BTS: The Last Ride

“The Last Ride”—Behind the Story

This story began the loose vision of what the collection—a series of stories set in different periods in Cleveland’s history— could become. And, with apologies to Hal and Fal and Mistakes by the Lake, it might be my favorite story. I had been researching the Stockyards in Cleveland, trying to get a sense of its history and how its history played into each of the characters in Mistakes, and I got lost in a research black hole (i.e., procrastination) about Cleveland’s trolley system. I stumbled across a short news article about a trolley driver who, after tiring of his sophisticated riders’ reports of the outside world (outside to him, anyway), stole a dinkey to see this world for himself. I just noted it down, a neat little factoid, really, nothing more. But I kept returning to that note, adding my own thoughts, details, and motivations to that motorman, and I soon found myself briefly abandoning Mistakes to write this story.

Spurred on by this character I’d been fleshing out, I buried myself in old books about streetcars, pored over newspaper articles dating back to the 1800s, read about strikes and bombings and terrible streetcar accidents, and tried to learn the workings of these vehicles that dominated Cleveland for decades. (A ton of details don’t make it into the story, including an oddly timely fact that, due to the flu pandemic of 1918, all trolley lines were shut down on October 24, one week after theaters, dance halls, churches, and schools were shuttered.)

And, while my story proclaims the Abbey Avenue Dinkey to be the shortest run in the city, that’s not true; it was the Holmden Dinkey that ran on W. 14 from Clark to Brainard for a whopping 1700 feet. (And, for a period of three months in 1920, the W. 117 Dinkey ran just 200 feet.* I find it hard to imagine the laziness required to abstain from walking 200 feet.) I simply preferred what the Abbey Avenue run offered in terms of the neighborhood (for example, one terminus being the West Side Market). There were other facts I chose to ignore (for instance, that the Abbey run was temporarily taken offline in 1926 when the overpass spanning the railroad tracks leading to the Union Terminal (Terminal Tower) was built), but, ultimately, the character is what mattered and I let Oswald O’Malley be my guide. The Abbey Avenue Dinkey stopped running on April 3, 1935. Cleveland fully dismantled its streetcar system in the ’50s.

Throughout the writing of the collection, I visited Cleveland numerous times, tried to walk the streets my characters walked, imagine what they’d seen. One of the cooler moments was when the Cuyahoga County Dept. of Public Works kindly unlocked the gates to the lower (trolley) deck of the Detroit-Superior Bridge and let me take a self-guided tour.

*My notes are failing me in this regard, but I believe this info comes from Trolley Trails Through Greater Cleveland and Northern Ohio (Christiansen).

“The Last Ride”—Excerpt

Oswald, now sixty-nine years old, stood outside his electric streetcar, his dinkey, and pulled the trolley rope down, releasing the spring-loaded troller from the overhead wires. He shuffle-footed his way to the opposite end of #111, feet dusting through the sand he’d forced over the tracks moments before, and swung the center- and swivel-mounted pole behind him. Once he had it lined up, he eased the tension on the rope so the troller snugged against the wire. He tied off the loose end of rope to a metal loop on the side of the car, clapped his hands several times to warm them against the late-October Cleveland cold, and readied for his return trip to the West Side Market.

It was a short run, his route: six-tenths of a mile. He’d heard that now, in 1928, there were over four hundred miles of track in Cleveland. Four hundred! And here he was, Oswald O’Malley, delegated to a back-and-forth trolley covering less than a single mile.

Six stops, three minutes to run one length, a two-minute layover at each end. Every hour he’d raise and lower the trolley pole twelve times. That meant, in his three decades as Abbey Avenue motorman, he had—

When his mind drifted toward working the math, to the tens of thousands of miles traveled on this single stretch of track, he became lightheaded with fear, queasy with loss.

Out of habit, he mentally recited a mantra that had served him well early on, a mantra that for a time heralded a brighter day: “This is only temporary.” 

He had, once, believed that. It was only a few weeks after that sad and glorious day in the rain, after disassembling his mother’s Singer sewing machine to see how it worked, after discovering he had an aptitude for such things, that young Oswald became a tinkerer, an inventor. His father encouraged Oswald to use his gifts to get out of Irishtown Bend, to avoid the kind of hard labor that had nearly taken his life but instead settled for his eye. Oswald tinkered and invented, tinkered and invented. This would be his escape, this would be how he would inspire awe.

When he was fifteen, he’d invented a substitute for collar buttons that could be fastened and unfastened with one hand. Then he learned they’d already been invented. This was the first of many such failures. After a time, Oswald needed money, needed to live, and, when he married at seventeen, he needed to support Mary, a young woman who at first found his inventing charming, cute even, but who later found Oswald’s obsession infuriating.

Within years of his first working for the railway as a teen, his temporary morphed into a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday rhythm of waking, dinkey, eating, dinkey, eating, tinkering, sleeping. For years he thought the weariness of that rhythm would provoke a long-dormant consciousness into action, or at the very least bring him some goddamned luck.

A light rain mixed with sleet now began to fall. With his W. 14th layover finished, he pedaled the bell once to signal his departure, revolved the control to pick up speed, and levered open a chute that air-blasted sand over the rails to battle the icy and final runs of the evening.

The dinkey became obstreperous as it approached West 15th, old Burns Street. The weather- and time-worn track that transitioned from 15th to the bridge attempted to jolt the dinkey off line and the trolley pole swayed from side to side as Oswald’s right hand, his good hand, automatically worked the braking valve to direct air to the cylinder under the car, and then, the westerly crisis averted, just as automatically revolved the controller to regain his speed during this long stopless stretch until W. 19th.

At his busiest, Oswald transported over 2000 riders a day. The passengers he ferried this evening—two men drunkenly japed about a chicken in every garage and a car in every pot, and a couple who, Oswald knew, were married to other people but for some reason found his dinkey romantic—faced across from each other on the two wooden benches that ran lengthwise along the inside of the car. They abruptly lurched forward with the initial jolt, then skidded backward with the acceleration. One of the men said, “Oi, watch it,” then tossed an empty milk bottle in Oswald’s direction. Oswald stopped the dinkey, dropped his head back, and counted the gold-painted flowers that trimmed the olive-green ceiling, flowers he had counted millions of times, probably. When he reached thirty, he opened the doors, pointed without turning around, and the drunks departed as they muttered lackluster threats about reporting Oswald to management.

Oswald lived and lost his life in tiny increments along Abbey Avenue. The Market at Lorain, Gehring, bridge, Columbus, 20th, 19th, bridge, 15th, 14th, 14th, 15th, bridge, 19th, 20th, Columbus, bridge, Gehring, the Market at Lorain. Fifty, sixty, seventy times a day, six days a week. Abbey, Abbey, Abbey. His useless mantra washed over him. His shoulders slumped.

Photos 1, 7-10: taken when touring the lower deck. Photo 2: from Cleveland and Its Streetcars (Spangler/Toman). Photos 3-6: I’m not entirely sure where I found these, but I believe from the archives of Cleveland Public Library.

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