When The Trolley Doesn’T Go ‘Clang! Clang! Clang!’


I was just barely tall enough to see over the back of the couch, which stood against the front windows of our first floor apartment. And so I spent a lot of time leaning against the soft mohair back of the couch, watching workmen tearing up the street and removing the trolley tracks in front of our house on Brook Street on Staten Island.

Years later, when I was 14 and living 118 miles away in New London, Conn., I happened to mention it to my mother. She looked at me like I was crazy.

“You can’t remember that. You weren’t even a year old yet. You probably just remember us talking about it.”

But when I began to mention details — what the workmen did, how they did it, what came first, what came second — she had to admit it was a real memory.

And it was. I don’t remember much else from that early in life, but I can clearly remember them tearing up those tracks, so I got to see the demise of the trolley car on Staten Island.

Gone were the trolley tracks, the overhead power lines, and the trolleys themselves, replaced by “modern” buses.

And gone too, I suppose, was the “Clang! Clang! Clang!” of the trolley though you couldn’t prove it by me either way, since I’ve never heard a trolley bell except in a Rice-A-Roni commercial.

The reason I know that tearing up the tracks in front of our house marked the demise of the trolley is because the big old car barns where they used to repair them and store them overnight was right up the street from our house. By the time I was old enough wander that far from home, no trace of the old trolley cars remained. The car barns were filled with buses.

Wondering why I told you all that?

Got thinking about it watching TV as they installed “modern” trolley cars down in Phoenix to replace “old-fashioned” buses.

Of course they don’t call them trolley cars down in Phoenix; they call them “light rail.” But you can’t fool me, I’m too old. I know a trolley car when I see one.

If it runs on tracks, has an overhead power system, can’t be steered, and vies with the traffic for the right of way, it’s a trolley car. Yep. Down in Phoenix “Time Marches On” and “Back to the Future” have met and become one and the same thing.

I know light rail when I see it, by the way. We had real light rail on Staten Island. Looked like an above-ground subway on a raised track bed with underpasses. It was called the rapid transit system.

I see that the new troll — oops! — light rail cars have their front ends slanted back.

“Aerodynamics?” you ask.

Uh-uh! Modern version of a cow catcher.

If you’re going to run on city streets in things that can’t steer to miss a pedestrian you better have something to toss ’em — so to speak — over your shoulder. Otherwise you’re going to get some really nasty bug smears on your windshield.

My Uncle Willie got hit that way one night as he walked back from the local pub out in Dongan Hills on Staten Island. In those days Dongan Hills was out in the country because they hadn’t yet built a bridge that connected Staten Island to the rest of city.

Uncle Willie walked on down to the local to fill his beer pail, but he had a few while he was there, and got talking, and ended up making himself late. His beer pail wasn’t really a pail, by the way, although from what I know of Uncle Willie, he would have had no trouble handling that much happy suds. It was a flat, covered, aluminum pot about the size of a two-quart cooking pot. You took it down to the local and they filled it for you. I guess it was cheaper than buying beer in bottles, and in the ’30s every penny counted.

Anyway, Uncle Willie left the pub a bit late, and he knew that Grandma Schuster was not going to be happy about it. Grandma Schuster, I can tell you, was no pushover. Grandpa Schuster said the wrong thing at supper one evening and she wanged the living daylights out of him with a pork chop.

Now that’s one tough old lady!

So feeling no pain as he hurried home with his pail of beer, Uncle Willie decided to take a shortcut by walking the rapid transit tracks. Now the thing about light rail, rapid transit, trolleys, or whatever, is that they don’t make much noise running on those shiny steel rails, something I notice that Phoenix Metro is feverishly advertising at the moment. Along with instructions to listen for that good old bell going “Clang! Clang! Clang!”

Anyway, you remember that cow catcher I mentioned? Well those rapid transit trains were rapid all right. The cow catcher on the one that slipped up on poor old Uncle Willie tossed him some record distance I’ve forgotten, neatly breaking his left leg.

What happened to his beer pail I don’t know, but I imagine it at least equaled the distance record that Uncle Willie achieved, and may even have bettered it.

Now you’d think Uncle Willie would have been highly put out at such treatment, but he wasn’t. Whenever I saw him over at our house on Brook Street he had a grin on his face. His settlement, based perhaps on the fact that somebody forget to “Clang! Clang! Clang!” the bell, provided him with unlimited refills for his shiny new beer pail, which he handled quite well on his crutches.

I often saw Uncle Willie, his crutches, and his pail of beer. Then I just saw Uncle Willie and the pail. And then I just saw Uncle Willie, who gave up carrying beer in pails, and carried it under his belt so often he died of cirrhosis of the liver.

I wonder if they’re going to do nice big settlements like the one Uncle Willie got when that slanted prow on those light rail cars of theirs launches someone into low orbit?

I keep thinking of all those homeless guys down there.

“Oh, they fly through the air with the greatest of ease ...”


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