Tales From the Grip

by Val Lupiz

Tales From the Grip Photo by Val Lupiz.

December 2011 - "Maybelle the Cable Car"

October 2008 - "Rookie Bites"

May 2005 - "California, Here I Come"

October 2004 - "When Push Comes To Shove"

June 2004 - "Central, We Have a Problem..."

April 2004 - My Little Deuce Coupe

December 2003 (bonus) - Christmas Edition

December 2003 - Rain Rain Go Away
August 2003 - Diaries of a New Gripman
April 2003 - A quarterly report of contemporary cable car happenings and the people who run San Francisco's cable cars.
A Note From Your Host.

The Friends of the Cable Car Museum.
The Cable Car Home Page

Return to San Francisco Miscellany.

December 2011 - "Maybelle the Cable Car"

For many years, gripman Val Lupiz has called Powell Street car 9 Maybelle, after the title character of Virginia Lee Burton's classic children's book Maybelle the Cable Car (1952). Virginia Lee Burton wrote many books that Val and I both enjoyed growing up, including Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and The Little House (1942).
Car 9 Car 9 in 1984. Photo by Walter Rice. All rights reserved.

Maybelle is a cable car whose career taking people up and down the hills of San Francisco is threatened by Big Bill the Bus. The book does an excellent job of describing how cable cars work and what went on during the Save the Cable Cars movement of the 1940s and 1950s.
Car 26 Car 26 freshly painted. Photo by Val Lupiz. All rights reserved.

Car 26 recently returned from the paint shop in late 1940s Muni colors. Val says "We'll have to find a new nickname for Powell #9. Car 26, in its latest incarnation, is truly Maybelle." -- Joe Thompson

October 2008 - "Rookie Bites"

Rookie Bite -

1). A minor injury to the fingers or palm, consisting of a small (but painful) blood blister caused by the skin being pinched between the release latch and the main upper portion of the grip and/or track brake handle. As the name derisively indicates, this type of injury is most often suffered by inexperienced gripmen and conductors. The wearing of heavy gloves usually precludes any such injuries.
2). A title for a column consisting of several loosely related stories that aren't really long enough for a column in and of themselves, but rather thrown together in a desperate attempt to fill a page with some kind of entertaining and semi-coherent story line, as opposed to some mindless, meandering rambling that can just go on and on and on---

(Hmmm - a HALF page already - not bad)

"Mila-no, Thank you"

California & Market, at the terminal, awaiting departure time. A voice, in a heavy but perfectly understandable Italian accent, comes from behind me.

"Excuse, please, you go to Fish'man's Wharf, ah, Pier 39?"

I started to explain that if the gentleman wanted to go to the Pier, it would probably be easier and faster if he caught the F Market. Straight shot to the Wharf, no transfer, and it would drop him off right at the front door to the Pier. A lot of visitors see a cable car, and just automatically assume it goes to the Wharf.

As I'm talking, an orange Milano rumbles past. I point to the tram and indicate that this is the alternative. His reaction is unusual, to say the least.

He looks over, sees the tram, and makes a horrified face as if he just got home after a month and discovered no one has changed kitty's litter box. Bad. REAL bad.

The tourist shakes his head, vehemently, and starts to wave his hands from side to side, and even takes a few steps back away from me, as if warding off evil spirits, unwanted perfume samples, or maybe a particularly aggressive Amway dealer ---

"Oh, no, No, nooooo! Please, no thank you! I like cable car instead!"

Well, I like cable car instead too, but I don't see any reason to go into full-blown conniption mode... now I'm curious as to what caused this irrational tram-o-phobia.

After a few minutes of conversation, it all becomes crystal clear.

He is indeed Italian, as I'd surmised from his accent. On holiday, here in the States. From Italy.

MILAN, Italy.

He is quite familiar with the Ventottos. TOO familiar.

"....Every day, you know, I ride, (points to streetcar) from my home, yes, to work, in morning, then, in evening, to go home, back from office, I ride (points to streetcar) again...every day!"

"...I am on holiday, here, two weeks!! I am having fun! I do not wish to return to work - not yet! I have, still, yes, two more weeks! THAT (points, again, accusingly, at streetcar) that, I must go back to, back home!! I do not want to ride, here, no!!!"

After we both stopped laughing, I steered him towards my conductor, who sold him an All Day Pass, so that he could ride cable cars. As much as he wanted.

But NO Ventottos, nessun grazie, eh?

"Grid (grip)-Lock"

I just want to go home.

I'm tired, it's been a long, hectic day. I'm almost there, literally. All I have to do is pull the car into the Barn, turn her over to the shop, grab my stuff and I'm gone. I'm two blocks away from the Barn. It would normally take 5, maybe 8 minutes to cover that distance.

Normally. But not tonight.

A couple of hours earlier, there had been a mechanical malfunction of some kind on the Powell St. lines, forcing all Powell cars coming in from Fisherman's Wharf to turn back at Chinatown, at the mid-point of the route. This is called "going 'round the horn" since the maneuver does somewhat resemble the classic route taken by sailing ships around the tip of South America. It means you come down Washington St., and instead of turning right to go downtown, you turn left into Powell, and then left into Jackson, which will take you back out to the Wharf, or up to the car barn.

All cable cars, regardless of route, must pass through this intersection when pulling out or coming back in. I am working the California St. line, so my car would not normally be on this stretch of track. Normally, we would zip through, weaving in between Hyde & Mason cars, trying to stay out of their way as much as possible (they're still working, I'm heading home). It would normally take less than 10 minutes.

Normally. But not tonight.

Whatever broke down earlier is still broken now, so all cable car traffic is being forced to turn back "around the horn". Since there are no cable cars going downtown, there are shuttle buses covering the route between Market St. & Chinatown. The buses have been pulled off of their regular assignments from nearby routes, and the drivers (usually) know which way to go. It might seem simple to go from Powell & Market to Washington & Market in a straight line, but there are very steep grades, tight turns at both ends, no marked bus stops, and frequently, stalled cable cars sitting in the path of traffic.

It's not as easy as it may seem.

Powell between Washington & Jackson is fairly narrow. There's enough room for one lane of traffic heading north alongside the cable car tracks. There's only one lane of cable car traffic here, so the southbound side has two lanes. There is a switch handle embedded in the middle of the street at this location, and the tracks themselves split into two tandem tracks, side-by-side, one for Mason, one for Hyde.

Now then. Since all cable cars are coming in from the Wharf and turning back here, this becomes a temporary terminal and transfer point. Same goes for the shuttle buses coming up from Market Street. Each bus, packed to the gills with confused tourists, is forced to stop at the curb on Powell before Jackson, right alongside the cable car. This maneuver serves to block Powell St. completely, while the confused tourists make their way from the bus to the cable car . Auto traffic heading northbound, frustrated by the Muni roadblock in front of them, will try to veer onto the wrong side of the road, coming head on into conflict with southbound auto traffic, which is trying to veer around the hordes of tourists trying to get on the cable car sitting in the middle of the street.

So, you have the bus, at the curb, sitting alongside a cable car (a Mason car) with a Hyde car waiting behind. Behind the Hyde car is another shuttle bus that has just come up from Market St., with a full load of tourists. Behind that is yet another Mason car, and behind the second Mason car, mixed in with all of the auto traffic as well, is a lone California car ---

That just wants to go home.

It turns out that the bus (the one in front) has developed some kind of problem with the transmission (probably from climbing Powell St. in 3rd gear with a full load of passengers) and now the bus will not start. There is a Muni Inspector trying to get down to the corner to see if he can get the bus started, but he (and his truck) are trapped in traffic, back behind the California cable car. The Mason cable car (the one loading passengers) is delayed, because the disabled bus is parked at an odd angle where the rear left corner of the bus is sticking out onto the trackway - just enough to block the cable car tracks.

The auto traffic has long since solidified into a complete mess. The confused tourists are milling around in the middle of the street, taking pictures, blocking the autos from moving out of the intersection. The driver of the bus is upset because his shift is due to end any minute, and yet since the bus is broken down, he is forced to sit with the bus and wait for help. There is a cable car crew available to relieve both him as well as the second bus, since both drivers are due to go home, but that crew (on the Hyde car) is trapped in traffic, behind the Mason car. Since the Hyde car cannot get back into the barn, the crew is unable to relieve the bus driver, who can't get his bus started without the help of the Inspector, who is stuck in his truck, along with a couple of dozen autos, with the second bus that needs to be relieved, which is stuck behind the California car ---

That just wants to go home.

Now, the driver of the second bus is making noises about wanting to go home. The driver has opened the doors of the bus to go speak with the Inspector (who was sitting right alongside the second bus). When the doors opened, a flood of VERY confused tourists flowed out of the bus and began to wander around the intersection, weaving in between the autos, taking pictures, and trying to board every cable car they could find ---

Including the California car, which was definitely NOT going home anytime soon.

The bus finally got started up, the Mason car finally made its way around the corner, the Hyde car pulled in and relieved the bus drivers, and the California car, at long last, made it back into the Barn.

"Hey Val, ya wanna work some overtime? I could use some help with........hey, HEY! No need to get nasty, pal! I was just asking--......well fine then, #%@$! you, too!!"

"Special Delivery"

There was a very large wooden crate sitting in the corner of the carbarn, right by the pull-out gate. It was about half the size of a VW Bug. A couple of guys from the Cable Car Museum were working on it, along with 4 or 5 of the regular shop crew. Being terminally nosy, I went over to check it out. It turns out the Museum had received a new exhibit, a very large scale model of a Powell St. cable car, Car #16, to be exact.

Made almost entirely of wood, unpainted but nicely varnished. The detail is simply amazing - the small doors in the front of the car actually open and close, The brake handles move back and forth, it has full interior lighting, and even the floor and the running boards of the model have a rubber coating (just like the real thing). Very impressive. I was told that the model was on display at the Hoover Presidential library back east for some years, before the curator finally decided that there was no room for a San Francisco cable car in their collection. The model had been returned to the creator, who had recently passed away. His next of kin donated the model to the Cable Car Museum.

The model itself was sitting on a large base inside of a Plexiglas case. A great deal of care had been taken to ensure the car survived the journey from New Jersey out to California, but at some point the car managed to slide sideways off of its truck bolsters (it actually HAS truck bolsters), and once we managed to get the crate opened, the car was leaning against the interior of the case, clearly in trouble. It almost looked as if it was intoxicated, or maybe suffering from motion sickness.

This was a derailment. A pretty major one, at that. In miniature.

The shopmen, who were nice enough to help with the unpacking, immediately got to work on the "derailment". I volunteered to help, and we all managed to get the case detached from the base. Working very carefully, one of the shop guys peered underneath the car and figured out which part had broken loose. I took a look under the model, and it was amazing - 90% of the parts on a real car were represented here, in miniature, in their correct place. The accuracy level was so high, that the shop forces instinctively knew which pieces had broken off, where they were supposed to go, and how to re-mount the car ---

All in miniature.

The sight of the shop crew, the REAL shop crew, working on this quarter-sized replica, trying to get it re-railed, referring to the various parts of the model by the correct nomenclature - if you had heard the conversation, just the audio, so to speak, you would have sworn they were working on a real derailment ---

"..No, no, check the bolsters, that part is broken, it's hanging up on the frame..."

"Okay, now the grip is in the way - someone pull it off to the left, make sure you clear the track brake handle first ---"

"....right, right, lift it up, this way, slowly, slowly, WHOA, whoa, stop! Right there --- that's good ---"

".....screwdriver, I need a screwdriver! All right, who's got a flashlight?"

We even ended up using a couple of track brake shoes to prop up the car body while the trucks were being...'worked on'.

Once we got the little (actually, kinda big) car back upright, we now had the dilemma of how to get the car from the upper level (carbarn) to the Museum (downstairs). In true cable car fashion, we loaded the model onto the back of a Muni Inspector's truck, and drove out the gate (the real pull-out gate), down to the corner, where we unloaded the car and carried it back into the building, six of us, three on each side, looking like an ancient Egyptian palanquin hauling our little wooden Nefertiti into her new home.

So, all together, 2 Museum crew, 5 Muni shopmen, 1 Muni Inspector and 1 gripman worked to prepare Little 16 for its new 'assignment'.

It really doesn't get much more authentic than this!

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May 2005 - "California, Here I Come"

Last summer, I switched assignments from the Powell St. lines to the California line, or the "Cal" line, as it's colloquially known. Now, this may not seem to be such a noteworthy event, but it's not quite as simple as changing the color of your bathroom towels (if you're like my ex-girlfriend, that's not simple, either-the tiles have to match the seat covers AND the towels, otherwise it "ruins" the entire color scheme of the bathroom, and you spend an entire weekend digging out grout and tiles and -)

Um..........Sorry..............I digress. Back to cable cars.

I had decided to wait until I felt more comfortable with Powell cars before I tried my hand on California Street. The Cal line is considered to be the most demanding of the three routes, due to the fact that the cars are larger and heavier than their Powell St. cousins. Some gripmen and conductors even refuse to work the Cal line, preferring to stay on the much more heavily traveled Powell St. runs. Some guys like the hustle and bustle you find on Hyde and Mason, or as one gripman put it: "The Cal line is too boring for me---not enough crazy people." (Confidentially, he's a bit crazy himself.)

Personally, I had waited nearly four years before I decided to try my hand on California St. When I first arrived at Cable Car Division, I was assigned to Cal on a regular basis (At the time, I lacked the seniority to choose my assignments).

At first, I didn't care for it-the cars were too heavy, the route too boring; the Powell lines have the roller coaster curves and grades, as well as the breathtaking postcard scenery, whereas Cal is a straight line, back and forth).

My skills as a gripman hadn't progressed to the point where I really felt comfortable with a Cal car- a Powell car was still a handful.

If you look at a Powell & a California cable car side by side, the first thing you notice is that the Cal is longer (by about 3 feet). The most obvious difference is the sets of controls at both ends of the Cal (called a 'double-ender'). Powell cars have one set of grip and brake handles at the front of the car. A Cal has two "front" ends, in a manner of speaking, so they don't use turntables. All you need to do is switch from one track to the other, walk to the back of the car (which is now the front end) engage the grip at the 'new' front end (which was the back end) and proceed back out-forwards, not backwards, since now you're at the front end of the car, which was the back end.

Got it? Confusing, isn't it?

Additionally, a Cal handles in a different manner than does a Powell. You could say a Powell car is like a coupe, whereas a Cal is more of a sedan, or even a station wagon. The gripman is responsible for 80% of the braking on a Powell car, but with a double ender both crew members share the load evenly. Coordination between conductor and gripman is always important, but here it's that much more vital to be sure that you are both on the same page: Too much brake on one end of the car or the other can cause the car to literally 'jack up', where the wheels themselves are no longer in contact with the rail surface, and the entire weight of the car is riding on the wooden brake shoes. In dry weather, this isn't too much of a problem for the most part (it can result in a screeching, sudden halt) but under wet weather conditions, it can be downright disastrous. The entire car turns into a giant sleigh, and only by grabbing onto the cable itself can you control the speed of the descent.

This is all good and well while you're rolling downhill (provided you have a clear path to the bottom of the hill - no autos cutting out in front of you, no jaywalkers, no cars waiting to make illegal left turns or pulling out of parking spaces, no one coming out of driveways) and when you reach the bottom, you still have to release the cable in order to stop at the intersection - only thing is, as soon as you do release the cable, the car takes off because you're still sliding on the brake shoes, and now there's a garbage truck crossing your path, along with the bike messenger and the double-parked taxicab and the tourist standing on the tracks aiming his camera and the lady with the baby stroller-

Well, I think you get the idea.

So, yes, a California car is harder to operate than a Powell car.

Then, I hear you ask, why work on California instead of Powell? (You did ask that, didn't you ...?)

Each of the three lines has its own ambience. As I'd mentioned earlier, the two Powell lines are far more exciting, with their own special brand of insanity. Sometimes, it resembles "Six Flags Over San Francisco" - hordes of seemingly endless lines of wide-eyed, camera-toting visitors, clutching their copies of "The Idiot's Guide to San Francisco", gnawing on rubbery giant pretzels, shivering in Bermuda shorts and psychedelically tropical Hawaiian shirts, gaping at the teenage kids in their metallic silver and gold make-up standing motionless until some unsuspecting soul drops a coin into the bucket, when they'll launch into a hip-hop break dance routine, spinning and whirling with an effortless grace that belies their outrageous appearance, weaving through the tables of street merchants hawking everything from hand-made leather bracelets, belts and cat-o-nine tails (I swear, I've seen one guy who really does sell those things) to water color renditions of Lombard St., to cartoon caricature portraits of Aunt Sally's head perched on the top of the Transamerica Pyramid - walk-away crab cocktail, street musicians, clowns and jugglers, a playful carnival featuring all the sights, smells and sounds of the human comedy, complete with laugh track and no commercials, which beckons to the curious traveler with a warm and hearty welcome.

Ah, San Francisco.

As much fun as it can be, though, it can get old after a while.

To me, the Cal line is representative of what the cable cars must have been like in their heyday, back during a time when life was a bit slower, when people weren't always in so much of a hurry. Writers such as the legendary columnist Herb Caen and the famed railroad author Lucius Beebe frequently wrote stories of passengers who knew the crewmen by name (and vice-versa), how cable cars would make stops in the middle of the block for regulars, and the locals would treat their favorite gripmen and conductors with baked goods and snacks, of birthdays and anniversaries remembered and celebrated. A time when the mailman, the milkman and the gripman weren't just nameless, faceless public servants - they were people you could count on, folks you would stop and chat with, say hello, ask about the family;

They became friends, friends you knew you could count on, real people, people you saw everyday and came to care about, because you knew they would be there when you needed them to be. No matter whether it was pouring rain or blisteringly hot, the letters and packages would be delivered in a timely manner, the butter and cream would arrive fresh and cold, and the cable car would be waiting at the intersection when you walked down to the corner.

Milk is no longer delivered door to door, the US Postal Service has dozens of competitors (and besides, who uses 'snail mail' anymore?), but over on California St., we try to keep some of the old traditions alive. My conductor and I keep track of our "regulars"- there are quite a few who catch us every day at the same time, and we make it a point to be there, at the stop, on time (or as close as we can manage) because we know these people are counting on us. They've become more than just 'regular passengers;' they've become friends.

Quite a few of the regular passengers bring food and snacks for us. A few weeks ago, another gripman came up to my car with a package of cinnamon rolls and offered me one. "Here, try these - one of my regulars went to the store and bought these for me; you want one?" Another dear friend of mine regularly brings my conductor and myself sandwiches and other goodies (Love ya, Tuffy!)

Then there's the guy we call the "Bagel Man", who usually brings bags full of pastries and rolls for us.

Many a time I've stopped in mid-block to pick up or drop off a 'regular', or made an extra stop on the opposite side of the intersection to wait for one of my passengers running down the street. I've built up a rapport with these people, gotten to know them, their families, their likes and dislikes. I went on vacation some time back, took a few weeks off. When I came back to work, "Hey Val, where've you been? We missed you!" "Hey man, good to see you! Welcome back!"

They're not just 'passengers' anymore; they've become friends.

The Cal line has a much more intimate feel to it. Powell is fun, exciting, frantic and scenic, but because of its far busier nature, it's harder to get to know your locals. Heck, it's difficult to even have a conversation without being interrupted with "Excuse me, but how do I get to …" The tourists do ride on the Cal line, of course, but nowhere in the numbers that inundate the more popular Mason & Hyde runs. It's more laid back, more familiar, more personal. You get the chance to feel as if you really are a part of the community, that you provide a necessary service that people count on and expect, as opposed to operating a street-running roller coaster. There's more of a connection with the people who ride to work, to school, to the store and to run errands (I've seen some folks bring carts of laundry onto the cars).

It seems as if the California St. line has managed to retain that special Victorian charm that so enchanted the likes of Caen and Beebe, a throwback to a by-gone era, when time wasn't so much of a premium, when neighbors knew each other by name, an age when perhaps the clock really didn't run quite at the mad tempo that it does today. There's a certain warmth and congeniality that is not only refreshing, but rare and reassuring as well. You become a part of them, and they become a part of you.

In today's hurry-up-and-wait society, it's kind of nice to be able to just amble down the street at 9.5 MPH and let everyone else rush around. I'm in no hurry.

I've got a bagel to finish. Pass the cream cheese, please?

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October 2004 - "When Push Comes To Shove"

I'm coming down California St. into Grant Ave. when all of a sudden, the entire car is engulfed in an unnatural silence. All of the standard sensations that normally accompany a cable car-the rattling, the humming, the soft vibration of the grip, disappear in a heart beat. It's as if the car developed sleep apnea and just passed out all at once.

This can mean only one thing-the rope is down. (Either that, or the car was out partying all night long and didn't get enough sleep.)

It's late at night-there aren't too many passengers onboard-even the shops and restaurants in Chinatown have closed their doors for the evening-all of the hustle and bustle that usually fill this intersection has vanished. The dead stillness only adds to the spooky, graveyard-like atmosphere. (I get the feeling that some kind of mass evacuation has been ordered-"Martian Invasion Fleet Sighted" and that I'm the only one who didn't hear the news....)

After a quick consultation with my conductor, I decide to try and coast the car downhill as far as possible (I might still outrun those Martians...). Coasting down on a dead cable violates about three dozen different safety regulations, but I prefer to park on level ground, as opposed to blocking the intersection on a steep grade. (Less of a target for oblivious motorists, not to mention the Martians...)

We manage to get as far as Sansome St. before the momentum gives out. From here on in, down to the terminal, the territory is all flatlands-no more coasting. A transmission comes over our radio-"Cal rope down for the rest of the night". Well now, so much for that. It's only a couple more hours until quitting time, anyway-the wrecker is going to have to come down and retrieve each car individually-by the time they get around to me, it'll be time to go home.


Now, all I have to do is sit tight and wait for the truck. Simple.

Now then, nothing, nothing, is ever simple at Cable Car Division. If it seems simple, then you've got major trouble right around the corner. This is no different.

The fact is, my conductor and I are both caffeine junkies. He prefers his hot, I like mine cold (coffee/soda). When you consume large amounts of liquid, the kidneys will hold only so much before the inevitable 'call of nature'. There are facilities at both ends of the route, but not a whole lot in between. Especially not in a canyon of dark, silent (closed) office buildings. The nearest relief is four blocks away.

In other words, we're in trouble.

All sorts of options run through my head, none of them particularly appealing (not even a decent tree or bush to hide behind!) It's not too bad (not yet) but if I don't figure out something pretty soon, things could get ugly (literally).

I had passed another cable car on the opposite side of the street. The crew of that car was pushing their car up towards Montgomery St. I went to go and help-it was easier with three of us, since California St. is flat, but just slightly upgrade at this point. We managed to get the car up to the next intersection. I headed back towards my car, plotting furiously.

"If only I could've kept up the momentum to roll through the intersection....too late for that---how long will it take for the truck to get here---maybe they could push me down to Market St.---they won't be here for at least a half an hour....if I could just somehow get something to push the car down towards...."

Did you ever have a sudden inspiration, an idea that seemed really stupid at first, but then, upon further examination, turned out to be REALLY stupid but somehow workable? (I seem to do this a lot...)

It dawned on me that the car I just helped to push (the one going in the opposite direction) was headed UPhill---just barely, but uphill nonetheless....

This meant that MY car was pointing DOWNhill....Only four blocks to the terminal, and blissful relief....

I ordered my conductor to release the brakes, and stand by at the controls.

Now, on Powell St., we push the cars off of the turntable all the time. By hand, every trip. If I could push a Powell car off of the turntable....

{A couple of blocks down the street, a Golden Gate Transit bus is waiting to cross California St. The light turns red for the bus. As the bus waits for the light, a cable car comes rolling down the street. Slowly. Very, very, slowly....even for those things, abnormally slowly....no doubt the bus driver is wondering why the cable car is dragging along at walking speed...there's no one aboard, just one guy standing up front at the controls...he seems to be awfully happy---in fact, he's laughing hysterically....

At the back of the cable car, is the other crewman pushing the car through the inter-

......Wait a minute....that guy is pushing his car.....by hand....?

All the way through the intersection.......?}

The expression of shock and horror on that bus driver's face was just priceless.....

It wasn't too bad, actually-once I got the car to moving, all I had to do was occasionally jump off and give it a "boost" from time to time...at one point, I was standing on the running board, pushing along with one foot-imagine the world's biggest skateboard.....

We make it down to Market St. The crew of another car already there come up to us, puzzled as to how we managed to make it down there.

"Hey Val, how did you-"

"Gotta go---"

"Yeah but, the rope is down---how did you---"

"I pushed---I gotta go..."

"You pushed? From up there? You mean to say you actually---"


"Well, geez, you don't have to---"

"TALK LATER!!! MUST GO!!!!! NOW!!!!!"

I really have to cut back on how much soda I drink....I've found that too much soda pop makes my legs hurt afterwards......

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June 2004 - "Central, We Have a Problem..."

Just like any other line of work, we have our good days and our bad days (you could say we have our "ups and downs" {ouch!}.

But, due to the unique and unusual nature of this particular profession, the kinds of problems that crop up are of a very interesting nature indeed...

We call them 'Line Delays'. They're the bane of every transit operation. Some delays are obviously unavoidable--heavy traffic, roadwork repairs, the occasional three-alarm fire, that sort of thing. (I recall the time I was blocked by the Fire Dept. attending to a major blaze. A rather oblivious tourist approached my car and asked, in an irritated voice, "How long is this going to take? We're in a hurry!" I suggested she ask the Fire Dept. when they planned to finish up. She actually crossed the police lines and started screaming that they hurry up and clear the street!

The last I saw of her, she was in the back seat of a police car. Awfully nice of the police to take her to her destination, don't you think?)

Of course, this being San Francisco, you have to expect the unexpected-civil disobedience is very much in vogue here, having been perfected to a virtual art form. TV and movie crews regularly take advantage of the natural beauty of the hills as backdrops for high-speed car chases, and what better way to demonstrate how powerful your new V8 turbo-charged all-weather traction full bed pick-up truck than to show it effortlessly chugging up California St?

(The same truck that will cost you a fortune in transmission repairs if you tried that stunt on a daily basis...and if it's a manual transmission, count on replacing the clutch every few months...)

Then, there are the situations that are truly unique to cable car operation. Considering that the system and technology was designed well over a century ago, the juxtaposition of 19th century transit vehicles with 21st century traffic patterns and driving habits can lead to some very interesting scenes.

Let's take a look at an imaginary Street Inspector's Daily Report. In this report, he/she would keep a tally of the day's events-breakdowns, accidents, delays, etc. Just how crazy can it get out there?

It can get pretty strange.....pretty strange indeed.......

DAILY REPORT-Cable Car Division
Inspector John Q. Doe


1000 Hrs. On duty.

1012 Hrs. Central Control broadcasts notice about possible demonstration in Union Square area later in day. Police warn that demonstrators ("U.S. Out Of Zambonia") may become unruly. Possible interruption of service may occur.

1015 Hrs. Central Control broadcasts notice about bike race taking place in North Beach/Chinatown area due to begin at 10:00 AM postponed to 12:00 Noon. Inspectors are advised to prepare for interruptions to service.

1022 Hrs. Movie crew filming on California St. between Montgomery & Mason Sts. will require Calif. St. service to be temporarily suspended from 11:00 until approx. 3:00 PM.

1030 Hrs. Central notified of Calif. St. service interruption-diesel bus shuttles requested.

1033 Hrs. Central advises that diesel buses are being dispatched to California & Market Sts.

1047 Hrs. Run 23 on Line 60 (Hyde St.) advise that there is a line delay @ Hyde & Broadway due to overturned ice cream truck. Police/Fire Dept. have been notified. Shuttle buses from Calif. /Market reassigned to Hyde St. until accident scene is cleared.

1102 Hrs. Movie crew on Calif. St. requests permission to use Car 55 (currently holding position at Calif. & Sansome) for shooting. Div. Supt. clears use of car.

1110 Hrs. Operator of shuttle bus responding to Hyde. St. delay reports transmission failure on California btwn Grant & Stockton-engine overheating, brakes locked-coach will not move. Diesel Shop notified-en route.

1117 Hrs. SFPD advises that demonstrators are beginning to fill Union Square area. PD advises that Powell St. service be suspended approx. 12:30 PM.

1131 Hrs. Run 14 on Line 59 (Mason) reports that bystanders for bike race are blocking intersection Mason @ Union. SFPD notified.

1142 Hrs. Accident scene Hyde @ Broadway cleared. Hyde St. service resumed.

1149 Hrs. Central Control advises that Powell St. service be suspended due to demonstration at Union Square. All Powell St. cars to be turned back @ Powell & Washington.

1155 Hrs. Run 22 on Line 60 reports being stuck @ Hyde & Broadway due to accumulation of dried ice cream in trackway. Cable Machinery notified- Cable Car wrecker 665 dispatched to Hyde @ Broadway.

1207 Hrs. Movie crew complains that diesel bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton is preventing them from filming. Central Control advises that Diesel Repair is en route.

1215 Hrs. SFPD advises that Powell St. btwn Sutter & O'Farrell will be closed to all traffic until demonstrators are cleared. Runs 2, 6, 9, 12 and 14 are caught @ Powell & Market. Central advises those cars to remain at that location until further notice.

1222 Hrs. Mason @ Union cleared of pedestrians and bystanders. Mason St. service resumed.

1233 Hrs. Wrecker Truck 665 advises that Car 14, Run 22 (Hyde & Broadway) is in need of new brake shoes due to old shoes being completely coated with melted ice cream. Car 14 will have to be towed into barn. Central notified.

1245 Hrs. Run 13, Line 60 (Car 18) reports having to use emergency brake @ Hyde & Broadway due to extremely slick tracks. Wrecker 665 notified-665 advises that they are in process of towing Car 14 to barn-will respond to Hyde & Broadway ASAP.

1247 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton still awaiting Diesel Repair shop. Diesel Repair advises they are en route.

1253 Hrs. Run 7, Line 59 (Mason & Green) reports that several bike racers using Mason btwn Green & Filbert have gotten bike tires stuck in cable slot-SFPD and paramedics notified.

1257 Hrs. Run 8, Line 60 (Car #3) @ Hyde & Union reports multiple "hot lunches" (Muni slang term for when a passenger throws up on a vehicle-I'm not making this part up) due to a Cub Scout troop that became overly excited. Conductor reports that Scouts evidently had hot dogs and ice cream prior to boarding cable car. Car to be pulled out of service.

104 Hrs Multiple cable car crews report that all cables appear to be running in reverse direction. Central notified.

107 Hrs. Cable Machinery reports that due to apparent rodent infestation, wiring for the cable winding machinery was badly damaged, causing a short circuit to occur. Polarity for the winding wheels was reversed, causing all cables to operate in reverse direction of normal operation. Cable Machinery advises that all cables have been temporarily stopped until wiring can be fixed. Central notified.

110 Hrs. Numerous rear-end collisions reported on Mason, Powell, Jackson and Washington Sts. Due to cable cars suddenly running backwards. SFPD notified.

117 Hrs. Injury accident @ Calif. & Montgomery, Car 55. Movie crew filming "Filthy Larry-The Magnum Enforcer" involved in incident. Car was proceeding on Calif. St. when actor Clant Westwood fired prop firearm without notifying cable car crew. Due to loud, unexpected noise, gripman suddenly applied emergency brake. Conductor and Mr. Westwood thrown onto floor-Mr. Westwood suffered cuts and bruises-conductor taken to St. Gregory's emergency room after suffering apparent cardiac arrest due to belief that Mr. Westwood was armed with a live firearm and intended to use said firearm on conductor. Central notified.

119 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton still awaiting Diesel Repair Shop. Diesel Repair advises they are en route.

122 Hrs. Demonstration in Union Square area winding down. Demonstrators starting to peacefully disperse. SFPD advises streets should be reopened within 30 minutes.

122 Hrs. SFPD advises that Union Square area will be completely quarantined due to rioting demonstrators. All Muni vehicles in the vicinity are advised to leave by fastest route possible. SFPD SWAT and National Guard troops en route to Union Square area. Central advises that all Muni personnel in the vicinity of Union Square are to evacuate as soon as possible. Central notified.

133 Hrs. Cable Car Wrecker Truck 665 reports transmission failure on Hyde St. between Bay & Chestnut while towing disabled cable car. Fred's Heavy Duty Towing Service notified.

142 Hrs. Demonstrators in Union Square area being driven down Powell St. towards Market by United States Marine Corps troops. Cable car crews @ Powell & Market advised to take shelter in nearby stores.

149 Hrs. Conductor on Run 12 @ Powell & Market, taking shelter in The Wrap clothing store reports 30% off sale on fleece sweaters, various colors and sizes. Central notified.

155 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton still awaiting Diesel Repair Shop. Diesel Repair advises they are en route.

213 Hrs. Bike race in North Beach area cleared. Mason St. service resumed.

226 Hrs. Conductor on Run 13, Line 59 (Mason & Filbert) requests transportation to hospital. Complains of blurred vision and nausea due to glare of sunlight coming from excessive exposure to spandex bicycle shorts. Central notified.

230 Hrs. Cable Machinery reports that Hyde St. cable must be temporarily shut down in order to remove coating of melted ice cream from earlier auto accident. Cable is too slippery for cable cars to grip. Cable Machinery will advise when Hyde cable is ready for service.

233 Hrs. Numerous passenger complaints about unauthorized vehicles operating on cable car routes picking up intending passengers. Motorized cable car reported offering rides to tourists for $10.00. Passengers complain that driver of unauthorized vehicle promised them rides to Alcatraz Island-also that driver insisted on playing "Who Let The Dogs Out" on vehicle PA system, repeatedly at maximum volume. SFPD notified. Central notified.

239 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton still awaiting Diesel Repair Shop. Diesel Repair advises they are en route.

241 Hrs. Central cable car dispatcher requests transportation to hospital due to nervous breakdown. Central notified-no response from Central.

243 Hrs. Demonstrators @ Powell & Market cleared by National Guard and United States Marines. Car 20 damaged by protestors when crowd began to spin car on turntable at excessive speed. Crowd lost control of car, car slid off of turntable, onto sidewalk, now blocking portion of Market Street. SFPD requests that car be moved out of traffic lanes ASAP. Wrecker 665 notified.

244 Hrs. Wrecker 665 advises that they are still holding position on Hyde btwn Bay & Chestnut with transmission failure-Fred's Heavy Duty Towing Service vehicle has not yet responded. Central notified-no response from Central.

303 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on California St. btwn Grant & Stockton still waiting for Diesel Repair shop. Diesel Repair advises they are en route.

309 Hrs. Run 12, Line 60 (Car 5) requests transportation to hospital for gripman. Woman passenger riding on outside bench loses wig due to wind. Wig blows into face of passing motorcycle rider. Motorcycle rider loses control of vehicle, hits newspaper racks. Newspaper racks thrown into tables at sidewalk café. Waiter at sidewalk café knocked over by falling tables. Pot of very hot coffee being carried by waiter thrown into cable car, splashes onto gripman. Passenger wishes to know whether cost of wig will be paid for by Muni, motorcycle rider, or management of sidewalk café. Central notified-no response from Central.

311 Hrs. Street Inspector John Q. Doe taken to hospital for nervous exhaustion. Symptoms include high blood pressure, facial tics, incoherent speech, and convulsions. Central notified--no response from Central.

315 Hrs. Disabled shuttle bus on Calif. btwn Grant & Stockton reports tires, seats, windows, radio and windshield wipers stolen while operator was in restroom. Diesel Repair advises they are en route. Central notified--no response from Central.

--------------------END OF REPORT--------------------

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April 2004 - My Little Deuce Coupe

(With apologies to Brian Wilson) Val says: "This is what happens when you've been gripping for too long..."
Car 2 Car 2, Val's "Little Deuce Coupe". January 2002. Photo by Joe Thompson.

Little Deuce Coupe You don't know what I got
Little Deuce Coupe you don't know what I got

Well, I'm not braggin' babe, so don't put me down
but I've got the oldest set of wheels in town
And when someone tries to cut me off he better pray
'cause the Vehicle Code gives me the right of way

She's my little Deuce coupe you don't know what I got

Just a little deuce coupe she can take any hill
and she'll walk a horse and buggy like they're standin' still
She's varnished and shellacked with the gold leaf trim
with the solid spring suspension and the cast iron rims

She's my little deuce coupe you don't know what I got

She got a quarter-ton clutch through a hole in the floor
and she rumbles like a 'quake at Richter 9 point 4
And if that ain't enough to make you flip your lid
There's one more thing
I'm her ding dong daddy

And comin' off the line up at Mason and Green
That's when I really cut her loose and make the tourists scream
She got the solid iron handles and a shiny brass bell
and she'll take a downgrade like a bat outta hell

She's my little deuce coupe you don't know what I got
She's my little deuce coupe you don't know what I got

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December 2003 - Christmas Edition.

For the past several years, I've been fortunate to have been involved in what has become a holiday tradition at the Cable Car Division-a holiday decorated cable car. In previous years, this has always been a real grass-roots affair, with all of the costs being borne entirely by the gripmen and conductors, for the simple joy of decorating for the holidays. Now, I'm single, no kids, no reason for a tree or wreaths or brightly colored lights. I never bothered with any of that stuff-what am I going to do, address packages with "From: Me ---To: Me"? Nah, too much hassle, y'know? Not that I'm a Scrooge sort (well, I can be, when I the mood strikes) but for the most part, decorating just didn't seem, well, necessary.

I didn't have to deal with the crowds (off the clock, anyway) or the hassle of running around trying to find the cheapest prices on ornaments or garlands, jostling through aisles crammed with Santa hats and 73 different kinds of angels and oversized stockings (and exactly WHO has feet that big anyway?), the uninterrupted, forced cheer of tinny Muzak renditions of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" emanating from an animated 2-foot tall guitar-waving, sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt wearing Santa mannequin (Yes, I've actually seen one of these things---No, I did not buy it, I don't remember where I saw it or how much it cost, and if you are one of the hopelessly twisted individuals who DID buy one, don't EVEN think of trying to foist it off on me as a present!)

(I told you, I can do Scrooge when I feel like it...)

Anyway, I didn't have to deal with all that.

Until now, that is.

I have spent the last several weeks wading through seas of garland, most of which are in colors and shades never found anywhere in nature, faux-pine which would gladden the heart of any anti-logging activist, gazed at hundreds of renditions of venison with abnormally radioactive-glowing nasal passages, snowmen and snowflakes and Santas and stars and bells and horns and wreaths and tinsel and glitter and candy canes...and............and......................(clunk)

(Sorry-I fell off my chair for a second-lost consciousness-Post-Shopping-Stress-Syndrome)

So, now, I am a part of the teeming masses, searching for that perfect tree-top angel, wondering why they can't make an outdoor extension cord in a length that I can actually USE, debating whether I should go with the chasing lights or the blinking ones, trying to track down the ultimate fake poinsettia plant (plastic or fabric?)

All sarcasm aside, it is a blast to decorate a cable car. There are several rules that need to be observed-no glue, tape or nails (we can't damage the paint or drill holes into the wood-they are National Historic Landmarks, after all) so a certain amount of ingenuity is required. Not to worry- twist ties, wire, plastic ties-all work equally well. It's a return to the excitement of childhood, stringing garland and hanging ornaments, tying ribbons and testing lights, and the thrill of flipping the switch and watching the entire conglomeration light up for the first time, the glow of the miniature bulbs reflected in the shiny ornaments, silver and gold entwined with red and green, candy-canes dangling from the roof of the car, pinecones and plastic mistletoe hanging from the bell cords (strategically positioned above the grip handle)-

The cries of joy from little children as you pull up to the turntable-"Mommy, I wanna ride THAT cable car!"

The almost involuntary grin that spreads across the traffic cop's face as he clears the intersection for you to cross...

The rusty pick-up truck that follows you for two blocks, driven by a burly, bearded, torn-T-shirt wearing biker-type who pulls up alongside, casts a critical eye over the car, and croaks in a cigarette-and-whisky stained voice, "Hey man...that's beautiful...."
(This one really did happen)

As you roll past a motorized cable car, itself decorated with lights and garland, the disappointed voice of a tourist, just loud enough to be heard- "We shouda rode on THAT car instead..."

This year, we have expanded somewhat. Instead of just the one car, we actively recruited sponsorships from several merchants in the Fisherman's Wharf area to help out and join in the fun, and we decorated 3 cars. The weekend was a blur of activity-several friends came down to the barn to help me out, and the place was a scene of happy pandemonium. The families of a couple gripmen and conductors showed up as well, and the laughter of children echoed through the car house along with the usual clatter of tools and machinery.

Not everyone was completely enthused with the notion of decorating the cars. Mostly for safety or liability concerns, a few of the personnel at the Division openly expressed doubt as to the feasibility of decorating more than one car, and a couple of genuine Scrooge-types even complained that we might interfere with the normal day-to-day operations! Fortunately, management was whole-heartedly behind us, so any complaints were greeted with "Tell it to the boss" which tended to quell any criticism pretty quickly.

I arrived at work the day after we finished decorating, enthusiastic and excited. The weather outside was decidedly not co-operating, but I had made it a point to buy water-proof decorations and outdoor lights, so I wasn't particularly concerned. As I walked into the barn, I could see the car sitting in the middle of the barn, surrounded by its less fortunate, non-decorated sisters. My car had been set off to the side on a separate track to itself-it almost seemed as if the other cable cars were jealous and had all decided to move away in a show of pique.

I asked one of the shopmen to prepare my car for service, when I was told, "Sorry Val, it can't go out today." Utterly astonished, and a tad angry, I inquired as to why not.

"It's been painted---they did it this morning...it'll take a day for the paint to dry...."

Normally, when they paint a car, it's only because the car has been involved in some sort of mishap requiring repair, or as part of regularly scheduled maintenance. I knew for a fact that my car hadn't been involved in any fender-benders as of late, and it had successfully passed a routine inspection with flying colors just a week earlier. There was NO reason to paint the car now, especially after all the work I had put into it! They KNEW I had decorated it-I'd been there all day! If it needed to be painted, they could've told me right there and then! What part of the car had been painted? Did they damage or remove any of the decorations? I had been in the barn the night before, and specifically asked the shop if the car was due to receive any kind of work-"Nope, clean as a whistle-she's all yours."

I then thought of the nay-sayers who had tried (without success) to shoot down the project. Obviously, this had to be their doing. It was probably some kind of scheme to whittle me down by using miniscule (but legitimate) reasons as to why the car couldn't go out-'oh sorry, we had to paint it....it needs a new thingamabob-probably take a week or so to find it....can't let you take the car out in that condition...it's unsafe, you know...' One thing after another, after another, until they finally found or requisitioned the needed (and mysteriously missing) part, well after the holidays. This way, they wouldn't have to deal with the extra headache of setting the car aside every night, making sure it didn't get assigned to a different crew, bureaucracy at its finest. First my car, then the others..."too much trouble, all this decorating... wouldn't it be better to just leave all that stuff off?"

It had to be. Nothing else made any sense.

I charged upstairs to the manager's office, where I explained my predicament. We agreed that it was probably the work of certain individuals, and he promised to look into it as soon as he could. In the meantime, wait until tomorrow, when the paint dries, and we'll see what happens then. If you need to, talk to me then, and I'll get this all straightened out...

Why can't they just let me be? I'm trying to do something positive here, and all I get is interference and red tape...this just isn't right...

I went back downstairs, fuming. The same shopman I'd spoken to earlier approached me again.

"Hey, your car will be ready tomorrow..."

Yeah, sure. Then what? What kind of "problem" will crop up then? went through my mind, but I didn't bother to answer. I just sort of grunted.


"Y'know, we weren't supposed to, but we thought, since you'd worked so hard on it, we'd touch up some of the scrapes and dings on the bumpers and the running boards (the long steps along the front of the car)...hope you like it..."

I stopped dead in my tracks. "You guys did what?"

"Yeah, check it out...it'll be ready tomorrow."

I walked over to the car. Yes, it DID have some very minor damage to the front bumper and along the steps, but it was normal, incidental wear and tear, nothing major. I had noticed it, and even thought to myself, "it would be nice to clean that up" but I didn't think...

The bumper gleamed a glossy black. The running boards, usually scuffed and splintered from thousands of feet, were carefully sanded and painted. The few decorations that were in the way were carefully removed and set aside, in clear view, easily replaced with a minimum of fuss. The lower portion of the car, which was (naturally) dirty from road dust and grime, had been washed off.

My car was indeed ready. The paint was slightly tacky, but drying nicely. Nothing else had been touched or disturbed in any way.

The car was ready. My car. The CHRISTMAS car...

I sat down, heavily, on the car across from mine. Whereas a minute earlier, I was full of righteous indignation, ready to complain to the Supreme Court if necessary,

I was now utterly and totally deflated, like a balloon pricked by a needle. My eye just happened to fall on a small ornament, hanging inside the car. There was lettering on it, far too small to read from where I was sitting, but I knew exactly what it said...

"Merry Christmas"

Christmas...the season of giving....

I had become so caught up in the details and minutiae of arranging donations and buying decorations, getting permission to do this and that, worrying about things like media coverage and schedule logistics, I had lost sight of the very reason I was decorating the car to begin with....

To celebrate the season...

The season of giving...

In my suspicions, my distrust, I hadn't even bothered to ask exactly what or where or why they painted the car, I simply assumed that it was a sinister plot to deprive me of the chance to decorate, to have fun...In my egotism, and selfishness, I figured that I was the only one with the true Christmas spirit, spending my own money, my own time, to do all this work, I was the only one capable of giving.....

It never occurred to me that the shopmen, watching us work to prepare the cars, seeing and appreciating how much effort and time we were putting into the project, it NEVER occurred to me that maybe they would want to help too, to contribute, to do their part, however small, to make the project a success...

Did I really have the true holiday spirit? I wanted to decorate the cars for fun, to share with everyone, sure, but at the same time, I wanted the recognition, the glory, the attention...I had decorated a cable car earlier in the year to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the California St. line-I didn't get paid for my efforts then, either (not that I expected to) but I DID get my picture in the newspaper, on the 6 o'clock news...was that part of the reason I did all this work?

Did I really think I had some kind of monopoly on caring? Just because I spent my own time and money, on a 'charitable' event, did this somehow elevate me to the status of Holiday Saint, above the crass commercialism, the "gimme-gimme-gimme" mentality we all profess to scorn, yet deep down inside, secretly subscribe to?

Those shopmen gave, of their time and effort, without being asked or ordered to, without Form 83627-B filled out in triplicate, they gave in order to help out a co-worker, to show, in a small but significant way, that they, too, supported and cared about the decorated cars, and wanted the cars and the Division to look at our best...

10 other people had helped me to decorate the car. 10 people, who gave up a Saturday, when they could have been out at the movies, shopping for their own holiday lists, taking care of errands, or just walking through the park...they gave, freely and generously, of their time, money, sweat,..they gave, not because I paid them to, but because they wanted to, because I asked them to, because they cared...

I sat on that cable car for a long, long time, until I had to go to work...

I have a different attitude towards the Christmas car, my car, OUR car. It was an event I looked forward to, planned and prepared for, but now, in a softer, intangible way, it's not quite the same...

Instead of concerning myself with media coverage and TV cameras, I'm going to concentrate on having enough candy canes for the little ones...

Rather than worry about whether the passengers are breaking or stealing the ornaments, maybe I'll give away the tiny cable cars that are so popular...

In lieu of obsessing over whether or not I've got enough lights, or how much charge the batteries are holding, I can teach a small child, on his first cable car ride, how to play the bell...

No, it's not going to be quite the same after today...

It's going to be much, MUCH, better this year...

Whatever holiday you choose to celebrate, whether it's Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or New Year's, I wish for you and your loved ones love, good health, safety, and peace.

Godspeed and Be Well


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December 2003 - Rain Rain Go Away.

Ah, Rain.

What would our planet look like without rain?

Most likely, a barren, parched, desert wasteland. All plants and animals depend on it for nourishment and sustenance.

It supports the very cycle of life itself.

Who hasn't sat under a tin roof, enchanted by the soothing, gentle patter of a spring shower?

How many times have you have been mesmerized by the awesome beauty of an approaching thunderstorm, sensing more than hearing the roaring, rumbling, booming thunderclaps, reverberating for miles around, fascinated by the spasms of electro-magnetic energy dancing wildly across the skies...

You can't help but smile at the little children laughing and happily splashing in the puddles in the street...The wonderful, clean fresh scent to the air after the storm passes...a glorious rainbow extending across the horizon...

Rain. It's romantic, revitalizing, vital and elementary to survival.

I hate rain.

Now, I realize hate is a very strong word, not one to be used lightly. You can dislike something, not care for it, have an aversion to it, but hate implies antagonism, hostility, repugnance, loathing, fear, dread, anxiety and resentment. You must be very careful when you say you 'hate' something.

I HATE rain.

Allow me to explain why.

One of the more difficult aspects of operating a cable car is learning how to brake, or brake properly. A smooth, gradual controlled stop is the desired effect, obviously. Simply hurling back on the brake handle with all your might will stop the car, no doubt, but will also result in a bone-jarring, screeching shuddering halt reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote going face-first into a canyon wall. It will also jettison most (if not all) of your passengers into the street, into each other, into the windows, into trees, parked cars, buildings, thus seriously disturbing the tranquility of what would otherwise be an enjoyable ride, not to mention creating enormous amounts of paperwork. (In triplicate, no less.)

This is considered to be very bad form. Very bad indeed.

A quick primer on the form and function of cable car brakes may be in order. For those already familiar with the subject, I beg your patience. There are 3 main components to a cable car's brakes-the Wheel brake, Track brake and Slot Brake (or Slot Blade). The cable itself can serve as a brake, after a fashion.

Wheel brakes are standard railroad brake shoes that press down directly on the wheels. These are activated by a large pedal on the floor directly behind the grip area (for the front set of wheels) and by a crank-handle on the rear platform (for the rear-most set of wheels). This description fits the Powell Street model-California Street cars have two sets of pedals, one at each end.

The Track Brakes are really nothing more complicated than 2 x 4's (Soft fir). These bear down on the rails (or tracks, hence the name). As the wood blocks press down on the rails, the resulting friction slows the car, in addition to producing a sweetish-pungent odor supposedly resembling mesquite barbeque. (I constantly hear the mesquite reference while going downhill, but out of all the barbeque parties I've been to, I have yet to hear anyone say, "That smells like cable car!") The track brake is the strongest braking system, and provides the majority of the braking force. A large iron handle to the right of the grip actuates this brake.

Finally, the Slot brake (or Slot Blade). This is a brutally effective device, consisting of several thick layers of steel, shaped like a wedge. When used, the wedge drives down into the slot (the opening between the rails), expanding as it goes. Imagine chopping wood with an axe-that's precisely the motion the slot blade takes, only instead of wood, it forces itself into a thin metal channel (the slot). An ominous red iron handle to the left front of the grip area is used. (this brake goes by several other nicknames-"Big Red" is one, and the "OHHHH S-T Handle" is another.) Incidentally, if the speed of the car is high enough when the slot blade is "dropped", the friction can actually weld the blade to the slot itself. This is truly heavy duty braking.

(I hope you're paying attention-there will be a test afterwards) The cable can also be used as a brake going downhill. It will not actually stop the car, but it will hold the speed to a constant 9 ˝ MPH. The proper form requires the use of both wheel and track brake, simultaneously, in gradual amounts, until the speed of the car reaches zero. There are two methods of descending steep grades. One is to go "full grip", and the other is called "walking". Let's look at these in detail.

"Full Grip" is essentially the same as going uphill, only with the brakes fully applied. (And, of course, going downhill.) If a stop is required, the grip is released, and the brakes take hold. The cable is basically dragging the car down against the brakes. This makes for a very secure method of decline.

"Walking" is a more difficult style of operation. In this, the grip is set to "neutral", where it is holding the cable lightly, not enough to drop it entirely, yet not fully engaged, and the brakes are adjusted accordingly, to either increase or decrease speed. Instead of the cable being used to propel the car, simple gravity takes over. This technique requires more skill (and work) but it also gives a gripman more control over the car. With full grip, the car is moving at slightly under full cable speed. When walking the car, a much lower speed is possible, making it easier to come to a full stop if necessary.

As I mentioned previously, it's the track brake that does the lion's share of the work. The abrasion between wood and steel is what primarily stops the car. Take note-the friction between dry wood and dry steel.

Well, what happens when it rains? Everything gets wet, right?

Wet = slick. Slick is the opposite of friction.

This is not good.

This is where sand comes to the rescue. Every car has two bins of sand, located under the seats in the front portion of the car (again, California cars have four, two on each end.) A small pedal on the floor, to the left of the wheel brake pedal, is pressed in order to drop the sand on the rails. The wheels crush the sand into powder, the powder soaks up the moisture and provides (the magic word) friction!

So, you must be thinking, what's the big deal? It gets to raining, you drop some sand. How hard can that be? Not so fast (literally) - remember-this is a cable car we're talking about. NOTHING is simple with these things. Usually, when something seems easy, that's when you've got to really watch yourself. (Of course, life tends to be that way too, but that's a bit beyond the scope of this column.) There are a few other things to consider.

What condition is the wood (track brake shoe) in? Is it new, or old and broken in?

How heavy is the rainfall? Light showers, or raging downpour?

How steep is the grade?

Are there automobiles sharing the street with you, or (as is the case on Powell St.) are the tracks separate from such interference?

How many people are on the car?

How well is the car itself responding?

Are you on a Powell or a California car? (This is important-the two types behave differently)

I told you this wasn't simple. Let's take them one at a time.

Condition of the brake shoes
-believe it or not, old wood is preferable. New wood is nice and shiny and pretty to look at, and as slippery as an eel in a bucket of grease. Old, broken-in shoes have a rougher, uneven surface. Remember, friction is what we need. Those nice new blocks of lumber won't do you any good until they've had a chance to be 'burned' in. This can be accomplished with sand, or by dragging the brakes while going uphill. Whatever method is used, break those hush-puppies in, pronto!

Rainfall levels
-Again, this may sound contradictory, but a heavy rainfall will serve several purposes- it will wash greasy residue from auto tires off the tracks. This is why you need to be aware of auto traffic sharing the road with you, especially if there is heavy traffic. The more cars driving on the tracks, the more grease you have to deal with. Another advantage gained from heavy rain is that the wood will become saturated after awhile. Wet wood expands, giving you a slightly larger braking surface. Also, it will tend to bind up coming in contact with the rails, due to the expansion, providing more braking traction.

Severity of grades
This one is simple. The heavier (steeper) the grade, the harder it will be to stop.

Passenger Load
-Again, simple physics. A heavily loaded car will take longer and farther to stop. In rainy weather, it's a good idea not to pack too many people in, no matter how miserable they may look standing in the rain waiting for you (Generally, there aren't as many people who want to ride when it's raining anyway.)

Car Response (or lack thereof)
-Cable cars are cute, strange, temperamental little vehicles. They all seem to have distinct attributes (almost like personalities). Some cars will stop on a dime, no matter the weather, others will stop in dry weather but slide in the rain, a few are actually better in rain than in dry weather, and some are simply hopeless no matter what the weather is like. If a car acts up to a point where it's intolerable, the best bet is to play it safe and just take it back to the barn and get another one. There's no sense in keeping a bad car on the road. There are plenty more waiting in the barn. Muni policy is 'Safety First'. If you don't like the way the car is behaving, don't take any chances. Take it home!

Powell And California Cars

-All cable cars have a total of 4 track brake shoes, 2 in front, and 2 in the back. On a Powell car, the gripman works all 4. On a California (or 'Cal') car, the responsibility is split evenly between gripman and conductor, 2 to each. This makes timing and coordination much more crucial. Cal cars are heavier and longer than their Powell Street cousins, so extra care must be used, especially in the rain.

One other minor but important difference is in the sand pedal itself. On a Powell car, in order to drop sand, you just press down on the pedal with one motion. With a Cal car, due to the design of the sand containers, you've got to pump the pedal up and down to drop sand. The more sand you need, the more you gotta pump. Trying to do this, while keeping one foot firmly planted on the brake pedal, and manipulating the grip and track brake handles, results in a maneuver that resembles a combination of ballet, samba dancing and stamping out a campfire all rolled into one.

Talk about coordination! I'd like to see Baryshnikov pull this one off!

Well, now that you have an understanding of what to do, it's time to put that knowledge to the test. (I told you there would be a test. I hope you took notes.)

You're at the top of a very steep grade on Powell Street. It's been raining off and on for most of the day, ranging from light showers with an occasional heavy burst of rain.

Your car has brand new wood installed (yipe!) but since it's been out for several hours, the wood should have had a chance to soak up a good deal of moisture. This part of the road is supposed to be off-limits to autos, but they've been weaving back and forth all over the place, and so there's probably a good chance that the tracks are coated with a thin film of oil from the tires. It's stopped raining for the moment. You don't have too many passengers on board, just a handful of locals on their way to work or school, plus a few intrepid tourists who are determined to get a cable car ride, weather be damned. (They're from Seattle-this isn't rain, they tell you, you should see what it's like back home right now.)

Ready? Take a deep breath, cross your fingers (mentally-your going to need both hands on the controls!) Here we go!

Pull back on the grip, not too hard, just enough to get the car moving over the crown of the hill. (We'll use the 'walking' method.) Set your right foot on the brake pedal, left foot on the sand pedal. As your car starts over the hill, you've got to step on the sand pedal with your left foot BEFORE you set the track brake-you want the sand between the rails and the brake shoes- now, keep those feet working! Right foot on the wheel brake (but not too much-excessive pressure on the wheel brake pedal will cause the wheels to lock up and the car will turn into a giant wooden sleigh-you definitely don't want that to happen), now carefully pull back on the track brake handle (again, not too much! It's possible to lift the wheels off the rails completely), set your grip to neutral, and you're off! Just glide on down to the bottom of the hill. No sweat, right?

You didn't think I was going to let you off THAT easy, did you? (heh-heh-heh)

Now look straight ahead, down at the next intersection. See that automobile on the tracks? The tires have left a thin sheen of grease on the rails. You're starting to pick up a little bit of speed. Drop some sand. That should take of it. Good. We're slowing down again. Wait! That car-it's still there, on the tracks! He's trying to make a left turn (an illegal left turn, by the way) and he's so intent on waiting for an opening in the oncoming traffic to make his turn, he has no idea that you're coming down the hill behind him. Probably doesn't even care, as long as no cops catch him making that illegal left.

Now what?

What will you do?

What WILL you do?

(Get it? Karl Malden? Streets of San Francisco? Traveler's checks? Ahh, never mind...)

For starters, don't even bother ringing the bell. Most San Francisco motorists have long since gotten used to the sound of a cable car bell. It never occurs to them that maybe, just maybe, it's not a silly noisemaker, but an actual signal device, like a horn on a car, and that the frantic clanging means GET OUTTA THE WAY I'M COMING DOWN MOVE MOVE MOVE MOVE NOW- naw, that bell ringing ain't going to do any good. If those are tourists in a rental car, it's even worse. THEY think it's CUTE. They may even stop on the tracks (in front of you, of course) in order to take pictures! Besides, as the Training Department is fond of saying, "The bell doesn't stop the car-that's what the brakes are for!"

Clueless drivers aside, it's up to you to stop this thing before we turn that nice new BMW into a giant Bavarian modern art piece. Here's what you do.

First, pull back on the grip, hard, all the way. You want a secure hold on the cable. This won't do anything to help stop, but it will keep the car from gaining any more speed. This move will buy you some time.

Now, release the track brake. Completely. Yes, you heard right, release the track brake.

At the same time, drop sand, then re-apply the track brake and carefully return the grip to neutral position. What this does is to get some sand under the track shoes, between the wood and the rails. This will provide the braking traction. Returning the grip to neutral will loosen the hold on the cable, allowing the car to slow down (you hope).

This particular technique can also be used if you choose to go downhill at full grip.

This should be done only if there is sufficient room between you (cable car) and the obstruction (clueless driver).

Now, after the brakes have taken hold, and if the auto is still blocking your path, you can let him have it with the bell. At least you can say you tried to warn him.

The automobile, hearing the loud clamor behind him, finally realizes that he is in harm's way. He peels out, skidding slightly on the wet pavement and rails. More grease on the rails, this time at the bottom of the hill. As you approach the bottom, drop more sand, and keep dropping it until you come to a slightly grinding, shuddering halt (that's the sand being ground up under the brake shoes.) Whoa! Made it!

That was close, wasn't it? Not bad, rookie, not bad at all. What's the matter? Are your hands shaking a bit, maybe? Knees knocking together like maracas? Heart pounding a wee bit faster than usual? Hmm?

Get it together. soldier! You're not done yet! That was just one block! You've got another hill in front of you! That's right; it's time to do it all over again...

And again...

And again and again...until...

1). Your shift ends.

2). It stops raining.

3). You drop a slot blade, or heaven forbid, you hit something.

Assuming all goes well, you make it back to the carhouse at the end of the day without any major incidents. Soaked to the skin, muscles aching, temples throbbing, it's time to go home, take a nice long hot shower, crack open a cold one, and get some sleep.

You get up out of bed the next day rested and refreshed. Open up the curtains, it's a new day! Look at that glorious morn-....clouds...

Turn on the radio. "....turning to the weather, Roy calls for even more rain, heavy at times, with the possibility of hailstorms! A strong storm front is moving across the state, and will be with us for the rest of the week...a flood watch has been declared for-" Click. (sigh).

Ah, Rain.

Romantic and refreshing, a vital life-nurturing force.

I HATE rain.

Go to top of page.

August 2003 - Diaries of a New Gripman.

One question I hear a lot (besides "Do you go to Fisherman's Wharf?") is "How do you become a Cable Car driver?"

Some of my favorite answers:

"It's a correspondence course."

"I found this matchbook cover with an address on it..."

"I was walking past the Cable Car Barn and someone just grabbed me and dragged me inside..."

You get the idea. (Being a sarcastic smart-alec IS a part of the image.)

But, seriously folks, HOW does one become a Cable Car Operator?

Apply for the job! (Ba-dum-bump!) No, wait! Don't hit the Esc button yet!

In reality, we are all bus drivers, first and foremost, or "Transit Operators", as the official Municipal Railway job description goes. Muni is, after all, a transit agency, and cable cars are, in fact, public transportation. Very old transit, but transit nonetheless. Therefore, in order to become a cable car driver, you must first become a bus driver. You have to start at the bottom, no matter where you go.

After you've built up some seniority, you get a chance to switch assignments. Every year, we have something called a "General Sign-Up". This is the time to decide whether you'd like to stay where you're at, or move onto something different. The Cable Car Division has a reputation for being difficult to get into--we have an 80-85% washout rate among gripmen. Then, there's the equipment itself--the stories about horrendous accidents ("Did you hear about the cable car that ran away and ended up in the Bay? It went halfway to Alcatraz!") are the stuff of legend (like most legends, more fiction than truth). It's well known that the job is very physical, out of doors, exposed to the elements, entails standing for long periods of time, and the chance of injury or sickness (colds, flu) are quite good.

Plus, you can make the same amount of money driving a bus. (No, no extra pay).

The question should be, WHY does one want to be a cable car operator?

The answers are as numerous as the operators themselves. Some are attracted by the aura, the romance (they ARE world famous vehicles). Some are curious as to what all the fuss is about. Then, others are looking for a challenge, physical or mental. Some just grow bored with the same old grind of driving a bus every day and want to try something different. Many try, few succeed.

Once they get into the actual training cycle, quite a few are shocked at the amount of work required. Some guys seem to think it's easy. They have the impression that all you do is ring the bell, tell jokes to tourists, and pose for pictures. They think, "Hey, all you gotta do is pull a couple of levers" {actual quote}.

Hah! Foolish Mortals!! (I've always wanted to say that-sorry)

These tend to be the guys who walk (limp) away with swollen tendons, strained rotator cuffs, all manner of cuts and bruises and the occasional dislocated joint.

As they say, Attitude Is Everything. It's very easy to underestimate a cable car. How can something so quaint (even cute) possibly be dangerous?

Dogs and cats are wonderful animals. Cute, playful, cuddly.

Ever meet a dog or cat that didn't like you?

Even the prissiest, most fluffed-up French Poodle still has teeth, sharp teeth.

Right now, we are in the middle of the yearly training cycle for new arrivals from other divisions, eager to try their hand at gripping or conducting. As always, a few have already washed out, discouraged, angry, in pain, swearing to never again come anywhere near a cable car. A few more will fail the first time, but try again the following year, using the knowledge and experiences gained to make a second successful attempt. Some, a lucky, skillful few, will actually make it the first time around. For the ones who make it, and decide to stay, they will find that for all the headaches (and back, leg, arm, wrist, elbow, knee, etc. aches), the job has its rewards, and eventually, will come to regard the Cable Car Division as home.

To give you some insight into what goes on during the training cycle, we'll follow the exploits of an imaginary gripman trainee. You'll get a first-hand look at what it takes to pass the training program through his eyes (although, luckily for you, you won't have to feel it through his muscles), then, in future columns, we'll check in on our rookie to see how he handles other milestones, such as his first rainstorm, his first runaway car (It does happen), and along the way, he might meet a celebrity or two, maybe show up in a movie or TV commercial, he might even win the Bell-Ringing Contest!

That's the beauty of this job-all sorts of things can (and will) happen.

But, before he gets that far, he has to pass the training first.


The Decision

{Geary & Powell, Union Square}

Our hero, Jake, is at the wheel of his bus. It's the height of the rush hour-the bus is crammed with irate commuters, screaming babies, school kids shooting rubber bands and spitballs at each other, and a drunk is sitting right behind him, babbling on about how the government is secretly watching him with black helicopters and begging Jake to drive faster so that the helicopters won't catch up... In other words, just another day on the Geary bus. Nothing special.

A cable car rolls through the intersection. Jake spots the conductor, Hal, a buddy of his who defected to cable cars the year before. At the time, Jake had thought that his friend was insane to leave the Geary route. Hal had a good shift with weekends off. Why spoil a good thing? Leave well enough alone, Jake said.

The cable car stops in front of the St. Francis Hotel. A couple of newly-weds are standing out in front, still attired in flowing gown and tuxedo, accompanied by a photographer. Hal jumps off and escorts the pair to the cable car, where the groom and bride pose with the cable car crew. As the tourists cheer, the bride tosses her bouquet to Hal, who then gallantly passes the flowers to one of the passengers.

Hal spots Jake sitting at the light. Hal waves with a Having fun--Wish you were here grin across his face.

Before Jake has a chance to respond, the traffic light changes to green. The angry blaring of horns behind him reminds Jake of his duties. He glances at his watch-only 5 more hours of this...the drunk is arguing with the kids, who've found a new target for their spitballs...an angry man wants to know why Jake can't call the police and throw the drunk and kids off the bus...the babies are screaming even louder...the drunk is yelling for the helicopters to protect him from the school kids...a woman drops an overloaded grocery bag on the floor, splashing everyone around her with eggs and orange juice...more screaming..."What is your I.D. number!? I'm going to file a complaint...you drivers are all a bunch of lazy--..."

Only five more hours to go...

Finally back home, Jake slumps down in front of the TV. He flips the channel to the local news. The weather report comes on. While the cute weather lady is chattering on, the map behind her dissolves to a scene of Coit Tower, then the Golden Gate Bridge, a cable car...

A cable car. Jake sits up, peering at the screen.

The conductor sure does look... familiar...he's waving and mugging for the camera shamelessly...I'll have to head down to the electronics store tomorrow, Jake tells himself. Those TV remotes don't do too well when you throw them at the screen...

While Jake is out shopping for a new TV, he remembers that his girlfriend's birthday is coming up, so he stops into a stationery store to pick up a card ( He would buy her a gift, but he's short on funds, and TV's aren't exactly cheap). Passing through the store, he bumps into a calendar display and accidentally knocks it over. It's filled with San Francisco calendars. Of course, there's a picture of a cable car on the cover. As he leans over to clean up the mess he made, he recognizes a face on the cover...That same silly grin---it's Hal...again...

He leaves the store (after buying a card and paying for the calendar display he kicked across the store) and heads off to his girlfriend's place for dinner. She's very sorry--she didn't have a chance to go shopping, and had to make do with what was in the cupboard. Jake doesn't care much, he's never been a picky eater, as long as it's halfway edible. He sits down at the table.

"I hope you don't mind-it's Rice-a-Roni."


"I told you-I didn't have a chance to go to the sto-"

"That's fine, that's fine-let's just eat!"

They sit down to eat. Jake glares at the blue and white box on the counter.

"The San Francisco Treat"

The box seems to be laughing at him, taunting him. "Why are you still on a bus? Can't you see how much fun Hal is having? YOU were the one who tried to tell him it was a mistake to go over there--WHO really made the mistake, hmmm? What's the matter---afraid of the cold, are we? Camera shy? Not strong enough to do the work? Is that it? I guess you don't want to be on a postcard--or a calendar-or a poster--you don't want to be on TV--you don't want to make the same mistake Hal made, now do you? Noooo, we wouldn't want that, now would we....? Tomorrow, you go back to work, on the Geary bus...bus...BUS...BUS...BUS..."

Jake finally snaps. He stands up and points his finger at the box.


His girlfriend stares at him in shock. Jake realizes that he's yelling at a small cardboard box filled with rice, seasoning and a sauce packet.

The General Sign-Up is next week. Jake decides that maybe it's time for a change of scenery. Change is good.

Goodbye Geary Street--Hello Powell Street.

The die is cast.

To be continued...

Turntable Tales

This will be a regular feature of my column, filled with news and anecdotes that I think you might find interesting, or at least mildly amusing.

Cable Cars have always been a very prominent symbol of San Francisco, and it seems that every movie or TV show filmed in or about "The City" has to have the obligatory cable car scene, even if it means using a 'motorized' car (usually, a small truck chassis with an ersatz cable car body attached). Many times, this is cheaper and easier for TV or movie crews. Sometimes, the TV and movie people will bring their motorized cars along the actual cable car route to do the filming. This can be a bit of a headache, what with cameras blocking the streets, traffic barricades, and the rest, but there are times when you can have a little fun...

I'm coming down Washington St. toward Taylor. A TV crew is filming at the intersection. There is another "cable car" at the bottom of the hill, blocking my path. I clang the bell a few times, and the "cable car" pulls off of the tracks and over to the side of the road. Even the tourists realize that a cable car can't "pull over", and start laughing. I just shake my head.

As my car pulls up alongside the "cable car", I can't help but notice that the other "car" has the correct markings, paint scheme, etc., but in terms of construction, looks like it's made of balsa wood and cardboard. What's more, it's about the size of a large pick-up truck. As replicas go, a kindergarten class working with milk cartons could have done a more convincing job.

At the front of the "cable car", there is standing a "gripman", in full Muni uniform! His "conductor" at the back, is similarly attired in regulation duds. A slight wave of irritation flows through me. I've been asking for a new uniform for months--I guess I should have just gone over to the wardrobe department...

The "gripman" is holding onto what appears to be two broomsticks, evidently meant to represent the control handles. There are also several "passengers" onboard. All of them are smiling nervously as we pull up.

I pull back on the brake handle, hard, tip my hat back on my head, and give them a long, hard, critical look. The "gripman" is studiously avoiding making eye contact with me. He looks nervous--I wonder why? I call over to him.

"Hey! Hey you! Yeah, you!"

He finally looks over at me. He's standing ramrod straight up, arms fully extended out in front of him--it looks like he's about to go skiing. A mannequin looks more natural than this guy does.

"...yeah...what d'you want?"

I can't help it. "So...what exactly are YOU supposed to be?"

The passengers on my car burst out laughing. My conductor is crumpled onto the floor, holding his sides. Even the SFPD motorcycle cop at the curb is trying (without much success) not to smile. The "passengers" on the phony car look embarrassed.

"I...I'm a cable car driver..."

I shake my head. "No, no, not driver. GRIP-man." I point to my chest. "I am a cable car GRIP-man, not a driver." Big smile.

"Oh, yeah, I'm a grip-"

I interrupt him in mid-sentence.

"So, what are YOU supposed to be, anyway?"

I swear, if looks could kill, I wouldn't be writing this column...

This one happened at the beginning of June. It started off as an otherwise normal day. Just as I arrive at the barn, I get a phone call from a fellow gripman, a very good friend of mine. He tells me that he was supposed to operate a special charter with Mayor Willie Brown earlier that afternoon.

I shudder at the thought. A big-shot V.I.P charter, to me, is tantamount to when I was a little kid and Grandma would come over to the house--"Sit up straight-don't slouch-don't touch that-go wash your hands-smile-behave"--Best behavior-don't mess up-you're under the microscope-all eyes are on you.


My reaction is "Hey, that's cool! Good for you!" (Now picture a thought balloon over my head reading 'Better you than me, pal.'

Then he tells me that the charter was postponed from that afternoon to later in the evening-the Mayor was delayed (by some important Mayoral business, no doubt.) I was going to relieve my friend at 4:30 PM, and the charter was now due to happen at 6:00 PM. Okay, as long as I don't have to--

"By the way, I talked to the Division Supt.---They're looking for someone else to do the charter-I told him YOU would be perfect for-"


"Well, I just thought--"

"You did WHAT!?"

"It'll be cool! You can-"


"Well, you relieve me, and the Supt. said that you were a good gripman, and that-"


"Well, if you really don't want to, you don't have to--"

"But now they're expecting me to do it, right? They're expecting me to do the charter?"

"Well, yeah..."


Oh hell.

I head down to Hyde & Beach, where we're supposed to pick up the Mayor and his entourage. I have no idea who else is going to be there--no one seems to know exactly what the deal is. This is not comforting. I'm picturing all kinds of scenarios--the Mayor with another big-shot mayor, maybe a foreign dignitary (the President of the Philippine Islands was in town just recently.)

If Willie Brown is here to escort someone on a cable car ride, it's got to be big time. And I get to drive the cable car.

After about 45 minutes, the Mayor shows up, and not long afterwards, a TV camera crew. The TV people are setting up their equipment, with miles of wires, huge fur-covered microphones, recorders, make-up people, the works. I still can't get a straight answer out of anybody as to what this is all about.

Then, a tall, blonde haired guy with no less than five very attractive women hanging off his arms come strolling up to the car, surrounded by even more cameras.

This is the big shot?

Evidently so, because they board my car and the Mayor is all smiles and handshakes. I ask one of the Mayor's escorts who the lucky fellow with the girls is.

"Oh, that's the bachelor."

I should think so--I mean, he doesn't look like he's married!

"No no, The Bachelor."

As in the TV show The Bachelor? THAT Bachelor?

"That's the one."

Well, I simply had to do the single best job of gripping I had ever done, what with the Mayor and network TV cameras onboard. It actually turned out just fine. I managed to give them a smooth ride, the camera crew took several shots of the car with me at the controls, and all parties left the car in one piece (which was all I was really concerned with.) The best part of the ride, for me, was when I passed an intersection where a Muni bus was waiting for the traffic light. The driver of the bus was a buddy of mine. He scoffed when I told him I wanted to go to cable cars. He actually questioned my sanity, and predicted that "You'll be back" (to buses).

The look on his face, when I rolled past with the Mayor, TV crews, and five pretty girls onboard was just priceless. His jaw actually dropped open.

I smiled and waved. I didn't get a response.

When I started to write the first part of this installment, I decided to make the would-be gripman fictional, for obvious reasons, but to take situations and stories from real-life and weave them into the narrative. Thus, "Jake" is not a real person, but a conglomeration of many different people.

To all of the "Jakes", I just want to say--

Having Fun, Wish You Were Here.

Signed, "Hal"

Go to top of page.

April 2003 - A quarterly report of contemporary cable car happenings and the people who run San Francisco's cable cars.

Welcome to the first installment of Tales From the Grip, an inside, behind the scenes look at the cable cars from a gripman's perspective, mine. Most of what you will find written about cable cars is either geared toward tourists, with silly, superficial anecdotes about people falling off, along with the occasional recipe for Rice-A-Roni, or very technical historical tomes with lots of dates and data.

This is not to say that this column will not be silly or historical (which it will) and maybe superficial from time to time, but I plan to keep the kitschy tourist stuff to an absolute bare minimum.

This is going to be more of a diary of sorts, to give you some insight into the everyday trials and tribulations that go into the operation of the world's last remaining cable car system. I'll be passing on stories, news items. . One thing I will not be discussing is accidents. Why? Several reasons. Firstly, if you really want to know about the latest cable car accident, you can pick up the newspaper - I'm sure it'll be somewhere in the front section. More important, please do keep in mind that any accident, whether serious or minor, is often a very traumatic event for those involved. To me, and to my fellow co-workers, it's just not a laughing matter.

Besides, it would be bad karma (cable karma?) Okay, sorry.

So, how (and why) does one become a cable car operator? This is another popular question. I usually tell people it's a correspondence course. Another one of my friends tells people he filled out an application on the back of a Rice-A-Roni box.

Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, how to become a gripman. It's quite simple, really. You start off as a bus driver ('transit operator') with the San Francisco Municipal Railway, build up your seniority, and transfer over to the Cable Car Division.

Easy, no? Actually, no. Not quite. The Cable Car Division has a very high wash-out rate in training, especially for gripmen. Something like three out of every five applicants never make it past the 25-day training program. Why?

Well, there are several things to consider. A cable car is quite literally unlike any other type of vehicle in the world, in terms of operation. The concept is deceptively straightforward - a moving cable runs underground in a shallow channel, and a device called a grip grasps and releases said cable. The hitch comes in when you take into account the importance of gravity.

Gravity? Yes, gravity. Let's say you're going uphill and someone cuts out in front of you. What do you do? Stop, of course. Once the obstruction is clear, you continue. In an automobile, bus, virtually any other vehicle, this is not a problem. Now let's look at what I have to do in this situation. If I try to start up on the hill (say, a very steep grade) I must be extremely cautious not to snatch back on the grip handle all at once, since this will create a violent forward lurching motion called a 'jump'. The car will accelerate from zero to 9.5 MPH in the same amount of time it takes to sneeze. If I pull back gradually on the handle, done correctly, the car will accelerate normally. However, it requires several hundred pounds of pressure on the handle, applied slowly, in tiny increments, taking care not to apply too much pressure too quickly. By the same token, insufficient pressure will result in the cable grip slipping, thus building up tremendous heat between the grip dies (the only part of the grip to actually touch the cable) and the cable itself, which, if unchecked, will create a charming situation known as a 'weld', literally a spot weld, between the grip and cable, where the two become as one. This can make stopping the car extremely difficult (impossible, really.)

The above example, by the way, is NOT recommended. (Warning: Do not attempt this at home with your own cable car!) The preferred method is to back down the hill to where the grade is level, to start up again at a point where gravity will not interfere with the action of the grip and cable. Of course, there's the issue of all those automobiles that were following you up the hill, now impatiently waiting for you to move.

Did I mention that you're on a one-way street that's not wide enough to allow those autos to pass?

For those of you who drive stick-shift cars, you'll know what I mean. Isn't it fun trying to start up on a steep hill? Magnify that by a factor of 50, and you have an idea of what is entailed in the above scenario. I am not making any of that up, incidentally. There are several spots along the Hyde Street route where that exact scene takes place on a regular basis. Now, there's the issue of crossings, where one cable crosses another, and you have to build up your momentum, let go of the cable at just the right moment, drift across, and pick it up on the other side of the street. Then, certain turns have to be taken in that same manner, know as 'drift' or 'let-go' curves, all of which have their own hazards and complications in and of themselves, without the added hassle of traffic, weather conditions (rain makes for slippery rails) passenger loads (a fully loaded car behaves differently than an empty one) etc. etc.

Get the picture?

Lots of potential gripmen think that brute strength is all you need to do the job. In some cases, using this approach (like the above example of being stuck on the hill) will cause a bad situation to blossom into full-blown disaster. Strength is important, but so are balance, coordination, timing, and a smidgen of skill.

Remember, these cars were designed in the late 19th century. Ever see a sewing machine from the early 1900s? All those pulleys, wheels, giant bobbins of thread, and a huge foot pedal that had to be constantly pumped? All that effort just to sew a shirt or dress?

I'm reminded of a wonderful TV show I saw on PBS a few years back. It involved a family who volunteered to live in a house for one year, where everything was outfitted circa 1900. Each and every household task had to be performed using 100 year-old tools and technology. At first, the entire family was excited and enthusiastic, but after only three months they were ready to quit. (They weren't allowed to leave until the year was up-it was part of the contract.)

After the 5th month, the mother, exhausted and overwhelmed by the sheer physical effort required of such normally mundane tasks as laundry and preparing dinner, cried out to the camera, "I didn't think it would be THIS hard!"

She reminded me of most of the failed trainees. It looked like fun, but once you actually had to beat the rugs by hand, cook on a coal stove, hand scrub the entire family's undies, suddenly, it's not so easy. I recall one aspiring gripman, a big, sturdy fellow, whose attitude was "Hey, I work out, I'm in good shape, I was in the military, and I can handle anything."

He left after the first week. His parting words were identical to the harried housewife.

He said he would come back the next year to try again.

That was two years ago. Haven't seen him since.

As I've pointed out, the learning curve is very steep, and the equipment is very unforgiving of mistakes or inattention. The division has a reputation of being very difficult to get into, and there have been any number of book and newspaper/magazine articles that refer to us as an "elite" division. Well, the French Foreign Legion is considered to be an elite unit, and it isn't exactly a picnic to join them, either. The work is very hard, physically and mentally.

You must constantly be on your guard, watching the grip, traffic, wrestling with 4-foot long iron levers, reminding tourists that San Francisco is more than a giant-sized, city-themed amusement park, and they bought tickets to the best E-ticket ride in existence.

And yet, the seniority level at the Cable Car Division is among the highest out of the entire Muni Railway. Proportionately, we have more old-timers than any other division. It's well known that very few operators ever leave the division.

Our turnover rate is very high, but only in training. We all came over from bus divisions, where the work is much less demanding, the pay level the same, and for the higher-seniority guys, the chances of getting a better schedule are much greater.

Why then, do we stay?

Is it pride? The kind of pride that comes from knowing we do a job that many have tried to do, but few can (or will)?

Or pride in the unique feeling of operating, caring for, and being a part of living history?

Could it be the camaraderie that exists within the Muni's smallest operating division (I hurt my neck playing ball with some friends a few months ago, and was off work for a week and a half. When I came back, I was greeted with handshakes, hugs, and a card with more than 30 signatures, wishing me a quick recovery.)

Then, there are even more intangible reasons.

The look of sheer delight in a youngster's face, when as the cap to his very first cable car ride, he gets to ring the bell and pose for a picture holding the brake handle with the driver standing behind him.

The roar of laughter that comes from the line, "Okay, folks, this is my first day on the job" at the top of a really steep hill, never mind that this is the 35th time today you've used that joke.

Having a 6'5, 300 lb. NFL linebacker-type look at you with awe and say, "Man, I could NEVER do your job."

When a TV crew comes up to you while you're eating lunch and asks, very politely, "Would it be okay if we film you for our station promo?"

As you walk past a stand of postcards, you suddenly notice your picture on the cover of next year's San Francisco calendar

You go to the movies with some buddies, and right there on the screen, as Morgan Freeman is leaving the St. Francis Hotel, your cable car rolls past

A tourist tugs on your sleeve, opens his guidebook, points to a picture, and asks, "Hey, is this you?"

And then, sometimes, things like this will happen

Just another Friday night . . .

Around 9:30 P.M., as I'm loading passengers at Powell & Market, a nicely dressed, young couple board the car and sit down on the right side. The young man jumps up and motions to me. He's got a $10 bill in his hand. I figure he wants to pay the fare (a lot of tourists don't realize they pay the conductor, not the gripman) so I wave him to my partner. Undaunted, he steps forward, leaning in toward me and says...

Young Man: Hey, can I talk to you?
Me: Yeah, sure, what d'you need?
YM: (motions to come closer) I need to talk to you! Please? (leans closer)
Me: (backing up, slowly) Yes?
YM: (coming closer still) I really need to talk to you! Please?
Me: (Starting to panic a bit) Yes? (!)
The young fellow leans in close (I wasn't sure whether to scream, or jump over the bench) and he whispers, "I need a favor . . . "
Me: (really concerned now) . . . Yes? (!!!!!)
YM: (barely an audible whisper) Can you please stop at Lombard Street, just for a minute? I'd like you to ring the bell a couple of times, then (motions to the young lady with him) tap her on the shoulder and tell her I want to talk to her."
Me: ...well . . . okay . . . (?)
YM:( short pause) I . . . I want to propose to her . . .

He tries to hand me the $10 bill. I refuse to take it. I motion to him to take his seat, and I give him a wink and a nod.

Fast forward to Hyde and Lombard. I start with the usual "Lombard, crooked street, on my right..." Full stop, lock down the brakes.

DING-DING-DA-DING-DING-DING!! "All right folks, we're gonna be here for a minute or two...please bear with us.we have some extremely important business to attend to . . . " By now, all attention is on the young man, who has stepped off the car and is kneeling on the running board, clasping his girlfriends' hands, telling her how much he cares, how much she means, how his life could never be complete without her. She has a puzzled but a happy look on her face 'I know you love me, but why are you telling me all this out loud in front of all these strangers?'

YM: ....will you . . . (choke) marry me?

A moment of stunned silence, then squeal, hug, kiss, laughter, applause, roars of approval from delighted passengers (and cable car crew) tears, more kissing, cheers, bell-ringing, happy pandemonium.

He wants to show her the ring, but it's too dark. Luckily, I had just changed the batteries in my little AA flashlight, and it served as a temporary spotlight for a beautiful diamond ring (He REALLY loves this girl!). Handy things, those AA flashlights. Never know when (or how) you'll need one.

Curious bystanders, attracted by all the commotion, call out, "What's going on?"

Response: "This guy just asked his girl to marry him!"

Bystanders: "Did she say yes?"

The happy couple is entwined in each others arms, totally oblivious to our grins. For right now, the other passengers, Lombard St, the cable car, have ceased to exist. All they are aware of, all that matters, is each other.

Response: "What do YOU think?"

Two bells, all clear, and off we go.

At the bottom of the hill, he tries to give me the $10. Again, I refuse. Instead, I take their tickets back, and ask my conductor for the $4.00 they paid. I hand their money back, saying, "It's the least I can do . . . congratulations, and best of luck . . . you make a lovely couple." Amid handshakes all around, they leave the car, arm in arm. After which I reached into my wallet and give my conductor $4 for their fares. Their first wedding present.

I remove my hat and gloves, hang them on the traditional spot (the brake handle) and settle down to take a break. And, the happy couple, holding hands and kissing, walk off together and disappear into the fog, just like a Hollywood scene.

From time to time, I run into other Muni operators, friends of mine from my bus-driving days. When they ask where I'm working out of now, and I tell them, they usually say, "Cable Cars! That's hard work! Don't you get cold and wet? You have to stand for hours and hours! Don't you get tired?"

Yeah, Sure. Cold, wet, tired, all the time.

"Then why did you go over there? Why do you stay?"

The questions run through my mind as I watch the newlyweds-to-be stroll into the distance. I can't help but smile.

Some things can't be explained in words.

Some things don't have to be explained.

Corny? Yeah, okay, maybe.

To paraphrase the credit card commercial,

"Gloves, $15.00. Hat, $25.00.
This Job..Priceless."

I would like to dedicate this first installment of my column to that couple - Godspeed to you both

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A note from your host:

I am pleased and honored that Municipal Railway gripman Val Lupiz has chosen my Cable Car Home Page to be the host for his column, Tales From the Grip, "an inside, behind the scenes look at the cable cars from a gripman's perspective." I hope readers will enjoy his work as much as I have.

If you came to this page from an outside link, you may want to see the Picture of the Month and visit my main page.

Joe Thompson ;0)

Visit the site of The Friends of the Cable Car Museum, the organization that runs the museum at Washington/Mason.

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Last updated 13-December-2011