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The Moral Superiority of the Streetcar

(1) Long-form journalism fixes everything. (2) The moral superiority of the streetcar. (3) I like big bus and I cannot lie.

Pacific Electric cars awaiting destruction, from Wikipedia. Copyright Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

I was out for a drink with a friend who works for a womens' magazine. She does not love her job, mostly because she is in charge of compiling yoga recipes and candle news (a column called Candletips) for the front of the book. “I just commissioned a 2,200-word piece,” she said, “with the provisional title Hollywood's Neti Nuts: Star Sinus Secrets.” She took a long draught of red wine and closed her eyes for a moment. “So, that. But if you look in the back of the book, we are still publishing long-form journalism.”

That was not the first time I've heard this argument. Long-form journalism can be an excuse for just about anything. You might work for Teen Violence Week, and your job might require compiling a photo collage of the week's best dick punches, but you can still feel proud that your magazine publishes 5,000 words about a Los Angeles clinic that performs free abortions for tapirs, or a serious investigation into America's declining sandpaper standards (True Grit: The death of smooth).

I often pass time looking at ancient magazines and it's the ephemera that catches my eye. All the junk in the front is fascinating, a puzzle pieced together under pressure, but the long articles from 1921, the important articles, are often hard to read, like encyclopedia entries for a boring planet that was blown up years ago. Which makes me think, for uncertain reasons, of trollies, and about the General Motors streetcar conspiracy.

After World War II, GM and other organizations waged war against streetcars in order to sell more buses. Buses (as you could see in the two-color leave-behind brochure the shadowy GM salesmen dropped on your desk before putting on their hats and showing themselves out) required less infrastructure to maintain and could turn left or right.

GM succeeded in their merciless scheme. That's why you are reading this on a digital device and not on a streetcar. In fact, by the time I was born the average trolley was 18 inches long and ran only to King Friday's Castle. But by then the moral superiority of the streetcar was a sort of liberal touchstone, taken for granted. I've spent a life knowing in my soft heart that trollies are better than buses, without ever thinking on it.

When I was 14 I would ride the trolley from Philadelphia to Media, Pennsylvania, to my dad's. And I loved it. But then again I took the M15 select bus today and loved it, too. It is a long, fast bus that shoots up Manhattan like an arrow. In truth, I love all wheeled forms of public transit. (Even jeepneys? ask the people who hate jeepneys. And I look them right in their cruel eyes and say: Yes. Even jeepneys.)

A whole life believing in the moral superiority of trolley tracks, and only now do I realize that I do not have a horse in the race between the bus and the streetcar. Nor am I sure any longer that trollies are morally superior to buses.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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