Noe Valley Voice November 2001

Family Adventures Close to Home:
Spending the Day on Muni

By Janis Cooke Newman

Three little girls with several pigtails on each head are begging to borrow my husband's camera. My husband balances against a metal pole and shows one of them, a girl whose pigtails are decorated with plastic balls the color of cherry cough drops, the image of her sister bouncing up and down in the little screen at the back of his digital camera. The girl with the cherry-colored balls sucks in her breath, as if nothing short of an act of magic has placed her sister's image in the camera. Clinging to the pole next to me, my digitally sophisticated 6-year-old, Alex, rolls his eyes.

We're riding on the J-Church streetcar, heading downtown. In my pocket is "The Official San Francisco Street & Transit Map" and three transfers. At my side, is my public transit-loving son.

I have no idea why little kids are so madly in love with public transportation. Sometimes, I think it's because everyone on the bus is a passenger like they are. Other times, I put the infatuation down to the fact that on the streetcar, they're more or less free to walk around, instead of being confined to a car seat with a five-point restraining device. But mostly, I believe their deep devotion stems from their knowledge that for once, they have full access to their parents' undivided attention in a moving vehicle.

Whatever it is, today we're indulging Alex's obsession. Our mission is to ride as many forms of San Francisco public transport as possible -- excluding ferries, which already get more attention than is good for them.

We've started our expedition by boarding the J-Church at Church and 29th streets, after picking up a chocolate croissant for Alex at MikeyTom Market. Now our streetcar is rumbling between rows of Noe Valley backyards, giving us glimpses of late fall gardens, assorted plastic patio furniture, and somebody's underwear strung on a line near 20th Street.

At Market Street, we get off the J, waving to the little girls in pigtails, who press their hands against the windows, leaving starfish-shaped prints.

"One regular streetcar," I tell Alex, starting the list.

We cross Market to the downtown F stop, and after a few minutes, an electric-yellow historic streetcar rattles to a stop in front of us.

"I don't want this one!" shouts a small boy, tugging on his father's hand. "I want the red one!"

"We have to get on the one that comes," explains the dad, attempting to wrestle a stroller closed and keep his son out of traffic.

"But the red one goes faster!" the boy insists.

Our yellow streetcar makes its less-than-speedy way down Market Street, past antique shops and theaters whose marquees are plastered with photographs of women wearing cowboy hats and bikinis. At Fifth Street, we stop long enough to watch the men in winter coats playing chess on unstable card tables. At the cable-car turnaround, a man in a bowler hat is wearing a sign that reads, "Fornicator! It is time to quit!"

A tourist family gets on the streetcar, all dressed in polar fleece with the letters S.F. embroidered over their hearts. The kids, a boy and a girl with neon-colored cameras, stand in the doorway and ask, "Is this Pier 39?" at every stop along the Embarcadero.

When we do finally reach Pier 39, we follow the fleecy family out of the streetcar. For a moment, I harbor the illusion that I will be able to get Alex past the shops-that-sell-frogs-made-from-sea-shells temptations of this popular tourist destination, but he is already trailing the kids with the neon camera down the wooden pier.

We stop at a stand where people are filling glass bottles with colored bath salts scented in different flavors. All around us, there's the rhythmic tapping of plastic funnels against glass, like the knocking of a flock of tiny woodpeckers. I buy Alex an empty bottle, and he fills it with vanilla and chocolate and rain. One of the salts has a sign identifying its scent as Elves. I take a sniff. Apparently, elves smell quite a bit like lavender.

Once we're able to drag Alex away from Pier 39, we walk along the Wharf to Bay and Taylor streets, where we catch the 39-Coit bus toward North Beach. The 39 grinds its winding way up through the traffic on Telegraph Hill until it reaches Coit Tower, where we get off.

It's windy up here, and the people with blowing hair having their picture taken with the skyline of San Francisco as a backdrop, look as if they're moving at high speed. While everyone else searches out San Francisco landmarks through the telescopes, I take Alex to the edge of the parking lot and instruct him to look back at the statue of Christopher Columbus.

"So," he says. "It's a statue. Big deal."

I angle Alex so that Columbus' far hand is lined up at the level of his upper thigh. "You see his thumb sticking out?"

"Oh my God," Alex says. "That looks exactly like his --"

I put my hand over Alex's mouth, and smile at a group of Buddhist monks whose brown robes are whipping around in the wind.

After admiring Columbus' attributes for a while longer, we hop back on the 39-Coit and head down the hill to the corner of Union and Columbus, where we get out and cross the street to Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store.

In Mario's we order eggplant parmigiana sandwiches and pizza, and eat lunch with the black-clad, narrow-eyeglass-wearing denizens of North Beach. Afterward, we're required to spend at least 15 minutes at the playground in Washington Square Park before we walk up Union to Mason Street.

"So far, we've been on a regular streetcar, a historic streetcar, and a bus," I say, counting them off on my fingers. "Now we'll take a cable car."

A Powell/Mason cable car that has just unloaded its North Beach passengers comes clanging up the hill, and we hop on, grabbing the coveted outside seats. We ride to Washington Street, and get off at the Cable Car Museum.

Inside the museum, giant wheels turn, moving the thick cables that run all the cars in the city. I can smell the oil they use to grease the cable, a smell that lingered on my jacket after my first visit to San Francisco, before I ever lived here. I give Alex a couple of quarters for the stereoscope, and he stands on a stool and watches as three-dimensional photographs of rubble from the 1906 earthquake flip by. In the gift shop, there are enough cable-car-shaped refrigerator magnets to decorate every refrigerator in a small town.

Back outside, we catch a Powell/Hyde cable car heading toward Union Square, earning extra credit for riding on both cable-car lines. We get off in front of the St. Francis Hotel, go into their lobby, and make our way to the outside elevators in the newer part of the building.

I understand that the outside elevators at the St. Francis Hotel are not technically public transportation. Nevertheless, I consider them the best free ride in San Francisco. We wait for an empty car, and then push the top five buttons. With ear-popping speed, we rush up past the enclosed lower floors and out into a 180-degree view of the city. From where I'm standing, my feet appear to be hanging over Union Square. We push the button for the lobby, and our elevator plummets down, heading straight for a stone wall below. My stomach flips as we hit the wall, and it slides up past the window, enclosing us back inside the lower floors.

Legs still shaky, we walk out of the St. Francis and down Powell Street to the underground Muni stop at Market Street. Here, we jump on an M outbound train, adding Underground Streetcar to our public transit tally.

We come up at Castro Street, beneath the enormous rainbow flag flapping in the wind. On Castro, we board the 24-Divisadero along with a man in an evening gown and his companion, who is wearing angel wings.

"Electric bus," I tell Alex. He nods, and then says in a loud voice, "Was that really Columbus' penis?"

I look to see if the two men have heard. But the man in the evening gown is too busy watching the image of his angel-winged friend in the little screen at the back of my husband's digital camera.

The Route

Get the J-Church (toward Embarcadero) at Church and 29th streets, exiting at Market. Take the F streetcar heading downtown to Pier 39. Walk along the wharf up to Bay & Taylor, and catch the 39-Coit to Coit Tower. After checking out the statue of Columbus, take the 39-Coit back down, getting off at Union and Columbus streets, across from Mario's Bohemian Cigar Store. Walk up Union Street (toward the Marina District) to Mason. Catch the Powell/Mason cable car to Washington Street and the Cable Car Museum. Outside the museum, catch either cable-car line to Union Square. Get off at the St. Francis Hotel, if you want to ride the elevator; otherwise, stay on to the end of the line at Market Street. At the underground station at Market and Powell, take either the K, L, or M line outbound to Castro Street. (If you have more time, you can catch the N and take it all the way out to the ocean to watch the sun set.) At Castro, catch the 24-Divisadero (heading toward Noe Valley), which will take you back to Church and 30th streets, where you began. -- J.C.N.

Janis Cooke Newman is the author of The Russian Word for Snow, published by St. Martin's Press. She welcomes your suggestions for Bay Area excursions at