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  • Cookie Boyle

Ode to a cable car

After living in New York, it felt like the obvious choice. You could live here without a car. It’s relatively walkable -— once you learn to manage the elevation changes. And there’s a swagger to it. After all, it’s San Francisco.

Those first few weeks in a new city are some of the hardest and some of the most telling as you transition from visitor to resident. It’s a shift in expectations and realizations. It’s also shift in how you see yourself.

As a newcomer to San Francisco, there is so much to take in. The Victorian homes. The Golden Gate. The mostly good weather. The colour of the sky – I’d never get tired of that distinct shade of deep, electric blue. And of course, the cable cars. What was once a legitimate means of public transportation are now National Historic Landmarks, operating mostly for tourists.

My first apartment, which achieved the all-too-rare combination of being both centrally located and well priced, was on a cable car line. I loved being on the phone and hearing that ‘ding ding’ of the cable car as it passed. The person on the other end of the line would ask: “Is that a cable car I hear?” And I’d sigh, “well, yeah,” as if it was obvious that cable cars ran by my front door, because that’s just what happens when you live here.

Their unabashed accessibility amazed me. In Las Vegas, a ride in the faux gondola at the Venetian Hotel, where the Ty-D-Bowl blue water looks inches deep, requires you to wear a seatbelt. Yet here in San Francisco you can hop on, hang from and hop off a moving cable car, without having to sign away your rights. It requires self responsibility. What a concept.

So, between their charm, their iconic status and their legitimate form of transportation — did I mention they passed right by my front door — I became, in a word, obsessed. I loved being one of those locals who took the cable car for actual A to B transportation, not just for photos from the top of Lombard Street. I loved watching the operators manage the huge levers that stopped and started the cable cars. I loved knowing that I didn’t need to wait in the queue at the turnaround point. I was now a local, so could wait at any stop, and expect to get on.

Climbing Powell Street, I’d hang from the side, like I’d seen in movies, and delight that every driver seemed to take us on a journey, every time, every trip.

Yet I still couldn’t understand how the cable cars actually worked. How could they stop and start without an engine? What was the large lever inside the car actually doing? And why were we all so comfortable putting ourselves on these rolling contraptions that seemed to operate by some external force?

I could have gone to the Cable Car Museum and found the answer to this question, and more. But I’d lived here for three whole weeks, and that’s simply not what real locals, like me, actually do.

But my obsession grew. Each time I’d take a cable car, I’d studiously watch the drivers push and pull on the lever, making it stop and start, hold and go.

Then one evening, walking across Powell Street, I looked down, between the metal tracks, to what ran below. I was astonished to see movement. Something was running under the street. I kept standing and staring until the person I was with suggested I move, before I became the city’s next traffic accident.

“It’s amazing,” I proclaimed.

“What?” he asked.

“It’s like the cars attach to a rope. But it’s made of metal.”

“You mean a cable?” he asked.

Oh yeah, a cable.

I guess local takes time.

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