Rhetorical occasions: Arguing for new trolleys

The essay was composed for “Advanced Second Language Literacies,” ESL 6063, UTSA, Summer 2021. Image: Tram and Rail, 1914 – Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, https://www.wikiart.org/en/ernst-ludwig-kirchner/tram-and-rail via @wikipaintings

Atlanta, like many major American and world cities, used to have an extensive trolley system to facilitate short trips and to offer affordable public transportation for those in outlying areas, in suburbs like Decatur, east of the city, or in somewhat far-flung neighborhoods such as Buckhead or Druid Hills. Some decades ago, relics of trolley lines used to be visible—the narrow-gauge rails still glistened, for example, in the city where I grew up, Washington, DC, although the trolley cars had long since ceased running along them.

My father, who was also born and raised a Washingtonian, pointed out that one could still make use of the rails. On certain streets, if one’s automobile tires were positioned within the grooves the rails had left behind, one could take one’s hands off the steering wheel and allow the car to drive itself for a short distance. My father used to do this when he needed to light his pipe. I would stare, dumbfounded, at this ritual, delighted that the steering wheel seemed to turn itself while my father filled the bowl of his pipe with tobacco.

Around the year 2000, Atlanta’s mass-transit system, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), debated reprising some portions of the trolley network to alleviate heavy traffic in and around the tony Druid Hills neighborhood that encompasses Emory University (see the film Driving Miss Daisy to get a sense of the area) and was sponsoring a series of public hearings on the idea. I went to an open meeting about the proposal at a Decatur public library.

A crowd of some 250 people filled the small auditorium, and I stood at the back, listening first to MARTA officials’ presentations about possible routes, costs, and impacts, then to the snarling objections of those who would be living, in their expansive bungalows and set-back stone mansions, along the proposed Druid Hills trolley spur. I remember one of the resident’s arguments. He objected that the current MARTA bus network was underused and based this assertion on his nighttime observation of various empty or nearly empty buses that trundled by his home. If the buses were not being used to their full potential, he reasoned, wouldn’t the trolleys, which, of necessity, would have to run down the middle of existing streets, meet with the same fate?

It bothered me that the agency officials were not being listened to and were frequently being shouted down disrespectfully. And, as a general principle, I prefer publicly financed, shared transportation as an expression of democratic life and community, over the privately financed automobile, which helps enforce a regime of privilege, inequality, isolation, and environmental abuse.

So, I raised my hand.

Now, more than 20 years after the fact, I have no idea what I said and am still surprised that I volunteered to speak, because I do not like raising my voice in front of an audience. Even more strongly, I dislike being unprepared and being in the minority, because, at my core, I am not a very courageous person. The rhetorical occasion seemed to demand emotion or some clever rejoinder—such as pointing out, to the gentleman who complained about empty buses, that one could similarly grouse about the fleet of empty SUVs and sedans that sit, unused, in private driveways and wonder whether they should not be taken away from their owners.

But I could not think of that argument at the time.

So, I had recourse in the moment neither to pathos, ethos, nor logos. All I possessed was a meek, slightly reedy voice that asked for some kindness toward the MARTA representatives and for some considered attention to their proposals, for couldn’t we all agree that Atlanta traffic was a mess?

I do remember the jeers that met my short speech. I seem to recall one of the MARTA spokespersons hailing me with pantomimed applause or a thumbs-up.

And this is how the rhetorical occasion transpired.

Only now, many years after the event, 20 years after my father’s death, do I realize that I was trying to make some connection in my “trolley discourse” to my dad, who at the time, in Washington, was dying from cancer. I suppose I was thinking of those long since uprooted or paved-over, curving, and intersecting trolley courses that mapped the contours of my father’s childhood memories, or of the trolleys themselves that clanged and merged with the voices of street urchins hawking copies of the Washington Star newspaper and that rambled their way into the terrain of Al Jolson and Duke Ellington.

What I really wanted to say, in that public forum, was that I wanted to see my father light his pipe again and bang out the ashes below the side mirror of his white Volkswagen Beetle, letting the rails lead us.

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