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"A lesson in American history riding the 14 Mission bus"

The stories start in Africa, China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala--and that special place of the deeply troubled

Every morning I walk down Bernal hill to catch the 14 Mission going to downtown San Francisco. As I step up the rubber-treaded stairs and flash my Muni pass at the driver, I await my lesson in U.S. history. And in sociology, global economics, race relations, immigration, psychology and fashion.

Today, when the bus lurches to a halt at my stop, it is crowded with passengers. Neatly dressed African American women with sensible nurses' shoes coming off the night shift at the Jewish Home for the Aged. Chinese elders in padded jackets and Filipina grandmas with pink plastic shopping bags overflowing with greens from the Pacific Market. Some passengers are reading the sports section of The Chronicle, some the Chinese-language World Journal; others carry well-thumbed small black Bibles in Spanish.

At Mission and Cesar Chavez streets, the day laborers board. They joke with each other in accents from the eastern Salvadoran provinces of Usulutan and Santa Ana. Heading for construction sites downtown, they wear heavy boots and paint-stained overalls. Even if there are seats left, they courteously continue to stand, arguing about futbol, wages and life in the United States.

At 26th Street, a gaggle of fifth-graders clad in the navy blue sweaters and pleated plaid skirts of St. Elizabeth's clamor on, excited about their field trip to the Exploratorium or the Aquarium. Their names are neatly printed on white plastic-coated cards and pinned on to their jackets. Vietnamese girls with long black hair tied with neon-colored scrunchies carrying Hello Kitty lunch boxes. Nguyen Pham, Jeannie Leung and Thuy Monica Phat. Their African American classmates wear 49ers jackets over starched white shirts and pressed blue serge pants. Eric Jackson's plastic glasses keep slipping down his nose as he reads his Tron comic book. His seatmate, Kenyatta Sanders, short legs dangling over the vinyl bus seat, peers over Eric's shoulder. "Oh man," the boys point at some explosion or daring feat in the comic, "Looka that!" they shout, oblivious to the elderly Filipina manang beside them, thumbing a prayer book with a haloed Jesus on the cover.

Latina girls in lacy socks and patent leather shoes, Lucinda Contreras and Maria Lopez, sit together and point out the window at the merchants hanging up pastel dresses under the awnings. Their parents came here from Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala. They study new math and physical education and take field trips to all the museums in the city. Maybe one had an aunt that was turned back at the border and is stuck in a maquiladora in Tijuana. Their mothers send money home to brothers and sisters in Michoacan, Tegucigalpa or a village in the mountains of San Miguel.

At 24th Street, a crowd piles on at the BART station. "Move to the back, to the back," shouts the patient driver, a heavy-set African American woman with long braids and magenta nails. A trio of homeless vets board, heading for the VA hospital. Grizzled, with long stringy hair, they carry bedrolls and take up too much space with their bony knees and smell of the streets. Their outfits -- greasy dungarees and cheap quilted parkas -- are accented with the colors of our different wars: the mustard and green camouflage caps of Vietnam and the black, white and gray vests from Desert Storm. Bottles of Thunderbird barely concealed in paper bags jut out of their jacket pockets; their clothes reek of stale cigarette smoke. They take care not to bump into the little kids on a field trip.

They've crossed paths before, these vets and these children. In Vietnam, El Salvador, Honduras. The bus lurches at a changing light and a shaky vet bumps into a startled young woman in a business suit. He shouts obscenities in slurry voice at the driver. The kids stare wide-eyed, then turn back to their comics, their Game Boys and their whispers.

The Department of Social Services Mental Health Unit is at Duboce, so all along the way clients heading there -- scared, dreaming, frantic and fighting off demons -- climb on the bus, showing a disabled person's pass to the driver, and take a seat up front or thrash wildly through the crowd, depending on the day, their mood and particular madness.

A woman in a red corduroy jacket, grimy sneakers and no socks, screeches to an imaginary companion. "William, why do you say that? Answer me, William. Why? Why does William say that? Oh, William," she lowers her voice to a deep, seductive gurgle, "I heard you, I heard what you said."

A few people look around for William, and seeing no one, glance at the woman in red corduroy, then back to their newspapers or out the steamy windows at the Mission Street signs for tacos, 99 Cent stores and multilingual chiropractors.

Another woman rocks back and forth in the front seat, and volunteers to help the driver. "You got a transfer?" she asks in a monotone, her shiny black hair swinging over her face as she sways. "Did you pay? Transfer? Fare? Transfer? Your fare?"

A vet whose matted sandy hair matches his khaki jacket stumbles onto the bus and spots a transfer on the floor. "This must be my lucky day," he shouts as he waves it triumphantly above his head.

"Did you pay your fare? Transfer?" the rocking woman intones as he passes by her seat.

"Sure did," he grins a toothless smile, "got it right here!"

"Sixteenth Street," the driver calls out patiently. "BART, 22 Fillmore."

We are in the middle of the swiftly modernizing Valencia Street corridor. Young women with chic black helmets of hair, dark maroon lipstick, large eyeglasses and pleated miniskirts board with their boyfriends in tight leather jackets and Doc Martins. They're heading for the cyber workshops South of Market, balancing Fendi briefcases, copies of MacWorld and large lattes in paper cups. They chat about the Up and Down Club, stock options and how hard it is to buy a house in the city. They ignore the here-and-now drama around them, the prayers in Tagalog, girls gossiping in Spanish and the random shouts from vets who didn't make it all the way back.

What do the maroon lipsticks know of their fellow passengers? Of the ones who traveled here on crowded boats from refugee camps in Thailand and Hong Kong? Of the ones who fled from massacres in El Mozote and Rio Negro. Refugees from hunger in Honduras and the Philippines. Of the vets who shipped out at 19, muscular and energetic, proud of their country and proud of the uniforms they now roll up for pillows on the sidewalks in front of Mission Street taquerias.

"Van Ness," our driver calls out. "City Hall, 47 Fisherman's Wharf, Caltrain." She waves to a driver going back up Mission Street.

It's my stop. I climb down after the gaggle of children who line up behind their teachers, heading for the main library. On the way out, the swaying woman asks, "Transfer? Did you pay your fare?"

Elaine Elinson is the co-author of a history of civil liberties in California that is scheduled to be published by Heyday Books next year. Contact us at insight@sfchronicle.com


This article appeared on page E - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle