The grandest ride in America was the St. Charles streetcar. You could catch the old green-painted, lumbering iron car under the colonade in front of the Pearl and for pocket change travel on the neutral ground down arguably the most beautiful street in the western world. The canopy of live oaks over the neutral ground created a green-gold tunnel as far as the eye could see. On the corners, black men sold ice cream and sno’balls from carts with parasols on them, and in the winter the pink and maroon neon on the Katz & Besthoff drugstores glowed like electrified smoke inside the fog.
—– from The Tin Roof Blowdown By James Lee Burke
The St. Charles streecar in New Orleans is one of my favorite things in the whole world. If you have never ridden it, put it on your bucket list. Now.
The best time to ride the streetcar is at sunset on a hot late summer evening. The windows open and the breeze from the motion sweeps the sweltering afternoon away as the purple sky darkens beyond the southern mansions and ancient oaks. You sit on the wooden seats jostling as the machine tumbles down the neutral ground. The lights flicker mysteriously and each new section of track is greeted with a flash of lightning, a clacking cacophony, and a whiff of ozone from under the wheels.
The streetcar becomes a time machine… no… not that… it is a timeless machine. The streetcar is exactly as it was ages ago, the floods, Katrina, countless Krewes from countless parades gone except for the risible plastic beads hanging from the trees, the mansions, the music, the food… all are distilled into a parallel pair of rails and high voltage overhead that lumber from the edge of the French Quarter way out past Tulane and Audubon park.
The streetcar is not only a tourist attraction – you share your ride with office drones from downtown banks, lawyers from big firms, and dishwashers nodding off after a long day – the heartbeat of a city brought cheek-to-jowl together. It isn’t very fast – waiting for riders making change at the old-fashioned boxes, drivers bracing themselves to swing heavy levers, stopping at lights while the cross traffic fights out of the way. You can almost walk this fast. But you get there and the getting is everything.
When we are in town we usually stay in a bed and breakfast on St. Charles not far from Tulane and when I wake up in the morning I always like to lay in bed and listen for the streetcars. When you ride them they are all jangling and jump but somehow, from outside, they are smoother, slick steel wheels and sliding commutator sparking along. A bell at the intersections if the cars don’t move fast enough.
Like all of New Orleans, it’s hard to figure out why there aren’t more fatalities along the route, with the traffic, walkers, runners all thrown together with few signs and fewer rules. But they get along, somehow. They always do.