Saturday, March 28, 2009

Muni, K Ingleside, Thursday afternoon from Powell Street to Castro Street

Springtime is fun because everything seems a little fresher.

I skipped out of the office a little early to meet a woodworker and burglar alarm installer (don’t ask). I grabbed my bag, went dashing out of our 13th floor office, hopped on the elevator and headed out the office building doors. I tried to speed down the stairs into the Powell Street subway station. It was difficult, as usual, getting down the stairs quickly due to one of those squads of tottering Chinese women, each holding pink plastic shopping bags overflowing with bok choy, broccoli and bittermellon. I slowed my pace as I followed them from the street into the bright fluorescent-lit public space below and then made my move to pass them. I tagged my Translink card and ran down the next flight of stairs to the track where a K Ingleside train was approaching. I hopped on the train, thrilled to get a seat at this pre-rush hour and tapped away at my iPod to listen to the Neko Case album I downloaded.

Commotion begins. As I’m easing into the music, music I’m not sure I really enjoy, I look up to see a very large wheelchair make its way on to the train. It’s one of those deluxe cushy chairs with a beige padded seat and headrest, but it looks old and a bit tattered or unclean. The occupant of the mobility device eases the chair into the doorway of the train and the defiant teens who only seconds ago had taken the space, scatter to the front of train. The man in the wheelchair adjusts his seat to recline, giving him, presumably, a better grip on the enormous cargo is transporting.

Nobody on the train can take their eyes off the cargo. I look around at my fellow passengers and see other expressions of bemusement, like mine, as well as a few of indifference, and a couple of horror. The oversized terrarium he has in his lap (and up on the arms of the chair) has a single mirrored side, which rests on the man’s stomach, reflecting the four mice inside and the many faces of the subway train passengers. As the K Ingleside train pulls out of the Powell Street station, the four mice – two solid black and two with black and white splotches – scurry about in the terrarium, pink noses sniffing the side of their cage and beady eyes peeking at the passengers staring back at them. They fling themselves at the mirrored side and then retreat. Periodically, they dash for cover in a small FiberOne bar box, partly shredded, but providing enough of a hiding place for each mouse to avoid the stares. They leap and they run and they toss aside small scraps of paper and wood shavings. The chips of wood are like those left behind from a number two pencil, one that has been sharpened deliberately by a fifth grade girl seeking to prove to her cohort that her Hello Kitty knockoff plastic sharpener produces the longest peel of pencil wood possible.

As the train departs Van Ness Station, the man in the wheelchair loses his grip on the terrarium. It slides in his lap turning forward quickly before it is maneuvered back into his lap. As the train thrashes and speeds up, the giant glass box twists periodically. I shift my focus from the animation of the mice in the box to the face of a 50-something Filipino woman five rows away. She absorbs the spectacle not with passing interest, but with a terrorized look. Her eyes are open wide, her eyebrows are arched and she struggles to maintain consistent breathing. I think to myself, “that’s my mom if she were on this train.”

With each lurch, the woman looks like she’s ready to throw herself through the train window and onto the rail tracks. But her expression has some defiance, like she’s ready to complain to someone. She’s thinking to herself about how she can get the police to remove these mice and man from the train. And then she fans her face and looks away.

In my head, I am playing out my fantasy with this woman’s expressions. I think she is reading my mind: a sudden stop – known to happen on San Francisco’s Muni trains – wood shreds, glass, a FiberOne box and mice flying through the air. The mice would scamper about the subway train, providing me with a delightful story to tell, but instilling fear in the hearts of my fellow passengers. The doors would open, they would dash onto the platform (probably to be eaten by a subway rat) and the man in the wheelchair would scream and plead for the return of his precious cargo.

As the train approaches Castro Street station, the man shifts his wheelchair forward and the mice dance around in their shreds, waiting for him – and them – to leave the train. Another passenger – a young man with a camera around his neck – snaps a photo of the mice and zips out the train doors. As I walk up the stairs to the concourse level of the station, wishing I too had taken a photo to remember the experience, I remind myself that I am happy the mice are safe in their cage. And that the woman on the train avoided a full panic attack. And that it is all still perfect springtime entertainment.

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