For a while in the late 90s I worked for a trade publisher in San Francisco, writing copy for a medical newsletter from my tiny cubicle on the fourth floor of an enormous blocky cement building. I was living in Oakland by then, so to get to work I had to cross the Bay every morning.
I took BART for a while, but it was always so crowded at that morning rush hour and I often had to stand, which made reading difficult, and the cars were hot and stinky with morning breath and I was always sweaty and uncomfortable by the time I got off at the Montgomery Street station. I ended up using the Transbay bus system most often — a plush coaches that delivered beautiful 360 degree views of the city, the Golden Gate, Sausalito, and the East Bay as we crossed the bridge.
But for a while in between BART and the bus solution I tried casual carpooling. It started in the Bay Area in the 1980s in response to gas and bus fare price hikes, evolving into a remarkably smooth-running system of locations where commuters line up for rides into the city; drivers pull up to the front of the line and, once the car is full, head over the bridge. I liked the idea of it, and the fact that I could get dropped off closer to my office, and that it was free and environmentally friendly. I also felt nervous, having deeply internalized the safety message that one should not get into cars with strangers (Holy crap, my first grade screening of the 1965 documentary “Red Light, Green Light” traumatized me for weeks, what with all the footage of leering, 70s-shaggy men leaning across the bench seat of a Buick and smiling into the camera. “Want some candy, kid?” No, NO, I most certainly DID NOT want any candy), but I reminded myself that hundreds of people used the system daily and they were okay. I’d be fine.
And mostly I was. For the time I used casual carpool, mostly I had perfectly fine commutes, riding smoothly into San Francisco in a quality car the likes of which I would never own, reading a book or a magazine and trying to ignore the stranger next to me while also projecting a pleasant, grateful aspect at the same time. There were a few occasions when I felt uncertain about a driver — once I felt uneasy enough to try to get in the second car in line, only to be told it was bad etiquette and sent back to the front — but usually I took those rides anyway and it was fine.
Until that One Ride.
I slid into the back of the Mercedes sedan early on a Tuesday morning. The driver was a sallow-skinned, dark-haired man in his 50s; his front seat passenger was a woman about 10 years older, with brassy red hair growing in dark at the roots. We exchanged greetings and he pulled away from the curb, which surprised me — usually drivers waited until there were four people in the car — but I let it go and settled into my magazine.
Except that I soon noticed that we weren’t taking the route to the freeway I expected. Everyone usually took one of two or three paths to get on the bridge, and even though I knew where we were, it didn’t seem to me we were driving toward the freeway. My palms started to sweat.
“Which route are you taking?” I asked, again as pleasantly as possible. “Isn’t the bridge in the other direction?”
That’s when things got weird. The driver made no response, but the woman snorted scornfully and rolled her eyes in my direction. “We’re going to San Francisco,” she snapped in a heavy Eastern European accent. “What, you think we’re going to drive you somewhere and rape you?”
I stared at her. Had she really just said what I thought she’d said?
The woman raised her voice, gestured wildly. “You think we’re going to kidnap you or something?” The man shook his head, murmured something to her I couldn’t catch.
I was speechless. Didn’t the fact that she was saying this crazy stuff mean that the chances were higher that she and this man were in fact bent on killing me and dumping my body in some San Francisco alley? At the very least, she had a sick sense of humor, and at most, she was a psychopath. I couldn’t decide what to do. Get out? At this point we were making a meandering way toward Emeryville and the freeway entrance. There were only a few intersections left where the car would slow down enough for me to escape.
But I didn’t. I sat there, fuming and frightened, all my muscles tense as the driver steered us onto the ramp. A heavy silence filled the car and I berated myself for not jumping when I’d had the chance.
It seemed to take forever, but finally we were across. The driver took the correct exit and pulled to the curb. He met my eyes in the rearview mirror and shrugged as if in apology, started to say something, but I threw myself out of the car and slammed the door as hard as I could. In the split second before they drove off I shoved the middle finger of my left hand up against the woman’s window as she glared out at me. Then I turned away and started walking furiously toward my office, blinking back tears of anger and shame (How dare she? And why didn’t I get out?). Whatever had just happened, I was done with casual carpool, that was for damn sure.