Q and A with Neal Berlin and Bill Binns
- peter korn
- Portland Tribune - News
Use a little imagination on a Sunday afternoon and Neal Berlin and Bill Binns will be happy to transport you back about 100 years, to a time when men wore bowler hats and women carried parasols and trolleys clambered up and down plenty of Portland streets.
The vintage trolley runs only between downtown Portland and the Lloyd Center these days, and only on Sunday afternoons March through December.
But while there are a number of two-person motorman and conductor teams keeping the trolley on its MAX tracks, motorman Berlin, who operates the trolley, and conductor Bimms - who would collect fares if this weren't free - have developed a reputation as an especially crackerjack team.
Think Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby. Or Abbot and Costello.
Portland Tribune: You guys are known for presenting a running commentary on Portland history and politics during the trolley run. But mixing politics and work can be dangerous. Does anybody mind the patter?
Neal Berlin: Some people say, 'Why don't you shut up?' I say, 'If you don't like us, well, we'll be stopping shortly. The doors will open, and you can leave.'
Bill Binns: I've heard him do that. But the public, by and large, likes the banter.
Berlin: We leave First and Oak westbound coming in, and I'll say, 'We've been riding 20 or 30 feet above grade, and when we get underneath the bridge we'll be at the original elevation of the city of Portland. It's all been filled in with dead politicians and bureaucrats.'
Binns: He thought that up all by himself. He always gets a laugh with that one.
Tribune: But you do impart real history lessons?
Berlin: I approach the Steel Bridge and I'll ask how many people were here during the 1996 flood. Then I'll say, to the right, see that flagpole over there by the condos? Well, the water was over that.
Then I direct them to the sea wall. What the city did was put plywood and sandbags there. It turned out that they were one sandbag short. But luckily our mayor was there and she threw herself on top of the pile and saved the city. And that's where we get the term 'the old bag saved the city.'
The first time I ever told that story there was a guy sitting there laughing, and he says to me, 'Do you know who I'm having dinner with tonight? (former mayor) Vera (Katz).' I've never heard back from him, but nobody's said anything and I'm still operating.
We pass the railroad building, and I say, 'If you look over the door you can see the original number, 48 and a half. Some people think that's my IQ. I say, 'That's wrong. Mine's 49.' '
Tribune: What do you think, Bill?
Binns: Well, there is some doubt that it's really that high.
Tribune: Neal, you've got a problem with cell phones on board?
Berlin: I say to people: 'Would you do me a favor? Finish that call and hang up.'
And if they ask why, I say there are several reasons. One, I was raised, when someone else is talking you don't. My conductor is talking, and I'm talking. And the other reason is safety. We're in a small, confined area, and no one needs to hear about whatever you're talking about.
Someone says: 'I don't see the rule? Where's the rule?' And I say: 'You know what? You're looking at the rule.'
Tribune: Do you ever get in trouble?
Binns: Oh, he's in trouble all the time.
Berlin: Once in awhile management will say, 'Did you really say that?'
We'll have someone who I almost hit running right out in front of us, and I'll stop and sound the whistle while looking at this person who almost got hit, and I'll turn and say, 'Do you know what we call people who run in front of moving trains, other than dead and stupid? In Oregon we call them Oregon donors.'
And usually I'll see a mother with a kid, who will say, 'Did you hear what the man said? Don't run in front of a train.'
Tribune: The trolley is free, but you ask for donations. What percentage of people donate?
Berlin: Our donations equal what the fare was in the 1940s. Ten cents per person.
Binns: Neal is on them all the time, (saying) the object of a nonprofit is to make a profit.
Tribune: So Bill, what exactly is it that you do while Neal is running through his commentary and driving the trolley?
Binns: I'm the straight man.
Tribune: But what happens when the trolley has to turn?
Binns: We all hang on.
- Peter Korn