A Streetcar Named …
I stepped up and into the trolley car. The floor rumbled slightly as the wheels grinded into the tracks on Market Street as it headed towards San Francisco Bay. The car lurched to a stop catching me off-guard. I grabbed onto the pole nearest me and swung into a vacant seat next to my wife, Laurel who had just plopped down into one of the remaining vacant double seats. I first looked out of the window to get my bearings. I then looked up at the circular light fixtures that ran parallel along each side of the trolley. The fixtures were identical, each had three imprinted concentric circles emanating from a fat center one, giving the impression of looking at an archery target through a magnifying glass. Now comfortably seated while listening to the sound of the steel wheels on the steel tracks I looked at each of the lights, first from the back to the front along the right-hand side of the car then from the front to the back along the left-hand side, stopping at the one directly overhead of us. As I scanned the lights above, the movement and sounds of the trolley mesmerized me for several moments. I shook my head slightly to re-focus before saying to Laurel, “I think that I’ve been on this trolley before.”
Riding in San Francisco’s vaunted trolley cars reminded me of childhood rides on the Philadelphia Transportation Company’s (PTC) number 5 trolley car line that traversed Frankford Avenue. I imagined an image of me – at 5 or 6 years old – sitting in one of the single seats that lined part of the left-hand side of the trolley car. I then viewed myself standing at the corner of Frankford Avenue and Venango Street in freezing temperatures waiting for the trolley, mad that I had been sent on what I thought of as a senseless mission to pick up Friday night’s dinner at Donna’s Oyster House. Those rides were short but they likely helped to forge my identity as a Kensington Kid, hell bent on escaping from the grip of the infamous North Philly neighborhood and travel the world. I eventually did, but those images of childhood remain vivid in my mind, especially when riding in one of San Francisco’s trolley cars.
I have visited San Francisco many times. It has always been among my favorite American cities, even as it undergoes a dramatic change of style, although not – to my mind – for the better. The tech industries have brought young workers there to live and thrive. They’re often referred to as “hipsters,” a term I find somewhat ludicrous since my “hipster” generation was emboldened by literary, musical and visual art radicals that transformed a good portion of mid-twentieth century cultural life. (So, what is it that you know of Sal Paradise and his epic journey across America? And that tune, “Fables of Faubus,” who wrote that?) These newly inscribed but often culturally clueless “hipsters” collectively spend thousands of dollars on small apartments and large meals in restaurants that cater exclusively to them and their contemporaries with what seem to be limitless partying budgets. They have gentrified once distinctive neighborhoods, forcing more traditional families to flee the city for distant suburbs that could be “Anywhere USA.” And the artists that once gave a unique character to the city? Gone. Gone to Oakland and Berkley if, that is, they can even afford those places. Does this sound familiar? It happens in cities whose destinies are wrought by eager politicians and their corporate handlers who believe they’re improving and enhancing a city by cleansing its inner core to resemble other like-minded American cities. Despite these changes San Francisco is, well, San Francisco, the “…City by the Bay… (You know the tune.)
My first visit to San Francisco was as a nineteen-year old sailor on my way to duty with the U.S Navy’s Seventh Fleet based in Japan. The first stop was Treasure Island Naval Base, located just off the northern coast of the city. The memory of that first visit remains vivid: I can still feel the chill as the wind and mist settled in the folds of my government-issued pea coat while walking or riding in the historic open doored cable cars up and down the hilly streets. When I returned from overseas duty two years later I once again spent time at Treasure Island waiting to be “debriefed,” wiped clean of the language used by Cold War spies; absolved from the rigors of military life. Like most of the sailors I itched to get back to civilian life amidst the madness of the late 1960’s. This time the trolley car rides were fewer. Busses took me where I wanted to go. Or cars driven by friends I had made in the Navy who had rented small apartments, cars that barely stayed the course of a city – and a country – that was tilting out of control. After shedding all remnants of military life while slipping in and out of the grip of San Francisco’s magical allure, I decided to head to Phoenix, Arizona where my parents had moved from Philadelphia to buy my ill father a few more years in the dry lowlands of the Sonoran Desert. Upon leaving I had two immediate goals: 1) let my hair grow long; 2) donate my sea bag and all of its GI clothing to a worthy cause. I accomplished goal #1 but have no idea what ever happened to those salty clothes. Over the years the memories I have of San Francisco have gradually faded into the background, having been replaced by far more intriguing cities that I’ve visited. But on this recent trip some of those memories appeared again, not too worn from the passage of time. And it was while riding the F trolley car that brought those memories back into focus.
As I sat in the trolley looking at familiar sites along Market Street and then at the piers jutting out from Embarcadero as the trolley rolled towards Fisherman’s Wharf, my attention migrated back to those lighting fixtures overhead. I was convinced that I had been on this car before when it was PTC’s number 5 trolley on Frankford Avenue. Why not? It felt and sounded the same as I remember it sounding when I was a Philly kid. So, the green and white PTC trolleys from Philly were now painted bright yellow, outside and inside, but the distinctive lighting fixtures remained so that ex-pats like me can reminisce about the good old days in Philly when the trolleys were a reliable source of transportation and the tallest building in town was City Hall.
(I learned later on that Philadelphia sold fourteen of their retired trolley cars to the San Francisco Municipal Railway. Those trolleys, along with nine others bought from Milan, Italy, comprise the F trolley line in downtown San Francisco.)