Everybody has a story: Lighter side of light rail got heavy in San Jose

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I don't claim to be an expert when it comes to light rail. I don't know if we need it in Vancouver, nor do I have any ideas on how to pay for it if it is ever built. Well, other than hanging a bar car off the end of the train. I do know I'd rather ride the train than sit in traffic or search for parking, which is why I rode light rail in the late 1990s while attending San Jose State University, a campus with 10 million students and 14 parking spaces.

I still remember my first journey. I recall it vividly because I sat next to a guy who was the size of a Redbox vending machine and had a prominent crescent-shaped mark in the center of his forehead. But more about that later.

If the Vancouver light rail extension is ever built, the ticket purchasing process will no doubt be more user friendly than it was in the '90s. Back then, it was a cash-only transaction, and operating the fare machine -- which had more menus than Denny's on Mother's Day -- was daunting for those not possessing the skill set to, say, manage the cockpit settings of an Airbus A380.

First, you'd determine which zone you were traveling to, information that could be gleaned by consulting the color-coded map. It was located 200 feet away, at the opposite end of the boarding platform. On the other side of the train tracks.

After selecting the zone, it was time to pay, preferably using a brand new bill that you personally picked up at the nearest U.S. Mint location. If that wasn't possible, employing the services of a professional bill smoother was highly recommended, as any crease, wrinkle, cut, pucker or other abnormality would result in the machine rejecting your money. This it would do by expelling the bill at a velocity approaching Mach 1, after which you and assembled bystanders watched helplessly as the jettisoned bill fluttered through the air and then dropped into the 5-foot-deep track pit, coming to rest against the electrified third rail. The third rail was easily recognized by the sign reading "DANGER!" along with a depiction of a electrocuted stick person with a lightning bolt protruding from his head.

If you somehow were lucky enough to retrieve the errant bill, upon returning to the demon ticket machine you'd find that it had been taken over by a thoroughly flummoxed nincompoop attempting to purchase tickets -- one at a time -- for a group of 40 screeching kindergartners on a field trip.

In my case, the ticket machine rejected my $10 bill four times before inexplicably concluding it was legal tender after all, and dispensed my ticket and change -- onto the ground at my feet. To make matters worse, my change consisted of six Sacajawea dollar coins. That's a nearly useless Chucky Cheese token lookalike that's loathed even by Coinstar.

The train featured Jetsons-style sliding doors and a pleasant recorded voice that thanked us for riding light rail and also admonished us to watch for suspicious people or packages. That's the thing about mass transit: Everyone looks suspicious, including me, with my bulging pocket of Sacajaweas jangling as if I'd just heisted some barista's tip jar.

Speaking of crime, some people worry that, if light rail is built, hooligans will descend upon Vancouver to plunder and perhaps pillage, a word the dictionary defines as "plunder," so to do both seems redundant. I do believe these concerns are unwarranted, as criminals are eager to make a quick post-plunder escape, which is challenging when aboard a conveyance that travels at roughly half the velocity of blowing litter. In San Jose in 2010, a bank robber apparently mistook light rail for a bullet train and jumped aboard, attempting to make a getaway. Police officers simply walked along next to the train, eyeballing him through the tinted windows the entire time, until it reached the next stop about a block away, where they arrested him without incident. Thank you for riding light rail.

The train I rode had only one unoccupied seat, next to the plus-sized fellow with the crescent-shaped forehead blemish. His head was the circumference of a prizewinning pumpkin, and his headphones leaked heavy metal music at a volume high enough to be heard by passengers on other trains -- in Connecticut. He nearly filled both seats, leaving an upholstered strip the width of a dog tongue upon where I struggled to balance while watching for suspicious activity.

My jumbo seat mate was staring at me. "Drain plug!" he suddenly blurted out. Not knowing the proper response to this particular conversation starter, I remained silent. "I was changing the oil -- car fell off the jack!" he shouted while pointing to his forehead. All I could come up with was "Ouch," which wasn't nearly sympathetic enough for someone whose face had collided with the underside of a plummeting vehicle. Fortunately, a piece of litter blowing by outside the window diverted his attention. Which reminds me, riding light rail does allow riders a glimpse of unfamiliar areas of the city.

Should they build light rail here? I'm no expert. However, I would recommend letting Jiffy Lube change your oil.


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