In the morning, the platform — down inside the Civic Center station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) in San Francisco — is quiet save the buzzing of a loud overhead speaker spouting out a muffled announcement about a delay in the BART system. Though the odor of urine plagues the air, it isn’t strong enough for the people milling around — on the platform — to notice. A hipster — with his smart phone at max volume — bounces around to loud bass and incomprehensible sounds, while his jeans hug his thighs. A draft enters the station, quietly at first, as if an ocean breeze had somehow made its way into the station — but the wind picks up, rushing now, until it is so strong that an overhead sign pointing to an emergency exit rocks back and forth, creaking with movement. Approaching headlights blind commuters on the platform; a loud squeal from the train fills the station, as a nine-car silver BART train rushes in but then slows as the driver applies the brakes, pounding the horn alerting passengers to get the hell away from the edge of the platform or this train won’t approach the station. As the doors open, a sea of people — wearing suits, carrying attaché cases and coffee mugs — rush out, heading straight to the exit and out of the car. The mob of worker bees ascend escalators, pass through exit gates and the perpetual smell of urine and other odorous elements await them as they enter the rush of downtown, the honks of taxi drivers and the yells of drivers stuck in traffic. The working underlings flood into the city, trudging to their high-paying jobs — indentured to even-higher-paid scumbags in the skyscrapers of San Francisco’s Financial District.
After midnight, the stations close down; the trains are taken back for maintenance and repairs. Worker bees rest in their hives for the night, complaining about their boneheaded bosses, how crowded the BART train was and other drudgeries that happened in their trivial day.
San Francisco’s underground is at a dead calm. Grates close off the entrances to the BART stations. Bedraggled bums — wearing decades-old coats with tattered holes in the arms, their hair long and matted, teeth missing, their bodies emitting an aromatic mixture of dirt, bile and feces — emerge like zombies from the crevices and corners of the city. They descend the station stairwells, where the base avails a private nook providing a slumbering space for the down and out — hidden from the prying eyes of passersby, and no one is really complaining. Out of sight, out of mind. When these vagrants wake up in the middle of the night — bladders bursting, intestines grumbling — they drop trou and defecate on the powered-down escalators which serve as a private bathroom in the darkness under the evening fog that blankets the city.
Another morning comes. Like rats, the homeless horde scurries in the sunlight, leaving behind a buffet of trash, sewer swag and broken-down escalators.
Human waste clogs the gears and wheels, leaving BART escalators down for months and commuters to suffer the stink of sewage wafting up from below. So many derelicts have been defecating on these escalators that city workers had to call a Haz-Mat team before they could repair the escalators, according the San Francisco Chronicle.
BART is paying the price as repairs have cost the transit agency around $200,000, says the Huffington Post — costs that eventually lead to higher transit fares. Unless SFPD catches them in the ritual of relief, homeless folks are free to walk. To boot, station surveillance cameras are turned off at night. SF cleaning crews are the only salvation, according to the San Francisco Chronicle article.
It seems the homeless have a complete disregard for BART, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There just aren’t enough public bathrooms in the downtown area; very few public restrooms are closed at night, and, sometimes, the automatic cleaning bathrooms are so dirty not even the homeless will enter them. By day, users and pushers rule the public restrooms, entering for a quick fix to fuel them throughout the day.
Downtown San Francisco is only ground zero for sewage smells. Similar odors emit from the Mission District further south — known for its high population of Latinos and transit street-level plazas that smell of piss. BART spent about $4 million to retrofit and redecorate these complexes back in 2003 and 2006, according the San Francisco Chronicle, believing that the neighborhood would take pride in the plazas, the surrounding business would make the place a community hub, but that never happened. Instead, derelicts have staked their claims on the plazas. Homeless, drug addicts and derelicts hang out in these areas, pissing on the vibrant blue benches while others pretend not to notice.
The homeless have turned BART into their own somewhat-sustainable living environment complete with recreational spots including Vaillancourt Fountain — off the Embarcadero — where they take a nighttime dip to wash away the grime of the city. Meanwhile the city of San Francisco and BART squabble over who should clean up the every-day messes. At night, BART power washes the plaza — often having to troubleshoot groups of hobos sleeping around benches and on the ground and the city cleans the surrounding sidewalks, but cleaning crews are still without answers when it comes to piss prevention. Instead passersby must plug their noses, ignore the wretched and down-and-out and run into the stations — onto trains that will take them to their destinations.
And it’s not like the trains are any better. Behavior aboard BART has gotten so bad that commuters have created a Facebook page called “BART Idiot Hall of Fame” to showcase rude, disgusting and loud passengers who create a downright disturbing ride for others. More mundane issues include juvenile delinquents not letting the pregnant and elderly sit near the door — turning their heads in the opposite direction, yelling at seniors if they ask to sit down. Then there are completely annoying instances like bicyclers disregarding the rules by pushing their way into crowded trains — causing the operator to berate them over the loud speaker until they get off, further delaying transit traffic. And don’t discount the oblivious rider listening to music so loud that passengers in the neighboring car can hear the music. Not everybody wants to rock out to Ludacris’ “Move BITCH.” Please watch your step when boarding, as puddles of puke and questionable stains are often discovered on the slip-resistant floors. From passengers with shit stains on their asses to rule-breaking bicyclers to a man who set up a hammock using the hand rails, they are all online for the world to witness the things that horrify and stun other passengers.
Yes, this is a public transit system and, yes, people will be rude and disrespectful. Homeless will piss and shit in the corner, take naps on the seats when they have nowhere else to go and the over privileged will refuse to give up their seats to pregnant women. But London’s subway, Paris’s Metro, Chicago’s “L” are nothing like the BART system. People are respectful on other transit systems, lines that have more stops, more commuters. While other metro transits run past midnight, BART closes early because the homeless were snoozing on the plush seats for the night. Other transit systems don’t spend millions of dollars to fix a problem of aesthetics only to have that money wasted once the city’s underground claims it for itself. Forget about day passes and unlimited stops, as BART would rather nickel and dime their riders per stop, a fare system that ultimately encourages the bypassing and ripping off of ticket gates. Other transit systems don’t celebrate when a few months later it has about 97 percent of escalators running, according to local television reports.
But BART has become a staple in San Francisco. A transit system that Bay Areans have come to both love and hate for all its quirks, for all the rude and miserable passengers that commuters have to put up with. For all of its delays and system outages, controversial BART police actions. The shitty escalators, the piss-ridden station plazas, and the rude and mean passengers are all a part of what makes San Francisco’s underground an entire community unto itself.