Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trolley Folly

Interloper trolley riding past the statue of Roger Conant, founder of Salem (which many people think is a statue of a witch because of his pilgrim hat)

Summer in Salem is the start of the tourist season. The season peaks in October, due to the city's notoriety as being the location of the most infamous witch trials in American history, and that event's tenacious association with Halloween. When I first visited Salem as a tourist eight years ago, I went on the Salem Trolley tour. Everyone who visits Salem does. If you visit Salem you have to, too. The tour was very enjoyable- an hour-long ride through town, complete with a knowledgeable tour guide regaling passengers with anecdotes from Salem's long and interesting history, which includes a rich maritime tradition as well as all of the witch business. Years later when I moved to Salem and became a resident, I always got a kick out of seeing the trolley drive through downtown, clanging its bell. When it drove up the pedestrian mall to make stops to pick up passengers, that familiar clanging reminded you to get out of its way or risk being run over. For many years the Salem Trolley was the only tour-slash-transportation amenity for tourists. But two years ago, that changed. A Boston-run trolley company established their own Salem trolley tour. To add insult to injury, they make the same stops as the Salem Trolley because these were already established trolley stops. While waiting for passengers, the Boston-owned company often leaves their trolleys idling in the spot that used to be reserved specifically for the Salem Trolley, forcing the Salem Trolley to park behind it like a second banana and get the leftover tourists that couldn't get a seat on the out-of-towners' trolleys. But my beef with the Boston-based trolley isn't just the fact that they came to town as interlopers, horning in on the territory of a local company (I know, I know, they have a right to - free enterprise and all that). My problem with this new trolley company is the aggressiveness that they display while trying to garner business for themselves.

While the Salem Trolley is a locally-owned business, the Boston-based company runs tours in a few other cities, so they're "organized." They know how to market themselves on a much wider scale. Their representatives have practically taken over the entire downtown Salem area. They started out with their yellow-shirted representatives setting up shop, so to speak, on the archway of the Visitor's Center, right in front of the trolley stop at which they leave their trolleys idling. I can understand that, when they first came to Salem, they didn't have a storefront. But this archway is public property. It has a large concrete outcropping on either side that tourists would sit on to rest, study their maps of Salem, or wait for the next trolley tour. But then the new trolley company representatives started using it as if it was their office. They monopolized it, sitting on it with their maps and brochures to hand out to passers-by. As if this wasn't bad enough, they now have representatives positioned at key points on the pedestrian mall (i.e. every corner). These representatives ask everybody who passes them if they'd like to take a trolley tour. The original Salem Trolley representatives never bothered anybody. They have a souvenir shop that doubles as their headquarters where people can purchase tickets. But this year, the Boston-based trolley company has established their own storefront, as well as a kiosk right in front of their storefront. So I don't see the need for their reps to still be out on the streets bothering people like they do.

Another nuisance around town is the new bicycle rickshaw industry that sprang up in Salem two years ago. An enterprising company set up rickshaw cabs attached to bicycles to take people around town. It seemed like a clever way to take people around Salem. The premise is that the drivers will take people anywhere in Salem that they want to go, for free. Well, sort of. It's actually a tips-only service, but you wouldn't know that to hear the drivers pedaling around Salem. They yell at every pedestrian they pass "Free rides around Salem." Some of them do add "Tips only," but then again, some don't. The drivers are all twenty-something goatee'd slacker dudes who probably ride their dirt bikes on their off-time. Or perhaps they're those "skate fuckers" (to use Jack Black's term for them in HIgh Fidelity), who skateboard on public plazas despite the signs that read "No Skateboarding Allowed." Now the rickshaw drivers are bothering people too. I constantly get shouted at by these rickshaw dudes whenever I walk through town who ask me if I need a ride, and after I've started walking away, some of them continue to shout at me. Then they get flippant. One guy yelled at me from across the street, and when I told him I didn't need a ride, he yelled "Are you a witch? You've got red hair." If he thinks that's going to make me want to pay him a fat tip to take me somewhere around Salem that I can walk to and know how to get to because I'm not a tourist, he's sadly mistaken. Last year a second rickshaw company started up in Salem. They call themselves "pedicabs." But rickshaws or pedicabs, whichever you want to call them, it just means that now there are twice as many slacker dudes yelling at people around town.

Ubiquitous goatee'd slacker dude rickshaw/pedicab driver

There was a time when I could walk through downtown Salem relatively unmolested by purveyors that cater to the tourist industry that helps to fuel Salem's economy. Nowadays, from late spring until after the Halloween season, I am accosted on every corner by a trolley tour representative hawking their free maps and pricey trolley tours, or shouted at by rickshaw bicycle dudes trying to attract fares. They are a nuisance to visitors and residents alike. Add to them the myriad of ghost-tour operators and haunted Salem walking guides handing out brochures, and the occasional halfway-house-resident drug addict asking me for a dollar "for the bus (or train) to Boston," and I can't walk two feet in downtown Salem without having to say "No" to someone. Sure I'm polite, but how many times do I have to say "No thanks" in a single day? I feel like getting a t-shirt made that says "No, I don't want a trolley tour/rickshaw ride. I live here." I know the history and I know where I'm going. I shudder to think what new mode of tourist transportation will hit the streets of Salem in the summers and Halloween seasons to come, bringing with them new and as yet unforeseen methods of ensnaring customers.

1 comment:

Steerforth said...

I hate rickshaws. There are loads in London around the Covent Garden area, all driven by annoying young men (lots of South Africans for some reason) who look like they've come out of the same machine as the slacker in your photo.