A Streetcar Named Salvation
September 26, 2005 - 4:27 p.m.


I don't know what I'd give for a good blast of dry cold right now. I know it's coming, that I just have to wait. This is Canada, after all...but I'm impatient. I'm all done with shirts sticking to my back.

I forgot to mention this when it happened, so I'll write about it now...

Riding the streetcar a while ago, Amy and I observed a most unusual character - the sternly charitable German streetcar operator. He was thin, blond and severe and didn't look particularly nice. In fact he wasn't nice at all...but he was good.

Gliding along King St. the streetcar encounters a number of homeless people. They scout the theatre district as the shows let out, looking for tourists who're not calloused to the presence of panhandlers. When the crowds disperse they mostly head out of the downtown core to more hospitable neighbourhoods, places with parks and empty lots. The streetcar is the vehicle of choice.

Normally a ride on the Rocket (as the lumbering streetcars are misnamed) costs $2.50. Having spent hours gathering spare change one quarter at a time, however, panhandlers are understandably reluctant to part with their booty. They often try to work a deal. "I'm only going ten blocks. How about 75 cents?" Most streetcar operators say no.

This stern-looking young man, however, was willing to wheel and deal. "Vhat do you heff?" he asked, in a clipped German accent. Whatever the haggler answered, 5 cents 10 cents 20, he accepted it. "Put it in." I've no idea how he explained the odd money count that must have been in his till at the end of the night, but he took whatever was offered.

One fellow said he had 5 cents, but then didn't pony up. The driver stopped the streetcar, which is what they normally do when someone refuses to pay, and demanded the 5 cents. "Choo said 5 cents, put 5 cents in or vee don't moof." It wasn't the money...the nickel would just throw his till off even more. It was the principal of the thing. The man dug in his pocket and paid and off we went.

It struck me that this haggling was the best response to the situation. The homeless guy has precious little money as it is, and the streetcar is going his way with or without him. It's not taking any more electricity to make it go. But if the operator just let him on without any sort of payment it would cheapen the act and enforce the already overpowering role of beggar. Demanding that some payment be made, however small, gives dignity to the rider.

It later struck me that this is rather similar to our relationship with God. Salvation is available, just as the streetcar is running, with or without our effort. But it's that effort, the "good works" that fundamentalists disdain, that realizes our intentional commitment to accept Grace. Paying the nickel, the small and inadequate recompense, puts us in the proper place to accept Grace as inheritors of the Kingdom. It doesn't affect God any more than a nickel will make or break the TTC. The effect is entirely in the rider.

Of course this analogy is full of holes, not the least of which being that God is a transit authority and Jesus is a slightly impatient German streetcar operator.

Then again...