Monday, July 20, 2009

Free Light Rail

My seven-year-old daughter and I took a ride on Seattle's new Central Link light rail line on Sunday, just to see what it would be like while rides were still free and the line was still heavily used. More of us had originally planned to go, but our family was deep in the midst of a game of Monopoly (the National Parks edition), and we couldn't tear free until time got short. We were also going to a Los Lobos concert at the Woodland Park Zoo later that night, so our options at that point got quite limited. We decided that my wife, one of our friends, and some of our kids would drive to the Zoo to wander around beforehand while I took as many of our kids as wanted to go on the bus to downtown, where we would climb aboard a light rail train and have an adventure.

My oldest son said no way. "Why doesn't someone else go?" he asked. My second son, the one who'd been with me a couple weekends ago when a fight was breaking break out right next to us asked if it would be any different from a bus ride. "Well, yes," I answered. "It's a train."

"Have I ridden a train before?" he asked.

"Yes, several times. Remember when we rode the South Lake Union Trolley? It's sort of like that, but bigger."

"Is it like the Santa Train?" my daughter asked.

"Is it like a bus?" my second son asked.

"Well, it's sort of like the Santa Train," I said
to my daughter. "But that one is old and this one is brand-new. And it's sort of like a bus," I told my son, "but it won't be like your last trip where those people said all those bad words and started pushing each other."

"I don't want to go," my son said.

"I'll go!" said my daughter, brightly. Bless her.

"More than one of you can go," I said to all my children, but the others were already leaving.

So my daughter and I walked down to the nearest bus stop at about 2:30 on a bright Sunday afternoon to wait for a King County Metro #358 bus, which was due about three minutes after we arrived at the stop. A couple other people were waiting, too, one of them smoking. The bus came on time and there were plenty of seats, so we climbed aboard and got two together near the front of the bus. We got off at 3rd & Pike and walked a block to go down to the Bus Tunnel, which will henceforth be referred to here by its new official name of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. No buses were operating in the tunnel over the weekend so as to make it as easy as possible for as many trains as possible to carry as many passengers as possible on their inaugural weekend.

There were a ton of people in line. In fact there were two lines, starting at the far end of the Westlake Center Station Mezzanine and threading something like 100 yards to the other end. After a few minutes in line at the bottom of the escalators from street level, our line moved in a big pulse and then stopped. A few minutes later it moved again and we passed a sign telling us that there would be a 30-minute wait from that point. A few minutes later and the other line moved in a big pulse past us. Various buskers performed between the two lines. One guy did card tricks. A woman juggled two Koosh™ balls and a rubber chicken, which she seemed to drop frequently. My daughter was a lot more interested in peering over the railing to see the top of the trains as they pulled into and out of the station below us. The line moved in another big pulse past a sign that said there would be a 20-minute wait from that point, and we waited some more. The other line moved in another big pulse. From where we were standing we could now see the top of the escalator to the lower level. And then our line started moving and we followed a few hundred people down the escalator to the next train, which was filling up rapidly. My daughter and I sat in the train's very last row, a few more people got on behind us, and we were underway.

A couple women in the row ahead of us seemed to tune in as I explained to my daughter all about how the tunnel worked, where I would stand in the various stations while waiting for my bus(es) to work, the differences in each station's design, plus some indication of what would be coming next. We emerged into sunlight after the International District station and stopped at the Stadium Station, where my daughter proudly pointed out SAFECO Field near the tracks and pronounced that she knew why it was called "Stadium Station". The women in front of us smiled. I told my daughter to watch out for buses in use on the busway next to the light rail line, and we saw several go past. Beyond the SODO/Lander station, which I think was the first one ready for light rail (perhaps not including the ones in the Downtown Transit Tunnel), we climbed the ramp that would take us over the light rail maintenance facility (which I named "pylon land" for her after all the green-and-black pylons there) and then plunged into the darkness of the Beacon Hill tunnel. I noticed that some playing cards were flashing on the walls and tried to show my daughter, but she didn't see them. They weren't done very well, actually, and seemed out of sync, usually showing part of one card and part of another in each frame. The Beacon Hill station seemed very cramped and dark -- Morlock habitat for sure. And then we came into the light for the elevated Mt. Baker station. Which seemed an incongruous name since Mt. Rainier was right ahead of us, looking glorious.

"Your brothers and I are going to that mountain next weekend for a big hike," I told her, pointing to it, "though we're not climbing to the top."

Then we descended to street level for several more stations. I'd already decided that we would go all the way to Tukwila and then come back to Columbia City for some barbeque takeout at a restaurant where my wife and I attended a party last year, which I would bring to the ZooTunes concert for our dinner. At that station I saw a friend of mine who works for Sound Transit and made a mental note to seek her out on the way back.

On the elevated section beyond the Rainier Valley, the train sped up. The ride had been very smooth up until then, if not particularly fast, but with the faster speed here the train had a noticeably rougher ride. I had to ask my daughter a couple times if she was scared, both because of the pronounced fishtailing motion and also because of our altitude, which in places seemed to approach 100 feet above the creekbed below, but she said she was fine.

We stopped before arriving at the final station and at first I wondered why, but then I saw the train ahead of us just pulling into that station. When it was nearly all the way in our train started moving again. And when we got out of the train and into the station, it was hard not to notice the enormous size of the place. Huge high glass ceilings, a giant molecular sculpture with messages on it that might be regarded as inspirational, or at least as promoting Tukwila's civic spirit. Sort of the polar opposite of the Beacon Hill station. And there were probably a thousand people waiting in line for the next train back. I asked my daughter if she would rather wait in line for the next train, or hop onto a bus for a quicker return. She opted for the bus. I checked with the driver of the first bus we came to, which was heading directly back to downtown, so that wouldn't work, but he motioned us to the next bus in line which was a "local". The driver of that bus told us that he could indeed drop us at the Columbia City station, so we hopped on board and a couple minutes later started up.

There were a total of four passengers on the bus.


Yes, I know, this was a tourist day, and people were there to check out the new light rail system and not some old buses (even though this was a cushy Sound Transit bus). My daughter was enchanted by the comfortable near-empty bus, however, since (as she put it) "We had it almost all to OurSELVES!".

The bus took a little time waiting for a couple left-turn signals before we got onto the freeway, but once that was out of the way it flew up I-5 to the MLK Way exit, and then flew up MLK Way itself. Driving this way with help from the signals tuned for fast light rail operation was very quick, but it gave us a view that we wouldn't have gotten from the trains themselves:
the view of the MLK corridor from the street is actually quite ugly; seven lanes of gray pavement and gravel cluttered with the soup of power poles and interconnecting cables, especially when no train is there to focus the attention and mitigate the blight. It looked kind of like a tidal flat of rebar.

We passed a train as we got onto MLK Way, then passed another by the time we'd arrived at the Columbia City where all four of the bus' passengers got off. We walked to the corner of Edmunds St and my daughter pointed to a bicycle cab and asked "Can we ride in it?!"

The bicycle cab had a sign on the back advertising rides for one dollar. How could I resist? So we climbed in and rode the two long blocks to Rainier Ave, and then one short block to Ferdinand Street, where we got off and paid (and tipped) the bicyclist. And there was the barbeque place: Jones Barbeque, looking just as I remembered. We ordered, waited for our order to come up while sipping a pink lemonade together (it tasted of Aspartame, which my daughter loved but I thought was awful), then refilled it with root beer on our way out and walked back to the station. We might've ridden in another bicycle cab, but none was waiting. Maybe no one wanted to lug back 300+ pounds of passengers on that two-block-long slight uphill, I don't know.

By this time it was after 5:15 PM, and the signage at the station described the last train as having departed 15 minutes earlier, but we'd just missed catching another train, and no one told us when we asked them that no more trains would come, so we sat down and waited. A volunteer told us that the friend I'd recognized here earlier had already departed for the day, but promised to pass on our greeting. Sure enough, another train came by a few minutes later and we climbed on -- I imagine that quite a few people that had ridden trains south from downtown earlier that day still had to get home, and it wouldn't have been very good publicity for Sound Transit to strand them in Tukwila with only buses (cushy though they might be) to take them home. This time we were in the middle section of the car, standing, with many more opportunities to chat with our fellow passengers. A pretty festive crowd, actually. One person even seemed to know the barbeque joint where we'd stopped, which is pretty remarkable considering that the bag didn't have any advertising mark on its side, and there's more than one barbeque joint in Columbia City. He even let me know that there's a location closer to downtown, near the SODO/Lander station.

Back in downtown Seattle, I had us get off at the University Street station rather than Westlake, figuring that we could avoid the Westlake crush as well as get a seat on our bus earlier than the Pike/Pine zoo. We were nearly 10 minutes early for our next bus, a King County Metro #5, and that bus was nearly 10 minutes late, so we had a good long wait. But there were plenty of available seats when it arrived, and we had no trouble taking it to the Zoo's west entrance. The ride took more than 20 minutes for a ride of about 5 miles, and the concert had been underway for half an hour (the band was playing "King Louie's Song") by the time we arrived. This bus/train/bus/bike/walk/train/bus option definitely wasn't the quickest way to get around today, and by the time we broke out the picnic at the concert it was barely warm (the containers were getting slumpy and saturated, too), but it was still some mighty fine barbeque.

And the concert was amazing ... I don't know how accustomed Los Lobos is to playing to 5000 blissed-out liberal-arts-educated white people in the sun, but they seemed to take it as their personal mission to get us up and dancing, and by the time the sun had set over most of the audience and they'd gone to a set of Mexican polka-flavored traditional salsa mixed with extended three-guitar electric funk-rock-folk goodness, everyone was on their tiptoes, with a lot of their kids on their shoulders, rocking out. I only wish that Dave Alvin had been there to get up with them. Their finish, when they'd invited about 50 audience members to come up and share the stage with them, dancing away, may have been the most amazing thing I've seen on a rock stage in my life.

Maybe not so very different from when I saw them 25 years ago in East L.A. with my roommate at a free concert in the park, I think to thank their hometown once their first album had been released even though with about a dozen outlandish-haired punks I think we were the only non-Hispanic white people in that audience.

That, and the couple Los Lobos shows I've seen in between, has been (and will always remain in my memory) a great time for all. Maybe excepting the 2 or 3 guys who tried to pick a fight with my roommate at that concert 25 years ago.

The sunset afterwards was stupefying, too. Heckuva day all around.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Friday morning I biked downtown from my home in North Seattle to the International District station. I waited for nearly 10 minutes for a bus there -- watching three trains go through the station while I waited, and then boarded my bus to Tukwila, a King County Metro #150. There were less than 20 people aboard at 9:00 AM. BY the time we emerged from the tunnel just a couple minutes later, a man in front of the bus started yelling at another passenger.

It wasn't just a random yell, either. He was furious and insistent: "WHAT DID SHE DO?!!"

He seemed to be directing his ire at a pair of women across the aisle. As far as I could tell, they'd done absolutely nothing to set him off. It seemed like just another random outburst by a crazy person at someone smaller and meeker on public transit.

After maybe 45 seconds of this loud, crazy stuff, the man got up and said something, quietly and apparently humbly, to the bus driver. He fumbled for change, though didn't get to the point of paying (this was a pay-as-you-leave bus). Then, quietly and humbly, he moved back to his seat. He seemed ordinary enough
, of fairly slight stature, and looked as though he was well cared-for. I would have guessed that he was in his 20s. Not someone I would've suspected of crazy talk like this.

After no more than a couple minutes, he started yelling again. Soon, every other word was an f-bomb. The woman sitting across from me in the middle of the bus got up and moved farther back. He seemed upset that he'd been made to apologize for his sins (more than) a few times. He didn't seem to feel like he'd been getting a fair shake in his life. And he seemed to think it was racial. And for some reason the presence of these two small, meek women, of a race different than his, seemed to be setting him off. We were approaching the last stop on 6th Ave South, before getting onto I-5 for the high-speed ride the rest of the way to Tukwila. The bus driver asked him "Are you OK?" and opened the door. The abusive passenger got up, said something quietly to the driver, and got off, glaring at the two women the whole way, his expression the very picture of injured pride.

As we exited I-5 in Tukwila, 10 miles later, I thanked the driver for her graceful handling of that situation. She smiled in a relieved sort of way and said that when the loud guy had gone up to speak with her quietly the first time, that he'd gone up to apologize for his behavior and to say that he wouldn't do it again, which of course didn't end up working out. But he'd also told her he would get off the bus if it happened again, which he'd ended up doing.

A difficult juxtaposition of behaviors; polite and humble one breath, and aggressive and hateful in the next. I have to assume the guy was mentally ill, of course. I sincerely hope the two women he was so angry with aren't too shaken by the experience. And I wish all three of them well.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Late Friday night on the 358

My wife's family has been trickling in and out of town for the last couple weeks. We all rented a couple houses in the San Juans for a week around the 4th of July weekend, and her out-of state family has been circulating among her in-state family's homes since then. Her sister wanted to go to a Mariners game and see SAFECO Field. I urged them to take the bus there, while I drove to work and then parked near the ballpark. Afterwards, I would take the bus with one of my kids while my wife, her sister, and our other kids drove home in my car.

The game was OK, not great (we lost), but it was still a good family trip. My daughter gets on the big screen while waving her poster of Ken Griffey Jr. while he's at bat, whereupon he hits a clutch single. Afterwards, we all walked back to my car, and then my nine-year-old son and I continued into downtown to catch a bus home. Since the buses don't come very often at that hour, we did quite a bit of walking along 3rd Avenue before we finally decided to stop and wait at 3rd & Union. It was 10:45 before the bus, a King County Metro #358, finally arrived. We took our seats in the back, as there weren't two anywhere close together farther forward.

First mistake.

By the way, my now-seven-year-old daughter, the one who'd ridden the bus to Hollywood with me a couple Christmases ago, wanted to ride home with me tonight, too, but I know what the 358 can be like late on a Friday or Saturday night, and I wouldn't let her.

One good choice made, at least.

In the very back of the bus a man and a woman are sitting together with a boom box turned up higher than it should be, but not egregiously so. She seems a little high. The stop after we get on, probably at 3rd & Pine, where I know from experience that things can get lively, especially at night, and not in a good way, a bunch more people get on, including a couple that moves to the back. The woman sits down across from my son and me while the man, who's wearing a blue shirt, negotiates with the man sitting in the back row, who's wearing a red shirt, to move a pile of his stuff so he can sit down, too, including the boom box, which gets turned up louder, but the pile of stuff is getting moved. The woman in the back starts sassing the newly arrived man. Talks about the "mafia" and calls him a *bitch*. This infuriates the man in the blue shirt. The n-word starts flying. So do f-bombs. Nobody is backing down. All the antagonists seem impaired by some substance or other, to a greater or lesser extent. The man in the blue shirt's female companion starts pushing him away. He lets himself be pushed but occasionally pushes back past her to reinforce his point, which is (paraphrasing) that he doesn't appreciate being called "bitch". Nebulous threats of violence are made. He allows himself to be pushed far enough forward that there is little immediate instigation for further conflict. The man in the red shirt gets up and starts hassling his female companion. Tells her (paraphrasing again) that she shouldn't have been saying what she did. The sound of what sounds like a loud slap comes, but I can't see past him to see what happened. She becomes quiet and stays that way. My son, who'd been sitting right next to the man with the blue shirt, has wide eyes but doesn't look spooked. I have one arm around him and the other wrapped around a pole with my hands clasped together in front of us. I don't want anyone crashing into my son accidentally -- at this point there've been a lot of angry words, but no indication that the situation is in immediate danger of escalation, and while I'm concerned that my son has to see this, it's also a fairly safe exposure for him to an uglier side of life than he usually sees, and he hasn't seemed frightened by it, at least not yet -- two reasons I hadn't already removed him from the situation.

The man in the red shirt apologizes for frightening my son. then calls out to the other man that he's taken care of the situation from his end, just like the man in the blue shirt's female companion has, so "everything is cool now". He emphasizes their brotherhood (and sisterhood). This seems to annoy the man in the blue shirt, but not enough to rouse him again. He and his companion are talking quietly. The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up louder. I'm noticing that so far the loud hip-hop music has seemed to aggravate the situation rather than soothe it. A couple minutes later the man in the blue shirt walk backs again, once again right in front of me and my son, to emphasize that he "is cool", too. The man in the red shirt notices that he isn't exactly apologizing, and points this out. The man in the blue shirt, a little more loudly, reiterates that he "is cool" (with the situation). The man in the red shirt points out that "the kids" (meaning my son) don't need to be seeing this kind of behavior. The man in the blue shirt turns to my son and tells him he may want to move away, then gets a little louder and more aggressive, complaining about being called "a bitch". The n-word starts flying again.

I move my son forward, where seats have started opening up as the bus continues on its route north -- we are out of downtown and near the Aurora Bridge by now. I make eye contact with the man in the blue shirt's female companion as we move past her. The situation in back seems to calm down a little, perhaps as the ramifications of our exit become clearer. The man in the blue shirt's female companion may have gone back to defuse the situation again, too, but at this point my visibility into the situation isn't so good and I can't tell. Another man, older, comes forward too, shaking his head to me: "he just can't leave it alone" and expressing concern for my son. I tell him my son is OK, just as I'd told the man in the red shirt a few minutes earlier.

The man in the red shirt's boom box gets turned up even louder. Soon the commotion in the back gets louder, too. It has now escalated to pushing, apparently. An exodus of people who seem genuinely frightened begins past us. At the bus stop at Aurora & 75th, just outside PCC, after everyone has offloaded, the bus driver opens the rear door and, over the intercom, tells unspecified persons to get off the bus. I figure the aggressors in this situation have exactly zero motivation to comply, and since we're within half a mile of our home, we might as well do so ourselves, before the situation gets even worse. Half a minute later, the bus proceeds past us with all of the aggressors still aboard. Not many people are left in the back of the bus, though the front is jammed. I'm hopeful that with fewer people in close proximity, that tensions will defuse. Especially if the damn boom box gets turned down.

My son and I have a conversation on the half-mile walk home. He tells me it was like being teleported to New York. I ask him why he thinks so and we then discuss the effect of poverty, powerlessness, alcohol, and drugs, and how they can sometimes reinforce each other to create a bad situation where none needs to exist. He seems fine, but I hope will come out of this wiser and better equipped to deal with tough situations in the future. Later, when my wife asks him about it and asks if he heard any bad language, he says nearly all of it was bad. He has no trouble falling asleep. Neither do I, for that matter, but I have troubled dreams.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Trains in the tunnel

I'm starting to see a train in the bus tunnel nearly every time I wait for a bus there. They aren't taking passengers yet, of course, and won't for a couple more weeks, but it's good to see them operating in close proximity with buses there. I've noticed that they are somewhat louder than buses in the tunnel, and also that some railings are probably going to be moved farther away from the platform's edge, as the trains pass very close, and I could see someone getting hurt if they lean or reach out even a little bit over the existing railings.

As I write this on the King County Metro #150, coming into downtown in the evening with a load of passengers headed to a Mariners home game, one of these trains just went by in the other direction. It makes a bell-ringing sound as it comes into and exits each station, but the ringing sound seems prerecorded -- no actual bell is being rung. It sounds a little cheesy even though it's probably more practical, and of course the sound will be good for the safety of nearby pedestrians who might not otherwise pay attention.