the question, and he may have pondered that he chewed tobacco, played poker, loved to drink (Prohibition had just been voted in), and was having affairs with not only the wife of one of his friends but also a young woman thirty years his junior, with whom he had an illegitimate daughter. Then he said, nope, nothing to hide, guys -- it's all good.
The book comes with a handy Sleaze-O-Meter for the worst campaigns. The campaigns rating a 10 on the Sleaze-O-Meter scale of 1 to 10:
  • 1800 Thomas Jefferson vs. John Adams
  • 1876 Rutherford Hayes vs. Samuel Tilden
  • 1928 Herbert Hoover vs. Al Smith
  • 1960 John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon
  • 1964 Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater
  • 1972 Richard Nixon vs. George McGovern
  • 1988 George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis
  • 1992 William Jefferson Clinton vs. George H.W. Bush
  • 2000 George W. Bush vs. Al Gore

Here's the famous "Daisy" ad from Johnson-Goldwater campaign.

There's also a handy appendix with the Top Ten Classic Attacks in Presidential Elections
10. "You're not tough enough!"
9. "You'll drive us into war!"
8. "You're too old!"
7. "You're an egghead!"
6. "You're an idiot!"
5. "You're a slut!"
4. "You're clearly not having sex with anyone!"
3. "You're at least a little bit gay!"
2. "You're drunk all the time!"
1. "You're insane."
In this election year, with the primary season finally under way, there's something comforting in knowing that the mud throwing is just, well, normal, quadrennial fun.

Monday, January 7, 2008

What will 2008 bring?

Normally, I don't take vacations at the end of the year. Leaving work one year and returning the next is quite unsettling. But most unsettling today was the hug the guy who chases co-eds gave to a very attractive woman rider.

With Sacramento State still on winter recess, the crowd on my regular No. 82 bus on my first day back at work was fairly thin. I was figuring that the guy who chases co-eds would be left by himself. But instead he and a woman boarded at the Watt and Wal-Mart stop and sat together. When they had to move because a wheelchair rider arrived, it became apparent that he was with her, but she was not with him. But the guy managed to end up sitting with her anyway.

Whenever I looked up from my book I saw them chatting. The woman's expression was friendly. It happens sometimes. Some woman are more willing to put up with this guy. But then the really odd thing happened.

As the bus approached the guy's stop, he offered his right hand to the woman. She shook it. He then put his right arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick squeeze. I nearly screamed in surprise. I have watched women bolt out of their seats for less reason in the presence of this guy. But this woman appeared unbothered.

The guy and the woman stood up to wait for the Howe Avenue stop. He walked to the front of the bus; she stayed in the middle. But once both were on the sidewalk, they walked off together.

Is this a foretelling of things to come in 2008? First Obama knocks off Hillary in Iowa, and now this. What's next?

Friday, January 4, 2008

Weathering transit

Being a transitarian on a day like today is a lot like being a vegetarian sitting down to Thanksgiving Dinner with the family and looking at the juicy roast turkey and the savory stuffing and thick gravy. Is the principle really worth the price?

I left Sacramento for the Rochester, New York, area before the January bus passes went on sale. Since I didn't have any other pressing business today, I decided to pay $2.25 and ride the bus to work to buy my monthly pass.

Yesterday, I was in 7 degree weather with a windchill that made it feel like 0 degrees outside. The thought of having to stand in the rain today just didn't seem like a big deal. At least not until I experienced the effect of the wind gusts that topped 50 mph.

But, hey! I've more than once said a little foul weather isn't a reason to abandon transit.

Of course, it never occurred to me that transit might abandon me.

I decided to take the No. 82 bus that leaves American River College at 10:19 a.m. Since it is just a little more than 1.5 miles from the college to my bus stop, I walked out my door at 10:18, righted the overturned trash cans and was standing at the bus stop by 10:20.

And I was still standing at the stop at 10:35, when a woman driving a red Saturn sedan stopped and rolled down her window.

"The bus isn't coming," she said. "There's flooding down the street. The CHP is diverting the traffic. Do you want a ride?"

I could have walked back to my house, dried off and driven to work, but I tend to be stubborn. Or stupid. Whatever.

"Yes," I told her. "I'd love a ride."

She took me to Edison and Watt Avenue, where I knew I could catch a bus to the Watt/Manlove light rail station.

Standing in the driving rain, waiting for the next bus, I was thankful that the wind gusts were at my back. I don't know how long I waited. It may have been as much a 15 minutes. It could have been much worse. The buses are only scheduled to run every 30 minutes.

When the bus arrived, I boarded and paid my fare with nine quarters and sloshed to the back. Out of the wind and rain, a puddle of water spreading beneath me, I called 321-BUSS to find out what had become of the No. 82 bus.

That's when I learned that my little bus failure was the least of Sacramento Regional Transit's problems. The entire downtown light rail grid from Alkalai Flat to 29th Street was down, as was the link from Folsom to Sunrise. I was immediately thankful that I had chosen to take the bus to Watt/Manlove rather than the closer Watt/I-80 station. But with light rail service stopped at 29th Street, I would have to hoof it eight blocks to work.

I mulled that walk as I negotiated the ridiculously convoluted customer service phone system. When I finally got a live operator on the line, I asked for the status of the No. 82 bus line.

"The No. 82 line is running," he said.

This, of course, is still another reason why I find 321-BUSS such a joy to use.

I explained to the man that, no, the No. 82 bus was not running, at least it was not running past Edison and Mira Vista. I told the guy that I had heard nearby flooding was causing buses to detour. What I needed to know, I explained, was where the detour was taking place so that I could determine whether I could take that bus home from work.

The guy put me on hold, and I stayed there. The entire call burned more than 13 minutes of my monthly cell phone allotment. When the guy finally returned, I learned that the Edison and Engle sections of the route near my home were being bypassed, but it would be less than a half-mile walk home from the start of the detour at Mission and Engle. Not perfect, but reasonable.

Eventually the bus arrived at the Watt/Manlove station. It was a cold, blustery wait for the train and an all-too-short dry spell on board before I had to get off and start walking again.

There is a certain point while walking in the rain when you just don't get any wetter. I reached that point about the time I arrived at work.

The trip, which on a sunny day takes an hour and seven minutes, had taken an hour and 40 minutes.

I wrote most of this blog post at my office, where I attempted to air dry a little before I started home. The homeward trip was straightforward. The No. 38 bus stops outside my office on its way to 65th Street light rail station. It's a useful alternative when the nearby light rail station is out of service. It was a short 10 minute wait before the No. 82 bus arrived. By the time I got off at Mission and Engle, it was raining lightly and the wind had stopped.

The next time I decide to tempt fate and brave violent weather to prove transit is a viable option, I'll wear my snow boots. The ball cap and hooded jacket with a thick sweater worked well. The sneakers were not a good choice.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Across America

At 9 a.m. in Rochester, it is 7 degrees outside. Inside the Rochester airport it's toasty and the wireless Internet access is free and fast.

At 6 a.m. in Sacramento, it is dark and wet, but according to the weather channel it's 39 degrees and, more important, heading for 53 degrees.

Looking forward to the trip across America.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year

Happy New Year from Rochester, New York, and specifically Churchville (where the in-laws live) and Brockport (where we're staying in a Holiday Inn Express). I'm going to keep this photo from a traffic cam in Rochester in mind the next time I'm waiting for a bus to work in Sacramento.