Posted by: Mark | December 22, 2008

Larry the MUNI driver

This afternoon, on a day of on-and-off rain showers, I hunkered down for a run along the beach. I wasn’t really feeling it: my legs are stiff from several consecutive days of challenging runs, and I was a bit wiped out from a full day of movie editing. Either way, I put on my shoes and snuck out while the puppy slept.

By the time I reached Sloat Blvd and the Great Highway, an understated parking lot that is a major surf hang-out and spot check, I knew I wasn’t going to finish the run. Instead I found myself standing on the dune and soaking in the view. The ocean was picking up steam, showing signs of the growing swell, but the wind was strong enough to chop it up. The sky was splattered with storm clouds, and the sun punched through in brilliant bursts showing every imaginable shade of yellow and orange. It was pretty majestic. I stood there, gulping the cool ocean air into my lungs and feeling very satisfied.

I decided I couldn’t just go home, so instead I found a bench and started doing dips and push-ups, feeling a bit invigorated by the landscape. French impressionist painters would have gone nuts for an afternoon like this.

Into my second set, the bus driver on the parked bus behind me got out and walked up to me.
“Reminds me of being in the navy,” he announced.
“I’m sorry?”
“Your work-out. It reminds me of my navy days,” he repeated.

And that is how it began. Over the next 30 minutes I found myself having a wonderful conversation with a guy named Larry, who I think must be one of San Francisco’s most dedicated MUNI drivers. He’s been driving for the city for almost 18 years and loves every day of it. He takes the required outfit and classes it up with polished cowboy boots and silver collar tips. He has driven almost every route, including the historic cable cars, the only movable monument in the United States. We talked about anything and everything from the changing city, politics, the ocean, and the holidays.


MUNI gets a lot of heat from San Francisco residents. There’s even a blog that talks about all things N-Judah, and it’s largely critical. A common complaint is about how slow and clumsy our public bus system is. Larry directly mentioned that. In the last few years he has had to change his demeanor from being extremely outgoing with bus-riders to patiently quiet, because, as he put it, “everyone’s carrying a camera and is just itchin to see one of us drivers make a mistake and then crucify us for it in a public way.” I’ve ridden the MUNI dozens of times and I don’t have nearly the complaints that others do, and I especially like the drivers. I’ve always sort of toyed with the idea in a half-assed way of being a mus drive myself during my summers off. I’ve got a warm spot in my heart for the bus network.

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Larry. In any other context I probably never would have chatted with him, but instead, he saw me doing push-ups and felt the urge to come out and tell Navy stories. I avidly listen to story-tellers and love it when strangers are willing to open up with tales from the past. Speaking with Larry filled me with a sense of nostalgia for when I was a kid and used to go to a small barber shop in Pennsylvania. I’d call ahead and ask, “How many guys are in the shop?” The usual answer was over 10. The second question would have to be, “who is actually there for a haircut?” which was typically less than half of them. There’s something about old guys who have lived through the turmoil of the 20th century who sigh about grin about it all while telling and re-telling their own individual take on what happened. And it’s not necessarily what is said, but instead how it’s said–with such wistful pleasure and spark.

So thanks Larry for taking what would have been a mediocre run and turning it into a heart-warming reinder of an era long gone, which perfectly fits the mood of the holidays. Merry Christmas.



  1. Your post reminds me of a time I went to get lunch at the Stone Mill Bakery across from the St. Paul’s campus. I just wasn’t feeling the cafeteria that day and just wanted to get a few minutes for myself. I grabbed something [almost, but not quite] equally mediocre to whatever was being served at the cafeteria, and sat down at the last unoccupied table in the bakery.

    Shortly after seating myself, I saw an elderly gentleman, elegantly dressed in a stereotypically elderly gentleman sweater/blazer combo, tray in hand scanning the room for a place to sit. I don’t know what possessed me to do so, but before I knew it I was offering him the open seat at my table.

    We talked for a good 30 or 40 minutes about all sorts of things – his children and grandchildren, his time in the army (he joined at 16 with forged documents so he could fight in WWII), and just about life in general.

    As you mentioned in your post, it didn’t matter much to me what the stories were, but how they were told made them something magical. I returned to campus invigorated and taught one of the most energetic lessons I gave that year. I think this encounter left me in a good mood for the rest of the day, and I still smile when I think back on it.

    On a completely unrelated note, I dig the blog… keep posting and I’ll keep reading.

    Merry merry!


  2. I’m in the military, Air Force to be specific, and I know the feeling of meeting someone you’ve never met before and listen to them tell of times long ago. I love to run into retired military, because they will either tell you everything or nothing. I enjoy reading your site because you write with genuine emotion and vivid mental images. Here in the midwest, we don’t see many beaches. What a blessing it must be to be able to get up and run on the beach, feel the cool ocean air, and take in the beautiful sunrises. So, thank you for talking me on that run down the beach.


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