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Not just an average Joe: The story of trolly driver number 101800

Not just an average Joe: The story of trolly driver number 101800
courtesy Matthew Fuglsang

Trolley ambassador number 101808 steps onto the C-Line trolley for his Sunday shift. The thin grey hair atop his head glistens in the sun of an unusually warm day in Cleveland. Black sunglasses shade his pale blue eyes. From the side, wrinkles near his eyes suggest he’s done a good deal of smiling in his lifetime.

“Cleveland, there’s a lot of good, happy things I’ve experienced here. Then, there’s the real life, everyday stuff at the hospitals and all. You never know who’s getting on so we all just gotta smile,” he says.

Though just under six feet, he somehow still stands tall. In a way, he appears regal. His trolley bears more of a resemblance to a chariot than a normal mode of transportation. Wooden benches fill the cabin. Their thick legs are painted green with gold accents and flourishes. Instead of gripping stainless steel bars for support, passengers grip leather handles and golden poles. The poles look to have been transplanted from an antique merry-go-round.

101808 wears his signature Rapid Transit Authority blue pants with a red stripe up the sides of the legs. His blue- and red-striped button-up shirt peaks out from underneath a brown t-shirt, emblazoned with the face of an orange RTA bus wearing a football helmet. He mixes business with sport – a true Browns fan.

“I’m not a traitor, but I’m not one of those die-hard-start-drinking-at-6 a.m.-fans either,” he says with a nod towards drunk Clevelanders wobbling at a nearby street corner as he makes his way to his first destination. “Horseshoe Casino,” he calls out, almost automatically.

As the Horseshoe Casino began to blossom within the historic Higbee Building on Public Square in February 2011, the Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center began taking root below the pavement of St. Claire Avenue and East 6th Street. Its one million square-foot campus will allow for the exchange of medical ideas, practices, and merchandise in ways that few other facilities can with 35 meeting rooms, three exhibition centers, and dozens of vendor showrooms. One bus ride 0.8 miles down the road developer, Scott Wolstein and his mother pursue his late father’s visions of cultivating downtown Cleveland at Flats East Bank. The new waterfront district will house 1200 Ernst & Young employees, 150 rooms of Aloft Hotel, and five new restaurants by Spring 2013. Just one year later, 200 apartments, one outdoor concert venue, one city beach, a three-acre park, and 10 more restaurants will populate the area.
With development projects cropped up downtown and a history of popularity, the need for additional trolley lines became undeniable.

The Rapid Transit Authority of Cleveland started trolley service on April 10, 2006. In its first year of existence, the trolley system saw an average of 2000 riders per weekday. By 2008, it was up to 5500. Up until 2012, only three lines traipsed the city’s streets. With growing entertainment possibilities, the C-Line came into being: “C” for casino. Horseshoe Casino, Tower City, Warehouse District, RTA headquarters, The Arcade, PlayHouse Square, and back again, every 10 minutes.


“Is this the free one?” a woman in a Cleveland Browns sweat suit asks.

“Where are you goin?” asks 101808.

“The drug store.”

“Well get on and you’ll see.” He lifts his sunglasses and winks. The woman steps on hesitantly with a smile. “See, now it’s free.”

“Thanks… Joe,” she says, squinting at the driver’s name badge.

He says he prefers not to share his last name. He says he likes to joke like that to keep the day interesting; to watch people smile when they don’t have to pay. “I’ve been working for RTA for almost as long as some of the roads have been here,” Joe says as he pulls away from the casino.

Though he grew up in Cleveland using public transportation, he had never planned on being a trolley ambassador; he simply fell into it. 101808 took a job a friend offered him driving a bus for the Rapid Transit Authority. “I was always moving, yet, for the first time ever, my life felt stable.”

From a normal bus, Joe moved up to articulators. Articulators are buses in essence, but are longer and have accordion-like parts in the middle to allow for more seating and better turning capacity. It takes a lot of responsibility.

“I’d really like to be driving a buggy like the ones they got down in New York City, but they haven’t got one of those yet,” he says.
“West 6th and Johnson,” he bellows to the trolley’s lone passenger.

Lunchtime. Joe steps off the trolley and into RTA headquarters with a blue cooler. He takes the keys, but leaves the doors open. The street is a spectacle; an outsider could easily mistake it for a street festival. Two hiccupping 30-something-year-old men take shelter from the wind in the trolley’s cabin. They tamper with the doors, sit in the front, lie in the back, and snap cell phone pictures of themselves dancing with the poles on the otherwise vacant trolley.

“Is this free today?” the taller of the two asks.

“Well, it’s not moving so, it better damn well be free,” the other responds and stumbles out.

Joe returns 15 minutes later, completely oblivious of the drunken shenanigans that had transpired. Leaning against a pole near the driver’s seat, his eyes glaze over. He recollects his many St. Patrick’s Days on the road. “It’s funny, sometimes these people, they form these friendships — relationships just from riding.” He recalls two perfect strangers on his bus on St. Patrick’s Day five years ago. One: too drunk to stand, clearly ill. The other: took it upon himself to help. The Good Samaritan got off early with the intoxicated one, not for any personal reasons, but because it was the right thing to do.

“Some nights, I just sit in the car. Some people take the feeling of being parked for granted. It’s great to always be in motion, but sometimes I just need to sit back and take it all in.”

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