I’m sitting on my scooter in a traffic jam at least two full city blocks long. I can see the light half of a block in front of me turns from green to red to back to green and red again. Within each light change, I move a little more than one car length towards the inevitable intersection and my turn to crossover into another block of gridlock. I deal with traffic jams every time I ride my scooter home after work. The difference this time is this size of this jam and that it is pouring down rain. If this were the midday, late evening, or weekend the ride from where I work to home would take about fifteen minutes. Add another fifteen minutes during a usual five o’clock rush, but this is the Mother of all Traffic Jams, and I’m guessing that’s because it is raining buckets of H2O. I can hear the occasional unfruitful honks by frustrated drivers. What are you guys bitchin’ about–you’re dry in your climate-controlled vehicle, idiots!
If I were on my bicycle, I would, unless I ignored the forecast, have rain gear on and I would be home in thirty minutes. Why have I never worn rain gear when commuting via scooter on rainy days? I have no idea. I’m a moron. I bought the rain gear for my bicycle commuting and for some reason my brain associates the bright yellow hazmat-wear exclusively with my bike, not my scooter. As I feel the water run down my back and chest, and my jeans are soaked through, I know I will never make this mistake again. There’s also the path I insist on taking home when I am on my scooter. I know two motorcycle commuters from my work that park away from the congested areas. One reason I didn’t care for where they park is that the slots are about a three-block walk from our office, whereas the place where I park my ride is only a block from our office’s front door. But that is the point–they walk through the gridlock and are only slightly impeded by traffic after that. I blew off that idea because I get to my ride faster than they get to theirs. I know they would argue, “but you don’t have to take that route, Jack.” Meh, I like my way home, says the stubborn old scooterist soaked through. I see a city bus go by in the cross traffic. I bet those commuters are dry and toasty in there. I used to ride the bus. That was the best thing about commuting via mass transit.
Forty-five minutes later, I finally get home. I park my ride in the garage, and open the door to the dry and warm house, and yell for someone to fetch me a big towel. My wife is not home and my son is most likely in his room on the other side of the house with his headphones on playing a video game, I bet. I say fuck it and stripe down to my birthday suit, prance into the house checking the laundry room first, hoping for a towel–clean or dirty, damp or dry–in there, but the laundry gods do not favor me today. I tiptoe through the kitchen, crossing a large window looking out to the street–Hello neighbors!–and snag a clean kitchen towel. After drying my feet and legs, I chuck that wet towel and pick another clean, dry kitchen towel just to cover the dog and dice in case my son runs into me in the hallway and I scar him for life. I make my way to my bedroom. After I dry off, put on some dry clothes, I deal with the mound of soaked clothes I left in the garage. That commute was the worst of the three possible situations for me getting home in a monsoon. Another scenario is peddling home on my bike without my rain gear. I’ve done that too, though not so much these days–I’m a better-prepared bicyclist commuter than a scooterist commuter, I guess. The third scenario is getting home via the bus, but not being prepared for rain (thin or no jacket). Most days–rain or shine–I ride my bicycle. If it rains my rain gear inevitable leaks through the edges of the polypropylene, but I wouldn’t get as douched as I got riding home on my scooter on this early evening thanks to traffic like this.
In the thirty years I have worked in Downtown Sacramento commuting from either East Sac or South Sac most of the commutes were done on the Regional Transit District (RT) bus system, but in the last seven or so years, I have found bicycling and, occasionally, scootering more liberating. (The three years I drove into work by car I’ll leave out of this post. There’s not much to write about.) There are definitely things you miss by not being in a bus besides climate control and being able to relax: people, for better or worse. And unlike the 60s Honda ad, you don’t really get to “meet the nicest people on a Honda,” or a Vespa–you’re moving too fast and the engine noise gets in the way of any meaningful
Conversations at red lights outside of the “two wheels on the ground” gesture. Bicycling is only slightly better for that kind of thing, but if you need/want to get to work or home quickly, discussions are usually cut to a minimum. Also, for a recluse like me, blocking out the world and listen to my audiobooks and podcasts on my phone is ideal.
When I first got my day job with the State of California, I lived in East Sac near T Street’s scenic median park area. That’s where I picked up the bus. Fred, a gregarious bus driver, would greet me with a “Hellooo, JACK!” So outgoing was Fred that he seemed to ignore my head-down, “Don’t Bother Me, I’d Rather Be Left Alone With My Book” body language and introduced himself and ask my name early on when I was stuck struggling with the onboard ticket machine. After the first couple of Hellooo JACKs, I felt obliged to sit across from him usually reserved for the seniors. Within a week I knew his first name and that he lived only a couple of blocks away from my home with his wife, computer enthusiast son, and wheel-chair bound daughter. (An explanation of those descriptors is below.) I began to look forward to our rides and felt disappointed when the double doors would swing open and someone else was at the wheel, but only for a moment. Now, I could read. I don’t make friends easily, and I very rarely make close friends–the kind of friends who know my family, and I know theirs. (A product of my horribly reclusive junior high and high school years, I suppose.) I can’t say I wanted to become close friends with Fred, just that I treasured the short time we had together on the commutes. He also seemed to respect my boundaries and never attempted to take it to another level (e.g., invite my family and me to a backyard barbeque, dinner out, etc.).
The following Halloween when I was walking our older son, Peter, around the neighborhood picking up enough agents of tooth decay to make him happy, I noticed a house with a big institutional-looking traversing ramp in front of it. When my son knocked on the door, Fred answered and gave my kid some treats. I walked up and greeted him as a neighbor for the first time. He was surprised and–I think–a little embarrassed. If I pegged the embarrassment quality, I don’t know why. I hope it wasn’t the ramp or me seeing his daughter who was in an electric wheelchair behind him. We said thank you and moved on. The next day Fred was less animated but just as warm. We chatted all the way to my stop downtown. Inside of a week, though, he began to open up about the challenges he and his wife have raised a child who has a disability. Anyone who knows me knows I will never win any awards for empathy. I am far too self-centered. So when he began to sob, saying, “My poor daughter,” I felt like I wanted to crawl out the window and ride into town on the roof. When he spoke of his son it was in awe of how he built his own computers. When he spoke of his daughter, it was strictly about her challenges and her depression. It is sad when a parent describes a child in those descriptors, then again, I didn’t know what the young woman was like–she could have been in a permanent state of depression over her physical disability or she could have been suffering from clinical depression. Fred never talked about how many books she read, what a good writer she was, the beautiful art she created, etc. He never defined her in any other way but disabled.
Shortly after the sobbing incident, a new regular bus driver replaced Fred on my line. I don’t know if Fred got a new assignment or he requested a change, or maybe he and his family moved. I knew where he lived. I could have walked over to his house on the weekend to see how he was and what was up with his absence, but I felt awkward about doing that. I instead decided to capitalize on the extra time I had to read on my commute. This callous bastard finally got some good reading in. Shortly after I got a new bus driver, my family and I moved to South Sac and naturally, my bus route changed with the change of address.
The new bus trips were not as long, but the timetables were not friendly to my dawdling ways–I missed the morning bus often and because the bus stop to get back home was five blocks away from my office, I had either to sneak out early or get home late. I didn’t get to know any of the drivers, and that was fine with me, but by the time I got on the bus was very crowded, which was a pain. Many of the commuters were Sacramento High School and McClatchy High School students who were not rowdy but were loud and took up a lot of space with their backpacks. You had to ask them to remove their packs and they would rarely scoot over so the insensitive shits would make you climb over their legs to sit down.
By this time my youngest child, Ely, was a toddler the significant amount of weight I had gained while he was in utero had not come off. So, when the weather warmed up my wife told me I needed to exercise and on a Saturday we went to the local bike shop, College Cyclery, to pick up a commuter bike. It was a serendipitous affair: the bike shop owner, Chuck, was an old family friend. Back when I was a kid my family and his used to go camping together tearing up the Sierras in dune buggies my father made when he wasn’t making boats. My wife had picked out a Peugeot from the used bikes chained up in front of the store. I took the hybrid road/mountain bike for a ride and decided it was okay. It was the first time I had been on a bicycle since high school, so the only thing I could compare it with was my Schwinn ten speed I road back in 1976! I would later discover a bigger bike shop with more product in East Sacramento, but a friend encouraged me to patronize the local independent bike shop and I took that advice. With only one exception, I have purchased all my bikes from College Cyclery and have all my tune-ups/maintenances done at this shop, as well.
When I started commuting via bike the going was rough at first. My fat ass had not done the least amount of exercise since community college, ten years ago, and the extra pounds made the ride brutal–showing up at work sweaty and winded. I was happy when the rainy season began, but the bus experience had its rough moments. There were the altercations at the 7th Street bus stop near what is now Golden 1 Center when I was trying to get home. One time, standing out there waiting for my bus, a fight broke out. The punching and pushing had a mosh pit effect and a second after the fight broke out the innocent to my right slammed into me and I slammed into the young woman to my left who gave me a look like a started it. Another time someone pulled a knife on someone. In a minute, the fight ended up in the street stopping traffic. If I wasn’t so freaked out I might have started snapping my fingers singing “Boy, boy, cool it, boy,” but I doubt the two black guys ready to fight have ever seen “West Side Story.” They probably wouldn’t take kindly to a white guy calling one of them “boy,” either. A short time later, I walked around the corner at this bus stop to find three patrol cars and half-dozen youngsters on their knees wearing zip-tie cuffs. This wasn’t the first time patrol cars had been at this bus stop, but considering how far I had to walk and how crazy things could get there, I started taking the city’s light rail system to a bus stop outside of what appeared to be the “danger zone.”
From time to time, at this new bus stop, a different bus would stop that took me closer to home if not all the way. I would take it just to get moving. Chris rode this line, a guy who was a courier in my office. A cigar smoking, conservative, who lived on the dodgy side of town, I didn’t have much in common with him, but for the short bus ride, we would share a bench and make small talk. I would get off in front of the Tower Theatre on Broadway–my old job. From there, I would wait for my bus. On the last day I ever rode on Chris’ line I heard two people on the bench behind us talking trouble. I’m reconstructing the conversation as best as I remember including the couple’s vernacular:
Man’s voice: “Nes time I see dat bitch, I’m gonna cut her!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
Man’s voice: “She think I be trippin’, but I’m gonna cut that bitch!”
Woman’s voice: “Yeah.”
The man continued his threats with his companion always responding “Yeah.”
Scared shitless, I discreetly leaned over to whisper to Chris if he was getting all this. I got a loud snore back. He had slept through it. I guess that was commonplace where he lived. It was moments like these where I missed riding my bike.
As far back as I go as an RT customer, Sacramento’s public transportation had always transported high school students to the mild inconvenience of meek folk like me. Things got miserable, though, when my city bus began hauling middle school students. The bus was now packed and the relatively quiet ride turned into clattering anarchy on wheels. There were always problems with high school students on the bus, but the incidents were manageable. When middle schoolers started riding my line the cacophony and hijinks were annoying. After someone pulled the cord requesting a stop other teens would begin yanking the cords to see how many times they could make the bell ring. The bus driver would pull over and chew the brats out. I thought I was back in junior hi again, except I wasn’t so I had zero tolerance for this shit. Still, they weren’t my kids so I tried to stick to whatever I was reading or crank up whatever I had on my iPod. (The middle schoolers may have inspired RT to prevent the bell to ring multiple time because shortly after this hell, the signal would only sound once whenever two people would pull the cord requesting the same stop.) During one week a bunch of girls decided to play a variation on the Chinese fire drill prank. One of them would request a stop, when the bus stopped at the next stop, a bunch of the girls would file out the back door only to run up to the front of the bus and come back in, thinking they were so clever, and making everyone that much later to work. This happened a few mornings until the bus driver said fuck it and took off leaving the half-dozen or so teenagers on the sidewalk having to hoof it to school. I’m not sure if that was the safe thing to do, but he received applause from a few commuters. I should have complained to RT, but it didn’t matter, I guess enough people did protest, and the middle school contingency was gone next school year.
Around this time, my wife, a dedicated all-weather bike commuter, decided I needed a new bike. The days were getting longer and sunnier and she felt I needed an upgrade in the bicycle department. We went to a bike shop in neighboring Rancho Cordova and she picked out an aluminum-frame Bianchi Advantage for me. I flew to work on the Italian hybrid! I was still taking the same route through Downtown to get to work, but I must have shaved a good ten minutes off of my time. It felt great, but it wouldn’t last long. One early evening I made the dumb-ass mistake of leaving my bike unlocked outside a neighborhood video store and two teenage boys snagged it. I ran after them looking like an ass assuming I could catch up with them. When I returned to the video store out of breath and pissed off that the property owner didn’t provide a bike rack, the lady behind the checkout asked, “Didn’t you see the two kids riding in circles right outside the store–one of them sitting on the other’s handlebars?” I knew it was my fault for not being aware and for leaving my bike unattended. (Not to mention, if I had locked the rear wheel to the frame neither of the little shits could have run off while holding up a thirty-pound bike!) Regardless of my stupidity, I vowed to never go back to that store and got a Blockbuster account. Years later I got a Netflix account and I never checked to see if that store got around to getting a bike rack. I make it a point now to see if a business provides bike racks. I usually don’t patronize the places that don’t offer them despite how infrequent I use my bike outside of commuting.
My replacement bike was a relatively heavy Giant Sedona, but by that time, I was going through a medical condition that left me without a driver’s license and made me shy away from riding a bike. I was now entirely at the mercy of the city’s overpriced and underserved bus system year around. My Sedona collected dust until I loaned it to my son, Peter, who rode it to his work at a coffee house near Sacramento City College.
In my bus travels, I have met and befriended a few people–not something I do very well. There was Alex, the most negative person I have ever met. To any of my readers who know me personally they may conger up images of pots and kettles upon reading that last statement, but seriously, Alex made me seem like Zig Ziglar. As far as how Alex made me feel, watch the short video below from the 1980 film “Airplane!” I felt like anyone or all three of the poor bastards sitting next to Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) when Alex got going about his life.
I had the misfortune to end up on the same buses with Alex in the mornings and the afternoons. There he was with his copy of the day’s San Francisco Chronicle in his lap. His paper of choice since The Sacramento Bee was a “liberal rag.” I don’t like to mix it up with people, but as a student of journalism, I knew that most West Coast press analysts calling The Bee one of the best newspapers this side of the Mississippi while The Chronicle was often criticized for its poor editorial judgment. I just listened to him complain about the world. The refrain that dragged me down with him was his beef that his boss had blackballed him from making it into an analyst classification. Poor Alex and poor me, too: I was tired of my job running a warehouse and was trying to get into the analyst class, also; albeit, I wasn’t really applying myself. I was just feeling sorry for myself. This made the bus trips with Alex toxic.
Then there was John. Unlike Alex, he was an inspiration. Because he got on the bus after I did we almost never sat next to one another. The first time I noticed him he was yelling. A couple of Sac High male students were seated knees to knees blocking the aisle–like they often did, intimidating fellow commuters from walking past and nearly all of them would place their backpacks on the adjacent seat so you had to ask if they would remove it so you could sit down on their bench. The first time I saw John, he stopped at the blockade, looked straight down, the students returning his gaze as if to challenge, then John bellowed, “MOVE,” as if the slight man was a football coach. They moved. I was impressed.
I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but there was a third high school represented on this bus every morning. The Met is a small experimental charter high school in Midtown. The students on my bus who attended the school seemed relatively quiet, courteous, and unassuming compared to Sac Hi and McClatchy students. I noticed John striking up conversations with them. He always wanted to know what they were doing, what video games they were playing at the time, TV shows they liked, films they had just seen. John was never judgmental, just inquisitive. On one of the rare occasions, he sat next to me. After exchanging greetings, he pulled out a devotional and began reading. I took that moment to tell him I was a fellow believer. As a Doubting Thomas, I am always impressed with people whose faith is strong. We had a lovely talk before parting. John continued talking with these high schoolers as the school year progressed. After our initial conversation, he seemed to make a point of saying hi whenever he walked down the aisle to find a seat, which was nice.
Unlike Alex and John, I met Mike at the bus stop outside my home one morning. He was open, but with enough distance to make me feel comfortable. His icebreaker was something like, “Hmm that sounds like a hawk.” Time past in silence as I noticed he was craning his neck to try to get a better look at the bird. “It is! Check it out: a Red-Tailed Hawk! It looks like she has a nest in that tree,” pointing across the street at the top of a tall tree of which he knew the species.
In fact, he seemed to know a lot about many things. I didn’t attempt to verify every assertion he made, but he did seem wiser than his years. (He was around 50 at the time I met him.) I don’t think he was trying to impress, just making conversation. Another thing, Mike knew Alex and he agreed with me when I confessed I thought Alex was friendly but had a soul-sucking personality. Mike was a Buddhist who raised Bonsai trees and a pharmacist for Department of Health Services. He regaled me with stories of inspecting pharmacies in California State prisons including the time he was caught during a lockdown. On one occasion, I was waiting at the bus stop and Mike rolled up in his 1972 Honda Civic and asked me if I wanted a ride to work. The man was so meticulous that the car appeared to be brand new. He was an avid bicyclist with a half-dozen different styles of bikes but didn’t ride to work because he felt the commute was too dangerous.
During this time my current bike was slowly going through waves of disintegration and renewal. Peter would start borrowing our second car (which was not a problem since I couldn’t drive). Whenever I asked him what’s wrong with my bike, he would say either the front wheel had been stolen, or the saddle was stolen or both. Whenever my wife and I drove by the coffee house, there was my old red bike locked to the bike rack, but missing a wheel or saddle/post. Giant bikes came with quick releases on the axils as one would expect at this time when bicycle thefts were on a steep incline. What was befuddling was the addition of a quick release on saddle posts. Presumably, the owner was supposed to remove the post/saddle every time the owner parked the bike and, maybe, carry it over the shoulder? What was equally as moronic was that I never got around to replacing that quick release with a bolt and nut which made this situation worse. (On subsequent Giant bicycle purchases, before I wheeled the new bikes out of the shop, I would have the quick releases replaced on the saddle post with a bolt and a nut and the quick releases on the axils replaced with security hubs.) In the meantime, I would buy him a new saddle post and/or front wheel and one or both would get ripped off again. I don’t think I ever showed him how to use a quick release, but he also never asked or explored how to mitigate this chronic problem. Presumably, he felt it wasn’t his bike, so he didn’t care. With my medical condition limiting my transportation options and RT continuing to reduce services (by this time they had canceled both Saturday and Sunday service for my line) my choices were whittled down to begging my wife and my son for rides. These were not happy times for me.
Later, Mike reported to me that he got a job working for the Department of General Services. He was especially excited because he had a safe route to ride his bike to work, riding along the Sacramento River, crossing the Tower Bridge, and parking his bike of choice that day in a secure bike room in the Ziggurat in West Sacramento. The Ziggurat (or the “Zig” as the locals called it) is without a doubt the ugliest building on the Sacramento skyline–a mustard-colored god-awful thing by day, and by night, it glowed gold like an exercise in pure kitsch architecture! Aside from the crappy outside, Mike said it has many amenities including a gym and a cafeteria.
Shortly after Mike started riding his bike, I received the green-light on getting my driver’s license back, and with that confidence, I also began riding my bike to work again. I had a new bike now, a Giant Cyprus–which was very similar to my last bike, except this one had suspension in the forks and saddle post. It just might have been the heaviest bike I ever rode. I’m not sure why I bought it, though it might have had something to do with the very comfortable ride. On one of my first days back riding to work, I ran into my boss, Rich. Rich was a tall, svelte man in his 60s. He worked on the seventh floor and always took the stairs taking every other step. (If he took the elevator that meant our director was chewing him out for something.) Rich’s passion was tennis and the Shriners. Work was somewhere pulling up the rear in that list. When I agreed to meet him at the Sacramento Zoo every morning to ride into work, it meant a cardio workout–the man peddled fast. “Pump it up, kid,” he would say whenever I started lagging behind him. Besides being in much better shape than me, he rode like Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious–flying through intersections as if stop signs and on-coming cross traffic did not concern him. One of the benefits of riding with Rich was I got the inside scoop on whatever accommodations our office was planning when it came to bicycles. I saw the early blueprint drafts of the new Lower Level floor that included a Bike Room with lockers and showers and I got my pick of lockers when they first were installed. These perks were not really that special, but Rich made me feel like I was a part of getting people out of their cars and off of the bus and to at least try to commute via bike. He was sensitive enough to let me suggest I lose my spacious office and move into a cramped cubicle. “We still need more room in the warehouse, kid. Hmm, I just don’t know where we are going to find that space.” His finger tapping near my office on the blueprint. “I know, Rich. I don’t need an office. We can gain space for two more cubicles if we demo my office.” “Really, kid. That’s okay?” “Sure!” Holding back the tears. “Use that space. I can work from a cubicle!”
When the rainy season started up, I was back on the bus. The first thing I saw to my utter amazement was all the Met kids holding Bibles! It seemed incredible, but when I had a moment to talk with John a few days later, he told me he had bought all those Bibles for them and ask them if they wanted to read The Gospel of Mark (presumably because it was the shortest and most accessible of the four gospels). Though there didn’t seem to be a proud bone in his body, I thought John was a remarkable man! When I complimented him on this grand gesture, he said it was the Holy Spirit. I wish I had that kind of faith. He also told me that none of them confessed to accepting Jesus, so he doesn’t know what is in their hearts, they may have just liked him and his gift of a book.
Shortly after my talk with John, two significant things happened. First, I got a scooter and found the freedom and self-respect I had lost some years back. I also started riding it to work from time to time. Second, and most importantly, I began to ride my bike to work–rain or shine. My wife and I took a weekend ride along the short, but serviceable Sacramento Bike Trail–the route Mike had told me about. From there we cut over to Front Street and crossed the R Street pedestrian bridge. We stopped here, but I could visualize my route to my office from that point. It was a much more pleasant and safer ride than the other ways I have ridden over the years. Of course, this does not mean I haven’t crashed and burned a couple of times including a time I got hit by a car, but it’s an excellent commuter path just the same. I bought some fluorescent-yellow rain gear and I gave my bike to my youngest son and bought a Giant Escape 3, the fastest, lightest bike I have had so far. It is still not as fast as the road bikes my wife and roadies who work in my office, nor has my garb changed–no bib shorts and a lycra top. I always look like a hot mess out there on the road: dress shirt with a safety vest over that, thermals with shorts over them. Also, people still pass me up like I’m riding backward, but I’m moving.
I rarely ride my bicycle around town, though I probably should. My bike is almost exclusively for commuting. My scooter is the way I get around when I am not commuting. My scooter has given me the freedom I lost many years ago when my driver’s license was suspended. Funny thing is I see people I remember from my bus commuter days. I live by Mike and wave to him when he is maintaining his immaculate lawn or is riding one of his many bikes down his street. I saw Alex at a grocery store on time. I was mid-aisle when we both noticed each other and I was too big to hide behind a box of Raisin Bran. As it turned out, he got an analyst job! I don’t recall if it was in the same office that he claimed blackballed him, but he was happy and that made me happy in more ways than one. Finally, there is John. I saw him talking with a rough-looking young man in a black tank top with sleeve tattoos in Vic’s Cafe. When the young man left, I was able to speak to John for a moment. Not surprising, he had recently led the young man to Christ and he was now attending John’s church. It’s hard to meet people like John or Fred or Mike or even Alex while riding your bike or scooter to work. Still, I’m glad I’m off the bus timetables no matter how wet I can get.