Written By Carmen Dibartolomeo
Riding the Trackless Trolley Bus Route 29 line in the early 60s was how my father and I would go back and forth to my grandmothers’ house. Going East on the route meant that, at the very least, I would get a nice meal from my grandmother. Though the trade off was sitting perfectly still in the living room as she berated my father about this or that. Sometimes my father would fake going to his mom’s and bring me to his favourite bar where he would deposit me on the bar stool with a glass of coke, then slide into an adjoining room and play gin rummy with his chums, chugging down some whiskey shots. If he came back quickly, I knew he had lost the little money he had brought and the ride back west to the projects would not be pleasant.
Getting on a bus with my father was always anxiety driven. At the stop on 12th and Tasker, he would quickly scan the ground for a thrown-away pass, paying particular attention to that day’s coloured pass which could be used for a transfer and gain entrance to the bus. Most times there were none. When that happened my father would tell me to scoop up an old transfer laying about and he would take it from there. “They never know the difference,” he would say about the drivers. I wasn’t so sure. A few times in the past we never made it to our seats since the driver refused the pass and we were told to get off. Sometimes, we made it on the bus only to have the driver holler back: “Yo, man. Guy with the Patch, that transfer is bad. You and your boy have to get off unless you got the fare.” At which time I would slink down in my seat, hoping like hell that no one on the bus saw or heard this exchange.
How I hated the bus drivers—called them all Monsters. As was the case, my father didn’t have the fare and we were asked to get off. Thank God I only had to walk past a few passengers to get to the front door. When I was side by side with the driver, I dared not look at him for fear that my embarrassment might provoke another reaction. So I did what I learned to do. I said nothing. Acting as if it was perfectly normal to get on a bus, any bus, without the proper fare, and exit only after a block or two. One time, my father abruptly stopped at the driver’s side and whispered something in the driver’s ear. As he did, I crashed into his bad leg, the one he had broken a few times from falling down in some diabetic fit. “Damn it Carmen” he hollered. I could only imagine what he said to the driver was 100 times more vile.
There wouldn’t be any more rides to my grandmom’s house since not long after the latest episode, my father died of kidney failure brought on by childhood diabetes. He was 37, father to 7 children, husband to a wife with a polio shrunken leg, and perhaps forever known to those route 29 drivers as Patches the One-Eyed Low life.
About 4 months later I was sent to Girard College in North Philadelphia and my rides back and forth to the projects would be this: From Girard, take the trolley at 21st and Girard to Broad and Girard, then the subway to Broad and Tasker, then the 29 line west to the projects. It was this last leg of the trip when I would feel most uneasy. As a rule, I made sure I had the correct change. At no time did I ever make eye contact with the driver.
Most trips were uneventful except for an occasional loud radio annoying the other passengers or some crazy old lady talking to herself. One time, I sat in the middle of the bus and heard a loud commotion. I looked ahead and there was an elderly man swearing at the driver, saying this and that, coming closer and closer to the driver’s face. “Watch this,” I muttered, but to my surprise the driver stayed calm, and in a gentle way explained to the man that if he let him on without paying he would have to let everyone else on without paying. He said this as the “swish” of the bus door closed and after a moment or two, the driver relented and let the man stay on. Not all bus drivers are monsters, I thought.
In 5th grade we had to take wood shop. Mr. Harvey, the teacher began by instructing us in the various wood cutting tools, the different types of wood, the correct shellac to put on, and how the correct sandpaper was necessary to preserve the grain of the wood. After carving a rudimentary jewelry box, the next project was to make a spinning wheel planter.
First you had to learn how to use the Green Monster, the Lathe machine that planted itself up against the wall. It was a green machine with metallic levers and circular moving parts. It groaned throughout the shop, interrupted by a whirling sound when someone hit the wood with the chisel. It stood about 3 feet high and about 4 and half feet wide and smelled of wood and stain.
To start making the spinning wheel planter, you were given a long horizontal block of soft wood, putting it snug up against the ends of some pointy things and with one of the various chisels in hand, fired up the machine and started chipping away. To remind us how dangerous this was, Mr. Harvey relayed a story of a kid who’d forgotten to take off his tie when the machine was on and his tie was caught up in the lathe and he was thrashed about and ended up strangled to death by his own tie. I tend to think now this was a tall tale since I never read anywhere in all of the known Girard publications an article entitled: Lathe Strangles Kid With Tie. But I made sure to be careful and since the endgame was to build a spinning wheel from top to bottom I made certain that my tie was off.
A month of making the circular legs, spokes for the wheel, sawing the flat pieces that connected all over, and bending the wooden wheel in a steam machine, my assignment was almost complete. With sanding and varnish it would be finished in a week and then I could it take home and give it to my mother. But first I had to get it home.
One Friday, I carried the spinning wheel, gingerly cradling it like Madonna and Son still sticky and smelling of varnish in my grasp. The wheel wasn’t heavy but it was bulky and unyielding. After taking the trolley on 21st street to Broad and Girard, and then onto the subway, then off, I stood on Broad and Tasker waiting for the 29. How odd I must have looked in jacket, tie, and ironed pants holding a spinning wheel planter under my arm and heading into the direction of the Tasker Projects. The bus came quickly and as I always did, I let a few passengers get on first so I could scope out the bus drivers in case they recognized me; so far so good.
I paid my fare, moved quickly to the middle of the bus and sat down staring out the window. No sooner than I had, the driver shouted back: “Yo kid come to the front.” I didn’t move at first, paralysed with the same nauseating feelings I had when I sat next to my father. Didn’t I pay the fare? Again he asked,“The kid with the spinning wheel please come to the front.” I cautiously got up, not wanting to crack the planter, and slowly made my way to the front as if on death row. Had I been old enough, I would have asked for one of my fathers’ Pall Mall cigarettes. I made it to the drivers side and at the light he said. “What are you carrying some kind of Spinning Wheel? Want to sell it? Its nice. My wife would love it. 10 bucks I’ll give you. What do you think?” I thought I misunderstood, but he repeated it again. Stunned, I mumbled something like “no thank you sir. I was going to give it to my mother,” and quickly went back to my seat, relieved.
And that was that. I never saw the driver again. But for me, those words “Its nice, my wife would love it” overwhelmed me and I looked out the window craning my neck to the sky saying softly to no one in particular, “See dad? I’m not so bad,” and I sat up straight holding the wheel in front of me, admiring its detail, marvelling at its beauty, and thinking I did this and someone likes it. Someone likes something I did. Someone likes me. And from the Septa driver, no less. When my stop came, I got up quickly so I could say something to the driver. As I was side by side of him, this time not shamed but proud I said, ‘Thank you sir for your interest in my spinning wheel. Have a nice day!” And he said: “$15 my best offer. Keep it up kid.”
When I brought the spinning wheel home I presented it to my mother where she proudly displayed it on the table in the living room.
I don’t remember what happened to that spinning wheel. I wish I had it now, but I will never forget those kind words the SEPTA driver said to me one spring day in the early 1960s. Those words of encouragement inspired me to continue pursuing art so that I went to art school, got a degree and became a book designer. I wish I could meet that driver today and thank him for having made me feel so special that day. I might also say to him: “You know that guy with the one eye? He wasn’t so bad. Maybe he didn’t have someone to encourage him, or for others to see beyond the weakness and the hardships of everyday life he encountered. Maybe if you had seen him carrying the spinning wheel you would have complimented him as you complimented me. We shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, nor a man with a patch and whiskey breath, or a little boy and his spinning wheel.”