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In the many years I've lived in Seattle, I've heard a myriod of complaints about the Monorail. It's a toy, people say. Too short. Goes from nowhere to nowhere. Is too old. Is too slow. Isn't the future we were promised.
Built for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962, the one-mile track starts near the Armory, curves through MoPop (sometimes rebrands are eye-rolling, but this one makes so much sense) before heading up 5th Avenue.
The ride is short, only two minutes or so, with a top speed of 45 miles per hour. There are two tracks, and two trains, but unless a major event is happening at the Center only one operates at a time. But you knew all this already, right? There is not much mystery about this tiny transit system, this boutique teacup of a train. It's like a proof-of-concept that never got the green light to go beyond its diminutive domain.
The Monorail has enjoyed fifty-plus years of being a Seattle icon, an avatar on the flag we like to wave. Elvis rode it, after all. It's part of our self-image, or consciousness, and our extended identity.
It's a safe ride — mostly. There was a two-train collision at a choke point at Westlake station once, and after the price to fix a door was quoted at outrageous numbers, the Seattle Opera Scene Shop (which is sadly being closed, displacing some of the greatest artists and craftspeople in our region) came in and manufactured new doors for a fraction of the price. A fire in a electrical system led to a Seattle Fire Department evacuation of a train via ladder. It is a safe ride (nobody has died riding it, to my knowledge), but something about it feels a bit unsafe, as if the car might just list off the rails and slump to the ground. Maybe that's why expansion never happened.
Not that people didn't try. They say the original line was supposed to be be an extended region-wide system, to the airport and beyond. but it wasn't until 1997 that a grassroots effort to expand the Monorail made it to the ballot. Over the years, four votes to fund the initiative and spin up a new transit authority were passed, until a fifth vote dismantled the whole system in 2005. The plan was scuttled by bad management, internal politics, external politics, bad public perception, and the utter disbelief from City Hall that the people could actually mandate the kind of regional transport system they want without being told what they want.
That this plan didn't work ultimately is less painful with the furthering expansion of Sound Transit's wonderful subway system. But it's still fun to think that if the Green Line had been built on time — and, that's a pretty big 'if' to swallow, given the way their agency was run — it would have been twenty-six years old when the Sound Transit line to Ballard opens in 2035.
Maybe the whole thing was a pipe dream to begin, but wasn't that the promise of the original monorail? A little dreamy future in the middle of this town with an identity crises about being taken seriously. But then again, maybe we should have stopped with our plans when they were pre-parodied by a Simpon's episode. It might have saved us some heartache.
But for those of us that love the Monorail — I ride at least once a month or so — there will always be a bit of dream that I could ride all day, along the elevated tracks, through the city, watching the sun sink below the Olympics as I'm taking the train home.
Action movie — The call came at 10:39 am, echoing over the loudspeaker at the fire station. A truck carrying explosive charges for the Space Needle New Years' celebration just crashed into one of the Monorail support posts causing a huge explosion. The support collapsed just before the train approached, and now a car full of tourists was dangling over Fifth Avenue....
Meet-cute — It was love at first site, at the World's Fair, and it was a two-way street. Time stopped when they saw each other. Holding their breaths, neither could look away. But one was on the Monorail train about to exit, and the other was on the platform about to board. They saw each other through the glass, the shuffling crowd of the World's Fair pushing and commanding them onward. But there was no way to let an opportunity like this past. Drastic action must be taken.
Musical — The players: the young woman who just lost her husband to cancer. The homeless man, a skilled musician, whose personal battles overrode his talent. The precocious twins with perfect pitch and a tap-dance routine. The off-duty cop with a heart of gold on her way to see her sweetheart. The dandy with the pocket square and waxed moustache. The drummer from the streets who plays buckets for change. The setting: a one minute monorail ride, and when the doors open, the rest of the world.
Horror film — The drivers all talked about it. That feeling when you crossed Denny, that feeling of a hand suddenly grasping your ankle. Of pulling you, like it wanted you under the train, on the track, in the wheels. And that one driver who swore, after feeling that creepy sensation (five drivers had quit because of it), that she saw a young girl in a pretty dress standing on the tracks. Just standing in the middle of the concrete platform as the train approached. It was too late to break. The driver screamed, but there was no girl on the tracks. "It was her," some said: a girl who was killed in a traffic accident at Denny and 5th, caused when her father looked up out of his window to see the train pass overhead. The girl whose spirit now cursed the line forever.
Noir film — Ripe pickings at Bumbershoot. All those tourists with their backpacks. Easy to move among the crowd on the Monorail run and pick a few pockets. Grab a few wallets, a few phones, a few watches. Slip off into the crowd before anyone notices. Standing on the platform at Westlake, getting ready to move through the crowd, a tug comes at the thief's sleeve. A kid. "I saw you," the kid said. "I saw you and I'm gonna tell on you," the kid looked around conspiratorially. "Unless you teach me how to do it too."