A rhyming trolley ride with the ‘SEPTA Poet’

     Mike Fuller offers similes, rhymes, and jokes over the public address system of his SEPTA trolley. While Fuller mostly drives the 36, you can also occasionally find him on the 34 and the 13. (Alex Stern/for WHYY)

    Mike Fuller offers similes, rhymes, and jokes over the public address system of his SEPTA trolley. While Fuller mostly drives the 36, you can also occasionally find him on the 34 and the 13. (Alex Stern/for WHYY)

    “On the left, with the Route 10 trolley track, like Ernie and Bert, we are really different. But, we’re still friends. Sharing a tunnel to 33rd and Market this stop,” announces trolley conductor Mike Fuller.

    Unusual announcements like this, filled with similes, rhymes, and jokes, have earned him the nickname the SEPTA Poet.

    Passengers riding Fuller’s trolley hear the beep of the public address system, followed by a crackling pause. And then Fuller’s voice fills the car, lilting: “Here we glide, under possibly 50 different kinds of fish.”

    People shift in their seats. Strangers make eye contact and offer one another confused smiles. They ride on. Until, again: “Here, like a sleeping baby’s pacifier, we gently slip out of this tunnel into West Philly at the 40th Street Portal.”

    Fuller has been making announcements like these since the beginning of his career with SEPTA five years ago. Pulling up to the 15th Street stop, he had an epiphany. He had just spent a week in training, learning about how important it was to clearly communicate with passengers. Yet his passengers probably had no idea just where they were, underneath the streets of the city and the Market Frankford Line.

    Fuller found that fact was amazing — and realized it was likely no one had ever communicated it to them before.

    “And that was like the beginning of this mixing of what’s actually happening with some kind of lyrical message,” he said.

    Fuller hopes that, by saying things that are out of the ordinary, he can keep passengers awake and aware. His method, he believes, is simply the best way to serve that purpose.

    “I mean, if I say, here, like a polar bear on a warm day we turn north, it’s because, factually, we are turning north up under 36th Street from Spruce,” he said. “If I say, here, like a pair of jeans, we ride a little lower, it’s because we’re going down beneath the Schuylkill River.

    “It’s funny, but it’s true. Everything’s true.”

    Some polite pointers

    Once Fuller drives the trolley above ground, though, his mission shifts. He doesn’t feel the need to artfully describe locations when passengers can see where they are through the windows. Instead he focuses on safety and courtesy.

    Above ground, Fuller might warn passengers getting off the trolley: “True or false — by crossing in front of the trolley at night, I increase my life expectancy.”

    He might recommend better trolley etiquette: “If I want to be nice, and I’m already inside, I could move towards the back so others can ride.”

    “If my stop is getting closer I’m asking myself, am I near a door?”

    Fuller comes by his PA-system personality honestly. He studied fine arts in college and lived in Cuba for 15 years reporting and making radio. He returned to the U.S. to get his doctorate in communications at Temple University, but eventually his funding dried up. He needed a job, saw that SEPTA had an opening, and applied.

    But, despite his artistic background, Fuller doesn’t consider himself a poet.

    “I’m not special,” he said. “I’m just another operator.”

    Some of his passengers might disagree. Fuller has built up a considerable fan base during his time as a trolley conductor. One rider created a Twitter account in 2013 to share Fuller’s quotes. The account is still active and regularly interacts with other fans.

    More importantly, Fuller’s trolley car is full of bright faces. A lot of his announcements get hearty laughs from passengers, who seem to be delighted at the abrupt break in their daily routine.

    “It’s your lucky day when you get his trolley,” whispers one passenger with a grin.

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