Transit tales

Take a ride with an SN&R reporter and photographer to experience an in-your-face slice of life that exists every day on Sacramento’s buses and trains

Photo By Larry Dalton

Think Sacramento is too busy cultivating its bland, white bread and American cheese kind of style? Then get on one of Regional Transit’s 254 buses or 76 light-rail cars and soak up a little local color. SN&R rode with medical doctors from Ghana, amateur social scientists with the Department of Corrections, panhandlers as cool as hip-hop stars, commuting poker players, and an elderly musicologist who travels the world by freighter. One woman had seen a thief climb on with a bed sheet full of computer parts; an RT staffer had seen XXX porn playing on a rider’s portable DVD player and had heard of one recent rider who, God forbid, lowered his drawers to poop in the aisle. Heart attacks, murders, other acts of random violence—riders passed along stories of all these things and more. Such variety is inevitable; 30-million riders sat down shoulder-to-shoulder on the region’s buses and light rail last year alone.

What you see depends on where you go and when and, most importantly, who goes with you. During the commute, riders keep their heads down and their headphones on. Miles of track are covered in affable silence, and tall, skinny local-government types (button-down shirts with brown corduroy blazers are in for fall!) easily outnumber the unhinged. But that’s not the case at all hours and through all neighborhoods. SN&R rode both the blue line, from Watt and I-80 south to Meadowview, and the gold line, from downtown to Folsom, many times over a three-week period, chatting up passengers, eavesdropping and taking pictures. We also traveled a few bus lines, though bus passengers seemed less volatile than light-rail riders and, therefore, less interesting. The best time to ride, for the pure thrill of it, was midday, when there were no commuters to dilute the mix of tough kids, homeless folks and everyone who manages to dodge a nine-to-five existence.

With a 418-square-mile service area, SN&R couldn’t see everything, but we toured RT lines to take a snapshot of Sacramento and those who take advantage of Sacramento’s expanding RT system. We found the ridership both more mundane and exotic than expected. Sociable by nature, many riders shared their funny, scary and tragic travel stories and, at the same time, revealed what it’s like to speed through one of the most diverse cities in America. Read on to meet just a few of them.

Men on the make
Light rail attracts commuting women who chat about apple-cake recipes, read the car ads and apply layer after layer of eye shadow on their way downtown. It also attracts the guys their mamas warned them about.

Wayne Carson, a 50-year-old white man, sat in the back of the train with a hand on his bike watching an average-looking blonde woman. He hadn’t hung his bike in the rack; no one ever does. As the train picked up more commuters, Carson moved down the center aisle, sat across from the blonde and leaned in. The woman’s smile faltered as she asked him to repeat himself. Though Carson’s voice was inaudible from a few seats away, hers’ was loud and clear: “I’m not interested in that,” she said. Right away, she was up and off the train with the rest of the K Street commuters.

Carson limped a little as he headed back to his bike, opening his hands to the prim black woman who looked down her nose at him. “When I see a pretty woman,” he told her with a sincere smile, “I have to try.”

“I’m a gentleman,” Carson told SN&R, “and actually, believe it or not, I’m kind of shy. But she was pretty. I asked if she was single. She said she was, but she doesn’t date.”

If he sees her a couple more times, he thinks he’ll change her mind.

Carson had just returned to California to live with his father after spending some time in Florida. He stopped working in January after having half his leg amputated.

“Right now, I’m a one-legged guy,” he said jovially, pointing at his sneaker. His jeans completely hid the prosthetic leg that he easily slid off revealing his gauze-wrapped stump. “I was a millwright.” (He repaired industrial machinery.)

Photo By Larry Dalton

To explain what happened, he gently pinched this reporter’s toes. “I had a blood clot right there,” he said. He pulled his finger up one side of her booted shin and down the other to explain just where the blood had stopped flowing. Carson insisted he didn’t make a habit of picking up women on the train, but he already was trying to pick up another one.

Light rail may be a commuter train, but a recently completed RT survey found that only 51 percent of surveyed riders were on their way to work. Twenty percent were riding to school, 11 percent to shop and 7 percent to social services. Carson was on his way to a medical appointment. Others wouldn’t tell SN&R where they were going, no matter how the question was phrased.

Adults politely ignored the fact that they were sitting hip-to-hip in close quarters, but the young people were even bolder than Carson. They generated an electricity that sometimes crackled up and down the train cars.

One late afternoon, a young woman in fur boots climbed on with a sweet smile, tight jeans, a cell phone and a hunger for attention. “What did I say?” the boys exclaimed to one another under their breath. Whenever the girl shrieked happily at the person on the other end, she snapped the whole train back to attention, giving the boys another chance to raise their eyebrows as they looked her over. This was a commonly employed tactic. “Noise just for the sake of noise,” whispered an older rider as he looked out the window.

And riding through Del Paso Heights, young men stood at the back of the train calling to the young women on the landings below. “Hel-lo,” sighed one, leaning way forward to stare at a girl’s ass as she walked away. A man twice her age on the landing turned halfway around to do the same thing. When the men’s eyes met, they pointed at each other and laughed out loud.

A moment later, a gorgeous young black man sauntered down the aisle cooing through his cell phone: “A lot of girls wish they were treated like I treat you. If I treat you like that all the time. … No, I’m not saying it’s bad …”

He then took a moment to congratulate a sad-eyed, worn-out white man wrapped in a blanket and drinking from a bottle in a paper bag. “Start drinking early in the morning, huh? That’s the spirit,” he said, delighted, the girl on the phone forgotten.

Outside, homeless folks were emerging from the banks of the river. From high up, train passengers could see a truck hidden in the dense foliage, its bed full of trash.

The man with the bag grumbled that it was noon already, but it wasn’t even 11:30 a.m.

No security
Inside, the light was bright white. Outside, there was no light at all as the 5 a.m. train headed east to Folsom. Only a few early birds climbed on, and one seemed to go straight to sleep. Another, Erneest Kufuor, a medical doctor schooled in England and Ghana, said he hopes to practice medicine in the United States. In the meantime, he works at the Franchise Tax Board. Work starts there at 6 a.m., said Cui Wu, another tax-board employee. In her beautifully accented English, Wu recounted the story of being on the train when a young mother went into labor for the first time. Emergency personnel arrived at the last minute and hurried her off at Power Inn Road. “The people so nice,” Wu said, whose voice grew dreamy with awe. Yes it was scary, she agreed, “but exciting.” Wu never saw the young woman again or heard what happened to her. That’s the nature of train drama.

Jodette Horn, an elegant black woman bundled up and wearing a bright-orange scarf over her carefully coifed hair, sat across from Wu. She was heading to her job at a mortgage brokerage. “I’m needed at work,” she said.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Horn was one of the few people SN&R spoke with who found light rail’s $85 monthly pass affordable, but that’s because her commute was a long one. Gas would have cost a fortune, too. Asked if she felt safe riding light rail, she said she just tried to keep her head down.

“I know my determination is work, so it doesn’t matter what’s out there. It’s still going to be out there anyway. I still have to go to work, so I just pray nothing happens.”

On a late morning train in Del Paso Heights, Nancylee Townsend gave an example of what could happen. The tall middle-aged woman with curly blonde hair is no shrinking violet. She commutes to the Department of Corrections every day by light rail, “but I hate it,” she told SN&R. One morning, a couple months ago, a chatty passenger sat down beside her and started talking nonstop. He then begged for a kiss, and after Townsend told him no, he thrust his hand into her lap. “I froze,” Townsend said. “I got to work and fell to pieces.”

Though Townsend said she easily could identify her assailant and the police officers said they’d review the videotapes, according to Townsend, she hasn’t heard a word about the incident since.

“Never will I just sit there again,” she said, frowning at the whole interior of the train.

Townsend had other stories. Once, at the edge of an asthma attack, she had to make the driver force a man to put out his cigarette. She watched another man convulse for more than three stops before emergency personnel showed up to help, she said.

While she speaks, there’s no visible security presence on the train. In fact, there rarely is during the day. In Del Paso Heights, trains glide along almost empty, abandoned to the riders getting increasingly blitzed or staring down strangers, looking haunted, silently pent-up and furious. Though 54 percent of all riders are female, that never seems to be the case around Loaves & Fishes and the homeless camps.

Along 12th Street, Steve Jenkins, a skinny white man with dark, magnetic eyes and confused memories, said he worried about guards getting on the train, either Roman or Romanian, and remembers when a man with a gun once threatened to blow everyone away and send them riding into the sky on a ghost train.

A man glared at Jenkins from across the train, mumbling. “Don’t listen to him,” said Jenkins, fitting this aside seamlessly into his monologue about guards and ghost trains.

As SN&R asked riders for their memories, over and over again people found polite euphemisms for the “less than savory characters,” or “the drunks acting belligerent” who rode with them. But SN&R never saw anyone threaten a stranger or pick a fight.

Spokeswoman Jo Noble said RT doesn’t track crime data for its 418-square-mile system. Though unarmed guards sometimes man stations or patrol trains, law enforcement is handled by a combination of police and sheriff personnel who don’t report crimes as RT-specific, so there’s no way to know how many molestations, robberies or fights occur along the routes. As surprising as it may sound, Audrey Lee, spokesperson for the Sacramento Police Department, confirmed that no RT data was available.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Anonymously, security guards and drivers listening to the radios say they hear about fights regularly. One confided to SN&R that he didn’t think RT was doing enough to protect either riders or security guards. Security patrols that are supposed to respond to emergencies are sometimes as much as an hour away. One guard had seen stabbing victims wait so long for security that they just got back on the train and went home, he said—as did the stabbers!

The mix of riders always was fluctuating, and some drivers said that while intimidation was much more common than actual criminal activity, the potential was obviously there. On an afternoon train near the R Street RT office, SN&R noticed four high-school-aged boys come jogging to the back of the car, excited and giggly, smiling and flashing their gold teeth.

“We made it,” one said. “That was a terrifying moment.”

“Look, he’s going to go report us,” said another, looking up through the train cars at some invisible authority figure. Riders smiled at them indulgently, perhaps assuming, like SN&R did, that the four were just enjoying a free ride.

“We’ll bash him like we did that other little …” said one of the boys before another boy hushed him.

As soon as the train slowed to a stop, the four glided off together, their faces hardened.

Lifeline for recovery
Julie Debbs, a 48-year-old woman with lots of auburn hair, uses light rail the way an evangelist uses a tent revival. “I have a year clean and sober,” she said. “My first year clean and sober ever!”

Debbs lost 30 years to prostitution and heroin addiction, she said. After her husband died, she realized she didn’t want to die a “dope fiend.” She has a car but won’t drive it because she doesn’t have a license; 62 percent of RT riders lack one or the other.

If you commute in from Elk Grove, if you want to catch a bus to certain parts of South Sac or if you want to come back from Arco Arena late at night, RT can’t help you, but lots of people use it exclusively—43 percent ride six to seven days a week.

Debbs takes the light rail about three times a day, looking for women to take under her wing as part of her own recovery process.

“I see people I know, we go have an adventure,” said Debbs. “We go have a coffee together. … I spread the message that there is a solution.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

On the same train a couple seats away, a younger woman with her hair pulled neatly back had the same eager sociability. With a coffee cup in hand and the scrubbed look of a commuter, Shiann Scott piped up and said that she too was new to recovery.

“I was really tired of going to jail,” she said. “Something happens, and you change your friends. Sometimes we end up stuck for a minute. I ended up stuck for five and a half, six years.”

Debbs smiled at her.

“I had chaos,” Scott said, standing up. “Now, there’s something to look forward to.”

“You look great,” Debbs said, and the younger woman looked at her carefully, thanked her, and stepped down out of the train and toward her new job.

Fluid families
The blue line rolled south past Sacramento City College, picking up and letting off students. As they jumped off and ran for buses, connections barely made and some missed altogether, an operator shooed everyone up into another car, which was crowded with people facing into the aisles and rocking together as the train reversed and headed back toward downtown.

A suave group of young men gently teased those who looked shocked at the joint one of them held between his thumb and forefinger. He dipped it into his palm and pulled the luxurious neck of his baby-blue chenille sweater up over his nose when he realized he was riding with an SN&R reporter.

He wouldn’t answer a single question, not where he was going or where he’d been. Fellow riders listened in, waiting to see if he’d speak. In such close quarters, all conversation was public. When asked where he’d spent the night, everybody around him cracked up, and his eyes, over the neck of his sweater, slid away slyly.

Baby Blue’s partner, a man in a black-velvet blazer and stylish glasses, said he’d answer anything. How often does he ride the light rail? “Every motherfucking day.” Where does he go? He’s been in poverty the last couple months, he said. He rides up to Power Inn Road “to partake in the panhandling opportunities,” and, he said while hopping down into the stairwell after his friend, “to meet with the hos.”

Dressed head to toe in gray suede, the last of the young men sat across from a trio of silent teen-aged girls, who’d coated their pale faces in glittery make up. He wasn’t in the mood to talk, and neither were the girls.

“I’m afraid,” whispered one. “I don’t talk to anybody.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

At the next stop, a sweet round-faced black woman in a white knit cap sat down next to the man in suede, who immediately smiled like a boy.

Adrian Fitch said she’s been riding since she was 16 years old, and now she’s 42. How does she know the young man she’s pinned against the window? Fitch rolled her eyes. “He’s my nephew,” she said.

Fitch was one of those riders who’d amassed a million stories.

The weirdest thing she’d ever seen was the stripper: a man who sat down and started complaining about how his feet smelled as he started taking off his shoes. Then he started taking his clothes off. By the time the train stopped and security got on, he was totally naked and off running, Fitch said.

Then, she said, there are the old guys who get on in Alkali Flat. One brings his tape recorder onto the train, sets it up at one end and serenades the other riders with old rhythm and blues. “It’s nice,” she said.

But the worst thing she’s ever seen was a murder at the College Green station. A man with one arm, she said, stabbed a homeless man after stealing his CD player. “There were 14 people at the stop,” said Fitch. “I went to court for the guy last summer.” She said the murderer is now in jail.

Fitch also has seen a lot of generosity, including bus drivers who’d take women right up to the doors of the shelters for their protection. While Fitch talked, her nephew grinned like a kid, relaxing more by the minute. Having family on board had turned him into a sweetheart. Only when he got off did he pick up the language and game face of the other men.

Near the back of the train, Ramona Mack sat quietly. To her, light rail was just an easy, inexpensive way to get to and from school and her job at Taco Bell, though RT had raised the rates recently, she said.

Mack said that no one ever bothers her and she never gets scared riding through town. She’s almost never alone, she said. Members of her family ride with her all the time. “I usually see two or three.”

Lots of RT riders are subsidized, including high-schoolers like Mack, college students, the elderly, the disabled, and those reliant on social services—33 percent by employers and schools alone. But a lot of poor people have to pay the full fare. Mack said that after the fares went up, her aunt, one of the people who sometimes rode with her, could no longer afford to rely on bus and rail.

Rolling along
Ella R. McAlister has been left behind, but not very often, and she’s been riding RT since 1992. McAlister uses a wheelchair and thinks the system is great, in spite of the fact that buses can only make room for two wheelchairs at a time. If it’s raining, or if the bus only comes once an hour, the person in the third chair is screwed.

Photo By Larry Dalton

McAlister understands, and she’s even had drivers call the next bus and tell it to save her a space.

The only people left behind while SN&R was aboard were able bodied, but there were three of them, including a mother and daughter on their way to a doctor’s appointment. Because another bus on a different route was in the way, the driver stopped farther back, and then cruised right by Gina Foxworth and her daughter, Kira. They ran, pink backpack flying, for more than a block, but they couldn’t catch it.

Other bus drivers went out of their way to be considerate. The driver of the No. 2 opened her doors at an intersection, even though it wasn’t her regular stop, to keep riders from crossing against the light to make it to the bus stop on time.

Closer to downtown, the same driver lowered the bus and unfurled its lift for a young man in a wheelchair. People swung their feet off the floor to get their toes out of the way.

“Does this bus go to 25th and R?” the young man asked the driver.

“Of course not!” she said in mock aggravation before wheeling him into place and securing his chair to the three floor restraints, advising him the whole time about his best possible route. She wouldn’t move until they’d figured it out together. As she finished locking him in, she called him “sweetie,” and then apologized.

“I’ve got kids,” she said. “I just talk like that.”

Indulgent and sociable, this driver even opened her doors for someone on the sidewalk who just wanted to ask her what time it was.

Though SN&R never saw anyone be rude to a disabled person, it happens, according to those who ride regularly.

Henry Gibson uses a self-propelled wheelchair but has difficulty communicating. He and his caregiver stood at an L Street stop waiting for a bus home to West Sacramento.

“I’ve been with him for three months and I’ve just filed my second formal complaint,” said caregiver Victoria Merrell. She takes Gibson out for field trips to the Crocker Art Museum, the malls and to CSUS for lunch. They often have to take two buses both directions, meaning the chair has to be lifted and lowered four times per outing.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“One bus driver took off twice before I had him restrained,” said Merrell. “This wheelchair weighs approximately 400 pounds, and he’s another 100 pounds. If that’s not restrained and he had to stop fast, that would be 500 pounds going through a window.”

Merrell said that most of the drivers were very nice, especially to passengers they recognized, “but I think they need to be a little more familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she added.

According to RT’s survey, riders’ No. 1 complaint is that buses and trains don’t run on time (20 percent of all complaints). The second-most-common complaint is about troublesome behavior by other riders (17 percent); only 9 percent were related to the friendliness and courteousness of drivers.

School days
The No. 51 bus down Stockton Boulevard is wild, and the No. 81 down Florin Road is crowded. The number No. 11 is always late—that’s the consensus of veteran riders. But at least the driver doesn’t pull over and run into Jack in the Box for some lunch, as one SN&R staffer once had observed.

The No. 11 goes from downtown up through Natomas, past Arco Arena and then back into downtown. At first, the bus was full of retired ladies talking about their morning walks and volunteer opportunities at the Capitol. But halfway through Natomas, from out of nowhere the adult voices were completely drowned out by dozens of high-school students who seemed to rush the bus and turn it into a high-school cafeteria within minutes.

The further north we got, the more high-schoolers piled on, taking up as much space with their backpacks as with their bodies. An odd animal smell accompanied them, permeating the entire bus, and left when they left.

In the middle of the bus, the smallest students yelled, “I love porn!” at the tops of their voices and repeated rap lyrics about other people’s mothers. Near the front, girls took photos of each other, laughing at nothing until they stomped the floor in hysteria. Boys imitated them, cawing like peacocks, but nothing could be heard from more than a seat away.

Students shifted forward and back, like water in a boiling pot. Between their baggy pant legs, one could see kids sitting on the floor, propped against the seat backs. The bus driver was invisible behind bodies that swayed and jostled in the aisles, but he never said a word. Who was popular, who was not, who was athletic, who was shy—it was all visible on their faces. Girls too far from their friends wilted. Boys too cool for the bus closed their eyes and held their faces perfectly still. The popular girls moved from seat to seat, their sing-song voices turned on student after student, their bellies bare above their low-slung jeans.

The bus looped through Natomas and headed south, dropping off the final knot of neighborhood kids before crossing into the central city. In their wake, the floor was littered with slices of salami and an unwrapped sucker. The remaining adults picked their heads up again, like plants springing back after being stepped on. At the very front of the bus, only two kids were left, intellectuals lost in the world of their books, two boys with finely honed survival skills.

Moving on
It’s not quite dawn and a guy in his 20s with long eyelashes and a ball cap was saying that he was scared to death the first time he rode light rail.

How old was he then?

“That was three days ago,” he said.

Jon Rutherford was fresh out of jail and on his way to drug-counseling classes at Kaiser. A sliver of new moon was still visible in the pre-dawn sky.

“I could go anywhere—anywhere on the buses, anywhere on light rail. … A lot of people who ride light-rail trains or buses deal drugs.” Rutherford said he found the freedom and temptation frightening, and he thought it was healthy to admit it.

Chanel Smith, who said she used her boyfriend’s last name, sat with her feet up against Rutherford’s seat. She was tall, powerful looking, but still fresh-faced and freckled. She had just met Rutherford two days before, but the pair were like old friends. They’d likely spent hours together. Smith’s commute totaled three hours a day; Rutherford’s two.

Smith was a security guard professionally and is going to school for further training. Her jobs, classes and home were stretched out over the Sacramento region. Rutherford was once a security guard, too, and had learned firsthand that some security personnel were closer to criminals than to people they were supposed to protect, he said. Both had seen crazy things on light rail. Smith was on the train two years ago when a woman jumped in front of it. “She was cut in half.”

Laughing together and keeping each other company at dawn, both of their voices took on a flinty urban edge as they relaxed. He recently was released from jail, and she was fresh out of foster care, she said, and they were both working and traveling long hours toward a future they’d be proud of.

They were many stops away from their final destination. Outside, the sky was still navy blue as the sun came up, shining into the train car heading over the river and through a small patch of rural, undeveloped land. While the train sped along, and Smith and Rutherford rolled out tales of their short, dramatic lives, jack rabbits and horses stood stationary in the unkept weeds right outside the windows. Soon, the train had left them far behind.