Peace like a streetcar

I was in New York for business and pleasure last month, and I rode the subway almost every day. I’ve been to New York enough times now that the jostle and bustle of the train is not the romantic trip it once was, but the one thing I never get used to and hope I never do was the sound of the great metal beast arriving and departing, which is, no exaggeration, akin to sticking your head into the mouth of a jet engine while it revs for take-off.

As the sparking wheels screeched and the hissing track relented and the sound reached tinnitus levels and then came to a post-sonic-boom stop, I played it cool and didn’t cover my ears or convulse or anything, but I did look around at the men, women, and children and was yet again amazed at what human beings adapt to. We are products of our environment, to be sure, and after a few days of visceral grit and noise, I longed for my country roots and the green grass of home. So upon my return, I did what any sane person would do and migrated toward the trolley at Lake Harriet.

The station was nearly empty. Slack-jawed people lolled down by the popcorn-ice cream stand and the bandstand, and a Viagra- commercial-unworthy cover band numbed everyone within earshot into the somnambulant summertime blues. I bought a token for two bucks and for another buck got a copy of “Twin Cities Lines,” the periodical of the Minnesota Streetcar Museum (www.trolleyride.com), which “operates the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line in Minneapolis and the Excelsior Streetcar Line in Excelsior. Its mission is to preserve Minnesota’s electric railway heritage.”

I climbed aboard, along with two young families led by camera-clutching dads. The conductor, Michael Bucmk, asked if there were any “first-timers” on the trolley, and proceeded to suggest to his attentive passengers that we were not in 2008 anymore, but in 1908 on a Sunday afternoon.

Not difficult to do. The train started up and eased through the thick green growth of the prairie woods at the speed of a rolling hula-hoop. Mr. Buck continued to tell the history of streetcars in Minneapolis, and to extol their virtues as mass transit vehicles. A screensaver sunset over the lake was on the left, bunny-infested Lakewood Cemetery was on the right, haunted woods were all around, and I’ll be damned if you couldn’t feel the Lakota spirits rising up from all that hallowed ground. When I got off, a little bored in the end and a little dizzy from going backwards, I half-expected to see women with parasols and men in seersucker suits traipsing about on bicycles built for two.  

The trolley is perhaps best known as the teachable tool of that peaceful warrior, Mr. Rogers, and a staple of San Francisco, which Tuesday had a serious streetcar accident in which 14 people were injured. Plans are being made for streetcars to return to some parts of Minneapolis, which sounds like a grand and civilized idea: while the rest of the world ramps up with speed and better-late-than-never “eco-friendly” transportation, the cleanest damn city in the world recycles a good thing and makes it relevant again.

Heading home, I walked down by the lake to see the sunset, sat for a while at the Peace Garden, and then took my place on the hill overlooking the Rose Gardens and looked at the stars, which reminded me of something I wanted to pass on, an e-mail from Minneapolis yogi Benjamin Vincent, about something called “Critical Mass Yoga” that takes place Aug. 29 at One Yoga studio:

“With the Republican National convention beginning in Saint Paul September 1, there will be strong feelings and voices on all sides. As yogis active in the world, we can stay grounded in the virtues of “ahimsa” (non-harming) and “satya” (truthfulness to our own nature) to realize peace within ourselves and in the world. As the process of politics often creates divisions such as us and them, good and bad, conservative and liberal, we can stay aware of yoga (union), interconnectedness. This special practice session will incorporate a short dharma talk, a heart opening asana practice, and a metta (loving kindness) meditation. It will be a means to find a centeredness in ourselves and as a critical mass to send positive intention to our community. Remembering, as Mahatma Ghandi said, ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.’”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.