Riding with Strangers

Pretty much every weekday morning, I get into a stranger’s car. We don’t talk as we drive across the Bay Bridge. I focus on my iPhone, get caught up on personal emails. Or I stare out the window, watching the giant cargo ships going to and from China and who knows where. I see Alcatraz and Angel islands off to my right, and the deep red of Golden Gate bridge to the northwest. Ahead of us: our San Francisco. The sun glints off those familiar buildings which pop magically through the clouds.

I could be in a Lexus, a beemer, an American mini van, an ancient Toyota hatchback. I could be in the backseat of a coffee-infused couple driving to work. Or in the front seat with another stranger in back. Or squeezed in tight between two others in the back of a luxury hybrid SUV. (If lots of people are waiting for rides, one of us might venture to ask the driver: “Can you take three of us?” They almost always do.)

I know how weird this sounds to those who don’t commute to San Francisco. It’s called Casual Carpool, and it’s pretty unique and amazing. There are spots all over the East Bay where one can wait to be picked up, and to pick up passengers. We all get dropped off at the same location in SF, just off the Bay bridge, which happens to be 2 blocks from my office.

The rules:

  • No talking, unless the driver initiates a conversation.
  • Listen to NPR. Or nothing. I think this is to avoid music choices causing major a.m. friction. Crappy house music, anyone?
  • Drive cautiously and courteously.
  • Passengers have the right of silent refusal. If you’re a woman and a man in a two-seater or a creepy van pulls up, you can just step back and let someone else take that spot.  No explanation needed.

Here’s why I think it works:

  • It saves time. For a driver, it means cutting 20 minutes of sitting in stop-and-go traffic as you wait to go through the toll plaza.
  • It’s free/cheaper. For now the carpool lane is free. As of July 1 the carpool lane will be $2.50 versus $6.00 for regular commuters during rush hour. (Ouch!!) But I don’t think it will reduce the casual carpool pool by much. It’s still a significant reduction in cost for those who have to drive.
  • It’s not personal. The general “no talking” rule means that you don’t have to chit chat. I’ve found the majority of rides to be silent except for a “hello” and a “thank you” at the end. So amazingly, you still get your personal time in the morning.
  • Community, and safety in numbers. It’s not just me in a stranger’s car. Usually it’s me and another stranger in a stranger’s car! The magic number 3 really does change the dynamic. Plus, people have been commuting this way for over a decade, and know one another, who drives what cars, etc. We’re all in it together.
  • It’s mutually beneficial. Really, that’s what it comes down to for everyone involved.

What’s interesting, of course, is when people don’t follow the rules exactly. I’ve been serenaded with classical and country music–the latter made less repulsive since it was introduced as the soundtrack from Crazy Heart. One day several of us talked about our weirdest carpool experiences. The female driver said: “When a guy had just, I mean literally just smoked a bowl in the car before he picked us up. I was like, hey, smoke it at home, man!”

I asked, “So how was his driving?”

She said, “He actually drove fine. I just really wish he’d smoked that bowl at home.” It was the lack of tact that galled her.

The other passenger that morning contributed this story: he’d been out of town and parked his car under a ginko tree for a week. Apparently, ginko trees really stink. (Who’d of thunk?) So his car, he told us, smelled like puke. A woman got in the front seat, took one whiff, and said “I can’t ride in here.” She got out, and this well-dressed man was humiliated. “It’s ginko!!” he wanted to yell after her. A man got in the car and didn’t say a word about the smell. Until they were almost across the bridge, when the passenger asked:

“Hey, did you eat some blue cheese in here?”

“It’s ginko!!!”

I myself break the rules when I pick up carpoolers with Ali. Having a two-year-old in the car changes everything–you simply can’t be that formal. And after 15 minutes of politely listening to Michael Krasny’s (insightful) blabbing on NPR, Alejandro starts demanding HIS music. I apologize and ask the passengers’ permission. Not like they really have a choice. Their asses are already peppered with cracker crumbs and their feet and laptops are a half-inch deep in crumbs as well. They don’t have much to lose. (They could have always stepped politely out of line, too, when they saw who’d they’d be sitting next to!) So we all sing the Pollywog in a Bog song together. Out of courtesy, I try not to repeat it more than twice.

Every morning is somethin’ different. That’s one of the best parts of riding with strangers.

What resonates?

5 responses to “Riding with Strangers”

  1. Nana Avatar

    Beautiful Margot. Reminds me what I miss about public transportation: community; people watching; little adventures in humaness.

  2. Paul the flexible carpooler Avatar

    Laugh-out-loud funny! I’m going to forward this to some people who will really enjoy it.

  3. Virginia Chandler Avatar
    Virginia Chandler

    Thanks, Margot, for such an informatively entertaining piece! Great insight into protocol (and having had a ginko tree in my yard I enjoyed the humor as well).

  4. Allan Avatar

    This is really prevalent in the DC metro area along the I-95 corridor as well. ‘Slugging’ they call it… you pick up slugs on your way to work and drop them off on your way home. In/Out of HOV lanes saves everyone time = money :)

  5. mk1201 Avatar

    Like. I miss the bay area and the family Fernandez…