Suppose you hopped on a vehicle that not only took you to another neighborhood but to a different place in your spirit. For Philadelphians, a journey with such a touch of magic is as close as SEPTA driver Gary Mason’s trolley. Mason tricks out his trolley for different holidays and revels in riders’ responses.
Mason, who likes working the graveyard shift—12:30 to 9:40 a.m.—drives either Route 10 from Center City to 63rd and Malvern or Route 15 from Richmond and Westmoreland to 63rd and Girard.
The decor starts early on in the year.
“For Valentine’s Day, I have hearts and cupids on the windows, blinking red lights and tinsel, and pink flowers on the ceiling for the ladies,” he says. Passengers have been known to cheer when they board the trolley, convinced that the trip will bring them luck in love. Other riders think fate will favor them if they play the trolley’s number in the lottery.
Mason heightens the romantic ambiance with music.
“I play Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Barry White, old-school music,” Mason says. He grew up in Southwest Philly and attended Bartram High School, where he sang in the choir, played the tuba and, at 6’7”, joined the basketball team.
“I’m operating the trolley, DJing and hosting,” he says. “A barber who gets off at 44th and Lancaster calls the trolley the ‘Love Machine.’”
Sometimes the decorations have a deeper effect. “One time in 2009, a girl got on the trolley,” Mason recalls. “She was depressed, but the decorations touched her. She cried and told me she felt better when she was getting off.”
“The best part [of riding the 10 last Valentine’s Day] was watching riders react as they boarded the trolley,” says SEPTA spokeswoman Kelly Greene. “Gary brings joy to a lot of people.”
“I’m a big kid at heart. Maybe the decorations are the kid in me wanting to play with the kid in the riders.”
Decorating a trolley can take up to eight hours, Mason says, but his longtime love affair with these huge vehicles seems to lighten the work.
“I’ve loved trolleys from the time I was a little boy,” he says. “I like that it runs on tracks and has the pole and the [overhead] wire. I always wanted to operate a trolley. I’ve worked for SEPTA for 34 years and I love my job.”
A fellow employee inspired Mason to start decking out the vehicles. “A [mechanic] at the Elmwood Depot used to do it,” he says. “When he stopped, I decided to take it up.”
Though the “Love Machine” has plenty of devotees, including retirees eager to savor the past and second-generation fans who bring their children to take in the lights and tinsel, Halloween has become primetime for some riders.
Smoke pours from under Mason’s seat, paper spiders, pumpkins and scarecrows festoon the car and huge yellow owl eyes in the rear glare at passengers. Mason often sees people do a double take or snap a picture, but once he got more than he’d bargained for.
“A woman got on the 10, and I’d loaded it up with ghosts, tombstones and other trimmings,” Mason says. “She gave me a hard look and started lecturing me about the dangers of encouraging evil. I told her I wasn’t practicing witchcraft, that I was just having some Halloween fun.”
Mason usually puts ornaments on the trolley the week before a holiday and keeps them up through the actual holiday.
“Once, a little boy and his mother had been riding the trolley the week before Halloween,” he recalls, “but one day the decorated trolley needed repairs so I was driving a plain one. When the little boy got on and saw the trolley didn’t have the ghosts and spiders, he burst into tears.”
Soon after Halloween, Mason and his coworkers begin thinking of Christmas. For the past seven years, SEPTA has held a competition judged by representatives from local businesses to see which team comes up with the most creative decorations. Last year, a bus from the Callowhill Depot done up with the theme of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” took top honors. The exterior front of the bus looked like a skeleton face wearing a huge Santa hat, and the destination sign said “Here Comes Sandy Claws.” The Frontier Division garnered second place in 2019 with “The Lion King” theme. “You walked on, and it looked like you were going into a jungle,” Mason says of the bus, whose front looked fringed like a lion’s mane.
This year’s competition has been canceled due to COVID-19, SEPTA’s Kelly Greene says. Still, Philadelphians will see the buses and trolleys around town.
For Mason, the Christmas trolley rekindles memories. “My wife and children used to help me years ago, although [our four] kids spent a lot of time laughing and running up and down the aisle,” he says.
When Mason’s wife, Gloria, died of an aneurysm in 2015 at age 53, he stopped decorating trolleys for a while.
“But my wife came to me in a vision and told me to start back up again,” he says, his voice softer and sadness in his eyes. “My passengers told me they missed the decorations, too.”
Telvin Mason, now 27, the baby of the family, still lends a hand. “He’s always there when I need him to give his thoughts about decorating,” Mason says.
Telvin, who lives in East Oak Lane, likes to talk with his dad and eat snacks while they adorn the big vehicle. His favorite project is Halloween decorating.
Mason’s playing it close to the vest about his plans for this Christmas. “I’ll have to see,” he says.
One suspects that putting up adornments gives Mason a chance to play, and maybe the magic of the decorations comes from that desire.
“I decorate trolleys to refresh people, to see them smile,” he says. “I’m a big kid at heart. Maybe the decorations are the kid in me wanting to play with the kid in the riders.”
As author Flora Colao once wrote: “Life is playfulness. We need to play so that we can rediscover the magic in the world around us.”