Last August I was commissioned to write a piece about San Francisco’s cable cars, which had recently come back into service after a pandemic-forced hiatus. But I misunderstood the assignment, thinking it was for a weekend slot, rather than a weekday column — a difference of about 500 words. After filing my long copy, the editor said it was “heartbreaking” to cut down, because she could tell I had blast writing it. Reading it back today reminded me she was absolutely right, I really did. So here it is in full.
(The shorter published version can be found here.)
At the point where California Street meets Van Ness Avenue, a little girl peers up at the cable car headed in our direction. She keeps watching. “It’s slower than a snail!” she yells.
That’s unfair. No snail that I’m aware of has a top speed of 9 and half miles per hour, a fair clip when you’re clinging to the outside of one of these cars, as this girl soon was, clattering up and over the hill.
It’s a joy that until the beginning of August had been out-of-bounds for some 16 months. In March 2020, San Francisco’s cable cars were taken off the streets as coronavirus set-in. It was the longest break in service since 1982, when the system was taken offline for rebuilding after decades of penny-pinching.
The first time people rode on these cars was in 1873. In still running, it has become the oldest cable car system in the world. It’s the only designated national landmark in America that moves. The first line, on Clay Street, was conceived by Andrew Hallidie, a British man who emigrated to the city during the Gold Rush and who, the story goes, saw horses falling down San Francisco’s steep hills in the rain.
A recent apartment move has made the California line my daily commute. It takes me from gritty Polk Street and up past the beautiful Fairmont, the city’s classiest hotel. There’s a statue of the great Tony Bennett on its front lawn, his arms outstretched in deliverance of the climatic note of I Left My Heart in San Francisco. It was here in 1961 he performed the song for the first time, paying tribute — how couldn’t you? — to the “little cable cars” that “climb halfway to the stars”.
It takes some effort to get them there: each weighs around 15,500 pounds (7,000 kg). “They think it’s easy!” laughs Tom Leal, a born-and-bred San Franciscan who has operated a cable car for 18 years. He now also teaches new recruits, a pressing need due to a number of staff moving on, many retiring, due to the Covid-19 break in service.
Tom and his colleagues are known as “grips” or “gripmen”, since that’s essentially what they do all day. From the front of the car, they operate the vice that lowers down to grip the cable running underground all day and (mostly) all night, pulling the cars uphill and stopping them slipping down the other side. Another lever applies a brake, and there’s a foot pedal that applies a further brake — though seems to require the full weight of the operator on top of it in order to achieve much. The whole dance gives the impression the cable cars are not so much operated as they are tamed.
“I gave up asking questions,” wrote Rudyard Kipling, in American Notes, of what he called simply “the mechanism”. “If it pleases Providence to make a car run up and down a slit in the ground for many miles, and if for twopence halfpenny I can ride in that car, why shall I seek the reasons of the miracle?”
Tom, the gripman, is sitting on a small wall outside the Cable Car “barn” — the depot — which contains the “powerhouse” that runs the cables, and also doubles as a free museum. The cables need to replaced every between 75 and 250 days, depending on the severity of the strain they’ve endured in that time. Changing the cable is “painstaking”, taking around five hours in the dead of night.
When I introduce myself, Tom’s colleagues scatter — a boss named Kevin has told them not to speak to the press. Heaven forbid readers of a newspaper were to learn, or more likely be reminded, of one of this city’s most charming attractions.
The cars are particularly charming right now — they’re free to ride, rather than the usual fare which, at $8 one-way, is as steep as the hills. Such a toll is apparently necessary to offset the cost, and will surely go up. In February, city transport officials were warning that the deficit faced on their books meant the cable cars were a luxury San Francisco may not be able to afford if it’s to also run the real services of buses, trams and trains in a post-pandemic world. No wonder, then, the cars’ return to the streets had a feeling of divine intervention, as the San Francisco Chronicle described it — observing that the two men operating the first car out of the barn were both named Jesus.
It’s clear the people have missed them. They shout in approval as they go by. “You’re back! So good to see you!” one woman said one recent Friday. Tom tells me it’s not uncommon for people to break into applause.
“That’s all I get all day long. We’ve been up for nearly month now and I hear it every single day. I think it’s a relief that things are getting back to normal.”
But then, are they?
“You know, it feels like it’s coming back. But then sometimes. . .” he pauses, perhaps thinking of Kevin. “Sometimes it doesn’t, you know?”
The routes of the cable car force you to see all sides of the city’s shifting fortunes. My trip passes through the city’s Chinatown — the oldest in North America — which has seen visitor numbers fall through the floor. Many of the buildings you pass bear the words “Stop Asian Hate” on their exterior.
Things are quieter still as you pull into the city’s financial district, the end of the line. What seemed like a growing buzz earlier in the year has somewhat subsided. The Financial Times came back to its Montgomery Street office in July, but the likes of Uber, Google and Facebook — some of the city’s largest tenants — have pushed their return-to-work plans into 2022. A great deal more follow their lead. By mid August, just 19 per cent of workers are back in San Francisco’s offices, according to security firm Kastle Systems, which shares a sampling of data on keycard and fob access.
The Powell-Hyde line, one of the most popular with tourists, starts near Union Square, where you’ll find vacant shops and vacant faces. Some say the notorious Tenderloin district is the most shocking when it comes to the crisis of drug addiction and homelessness, but I’d argue the juxtaposition of Union Square, where tourists queue up outside Gucci, yards from human desperation, gives a harder jolt to your conscience.
At the other end of that line is Fisherman’s Wharf, with its barking sea lions, clam chowder and street performers. Pre-pandemic, it was one of the most popular tourists spots on the West Coast. Today, where once it teemed, it now murmurs — though hotel occupancy has been steadily rising since January, according to statistics from City Hall. Still, many waterfront restaurants remain boarded up. The usual throngs of cyclists heading towards the Golden Gate Bridge have dwindled.
But the cable car endures, as it has always done, through earthquakes, a huge fire, political pressure, and now, it seems, a pandemic. At the Friedel Klussmann turnaround, where the cars are reorientated to go back the other way, a steady line of people wait to hop on. Klussmann is honoured here for her part in leading the movement to protect the cable car in a growing push for moderation and electrification.
“It’s a monument,” says Tom Lauzze, a tourist I meet, of the cable cars. He’s here for a few days to escape wildfire smoke in other parts of the state. With him is Amy Sell, who says she lived in San Francisco around two decades ago and misses it deeply. “This is my favorite city in the world,” she says. “It just has that… European feel.”
That’s a common way of describing the place. It’s how I was told it would be before moving here. The least American of all of America’s cities, they say — a compliment or a put down depending on who is saying it. The city’s long history of liberalism and accepting all-comers, regardless of skin colour, status or sexual orientation, makes it shining beacon of acceptance not just in America but across the world.
And yet, a lot of hearts have been left here lately — an exodus prompted by Covid that poses a threat greater, perhaps, than anything that has come before it. On the cable car, at least, it’s easy and comforting to forget anything is amiss.
“San Francisco is the only city I can think of,” architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “that can survive all the things you people are doing to it and still look beautiful.”