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Do Not Stop on the Tracks

October 11, 2014

I went down to see this Gypsy woman, you understand,
I told her my story, I told her what was goin’ on.
And she told me, man she said, all you need, all you need,
She said all you got to have, oh Lord,
Just a touch of Mojo’s hand, oh bring it back on,
And it feels pretty good, yes indeed.

– Grateful Dead, from Caution (Do Not Stop on the Tracks)

There is a railroad line that’s used to carry commuters from the south to the area near the ballpark in San Francisco. By the end of the decade, the terminus will be another mile or so deeper into the City, where it will connect with other public transit modes at the terminal that is now under construction. It’s all part of the relentless growth and catering to the technology companies that is increasingly making the Bay Area look and feel not so as special as it once did.

But of course, that’s just me talking. The generation that fought in World War II and helped protect the West Coast couldn’t relate to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and the other Beat writers when they moved into town. In turn, the Beatniks, along with the WWII generation and everyone else weren’t always happy about the Hippies and their impact on things around here. Gays certainly were not welcomed at first and endured violent resistance.

And then of course there were the Yuppies, who took a whole lot of fun out of the place with their narcissistic self-absorbed ways. As a last measure, this is the crowd that spawned the generation who will eventually force out every last vestige of San Francisco’s past someday. Why even the Market Street chess matches, which have been part of the scene for more than forty years, are now illegal.

The subterranean artifacts from the construction site, including many from the Gold Rush and even an 11,000 year-old Mammoth tooth, just reminds us that things keep moving.

Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford and Colis Hunnington, who financed and managed the original railroad lines to San Francisco in the 19th century, all the way from Utah, would not recognize the place, but perhaps nevertheless be quite pleased with all the progress. Cities change over time and why does it matter if the skyline I prefer doesn’t mimic an Asian financial center skyline or Dubai? Get over it.

The southern terminus to the commuter line is seventy-eight miles south of the City, in the town of Gilroy. There’s talk of stretching it forty miles south into Monterey, but the usual issues that come with these sorts of projects have kept things in the talk stage. Southern Pacific ran trains from San Francisco to Monterey from 1880 to 1971, when Amtrak took over these type of operations nationwide. The Southern Pacific train was named The Del Monte, because it ran from San Francisco to a luxury resort in Monterey with that name. The same four railroad robber barons who brought the trains west to begin with, owned both the Southern Pacific and the resort. How’s that for vertical integration?


Southern Pacific’s Del Monte train, on the SF Peninsula, circa, late 1960s.

I work in one of the towns south of San Francisco that has a Caltrain railroad station and that up until 1971, was a stop for The Del Monte. I don’t use the train to get to work. Doing so would involve getting on BART, a long walk or MUNI ride to the Caltrain station near the ballpark and then another long walk from station to the office. Using the Bay Area “plan a trip” software, I see that it would take about three hours each way. Sure, not all that time would be lost – I could read and even sleep on the trains and get a few good walks in each day also, but a six-hour commitment is just not in me. So, I continue to grind it out on the roads. Most days, in the Volvo.

But everyday, I get a little reminder of the history of the trains in the Bay Area. The office is in an industrial park along side one of the abandoned railroad tracks. Three spur lines to the old rail infrastructure, one right after the other, with only a narrow space in between, run across the entry way to the industrial park. They are badly worn and the bed around them has been paved over with asphalt. The asphalt is cracked and beat up and there are deep crevices beside the rails. I’ve never seen a train on those rails and to my eye, I can’t imagine anyone would ever try. They are an awful mess.


Two of these old Southern Pacific cars grace the office’s parking lot. They fit in nicely.

There isn’t another entry to the industrial park, so avoiding the railroad tracks isn’t an option. Crossing over is even more stressful because there are often pedestrians walking across them. Further, the angle from the busy street to the industrial park entry doesn’t give drivers a lot of room for an easy exit off the street. All combined, there’s noting smooth about the transition. It doesn’t end there, however. If you ever wanted to get into the road construction business, you will want to get the speed bump contract at this industrial park. They are big and they are plentiful. One right after the other and by the time I park the car, I feel like I’ve driven an obstacle course.

I’ve always been a cautious driver. Possibly to the mild irritation of some of my passengers over the years. One of my friends used to kid me about “driving like a PTA mom.” Not the PTA moms of today, who drive their large SUVs and vans like a bat out of hell getting to and from their kids’ scheduled activities. Keep a distance from them on the road and you’ll be better off. If you get close enough to read the bumper stickers about their kids’ honor roll or sports teams, you need to back off a bit. My friend’s connotation wasn’t to these folks, but rather the type of driver who uses the turn signal, makes a full stop and generally keeps close to the speed limit. A PTA mom from our generation, I guess.

I’m not the one who races from one red light to the next and you are as likely to hear my car’s tires squeal as you are hearing me launch into a presentation in Mandarin or Cantonese. Another of my friends, a mechanical engineer who knows how everything mechanical and otherwise works, once told me that I can attribute the durability and longevity of the Volvo in part due to the way that I drive.

I’ve always taken it easy with the car when crossing railroad tracks, speed bumps and other uneven and rugged surfaces. I have a distinct and warm memory from decades ago, when the Volvo was new, crossing a railroad track in the farm lands of the Midwest. The boys were young and settled in the back seat. We were out for a purpose or maybe just for the reason to see the world around us together, I don’t remember. The empty rural road and railroad track crossing were quiet passages surrounded by fields of corn and we were wrapped in a young family’s love in an instant of time that remains in my memory today. After a marked slowdown and careful look up and down the tracks, I drove across and we were on our way. Endless possibilities. It was another perfect day for me during a wonderful time of my life.

My arrival to the office last Thursday was more abrupt than usual. I had the tires rotated and the wheels balanced on the Volvo the week before. So in addition to my normal deliberate practice, I had increased sensitivity about taking it easy on the suspension. I followed my routine of trying to get the exact right angle across the three railroad tracks with extra care. Halfway through, I was shocked by a sudden loud noise. The glove box had snapped open and the door was bouncing up and down like a diving board. And then, something crashed to the floor of the car. The skin of the glove box had disconnected and was now laying on the floor, looking like an auto part, rather than the safe keep of artifacts from life’s precious moments.Various thoughts hit me. Initially, it was all incrimination.

For crying out loud, Bruce! Just call it good. Go get yourself an electric car or hybrid to use for your commutes. Park or sell the Volvo and be done. Get on with it, for Pete’s sake. The car rolled off the line twenty-eight years ago and as you can now tell, it wasn’t built to last forever.

It was also funny to me and I chuckled to myself.

Why oh why, do you insist on keeping this old car on the road? Just what is it that won’t let you give it up?

After clearing the innumerable gnarly speed bumps and parking the car, I picked up the skin to the glove box and relaxed.

Well, it’s nothing serious. The glue from the Volvo factory just gave out after all these years. This will be an easy fix and the glove box will be as good as new. There’s no reason for despair.

And that’s where I’ve settled for now. The Volvo is a great car. Reliable and safe, just as advertised when we drove it off the showroom floor decades ago. More than that, it’s fealty in an uncertain world. You can’t put a price on that.


I can start up the Volvo whenever I want. I’ll let go of it all, reach into the glove box for one of those old maps and hit the road. Throw caution to the wind, let that old car carry me to see the Gypsy woman and get a touch of the Mojo’s hand.

The part that fell off after it left the factory 28 years ago. The old Southern Pacific rail line was the final straw. Shown here with one of my favorite old maps from the glove box.

The part that fell off after it left the factory 28 years ago. The old Southern Pacific rail line was the final straw. Shown here with one of my favorite old maps from the glove box.

Today's odometer. Repair cost since the last "Check the Glove Box" post: $13 for the adhesive to repair the glove box.

Today’s odometer. Repair cost since the last “Check the Glove Box” post: $13.00 for the adhesive to repair the glove box.

  1. Love. Maps!
    and old Volvos and nostalgia.
    Nice post, Bruce!


  2. Over 400,000 miles, that’s awesome. I wonder if my Chevy Cobalt would last that long…


  3. Rich Haus permalink

    Great post, Bruce! My first car was a 1974 Volvo 164e, a 6 cylinder model that looked sort of Mercedes like. We drove it until almost 300,000 miles. Fun memories.


  4. This post showcases what you do so well: take a seemingly ordinary incident in your life, and place it into the greater context. I loved this one. I have always been drawn to trains – even wrote my master’s thesis aboard a train and about train commuters (I was trying to make the most of my commute time!). I followed the link and read the Market St Chess story, so interesting and sad. Hope the permanent tables work out. I’m glad you’re still driving the Volvo. Good on ya.


  5. Ohhh, I enjoyed every word of this post. First you got me with the trains/stations/construction/changes in San Francisco. You know I’m homesick, of course. But you’re right, SF is not what it was when I first moved in the bay area in 1984, and it’s not what it was in 2000, and god knows what it’s becoming. Sigh. (NO MORE CHESS on Market Street? criminal!). However, I wonder if you’ve visited the Railroad and Ferry Depot Museum in Tiburon? Excellent history on the Southern Pacific trains that used to stop there and then send their wares by ferry over to the city. Excellent train model of the area circa early 1900s,and upstairs is done up exactly how it was when the station master and his family lived there.
    Cheers on your long-living Volvo. Keep it up!


  6. sdofinwoeifn permalink

    Cool story. The tracks you are crossing on the way into your office are the branch that runs out to the Dunbarton Railroad Bridge, which is two tracks, and then the tracks which connect the Caltrain Main to the Dunbarton line. The SP stopped the Dunbarton Bridge sometime around 1982. I think there were customers on the Dunbarton Branch until a few years ago. Now they use the tracks, west of the crossing you go over, to spot cars loaded with aggregate for concrete places in Redwood City and South San Francisco.


    • Nice pickup here. Thank you.

      A month or so ago, there was a lot of action on those tracks. For a few days, someone was hauling aggregate. It’s a noisy task and there were screeches and sounds of engines echoing throughout the industrial park.


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