Christmas trolley offers respite for grieving operator
Trolley 9009 glows from within, a luminescent candy cane on wheels. Each Christmas since 1993, Gary Mason has decorated one of SEPTA's white Kawasaki trolley cars. He began it while in his early 30s and had help from his whole family.
Trolley 9009 glows from within, a luminescent candy cane on wheels.
Each Christmas since 1993, Gary Mason has decorated one of SEPTA's white Kawasaki trolley cars. He began it while in his early 30s and had help from his whole family.
"She used to help me," Mason said recently of his wife, Gloria. "Her and the kids used to help me. That's how it started off."
Now, Mason is 52, and his Route 10 trolley is a holiday institution, one of three Christmas trolleys in the city. Mason said his is the best decorated.
His 6-foot, 7-inch frame fills the operator's seat, and his deep voice and big smile fill the car with laughter and holiday well wishes for the passengers who board and depart along the West Philadelphia line.
He wears a Santa hat through the morning commute. As the car passed 36th Street and Lancaster Avenue on a gray, drizzly December morning, a woman walking by waved and stopped to take a picture. That's typical, he said.
"If they're having a bad day, they'll smile," Mason said.
He has decorated the trolley for Valentine's Day and Halloween, too, but Christmas has always been the highlight.
Inside the trolley car, red and white lights zigzag along the ceiling. Santa faces smile at passengers. Through Mason's long morning shift he plays Christmas songs, crooned classics from Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.
Slower tracks, such as Charles Brown's soulful "Please Come Home for Christmas," make the quiet car almost solemn, thick with communal memories from Christmases past. Sledding. Snowball fights. Shredded wrapping paper crinkling under the tree.
"No matter how you might be," said Deonna Holmes, 52, heading to 62d Street to her job as a home health worker, "when you get off this trolley your whole disposition is so calm and serene."
It had been a tough year for Mason. His wife died in August at 53 after an aneurysm. Mason hunches forward and the smile fades when he talks about his wife.
She knew his schedule by heart. He is not allowed to use his cellphone while operating the trolley until he reaches a loop near 62d and Malvern. She always remembered exactly when to call so he could answer.
As his four children grew up, they lost interest in their father's holiday decorating project, but this year his 22-year-old son Telvin helped. It took eight hours to get the trolley properly lit and decorated.
"I have got to be strong for my kids," he said. "My kids are being strong for me."
Since his loss, Mason is convinced that his wife has touched him to give him strength.
"She came to me and told me to keep on doing what I do. Don't stop. In a vision, an epiphany," he said.
So in October, he adorned his trolley with spider webs and pumpkins for the first time in 14 years. Earlier this month, he again pulled out his ever growing collection of garlands, lights, and miniature Victorian houses to create an enchanted village on his dashboard.
The train's holiday glow, the passengers' smiles, they keep grief away, he said.
"When I get away from the trolley and get by myself and think," the sadness can return, he said. "Yes, a little bit."
So he plays such favorites as Burl Ives' "Holly Jolly Christmas" and laughs when passengers ask about the lights.
"You decorate this?" Juanita Phinized, 31, asked as she got off the trolley. "Do you want to come to my house and decorate mine?"
"I get that a lot," Mason said, smiling.
Earlier in the day, a group of school children got on the trolley, he said. He put on "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway. The kids started singing along.
"It made me so happy it almost brought tears to my eyes," he said. "When I see people happy, especially the little ones, it empowers me to just keep it up and keep the spirit alive and keep moving."