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Experiences of a Street Car Conductor
Independent, LV (Aug, 13, 1903), 1920 24.


Working on the back platform of a street car is generally the last resort of a man who has lost everything but industry. I do not say this to belittle conductors or motormen. I consider it high praise. What I mean is that I know of no form of labor, however difficult, that is harder than working on a street car. Many men who fail in business, cannot make ends meet in their profession, or lose clerical positions, say "No, thank you," when they are offered positions on the cars. They would sooner beg, steal or live off their friends. You may rest assured that the conductor or motorman, whatever his faults, is not afraid of hard work It must not be assumed that it is easy to secure employment on the cars. In the last few years there has been a slight increase in the pay, and there are hundreds waiting for men to die or resign. Some of them do one or the other, after a while; and now and then but rarely tho some man is discharged In my time, and since the introduction of the trolley in Chicago, where I first went on the cars, there has been a distinct improvement in the class of men who seek the work And yet the business is not made up wholly of Chesterfields and college professors. It could not be.

Sarcasm? Not at all. Let me illustrate. When I had been railroading a week I had, one night, a very crowded car. A crowd of men and women blocked up the back platform. I called

"Move up front; there's plenty of room up front."

But they stood there and never moved an inch I had actually to push them up front I had been working over ten hours and was not feeling any too well, and I did not use very choice language. When the crowd thinned out and we were near the depot, a man with a high silk hat and a fur lined overcoat came out and lectured me. He said I was rude and he had a notion to report me. He told me I should treat each passenger as if he were my guest, and as if I were anxious he should go away pleased I was angry and retorted:

"Do you suppose if I could talk and act like that I would be working for $2.10 a day during a blizzard?"

That was enough. He did not say any more; but he reported me, and I did not have a chance to resign.

I could not secure the transfer to another line. Finally I left Chicago, with permission to use the company as reference.

I went to Pittsburg, where l obtained work easily. It paid 24 cents an hour for a day of ten hours, the best wages paid street car men in the United States. I remained in Pittsburg for a year and liked the place. While I was there the papers had a violent discussion over the question of public ownership of street railways. It never amounted to anything. My own opinion is that municipal ownership would not be a good thing. The service generally becomes run down at the heel; the class of men employed is decidedly inferior, and it costs the public just as much in the end Private ownership means that a few men get very rich; but the service is put on a business basis, the morale of the force is elevated, and the people come pretty nearly receiving the worth of their money.

I do not want you to suppose that I had a sinecure merely because I was satisfied with my position. I have a philosophical nature, and that has always helped me on my journey through life. My little troubles and grievances would fill a good sized book.

A conductor on a trolley car can scarcely call his soul his own. This may sound strange to the casual observer, who regards the conductor as a petty tyrant, lording it over his poor passengers. As a matter of fact, he is subject to the whims of the most insignificant person who enters his car. Any one can report him for incivility or worse lie about him, and he has a black mark put down against his name at the office. Then there is that awful book of rules and regulations. Every man employed by the company has to have one, and every man has to learn the regulations by heart. He soon discovers that there is a fine and a threat of dismissal for nearly everything under the sun except breathing He finds minute directions telling how he is to act and talk in every possible emergency.

He has to be most careful in case of accidents, whether they are serious or trivial If John Smith sprains his foot in alighting from the car, the conductor must interview John Smith, and, if possible examine his ankle; and he must secure the names and addresses of five or six persons who saw John Smith sprain his ankle. Of course that is reasonable enough; but the same thing cannot be said of some of the other rules. For instance, if a reckless driver comes along and runs the pole of his wagon into my car, breaking a window, I am compelled to pay for that window. Then again, if Brown's wagon scratches some of the paint off the side of the car, I am compelled to make that good or lose my position.

A conductor's lot is never entirely a happy one. During the summer he risks his life every time he goes to collect fares along the edge of the foot board on either side of the car. He is liable to collide with a brick pile or a lime kiln at any time; and, when it occurs, he is either killed or laid up for repairs. In the winter time he is on the back platform, half frozen. It is only fair to say that the inclosures around the platform of the cars of to day are a great protection during inclement weather. I do not believe the companies deserve any particular credit; it took a special act of legislature to make them do it Then a man never knows when he is going to get a meal He jumps up before daylight in the morning, gulps down a hurried breakfast, and hurries to the depot to take out his car. He cannot afford to be a minute late. That would be a mortal sin, not to be forgiven. Patti could disappoint an audience, but a car conductor must never fail to be on time for the public. When the dinner hour arrives a small boy who lives in the neighborhood of the conductor's home, or some member of his family, hails the car and passes up the dinner pail He cannot eat the dinner until he reaches the depot, and by the time he reaches the depot the food is cold. When he is through for the day he hurries home for supper. He is no sooner through than he has to go to bed so that he will not oversleep himself the next morning It is not a bed of roses.

Being a single man, I was not affected by the loss of home life. I boarded with a conductor's family, and the sacrifices he had to make were really disheartening. He hardly knew his own children, and certainly did not have a chance to enjoy the society of his wife. She was a tidy good natured woman, who knew how to cook and take care of a house. Her husband earned, on an average, $48 a month, and $12 was paid out in rent for a comfortable two story house that had a neat bathroom and some other modern conveniences. He kept $5 a month for his tobacco, shaving and other personal expenses. To my way of thinking it was quite moderate. With the remainder, amounting to $31, she kept the table, clothed the children and provided for her own wants. The $4 a week board I paid her should be added to the total income. I cannot see, for the life of me, how she ever made any money on me; the table she set was enough to eat up the whole $4. She was a natural manager, and with habits of economy was able to do these wonders. That family lived happily and was able to keep out of debt I do not pretend to say that the family of every railroad man can live so well on the same amount of money. So much depends on the wife. If a man is fortunate enough to marry an industrious and economical woman, she can make ends meet, no matter how much he makes, providing of course, he works regularly and turns the money over to her at the end of each week.

Just when I thought Pittsburg was going to be my home, I lost my position. One day two drunken men boarded my car. They began to sing and soon became profane and abusive. I went inside and quietly asked them to stop. They did stop for a minute, and then became worse than before. Several of the male passengers began to offer hints for my benefit.

"If the conductor knew his business," one remarked, "he would throw these fellows off the car."

"Yes," said another. "But did you ever meet a conductor that had the courage to do his duty?"

This decided me. I went up to the nearest dunken tough for that is what the man was, inside the clothes and said

"If you don't quit your abusive talk you'll have to get off this car."

"I dare you to put me off," he retorted, with a leer and a fresh flow of profanity.

I pulled the bell rope, stopped the car, took my man by the back of the neck, and threw him into the street The women passengers shrieked; the men, sitting as still as Chinese idols, never offered to help me. Tough Number Two came at me. In self defense I had to fight. When I got through with him he was a sorry vision. I tore his clothes, blacked one of his eyes and blooded his nose. He hammered me pretty hard, too.They had plenty of money, for they hailed a cab and drove off:

When we reached the depot the superintendent was standing there, evidently waiting for me. By his side was the man I had thrown from the car. He looked at me with one eyed haughtiness and, turning to the superintendent, pointed his finger, saying
"That's the man."

The superintendent regarded me quizzically, saying, in angry tones, but with a half smile, lifting the corners of his mouth:

"You are discharged. Take your badge into the office."

"But," I cried, "can't I tell my side of the story?"

"There's only one side to this story," he replied, grimly.

"Why?" I asked, with open mouthed wonder. "Because I licked that dirty blackguard?"

"No," he said, lowering his voice; "because the man you licked is the son of one of our directors."

That night I met a man who had two passes east, and we resolved to try our chances in Philadelphia. We got positions at once, only to find out that a strike was going on. I did not like the idea of working as a "scab," but I could not afford to throw up my place. The strike lasted seven days. For two days I did not do a thing, and the other five days I made one trip a day, surrounded by four big policemen and dodging now and then a rotten potato, decayed eggs and an occasional brick, heaved into the back platform by the sympathetic friends of the strikers. I received $2 a day and the assurance of being retained, no matter how the strike ended The papers said those seven days were a reign of terror, I could not see it in that light It took nerve to work that was all. No one was killed; possibly three or four men received scalp wounds from missiles thrown by boys.

The men went back with the assurance that their condition would be bettered It was not bettered immediately, but it has been since. The pay and the hours are now better than were asked for when that strike was ordered, six years ago. The pay is 20 cents an hour, for a day of from ten to eleven hours. Incidentally, the municipality has exacted good terms from the corporation. The street car companies were given the right to use the trolley system on condition that they would pave and keep forever in repair the streets on which their cars are run. This, I venture to say, has made Philadelphia the best paved city in the Union

Every conductor there is subject to petty annoyances, both from the passengers and the subordinate officials of the company. A rule prohibits us from entering into disputes with passengers, and yet there are times when the observance of the rule is out of the question A man comes to you five minutes after he has paid his fare and says the change is 10 or 15 cents short. On two occasions, when I felt morally certain that I was right, I gave up the additional money rather than provoke a quarrel and be reported for incivility. A count of my money on those nights proved that I was in the right.

Perhaps the hardest feature of a conductor's life is the "swing" system By this arrangement, altho a man may only actually work ten or eleven hours, he really has to be on duty for fourteen or fifteen hours. For instance, I take my car out at six o'clock in the morning. I make two trips, which consume four hours, and then I am relieved for four hours. I return at two o'clock in the afternoon and work until ten o'clock that night But I receive pay only for the time I am actually on my car. I consider this hard usage, and yet I do not suppose it is possible to avoid it

Atone time drunkenness was not uncommon among the drivers and conductors on the street cars, but the introduction of the trolley has changed their habits for the better. A street railway is run now like any other large and progressive corporation. As a result the character of the men is a grade higher than it used to be. Drunkenness is a fault that is never forgiven in a man. If you lost your place through drunkenness to day and should apply for it in years hence, you would find that black mark still against you. The habits of the average conductor and motorman are good now, and few are dismissed for drinking.

What is worse than riding in a Philadelphia street car, especially during holiday times? The people are crowded in like sardines; they
trample on toes, and the jerking and the sudden stopping and starting often throw them into one another's laps. A conductor sees it all more vividly than the passengers, because he is a spectator, while the others are the actors. One thing is certain, and that is Americans have a sense of humor a saving sense of humor. It enables them to bear with all kinds of discomfort and imposition and still feel reasonably happy.

They may make a protest a good, vigorous, verbal protest but it usually ends there. An American will laugh at a thing that would cause an Italian or a Spaniard to shed blood This may be platform philosophy, but it comes from years of observation on the back of a
street car.

After being in Philadelphia for a little over a year, I was taken with rheumatism, the Nemesis of railroaders. I was laid up for two months. When I went back the superintendent said, in view of the fact that I worked during the strike, he would take me on again if I would wait for two weeks.

I concluded not to wait, and went to Brooklyn, the heaven of the dishonest railroader, where the conductors steal everything but the tracks. I had never been dishonest, so I did not begin there. I stayed in Brooklyn long enough to see that the companies had a network of protection throughout the country against dishonest and careless railroad men, and Brooklyn seemed to be the mouth of the scoop.

My last move was to New York, on the Broadway surface line. I like New York. It's a pretty good town I think I’ll spend the remainder of my days here.

A conductor sees the worst side of human nature. What is there in the atmosphere of a street car that makes men and women, even on Broadway, act with such vulgarity? Why will men spit on the floor? Why do they send their feet sprawling all over, at the risk of tripping up every newcomef9 Why do they spread their newspapers out so as to obstruct the view of their neighbors on each side? Why do they quarrel with the conductor'! And why do they remain seated while women are standing? And the women why are they so cross and irritable? Why to they accept a seat from a gentleman without thanking him for it And why do they try to palm off nine and ten year old children as being "under four"?

But, in spite of all these things, and a good many more, I like my job and I am willing to keep it To get 20 cents an hour and have the glorious privilege of living in New York is no small thing to me. My health is rugged. I feel that I could almost digest cobble stones. It may seem queer to some persons, but I am sincere when I say that I would sooner be a street car conductor in New York than a leading citizen in a country town.

New York City

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