Or: Just so we’re tracking together.
By Mike Smith
It’s great to see you all again. I haven’t been on hiatus. I’ve been working hellacious hours.
There is a new car in my life. It is called a streetcar. It is a railroad-type vehicle that runs on standard-width train tracks and is powered by an electric motor/battery bank and is kept alive by an overhead power wire. See? Just like a car.
The irony is complete. I can just hear the brain-trust that came up with the term streetcar.
“Okay, this vehicle will run on railroad tracks, not on normal streets. There will be no engine; it will be powered by the public power grid. It uses no gasoline and has no tires. There is no steering wheel. People can walk in and walk out some double doors that open with the push of a button. The vehicle can only load and unload at designated places that we will build. There are only a few seats so most must stand. It is basically a train.”
“What shall we call it then?”
“We’re calling it a streetcar.”
“Yes, a streetcar it will be. In honor of all the ways in which it does not resemble a car used on the street at all.”
So here it is:
See? Not a car at all. But it is not as dumb as it might seem. The streetcar as a mode of transportation predates the modern automobile. The streetcar started out as a horse-drawn omnibus, or horsecar. It was a bus-like vehicle towed by a horse team. This occurred about the time tinkerers were just beginning to play around with motorized carts in their barns and basements–many years before the actual “car” as we know it was seen on any street. I think you could make an argument that pavement would not have been invented if cars had not been.
(A little known secret: from 1884 until 1940, Seattle had dozens of streetcar and trolley and cablecar lines. That’s how progressive we are. Uh, were.)
Part of the definition of a streetcar is that it does operate in traffic. By contrast, “light rail” is considered so because it operates on a separate purpose-built route away from traffic. So technically I drive a streetcar, which bears a great resemblance to light rail.
It is a new year and I really enjoy it. Which is a good thing because the 60-plus hours weekly I have been “in the cab” have made it hard for me to write my column.
Another (although only slight) drawback for me is that due to the extra concentration required to operate a train that can only stop and not swerve, I am confined to a closed-in cab. This has kept me from visiting overly much with the patrons. But, after a few months of this, I’m becoming more adept at choo-chooing, so I have started in a tentative fashion to keep my door open and my little world has become a better place for it.
The streetcar is a tourist magnet, and I enjoy orienting visitors around Seattle. Can I just say it is nice to meet people who are genuinely enjoying Seattle? Many of those who actually live here don’t seem to.
I’ve noticed, too, that people on the streetcar genuinely appreciate the experience. Visitors are often less guarded and more open. So as a formerly-closeted yet social being, I’m relishing my recent inclusion in their lives as ad hoc tour guide and muse regarding all things Seattle.
For example, one young woman was on my streetcar and needed to get to Dukes. Her phone was and dead she had lost track of her friends and how to get there. I helped her as best I could. I knew it was somewhere near the South Lake Union Park but did not know for sure. (Because you don’t have to teach me twice, I spent one of my lunch breaks walking around the area to find out what really was down there. In case you are interested, Duke’s is behind Chandlers Crab House.)
I have also adopted a policy I like to call the “open window policy.” I always leave my window open so I can talk to people on the platform who look lost. I adopted this policy after feeling a bit like a jerk honking at folks who cannot seem to parallel park on Westlake and Terry.
Our streetcars travel tracks that have been laid down in one of the lanes of both streets. It is tight. So if you are not good at parallel parking I’d suggest a few days’ practice before eating at Butcher’s Kitchen, Mistral, or Barolo. I don’t yell at anyone, though. I simply like to acknowledge that I am not mad at them. I just want them to still have a rearview mirror when they’ve finished their meal. Nothing ruins a nice night out like a $200.00 car repair. And yup, it would be your fault. Lines are drawn firmly and clearly.
In other modes, I use my window to say thank-you or have a nice day or whatever, perhaps “tootles.” After all, I’m in a 70,000 lb. vehicle that would simply crinkle your car flat. I can afford to be nice. I have nothing to prove. I’m already large and imposing. I could be wearing slippers and a tutu. It wouldn’t matter. I’m big!
I’ve rambled enough about this thing. I do have a lot of new stories to tell despite my brief history as a streetcar operator. Oh, one thing, though: I tell my friends who live outside the area that I drive a train. They are suitably impressed. Of course, why shouldn’t they be? What vision is conjured up when you think of a train?
Awesome, aren’t I?
See you at the bottom of Yesler!