When Cable Car 26 rolled onto the streets of San Francisco for the first time earlier this month, Norma Apilado Bernal knew it would be the last piece of artwork she’d get from her husband.
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Her husband, Efren Bernal, is the official cable car painter for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. No. 26 was the last vehicle he put his artistic touch on before being diagnosed with lung cancer. His family says the 62-year-old only has a few weeks to live.
And Norma Bernal also knew No. 26 was for her, because her birthday is Dec. 26.
“I’ll never forget it,” she said through tears, recalling the cable car’s rollout.
Bernal spent nearly 30 years painting, etching and touching up each of the 40 cars currently in the fleet.
“Every cable car, my dad touched,” said Merial Bernal Perales, his daughter. “We are so impressed with our dad.”
But Bernal is a humble man. He immigrated to the United States from the Philippines with his family in 1982. His job with Muni is the only one he ever held in this country.
He got the job after being turned down for a position at McDonald’s because he “wasn’t qualified.” His daughters said Muni hired him because of his penmanship.
His sister wasn’t surprised when Bernal was hired by Muni to be a cable car painter. Back in the Philippines, she said, Bernal always received recognition for his artwork. He attended an art-focused high school and after going off to college, he would return to his hometown to paint the letters and logos of local high schools.
Yet all that came as a surprise to his three daughters, who weren’t aware of his talents or the recognition he had received until his diagnosis.
“It’s so fascinating,” said Bernal’s daughter Sheila Cunningham. “Because when he came home, he was just Dad.”
An additional surprise came when the family cleaned out Bernal’s workplace locker. It contained logs of his work on each cable car dating back to 1983. He even had sketches of cable car details, including side panel details and numbers. On one piece of paper, Bernal had sketched a small box that included detailed dimensions, but when the paper was flipped over, it revealed a piece of language arts homework from his youngest daughter, Kelly.
“I’m shocked right now,” Kelly Bernal said. “He drew on all kinds of pieces of paper; I didn’t know he had this.”
Bernal passed some of his artistic abilities on to Kelly by helping her make screen prints and looking over her artwork to make sure she had it right.
“If I had the shadows wrong, he would correct me,” Kelly Bernal said.
Although the past three months have been tough on the women, they are humbled to know their father not only touched their lives, but the lives of others.
They also know they can find a piece of their father on every San Francisco cable car. Bernal signed each of the cars he worked on. His family plans to have a treasure hunt, of sorts, to find each signature.