With fingers wrapped in brown leather gloves fraying at the seam, Fannie Barnes’ hand curls tightly around the heavy iron grip that tugs at the heart of the cable car underground.
Her eyes sharpen, filled with steely determination as she releases the brake. The unmistakable clack of the cable resonates as the car jerks its way down California Street, just as cable cars have done for more than 100 years.
But there is something very different - even historical - about this particular journey.
For the first time, a female is standing “up front,” operating the levers that start and stop the eight quaint tons of wood and metal that have come to symbolize San Francisco.
Two other women have previously attempted the training, but quit after a single day after injuring muscles.
“Now they’re going to have to change the word from gripman to grip person, just because of me,” joked the 52-year-old former bus driver, her cherubic face beaming beneath her beige beret.
Today, she’ll come to the end of her 25-day training period when she takes a written exam and one more run with her supervisor to prove she can control the car as well as the 76 gripmen.
“I’m so excited,” she said during a break on her 17th day of training.
“A woman can do this job. You’ve got to be strong and assertive, and not mind workin’ in the cold and rain, but it is wonderful,” she said. “I’m holding a lot in because I haven’t officially made it all the way yet, but I’m almost there.”
Others think it’s wonderful, too.
One co-worker, sitting in the signal booth, pumps his fists in support as Barnes sails smoothly through the intersection.
Other conductors and gripmen on the line shout, “You go, girl!” and “Go Fannie Go!” as they glide by in the opposite direction.
Merrill Cohn, a director of the Cable Car Museum, said he was thrilled that the Victorian-era vehicles had taken a turn toward the 21st century.
“It’s great to finally have a woman gripman,” he said, adding that another woman - Friedel Klussmann - made cable car history in 1947 when she rallied people to save the cable cars from being discarded.
Many of the tourists and regulars riding on the car said they were surprised to learn there have been no other women guiding the wheels.
“It’s shocking. I can’t believe it has taken this long,” said Tara Cunningham, 25, of New Orleans.
Katherine Flohr arched her eyebrows in awe at the news. “That is amazing,” said the San Franciscan. “I certainly don’t think I could do it.”
Barnes, a single parent and 23-year employee with the city, didn’t always think she could do it either.
After driving a bus for more than a decade, she transferred to the cable cars as a conductor - one of only three women to hold that position.
“I thought about gripping ever since I found out that no other women had done it, but I didn’t feel ready to do it back then. … I started conducting so I could learn all about all parts of the cable car and get a feel for it.”
But it was no fast track. For six years she collected fares and assisted on the back brake, her heart set on standing at the helm.
“There was no way I was going to let 2000 come and not have a woman have this job,” she said.
In April, Barnes started working out rigorously at a gym. She spent hours at machines pulling weights to strengthen her arms and upper body - the exercise most similar to stopping the cable car. Today she can pull more than 135 pounds.
“But this job is not just about strength, it takes coordination,” she said, explaining the emphasis the job puts on her legs and calves to operate the floor pedals.
Pulling off her gloves - where a hole the size of a quarter has already worn through - there is a tinge of pride as she points to deep callouses forming at the base of her fingers.
“I work hard, but I still want to be a tender woman,” she said slyly, displaying the sense of humor that has gotten her through some of the tougher times.
“A lot of men said some mean things to me and didn’t want to help train me … but I would like to thank the guys who were against me because they gave me even more inspiration to do it.”
In fact, she said, she is looking forward to collecting a $75 bet from one who said he didn’t think she would be able to pass the test - something that eludes eight of 10 people who try.
Barnes said her 28-year-old son, Vayu, has provided much of the inspiration during her journey. “He always said to me, ‘Ma, if anyone can do this, you can,”’ she said.