The air temperature was 71 degrees. A cobalt sky soared overhead, no clouds in sight. The ocean breeze was out of the southeast at 4 m.p.h. Gentle breakers carried surfers in Day-Glo wet suits underneath the Seal Beach Pier.
David Hughes, 25, peered through his wrap-around sunglasses as the tractor lurched ahead on the pier at a snail’s pace. “Everybody seems to think this is a great job,” the former South Dakota farmer said, easing past two young women in not-quite-wrap-around bikinis. “It’s not as easy as it seems. You gotta watch out for people.”
Hughes has a lot on his mind these days as he the beach maintenance worker pilots a city tram back and forth on the Seal Beach Pier. About 500 yards long, the tricky stretch of wood planking and asphalt can be a treacherous obstacle course, Hughes insists. Why, sometimes he even feels anxious.
“It gets really nerve-racking, worse than the freeway,” Hughes said, his long, blond hair suddenly lifted by the sea breeze. “Sometimes you have a couple hundred people out here and it gets pretty crowded. You’d be surprised at how reckless people can be.”
It’s a tough job, but yes, somebody’s got to do it. Hughes shares this demanding duty with three other city employees. The ride is only a quarter each way, children under 7 free. It’s the only municipal pier tram service in Orange County.
But sometimes the public can turn on even a mild-mannered tractor jockey such as Hughes.
“What’d you do? Get rid of old nasty Harold?” bellowed Harold Hirsch, 78, waving a fishing rod in Hughes’ direction as he boarded the tram one recent morning.
“Nah, he’s on vacation,” said Hughes, who was pitching in this day to cover colleague Harold Griffin’s shift. “He’s in Mexico.”
“Good, I hope he stays there,” said Hirsch, a tram regular. Hughes hollered back that not everyone is perfect like Hirsch, who smiled. But only for a moment.
“I don’t know what you’re paid, but it’s certainly not hard work,” Hirsch said with a wink and a grin as the tram eased up in front of Ruby’s restaurant at the end of the pier. Debbie Dalton, 37, piped in to defend Hughes. “He’s nice,” she said. “I doubt he gets paid enough.”
Then everyone clambered off the tram for fishing, lunch or just horsing around on another beautiful day.
One more load delivered, Hughes broke for a cigarette. He pondered the pitfalls of chauffeuring fishermen, families, oil roughnecks and “smart-aleck” kids at this quaint beachside community.
“You don’t look forward to summer,” the long-suffering Hughes said, grinding the cigarette butt into the pier with his tennis shoe. “It can be a real headache.”
Take the young people who like to race his tram--top speed of 5 m.p.h. Or the ones who will suddenly leap in front of the tractor as he putters peacefully along.
“I’ve never hit anybody,” Hughes said, his tone suggesting that some terrible and different fate lurks in the future. “I’ve been pretty lucky. But there’s always close calls.”
The key to tram success, Hughes revealed, is total concentration.
“After a while, you don’t actually see people,” Hughes said. “Just figures. You’re too busy. You have to have a pretty clear mind.”
On a hot and crowded summer day, Hughes said the Seal Beach Pier can be a veritable Grand Central Station.
One day he ferried 460 people on a single 10-hour shift, Hughes said. At an average of what he calculates were eight runs per hour, that worked out to an almost sardine-like half a dozen passengers on the 15-foot-long tram each ride!
“And that was just paying customers,” Hughes added.
Yes, even here at the bucolic Seal Beach pier, chiselers sometimes try for a free ride. Not everyone puts his 25 cents into the fare collection bin--shaped like an oversize thermos--that hangs at the end of the tram.
“You wouldn’t believe the people who won’t pay the quarter,” Hughes said, shaking his head. “They’ll want to fistfight. You just make them look bad in front of the other passengers. We’re not supposed to fight.”
Yet, for all the gorgeous weather, body-beautiful sun worshipers, high-stress crowds and deadbeat customers, Hughes said he probably prefers jockeying the Seal Beach tram to the grueling grind of running combines on a South Dakota farm.
“The work was too hard and the pay was terrible,” Hughes recalled. “There’s quite a bit of difference.”
People columnist Herbert J. Vida has been on vacation. He returns Friday.