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Muni Drivers Prove the Perfect Muse for this San Francisco Artist

Monday, January 3, 2022

Artist Kurt Schwartzmann's drawing showing eight images of bus interiors, five of which depict drivers

Muni has long been an enjoyable part of artist Kurt Schwartzmann's life, riding the bus to work, to school and as a sightseer.  Kurt — utilizing his monthly pass  — has ridden countless trains and buses and befriended several operators. Taking the time to learn their names and stories, Kurt envisions both the reality and the dream of navigating a bus through San Francisco streets. Pointing to an image he created (see above photo far right), Kurt noted, "I drew an escape hatch for this driver, so he could get away when he needed a break." 

In fact, Kurt’s website "Yellow Line Art," is named in honor of the demarcation at vehicle entrances behind which passengers are asked to stand.  "Conversation welcome but cannot interfere with safe operation of the bus," has real meaning for Kurt, who sees the yellow line not as a restriction, but an invitation. In his art, Kurt wants to share the feelings that Muni inspires in him — the sights, the sounds and the sensations that are all a part of the travelling experience. His first exhibition, in 2018, “was created to honor the hard-working SF Muni Operators that keep our city running.”   

He has a lot he feels grateful to Muni operators, one of whom he credits with giving his life a new trajectory. On a cold winter's night in 2008, Kurt Schwartzman was literally given the ride of his life.  Alone and unhoused, seeking refuge at a bus shelter in the Excelsior district, Kurt was surprised when one of Muni’s all-nighter "Owl" buses pulled up and the doors opened. "Come on in and keep me company," said the operator, reassuring him that he could ride even when he confessed that he didn't have the full fare.  

That night, Kurt found not just the warmth and safety of a seat on the bus, but the reassurance that he was a person worthy of welcome. Living with HIV, suffering from a meth addiction, and working at a string of jobs that he couldn't seem to hold down, Kurt says what he lacked most was, "the need for humanity."  Now Kurt has a dream — that one day he will be able to find and thank the operator who welcomed him on board the Owl and to a new destination (at press time, the identity of the operator remains a mystery). 

Kurt’s long rise out of homelessness came through his ability to connect with people and keep faith in himself and in others. With assistance from city and AIDS-related social services, as well as from kind strangers, Kurt eventually found a path forward that enabled him to establish a new life for himself in the city he loves. 

When he first moved to San Francisco, "I had no idea there was a subway," said Kurt "and so one day I got on a streetcar and was astonished when it disappeared into a tunnel under Market Street."  Since then the N Judah has been a particular favorite of his, especially when the long ride from Embarcadero out to the ocean offered Kurt a respite from the streets and a chance to meet people and listen to conversations. 

To see Kurt Schwartzmann’s online exhibit honoring Muni operators, go to Yellow Line Art Gallery