The Powell-Mason Line

Empty Cable Car

You’re on Market Street in front of the conspicuous Westfield Mall in San Francisco and the hill that leads to Fisherman’s Wharf looms before you. You could walk, but notice people gathered in the intersection around the cable car turntable, which looks like a big wooden record player. You’re drawn in by the crowd: the confident voice of a guitarist singing to the people in line, the staccato chant of the zealot on a literal soapbox, the boom box street dancers. You cross Market to join the line, and watch one cable car after another come in and unload. Before another group can board, the Gripmen push the cars around the turnabout, laughing with each other while tourists take videos.

Once settled onboard, you climb Powell Street, where you can reach out and touch the city as you pass by. A homeless man sells Street Sheet papers in Union Square outside of a high-end jewelry shop. The Beefeater doorman bows to you from the gold and glass opulence of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.

At California Street it levels a bit before the descent down the other side of Nob Hill. Ring, ring! Ring, ring! Hearing the cable car bell, you are a kid again, set free on a new bicycle, ringing your bell, streamers flying. The wheels clank in the tracks and the brakes squeal. You admire the strength of the gripman who takes a stance to keep the huge brake lever steady as he glides the car down the hill.

With the turn down Mason it’s suddenly warmer and bluer from the widening sky and the bay coming into view. The street widens too, lined by pastel apartment buildings with sculpted moldings and a variety of garage doors: wooden carriage types, metal gates, and modern sliding ones. This is what you love about San Francisco–this hodge podge of character.

At Columbus you veer left and see black-aproned waiters clear plates of pasta and espresso cups from the sidewalk tables of North Beach, but continue drifting down toward the brick-colored buildings at your route’s end. The odor of Fisherman’s Wharf hits as you step off, but tempered by a hint of Ghirardelli chocolate.

The same exact route you just took, by the same way, has been taken since the 1880’s, and you’re glad they didn’t mess with what works. The open bay lies ahead, but this trip proved it is all about the journey.

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