I loved to ride the trolley …
Mounds of metal tethered with poles to wires that supplied the energy, the electric trolleys were masses of power that glided, rumbled and wobbled along their tracks while passing rows of merchants… the tailor, shoemaker, barber, grocer, the undertaker, baker, saloon keeper, liquor store owner and fish man.
Academy Avenue was a busy neighborhood street where people bustled along sidewalks and streetcars hummed along the street. Trolley tracks and overhead wires connected one end to the other.
Bulky and powerful, the trolleys pounded along the Avenue, oiling their way with steel wheels on their steel rails. As I walked down my street toward the Avenue, I heard the wheels screeching, like chalk on a blackboard. The trolley’s poles swayed in the opposite direction of the streetcar. Wires looked like giant spider webs when the car stretched around the corner of Atwells Avenue’s hill to the flat of Academy.
I loved to ride with Grandma on her trek to Federal Hill every Saturday. “We take-a the stree-ta-car. Here she come.” The trolley stopped one block from the end of my street. I stood on tiptoes, stretching, looking and waiting for the clanging of the bell. It was near. Its brakes thumped. I took a deep breath.
Grandma held my hand as we boarded and passed the friendly motorman who greeted us with “Good morning.” On summer days, the trolley was crowded and hot. I sat on a wooden seat by the open window while Grandma stood, holding the leather strap, swaying with the rhythm of the ride. Did I smell something burning? No. Just the brakes and the tracks when the car came to a stop. At each stop, elderly ladies barreled on.
The trolley was more than a ride to The Hill. It was a source of adventure. I strolled alongside the track on summer days. Sometimes I saw a dead mouse crushed in the tracks and wondered what a cat would look like…or a dog. Or maybe half my foot. I purposely caught my shoe in the track. What if the trolley were coming? In the old movie, a femme fatale was rescued when tied to a railroad track. So what if it was a train speeding at 100 mph and not the trolley at its maximum of 15. It would do just as much damage… a lost toe, foot, leg, or a life. I knew I could get my shoe out. It was easy, so I did it again, and again.
Sometimes Dad, in a moment of defiance and bravery when no trolley or autos were in sight would say, “Watch me drive the Chevy on the tracks. Do you feel it, Edward? We’re gliding. Do you feel how smooth it is? How she slides?” He was so excited, but just as quickly as he got on the tracks, he got off; loving his moment of mischief. On a face that would have tightened in disapproval if he knew what we did with the trolleys, he now had a wispy smile of triumph. I tried it with my bike, but the wheels got stuck in the track and never glided.
It was the older kids who pulled the big adventures. I watched from a hiding place, of course. I might put caps in the tracks to hear the rat-a-tat-tat. That was about it. But those guys used salutes or the formidable cherry bomb which might, we thought, jolt the car near off the track. We fanned out after they placed the cherry bomb; taking strategic places well out of sight. In my trusty Keds I buzzed by the bakery. That bread smelled so good but no time to savor it today. I needed to get behind the building. This wasn’t blind man’s bluff or Red Rover. This was the real thing. I wanted to watch while being prepared for a getaway.
The bigger thrill was when those kids ran after the car, jumped and pulled the boom off the wire. Screech…the sound of the untethered trolley coming to an abrupt powerless halt. Down the steps and around to the rear came the mumbling conductor to reattach the boom. “Damn kids!!”
They dug up the tracks one day and replaced them with a smooth, black street.
Gone were the rumbles, clickety clacks and screeches. Gone was another neighborhood institution. I didn’t need much more to bond me to the neighborhood because I lived, learned and played there, but the trolley was among the favorites. Kids from school, men from work, smells of fish and chips on Friday; all were among the myriad of neighborhood connections.
I drove to Atwells and Academy Avenues recently. I visualized the trolley following the streets of my youth….old streets, sidewalks, stores, schools now gone. On those streets I had found fun, excitement and familiarity.
Now, so many years later, I’ve thought about those scenes. The tracks and its trolley were just another anchor among many in our neighborhood. As time passes, I grow more nostalgic for the memories of youth. Though the trolley and the tracks are long gone, their image remains.
You can find this and similar stories in my book, Growing Up Italian: Grandfather’s Fig tree and Other Stories or in my second book, What Ever Happened to Sunday Dinner?