“Just don’t screw it up.”
That’s the thought that runs through my head as I plant my feet and reach for the two wooden handles, worn smooth by decades of sweaty palms, that will get this show on the road.
It’s a simple operation that I’ve performed hundreds of times, yet I’m always keenly aware of every bit of sensory input. The smell of wood and leather; the satisfying chunk of heavy steel levers locking into place; the shriek of metal on metal; the buzz of an excited crowd.
Clang-clang! I give the gong button on the floor a quick double stomp with my foot. With one hand, I throw the lever that releases the air brakes with a loud “his-s-s-s-s”; with the other hand I yank the massive electrical controller into position. A clunk, a shudder, a jerk — and the 101-year-old Lake Harriet trolley is headed down the tracks, making another run on this mile-long remnant of what was once one of the nation’s largest and finest streetcar systems.
Behind me, I hear the happy chatter of the passengers. Sneaking a quick glance over my shoulder, I see youngsters bouncing and wiggling with excitement as their parents try to keep them corralled. The sun is shining, a breeze is blowing and everyone is smiling.
It’s a great day to drive the trolley. But then, they all are.
The trolley is a reminder of the days before plastic, before cellphones, before superhighways concrete or digital. Virtually every piece of it was built by hand, screwed and bolted together by skilled craftsmen whose work still will look great another century from now.
And yet the operator of this 22-ton transportation time machine is a guy who’s challenged by any mechanical task more complex than flipping a light switch.
That’s OK. What I have, instead, is an ability to connect with people and an innate sense of showmanship. Those qualities are important, too, when your job is not only to drive the trolley but to convey a sense of its history and serve as something of a behatted, bowtied superhero to little kids crazy for Thomas the Tank Engine.
It’s almost always the kids who connect people to the trolley. They come dashing up the sidewalk to the Lake Harriet station, racing ahead of their parents or dragging them by the hand. They pinball excitedly around the platform as they wait for the trolley to return from its 15-minute trip, craning their necks to look up the track and spot the first glimpse of yellow paint as the streetcar emerges from the woods.
I, too, came to the trolley because of my kid. When Danny was little, we used to ride together. I went home one day and said to my wife, “You know, when I’m old and retired, it might be fun to drive the trolley.”
“Why wait?” she said. “If it looks fun, why not do it now?”
So I did. I took the training course — about 20 hours of classroom instruction and practice driving — and got my operator’s license eight years ago. Many of the operators have been driving the trolley for 20, 30, even 40 years. At age 58, I’m often the youngest member of the four-person crew.
The nonprofit Minnesota Streetcar Museum, which runs the trolley lines in Minneapolis and Excelsior, is always looking for trolley operators, and in recent years we’ve seen a pretty good influx of younger people getting their licenses. For those who don’t enjoy the public contact that comes with driving the trolley, there are opportunities to help in the maintenance shop, where skills in woodworking, metalworking and electrical troubleshooting are always welcome.
For 15 minutes, a community
In their day, the streetcars were basic transportation for the masses, carrying a daily passenger load greater than the combined population of Minneapolis and St. Paul at its peak.
Now, they’re something fun, unusual, exotic. With their bright yellow paint and vast expanses of windows, clacking and creaking as they rumble by, they present a cheerful invitation to the lakeside crowds.
Look at me, they seem to say. Have you ever seen anything like this? C’mon, get aboard.
Aaron Isaacs has been involved with the trolley for most of his life. His father, George K. Isaacs, was one of the leaders of the group that began restoring discarded streetcars in the early 1960s and then got them running, first in St. Paul and later at the current sites in Minneapolis and Excelsior.
“We didn’t want this thing stuffed and mounted in a room,” Isaacs said. “We wanted people to experience it.”
And it’s an experience unlike those we’re used to, added Isaacs, who co-wrote a streetcar history, “Twin Cities by Trolley.” In an era when we travel isolated in our cars, earbuds in, cut off from the world, riding the streetcar brings us briefly into fellowship with our neighbors. If only for 15 minutes, the trolley turns us into a community.
“We used to do things communally that we now do individually,” Isaacs said. “And I think there’s nostalgia for that.”
A flurry of photos
Now we’ve been up to Lake Calhoun and back, passing Lakewood Cemetery, where I point out the grave of Minnesota hockey legend Bill Goldsworthy. You can easily see it from the trolley because fans always leave pucks on top of the headstone. We pull into the station and I try to bring the trolley to a gentle stop — something I don’t always achieve. The air brakes are touchy, and it’s easy to slam them on too fast, ending the ride with a jerk. This time, I’m fairly successful.
The other crew members and I chat with the passengers as they get off the trolley, giving high-fives to the little ones. There’s always a flurry of picture-taking at the end of the ride. People want us to take their pictures in front of the trolley, or they want a picture of their kids with one of the uniformed crew members.
Meanwhile, the next load of passengers is boarding the car. Another bunch of wiggly kids, another batch of smiling grandparents, another group of people who will ride this rig and wonder why we ever thought it was a good idea to give them up.
Clang! His-s-s-s-s. Clunk!