Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman

We’ve written before of the many Black barrier breakers in San Francisco transit. These are stories that must be retold every month, not just Black History Month. People such as Mary Ellen Pleasant, Charlotte Brown, Audley Cole, Larry Martin, Welton Flynn, Curtis Green, and Maya Angelou confronted racism and resistance; all moved the needle in our City toward equity and equality, a fight that continues today.

Other professions and industries have their own Black barrier breakers; and their stories too must become universally known. One such barrier breaker in filmmaking was Melvin Van Peebles, who, before he went to Hollywood, spent time as a cable car gripman.

And wrote a wonderful book about it.

Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman

“A cable car is a big heart with people for blood. The people pump on and off — if you think of it like that it is pretty simple.”

— Melvin Van Peebles, gripman (left, photo by Ruth Bernhard), The Big Heart

The Big Heart was published in 1957, under the nom de plume “Melvin Van”. It combines evocative images by the noted photographer Ruth Bernhard with Van Peebles’ reflections on cable cars. His prose is often elegiac.

Van Peebles describes learning how to be a gripman (“Finally one day you’re on your own and you’re as proud as the captain of a new luxury liner”) ; watching Alcatraz, still an active prison then, come into view from atop Hyde Street (…at night it looks even meaner. A ring of lights circle the prison wall, the water around the island is pitch black except for the reflection of a searchlight that keeps going around and around – it looks so real it seems phony and you feel ashamed for being thrilled”); and competing in the cable car bell ringing contest (“It isn’t the money, though, it’s – I don’t know – it’s the people in the crowd watching and thinking he’s the best..”).

His writing blends those personal experiences with a clear understanding of the importance of cable cars to San Francisco’s history and image…all through the prism of people’s lives.

Let’s see – in this age of technological advancement, when we cross the continent in hours and the work week is shrinking and science is pushbuttoning everything, there are still a few jobs left over from the past, when the ships were made of wood and the men of steel…It’s hard to believe that once the old cars were the queens of the streets, like this year’s automobile and that the funny old equipment, the gawky old levers and pulleys and wheels were once new-fangled. A fellow retired with thirty-six years service last month, just think someone was probably retiring when he first started out. I try to imagine the guy who first pulled the grip. I try to think of him getting up from bed and going to work and coming home and patting his children on their heads and the kids wearing those long stringy socks. I try to imagine him leafing through an old catalogue and stopping to look at a girl in a bathing suit ad and trying to figure out her shape in his mind through all the clothing they wore. I don’t know, it floors me unless you really think about it life seems so new yet, I guess, as the poets say it is repeated over and over again.”

Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman
Cable Car crew pushing full cable car off the Powell-Market Turntable. Ruth Bernhard photo ©Fearon Publishers 1957

When I have a real early run, which is my favorite, I walk to work. Getting up early in the morning always makes me feel superior, more alive to people who get up after I do. Besides I like the city then, it has a very special lonely flavor. It’s just the garbage men and me and the papers stacked on the corners waiting for the newsboys.”

I like the family feeling you get at night on the cable cars. The car sits on the turntable and people get on in little groups and sit apart from one another. Then it’s time to go and I yell, ‘Here we go. CURVE…HOLD ON.’ And everyone laughs and shrieks suddenly right then zooming around the turn it’s no longer a cable car full of isolated little groups. A feeling of all being together spreads over the car… People give each other advice and make room for one another and we start up the hill chasing an automobile and my passengers yell at the people on the cable car coming down… By the time we get near the other end of the line and people start getting off you feel as if your old high school class was breaking up and everybody yells goodbye to one another and everything.”

Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman
The first Aquatic Park turntable, with its sharp uphill curve Van Peebles describes. Ruth Bernhard photo ©Fearon Publishers 1957

Melvin Van Peebles was clearly one of the best at just about everything he did. And he did a lot.

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University, he flew high as an Air Force pilot before gripping that underground cable. He left San Francisco after The Big Heart was published to try his hand at filmmaking in Hollywood, but initially came up dry. He headed for the Netherlands to study astronomy but spent most of the 1960s in France, where he wrote novels and plays in French, briefly edited the French version of Mad magazine, and made short films.

Back in Hollywood, he broke in by directing Godfrey Cambridge in the 1970 comedy Watermelon Man. But he wanted complete control of his next film and so scripted, directed, edited, wrote the music score, financed, starred in, and created the marketing campaign for the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which, along with Gordon Parks’ Shaft, has been credited by many critics with creating a new genre of film featuring Black heroes.

Van Peebles went on to a peripatetic career in the arts, beyond his successful filmmaking. He was nominated for numerous Tony and Grammy awards for writing and scoring musicals, exhibited his visual arts, became an early member of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and, in 2001, was chosen a Commander of the Legion of Honour, the highest French order of merit. He had four children, including the actor and writer Mario Van Peebles. He died in 2021 in Manhattan at the age of 89, still creating art. A remarkable life.

Melvin Van Peebles, Cable Car Gripman
Melvin Van Peebles, Gripman. Ruth Bernhard photo, ©Fearon Publishers 1957

Though Van Peebles rocketed into the stratosphere of fame, he didn’t abandon his gripman roots entirely. Market Street Railway historian Emiliano Echeverria, who worked the cable car system as a young man, recalls Van Peebles occasionally dropping in on off-duty gatherings of cable car workers, “always just one of the guys.”

Regrettably, The Big Heart has long been out of print. Online, used copies command hundreds of dollars. Here’s hoping it can somehow be reprinted; it is a treasure, just as is Melvin Van Peebles, barrier-breaker. And gripman.

— By Rick Laubscher

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