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The live cult(ure) of public transportation

January 23, 2012

A soiree devoted to people sharing their stories about Bay Area public transportation doesn't seem like it would be a hot ticket.

But when MUNI Diaries, a web-based resource devoted to collecting and curating Bay Area residents' thoughts and images about MUNI, BART, CalTrans and the various other municipal transportation services in the region regularly packs in the crowds. Saturday night's event at The Elbo Room, a bar and dance club in the Mission District, was sold out and the line to get in at the door stretched down the block.

If you think about, it, it's not that surprising that MUNI Diaries Live would attract so many people. After all, riding the bus, light rail, underground or train is such a communal experience for people who live in cities and suburban areas that the impulse to share stories provides a way for people to connect in a visceral way.

Plus, San Francisco is a literary town and people like to get up on stage and spin yarns. For another thing, MUNI Diaries live has a lower barrier to entry than other live storytelling projects going on around town such as the Pop Up Magazine, which takes place in front of several thousand people at Davies Symphony Hall, is very carefully curated months ahead of time and regularly attracts big-name literati.

MUNI Diaries is curated. The lineup on Saturday included the musician Pinched Nerve, who kicked off the show with a song entitled “Back Door, Step Down!” -- a familiar cry to anyone who's ever had trouble getting off a bus in San Francisco (or watching someone else struggle with bus mechanics), writer Jan Richman, KTVU traffic reporter Sal Castaneda, Comedian Caitlin Gill (who stole the show in my opinion with her hilarious and sad story of riders'self-centeredness in the face of an extreme situation), Glynn Washington, executive producer of NPR’s Snap Judgment, and author/editor Stephen Elliott. I was also part of the performance. More about that below.

But unlike other curated live media events, several audience members at the MUNI Diaries show also got the chance to come up on stage, share stories about their public transportation experiences and win prizes for their efforts.

MUNI Diaries Live is very much about community and that's it's greatest strength. Most of the stories -- including the one I told, or rather sang, in the form of an Elizabethan five-part madrigal with some friends, all of us dressed in ruffs culled from the Stanford Drama Department costume shop -- are gross-out tales of woe. Mine was about receiving a big, slobbery kiss from an extremely smelly tramp on BART one day a few years ago. Vomit, urine, blood and other bodily fluids frequently appear on the roster. It's all good, unclean fun.

Besides the sense of community togetherness that the event inspires, MUNI Diaries live also a fascinating example of how a media organization can forge strong, sticky connections with its constituents by combining an online presence with a live event.

More about Saturday night's show can be found here. Travel safely.

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