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Riding the Rails

The nine lives of 85

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I hadn't even celebrated my fortnight anniversary in Charlotte as I cruised down 7th Street, lost in the maze of one-way avenues trying to find the castle of books (library). It was nighttime, and I approached some train tracks. I've been a motorist for quite some time now. I'd like to think I'm down with the program. The friendly white gate arm with the red diagonal lines descends, the red lights blink and the chiming bells jingle. It's a good system. Everyone's covered: the blind, the deaf, the cell-phoned, and there's even a nice little tune you can sing along to. "There's gonna be a train, oh baby, yeah, yeah, there's gonna be a train" is my verse of choice.

On that fated night as a miniature train approached, I didn't see any gate arms. The trolley stopped just before entering the intersection. I slammed on the breaks. A man in a fluorescent vest emerged out of nowhere with a stop sign. He didn't really hold the sign up, or, if he did, it wasn't with the stiff-armed vigor that we take for granted from traffic cops. Confused and caught in no-man's-land, I went for the gas. The trolley had already started moving. Train horns sounded. Whistles shrilled. I shrieked effeminately. Man, Train and Automobile were about to converge. You learn a lot about yourself while on the cusp of annihilation (for some reason my final thoughts fixated on the circus).

By an act of God, I emerged on the other side unscathed. I didn't know it at the time, but I almost murdered Ole 85, one of Charlotte's oldest living natives. 85 cruised the streets in the original trolley era, between 1927 and 1938, running on the same ground with horse-drawn carriages and nascent automobiles.

If 85 had eyes, they would have welled up when the trolley car was sold to the Air National Guard: Its straw seats and mechanical equipment were unceremoniously stripped and its shell was converted into an airport office. A 9-to-5 wasn't the fast-paced life meant for 85. The streetcar landed in Huntersville where it served as a greasy spoon in an area rife with gypsies.

85 had yet to reach its lowest point. For $125, a local resident named Daisy Moore went Boxcar Children on it, allowing homeless relatives to stay in the newly purchased tram. The city found out Daisy's house was a car, but not until 1987. They condemned the erstwhile electric car for being off the grid as a residence (note the irony) but bought it from Moore for $1,000. Charlotte Trolley, a nonprofit organization, raised the money to give 85 a $500,000 makeover. The tongue-and-groove ceiling on one end and the Plexiglas placard with the worn-out 85 are the only features that have survived all 78 years.

At first the trolley's resurrection struck me as a pathetic attempt to implant a worthwhile attraction with historical significance. Not that I blamed Charlotte for trying. St. Louis built a gigantic geometric figure in the sky and called it an indigenous landmark. The few times I saw the Charlotte trolley after my near collision, it was empty -- prompting me to conclude not that it was a pathetic attempt to generate spirit, but that it was a spirit.

When I finally got to ride 85, my ghost-train fear was compounded. The conductor, Frank, could not have looked more like a 19th century train conductor with his ovular shaped body, charcoal hair and whiskery beard. He told me he worked for a paper mill in the Blue Ridge Mountains for the majority of his life (a ghost job if I've ever heard one). I decided to ask Frank, ghost or not, about the trolley. Knowing I was a reporter, he was reluctant to answer my hard-hitting questions.

"Is that hat ... I mean conductor cap thingy really old?" I asked.

"You'll have to speak to the media advisor," he replied.

Steve Boger, the human gate arm on 85, was more willing to talk. "Do you fear for your life out there?" I asked him.

He smiled and turned to a trolley regular sitting next to us: "He's seen me nearly get hit half a dozen times."

According to Lisa Gray of Charlotte Trolley, the Charlotte Area Transit System decided gate arms would be too expensive and instead opted to employ two security employees at all times. (That's cheaper?)

Steve and the other traffic monitors have a public enemy No. 1: a Bank of America employee in a silver Mercedes. The banker speeds up like he's going to hit Steve, then slams on the brakes right before colliding with him. He curses Steve out, and he's even called Charlotte Trolley to complain the trolley gets in his way. "He's real big and bad in his car, but he won't say anything until he passes me. I point him out when I see him. He just hates that."

Riding the rails on four consecutive trips, I learned the ins and outs. East is the most dangerous. Bland is the most somnolent (as you might expect). A homeless man was napping there. The aroma of fried chicken from Price's overtakes the cabin at Park Street. Art (or gang graffiti) in the Convention Center tunnel has been worked into trolley lore. The painted dragon is named Red Eye and he comes to life in The Charlotte Trolley and the Full Moon Adventure.

In that children's book, a group of kids rides the trolley as it travels back through time in Charlotte. At one point, the kids are between destinations and one child prays, "Please don't be the War of 1812. Please don't be the War of 1812," actually a common invocation in the world of haphazard time travel.

The trolley will be shutting down in February for construction of the light rail, which will run alongside it. When the trolley returns, it will run only during peak hours. Gray isn't concerned that a modern train running next to the trolley will detract from the experience. "Even with light rail, as sexy as it is, a lot of people are going to ride the trolley."

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