Tuesday, April 24, 2012

From the Archives - BART Opinion "Card"


For the first five years I lived in the Bay Area, I had no car and depended on the excellent Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system. It’s easy to use when you get the hang of it, but when I first started using it, I was clueless. Worse, I was anxious about it, I guess, and really wasn’t very resourceful when it came to studying the map, looking for schedules, etc. I didn’t understand the time-saving benefits of transfers, either, and I wasn’t even thoughtful enough to bring a book. Probably I was just so dazzled by it all, my brain couldn’t do anything right.

Over the last couple of decades, BART has improved quite a bit: its reach has grown (most significantly, it now goes all the way to the San Francisco International Airport), its ticket machines work better and accept credit cards, and its website is very easy to use (which helps the newcomer understand about train transfers and such). But even back in 1990 BART was a much better system than the following letter suggests. What you are about to read started out a handwritten response to a survey, but quickly I ran out of paper and it morphed into something like a short story.

I actually did get a response from BART to this letter/survey/story, but it was absolutely the most rote, boilerplate response possible. If somebody had scrawled in the margin, “There are plenty of schedules at the customer service kiosk, you dope,” that would have been very helpful. Anyway, I forwarded my letter (and the response) to some family members and friends, some of whom couldn’t believe that the remarkable events described my letter really happened. I swear to you that it’s all true—I didn’t make up or embellish anything.

BART opinion card — August 28, 1990

The little blue card says:

Your Opinions Count!

We’d like to know which of BART’s services you especially appreciate and how you think we could make BART better for you.

This is what I like about BART:

Riding BART is nostalgic, reminding me of my past family vacations when your electric trains were more a novelty, like an amusement park ride, than merely a means of transportation. Rockridge station is only two blocks from my apartment so I can walk there. I like that you let me take my bike on BART so I can go out east of the Oakland hills for the only flat bike ride I’m likely to get around here. BART is clean and quiet and allows people to travel without completely polluting the air and becoming freeway zombies who occasionally spring to life from their drowsy half-comas to cuss at other drivers, make frantic obscene gestures, and even cut each other off because they’re so frustrated at being trapped in a little steel box that can’t move because of all the other single-occupancy rolling motels.

This is what I don’t like about BART:

I don’t like how you people don’t give out schedules and maps. The other day I ran into your station, running because I had no idea whether I had thirty seconds or twenty minutes to catch your next train. I arrived at the depot just in time for your train to arrive. As the doors opened for a few brief, precious seconds (this time should be lengthened!), I suddenly realized I had never before commuted on your trains from the Shattuck station (or whatever it’s called—I can’t check to see because you don’t give out schedules or maps) and didn’t know what direction I had to travel in to transfer to the Walnut Creek station. So in my moment of hesitation, not wanting to get on the wrong train, the doors closed and I missed the train. Sometimes I can find schedules posted in your stations, sometimes not.

I decided to ride my bike up to my apartment, drop it off, and try to make the next train from the Rockridge station. I ran the few blocks between my apartment and the station, feeling like an idiot because I was just sure I’d make it with fifteen minutes to spare and have gotten all sweaty for nothing. Did I mention my shorts were falling down, too? All because I didn’t know when the next train left. I got to the station and tried to add some fare to my ticket. Your machine wouldn’t take my bills. You know those incredibly crisp, new twenties the Automatic Teller Machines give out? Well you can’t get singles, just twenties, that are that crisp. So why do your machines seem to demand them? My bills were pretty good, I thought. I’ve fed change machines in video arcades much more weathered bills than that.

Anyway, you can guess what happened: by the time I gave up, resolving to get better bills later, I ran up the escalator and just missed my second train of the day. We’re talking a matter of seconds here. There’s nothing more frustrating than barely missing your train. I once saw this scenario played out by somebody else while I waited safely inside the train. The poor, irate sod just started beating the side of your train, clubbing it with his foot. Can’t your drivers stop the train for people like that? This was the second time in as many weeks that your ticket machines had made me miss my train.

I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if your depots weren’t such a hell on earth. I mean, you’re suspended on this platform that looks like something from the Death Star, sandwiched between two roaring freeways, protected yet trapped by link fences like a caged animal. There’s absolutely nothing to do—maybe you can read the business section of the paper that somebody left behind, or you can look at the cold cement structures or beyond the fence at the fuming cars, or listen to the honking horns and blaspheming drivers. But that’s no way to spend twenty minutes just because you didn’t have a schedule to consult before making your way to the station.

Perhaps you feel as though I’m just nitpicking for the sake of whining, but bear with me, as my BART story is not quite done yet. The same day I missed two of your trains, I was returning from Walnut Creek on the 11:55pm train, and at the station I even asked the attendant which set of tracks the train for Rockridge would arrive on. Well, I waited my fifteen minutes or so (resting after my ridiculous and inevitable sprint to the station) and felt greatly relieved that I would make the last train after all. (I had called your number in the yellow pages asking for schedule information, and your operator sounded like she’d been asleep, or on Valium or something, and gave me very vague information.)

In the station I found a section of the paper that wasn’t too boring, having some comics and whatnot, and this cutesy columnist had asked various people to describe the worst date they’d ever been on. One response was so fitting I even clipped it, and at the risk of copyright infringement, I will share it with you now: “Michelle Garber, 28, legal secretary, Moraga: The date itself wasn’t so bad. We just ended up drinking, and I lost track of time. We parted, and I discovered I had missed the last BART train to the East Bay. I had to spend the night at Carl’s Jr. with the bums drinking coffee all night. I didn’t call my date. I felt too stupid and embarrassed.”

I had just shared this funny article with a well-dressed, young executive-looking woman when the roar of the train shocked us both into that state of stomach-churning paranoia that comes from having only five seconds to get through the doors of the train. Suddenly a calm, perfunctory-sounding announcement came over the loud-speaker: “Attention riders bound for Daly City: the Daly City train will arrive on the Concord platform.” One of your employees came running out of his little kiosk, frantically waving his arms in the universal symbol for “Run! Run!” We watched, spellbound, as seconds later the train slid in on the far tracks, across the huge cement trench of the near tracks—and more importantly, across the dreaded Electric Third Rail. Had I been Indiana Jones, I would’ve swung across on my whip, but alas, I’m a mere college student, so I ran after my hapless co-passengers, risking life and limb to run down the escalator, across the station, and up the other side.

One well-dressed young businessman walked confidently, sure that the train would be held since BART had, after all, screwed up. Perhaps I could have made better time, but I found myself behind the executive woman, who was actually running astonishingly quickly for somebody in high heels. The horror! For the third time in a day, the train roared off blindly, just outrunning three panting and hugely disgruntled would‑be passengers.

Adding to my pathetic fate, one of them—a woman far less sophisticated than the high-heeled executive sprinter—screamed, “Noooooooooo!” almost right in my ear. To my bewilderment, she then threw herself down on the floor and started shaking, even wriggling, as if a pre-teen having a tantrum. I think she was vying for attention from the goony guy she’d run up the escalator with, who looked like one of the guys in my high-school shop class who was out of high‑ school now and working in a factory de-burring plastic parts or something. He had these fingerless gloves that I couldn’t figure out.

Whatever buttons the shrieking woman was pressing were the right ones for him, boy. She had on this all-black Lycra outfit with some kind of vinyl jacket or something, and way too much makeup. The over-confident businessman had arrived now, and seemed more than surprised at the inability or refusal of your people to hold the train for us. I guess maybe he wasn’t the standard businessman; his clothes were stylish but not office-formal. L.A. Gear shoes, actually. Handsome—a good match for Executive Woman. A nice pair of pairs, those two and the shrieking woman/shop guy combo. Where do I fit in, then? Well, somebody has to pay attention to the trains and fill out the little blue card telling you guys our opinions.

We all went down to talk to the guys in the kiosk, and one of them said, “I been working here eighteen years and this kind of crap has happened all along.” The other guy was making a phone call to see what the deal was. He came out and said, “Well, all I accomplished was to have the guy on the other end demand an apology. Say’s I’m not man enough to give him one.” I’m not making any of this up, I swear. I envisioned the five of us spending the rest of the night in a Carl’s Jr. drinking black, stinking coffee.

Fortunately, there was one more train. I was going to propose that we roshambo to see who had to throw himself down on the Electric Third Rail in case of a repeat track screw-up, but the two couples seemed to be hitting it off well and I didn’t want to disturb them. Classy Guy was describing a jazz festival he’d just seen to Executive Woman, who then began talking about the amazing watermelon daiquiris her thirteen-year-old nephew had somehow learned to make. Shrieking Woman and Shop Guy went out for a smoke. Then we all went back up to the platform to try our luck at the next train, and Classy Guy produced the Sunday Chronicle. He read our horoscopes, and we chatted away, while Shop Guy and Shrieking Woman had drifted off and seemed to hit it off in a more, uh, profound way. Two minutes before the train was due, they made for the escalator. “Wait!” cried Executive Woman. “Where are you going?” Shop Guy looked over at her and said, “To a motel.” Confused, she said, “Why?” and then Shrieking Woman gave her a little knowing wink. After they left, Classy Guy said, “What do you mean, why? Where have you been, don’t you know about motels?”

We all had a good laugh, and then Executive Woman and I had more laughs trying to figure out why Shrieking Woman had been flipping around on the floor like a fish out of water after missing the train. Finally the train came, on the right tracks, and on the trip home Classy Guy read the Prince Valiant comic aloud, in his best low deejay voice, while Executive Woman acted out the parts for us in the seat beside him.

As I left the train at Rockridge, Classy Guy said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow,/ That I shall say good night till it be morrow.” How could I match his wit? “Ah, William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Scene II,” I said. Then Executive Woman told me, “I’ll bet this is a ride train you won’t soon forget.” I think she’d mentioned having had wine earlier. “You mean train ride,” I said. I left BART with high hopes for Classy Guy and Executive Woman; after all, they had all the way to Daly City to become Classy Couple.

Obviously, everything had turned out for the best, but that’s not the point. What if, for company during my ordeal, I’d only had Shop Guy, or Shrieking Woman, or yet worse, both? I guess what I mainly don’t like about BART is its unpredictability. So print up a few hundred thousand schedules. Hold a train for a guy down on his luck every now and then. Fix your machines to take less-than-perfect dollar bills. And if your train is going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks late on a Saturday night, for God’s sake give us a phone call so we won’t have to worry!

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