The magic of MUNI: Observations on the J-Church line

I t was two weeks before Christmas and we had decided to take an evening ride across the city on the J-Church Streetcar, beginning in Oceanview and ending up at the Embarcadero. As we started on our adventure, we looked forward to observing green and red Christmas wreaths on front doors, and Noble fir trees, decorated with sparkling ornaments and colorful lights on display in windows. But on this particular Saturday night, as we waited on busy San Jose Avenue near Geneva for the J-Church to arrive, it was hard to tell Christmas was near. The Balboa Park Muni station was starkly quiet, with not even a single musician busking for spare change by attempting “Jingle Bells” or “Here Comes Santa Claus” on his guitar. The only activity was a storekeeper locking up his flower stand for the night, carrying vases of yellow sunflowers and pink tulips into a storage kiosk nearby.

The night grew colder and darker as we waited for the J-Church. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. A balding middle-aged man stood under the golden lamplight, wearing a black t-shirt with the logo of an unidentifiable rock band on it, talking to his elderly mother as she fingered a loose thread on her black suitcase. At last, the empty train slowly pulled up to the station, opening its doors to invite us in from the chilly darkness.

Illustration by Valentin Nguyen

One steep step and we were inside, picking seats near the back of the train while the man and his mother sat down at the very front of the car. As the train began to move, making a loud heaving noise, we passed a gas station/mini mart whose neon sign, missing the two Ms, beckoned guests to the “ini art.” Looking out the smudgy windows of the J-Church, we saw no glowing fairy lights, no Noble firs, and not one life-size blow-up Santa sitting on top of a roof.

For ten minutes, and seven stops, just four people got on the bus. Each was quiet, either speaking in a low voice to a traveling companion, checking an iPhone or sleeping.

Illustration by Valentin Nguyen

At the eighth stop, on the corner of Church and 30th street, things picked up. A stream of people hopped on the streetcar. An older woman took a seat, cocked her head back and began to nap. A young man, smelling strongly of cologne, sat with his head down, staring at his iPhone, listening to music through his ear buds. A woman with blonde hair that hung down to her knees cradled a black and tan Chihuahua on her lap, attempting to dress the understandably uncooperative dog in a blue coat, as she talked to her male companion sitting beside her.

When the streetcar picked up riders at 18th and Dolores streets, it became hipster Santaland. Two twenty-something females and one male all dressed in Santa attire and smelling strongly of marijuana, took the empty seats behind us. Part of the annual SantaCon festival where thousands of people dress up as Santa and then commence a lengthy pub crawl, these three Santas sounded as if they were old friends, at least based on our eavesdropping. They reminisced about their days in middle school together, laughing at some silly memories and singing tunes from High School Musical at the top of their lungs.

Illustration by Valentin Nguyen

At the Church and Duboce stop, more SantaCon-ers hopped on, this time all men. Two wore matching pink Santa hats, while another, wearing a traditional bright red hat, smelled as if he had spent time in a great many bars on this Saturday. When his Clipper Card did not work, he cursed under his breath. “Bah humbug!” we thought to ourselves.

Illustration by Valentin Nguyen

Meanwhile, a man, his wife, and their angelic-looking blonde toddler son sat at the front of the train. The man, who caused us to do a double-take because he bore a remarkable resemblance to the British comedic news anchor John Oliver, held the blue-eyed boy in his arms. The toddler pointed through the window at the bright lights that went flying past as we entered a dark tunnel that would take us downtown, and to the final stops on the J-Church route.

At the Civic Center station, a security guard dressed in head-to-toe black, except for his gold badge, entered the train. He leaned up against the window that shielded the driver from the passengers, his hands in his pockets and his eyes glazed over in what could have been boredom or exhaustion after a long day of work, or perhaps a combination of both. The passengers on our train, while being tipsy, tired, surgically attached to their iPhones or smelling of weed and too much cologne, seemed to be of no immediate danger to themselves or others, so the guard hopped off at the Powell station in search of another streetcar to patrol.

Illustration by Valentin Nguyen

At the Embarcadero Station, our last stop, a woman in a black winter coat and a man in a denim jacket attempted to hop on. Clearly tourists, they were unaware that the train had reached the end of the line and the ride was over.

We jumped off and took the station escalator up to Market Street, where we were greeted by large white snowflake lights hanging above a largely deserted street. An ambulance, its siren blaring and red lights flashing, sped by. A street vendor was packing up earrings, bracelets and other unsold bangles into his pick-up truck and calling it a day. A homeless man wearing a black beanie trudged through the Embarcadero Plaza, yelling inaudible words at passersby who stared into their phones, pretending not to see him.

We briskly walked across the street to Gott’s Roadside restaurant in the Ferry Building, where we people-watched through the window as we devoured what seemed like the most delicious hamburgers, fries and onion rings we had ever eaten.

This is a snapshot of San Francisco on a Saturday night two weeks before Christmas. Stored in memory for now, it will likely be quickly erased as the days and weeks and months continue to speed by. Just two weeks before, it had been Thanksgiving. Just two weeks after, it will be Christmas … and then, in another week, we will count down … 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 … until the ball drops and it is the New Year, when we will do it all over again.