Cast-off people

Society has an odd way of dealing with human beings it is casting off. It pretends to help them, but in fact sabotages them.

I remember back when I was living the experience of poverty that would resonate so strongly later after I returned to school and started turning over scholarly rocks on social and economic injustice. A relatively mild but particularly visible example was on those occasions when I was relying on public transportation and a group of so-called “developmentally disabled” people got on the bus. I could spot them a mile away, not simply because of their mannerisms, and not simply because they always traveled in groups, but because their thrift store clothing and lousy haircuts betrayed bureaucratic decision making that prefers cost-cutting to human dignity.

We aren’t supposed to judge people by their appearance, but in fact, the way they appear—which probably no one would choose for oneself—reinforces a sense that these people are “others,” to be isolated even amongst the other passengers on a bus by their oddity and homeliness.

Similarly, very few well-off people work graveyard shift jobs. Typically, people who work the night shift are in low-level jobs, such as in janitorial or security guard work. These are the people who most need reliable bus service, but are forced to purchase old, unreliable cars and try to keep them operational to get to work because bus service drops off dramatically after around 8 or 9 pm.

And there’s certainly an unreality to the social “safety net” in the United States, that effectively reduces the indigent to begging or to crime. And if they sleep in their vehicles, they are prone to be rudely awakened at 3 am by police who, to be brutally frank about it, see homeless people as easy targets.

I’m reminded of all this, this week, by my experiences on Golden Gate Transit. I usually catch the bus in Novato, at Redwood and Olive, to go to school in San Francisco. I go down three times a week, at different times because I have classes at different times on different days of the week. I drive to this location rather than catching the bus in Sonoma County, closer to where I live, because there are more buses running to Marin County—even north Marin—than to Sonoma County. I burn more gas but I’m a lot less likely to be left stranded.

On Monday, after class, I caught a complicated series of connections to try to get back to Sebastopol to check my mail before the mailbox place closed because a textbook still hadn’t arrived. I’ve been wondering a lot about the relationship between the published schedule and when the buses actually run—it seems to be loose, at best, making a complicated set of connections such as this rather risky. It actually worked; I caught BART at Civic Center and rode it to the Embarcadero Station and fast-walked to Fremont and Mission for Golden Gate Transit route 54, which arrived within a very few minutes of the time I got there. I then got off to transfer at the Alameda del Prado bus pad. I noticed the 54 had gotten me there seven minutes early. I also noticed that the 71 I was to transfer to (which took me back to Redwood and Olive) was ten minutes late. But I made it to the mailbox place in time to find the textbook still hadn’t arrived.

On Tuesday, I arrived ten minutes early for the route number 70 bus. And I waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, when the bus was five minutes late, I decided I couldn’t take the chance of waiting any longer. I got back in my truck and headed south.

The 70 is one of several lines that runs mostly along Highway 101, and I was driving down 101 when I saw a bus ahead. As it took the Ignacio exit, I could barely make out that it was the 70, the bus I should have caught at Redwood and Olive. It had either gone by the stop ridiculously early or not at all. Since the main Novato stop is at Redwood and Grant and the northern end of the route is on San Marin, the northernmost Novato exit, it probably just completely blew off that final leg of the trip to turn around and head back south.

So I drove to San Rafael, somewhat miraculously found a parking space in the downtown Park and Ride lot, and walked a couple blocks to the San Rafael Transit Center. I was in plenty of time to catch the 70 there. And while I was waiting, there were two boisterous drunks who were being loud and obnoxious.

The bus eventually arrived and one of the drunks put his bicycle on the rack on the front of the bus and boarded after me. The driver forcefully warned him to keep his voice down and his language clean. I settled down with some reading I had to do.

After a few minutes, I noticed we hadn’t left the Transit Center. And in fact, the driver was missing. The 70 usually doesn’t wait at the Transit Center; it just makes the stop and continues south. But in this case, we must have been there fifteen minutes before the driver returned.

It was not a banner day for Golden Gate Transit. As we traversed San Francisco, the driver had to maneuver around a route 101 bus that I assume had broken down on Van Ness. About that time, the drunk got into some kind of altercation with another passenger; he claimed to have been threatened. The driver was, of course, not amused and reprimanded the both of them.

There were further disturbances as each of them got off the bus, thankfully at different stops, as each of them had to tell his side of the story to the driver (whom I doubt cared).

And in the end, I got to class five minutes late.

On Wednesday, I caught the route number 101 south. This bus runs a similar route to the 80, but omits a number of stops in Marin County. Even so, for some reason, they always change drivers on this route at the San Rafael Transit Center. The process of changing drivers eliminates the time savings from having skipped all those other stops. And it isn’t a big deal if the relief driver is there waiting like (s)he is supposed to be.

But he wasn’t. I could see the driver who had gotten us this far on his cell phone telling someone that the relief driver had missed the shuttle that I guess Golden Gate Transit provides for its drivers. After a considerable delay, the shuttle returned and a driver got off of it. But the driver who is supposed to be being relieved had to bellow at him across the Transit Center because he was walking in completely the wrong direction as if he was expecting to drive a different route. Eventually he came over and they had a conference for what seemed like five minutes.

Eventually he got on the bus and started driving it south. His driving was okay, but I noticed he was blinking as if he was having a hard time seeing. Considering that he was the one about to drive me into San Francisco, certainly no less a challenging driving environment in a bus, this was far from reassuring.

These are all minor incidents. But even in daylight, they do not form a picture of a reliable bus service, something that low-level workers, for whom tardiness can be a job-ending event, can rely upon. Even for a Ph.D. student like myself, walking into class late draws an undesirable form of attention.

All this experience reinforces a picture, or more correctly, a series of photographs I once took for a geography class. The assignment was to use a photograph to show how humans use geography and as the teacher was discussing the assignment an idea popped into my head. I was stretching the assignment a bit—the teacher remarked that I had completed the assignment the hard way, but pulled it off—but I actually started at 6th and Bryant Streets in San Francisco, by the Hall of (so-called) Justice, and drove northbound, snapping pictures with my PDA out my driver side window. This route included what I think are the two most impoverished blocks in San Francisco, between Howard and Market, proceeded across Market Street onto Taylor Street, by a now-closed “adult” bookstore and through the Tenderloin, and up to the top of Nob Hill. Nob Hill, of course, is a very rich area, and I used these photographs to illustrate how the rich literally look down upon the poor (criminalized at the beginning of the series at the Hall of Justice).

Along the way, one of the pictures I took was of an obviously disabled couple making their way down the sidewalk in the most impoverished neighborhood in San Francisco, a neighborhood that strongly resembles a “skid row” archetype. It is emphatically not what most people would characterize as a “safe” neighborhood. I perceived this couple, with their obviously broken bodies, as having been chewed up and spit out by capitalism (though I didn’t interview them and don’t actually know their stories) and left to fend for themselves in a situation where they were very vulnerable.

And when I see drug addicts, I see people who may well have become addicts in an attempt to anesthetize themselves against the brutality of our society. That includes those drunks at the San Rafael Transit Center on Tuesday.

Probably a great many of these people have stories that simply don’t fit the dominant narrative of a society that claims to provide equal opportunity for everyone to get ahead if they work hard. And so they are cast aside, with only token efforts at assistance—such as unreliable bus systems.

But as cast-offs in an undesirable setting which many people will not choose to approach, they also serve as exemplars,[1] warning the rest of us to toe the line, to work hard, to keep to “the straight and narrow,” to not make waves.[2]

  1. [1]Herbert J. Gans, "The Uses of Underservingness," in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, 3rd. ed., ed. Thomas M. Shapiro (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2005), 85-94.
  2. [2]Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric, 3rd ed. (Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2002).

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