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The Parrots Of Telegraph Hill

Unattended birds usually don't ride the bus, but they got on the 33 that day.

Muni's 33 Stanyan line gets you a better look, faster, at The City than all the tour lines put together. You get on in the Richmond District behind the California Pacific Medical Center, not far from Washington and Cherry where the Zodiac killer shot a man I happened to know, a fellow cab driver named Paul Stine, a graduate student at San Francisco State.

Stine was 29 when the maniac cashed him in.

The year was 1969, and The City was a violently unhappy place. Bad vibes, as the hippies put it, had driven thousands of them north, back to the land at Anderson Valley, Albion, Southern Humboldt.

That night in October of 1969, Zodiac had leaned over from the rear seat of Stine's cab, and shot Stine in the back of the head. By his own account, which I'm not sure I believe, Zodiac then strolled off north into the Presidio. A few days later he mailed a piece of Stine's bloody shirt to the Chronicle to prove he'd done it, also warning the Bay Area that his next target would be a school bus “as the kiddies come tumbling off.” Stine's murder had been witnessed by young people looking out a window of a handsome home at Washington and Cherry. They phoned in the perp as a white man, but the dispatcher inexplicably described the shooter as “a black male.” The cops soon stopped a white male to ask him if he'd seen the black male. The white male said no. It is now assumed the cops had stopped Zodiac.

These days, The City is a very rich place, and has about as much per capita crime as Mendocino County. But it still has a lot of crazy people roaming the streets and riding the buses. On my way to catch the 33 the other day, and thinking about Zodiac  and Paul Stine as I always do in that vicinity, a crazy guy on California Street — short, pudgy, longish hair and dressed in a sweatshirt, cargo pants, running shoes and carrying a squeegee — approached me from behind. He was a tweener, by which I mean he could have been the nut he turned out to be or merely a slob, but it's a rule of urban life that only the nuts accost people they don't know. In Mendocino County we're on a first name basis with all our neighbors.

“Do you know what Obama just did?” he asked me in an aggrieved voice.

I looked at him, which was all it took to get him to continue. “He just let 11 million bastards from Mexico into the country.”

Which country? I asked, breaking my own rule about engaging street-wacks. After all, I engage the crazy people I do know every day in my work as a newspaper editor; I get my daily quota of wacks without searching them out.

“Our country, of course,” the squeegee guy continued. “Goddam, don't you pay attention? You better pay attention, buddy, because they're taking over.”

I said that I thought all the bastards already lived here, not only lived here but owned the place shore-to-shore, so what difference would a few more make?

“It's people like you who are destroying this country,” the street guy yelled. “Look in the mirror, you prick. It's you!”

I walked on, hooked a left on Arguello, right on Sacramento and there I was at the 33's Pac Heights terminus.

If you had only an hour to show visitors The City you could do it for two bucks on the 33, for 75 cents if your tourists are geezers. The 33 skirts the park along Fulton, then Stanyan, a few blocks along Haight Street, up and over Twin Peaks with spectacular views of the city as the bus makes that exciting turn onto upper Market before plunging into the Castro and on down into the Mission, finally coming to rest at 25th and Potrero after a crucial stop at combat-qualified SF General Hospital, the place you want to be if you've been shot.

The passengers, as they climb on and off the 33, reflect The City's demographic. At the Richmond end of the line you get mostly Asians and old white people who get on and off at Geary, prosperous-looking people climb on and off in the upper Haight to upper Market, eccentrics of all descriptions get on and off at 18th and Castro, while Hispanics, who do The City's heavy lifting, ride from the Mission to Pacific Heights where they do the work the gentry needs doing. Then, at the end of long no paid overtime days, back to the Mission. And of course the 33, like all the Muni lines, sees lots of trendo-groove-o’s, the fashionably attired and tattooed young.

On a recent Friday, traveling from the Mission to the Richmond, I recognized the black woman driving the bus; I see her all the time. And I recognized two of the passengers, an odd Asian woman wearing heavy make-up who's always asleep until Arguello and Clement where she miraculously awakens and leaves the bus, and a wacky old coot, maybe my age, who wears pastel leisure suits and a pith helmet with scraggly bird feathers stuck into it at random angles. He sits in the back and occasionally shouts out versions of the same warnings. “Look out! They're coming up from behind!”

That day, the bus was tense. Some sag punks got on through the back door at Harrison and sat down by the crazy old guy, but didn't even look at him when he shouted, “Look out from behind!”

At 18th and Castro the parrots boarded the bus, six raucous young men dressed as women. One gal, the loudest, was wearing a big blonde wig and lipstick, and was throwing out what are now called 'f-bombs.' The parrots all sat down in the seats reserved, in theory, for the crippled and the elderly.

The driver immediately asked the guy in the wig to please watch his language. He ignored her and went on with a long, high decibel, f-bomb replete story about lost luggage at SFO, which the other parrots shrieked at like it was the funniest thing they'd ever heard.

“Please watch your language,” the driver said louder this time and was again ignored. “You're not in your living room,” she added, with enough force to make even these loons understand she was getting seriously angry with them, and this lady is quite formidable, as are all the women who drive for Muni. They deal with the gamut of America's social-psycho-emotional collapse every day and they're good at it.

Just then the old boy in the pith helmet yelled, “Look out! They're coming up from behind!” The gay boys looked back at him as if they were now the victims of an homophobic insult, as a nicely dressed woman of middle years halfway back suddenly announced, “I am Cherman!”

That declaration seemed to shut everyone up, and we all waited for her to flesh out its relevance.

“In Chermany we behave on the bus!” she said, obviously offended by the disorder she'd seen on the 33's journey up and over the hill.

“In Chermany,” she continued, “the driver is obeyed!”

The bus was quiet all the way to Geary where the parrots, doubly chastened by the driver and the Cherman, got off.

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