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Reynolds Rap

Riding the rolling cubicles, tech workers are tourists in their own town

For more than a decade, private buses have carted workers south from San Francisco. They were barely noticed until the latest tech boom hit and companies like Twitter took Mayor Ed Lee up on his generous tax breaks. Activists, upset that longtime residents are being pushed out by rising rents and record Ellis Act evictions, started protesting by blocking the buses. They also brought attention to the fact that multibillion-dollar companies were paying zero to pick up passengers at city bus stops, so last month the Metropolitan Transportation Agency levied a $1 per stop fee on the private buses, claiming that’s all the law allowed. That’s ridiculous, of course, because whenever city leaders want to raise money in “creative” ways, from selling off Golden Gate Park to the highest bidder to adding Sunday parking meters, they just rewrite the laws to suit their needs. Watching Mayor Lee tiptoe on eggshells around Twitter and other tech-boom-come-lately corporations is like watching a kid in a sandbox suck up to the kid with the best toys so he doesn’t take them home.

While I understand the frustration of a disappearing middle class dealing with yet another influx of young, affluent techies, the workers on those buses are the wrong targets for their wrath. They’re just the worker rats, or should I say worker squirrels — as Carrie Bradshaw once said, squirrels are just rats with better outfits — and those smoky-windowed chariots are really just rolling cubicles that allow companies to squeeze out an additional two to three hours worth of work. Tech commuters don’t even know San Francisco; they’re tourists in their own town, coming back to their overpriced apartments to sleep, get up, and do it all over again. I know a little about this because I was once a worker squirrel on a golden treadmill myself.

The Silicon Valley and I grew up together, and during college I took a summer job at Apple (I’m dating myself here, but it was called Apple Computer then, and The Steves were still padding the hallways). I liked it, so I returned each summer and eventually worked full time for several years. Youthful hormones got the better of me and I moved to San Francisco for a guy (don’t judge). I rented a two-story Victorian flat in the Haight-Ashbury for $1,500 a month with five college friends who also wanted to live in the city for various reasons.

There weren’t chartered buses then, so I carpooled with a few other Apple folks, mostly natives who refused to trade in their city by the bay for the valley of the Olive Garden. We bonded over Peet’s Coffee runs, breakfast stops, and, in a pre-iPhone world, stimulating conversation. On the way home we sometimes stopped for happy hour or dinner to wait out the traffic. One of my occasional carpool mates was a young engineer making six figures who often stayed on a cot in his office. He once did the math, dividing his salary by the crazy hours he worked, and realized he was making less per hour than a fast food employee. I didn’t work those crazy hours, but by the time I got home I was too exhausted to join my roommates, who all worked in the city, on any social excursions. Breakfast and lunch were consumed in the car or at the office, and dinner, if not with my fellow carpoolers, was whatever I could throw together fast so I
could hit the sack.

One Saturday night some friends from the Valley came up to celebrate a birthday at the House of Prime Rib. I was so proud being “the city girl,” driving myself to the restaurant and valet parking. After a wonderful evening I hopped back in my car, made a wrong turn, and promptly got lost in the Tenderloin. I kept driving in circles and finally wound up in SOMA. My ex-boyfriend had been a bouncer at a club there and I had visited him often when I still lived down south, so I knew how to get to the freeway. I got on heading south, got off at the nearest exit, and got back on going toward the city, which was the only way I was able to find my way home. I realized that night that I didn’t know the city I called “home” at all.

When a dot-com startup called LookSmart offered me a position as lifestyle editor, I took it. Don’t get me wrong: Apple was a great experience, it’s still a great company; I kept my stock because I believed in The Steves, and I still believe in the products (I am typing this on a MacBook Air). Like the boyfriend, LookSmart didn’t work out. That was the first San Francisco tech boom, which went bust as all booms, from the Gold Rush to this latest tech explosion, eventually do. The city can be a beautiful but cruel mistress: Of the six friends who moved together, I’m the only one still living here. I eventually bought that two-story Victorian flat from the landlord and parlayed my passion for writing into a full-time gig.

Sometimes I miss Apple, but I don’t miss the squirrel race. I love that I can take a break from writing, drive to the beach, and watch the sun set over the Golden Gate Bridge — and I’m happy to say I have no problem finding my way home.

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E-mail: susan@marinatimes.com