Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I left my streetcar in San Francisco

Dateline...the City by the Bay.

Playing tourist before going to a meeting in Monterey later in the week. It's a tough gig, but somebody's got to do it. With the world's economy going to hell in a handbag, quite literally, at the moment, this may be my last trip to my favorite city to visit as a tourist for quite awhile.

For the record, I consider San Francisco to be a sister city to New Orleans. I think of it as New Orleans with hills. The same laid-back ambiance, the same love of things maritime, of a melting pot of cultures, of food and music and literature and...well, romance, however you wish to define it. I love this place. We have hurricanes, they have earthquakes, and the chief difference is we get about 48 hours notice and they get none. So it goes.

Yesterday morning I took the California Street cable car down from my hotel to the end of the line at the Embarcadero and took a stroll through the Ferry Building. At ten in the morning, the air was redolent with the scent of sauteed bell peppers and onions and steak, and if you've not been to the Ferry Building, well, the place is foodie heaven. There are all sorts of stalls and shops selling produce and meat and pastries and grocery items and wine and flowers and all sorts of things. A wonderful shop of kitchen thingies called Sur le Table. And all kinds of food-to-go, and I don't mean McDonald's and Burger King. It was Tuesday morning, and I wasn't at my usual haunt, the Crescent City Farmer's Market at Uptown Square, but I was at a kind of farmer's market anyway. And I mourned that I couldn't buy stuff to bring home and cook. Can't do that when you're staying in a hotel. Can't stash those lovely strawberries in a suitcase to take home.

I left the Ferry Building to catch a streetcar to Fisherman's Wharf. Did I just say streetcar? Yes! On my last trip out here four years ago, I discovered that San Francisco had put in a streetcar line along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf. What a concept! Streetcars! What will they think of next? (For the record, this route is flat. The cable cars still tackle the steep hills of the city.)

The streetcars have been obtained from all over the world. Each one has information inside it on its history and where it came from -- I remember riding one from Milan. Some look like 1950s-era buses, two-tone cream and green, on tracks with overhead wires.

And then, I saw it, down at the end of the line, its profile unmistakable. It was a New Orleans streetcar, circa 1920.

Now, for those of you who don't know, a short time before Katrina, the city purchased 26 (I think) red-and-yellow, custom built, air conditioned streetcars to run on the Canal Street and Riverfront lines. And it lost every one of them in the flood, at a million dollars apiece to replace. The old 1920s-era cars were in a different car barn, probably the Willow Street barn in Carrollton, which didn't flood. So they were saved. But over the years, the owners of the transit lines (first New Orleans Public Service Inc., later the Regional Transit Authority) had sold or otherwise disposed of a lot of the old streetcars. So it didn't have enough streetcars to run all its lines. And the St. Charles line had a lot of damage from oak trees falling on the metal stanchions (technically called catenaries, as I recall) that held up the power lines. So it wasn't until a few months ago that we had the whole St. Charles line up and running again.

I live a block and a half from St. Charles Avenue. I can't begin to describe my sorrow at not having those streetcars running for years after Katrina. Before you-know, if I woke in the middle of the night, I could hear them running, rrrrrrrr-CLACK! And I knew someone else was out there in the night, awake and on the job, literally on track. The silence of the streetcars was a deep grief.

But they are back. And I do hear them late at night. And it is such a comfort to have them again.

So, here I was in San Francisco, outside the Ferry Building with the Oakland Bay Bridge in the distance, and here was number 952, with the RTA emblem on the side. I snapped photos as I walked up, and I got on board and announced myself to some San Francisco Muni employees eating lunch on the old wooden seats: "I'm from New Orleans! What's our streetcar doing here? We lost so many in Katrina -- we need it back!"

One of the Muni employees told me he had once lived in New Orleans and in fact had a sister who lives in Marrero. Yes, he knew we had gotten torn up badly. (For the record, I've seen some red-and-yellow streetcars out there, so we must have been able to replace at least some of the ones we lost; I gather the federal government has funds to pay for public transit, especially transit that doesn't pollute -- and streetcars run on clean electricity. On the other hand, the money may have come from FEMA. I'm not really that up on it.) But the folks in San Francisco are honoring our streetcar. The inside has the area for ad placards filled with stories about us and our streetcars. It was heartening. I took pictures.

And when I saw the photos later, I was astonished. If I showed them to someone from New Orleans, they'd probably think I took them on Canal Street, somewhere between Carondelet and St. Charles. Concrete pavement, palm trees in the background. Only the Oakland Bay Bridge in the background tips you off that you're not where you think you are. That and the sign on the front of the streetcar that says it's going to Fisherman's Wharf by way of the Embarcadero.

We are, indeed, sister cities. New Orleans and San Francisco. I'll take French bread over sourdough any day, but I do love this City by the Bay.