Angels Flight

by Neil Campbell

I remember a time of rooming houses and crack eyed landladies, shiftless tenants; a time of high windows and dreams from Bunker Hill; a time when the bold and the beautiful were nowhere to be seen, except maybe the bold, but that was a boldness you’d recognize then, not a boldness anyone would recognize now. The beautiful, well, they all think they recognize that, but it’s a stretch.

I worked the funicular, parked my car at the top of Hill Street, took tourists up and down there on their Chandler and Fante and Bukowski pilgrimages; took a million other people up there until the accident. One day they say it’s going to open again, but I’ll believe that when I see it.

I live in the Sunshine Apartments and can see from my window the incline where Olivet and Sinai used to criss-cross. I can still see Olive Street too. But Sunshine Apartments is kind of a joke, because even before the urban redevelopment plan the sun went down early on Bunker Hill. There’s a load of old films that show the funicular too. I’ve seen The Turning Point, Night Has A Thousand Eyes, Impatient Maiden and Kiss Me Deadly. Impatient Maiden starts with an opening scene on the porch of the Sunset Apartments, in Turning Point William Holden meets someone here and they end up hiding from hoodlums in a doorway.

I worked one time in the Million Dollar Building but got laid off from that too, and then I had my time in the post office. Days go by and I sit in my room on a diet of boiled eggs and oranges and milk, the thin yellow light comes in through thin blowing curtains and I read mostly Chandler, lose track of the plots but love the cynicism and similes. A hot wind comes in most days, in winter there’s sometimes snow but never so much as I remember.

I look at the funicular and there’s nothing but the drive round or your own leg power to get you up there where the money is on California Plaza. I remember the old days of boiled cabbage and fish heads and carrots, before most of all the poor were buried in the foundations of the high rise, when even the poor men wore suits and polished their shoes, even if the shoes had cardboard in them; and I remember that it was a nasty place to live, filled with people who’d smile at you at while fondling a knife in their pocket. Now it seems like there’s just tourism, and most of all that is hung on the velvet ropes uptown. Even Angels Flight itself is a rebuild, and the guys who re-built it disappeared too when the old fella went flying down there.

The irony of this city’s name is so profound it takes your breath like a hot wind. But I romanticize it because that is what helps me see the light through the windows the way I do, helps me with my walker to the john in the night though most of me wants to keep sleeping. I like to think of Angels Flight as the part of downtown where, despite the odd accident, a million and more ordinary people were taken higher into the city. And the angels flight itself is the angels flight of directors and movie stars and writers too – remembered or forgotten – who got this place down in a film or a book, captured it for the past and at the same time secured their own flight. Like the funicular itself it wasn’t where it took you but how it took you there; and it wasn’t about speed and accessibility and the practicalities that reduce transport and all travel to a template of tickets and timetables. It took you there in style, with palpable remnants of romance in the air like flowers giving of their last, when engineering and architecture had designs on permanence and class and it wasn’t all about light and glass but holding the dark in angles and corners; the dark of downtown in a time of hats and long dresses and sultry smoking women; women who kept the goods covered but smiled at you in a way that told you that you were both a millisecond and a million miles away; told you how it was all waiting for you if you could only set it up right; and you sat together and looked from the cable cars, felt the musty air cooling slightly with your gradual ascent up Angels Flight, smelt the perfume of a woman framed forever in dusty reels.

Neil Campbell studied creative writing at Manchester Met. He had a collection of stories, ‘Broken Doll‘, published by Salt in 2007. Recent stories in Orbis and Staple.

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