Civilization is an intricate, finely tuned, finicky machine. Certain of its minor components can break and be left unrepaired indefinitely without consequence. Other components, even ones that may look superfluous or redundant or frivolous at first glance to those who aren’t familiar with their roles in the machine, immediately cause serious consequences when they fail.
The bus I had planned to take from Arcata to Crescent City was canceled last night. Another passenger approached me half an hour after the scheduled departure and told me that all service had been canceled for the rest of the night; that is, two of the day’s three scheduled runs north from Arcata. This passenger had a drifter vibe about him and was passing along secondhand information that he’d been given at the social services shop across the parking lot from the transit center, so I decided to trust but verify. Between two versions of Google Maps, the CalTrans highway information automated phone hotline, the CalTrans highway information website, the CHP website, the CHP Twitter feed, the Lost Coast Outpost, and the KURY-FM, JPR, and KHSU websites, my dad and I were unable to find any evidence that 101 had been closed. The Redwood Coast Transit website said nothing about service having been canceled.
I couldn’t think of any other reason why bus service would have been canceled. Interstate 80 had been shut down through a wide swath of the Sierra earlier that day, Amtrak had canceled the California Zephyr between Sacramento and Reno on account of the same storm, there had been flooding all day in low-lying areas all over Northern California, and Highway 299 had been closed for weeks at the scene of a major landslide in the Trinity River gorge between Weaverville and Willow Creek. Years earlier, I had made my first trip ever on the Coast Starlight, out of Redding, because a similar landslide had buried the full width of 101 just north of the north exit for Redway, cutting SoHum off from the rest of the county for anyone prudent enough not to dick around with thirty-mile detours on shitty back roads.
After half an hour of near-constant inquiries with no evidence of a closure, I called the RCT office and asked for confirmation that service had been canceled for the night due to a road closure. No, the dispatcher told me, it had been canceled due to high winds. As in, like duh, why else? Uh, maybe because roads around here get shut down by landslides all the time? The North Coast civic poobahs who go on KURY to pester listeners to call their elected officials for immediate bypass funding make it sound like the Last Chance Grade won’t last the winter; with the once-in-a-decade storm line that had been hitting California, I wasn’t about to assume it had survived the night.
It sounded like the weather in Crescent City last night was pretty rough, so it can’t have been good for driving, but I also get the feeling that maybe RCT is run by a bed of shrinking violets. Most commercial drivers stay on the road as long as there are marginally passable routes where they’re going. This helps explain why commercial drivers have high rates of occupational injury and death. It also helps explain why supply lines are so reliable.
My stance here isn’t oh, bullshit, stop being such a pussy. Since last month I’ve known more personally than ever how dangerous Del Norte County’s highways can be. I don’t want anyone getting maimed or killed in a preventable crash. But there’s a very real trade-off here. Shutting down transit service during inclement weather can leave passengers stranded in the same inclement weather. Rural transit systems serve exceptionally indigent passenger bases. The poor make up more than their fair share of the ridership on most local transit systems, but in larger cities they share the systems with affluent passengers who have other options. Rural and small-town systems like Redwood Coast Transit have almost exclusively indigent passenger bases, augmented by a few non-indigent elderly and on special occasions by what we might call, for lack of a more politically correct term that does the job, normal people who wonder why the hell they’re on the bus.
During a storm like last night’s, a cancellation could have stranded passengers at a bus stop in Klamath or Orick all night in the driving rain. There are more ways for a poorie’s housing situation to go wrong than right; damned if I’m not personally familiar with this and how much it sucks. The drifterish guy who told me about the service cancellation was stuck in Arcata for the night without a place to stay, since he didn’t feel comfortable with the shelter where he’d been offered a bed. To my dismay, he asked to split a hotel room with me and do what he could to cover the cost. I had to decline. Whether he meant to or not, this dude was prying into my finances, and I have to stop that shit cold. Loose talk on the streets indicating that I can afford a room for the night could get me mugged. Besides, I had barely met this dude. I had my passports, a copy of my birth certificate, bank cards, and a number of financial statements with me, any of which, for all I knew, this guy could have examined or stolen while I was sleeping, and I had no way to be sure that he wouldn’t be a dipshit and light a cigarette in a nonsmoking room on my dime.
RCT left both of us in the jungle. I had the resources to navigate my way out and the other guy didn’t. As much as I felt for him and his plight, I couldn’t help him out. I didn’t feel that I was in a position to do so safely. He seemed to have someone willing to take him in in Crescent City that night, but he had no way to get there before the next afternoon. It would have cost me over two hundred dollars to get both of us up there by cab that night, and I didn’t feel that I could justify that expense when I’m so close to the wire myself so often. A bus system that was something between cautious and chickenshit in marginal weather threw us into a Darwinian nightmare far beyond my capacity to fix.
This shit always seems to fall on me specifically. My friends and relatives don’t travel on America’s worst common carriers. They don’t end up face to face with vulnerable, desperate, hapless bums all the time. Some of them seem to avoid public transit in order to keep the likes of these losers out of their lives, even as nothing more than passing scenery. I’m sure that the most bourgeois supremacist of them are of a mind to tell me to drive or take Uber like a good normie just so that I’m not surrounded by this pulsating mass of human refuse. Fuck that. Trolleys have to be totally overwhelmed by legit shady motherfuckers to stop being bitchin’ rides.
RCT is a different story. I never meant to use it. It always looked like a uselessly desultory system with unjustifiably high intercounty fares. Then I ended up with business to do in Crescent City, no car of my own because of Crescent City (OK, more like Hiouchi), and difficulty, at best, qualifying for a rental car, so there I was at the Arcata bus station, waiting for a bus that didn’t come.
In addition to the vaguely vagrant guy who wanted to share a room with me, I had to deal with a retarded man who was incessantly moaning at me to ask the time and for information on when the next bus was due to leave for Eureka. When I finally tried to look at the schedule on the wall for him, at his request, he got in my way by propping his arm on the wall so that it cast a shadow over the schedule and jutting his torso out so that I couldn’t possibly get close enough to read the damn thing in the low ambient light without putting my face right between the wall and his own. The pleas for the time of day kept coming, sometimes every 45 seconds. In the midst of this, I was trying to reserve a local hotel room on my hand-me-down iPhone (a much more useful gift from the ‘rents than the two Nooks they’ve given me, in my experience). His whining and moaning became so disruptive that after several minutes I raised my voice and told him, “Excuse me, I’m trying to do some work here. Can I have some silence, please?” At that point, he shut up for a couple minutes, to weep silently under his blanket for all I know. The salient point is that the noise about the hour and the bus schedule wasn’t my problem any longer.
I couldn’t tell just how retarded this dude was, but slower than the Loop at rush hour is a good approximation. His diction was close to normal, but he had facial abnormalities consistent with congenital mental retardation, not Down’s Syndrome by my guess but also not too far off from Down’s, and there was clearly something badly wrong with some combination of his short-term memory, listening ability, and literacy. Hell if I know why he was out alone after dark in the midst of a ten-year weather event. I don’t think he should have been, but he was. When I saw him last, he was writhing in slow motion and whimpering at the bottom of his lungs with a comforter wrapped around his entire body, head and all, and bits of trash spilling out of a cheap roller suitcase next to him. I wasn’t exactly interested in whether this suitcase was actually his, since I’d had my fill of that nonsense.
I certainly wasn’t interested in trying to cancel my hotel reservation in Crescent City around any of these losers, so I walked to the Co-Op for the second time that night for coffee and the fellowship of the legally competent. One of the people I talked to at the Co-Op laughed and said that of course the bus station was crawling with crazies; it always is. I guess what I’d expected of Arcata had been more trustafarian hustlers, fuck-the-man grungies, and loafaday stoners. Some retarded guy who doesn’t really know what time it is and does in fact really care could have annoyed me at the terminal of any podunk townie bus company. If I’d been in Chicago, I’d have had recourse to the Chicago Transit Authority, and the artists formerly known as the Chicago Transit Authority have recourse to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Being in Arcata instead, I had to summon a special authority all my own to transport that retard to the land of quiet time.
That, friends, is a small-town problem. In absolute numbers there may be more hopeless, useless losers on big-city transit systems, but they’re swamped by the sheer volume of normies. Ain’t nothin’ against the big town, except everything that’s wrong with America’s Finest Big Town, but I don’t recall ever rolling into San Diego and immediately having some retard on the loose at the trolley station moaning at me to no end. A little ditty about jackin’ it, Diane. I mean, uh. I did once have a shady Community member on the MTS Blue Line get just a bit up in my face, ask to borrow my phone, and tell the party on the other end, “I’m borrowing phones from random niggas and shit.” No, he did not thank me afterwards, the nice asshole. But, as he might say, that’s just one random nigga. There were dozens of people on our car alone that night. The retard and I were two of maybe six people hanging around the bus station perimeter. The retard wouldn’t be able to do the math, but maybe you will.
Don’t ask me why I refer to an anonymous retarded guy as a retard on the internet. Ask yourselves whether you ever even try to minister to the likes of him. I’d been on buses and trains for most of the previous twenty-four hours and was trying to figure out where I was going to sleep that night. What time is it? It’s #TIME for #TIMMEH to get a #TIMEPIECE.
I have no evidence of this, just a gut feeling, but I suspect that RCT may have cancelled bus service last night for unspoken financial-cum-socioeconomic reasons. It must be well known locally that the bus system is run for losers with social services meetings, not good upstanding citizens whose work ethic has inspired God to bless them with wheels, and not the kind of St. Elmo’s Fire wheels used by, say, *TIMMEH*, either. If dispatchers are overly cautious about shutting the bus system down during severe weather, well, sucks to be a loser; see ya, wouldn’t wanna BE ya!
But it isn’t just reactionary local politics turning public services to shit. Federal transit funding rules are designed, perhaps inadvertently, to perennially screw over rural local governments looking to improve their transit services. I haven’t read much about this lately, but there at least used to be a fairly hard-and-fast rule requiring transit agencies to maintain an absolute minimum farebox recovery ratio as a condition of federal disbursements. I think it was 20% or 50% or something, so maybe my math isn’t that much better than my bus stop retard’s, but I distinctly remember it being an across-the-board deal.
What the feds are trying to prevent here is pretty obvious. They don’t want every alderman’s nephew, son-in-law, and circle of assorted cronies stealing federal transit grants and then pleading insolvency on behalf of their agencies. They don’t want crooks latching onto metropolitan transit agencies with naturally large passenger volumes and obliterating all natural efficiency while the infrastructure inexorably disintegrates and service levels go to hell. They want to encourage at least a small measure of restraint, not a large measure of RAHM SHANTI, RAHM HARE HARE.
Del Norte County doesn’t have a chance of achieving Chicago efficiency. I’m not saying that Chicago is efficient in practice; I’m saying that it could be and can be if various crooks are driven out of power, which would probably inspire more public-spiritedness among the union rank-and-file anyway. What I’m saying is that Chicagoland has something like six million residents. Del Norte County has fewer than thirty thousand, a much rougher topography, and a much more remote location.
That is, Del Norte County cannot be run at a profit. It is not self-sufficient. It depends on trade to export its local produce (milk, beef cattle, timber, some seafood, Easter lilies) and to import everything else. The road network, port infrastructure, Coast Guard protection, and other bare basic services cost a shitload of money. We can include public transit, or not, depending on how we feel about the poors specifically. For a geographically diverse country that isn’t insane about how it gets by, funding this stuff shouldn’t be too controversial. For a geographically and socially diverse federal country with a history of sectional civil war, known in certain sections as the “recent unpleasantness” (hint: rhymes with “shut yaw mouth”), it may be too controversial after all.
Yes, there’s worse about America. The homelessness problem, for example, not that we’re doing much to fix it. One pleasantly surprising upside to getting stuck in Eureka overnight was stumbling upon Community Voices, hosted by Eureka public eccentric Dave Silverbrand and featuring as the night’s guest Eureka City Councilman-Elect Austin Allison. I voted for Allison because his opponent, John Fullerton, sounded too punish-the-bums reactionary and authoritarian for my taste. Both Austin and Fullerton have good things to say about Betty Chinn, a sort of lay religious woman called to a life of charity who runs a number of successful high-volume outreach programs for the homeless and vulnerable in Eureka. The problem with Fullerton’s approach was that he seemed to regard Chinn as a one-woman panacea. She isn’t. Like any other nun, official or de facto, she’s swamped by the sheer volume of the problems she’s trying to alleviate. That’s exactly what happens with Loaves and Fishes in Sacramento, which is also a very lean, well-run program under Christian auspices that ministers directly to homeless hard cases. Government policy got this country into the homelessness mess, and government policy will be needed to get us all back out of it.
Community Voices is almost painfully civil. Dave Silverbrand is surprisingly sociable for a guy who walks his dog in a stroller. I don’t think I’d call him normal exactly, but God knows there’s worse in Eureka, starting with the police department. At one point, he asked Allison what he’d say, hypothetically, to the homeless about how to improve their lot and so forth, and Allison replied that he works with the homeless on a regular basis in a professional capacity at his hospital job, so he already gives them advice and solicits their feedback. He could have sent Silverbrand to the St. Joseph’s burn unit in all sickness. Instead, he looked like he didn’t see any point to turning it up to lukewarm.
One point that Silverbrand made and Allison didn’t have the gumption to refute was that it’s hard to attract medical doctors to Eureka because it’s a dumpy town with a bad reputation and too many panhandlers. It seemed reasonable enough at the time, what with the constant stream of smooth coolness and local-access production value coming through the cable, but the more I think about it, the less I agree with it. I have trouble imagining a doc visiting Eureka from Penn or Johns Hopkins and being blown away by what a shithole it is. Besides, there’s no reason why a professional who works in Eureka has to live in Eureka when there are so many other areas within easy driving distance, especially compared to standard urban commutes. Fortuna, Arcata, Ferndale, and McKinleyville are all quite different from Eureka but easily reached from it. Hell, Henderson Center, Myrtletown, and Cutten have very different vibes from Broadway. If you’re familiar with Broadway, you know that this is a good thing.
That’s one of the problems with a parochial mindset: two guys from the municipal government dorking out on television about city business and forgetting that their county contains other cities and unincorporated areas, some of them within a lazy bastard’s easy biking distance of the hospital. More likely, medical types don’t want to relocate to Humboldt County because it’s in the middle of nowhere and has high airfares for service on itty-bitty planes from an airport so fog-prone that it was an initial development and testing ground for Instrument Landing System technology.
No shit services out this way aren’t as good as they are some places. At least they don’t include nuclear services, though. That’s the other thing I watched last night: an American Experience documentary on the Damascus missile disaster. Lordy did that sound bad. And the goddamned Air Force, lying to senators about the safety protocols and punishing missiliers for doing everything they could to prevent a nuclear holocaust.
As they told us in Scouting, stay on the sunny side. It can always get worse.