A BART Memory

Aboard BART, May 2012.

Back when San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains had fabric-covered uplholstery , the seating inspired a story: “On BART Trains, the Seats Are Taken (by Bacteria).” That piece was published in 2011 by The Bay Citizen, a short-lived regional news site that partnered with The New York Times, and it disclosed that the fabric seats were crawling with the nastiest-sounding of microbes. Soon thereafter, BART installed vinyl-covered upholstery— easier to clean, when you get around to cleaning it — on all trains.

Of course, the fabric seats, whose reported rampant filth I was blissfully unaware of and thus unconcerned about after 35 years riding the system, wasn’t why I took this shot back in 2012. Those origami flowers someone left behind were one of the nicest things I’ve ever seen on BART or any public transit. They also remind me of “Blade Runner.”

The Loneliness of the Pandemic Parking Lot

North Berkeley BART parking lot, April 5, 2021.

Up through the second week of March 2020, I was a regular BART commuter. That week, it turned out, I was traveling back and forth to downtown Oakland instead of to my office in San Francisco. Instead of covering the news, I was serving on a jury to hear a case involving alleged criminal threats. (Two neighbors had had a falling out over a cat that had gotten into a car; unpleasantness ensued, harsh words were exchanged, and the police were called; twelve of us were charged with determining whether laws had been broken; we decided none had. I also remember that the judge in the case admonished us to wash our hands every time the trial had a break.)

On March 16, with the trial done, nearly all Bay Area counties issued a stay-at-home order in response to the pandemic. Thus ended my routine commute and those of hundreds of thousands of other office types in the Bay Area who had the option of working at home. What happened to public transit at that point is a well-known story. Here in the Bay Area, ridership for most operators plunged to previously unimaginably low levels. Within a month, BART’s patronage was down 94 percent — I’ve kept my own daily spreadsheet — and the agency was forced to end late-evening service for more than a year.

Ridership has returned slowly and unevenly. BART’s recorded its highest weekday pandemic-era patronage a couple weeks before Christmas — 33 percent of its pre-pandemic level on December 12. The two downtown San Francisco stations that used to be the system’s busiest, Embarcadero and Montgomery, are still below 20 percent of their former traffic. North Berkeley, a couple of blocks from our house, is scraping along at just over one-fifth of its old passenger level.

The week the shelter-at-home started in 2019, I strolled over to North Berkeley to see how dramatic the change in the station — did it look completely deserted? — had been. It was pretty lonely looking. The parking lots, which on a typical weekday would be completely filled from 8 a.m. or so until the afternoon rush hour was well under way, were virtually empty. Periodically since then I’ve gone back to take pictures. At some point, I started taking shots looking down the same row of parking spots in the station’s southwest parking lot. I figured that over time I’d get a portrait of a return to BART normalcy as commuters filled the lots again. I’ve gotten a portrait, all right, but one that shows how far from the old state of things we still are.

With all that as preamble, here’s a series of shots of the lot, starting with one that I took exactly two years before the pandemic stay-at-home orders were issued. It is enough to make me wonder whether that old “normal,” which we had no reason to think would change so abruptly, will ever return. (Not to mention that this parking lot is likely to be developed as housing — dense, apartment-style housing — sometime in the next decade.)

North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 6 p.m., March 19, 2018.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot, 815 a.m., March 19, 2020.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 6 p.m., October 19, 2020.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot, 2:07 p.m., April 5, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 10:30 a.m., June 29, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 2:03 p.m., July 29, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 4:19 p.m., September 24, 2021.
North Berkeley BART: Southwest parking lot at 11:05 a.m., January 21, 2022.

Live at North Berkeley: Winter Evening Rush-Hour Guitar

Up above, that’s Dave Gardner — I’m not sure I’ve got his last name right — sitting on his amplifier and playing guitar as commuters emerged from the North Berkley BART station last night. I asked him how things were going. “Cold,” he said. Were people responding to his playing, “Some,” he said. Mostly, he let his playing speak for him, and I got out of the way so I wouldn’t deter any passers-by from dropping a buck in his guitar case. I liked the music. I think the two numbers he plays here are takes on “All of Me” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”     

In Transit: The Audio

Since I’ve been doing the radio thing — actually doing some writing and reporting for the air — I’ve gotten in the habit of recording stuff I hear out there in the world.

Since I got a really capable smartphone a couple years ago, I’ve come to realize what cool little field recorders they can be.

And since I ride public transit (mostly BART) a lot, I’ve long thought about the idiosyncrasies of some of the train operators as expressed in their announcements. The guy who repeats the name of the train and station about six times at every stop. The woman who lectures riders about what station they need to transfer at (I haven’t gotten her recorded yet). The super-happy and the overly dour operators and the ones you can never really understand.

Anyway, I just had a prompt to put together some audio I’ve been gathering over the last few months. It’s not a truly finished radio piece or anything, but it’s got some fun moments in it. Enjoy.

Live at 16th Street BART


Here’s Dennis Blackwell, a guy who was playing at the 16th and Mission BART station on Friday. It does not look like a nice spot. The crowd’s hustling by, you have a little pigeon dung to deal with, and station agents who take in the whole thing with a cold eye.

Blackwell says he’s been playing for spare change for about a year. “I’ve been messing around with a guitar for 20 years. I’m 60 now.” He said he “came into manhood” on the streets of Berkeley, that his target audience is “aging hippies like me,” that he worked most of his adult life as a cook, and is on a fixed income now.

He played a little U2 medley, talked to me for a couple minutes, then launched into “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” by Bob Dylan. I didn’t bring him any luck–I didn’t see a single person stop and give him anything while I was hanging around with my camera and recorder. Hope he did better afterward.

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Live at North Berkeley BART


Probably a feature of every big-city transit system: the itinerant musician who shows up to play at the stops along the way. The North Berkeley BART station a couple blocks from where we has a cast of folks who show up semi-regularly. There are three guitar players I can think of whom I’ve seen out there: a middle-aged guy who plays a nice classical guitar and always seems to land a decent pile of bills from the from passersby; a young guy who has sung himself hoarse thrashing out folk-rock tunes and looks ragged, like he’s barely hanging on; and the woman above.

Her name is Lily, and she plays slide steel guitar. I’m not a music critic, but I heard some nice touches in amid some scrambling to find the next logical note or chord. (Disclosure: I’m not sure I could find a single chord, logical or otherwise, on any kind of instrument.) I had my sound kit with me and recorded a little bit and talked to her briefly. The audio is below:

‘Good Morning, BART Riders’

I’m sitting at the forward end of the car, the last coach on the train, riding backward, on my way to work late Tuesday morning. The door from the next car opens, and a voice says, “Go on–get in there.” A girl of 12 or so and a woman maybe in her 30s come through the door and walk down the aisle, then stop about a third of the way through the car. The woman starts up, and I realize immediately I’ve heard her spiel before.

“Good morning, BART riders,” she declaims. “My daughter and I have been homeless for two and a half months because I am a victim of domestic violence. We’re getting put out of our shelter at 11 a.m. My daughter hasn’t even eaten today. I have a hearing today at 2 o’clock, and I’m trying to raise forty-three ninety-nine for food and a place to stay.”

That’s it. The number catches my attention: $43.99. It’s part of the hustle–a number that’s supposed to be more persuasive for being so oddly specific. I’ve closed my eyes because I don’t want to see what happens next, whether or not anyone forks over some money. When I encountered the mom and daughter a few months ago on BART, I thought the girl looked stricken, humiliated.

The train pulls into the West Oakland station, and the pair get off. Most people in the car are sitting alone with their thoughts about what they’ve just seen. Several people sitting near the door discuss it.

“She does that all of the time,” a man says. “Every day. It’s a good scam.”

“But her poor daughter has to go through that every day,” the woman across the aisle says. A second man: “Her baby should be in school.”

“They use them kids,” the first man says, “they use them kids as a lure. It’s a good scam. She’s probably got more money on her than you have in you bank account. Yeah, she’s got a stash on her somewhere. She’s probably over on the other side right now getting on another train.”

Today’s Red Herring: Oakland’s ‘Outside Agitators’

Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, along with other city officials and community leaders, wants to find someone to blame for the vandalism and looting that followed the verdict in the Johannes Mehserle trial last Thursday night. And they’ve found someone: outside agitators and faceless anarchists. Friday, the day after the mini-riot that followed an emotional but peaceful post-verdict gathering outside City Hall, Batts made a big show of breaking down the hometowns of the 78 people arrested. The police said 19 of those arrested were from Oakland, 28 were from the Bay Area outside Oakland, 19 were from elsewhere in California, and 12 were from out of state. “There’s a time that we have to say that people coming from outside that impact our city, our town, the place that we live, that we work, that we play in, needs to stop,” Batts said.

That’s a good line, especially for a guy who just moved here from Long Beach, but it’s meaningless. For one thing, it ignores how easy it is to turn the arithmetic around: You say three-quarters of those arrested came from out of town? I say three out of five of them came from our own backyard. You say there were dozens of anarchists armed for trouble? I say that of the 78 arrests you made, 66 were on misdemeanor charges, mostly failing to obey police orders to clear the area.

Batts and others also ignore that people communicate with all sorts of little devices, including cellphones with video cameras, and that lots of people from lots of places heard about and saw tape of Mehserle, a young white transit cop, shooting and killing a young, black, unarmed train passenger, Oscar Grant. The shooting, and law enforcement’s initial ham-handed response to it, enraged many–even people who live outside Oakland. News travels, and people travel, too. The killing of Oscar Grant was not an Oakland tragedy, though it was played out there.

The biggest flaw in trying to point the finger elsewhere for the troubles that have attended the Grant case is that it tries to whitewash the issue of who was actually out on the street smashing and grabbing. Check out pictures of some of the looting that broke out Thursday night--here’s a slideshow from the Oakland Tribune–or read the accounts of what happened out on Broadway. One business owner the crowd victimized told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I feel like they were familiar with the store. They knew what they wanted.”

Let’s disperse the mystery about why the hell-raising happened. It wasn’t a conspiracy, and it wasn’t a bunch of out-of-towners out to ruin Oakland. It was a crowd of thugs, opportunists, and recreational miscreants from a variety of ZIP codes and demographic profiles seizing their moment–again. Beyond the destruction and stealing, the hell of it is that this is what most of the media–meaning me and people in my line of work–end up focusing on. That, instead of the fact the thousands of people who feel wounded by the case and are doubtful of the quality of justice the system is handing down are trying to deal with the disappointment and anger in a contemplative and constructive way.

Mission Palms


Last night, at the northeast entrance to the 16th Street BART station. Beautiful, warm afternoon and evening. Lots of people on the street, and the scene at the plaza around the station had a little bit of crazy energy to it at the moment I showed up: some of the homeless and local SRO (single-room occupancy) hotel residents arguing, parents reprimanding kids, a mom yanking her kid by the arm as she took him into Burger King for dinner, people spilling out of a Muni bus that had just pulled up at the corner.

For several blocks, I had watched the light above change and looked for an opportunity to try and catch it. Not that it’s so important; but in a way these pictures are a little like postcards to myself, reminding me of a place, a moment. This was my last look at the street scene before heading down the escalator to the train.  

‘They Did Not Care’

One of the things that has preoccupied me this month, as I look back from its tail end:

Early the morning of New Year’s Day, a police officer with BART, the local rapid transit agency, shot and killed an unarmed man who was lying face down on a station platform. Even if you live clear across the country, you might have heard about the case. One element made it sensational: dozens of train passengers and other bystanders witnessed the shooting, and several, at least, were recording the scene on cellphones or other video devices. And one more factor added to outrage over what looks like an unprovoked shooting: the cop was white and the victim was black.

So, the past month has been marked by a slow and possibly botched investigation, the refusal of the police officer to answer any questions about what he did or why, multiple street protests that on one occasion turned into a riot in downtown Oakland, a murder charge, and today, finally, the first hint of an explanation for what the cop did.

The police officer, named Johannes Mehserle, was in court for a bail hearing yesterday. Beforehand, his lawyer filed a motion that described some of the events on the BART platform when the shooting took place. The story is simple: Mehserle and a fellow officer were having trouble subduing Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old they were trying to arrest for resisting arrest (one of my favorite circular-logic law-enforcement scenarios). Mehserle decided to use his recently issued Taser on Grant. He mistakenly pulled his semi-automatic pistol and fired a shot that killed Grant. Or maybe the story isn’t so simple: Mehserle reportedly told another officer that he shot Grant because he thought Grant was reaching for a gun.

The judge at the hearing granted bail of $3 million after noting that Mehserle’s story contained some serious inconsistencies. He’s not out of jail yet, and he has a prelminary hearing set in March. Sooner or later, he’ll be tried for some manner of homicide — either murder, as now alleged, or manslaughter.

The defense bail motion consists of nuggets picked out of about 700 pages of “discovery” — mostly interviews with witnesses and other police officers. It’s a document meant to show Mehserle in the most positive possible light so that the judge might see that justice might only be served by turning him loose on bail. My favorite tidbit in the motion’s Mehserle biography is this: “Mr. Mehserle enjoys music and has played the electric and acoustic guitars since age 14. He plays blues, jazz and rock and roll.”

The motion also tries to set the scene on the BART platform before the shooting. Other BART officers describe people screaming and swearing and advancing menacingly. Grant was cursing the cops and defying an order to sit until a BART officer struck him twice in the face. Here’s the situation as one officer recounted it:

Domenici stated she has been in other situations like Raiders games and has handled large amount of crowds. But the crowd on New Year’s Eve night was not a typical crowd. She stated everybody on the train was “out of control” and that it was “just too much.” Domenici stated the crowd did not care and was not concerned with authority figures. “They did not care what we represented as law enforcement figures. The people did not care that we were police officers.”

Domenici said, “You do what you’re trained to do and try to control the situation. But when people are not listening to you, knowing you are in full uniform and you are in authority, and they keep coming at you … I was afraid. I was afraid for my life and the officers’ lives. I kept thinking ‘I need to protect us.’ ‘I need to protect us.’ There’s all these people coming at us, not listening to us. I was afraid for my life and the other officers there. It just seemed like an eternity. We could not control the scene at all.”

I’m happy to say that except for the once of twice I’ve had an officer pull a gun and point it at me, I’ve had a mostly friendly, cooperative relationship with the police. I’ve talked to them as part of my work, I’ve been more than willing to do my part as a citizen and call them when I’ve seen a possible crime in progress, and I’ve never hesitated to call them when I need their help.

But I’m also acquainted with the fact not everyone has such a trusting feeling toward law enforcement. For lots of people–people who don’t live on a quiet little street in Berkeley, people who may be poor, who live in neighborhoods full of violent crime, who fit a certain suspect profile–law enforcement represents something else.

In fact, I can imagine there are those who see police officers, the representatives of law enforcement, as a class of people who believe their uniform confers authority and should command not only respect, but unquestioning obedience; whose default responses to resistance are threat and force; and who seem to believe that their own behavior ought to be tolerated as part of the price of keeping order.

[In case you’re curious: The Mehserle Bail Motion]