What is the big to-do today about hybrids and plug-in vehicles? As early as the late thirties, the Chalmette Laundry in New Orleans employed battery powered vans to deliver clean, well-pressed clothes to its customers throughout the metropolitan area. The stubby little walk-in vans returned to their home each night to lap up generous infusions of electrons for the next day’s work. They hummed a melody as they hustled along and emitted no fumes.
At various times since the early 19th century, no less than twenty-two streetcar—not trolley—lines covered the Crescent City like a giant spider web. Riding a streetcar offered a relaxed pleasure we find ourselves too rushed to experience today. The more modern, homely, dark green cars were built by Perley A. Thomas Car Works of High Point, North Carolina. They seated fifty two passengers, but most of the time accommodated many more passengers who stood and hung on to leather straps securely attached to brass, overhead rails. The cars ran on tracks in the neutral grounds (medians for non-natives) of many major thoroughfares in the city. The venerable old cars sucked their power through a long pole the conductor released to connect with the overhead supply of electricity.
Most cars had names signifying where they were going to or coming from. In New Orleans, because most streets follow the crescent bend in the River, directions are not given as points on the compass. One goes uptown or downtown (upriver or downriver) or to the River (The Mississippi, of course) or to the Lake (Ponchartrain). To confuse things more, the streets Downtown from Canal Street are referred to as “North this-or-that” and the streets Uptown from Canal are called “South-so-and-so.”
When I arrived in “The City That Care Forgot,” for seven cents a passenger received a ticket that enabled him to transfer from line to line—which made it possible to tour most of the city via streetcar. One sat on the polished oak seats by the large windows, which remained open most of the year in the near tropical city. The old iron cars lumbered along the tracks under ancient live oak trees bearded with Spanish moss. The cars gently swayed from side to side. Steel wheels squeaked across steel tracks as the unique cars rambled along, creating a sweet jazz lullaby. The symphony of the wheels and bells, the chug, chug of the compressor pumping air to the braking system, the rhythmic swaying, and warm flower-scented breezes coming through the large windows caused most work-weary or study-weary travelers to doze off on balmy spring afternoons. “Clang, clang”, the conductor would tap the pedal at his foot at each intersection to warn, “Brakes on this cumbersome old iron machine are none too efficient—motorist and pedestrians alike be aware.”
In addition to taking us to school and work, these wonderful old, non-polluting contraptions slowly, but reliably, conveyed us to places and events of interest and fun. They brought us to the Audubon Zoo where as Louie Prima reminded us in song the monkeys All Aksed for You. On Saturday afternoons, they carried us to Tulane football games with friends. These trusty vehicles transported joyful folks to Mardi Gras parades, Jax Girls softball games, and to see the Pelicans play baseball. The West End car conveyed hungry diners to the Lake Front for the best seafood in the world.
Streetcars had interesting names—the most famous of course being “The Streetcar Named Desire.” Who could argue with the elegance and charm of a streetcar named Saint Charles? Two streetcars, one called the Canal streetcar and the other called Cemetery, shared tracks that ran the length of Canal Street from the River to the end of the line at the Cemetery. Maybe a silly choice, but I preferred riding the Canal car.
In 1946, at age thirteen, I stepped onto a street car on Canal Street thinking it was a Canal Street Car. Instead of going out Canal Street, the car turned right into the French Quarter. I was frightened, not knowing which car I had mistakenly taken or where I was going. By the time I got the conductor’s attention, we were well into the Quarter. He said “Son, you’ve taken the Desire streetcar, but it will eventually return to Canal Street. Here’s another transfer to get you home.”
Years later, I learned that at the time of my inadvertent ride on the Desire Streetcar, Tennessee Williams, just two blocks from my route, was writing Streetcar Named Desire. The famous play would immortalize the large, rambling, clumsy, gal on wheels that transported me through the narrow streets of the French Quarter.