V&R Stories: The Last Train Home

Light Rail Crossing near US Bank Stadium
NOT the last train home… – Photo by Randy Stern

Nine years of living in the San Francisco Bay Area taught me a lot.

Among the lessons I learned being a Northern Californian involved making the right call when "going out" at night without a car. Keep in mind that driving a car in San Francisco required a sense of insanity even the sanest of people acutely have. It had been said that finding someone to have a nightcap with was easier than finding a parking spot in San Francisco.

There were nights when I did not find someone to nightcap with. Roaming the South of Market bars in the early-to-mid 1990's, I was out there attempting to meet people and have a good time. Some nights, I did. Other nights, I just felt I shouldn't have gone out at all. If I did not have a friend put me up for the night, I had no choice but to head back to the East Bay suburb of Concord, where I lived during the last three years of my Bay Area existence.

Here's the dilemma: the bars close at 2:00AM. The last BART train back to Concord leaves the Civic Center station at 12:18AM. If it's on a Saturday night, the first train to leave the next morning was after 8:00AM. If you did not have anyone to go home with, which "walk of shame" should you choose?

"Walk of shame?" In my case, it's either take that last train home and walk home from the station, or find something "healthy" to do in the eight hours between trains.

The last train was an experience. It was a 49-minute run underneath Market Street, through the Transbay Tube, downtown Oakland and the Berkeley Hills, down the middle of Highway 24 and above the heart of Contra Costa County. It was a long train where riders roamed between cars by going through the sliding glass doors at each end. In some cases, these doors were portals for trouble. They were also meant to walk away from it.

To get to the train, my walk began up 8th Street from the SoMa into the cauldron of Market Street. Bums lined up trying to score change from you, but you're focused on getting down the steps into the station before the last train left.

You were not alone. From tipsy suburbanites to teenage thugs, BART's last train on the Pittsburg/Bay Point Line had enough entertainment on board to keep you from sleeping. An apt description of the first leg of the trip would be found in quote a song from Madness: "there is always something happening and it is usually quite loud."

Amid the craziness inside the tube, a strange thing occurs. If you're lucky, someone might cruise you. It was not unusual for cruising to happen on the BART system. After all, it was the conveyance that bridged the East Bay with The City. There were plenty of gay folks who lived on the other side of the bay and not many places for us to find what we're looking for. I recalled one time riding with a guy back to his place in Berkeley and someone cruised us. Frankly, anything could happen between Downtown San Francisco and Downtown Oakland.

Somehow, after the train left the MacArthur station in Oakland, the train became sonically pleasing. There might be some drama, but not enough to cause alarm. Into the hills and out into the suburbs, your trip becomes lonelier. Realistically, you're not alone…but you feel that way. The time raced towards 1:00 AM, you wondered whether you have enough energy to walk home after you left the station at the end of the line. You also wished you had a chance to talk to that guy back at the Lone Star Saloon when you were headed out the door.

I wondered whether one could experience the same thing anywhere else?

I did…in Minneapolis. In the wee hours of some random Friday morning some years ago, a friend and I rode the last light rail train out of the Warehouse District station. We came from a friend's karaoke gig at an upscale bar in the North Loop. There was no walk of shame for us as we met up with mutual friends and acquaintances and had a good time. As we got on the train, memories flooded back at those Saturday nights chasing after the last train back to Concord. The party goers, noisy idiots, teenage thugs…you'd think you're back in time and another place.

I looked over at my friend with weary eyes. It was 1994 again. Instead of the Transbay Tube, we rode by the Metrodome and over Interstate 94. As my friend left at Franklin Avenue, I had one more stop to go at Lake Street. Unlike my Concord scenario, I did not have to do my "walk of shame" across the Longfellow neighborhood for twenty blocks to home. A Metro Transit bus came after my arrival to take me home.

These days, I do not party well into the wee hours of the night. Nor do I go out in downtown Minneapolis anymore. There are many reasons for this. Age, interest, patience, concern for my own safety…pretty justifiable. I have since moved from that Longfellow home to another part of town. There is no light rail service up where I live – though they are talking about expanding one of the lines out my way.

There are other options out there: Uber, Lyft, taxicabs…roommates. The latter actually happens, but I'm usually the one picking my roommate up from their night out on the town.

If you take public transit a lot, you might have your own "last train" experience. This is a story about how life is transported before everything becomes impossible. It is about escaping…and perhaps a little regret on the side. It is all a part of living with public transportation.

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