Lessons From a Streetcar

A discovery was imminent. On a rainy, cold night I happened to be standing up front near the driver as the vintage streetcar made its way along St. Charles Avenue toward the business district. The streetcars (not to be confused with the red ones, which are a totally different machine) are known by the manufacturer name of Perley Thomas after the company in Highpoint, North Carolina, where they were assembled in the 1920s.

I admire the old green streetcars for their simplicity and durability. They operate simply by throttle and brakes. A man who worked at the Willow Street car barn where the vehicles are maintained once boasted to me about the vehicles’ many benefits: “There are no roaches.” What? “That’s right, no roaches.” From all his years of maintaining the cars from the inside out he noticed that despite the miscellaneous trash left by riders, the vehicles were devoid of bugs. His explanation was that the combination of steel wheels on a steel track created a vibration that drives away critters.

That is one benefit. Another is the vehicles’ amazing temperature regulatory system. There is no central air mechanism; however, opposite from the aisle side on each set of seats there’s an amazing device called a window. If it’s hot inside the passengers can lift the pane. Want a breeze? Open the windows slightly. On this particular night the outside temperature hovered in the low 30s, yet the combination of strategically closed and slightly opened windows kept the inside cozy. It is amazing what science can achieve.

My new discovery came that evening when I looked at the driver’s rain splattered windshield. I had never thought about it: There is no windshield wiper on a streetcar. Granted, it helps that the vehicle is on rails so it isn’t going to take a wrong turn; but a driver still needs to see the traffic lights, cars dashing through a crossing or potential riders waiting at stops. When I asked the driver about the difficulty of a rain covered window, he was nonchalant and then gave a reply that I will always remember: “You just have to learn to see between the rain drops.”


A few weeks later I was at lunch with a group of guys when I happened to tell the streetcar story. They also hadn’t realized about the lack of a windshield wiper. The lunch ended jovially with one person admitting to having picked up a life lesson: “Seeing through the rain drops,” he said. We can learn from streetcars. And when in doubt, let in some fresh air.

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