Monday, February 26, 2007
Friday is the big day, my 50th birthday. I’ve been thinking about how some of the dreams I had for myself turned out. I’ll tell you about one today, another tomorrow, and so on until Friday.
When I was a kid, the first thing I ever wanted to be was a trolley driver. In the neighborhood of Dorchester that I grew up in, there was a little trolley line that ran from Ashmont to Mattapan. The sounds of that trolley – the bell that was rung as it made street crossings, the squeal of the steel wheels against the rails when it was on a curve, the ascending and descending hum as it approached and then departed – were all a part of the background noise of the neighborhood. Late at night, in those uncomplicated days when street traffic was limited to no more than one or two cars an hour after 10pm, I could hear those sounds clearly from my open bedroom window in the summer, even though our house was at least a quarter-mile from the rails.
The trolley was always the first leg of any journey away from the neighborhood, whether to Mattapan for a Saturday matinee at the Oriental Theater (and then a “businessman’s lunch” at The Cathay Village Chinese Restaurant with my best friend, Stephen Murphy – an egg roll, fried rice and pork strips, served with a pot of tea and finished with fortune cookies and “bird seed candy”, just 65 cents) or a trip to downtown Boston, where the varied wonders of Jordan Marsh and a side-trip to the bowling alley at South Station made shopping fairly interesting even for an impatient young boy.
No matter where I was headed, the trolley ride itself was one of the pleasures I always looked forward to enjoying. In the early 60’s, when I was a child, the trolleys that ran on that line were double-ended. That is, there was a seat for a driver at either end of the car. I suppose they had been originally designed for a line with only one set of rails and at the end of the line the driver would then have to have walked back to the other end of the car for the return trip. That wasn’t the case on this line, so one of the driver’s seats was permanently removed on each car. This left sort of an iron pedestal onto which the cushioned seat had been originally fastened. Even without a seat, though, it was a big enough perch for a small boy to sit on (somewhat gingerly) and pretend that he was driving, albeit backwards.
If the rear driver’s seat was taken (there were many nascent trolley drivers in my neighborhood) I would get as close to the actual driver as possible, peering out of the front window as we rode along by the side of the Neponset River, through the cemetery – this trolley line had once been featured in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as the only public rail transit to do such a thing – and then up the incline and down into Ashmont Station.
(Some goofball, who I imagine must have been one of my fellow imaginary trolley drivers in his youth, took things into his own hands one night when I was in my teens. After an evening of one – or possibly ten – too many drinks, he hijacked a trolley.
The regular drivers, upon reaching the end of the line in Mattapan, would leave the trolley running with one set of doors open. Passengers could board while the driver went over to the station house for a quick cup of coffee and a smoke. This dope got on the trolley, staggered over to the driver’s seat, closed the doors, released the brakes and took off towards Ashmont. I’m not sure if there were any passengers; I would hope not. His improvised stint as a driver ended when he crossed the open grade at Central Avenue without stopping to see if a car might be coming. There was.
Luckily, as I heard it told, the automobile smashed into the side of the trolley, rather than the more gruesome alternative of the trolley crushing the car. The result was a totaled auto, a dented trolley, minor injuries for the car driver and a jail sentence for the inebriated hijacker who, despite his idiocy, caused everybody in the neighborhood to slow to a reasonable speed and look both ways when driving across those tracks ever after, which was a good thing.)
Well, I never did work for the MBTA, or for any other transit authority with a trolley system, but I did become a trolley driver. Here’s how.
There is a wonderful place in Kennebunkport, Maine, called The Seashore Trolley Museum. It is the final resting place for numerous modes of public transportation and their accoutrements. There are busses, subway cars, subway stations (when the current Orange Line of the T was built, and the old elevated line torn down, Northampton Station was transported to this place almost intact, and it sits there in the middle of the Maine woods to this day, a surreal sight for anyone who ever stood on the platform twenty five feet above Washington Street) and, of course, trolleys of all shapes and sizes and stages of decrepitude.
The folks who run the museum try their best to restore each trolley to its former glory. Many of the cars are literally wrecks, having been shipped here after being in some accident or other and deemed not worthy of repair. Volunteers, who give them at least a pounding out of dents and a fresh coat of paint, lovingly work on these reclamation projects and, whenever possible, refit them with the parts needed to bring them back to actual running condition. Other trolleys, in good shape, were acquired upon the shutting down of whatever line to which they had given many years faithful service.
The museum has its own right of way. They have built tracks, strung overhead electrical wires, and constructed a place where those trolleys in working order can be taken out for actual riding. I don’t have the figures in front of me at the moment, but I would estimate that the route is about a mile long, out and back total.
MY WIFE and I visited the museum and enjoyed it greatly. They actually have one of the double-ended trolleys from the Mattapan-Ashmont line of my youth. They’re called “Dallas” cars, since that was where they originally ran before Boston purchased them. I finally got to sit in the real driver’s seat and ring the bell. This was a vast improvement over pretending while a greasy iron rod poked uncomfortably at my rear whenever a bump was hit.
On my next birthday, MY WIFE surprised me with a gift of membership in the museum. As part of the membership package, one day each year the members are invited to come up and actually drive one of the trolleys. And that’s how I got to be a trolley driver.
The day came and a trolley was put into service on the museum’s tracks. It was one of those known to aficionados as a “Type 5.” Here is a picture.
A retired trolley driver – most of the volunteers are former transit employees - took the car out to the end of the line while we sat back and enjoyed the ride. At the far terminus, while the car was parked, we all gathered around the driver and received a brief lesson on how to operate it. We then each had a turn, under the watchful eye of our teacher, to take the car for a quarter-mile or so spin down the tracks.
It was wonderful. I got the hang of it immediately and was one of the few to bring the trolley to top speed - perhaps 30 mph – before bringing it to a halt and letting some other Walter Mitty drive it back. It was a joy I’ll never forget and one of the best birthday presents I’ve ever received. I can only hope that someday I might make one of MY WIFE’s wishes come true in similar fulfilling fashion.
Tomorrow: another dream fulfilled. See you then.
(Go To Dream #2)