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New Orleans St Charles Trolley Is Mardi Gras Ready

New Orleans St. Charles Trolley Ready for Mardi Gras

By Martha Rosenberg

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, city buses were again running up and down St. Charles Avenue, the gracious boulevard that connects the French Quarter to Uptown and the Garden District in New Orleans.

But where was the trolley?

Tourists could take a "trolley" from the foot of Canal Street through the French Quarter--if they didn’t realize the entire point of the French Quarter is to walk.

They could take a trolley from Canal Street to City Park--even walk to the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest--but it didn't rumble beneath St. Charles' live oaks.

Besides those trolleys were red and efficient and new.

Not the slate colored antediluvian--literally--St. Charles trolley with its original 1920's equipment. Unpadded wooden seats and backs, identical to church pews except lacking the hymn book in front. Doors that open with the one hundred year old hydraulic system known as elbow grease. And notched windows that admit the "air conditioning" of Louisiana's 96 degree air.

When a metro train in a big city goes completely quiet it means the power's been cut and you're in big trouble. Especially if you're underground. The St. Charles trolley goes quiet at every intersection until the conductor groans it back to life with its ancient steering system which looks a like a sun dial. (Tourists look surprised; then relieved.) Except for the unadorned and dim light bulbs the St. Charles trolley cars seem to lack any internal electrical system at all. There are no humming generators, fans, forced air, beeping warning systems, public address systems or lighted ads.

Most cities, like Chicago, banned open windows on trains 20 years ago because of the accidents that happen when people put their hands, arms and even heads out of the window. Then there was the little matter of jewelry which thieves would pull off people's necks just as the train pulled away.

But the City That Care Forgot has never been big on regulation.

Not only are there no warnings about putting your head or arms out the trolley windows-- the St. Charles trolley tracks are also one of New Orleans' favorite running tracks!

The path is straight and scenic, the dirt packed down--and you don't have to worry about cars on the tracks.

In most towns, city attorneys would lose sleep over "Runner Maimed by Trolley" headlines. But not New Orleans. Trolley conductors patiently wait out runners on the tracks the way drivers in poor countries do sheep and goats--even at night when runners all but disappear. Nor do they look perturbed when they meet up with the same runners at the next intersection.

The good news is the St. Charles trolley is finally back-- up and running in time for Carnival season.

The bad news is it's as slow as ever.

Yankees, urbanites and people-in-a-hurry often have a hard time with "trolley time." In its snail's trek from Canal Street, past Lee Circle--skid row until the 1984 World's Fair -- Louisiana Avenue where a New Orleans-disguised McDonald's exists, Napoleon Avenue, where you get off for Tipitina's and the live oaks decorated with Zulu beads to arrive at Audubon Park and the Loyola campus, it takes about 50 minutes. Average speed? Eight miles an hour (though what makes your groceries melt is the heat not the speed.).

Yankees also have a hard time with the unwritten Visit rule. Riding the trolley is a social experience. Some even greet other passengers with "Hi Yall" when they board. You talk to your seat mate or mates. You ask about each other's families. You chat about where you're going or came from and what you had for dinner last night. Saying "I should be at Robert Street at 5:04" into a cell phone would be unseemly. So would answering one.

Also rude is forgetting that what appears to New Orleans tourists as a stage set of rustic artifacts is actually everyday life to citizens. The St. Charles trolley isn't quaint or droll--it's how you get to work.

New Orleanians still tell an anecdote about unruly Mardi Gras visitors who yelled to people on a balcony in a French Quarter apartment, "How do we get up there?" The residents retorted, "Pay rent."

ENDS

**************

Martha Rosenberg, Staff Cartoonist, Evanston Roundtable.

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