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Me and My Fast Pass: A Love Story
July's Fast Pass

I began working full-time at Red Room on June 1. And there are many wonderful things about working here--brilliant, inspiring colleagues and Red Room members, for instance. What's more, the offices are eight blocks from my apartment, so it takes me about 12 minutes to walk to work.

I moved to San Francisco almost 20 years ago (I've moved away for a couple of short periods, but I've always come back). In that time, I've never owned a car, and I've bought a Muni Fast Pass every month. Muni is the affectionate diminutive of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency--our fair city's public-transportation system--and a Fast Pass lets you ride all Muni buses, trams, and trolleys, as well as Bay Area Rapid Transit trains within San Francisco city limits, for a month.

The price of a monthly non-discounted Fast Pass was just increased to $55 (a one-time fare is $2). Shortly before I began working at Red Room, I calculated that a Fast Pass was no longer cost-effective for me: walking to work every day meant that paying the one-time fare as needed would save me money. In June, I counted the number of times I used my Fast Pass, and this count confirmed that, because I now live, work, and play primarily within a walkable area, I could stop buying my Fast Pass at the beginning of every month.

But when July 1 arrived, I bought one anyway. I need my Fast Pass. It's more than just a colorful piece of light cardboard with a magnetic strip, and more than a mere ticket to downtown and back. My Fast Pass is a talisman, a memento, and a friend.

I've always admired the Fast Pass's looks, and the current design hasn't changed much since the early 1990s. It features two vertical stripes of color, separated by a shiny holographic strip--the colors change every month, and I still feel a mild, anticipatory excitement as I prepare to buy a new Fast Pass: "What will the colors be?" Sometimes the two colors are pleasingly complementary, and sometimes they provide a startling contrast. Sometimes the symbolism of the colors is clear. (July 2007's Fast Pass was red and blue, for instance.) And sometimes they require a bit of contemplation and interpretation. (Why was February 2008's Fast Pass half sulphuric green and half cantaloupe?)

My Fast Pass features a bold, black A, which stands for "adult" (this means that I pay the full adult fare) but feels sort of personally approving: there's no better grade than "A," right? The design also features the fantastic Muni "worm" logo designed by the pioneering graphic designer Walter Landor in the 1970s. I've always loved this logo. It's timeless but also clearly of the 1970s (a uniquely San Francisco sort of era). It's authoritative but also playful. It's rectangular and round. It's perfect.

So a Fast Pass is a pleasure for the senses. And my Fast Pass feels in some ways like a San Francisco "ID card." Perhaps because I spent a lot of my childhood yearning for big-city life while moping around small towns and drab suburbs, I still think it's pretty cool to be a person who travels by subway. It's clearly laughable to describe the Muni underground railway as "glamorous," but sometimes it feels that way to me. My Fast Pass symbolizes freedom, too. With it, I can go anywhere in this magical city that I love so. If you say, "I found a great new place for dim sum on Taraval Street" or "There's a horribly depressing new movie at the Embarcadero," I can reply, "Let's go now!" If you say, "Let's get a box of wine and go to Baker Beach" or "Please come over; I need a friend," I can say, "I'm on my way."

I think that this feeling of freedom is related to how I felt during my first years as a reasonably responsible, self-supervising grownup, right here in San Francisco. Those were the days when losing my Fast Pass before the end of the month was a heartbreaking catastrophe. It meant either spending some of my very limited disposable income on one-way fares or walking everywhere for a couple of weeks. Losing my Fast Pass clipped my wings! I can now afford to take a cab if I need to. But those poorer days imparted a lasting aura of preciousness to my Fast Pass.

Of course, my relationship with Muni is complicated--the underground system has bad days, and I've spent a lot of impatient hours waiting (in the rain and cold) for delayed trains over the years. But I've seen so much of San Francisco, watched it change and grow (as I've changed and grown), from inside Muni streetcars and buses, that my Fast Pass can take me places far off of Muni's map--to a memory of a romantic date at a tiny sushi place that's gone now, of a perfect summer picnic with friends in Dolores Park, or of commuting to my first office job downtown. So many of my memories involve Muni or the vistas therefrom.

Although I have occasionally given a Fast Pass to a beggar at the end of the month (the passes are good through the third day of the following month), I usually keep them. There's a stack of them in a box on my dresser. A couple of years ago, I heard about an artist named John Kuzich, who was asking San Franciscans to send him old Fast Passes for a massive art project (it will be shown at the De Young Museum in August). My first thought was "I totally get that--the Fast Pass is incredibly appealing and evocative."

My second thought was "But I'm keeping mine."

6 Comment count
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What a lovely post!

Charles, I share your anticipation every month to see what colors the Fast Pass will sport. I also share your love for the Muni logo, and was appalled at movements to change it.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

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Change the Muni logo?!

Never! I would be very upset! I was sad enough to see the delightfully 70s-looking orange, yellow, and brown color scheme for trains and buses phased out several years ago. And then there were the "Muni meltdown" months after Muni switched over to the current silver-and-red trains. ... I've grown accustomed to the the new colors, but it seems odd to me that the Muni driver uniforms (brown with orange details) still belong with the old color scheme and haven't been updated.

Thanks, Huntington.


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I save mine, too...

Like you, I have a stack of old Muni fast passes going way back to my arrival in San Francisco in 1997. Every time I do an apartment purge, I consider recycling them and just can't bring myself to let them go. Like you, the fast passes represent the freedom I've enjoyed and depended on during my 12 happy years in The City. Thanks for this post - charming as always. And I find there's something comforting about seeing the operators in their brown polyester. *smile*

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Thanks, Bash.

I say, keep 'em. They're great mementos! Thanks for the nice comment, and it's great to see you on Red Room, Bash. Hope all is well. 

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Fast Pass

$55! I think that the first one I bought was $20.

I used to have all my Fast Passes, too. They were like postcards from the city.

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Memories Passed

Hello Charles,

What a marvelous post. This makes me think of the last time I purchased a bus pass, high school. The bus passes I bought in Berkeley didn't have the same charm as their San Francisco cousins.

Abraham Mertens, redroom.com