The Bay Area has a commuting option that doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere: casual commuting. We should count our blessings there’s a thriving and alternative means of hopping over the Oakland-Bay Bridge, right at our disposal.
In a nutshell, casual commuting is all about unscheduled but reliable carpooling. Drivers can easily pick up passengers, and cross the Bay Bridge via the free, high-speed lanes into San Francisco. There are specific places where passengers wait for free rides, in the East Bay as well as San Francisco.
To honor our sui generis commuting option, The Casual Commuter has been written recently by now-retired commuter Vicky M. Semones. The book is a collection of vignettes that resonate on first read, and seem even better when you return to them a second or third time. You peer through the windows at drivers, vehicles and commuters of all stripes.
A short while ago, we posed questions to Vicky Semones and wanted to share her motivations and perspectives. She wrestled with commutes all over the Bay Area, for 25 years. Her last position, with the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco, gave her a front or back seat daily from Oakland.
Q. Why do you think that the casual carpool works in general?
My first thought is that most of the casual carpool locations are near bus stops. This provides a dual alternative for daily commute needs: either the structured bus schedule or the more laissez-faire approach of catching a free ride whenever there’s the right combination of drivers and riders for the casual carpool.
People are resilient and creative when it comes to overcoming obstacles – such as the 1970s East Bay transit strike that lead people to the casual carpool. People know a good deal when they see one. They either want or need flexibility in their commute schedules and perhaps a sense of independence. And really it is a success story in mutual accommodation, whether anyone professes that or not.
Q. Why do people trust each other in Bay Area?
The Bay Area is a wonderfully rich locale of diverse peoples. I believe people want to trust one another and believe that they are trustworthy as well. Our similar patterns of life provide the basis for expectations of personal behavior that allow trust to blossom.
Q. Where did you partake of casual carpool?
I began riding the casual carpool shortly after moving to Oakland in 1997 until I took an early retirement in 2003. I was usually challenged trying to catch the morning “V” line down Park Boulevard and couldn’t always relay on a ride to BART. Then I realized there were three casual carpool locations within easy reach [along Park Blvd and at Lakeshore & Grand] and the ride would be free. So, one day, I parked my car, took a deep breath, played “follow the leader” and got in line. And I was never disappointed in the variety of characters or situations.
Q. Where did the stories all come from?
The stories emerged from my personal experience of the casual carpool. As a poet I tend to be sensitive to an essence or energy of a person or a place; an unspoken mood. Sometimes these energies “spark” or are a subtle sensibility which allows me to focus on the people, situation and environment.
Q. What was single most shocking passenger story?
My most shocking ride was “On the Run.” I felt uncomfortable on the wild, unpredictable ride especially because the driver was so disconnected from the reality around him; apparently frazzled in his life and profession; unaware of his impact on those around him, including his passengers.
Q. What was the most disgusting driver story?
It’s a toss-up between “Nail Biter” and “Brush.” I understand everyone has a neurosis or a tic, but it was the combination of nail biting and head scratching that made me glad I had a light breakfast when I rode with the “Nail Biter.” And I must have been a newbie rider when I got into the filthy car driven by “Brush” – yuck!
Q. Why did you decide to write the book?
When I wrote the vignettes, I did not have the intention of writing a book. It was after I retired that I turned my attention back to them as I did to other creative ideas and with the encouragement from family, I refined the stories, developed a book proposal, believed I had something to say and saw that I did indeed have a manuscript.
Q. What are your hopes and dreams for the book?
My hope is that people will resonate with the stories; see that we are part of a larger community; that we have shared experiences. While marketing “The Casual Commuter” I see people smile in recognition with the title, thinking of their own casual carpool experiences. As a poet and a former teacher, I find the moment of connection with another person to be so fulfilling: an understanding, a shared perspective, a common bond.
I feel that the book is already a success – it’s published! And it would be wonderful for it to be a regional hit which reflects the uniqueness of the Bay Area. And especially during these problematic and unpredictable times, “The Casual Commuter” is a humorous, yet compassionate look at ourselves…you can’t beat that!
We encourage you to pick up this compact collection, whether you partake of casual commuting or not. Throw out your preconceived notions about people, as the shared drive time is all about following unwritten rules and seeing how people behave through this honor-system. The Casual Commuter offers an amusing and literate perspective of Oakland’s myriad characters, who just happen to commute.
Thinking about it, we’re surprised that no one seemed to write about this phenomenon during the past three decades – but are glad that poet Vicky Semones decided it was worth her time and energy!
More info: You may order The Casual Commuter online, at Amazon or at Barnes & Noble. Learn more about casual carpools through this overview. Check out the casual carpool spots on this Google map, and find out more at RideNow.