My BART: A Sort of Memoir about my Father

My view from the platform in downtown Oakland. Modern art in a certain light.

When my dad died in 1993, the BART Board of Directors sent a funeral flower wreath. It was in the shape of the BART logo. Really. A blue and white ba. My family was honored, but my cousins and I thought it was the ugliest thing we’d seen in a long time. Especially after my stepmother let it sit and dry out on the front porch of our house for a few weeks.  She finally let me throw it out. A few months later, we attended a ribbon cutting ceremony in the old BART headquarters building. In the boardroom, on the seat where my dad had sat in the press section, a bronze plaque had been installed. I cut the ribbon with the enormous scissors always use for that purpose.  

A musical interlude on a ride through the tube. Emphasis on captive audience!

On the weekends when my friends and I were in high school, we took the train to Berkeley and roamed around the campus and up and down Telegraph, eating pizza at Blondie’s and hanging out in record stores. We were excited to be part of the scene (or so we imagined ourselves to be) and considered ourselves pretty cool. On the ride back to Oakland, we’d knock on the train operator’s door and talk our way into the cab. They always were surprised  to hear I’d driven a train through the Transbay Tube before they had officially opened Embarcadero station. I’d been five, and Dad had taken me along on a test ride in his capacity as an Oakland Tribune reporter who was a well known BART insider. All I did was push a GO button, then, seven minutes latter  ( the time it generally takes a train to travel through the tube) I was shown which button was the STOP button. That’d never happen nowadays, but I love that my five year old self got to drive the train with her dad at her side.

I rode BART with my dad. He wrote for the Oakland Tribune when BART was being built in the 70’s, and he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 80’s and 90’s. When I moved back in with dad to start high school, he was just starting to work at the Chronicle,  after a brief stint at the San Francisco Business Journal.  Sometimes the phone would ring, and a man would ask to speak to dad. We never knew who this man was. He was the anonymous BART employee who was calling to tell dad about behind the scenes goings on at BART. 

If any BART official ever wondered how dad got his stories, or scooped other papers on BART news, it was this guy. Whoever he was. More than once, Dad was asked to leave the BART Boardroom before certain issues were discussed. He also claimed that his car was ticketed too often when parked in the MacArthur BART station lot. He never came out and said it, but he suspected he was flagged as that trouble  making reporter by BART, and that he’d been singled out by some disgruntled Board member. Who knows? That’s all in the past.

BART station as art gallery at Powell Street station.

When I step on a train now, I reflect that they and I are about the same age. Any old seat still covered in wool makes me think: did dad ever sit on this same seat cover?  I was happy to see the new vinyl covers as they started phasing them in. I’ve written more than one poem while riding the trains about my life intersecting with dad’s on BART  though the years have separated us.

A funny story about those seats. Our family friend who worked with dad in the city recalled a ride with dad on BART in which dad managed to inadvertently get the two of them a seat on a crowded SRO car one night on the ride home. He merely told her how the seats were made from highly flammable materials that would be extremely toxic to riders should a fire occur. Riders around him apparently decide to give him a wide berth, as he might be a bit nuts exclaiming such a fact. They then got to sit for the remainder of their trip to MacArthur station. 

These days I don’t really miss BART.  It’s gotten old and broken down, and I think dad would agree it needs a makeover at this point.

Dad verified this story. He added that BART had been fully aware of the seat’s potential dangers. He frequently was busted by Herb Caen as the rider who assisted others during (then) infrequent breakdowns on the trains. Dad would write of an incident in the next day’s paper, and state a passenger came forward to assist other riders.  But he was an impartial reporter to a T, and would never claim credit for himself. 

Track gazing at 19th Street station.

Around the late 80’s to the early 90’s,  the Chron ran an ad campaign in the BART and MUNI stations. I still have a picture of it somewhere. It stated “What happens when a good reporter rides BART” and there was dad’s picture, surrounded by stories he’d written about BART foul ups or controversies,  his byline prominently featured. It was always a mix of weirdness and exhilaration to look at a billboard with dad on it while awaiting a train. He died a few years after the ad ran. 

I have taken to grabbing a casual carpool car into the city from Oakland in the last few years, and really only ride in on BART on the weekends.  I take a Transbay AC Transit bus home in the evenings,  and this suits me very well. These days I don’t really miss BART.  It’s gotten old and broken down, and I think dad would agree it needs a makeover at this point. I know they’re trying, but it really has become fairly unpleasant to ride around on BART.  And I save money as I pay the carpool drivers a dollar, and AC Transit $4.20 one way. Each way, I get to sit, and there is rarely an SRO trip on the bus. It’s much more pleasant. I feel like I’ve put in my time on BART.  

Land sharks of fashion in Powell Street station.

I will always love a BART train. Sounds funny, but for me it’s so much more than just a commute into San Francisco.  For me, it’s a place where my father and I spent some quality time when I was growing up. And I’m proud  of his connection to BART. He’s a part of their legacy and history.  Dad died at 53, over twenty years ago,  so a lot of people I now know just don’t get it when I talk about some of this. This started out as an idea of my BART experience,  but I realize that it’s a father-daughter experience as well. A one of a kind experience that I have shared with you, but that, rightfully so, you wouldn’t really understand. 

Exit to Market Street.

These days I wonder how much longer BART will be able to sustain itself as a viable regional railway system. What’s so hard to figure out? Look at the East Coast.  They have New York and it’s subway system, and they’ve had it a hell of a lot longer than the Bay Area has had BART. And London. Paris. Oh, BART! Don’t be such a silly system.  Get it together or I might have to revive the great Harre W. Demoro school of reporting and get real with you. But we can still be friends, right? After all, even though you have moved your boardroom to the Kaiser Center,  you still have that plaque with dad’s name on it. I recently checked up on its status, and was reassured by one of your board members via Twitter that you have kept it safe.

Thanks, BART,  for all of it: good and bad, new and old, wool vs.vinyl, equipment trouble on the trains, toxic seats, board room memorials, and weirdly beautiful funeral flower wreaths.  

It’s been quite a ride.  (Yeah, I couldn’t resist that one). 

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