Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Cliff's KV Notes, Part 7: Here Come Da Bus

The photo is from a 1940-1941 Mack bus brochure. It talks about the buses, built in '32 lasting almost 9 years (at that point) on tough New York City streets. The old Third Avenue El on Park Row is visible through the arch of the Municipal Building

OK, this one’s from really way out in left field, so you might want to skip it and wait for the installment on the KV stag party with the drunk Playboy Bunnies.
I’ve always had a “thing” about a particular bus, a somewhat obscure bus—a Mack CL Transit Bus to be exact (PICTURED ABOVE) . This bus was built by Mack in 1932 in their Macungie, PA factory. Some of the New York bus companies bought a bunch of ‘em and used ‘em in crosstown service in midtown, and on the Madison St. line. The East Broadway & Ave. B bus company also ran a few on their Ave. B and Grand St. Crosstown lines. I think the East Broadway folks may have picked up used models from the other companies, because many of the Grand St. runners looked pretty ratty. Some had their grilles missing, bumpers distorted, etc. These buses did yeoman duty up into the early-1950s. You don’t see them restored like the more popular GM buses. These Macks were red, while most of the later city buses were green. The ‘50s GMs were yellow. The CLs could be had with a rear exit door located at the center of the bus or at the very rear. I saw both versions.
The Madison St. bus was the closest means of public transportation to KV. The IND subway a healthy hike away on Rutgers. and Madison.. The Madison St. bus ran from the Chambers St. ferry to Corlears Hook. The buses in those days (1940s) stopped at the corner before the intersection, not after it. A heavy moveable “Bus Stop” stanchion, about 3-4 feet high denoted the stop.
Since our family never owned a car up until 1958, and I was a car nut since I first laid eyes on one, riding in a motor vehicle—any kind of motorized conveyance--was a special treat. My first ride on the Madison St. bus was when I was probably about seven or eight. My mother took me to music school at the Henry St. Settlement on Pitt St. I was instantly fascinated by this bus. Back then, bus drivers had to shift gears, operate a clutch pedal, wheel around with no power steering and make change for passengers. Today, its automatic transmissions, power steering and passengers fending for themselves by dipping a MetroCard into a reader.
The CL’s engine was located inside the bus to the right of the driver, underneath a cover. There was a great big gearshift lever for the manual transmission, so a driver, in the course of his career must’ve made a million or more gear changes. The fare was a nickel which you dropped into a 3-arm turnstile. I knew on that first ride, that I wanted to become a bus driver. But I never did.
I don’t know why, but there was something about that Mack CL that bonded to my soul. It would invade my dreams for decades to come, and, in later years, it would be an object of an obsessive, but alas, fruitless search. I don’t think you’d call the CL a pretty bus. It was shaped like a box, with rounded corners and it had a flat face, like the whole thing had been designed with a belt sander. It had two big square windows in the back, and a flat, rectangle-shaped split windshield. But the little sun visor over the windshield was what really made the front end. The windshield wipers—two on each half of the windshield moved left to right in tandem, with a shushing sound. The grille and protruding headlights were classic in my eyes. The roof had a bow to it and was painted silver.
The bus had a commanding presence when it pulled to the curb. The doors had an array of narrow vertical slot windows—very artsy. The seats may have been upholstered in leather (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), and there was a curtain behind the drivers seat that could be pulled along a bar to isolate the driver from his fares, but I don’t remember the curtain being drawn except for one time. One really cool thing for me was the small round mirror mounted in the bus’s upper right hand corner over the entrance door. There were a lot of mirrors on the bus—the large rectangular one, cocked at an angle in the normal rear view position over the driver, another convex one above the front entrance, one by the rear door, and there may have been others. But there was something special about that round one. There was also something special about the way the header, inside at the front of the bus met the roofline in a graceful curve.
The ride was spectacular—bouncy and jouncy, and everything rattled over the bumps. A hundred different rattles as the bus seemingly wanted to shake itself apart, all blending into a great percussive symphony. Today, you buy a Honda and plotz if you get one tiny squeak. But the CL was no Honda. It was really in a class by itself. Madison St. wasn’t the smoothest of roads, so it challenged the Mack’s apparently limited travel (or worn out) suspension.
The windows had latches at either end that you pressed them down to lift the window. Stops along the window tracks let you adjust the opening. The bus had a fantastic aroma inside, a botanical garden-grade blend with the main notes being the seats and possibly fumes escaping from under the engine cover. I remember it distinctly.
The transmission was probably a 4-speeder with a granny gear. The bus seldom got out of second, so there was this delicious combination of engine roar and tranny gear whine. If there weren’t any customers at a bus stop, and no one had pulled the cord to ring the bell to get off, the driver might get into high gear and roll past the empty bus stops. The engine revs would drop considerably and the big Mack would rock along at a pretty good clip, and you’d hear a lot more of the road noise. It was nirvana. (Hey, there are collectors that go ga-ga over barbed wire).
On some of the more poorly maintained CLs—especially on the Grand St. line, the leaky exhaust sounded like the bus was farting when it would take off.
When I graduated P.S. 177 in 1952, and went on to P.S. 3 on Hudson St. in the West Village, I would take the Madison St. bus to the IRT on West Broadway, and then hop on the subway to Christopher St. The city had phased out most of the CLs by then, but there still were a couple on Madison St. If I was early, I’d wait at the bus stop and let a couple of the newer Macks go by in the hope of catching a CL.
By Jr. High School, I pretty mobile on my Rudge bicycle, and I happened to be riding on South St., when I saw an amazing thing. There, on the entrance ramp to the northbound viaduct was a Mack CL, but a very special one. I don’t know if it was made by the factory that way, or if the mechanics at the bus garage had cobbled it. Obviously some sort of maintenance vehicle for the bus company, this CL was literally a front and a back attached together. The entire middle of the bus had been cut out. It was a cube on four wheels-- absolutely gorgeous. I would have given my first-born (had I had one at the time) to own that bus (busette?) Now, more than a half-century later…the offer still stands.
the next chapter of Cliff's KV notes
the previous chapter of Cliff's KV Notes

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