The cars have become internationally famous since they first went into service in 1873, and unhappy merchants have estimated San Francisco could lose $30 million a year in tourist spending while they are gone. But no one will miss the little cars more than gripman Carl Payne, 42. One of only 85 men (there are no gripwomen) responsible for operating a car's crucial front brakes and its grip, which secures the six-ton car to the moving cable beneath the center rail, Payne, with 18 years on the job, is among the elite of the city's 3,000 transportation workers. He is also a sort of ringmaster of his own thrilling road show. "Vamanos, hombres!" he bellows as the car crests the steepest hill on his route, then starts its slow-motion plunge toward the bay. "Now, folks, as my conductor is tying the rope to the tree, I don't want you to panic. I assure you, these cars do float."
While a conductor helps with the cable car's rear brake and collects the $1 fare, it is the gripman who keeps the car moving. "The whole thing depends on reflexes," explains Payne. "Everything you do to drive the car is done in the blink of an eye. A lot of times we're working with equipment that's 70 or 80 years old, and you have to be constantly on your toes to avoid hitting other vehicles." Brute strength is another prerequisite for the job; Payne estimates that it takes 1,500 pounds of pressure to pull the front brake on a steep hill. "Getting the car going is no problem," says Payne. "It's stopping it that's the hard part."
The gripman also rings the car's solid brass bell continually. Payne has won the system's annual bell-ringing contest four times for the originality of his one-tone rhythms. He also does his best to keep foolhardy passengers from hurting themselves. "Keep in close! Hold on tight!" he warns people who hang perilously from the sides. And when anyone tries to board a moving car, he points a warning finger and growls, "That's a no-no." Unhappily, he admits that pickpockets work the cars whenever they can. "In five years I've caught 300 crooks," he says. "I handcuff 'em and hold 'em for the police."
The son of a Pittsburgh steelworker and his wife, a maid, Payne landed in San Francisco in 1962 after four years in the Marines. He worked for two years as a bus driver, then graduated to cable cars. Divorced, with a 10-year-old daughter, he earns between $30,000 and $40,000 a year as a grip-man, and isn't looking forward to going back to the buses. "I'll hate it," he says. "On buses, people sit in their own little space and don't talk. Cable cars are the friendly way to travel."
Will Tony Bennett still leave his heart in San Francisco when those little cable cars don't run halfway to the stars? The City by the Bay isn't counting on it, so when the historic cars come to the end of the line this week, it will only be for two or three years. First there will be a final parade, as some of the system's 40 remaining glossy green cars toil laboriously to the heights of Nob Hill, then plunge into Chinatown, with brass bells clanging, before crawling to a halt at Fisherman's Wharf. Afterward will begin a $60 million rehabilitation program that will replace or restore the city's nine miles of track, the huge drums on which the cables are wound, and the outmoded brick-faced car barn that was last rebuilt after the earthquake of 1906. The federal government is footing 80 percent of the bill, and the city is raising the rest, partly through fund-raising concerts and donations from cable car buffs like the Jefferson Starship ($60,000).