Along the tracks

The San Diego-San Ysidro trolley, late at night

The security guard slipped out his can of mace, but in the struggle he sprayed his partner’s face, the whole rear of the car, and at last his opponent.
  • The security guard slipped out his can of mace, but in the struggle he sprayed his partner’s face, the whole rear of the car, and at last his opponent.

On the San Diego Trolley, the decision to buy a ticket or not is up to you. It's called the honor system. When I first heard about the trolley in 1981, the implications of honor and trust delighted me, spoke of softer, more innocent times, of study halls and homework and cookies. Yet part of me thought that these people must be naive. If nobody is there to make me buy a ticket, what’s to stop me from taking a free ride just for the hell of it? Besides, the trains run through some rough areas, places where a person might resent forking over hard-earned cash to something so bright and modern and affluent-looking as this trolley system.

Yet the system does seem to work, though it’s not all based on honor. Chances are a roving ticket inspector will come aboard sometime during your trip. If you paid your fare, dropped quarters into a ticket machine before boarding, okay. If not, the inspector writes you a citation. Sounds simple. It isn’t always.

One night recently I saw ten rows of seats cleared by mace in a desperate struggle between a tall black man and a ticket inspector and her armed security guard escort. The man had no ticket and refused to show his ID, and when the train stopped at a station, he tried to run. The trolley agents restrained him. That’s a polite way of saying it. Fists hammered flesh. A guard’s baton rose and disappeared into the mess of sweating faces and heaving trolley uniforms.

The rest of us passengers stood transfixed. Glancing around, I saw fear and concern and distress, and I knew that most of us in the crowd felt the same thing: we were monkeys watching lions at work, caught in that awful two-way pull — disturbed by such violence over what, at most, amounted to a buck-fifty fare, and at the same time hating our own selfish relief that it wasn’t us being hammered on, that we were safe from predators, for the moment.

We stood in a strange silence. The wheels clicked on the tracks, and the knot of struggling bodies crashed against seats and banged into the walls of the trolley. But there was a muted quality to it all, as if we were caught in the silent movie of our own disbelief.

Finally the security guard slipped out his can of mace, but in the struggle he sprayed his partner’s face, the whole rear of the car, and at last his opponent. The trolley pulled into a South Bay station lit by the whirling lights of police cars. The last I saw of the black man, he was being slammed onto the hood of a two-tone car as we accelerated toward Tijuana. Then the silence in the train popped. People swore and chattered, waved their hands, anything to work off adrenaline. After a while, everyone took their seats, their wrinkled foreheads smoothed out, and the night flowed past the windows as if nothing had happened.

These scuffles “happen fairly often ” says Terri, the young woman driving the trolley that night. (Her name and those of her fellow trolley workers have been changed for this story.) Though she hates the occasional violence, she meets a diversity of people on the late runs and hopes they will enrich novels she will someday write.

And these night travelers are a diverse lot. One old guy looks like a retired cowboy with a tobacco-stained beard. He sucks his gums, checking out the women as they board, studying their rear ends as if they were paintings. But when any of these women take a seat and face him, they find him staring out a window — he’s that good.

A Hispanic man tells me he lives in Tijuana and commutes to a job and girlfriend in San Diego. He says his parents came from Spain and Portugal, but he has the square build and classic nose of an Aztec. A Mexican accent softens his speech, makes it more musical. I think of the old joke that goes. “I’m not Mexican, just French-Canadian,” as if being Mexican isn't good enough. Having grown up in Mexico, I recognize in him the curious mixture of pride and shame a Mexican feels about his roots. They are strong roots, colorful ones, but flawed by poverty and corruption. I smile at this man as he tells stories about all the dead people he’s seen.

The most entertaining passengers are the three guys flirting with Terri. Like tomcats, they crowd around the door to the little cabin where Terri operates the train. The old-timer, his gray hair like wings on the sides of his skull, likes to square-dance, though some nights he sings in a chorus. His friendliness has a nervous edge. The middle-aged commuter, with his slick hair and empty banter, is as cocky as a high school boy. He blocks the cabin door with his shoulders, which makes the youngest man brood. The brooder is Oriental, handsome in his Grateful Dead T-shirt. It bothers him when the other guys capture too much of Terri’s attention.

The way these guys stand, an easy balance with the sharp movements of the train, shows they’ve been at this courtship ritual for some time. When the commuter jumps off at his stop. Square-dancer replaces him at the cabin door. But when Square-dancer turns aside for an instant. Brooder slides in, and now he smiles. Later, Terri tells me they know she’s married, but it doesn't seem to matter to them.

Indeed, Terri is attractive. Though she’s pretty, her attraction comes as much from a willingness to laugh, an interest in people, and a way of listening that makes you feel comfortable. And she is extremely competent.

Earlier that evening. I had followed along as Terri began her shift. Her first few hours on the job were spent putting trains away for the night. By the start of her work day, at 5:30, the rush hour was winding down. As trains pulled into the station at Twelfth and Imperial downtown, Terri uncoupled spare cars and parked them on unused track in the main yard. Some trolleys she ran through a giant car wash, others into the maintenance shed. She made it look easy, driving trains and jumping on and off to throw the track switches in a relaxed way.

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