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Up, Up, But Never Quite Away

A journey on the historic San Francisco cable car route

Photo: Sean Davis via Flikr

The tourists form abstract dimensions between the proselytizers, the hot dog and flower vendors, bucket drummers, breakdancers, and the end-of-the-world profiteers. They wait with chummy countenances and snap pictures in a long, arcing line that follows the cable car turnaround at Powell’s southern cul-de-sac, and then trails off down the wide brick sidewalk all the way past Burger King to where the cockroach-infested Blondie’s Pizza used to reside. Their faces are like scattered leaves on a dry, white driveway.

The Flood Building, in all its sandstone glory, dispenses shade on this narrow strip, where only the cable cars are allowed. Its rounded prow has dominated this corner since 1904. A rare survivor of the 1906 fire, the Flood Building once housed the Owl Drug Company, and then Woolworth’s, and then Virgin Records, and now Gap. Dashiell Hammett had an office in there when he worked for the Pinkertons, and he used to do a lot of writing over at John’s Grill on the Ellis Street side. I believe he favored the pork chops. Across the street was once the Bank of Italy, which became the Bank of America, a grand palace of a place with ceilings vaulted as high as cheap seats. I used to conduct my meager financial transactions there before it transmogrified into a Forever 21 for a new generation of fast-fashion shoppers. Its current tenant is AT&T. The market-rate space above is also occupied, its roomy angular studios now crash pads for the condo-dwelling gentry.

Later, preferably toward the cable cars’ last-run hour, the world will sing more serene, with enough time to contemplate the grind-and-halt steel shrieks that’ve been causing pandemonium on Powell since 1888. I stalk the nearby area for signs of a place to repair quietly until the crowds have dwindled and the evening has let go its last hurrah into the ebon folds of night.

Cable cars used to reign in this city, with 23 lines (all established from 1873 to 1890) doing the former job of horses, shuttling folks up and over the hills and down Market to the Ferry Building. The sound of all those cables humming below the streets, the turbulent bustle and dust of the many lines’ competing tangle, the confabulating metallic, tinny din of it all—it must have been quite jarring to the senses for those accustomed to the clomp of horse hooves on the cobbled and dirt streets. During evening rush hour, the cable cars would back up for blocks on Market waiting to use the double-tracked turntable by the Ferry Building. They waited alongside some remaining California Street horse cars, the horses of which were made skittish and rowdy by all the commotion. But soon that greatest of conflagrations, the 1906 earthquake and fire, changed everything.

Power houses and car barns were destroyed, as were 117 cable cars stowed inside. A mad sprint to rebuild the city saw the United Railroads of San Francisco abandon almost all of its cable car lines in favor of electric streetcars, and MUNI’s first line on Geary also went electric. Only eight cable car lines were left by 1912, and that was only because their steep grades made them impossible for the newfangled streetcars to climb. Then buses came along and muscled out even more of the now-antiquated, single-headlight artifacts of cable propulsion, and by 1944, only the two Powell Street lines and the three Cal Cable California lines remained. If it weren’t for a 1947 referendum on an amendment to the city charter (which forced the city to maintain and operate the Powell Street cable car system and passed by an overwhelming majority of 166,989 to 51,457), all of these lines would by now have gone the way of telephones booths and dinosaurs.

And so, over the guide rollers and around the sheaves it all goes, the cable cars taking charge of the intersections, rolling through and briefly stopping in the middle to unload and load, the gripman loudly banging the bell, as all the vehicles and pedestrians are forced to wait out the sentence. After the cars pull away, one can still hear the echo and rhythmic clang of the idle cables as they rattle like shook chains or the knocks of a loose anchor or a metronome gone berserk beneath the tracks. Novice pedestrians are often afraid of being electrocuted by these ever-buzzing tracks, though they are completely safe to step upon.

The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde lines now begin at the Powell and Market turntable. The Mason line finishes up at Fisherman’s Wharf, where there’s another turntable at Taylor and Bay, and the tourist-heavy Hyde line passes many splendid views on its way to Beach Street terminal on the waterfront. It terminates directly across the street from the Buena Vista Café, a quaint spot for a tasting of what is claimed to be the country’s original “Irish” Coffee.

These seven-dollars-per-ride cable cars are a cash cow for MUNI. They’re filled all day long with passels of waving and hooting tourists hanging off the front while standing on the outside rail and steps, taking selfies and handing over their vacation dough to the wad-of-cash-carrying fare collector. This is a drastic change from the past, when — even as recently as 1960 — cable cars carried commuters and locals, and women were not allowed to ride on the outside steps, and the cost per ride was a mere 15 cents.

After some slow vespertine-and-onward hours imbibing serendipitous cocktails at a divey joint on Turk’s grittier edges — comingling with soused lunatics, conferring with rabid degenerates, and corroborating a few exaggerated rumors about my current status among the living — I reconnoiter back to that crossroads of consumerism where the cable cars perform their about-face.

As the evening’s business comes to a close, the formerly grenadine-splashed clouds now doused with ink and night’s sparklers shedding spots of bright, a lush wonder suffuses the senses. With glory-speckled neon eyes, the Horatio Alger in us all climbs the stalled escalator from the dingy BART station, enamored by the homey comfort of familiar sights and sounds. That austere, gray, Colusa-sandstone rounded prow of the Flood building is always there to save you from disorientating modernity. The discordant uproar of the city’s viscera is hushed, and a cool freedom of wanderlust permeates the surroundings. I mosey along the pedestrian walkway that starts where Eddy Street dead-ends, eventually sauntering back to Powell’s southern extremity.

This end of Powell wasn’t always a cul-de-sac; it used to hit Eddy and run through to Market back before Hallidie Plaza came along. These were the times of sailors in peacoats and Dixie Cup hats; the Manx, the Crane, the Chancellor, and the Hotel Powell (nee Turpin); and the Pig and Whistle, where patrons could order a “De Luxe” six-course dinner for $1 that included dishes such as “Braised Saddle of Rabbit, Chasseur” and “Grilled Boned Loin of Spring Lamb” with fresh mushrooms and mint jelly. It was a common belief that it always rained just a bit more at Powell and Market than anywhere else in town. Today, this commodified, high-density-foot-traffic spot is considered the most photographed cable car turntable in the world.

I approach the now-empty ropes of the turnaround’s line barrier as two MUNI shift workers manually crank the souped-up camper on skates so it faces north. After the contraption’s done its duty, they both hop back on as the now-idle car sits and takes a breather. I board the rear, the sole occupant of tonight’s last traverse up and over Nob Hill. The conductor is a lively sort with a bristling mustache and introduces himself to me as “Yonder Oliver, The Decent.” He’s from Stockton originally but has been escorting passengers up and down San Francisco’s hills for the better part of two decades. He’s leaning on the railing of the back platform, all bundled up in a heavy-duty dark-brown MUNI jacket, with beanie and gloves to match, and I stand with him momentarily there, feeling a bit like Fred MacMurray waiting to jump off the back of the train at the climax of Double Indemnity.

“So, it seems I’m your lone fare for this run, huh?”

His voice is gruff and soft at the same time, sort of a silky, low-pitched, growl: “The solitary flight of a starry night, Buddy. Lucky guy. You’ve got the whole damn car to yourself.”

“Your home stretch?”

“Yessiree. Going home. Goooo-ing home.”

He almost sings the last part, and it reminds me of Paul Robeson’s deep and powerful stylings. I flash him my Clipper card, which he scans into a handheld device attached to his belt, and it beeps a gratified acknowledgement of my worthiness to ride. Then Yonder yanks the thick rope cord running across the ceiling, and bells ding, and the gripman pulls a few levers, and the whole rattletrap affair is off, shaking and bounding along this pedestrian-only section of Powell, past Ellis and up to O’Farrell. The neon sizzle of Tad’s Steaks flashes by as I take a seat at the rearmost end of the covered bench facing east.

Once upon what’s only a dream now, possibly eons ago, or so it seems, these blocks of Powell around Union Square were littered with cheap weekly rate hotels where many retired blue-collar folks spent their later years. The hotels were surrounded by liquor stores, newsstands, small groceries, sitting room–like bars and cafeterias. This, of course, was well before the Disneyfication and high-end store takeover of the 1990s, which gave an awful face-lift to the area, erasing all signs of its hardscrabble and dignified past. The elderly were left to fend for themselves, creating the need for eldercare facilities and retirement homes, which sprouted up all over Van Ness.

Lefty O’Doul’s hofbrau was perhaps the last remaining trace of what life around here was like for most of the 20th century, but it too has gone the way of its former customers. Before Lefty O’Doul’s, this lot at 333 Geary was home to the St. Francis Theatre. Built in 1916, it was the first structure in the country specifically designed to show “photoplays” — movies, in our modern parlance. The great novelty of the place was its reversed screen. Patrons faced the street to watch movies projected onto a mammoth screen that was installed behind the building’s majestic glass façade. To everyone’s dismay, this glass window was covered over after the theater closed, in 1919, and was replaced by a restaurant called the Virginal Hill Inn.

A candy store with a soda fountain took over after that, and there was a beauty parlor on the second floor until the 1930s, when the whole place became Gene Compton’s Cafeteria, which it remained until 1958, when San Francisco baseball legend Lefty O’Doul opened his saloon/hofbrau there. After a bitter dispute between the building’s new owner and the tenants forced Lefty’s to close for good, it is now just an empty storefront waiting to be reborn into its next life, perhaps as a boutique clothing store or another chain to match the surroundings. Just the latest example of civic destruction and greed winning the day as property values continue to skyrocket.

Very few sanctified relics of this area’s obsolete past remain. One of the few remnants is the dead-neon marquee of Marquard’s Little Cigar Store on O’Farrell, which is still intact for the most part, though the franchised Lids logoed-cap store has taken up residence inside. They’ve left the advertisement for the New York Times and the round stopwatch-like clock above the white cursive and block letters, which stand out like inverse-color-scheme newsprint against the black background. I say a prayer for it as we jostle by.

Yonder meanders through the cabin to chat with the gripman. I turn my gaze to the stately beaux-arts St. Francis Hotel, pondering Fatty Arbuckle’s demise and Timothy Pflueger’s passed-away Patent Leather Bar. The St. Francis used to be my go-to spot for a public bathroom—that is, until they put a coded lock on the door about a year ago to keep potty-dancers like me from striding confidently through the lobby as if they were guests of the hotel. The exterior glass elevators of the back tower rise and fall like bars of a histogram, giving occupants a fabulous view of the city on their way up. This intersection used to have a birdcage signal right outside the Milton Kreis restaurant, catty-corner from Union Square; now a fashion chain called Express has taken over, luring in shoppers with its fancy wardrobes and jewelry for special occasions. A man who plays an exquisite brand of bucket-drum music can usually be found on the street corner, plying his makeshift percussive trade for tips.

“Say hello to Big Alma.” Yonder is leaning on the platform’s railing again, counting his cash roll and humming low and telling me wondrous things. He extends a forefinger toward the Dewey Monument planted in the middle of Union Square. “Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Ah, what a dame. Six feet tall and the personality to match. After she modeled for that trident-and-wreath-wielding Goddess of Victory atop that sucker, well, she became quite the sex symbol of nineteen and three. All the boys would come around to stare up at this bronzed beauty, wishing she were their only one. But she married that sugar magnate, you know…and the rest is, well, as dead as McKinley.”

We slink to another stop at Post. A resonance of primitive awe invades my senses: that old-time howling song of whine and rise, a steady maracas beat from dawn’s earliest through midnight’s last ride; the clattering heave of old earth; the hauling-along wrench of pulleys and wire rope; that special crunch of the pliers-like grip snagging like a clutch on the underground cable as the single-ended boxy car glides along over the two vibrating tracks with a cable slot between. I think of miners back more than 150 years ago, tearing apart the hills with pickaxes, prospectors dreaming too big for all the birches in the Sierra Nevada goldfields, most leaving with less than they came with, a very few actually making anything out of themselves at all.

I walk out to the front benches flanking the gripman, which look outward, and take a seat facing east, exposed to the night’s chill. Harry Denton’s Starlight Room is hosting some expensive cocktail affair high up above the Sir Francis Drake, and the beefeater-uniformed bellhops out front are two-finger whistling for cabs. I dream of Myrna Loy’s long stays and Prohibition roomfuls of bootlegged beer and tommy gun wedding celebrations that left bullet holes in the lobby ceiling.

The hulking gripman leans over to me in a rare moment of quiet, shouting unnecessarily loud, “Smallest pancakes in town at Sears! Fine as silver dollars!”

I tell him that it’s a bit early for breakfast, to which he replies, “It’s never too early or too late for pancakes.”

I can’t argue with that.

The gripman’s job is not an easy one. Each of the system’s four cables is more than 10,000 feet long and made up of six steel strands of 19 wires wrapped around a sisal rope core. Great care, skill, and strength are required to provide an even and gradual motion while ensuring the grip does not become entangled in the cable. The gripman must be of fine fettle, stout yet delicate in his handlings. There’s an art to applying even and gradual pressure to the grip, which attaches the car to that clump of thick-steel-strand wires below, which in turn are driven by an electric motor up at the Mason and Washington powerhouse. If the car is brought too quickly up to “cable speed” (roughly nine miles per hour), the passengers’ comportment is most unacceptably jarred and upset. And so, the proverbially slow and steady win the day.

I decide to Gumby-leg my way back to the glass-and-wood diorama case of the covered area as we continue our climb.

We are ascending click by click up the steep terrain. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that’s slowly drawing up to a giant drop. I love gazing back at the buildings getting smaller and smaller, the rooftop water towers lowering to eye level, the neon spitting all over the street: such a glimmering backdrop of urban glamour. I imagine myths of rainy nights, Bogart out on an undercover bender, slouch hats and spats, overcoats and suits and dresses, shined shoes, barber-shaved men, necklaces and bracelets and silver watches, the starry glitz of another era shimmering down to Powell’s summit.

A full swallow of solitude envelopes me, but I’m not lonely at all on this melancholy expedition. There is a quiescence and uncanny peculiarity about being the sole rider on this rolling stagecoach of maroon and light-blue livery; its street-facing uncomfortable benches of polished pine now bereft of sitters; the white and yellow grab poles bouncing around without any standees to hold them. The sickle moon’s a scythe slicing through black velvet, a fingernail clipping beaming a white grin above all the man-made clutter. And only a few scrappy stars are available for viewing, poking through the endlessly deep and dark belly of the heavens. Everything is happening as it should.

Rolling to a stop at the flat intersections with a terrorizing rumble (the four-wheel trucks skidding on the track’s narrow gauge), the wooden brake blocks burn Douglas fir under the gripman’s lever. Yonder hollers out the stop in a deep, rich baritone as the bell rings. I recoil a bit at the sound of scraping metal as we pull off, safely tucked away on my “indoor” perch, sitting all the way at the back of the hard, wooden, inward-facing bench in this old creaky cabin, the panes of glass seemingly ready to shatter in their trembling casement above me. Every screw and bolt is ready to meet its maker as we continue rattling onward and upward, scaling towards Powell’s steepest grade of 17 percent up to Pine.

Sutter is sleepy and remote as we come to not-quite-a-complete stop outside Lori’s 24-hour diner, still going strong with its nostalgic-charm appeal of the 1950s. Across the street, the most hectic Walgreens in town has gone silent for the night, and we cruise along up toward Bush, passing the worn-down-but-not-out Cable Car Café.

Bush Street’s neon signs, mostly blades of red and green, scream down the tightly packed buildings both east and west. Uncle Vito’s still reigns on the corner, where the iconic Brown twins, Marian and Vivian, used to dine daily in their matching leopard-print coats, jewels and rings, coiffed hair, and too-much-makeup smiles. The delectable pizza there should win a prize. I think of Wilkes Bashford and Willie Brown always dining at Le Central a few blocks down the street, and steamed beer, and Willie Mays, too, and then the Martin Horton Saloon and Lotta Crabtree and Oofty Goofty and Emperor Norton, and all the long-gone persons-about-town now vanished into the lore of night’s legend.

The wind picks up. Yonder lets out a deep, bellowing shout, “Piiine Street!” His voice chock-full of life-affirming solace and yearning—or perhaps it’s just a tired sigh at another long night coming to a close. I lean back against the bench and stare out the fingerprint-smeared windows at the burgeoning expanse of leafy treetops lining the sidewalk below the Stanford Court Hotel’s lower edge. A much-corroded stone “castle” wall rules the block and wraps all the way around down Pine to Mason, where there’s even a turret. This retaining wall was built in the late 19th century by an engineer of the Central Pacific Railroad to surround the whole block, including the vainglorious 70-room mansion of a silver baron named Mark Hopkins. The wall survived the 1906 fire, but the palatial mansion did not. Currently the Mark Hopkins Hotel stands on the site. Its top-floor bar, “the Top of the Mark” is a martini-drinker’s paradise and offers panoramic views of the entire city from its large windows on all sides. The next-door mansion of Mr. Stanford also burnt to a crisp in the fire, and as we lurch up and past the barriers of its successor, I feel a slight twinge of vindication for the demolishment of mansions and palaces in the sometimes-grand scheme of things.

There’s a distinctive, small, cream-and-green booth on the southeast corner of California. It’s got a brown, six-sided, triangular top. Two stoplights with green-and-red Xs and no yellows hang from its street-facing sides. Though I don’t know the specific purpose of this booth, I believe it has something to do with the nearby cable car crossing where the double-ended California cars roll east and west. The great frictional berating of the cars clanking over the cross-tracks is enough to wake one from a deep hibernation, and it almost feels as if this whole bandbox caboose is going to derail and go flumping end over end all the way down to the Embarcadero. But the gripman and Yonder steer us steady through and over it all, and the tumult dies down to a minor reverberation as we coast along into Chinatown, controlling the lights to keep them green for us—or for me, I guess, as I am still riding solo on this showy craft.

Coming up to Clay, I shout to Yonder that I need the stop, and he nods his approval, yanks the rope, and it’s like all the bells in town are ringing out for me. The car chafes and brakes, and I dangle from the back like a hobo ready for a leaping exit from the back platform. I tell Yonder thanks for the lift, and he salutes me like a flag and says, “And may all the oysters in the world be kind to you and yours, Sir!”

The car cranks to a complete stop, and I leap to the street with the nuanced fluency of a gymnast dismounting a pommel horse. All is well with these wee-hour streets.

I stand on the corner, leaning like Sinatra on a lamppost, and watch as the noirish glint of that singular single taillight disappears around Jackson, the car swooping along the western curve of the tracks with a steely scream of the railroad earth. I think back to the teetering boxcars of other older-than-old San Franciscos, and the trumpet call of foghorns relating their sad tale through the slumberous hours of owls and after-party revelers. As the dew gathers on the street signs and mailboxes and fire hydrants and a sporadic drizzle starts to spot my glasses, I do some hard-won reveling of my own in this very fortunate condition between birth and death we so offhandedly refer to as being alive. Standing with both feet planted firmly on the vibrating tracks, eyes lost in cascading blurs of fog’s drippy fingers, I gloat and relish in my momentary isolation, dreaming myself northward, all the way out past the dark waters of the bay, and perhaps even past the distant line-doodle of the Richmond Bridge and into that vast firmament of all the worlds upon worlds so far beyond where these cables rumble below my feet, where I stand, where I am, in this place that I just so happen to very much enjoy doing my living in.

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