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Carried away by a desire named streetcar

By Jim Coyle

THAT’S A NEAT contest the TTC has going, inviting patrons to write in with their favourite transit memories, the winner to be celebrated as the system’s 24 billionth rider. Already pictures are showing up in subways and buses of folks who were unexpectedly smitten by, and eventually married, some stranger that fate and a bus ticket put in a seat across the aisle.

Being the son of a streetcar driver, I remain grateful for the bread all those fares put on our table, and I reckon I must account personally for tens of thousands of those 24 billion rides.

For 34 years, our Ould Fella drove the Queen St. streetcar and if he was working a Sunday we’d sometimes go down to the stop at Coxwell, wait til he came along, and ride with him out to the end of the line at Humber. No journey could have seemed more exotic; no CEO could have seemed to us more a master of his domain.

Back then, operators sold tickets as well as drove. Innocent age that it was, they carried mittfuls of cash (and were rarely relieved of it). How he managed both jobs at once, while calling out stops as if he knew every square inch of the city, we could hardly imagine.

He was the soul of gallantry, springing from his chair to help young mothers aboard with their prams, bounding down to assist old ladies across Queen St. for their appointments at St. Michael’s Hospital, nodding to the lost souls congregated around Moss Park.

He knew how to do everything. How to grab a crowbar and throw the switch on the rail to head up Kingston Rd. How to reattach the pole when it jumped an icy wire and sent the powerless vehicle shuddering to a halt. How to smile in the face of grousing passengers when short-turning a car instead of continuing on to Neville.

Mind you, it was wisdom earned the hard way. One of his earliest lessons occurred soon after joining the commission, when upon going out of service in the wee hours one morning he found a drunk snoring in the back seat. Being a mannerly fellow, he bent over the customer, touched his shoulder and said: “Excuse me, sir, end of the line.” To which the slumberer, waking up swinging, responded with a right to the Ould Fella’s jaw.

“Boys,” he would say later while instructing us in the ways of life. “When you’re waking up a drunk, always come at him from behind.”

Over the years, he got to know his pre-dawn regulars, the posties, the cleaners, the cops who had to be at their jobs almost as early as he was at his.

Sometimes, he’d chat half the run away discussing important matters of the day - the hockey game, the cost of things, the crush of traffic at Exhibition time. Sometimes, we knew, he’d look the other way when a troubled soul dropped a button, instead of a ticket into the farebox, or pulled from a grimy pocket a rumpled transfer days past its expiry.

And he always smiled at the dotty old fellow who would enter a jam-packed car somewhere out beyond Roncesvalles and sing over and over again “I’ve got a seat, and no place to put it” until somebody gave him theirs.

Ours was a TTC world. If he was late coming home we’d figure him to be with some other of the drivers at the Diamond Steakhouse, or the Orchard Park tavern. Or, more likely, investing in the care and feeding of horseflesh down at Greenwood Raceway.

In fact, the operators had a bit of a system. An eastbound driver en route to Neville would drop $2 with a colleague in front of the track, then learn on his return trip westbound how his nag had made out. The disruption in service was minimal. And grief usually came from supervisors only if their own bets had gone badly.

As kids, we would sit in the seat behind the driver and sneak the transfer stubs out of the little wastebaskets and use them as transfers when we played streetcar with our wagons. We knew the pals of our dad, who if we caught their cars, would give us a dime from that little coin-dispenser on their belt. We would fall asleep on summer nights to the squeal of the Carlton car through our bedroom windows as it made the hard right off Coxwell on to Gerrard and wonder if someone we knew was driving.

It was on the TTC that our city expanded. When I left the east end to play baseball in Leaside, it was two buses and a subway ride to get to Talbot Park. When I got my first job that involved more than delivering things on a bicycle it was two buses, two subways to get to a supermarket where I was paid $2.25 an hour.

But the ride I remember best, I guess, was the last one the Ould Fella ever gave.

At his last half-dozen stops along Queen St., as he approached the Russell yards the day he retired, a member of his family was waiting with balloons and flowers to board. And the old boy, the TTC will be proud to know, drove it home smooth as you like.

Though best not to count that ride among the 24 billion.

As I recall, none of us paid.