Brooklyn Boro

I remember the Brooklyn trolleys of the 1940s

July 24, 2020 William A. Gralnick

Trolleys, or, if you must, trolley cars, were an exposition of sensory happenings. For a young boy, they were an explosion that rocked his receptors.

Yes, “Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley.” You could hear that distinctive sound from blocks away. It was best to heed the warning it called to you. “Watch Out! I’m Comin’.” Trolleys were notorious for not stopping very quickly. But it was that bell. Piercing. Nothing sounded like it then, now, or ever.

The seats, smooth as ice from years of people sliding in and out of them, from one side to the next, were as comfortable as a block of cement. “Hold on,” mom would say and rightly so. Not exactly poetry in motion, they were always in motion. They bumped, swayed, and lurched. And they did so with the squeal of metal wheels negotiating the indentations of metal tracks. Deafening.

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They looked like something … well … they looked like nothing else with their electricity-catching arms reaching up to the patchwork of power lines above the street. They produced a sound like nothing else. The snap, crackle, and pop of electricity as the hands of those arms grabbed at the electricity. Sometimes the blue sparks were eye-popping. They produced, for those with wild imaginations, all kinds of comic book superhero scenarios — fireballs lighting up the sky, engulfing the city, bolts of lightning shooting down the arm that would engulf that car and its passengers but for a last-minute rescue by the wondrous boy passenger who stopped it all and was feted at City Hall by the mayor, flash bulbs popping and reporters yelling questions.

Author Bill Gralnick. Photo courtesy of Bill Gralnick

Taken in total, trolleys produced two urban scenes. One was a broad street with only one line or two on it. It looked like a postcard. The other looked more like urban blight. At the corner of Ocean and Church Avenues, for instance, you had to look around the wires to see the sky. There were tracks that crossed one another so the street looked like an intricate model railroad set; certainly you thought that two cars, about to curve onto a new route, would smash into each other.

The clanging and screeching could be conversation-denying. Surely you remember that when it was time to learn to drive, and you had your coveted learner’s permit, your folks or whomever in the family had steel nerves enough to do the teaching never took you to such intersections. The rubber tires would catch in the tracks and if you didn’t have a death-grip on the wheel, the popular song “Slippin’ and a Slidin’” would be the theme of your outing.

I guess that’s why they are gone — but not forgotten.

Bill Gralnick is the author of “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn.” His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.

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