Brent Jones, the new head of the Cable Car Division at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, hangs off a cable car at the SF Cable Car Museum on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

From rags to wrenches: Brent Jones went from cleaning SF’s cable cars to taking charge of Muni’s iconic fleet

Roughly four decades ago, 5-year-old Brent Jones would pedal his bike speedily through San Francisco’s cable car barn at 1201 Mason St. while visiting his father, a Muni supervisor. The younger Jones would weave in between the wooden icons with the sense of invincibility childhood grants us all.

Roughly two decades ago, Jones became a Muni employee himself, cleaning the same cable cars he grew up playing between. Then one day he traded his rags for wrenches.

Working for Muni’s maintenance division, and later operations, Jones charted his route upwards, upwards, upwards, through San Francisco’s transit agency.

Today, Jones is the newest head of Muni’s cable car division. He started last August and took over for the former division head Ed Cobean, gripping the proverbial wheel just as the agency is gearing up to overhaul its historic cable car barn for the first time in decades.

When asked the last time the cable car barn was modernized, Jones chuckled.

“The first time when all this was new? I was a kid,” he said.

That was 1983, and a 9-year-old Jones was by his father’s side when it reopened. The part of the barn Jones used to bike in even had its first roof expanded. Now he’s come full circle and will play a key role in building a better cable car barn for decades to come.

“I have big plans for cable car, big plans,” Jones said.

 

Brent Jones, the new head of the Cable Car Division at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, hangs off a cable car at the SF Cable Car Museum on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The barn needs a suite of upgrades to its paint shop, its carpentry facilities and throughout the barn, to patch up cable cars more quickly and to create more period-accurate repairs to its brass parts, Jones said. He’s glad to do it: cable cars are part of his life.

When he was a kid, Jones grew to love the click-clacking landmarks. “The cable cars to me were like a rollercoaster,” he said. “I remember conductors making jokes, ‘hey we lost our brakes going down the steepest hill in San Francisco!’”

Jones stood near the cable car barn’s desk-sized gearboxes and spoke firmly over the whir, whir, whir of the fast-moving cables they pulled. Operators, mechanics, you name it — they were all around Jones’ childhood, he explained. Besides his dad, Ed Jones, his cousins, and his uncles count Muni staffers among their ranks.

At the dinner table, the topic was often one thing: “Muni.”

So when Jones hit college, he studied to become a TV sportscaster.

“I liked Jim Rome,” Jones said, speaking of the sometimes ESPN and CBS sports talk host. “His style was more brash, kind of breaking the norm. I always liked the guys who stepped out of the regular, ‘in sports today we had five touchdowns.’”

Jones knows football well — he played for Archbishop Riordan High School, his alma mater, and received a scholarship to attend and play for UC Berkeley. Back then he had what he called teenage dreams of playing for the NFL, traveling the world, seeing it all.

But he really needed a job. And Muni was familiar.

He joined Muni two decades ago but didn’t rest in one position for long. “The status quo wasn’t really working for me, I wanted to challenge myself,” he said. He was always learning.

Jones found a mentor in Sarita Britt, a pioneering top Muni supervisor, who got her start blazing trails as a black woman operator when men still predominantly drove Muni buses. When he first transferred from the maintenance world to the world of Muni operations — which he described as facing far more “dynamic” challenges — Britt schooled him.

“She was tough,” Jones said. But more so than high school, college, or anywhere else he’s been in life, “she’s probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. I got ‘Transit 101.’” He studied in his off hours. Lunches, breaks, any spare moment he could to feed his hunger for knowledge.

“I got it all,” he said. “I got the basic class, the advanced course, the doctorate program too.”

Jones pays it forward.

He’s coached football players throughout the East Bay for 17 years. Kids who otherwise would face a hard time, who take their lives in their own hand and strive to achieve. It’s not always easy — two of his high school players were murdered in city violence, he said, and some of his students are homeless and “raising themselves.”

Jones takes the lessons from his football days, and his coaching, and applies it to his work as a leader at Muni.

“This is almost the same in that you want to build relationships, you want to build camaraderie, you want to build a team and put your people in a position where they can succeed,” he said. “You want them to grow from that point on.”

Shortly after he said this, almost as if on cue, a cable car mechanic waved down Jones to tell him a joke. Other mechanics also waved hello as he walked by — it seemed most staff there know him well. And he’ll need them too, he said, to help transform the cable car division and prepare it for the decades to come.

But Jones career has been one of growth, of change, and of movement. So will he stay with cable car division long enough to see it rebuilt after he spends years planning for it?

“One can never know,” Jones said, sagely.

“But while I’m here, it’s my intention to really include the employees that are here, and make changes together. Lasting changes everyone can be proud of.”

And one day, perhaps another young San Franciscan will ride their bicycle past The City’s roving, wooden icons, become inspired, and grow up to be their stewards, too.

joe@sfexaminer.com

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