One drizzly winter evening in the mid-nineties, a friend and I were waiting for a tram at the Acland St. stop on Fitzroy Rd. As the old rattler pulled up, the driver poked his head out of the window and, in a voice apparently on loan from the late Vincent Price, announced: "Everybody must die!"
Being young, foolish and cold we decided not to interpret this as the ominous warning it so obviously was and boarded the tram. Inside, a musical trio (violin, acoustic guitar, bongo) had occupied the tram's aft and were energetically running the melody-free voodoo down. A small, clearly drunk/stoned audience of hippies danced around and applauded the band's more outrageous psychedelic noodling, while in the corner a dwarf in a top hat played Snap with a winged donkey on stilts. (That last detail might be a trick of memory: it may have been Old Maid rather than Snap and the donkey could have been on a unicycle.)
Presiding over this bacchanalia-on-wheels was an almost spherical middle-aged man sporting a cowboy hat, Harley Davidson belt buckle, leather pants, a handlebar moustache - and the badge and other accoutrements of an official Met tram conductor. He sold us our tickets, made some vaguely menacing remarks that involved referring to us as "boys", then wandered back to rejoin the frivolity. Twenty somewhat fraught minutes later - the conductor kept smiling at us - the tram arrived at Flinders St., we got out, and the merry band of psychopaths rattled off to strange, unknown realms, maybe even Brunswick.
This anecdote has no real ending - we just caught a train and were probably disappointed that it too wasn't overrun by crazies - but I was reminded of it by Catherine Deveny's column about the prospect of reinstating tram conductors not only as a practical solution to various public transport issues but also as a kind of spiritual panacea for our "tragic and disconnected" society. How romantic, how Leunigian!
I'm no fan of the present gumby gestapo, and I don't doubt there would be benefits to bringing conductors back, but surely in Deveny's haste to don her rose-coloured tram-riding goggles she is forgetting one thing: some conductors were insane. Or, if not insane, then rude, surly, and completely unhelpful. (Several commenters on this LP post make the same point.) Has Deveny caught a bus lately? Most of the drivers are fine, and I'd hate to see them replaced by bus-driving robots or a species of sentient heavy vehicle licence-carrying plants, but the public/driver interface is rarely spiritually uplifting. I've seen some appalling behaviour from drivers, ranging from impatience and unhelpfulness through to outright bigotry and threats of violence. (The behaviour of passengers is another issue altogether.)
Given this - that is, given the reality that any profession or social grouping will contain its share of pricks, psychos and nasty cowboy-hat-wearing pederast bikies - is there any reason to believe that conductors were, or would be, lovable saints to a (wo)man?