Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Trusting Strangers with My Life, Again, and Again, and Again…

Every weekday morning I do the unthinkable: I get into an utter stranger’s car with another stranger and trust that they will not hurt, let alone kill me as we drive across the San Francisco Bay to work in the city. Essentially it’s legal hitchhiking but the more risk averse like to call it by a more innocuous name, rideshare.

Here in the Bay Area rideshare is the name of an informal carpool system that is a boon for both riders and drivers. Near my house, people line up along the boulevard next to the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) Station and appear to be waiting for a bus but in fact cars stop near the front of the line and people get into the cars and ride away.

The first time I actually participated in this bizarre ritual was when I was volunteering for the Slow Food Nation Victory Garden, which was located in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. When I found out that BART cost $7 roundtrip I decided to give this rideshare idea a chance.

At 8:15 am I arrived at the rideshare line armed with a few dollars for gas money, which I thought was the considerate thing to do. To my confusion, there were two lines so I had to reveal my ignorance and ask how it all worked. The woman in front of me gave me the scoop in a low voice.

“Two people at a time in a car. You don’t give gas money because carpools don’t have to pay the $4 bridge toll.” And then in providing her final instruction, she exaggerated her mouth and said, “You get in. Say hello. And then you Do Not Speak! That’s it!”

I was a little taken aback by the severity of my instructions, but nonetheless I was game. I put away my dollar bills and waited to get into a car. One pulled up, I got in the front seat (the least desirable spot), said hello to the driver who responded in kind, closed the door and put on my seatbelt and no one said another word for the next 25 minutes as we drove into the city. It was exactly as my guide in the line had said it would be.

And what do you suppose was my reaction to this odd little culture of agreed upon silence? Joy! Pure and utter joy! I wanted to sing, I wanted to laugh and hug and kiss every person and every tree. I wanted to stick my head out the window as we rode across the Bay Bridge and scream my love for the planet! It was bizarre, even to me, but I was so thrilled to find people so open to trusting strangers that it nearly moved me to tears.

Since finding a paid job, a temporary albeit long term stint, I happily utilize rideshare every morning. As with any routine, I no longer marvel at the fact that I trust random strangers with my life. I’ve learned that another rule of thumb is that NPR news will be on the radio and while reactions to the news (hrumps, snorts, guffaws and the like) are tolerated, they are not invitations to converse. Now and again I get an anxious driver who makes the commute more like a creaky carnival ride with slamming brakes and herky jerky speeds ups in an attempt to best traffic. But on those days, I just look at the Bay and breathe deeply, confident that I will not leave this world in a car wreck on the Bay Bridge.

My initial thought that rideshare was a uniquely Berkeley or Bay Area idea only betrays an innate bias towards my new home (it goes without saying that I’m ridiculously infatuated with this place). Now I vaguely remember that an informal carpool also exists in Virginia and probably many other metropolitan areas.

And while a small part of my Leo ego likes to cling to the idea that the Berkeley rideshare is unique, a larger part of me loves the idea that there are strangers all across this country, climbing into other stranger’s cars and routinely trusting them with their commute and their life. It makes me smile, and if I had a big doggy tail, it would be wagging wildly.

Love and Hugs

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