My father drove the Queen streetcar
My father, Jimmy, has never been one for giving advice. Everyone, he believes, is entitled to the education of their own mistakes. There is, though, one bit of counsel he bestowed on his heirs with the certainty born of hard experience.
At the end of one memorable night shift, very early in his career as an operator for the Toronto Transit Commission, my father was running his Queen streetcar into the Russell yards, at Connaught Ave. in the city's east end.
In the back seat, he discovered, alas, a passenger sprawled in besotted slumber. And good-mannered to a fault, my father touched the man gently on the shoulder, saying, as one might stir a child, "Sir. Wake up. It's the end of the line."
To which the chap came up swinging, rewarding Jimmy with a glancing right to the jaw.
"Boys," my father would thereafter remind his four sons, invariably rubbing his chin as he spoke. "If ever you're needin' to wake a drunk, best to come at 'im from behind."
It was the first, but far from the last, lesson we learned from the rolling social studies class that is Toronto's Queen streetcar.
For 34 years my father, now 80, worked for the TTC, and most of it was spent driving the old PCC cars — the Red Rockets — back and forth along of the longest streetcar routes in the world.
Most mornings, his alarm went off at 4:30, a nerve-jangling, filling-rattler of an old clock that started the day with a household panic attack, likely making any lurching and jerking the streetcar might later do seem calming by comparison.
My father would make his way in the morning dark, often by foot, the mile or so to Russell yards and often his would be the day shift's first Queen car out.
In time, he came to know the regulars, the city's community of the early morning — the posties, the orderlies heading to downtown hospitals, the hotel staff, the factory hands whose workday began before first light.
"Mornin'" was usually all the talking that got done. Though in the dark or chill of a winter morning, there's comfort in the mere presence of other human beings.
Sometimes, there'd be an observation about the hockey game, or the weather, or the government. Every now and then, there'd be an inveterate yakker who would sit up front, starting the day off with running opinions on everything under the rising sun.
On that job, my father became acquainted with folks whose names he never knew. But let them not show up at their regular stop a few mornings in a row, and he'd be worrying for their welfare.
For generations, there were few better ways to learn about Toronto and its people than riding the streetcar, rolling through the neighbourhoods that are really small towns within the city, the squeal and grind and clack of them part of the local soundtrack.
For us, the earning of my father's daily bread taught, first, the dignity of labour. But it also taught us the geography and some of the history of the city, carried us to and past locales sacred (the churches) and profane (the saloons).
From his streetcar, my father took tutorials in human nature, reporting back on the petty scams of passengers and the petty tyrants in management, telling stories as well of the random kindness of strangers and the city's general goodwill in any kind of pinch.
The load and mood of his clientele, the human ebbs and flows, told of the Toronto's daily rhythms, its lulls, its rushes, the high points of a year. We absorbed it all, almost without noticing.
We knew the language of his world — the "sign-ups" that set work schedules, allotting the "crews," the "swings," the "trippers."
He started out driving streetcars in days when operators — oh, innocent age! — sold tickets, made change and carried wads of cash.
No Ed Sullivan Show juggling act was more impressive than a man making change while driving a steel behemoth through rush-hour intersections with passengers, as the old fellow liked to say, "packed to the gunnels."
When we got old enough we'd sometimes ride with him, usually when he'd pulled a weekend shift and things were quiet, sometimes just making the trip to Neville and back, sometimes the dozen miles or so west to the Humber Loop.
We'd see the tools of his trade in action — the hole-punch to validate transfers, the change dispenser that spat out coins. We'd marvel at how he called out mile after mile of stops, seemingly from memory — "Jones! Carlaw! Broadview! Change for the Broadview car!"
We beamed when he sprang from his seat to help mothers aboard with their prams, or to assist an elderly passenger climbing gingerly down the stairs toward St. Michael's Hospital.
We admired how he'd take a crowbar from its rack to smoothly switch the tracks at junction streets.
Or, most heroic of all, those occasions when he'd go out behind the car, usually in the foulest weather, to replace the pole that sleet had knocked off the power lines, plunging the suddenly disabled car into darkness.
Of his passengers, my father tended to favour the dreamers and schemers, the lost and the subversives, most men of the working-class harbouring no small empathy for those brazen enough to try thwarting any system.
He would come home to tell us of the tattered old soul who never failed to pay her fare, but always with a button.
He'd tell of the man — my father couldn't decide if the fellow was ingenious or daft — who wandered up and down the aisle of packed streetcars chanting "I've got a seat and no place to put it!" until someone offered theirs.
From the distant west end, which might as well have been another country, there would be dispatches on fires at Dovercourt, or some sort of kerfuffle involving police near Roncesvalles, or a fender bender at Spadina that turned traffic into a nightmare and had the cars lined up, by God, as far as the eye could see.
From his rolling perch, our father became a distant early warning system for all the demographic changes in the city, how neighbourhoods were evolving, who was moving up and who was moving in.
More than anything, my father the streetcar driver loved stories of near-misses, how some pedestrian had slipped on the greasy rails and narrowly avoided a header, or how some idiot motorist had failed to stop at the rear doors and come within a hair of wiping out a cluster of debarking passengers.
Mind you, nothing, but nothing matched the CNE in those days for packing crowds onto his car, the passengers happy and giddy en route, worn out and cranky on the way home. Oh well. Come Exhibition time, there was overtime for the asking.
As a result of such tales, we wished nothing so much as to one day drive streetcars ourselves, to climb into the operator's seat and take part in the daily adventures of the city.
As boys, we'd sit in the single seat just behind the streetcar driver and fish transfer stubs discarded into a little garbage pail. Then we'd use them as fares as we rode our wagons up and down our street, offering lifts to younger kids or the hauling home of a lady's groceries.
The TTC, in those days, was a man's world. And on rare occasions when our father took us into the building at Russell — the Division, he called it — there was the noise and bluster and bawdiness of men.
As kids, we knew lots of drivers. And most would click a dime from their changer to hand to each of us. Sometimes, we knew their schedules. And we'd skip a streetcar or two if one of Dad's pals was due along.
A good many of the TTC fraternity were partial, as was our father, to the nearby Greenwood Racetrack. Those with morning shifts would spend sunny afternoons there. Occasionally, systems were devised whereby an eastbound driver could pass money to a buddy to place a bet, then learn on his return from the loop at Neville how his horse had run.
Across the road from the track, the Orchard Park Tavern was a favourite of TTC drivers, as were other east-end haunts of working men. Every now and then, a driver who'd been pinched by police when over-refreshed would lose his licence and put in a sedentary term of penance in the subway booths until it was reinstated.
In our house, my father's job opened windows on the occasional indignities endured in even the grownup world.
They were days when strict dress codes were enforced by the TTC, inspectors monitoring an operators' hair or sideburns for length, intervening if sleeves were rolled up, ties loosened, hats not worn — even on the hottest summer days.
In our part of town, it was the Queen streetcar that provided glimpses of life's vicissitudes — images of faith, charity and fashion.
We'd ride it to Leslie St. and St. Joseph's Church, farther west to St. Paul's at Power St. if we'd slept in and needed a later Mass.
We'd try not to stare, though intrigued, at the cluster of gents down on their luck at Sherbourne and huddled in doorways.
As teens, we'd take that streetcar to the Thrifty's store at Church St., which was, once upon a time, just about the only decent place in our part of town to buy blue jeans.
When my father retired, the TTC gave him a sign of the sort that marks streetcar stops. This one had his name on it. For years, it stood at the end of his cottage laneway, a little bit of Toronto in the Ontario countryside.
When he moved to an apartment, my father gave it to me, a Toronto keepsake, and part of a cherished inheritance.
For generations, there were few better ways to learn about Toronto and its people than riding the streetcar, rolling through the neighbourhoods that are really small towns within the city.
BORIS SPREMO/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO
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