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Joe's Neighborhood

A streetcar is trying to kill me

3/19/2014

A streetcar is trying to kill me. I thought you should know. Crazy? Maybe. Paranoid? Certainly. But untruthful? You be the judge.

joes1The bell is what announces the streetcar’s arrival. There is no rumble, no whistle, and no escaping steam to give warning. Silence reigns as she smoothly glides along the tracks. Three long cars connected to the earth by rails and electric wires. The bell sounds. It’s identical to the sound of the one on your childhood bicycle’s handle bars. Not a blasting car horn. No, more of a ringing that says, “Mom, look at me.” And, sure enough, there it is, and there it goes. Seemingly magic.

We all know that streetcars are long gone from Des Moines. There is the periodic glimpse of a rail poking through the broken asphalt in a forgotten downtown alley. But that’s all that remains of Des Moines’ light rail system — dull iron lying in a murky puddle. Abandoned to cars, and buses, and Interstate 235, streetcars are a distant memory.

And fond memories they are for some. Lord, even the acerbic Michael Gartner wrote in these very Cityview pages of meeting his father at a streetcar stop as a young boy. His father would “hop off and, first thing, lift you high in the air and give you a hug as the streetcar clangs on down the track.” Yup, even the crusty Gartner is a believer.

joes2Of course, my demise was also not on my mind when I first saw streetcars in the big cities of Holland. I loved them. And why not? They are red, small-scale and narrow, they are clean, they give off no diesel fumes, they run nearly every 10 minutes, and they just feel civilized. People crowd on and crowd off, and no one, as far as I can see, has the urge to throw themselves onto the tracks.

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But, I swear to you, my nemesis is out there. Hidden behind a clump of trees, the streetcar silently waits for me every day. This morning we both waited. Who would make the first move?

Hah, she blinks first. The streetcar pokes out her nose and then roars past me in frustration. Another day that I’ve not been squashed. Yahoo.

Clearly, I need help.

Samira de Blij drives thousands of people in her streetcar in The Hague. Some days, she has several hundred folks sitting patiently behind her. The reason for this is simple. You want to go visit a friend, you jump a streetcar. You need to go to the grocery store, hop on a streetcar. You’re late for work? Please, just get on the streetcar.

“You don’t have to be Einstein to drive a tram,” she says as she sits at the controls that operate more than 45 tons of moving steel. She then pauses, looks wistfully down the track, and tells me of the foxes she sees playing in the high grass next to the tracks in the early morning light. She sighs. Oh my. A romantic realist is at the driver’s wheel. I’m already half in love with my killer. This isn’t good.

“I have been driving for 12.5 years,” she says. “I only wanted to do this a year. It is such a beautiful job, you know. If you love people, I love people, it is a very nice job. People can be so good and so nice, you can play with it. You can make sure that the atmosphere is good in your tram. Because if you wait for someone running to catch the tram, and the other passengers see it, they have warm hearts for each other. They love it when I am social for another human being. That is always a good thing to see. It gives me hope for humanity.”

OK, fine. Keep talking. But a small part still wonders, when do we run over the unwary? Mmmm…? When do we take out that poor schmuck from Des Moines, Iowa?

joes5With seemingly cheerful indifference to my fate, Samira smiles at the loading passengers, calls out a welcome and waits for the unbalanced to get seated. And off we go to the next stop.

The front computer tells us that Samira is running two minutes behind schedule. She is going slowly because she is spending so much time talking to me.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” she keeps saying to me. Then we see an elderly man trying to cross the track a block ahead. He is having a hard time. Probably four-dozen people on the streetcar have to be somewhere at a certain time. No matter. Samira stops everything. We sit in the middle of the track. She smiles and waves the old man across. He hobbles over the rails and returns the smile. I glance back into the cars — all the passengers are smiling. I’ll be darned, she’s right. Samira and her passengers do give hope for humanity.

joes6“Children, they love the tram. Little kids sometimes you take them on your lap. They push the bell. They are so proud,” she says, laughing softly to herself.

“People bring everything on the tram you know — closets, beds, mattresses, a small refrigerator, I even once had a sheep,” she says. “I drove to the stop. My god, what a strange dog. And it was a sheep.”

Samira pauses and then smiles at me: “Maybe I make my work bigger than it is. But for me, it is good. It is good for me. Because it makes me happy when I go to work… And, Joe, I see everything. It is OK.”

joes7With thumbs up, my ex-killer silently drives off. Ashamed at my silliness, I head down the street. But, I immediately have to jump back — a small ice cream truck, with tinkling bells, nearly flattens me. See, an ice cream truck is trying to kill me… CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

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