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The after-work drink gathers new steam among Peninsula train commuters

By Cecily Barnes

Twenty-eight-year-old Stefan Smith, an industry analyst for Dataquest, stands soberly behind a rickety patio table at Stoddard's bar, collecting cash and stamping the hands of the gathering after-work crowd. A few minutes before six o'clock, Smith's partner Mike Testa, a software-testing manager at IBM, adjusts his conductor's hat and shouts through a large megaphone, "The beer train is now departing." Setting down dozens of half-full beers, the not-yet-rowdy crowd clusters in groups, walks to the crosswalk and waits responsibly for the "walk" signal to appear, a formality that gets ditched as the night wears on.

The first stretch of train time, from Sunnyvale to Mountain View, is relatively composed. I sit with Stefan, who appears overwhelmed by the turnout for his event, neurotically sifting through his backpack and recounting the massive preparations undertaken for the evening's Silicon Valley-based, drunken-driver-free, full-moon beer bash. Keith Baranowski, a software salesperson for QAD, thought up the idea three years ago and made arrangements with 20 of his closest friends to give it a go. When the first four events went successfully, with between 30 and 50 participants, Baranowski, Smith and Testa decided to expand. In February, they designed a Web-site invitation to everyone in the valley and encouraged preregistration. More than 200 people clicked on www.beertrain.com to sign on in advance. Testa and Smith forewarned CalTrain, the police department and every bar owner on the schedule.

En route to the itinerary's second bar, Molly Magee's in Mountain View, our group, which is nearing 200 people, claims the sidewalks and quickly forms a colossal line the instant we reach the bar.

"Are you here with the beer train?" asks Jeff Zammas, a systems analyst for Wells Fargo Bank. Once I say yes, the connection is made. We exchange stories about how we heard of the event and what we think so far. With little to talk about besides the beer train, at least at this point in the evening, Jeff politely excuses himself. Seconds later a loud voice booms through the megaphone, "The train's leaving in 10 minutes."

Back on the train, things have become a bit rowdier. Voices are louder, people move through the aisles and four bold riders play quarters with Heinekens on the second level of the train. A flustered-looking CalTrain employee in his late 50s grasps a metal pole and stares at the potentially troublesome crowd.

"All I want to do is keep the regular passengers away from the rowdies," Jim Hilliard explains. "As long as that happens, it's not too bad. This whole car is reserved just for this group."

I ask Hilliard what preparations he's made, should the group get out of hand. As he contemplates an answer, an intoxicated guy with large beads of sweat dripping from beneath his green baseball cap swings around the corner of a nearby metal pole and puts his face directly in front of Hilliard.

"What would you do if I got out of hand," he taunts. "Would you throw me off the train? While it was moving?"

Hilliard converses with sweat-boy for a few seconds before he successfully diffuses the situation and turns his attention back to me. "This guy is what's wrong with stuff like this," Hilliard says, as the train slows to a stop.

Our group spills through the door and sets off for bar No. 3, the Q Cafe in Palo Alto. I head for the ladies' room and have a stall within seconds, unheard of at a crowded bar but reflective of the beer train's uneven male-female ratio--the line for the men's room is six guys long. While digging through my purse for lipstick, I meet Amy. Overflowing with energy and probably a little bit buzzed, Amy leans against the paper-towel dispenser to tell me what just happened to her.

"Oh my God, when I walked in here there were these four guys sitting at this table, and I just went over, sat down and starting talking with them," Amy laughs. "They weren't even on the beer train."

Amy grabs my arm and invites me to come meet her friends, whom I talk with until we emerge from the bar and go back to the train stop. Running across an intersection amid a 75-person group, I lose Amy and walk to the train stop alone, where I meet Patrick. At 10:32 the train pulls up, and Patrick and I move into the only available space in the stairwell. A few pint glasses from the last bar have made their way onto the train, and the rack where commuters set their briefcases is being used by two women as monkey bars. Other people hang the top half of their body from the train's upper level to the lower, howling original comments like "Yeah, beer train."

After San Mateo our now thinning group catches the train south to San Carlos and then back to Sunnyvale. Only 25 people make it to last call, but amazingly, the night ended virtually event-free. No arrests, no fights and no injuries. In July or August, Smith says, the beer train will ride again.

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From the March 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro.

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