Coming to Grips

Apr 30, 2010 at 12am

I was born and bred in the Bay Area

which means I grew up ignoring San Francisco’s cable cars. I don’t even remember my first and only time on the trolley. Even though riding the carousel at Pier 39 is an indelible childhood memory, the cable car is not. That’s right: Pier 39 trumps the cable car for as long as I can remember. Ouch.

And I’m not the only local who feels this way. We can rattle off bus lines, poppin’ neighborhoods, and new restaurants and bars in the blink of an eye. But ask us where the Powell-Hyde cable car goes, exactly, and you’re likely to get a blank stare and a raised eyebrow in response. We’ll ride the cable cars when friends or family visit, sure. But it doesn’t stop us from dramatically sighing and complaining for weeks about the northeast part of town.

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It’s sad, really. But admittedly, there are some very good reasons for this. Cable cars are limited in where they go and also in the diversity of its riders. They’re arguably kitschy, something urban people hate unless it comes with a heaping dose of irony. The cars’ relative slowness could shame even the pokiest crosstown bus line and, to add insult to injury, it’s $5 a pop if you don't have a pass.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. I took my first memorable ride in 2008, the first year I had my own Fast Pass and therefore got "free" rides on the world's only operating cable car system. I rode one because, well, why not?

Immediately, I was hooked, but no one else seemed to understand. These charming transit vehicles are too good for tourists’ use only. This story is my attempt to shed some light on the most misunderstood of SF icons, the trolley.

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Every San Franciscan, even those who would never deign to climb on the cars, can recognize the sound: the whirring of cable car machinery continues long after the vehicle is out of sight. I love that noise, and if it wasn't among the least-safe things to do around here, I'd stand in the middle of Hyde, Powell, or California Streets and listen to it all day.

Those whirring cables, the backbone of the four remaining cable car lines, run all the time – 24/7/365. Each cable car is equipped with a grip – a huge set of pliers that reaches underground – and a gripman who grabs the moving cable, which then moves the trolley. Unlike the cables, the grip doesn't whirr as much as it clanks and clatters into place. It doesn’t do this on its own, of course – the gripman handles these pliers for us.

Manning the giant set of pliers takes real skill. The grip has no marks and there's no cheat sheet indicating how far you need to pull it back. You have to feel it to know whether it's in its proper position underground. The grip is loosened when the car needs to stop. To go at top speed, 9.5 miles per hour, the grip is set to hold on as tightly as possible. The nuances of turning vary depending on the hill — being tasks of precision, it’s rather difficult to explain how gripmen do this, exactly.

To further understand the cable car, culturally and mechanically, I turned to James Bullock, gripman on the California-Powell line, and his conductor, Freeman Chee.

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I hopped on James and Freeman’s trolley on California and Powell one day, after it stopped at the intersection early in their shift.

The California line is the least-ridden one of the bunch, making it far easier to jump on to like they do in the movies. I take a seat near the grip and try to stop sliding around as the car progresses downhill. I envy its cleanliness and general old-timey feel; if only I could drag this thing home and replace the 49 with it.

I immediately start plying James with questions. He stares straight ahead the whole time, but his face stays open to conversation; he doesn’t miss a beat on this thing. Makes sense after 26 years on the job.

There’s an easy rhythm to both James and Freeman, and it makes perfect sense that they’re both so musically inclined. Both play in a cable-car-driver band called The Slot Blades. With ease they discuss big band music, Count Basie, John Coltrane, and the rise and fall of San Francisco’s live music scene.

Gripman James has been in San Francisco for nearly 39 years and with Muni for 32 of them. He started operating cable cars in 1984, soon after a system-wide upgrade to the deteriorating infrastructure. James makes this physical work seem like a piece of cake. Since you throw your whole body into the job, pumping iron at "the barn" at Washington and Mason is key. James surfs in the mornings and has been known to bicycle farther than a lot of us drive in a day. He doesn't drink, either, opting instead to shoot pool and head home to his wife after his shifts.

When they're off duty (or whenever they feel like it), The Slot Blades get together for practices or performances. They play at the local Carnaval celebration, the cable car bell-ringing competition in San Francisco, and when commissioned, they jam. As far as their style goes, Freeman says, "It's got some structure, some anarchy, and a lot of it seems to work."

Reminds me of Muni, without the a-lot-of-it-seems-to-work part.

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One thing that attracts tourists – and should lure in some locals – is the historical importance of trolley service. In this boom-and-bust town, the mechanics of the cable car haven't changed much at all since 1880.

It was invented in SF, by a Victorian-era player named Andrew Hallidie. He dreamed up the cable car after seeing horses slip, fall, and die after trying to haul their loads up San Francisco's hills. Modeled after similar vehicles used in gold mines, he invented a system that would work above ground as a mode of transportation. The first car was tested in 1873 on Clay Street. Some 137 years later, this transit system is the only one on the National Register of Historic Places.

How do I know this? Well, I went to the Cable Car Museum, a restored brick building on the corner of Washington and Mason.

It's Disneyland for transit nerds, except unlike the caricatures of "adventure" and "tomorrow," these old cables, antique cable cars, and running machinery are the real deal. Upon entering, the place immediately sounds like a loud version of the whirring cable car. What the hell’s going on in here?

Upstairs you come face-to-face with enormous cables: the same ones that wind their way through the city’s underbelly of sheaves. Downstairs, you'll find more sheaves – measuring 8.5 feet in diameter – that make it all happen. These wheels with grooved rims smoothly turn round and round in the dark barn. Using good ole' electricity, the sheaves spin and move the cables, which are visible from several points in the museum.

History weaves its way throughout Victorian-era moving-picture clips, an actual cable car bell (go ahead, give it a ring), and the requisite gift shop. A hilariously dated movie from the 1970s plays in one corner, explaining how the cable car works. Everything from the people to the orange-and-white Muni Metro cars is set against a backdrop ripped straight out of  The Streets of San Francisco .

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Unlike much of Muni's driver fleet, James and Freeman actually live in San Francisco. So, as the unofficial ambassadors for the city, what do these locals like about the cable car? Everyone's in a great mood, they say. It's sexy. It's romantic. You get a great view. James calls cable cars the “soufflé of transit experiences,” and I'm inclined to agree with him.

Day to day, they see it through the lens of the tourist on a vehicle that generally makes people happy. The same is true as a rider. Instead of tapping into my BlackBerry or staring blankly out the window, I thought about the nice weather, the vistas I never see on my commute, how it feels to crest a hill and then dip on the other side, and what visitors might be doing or thinking on their trip here: this slow, scenic roller coaster is a good start. You should try it some time.

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Ride the cable car! Free with a Fast Pass, $5 a ride otherwise. Beginning January 2011, the California Street line will be closed for about six months while its tracks and various mechanisms get an upgrade.

The Cable Car Museum is free (free!) and open almost every day. Other awesome things on various cable car lines include the Buena Vista Cafe on Hyde and Beach, home to the famous and worth-it Irish coffee, Cordon Bleu on California and Polk, a greasy spoon with some of the best Vietnamese food in town, as well as the kitschy-fun Tonga Room in The Fairmont Hotel. The Tonga Room has been in danger of closing for some time now, so go before you miss out.

Looking for other fun tales of transit? Check out Muni Diaries .




































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The cable cars start running at 6 a.m., so get going that early if you can swing it. During weekends, many of these cars fill up immediately at the start of the line, so it’ll be very, very difficult to get a spot if your timing’s off.

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Give your money to the conductor and let him or her know where you’d like to get off. The gripman will surely be knowledgeable and helpful, but for safety reasons direct questions to the conductor

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By all means, stand on the side and take in the scenery by hanging on to the post. But, my personal favorite is to stand in the back, facing the opposite direction you’re going. You’re not elbow-to-elbow with as many people and it’s fun to catch things as they come into your periphery instead of staring impatiently ahead to see what’s coming next. You’ll know what I mean when you can see Alcatraz from Russian Hill as the Powell-Hyde cable car climbs and dips on its southbound journey.

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