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Selfies with an extinct species

I thought I was hallucinating last Wednesday, when I boarded a number 11 tram in Collins Street and saw a cheery, avuncular conductor in his green uniform, complete with cap and heavy-duty leather satchel sprouting old-fashioned paper tickets.

His appearance was in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the day the last connies worked on Melbourne trams and it took me back. Is it just nostalgia colouring my memories, or were tram conductors universally friendly, helpful and upbeat?

The most extreme example was a conductor we called ‘Frenchie’ who worked the Glenferrie Road line. He did circus tricks including swinging from the hanging straps, juggling with his cap and performing conjuring feats with customers’ change.

Not every connie was quite so colourful, but not many were grumpy.  I remember one asking me where I was headed one gorgeous Melbourne spring day. When I said ‘to my boyfriend’s,’ he proceeded to ask how many boyfriends I had to which I responded ‘just the one’. ‘Ah,’ he sighed theatrically, ‘so much beauty and only one boyfriend’. Recalling this decades later, in the era of #metoo, I still think his intentions were perfectly innocent, and I certainly received them in that spirit.

Of course, there were plenty of female conductors too.  And both women and men seemed to add a parental touch to the experience of a tram journey, conducting – no pun intended - the atmosphere of these most temporary of communities. I felt safer on the trams when they were there. A myki machine just isn’t the same, nor are Protective Services Officers.

I have no idea how conductors managed to collect fares on crowded rush hour trams; I suspect they sometimes resigned themselves to missing a commuter or two, but probably fewer than those who fare evade these days. One of my closest friends was a conductor/driver in the seventies (a combination that was called a ‘marmalade’) and says that tact and complicated mental arithmetic were required, the manual dexterity to sort the right change and punch each ticket in correct little square, plus the all-important task of pulling the cord twice for the driver to take off once all passengers were safely on board.

I guess it’s too much to hope for the reinstatement of tram conductors. But on the city tram this week, I was pleased to see that it wasn’t only oldies like me who were chuffed to experience their brief reincarnation, as millennials lined up, grinning, to get a selfie with this extinct species.


 Pulished in The Melbourne Age on 27 May 2018

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