27 October 1994: The New York subway system is 90 years old today. They've had signs up on the trains for weeks, saying things like "Our 90th anniversary is in October. Don't tell us you forgot! Doesn't our relationship mean anything to you?" My reaction was yes, it does, but they never remember my birthday either. I didn't think they meant to celebrate this time: for 75 they put out special commemorative tokens, but they were desperate for good publicity then, and people like multiples of 25.
This morning I was sitting on the A train, reading the paper on my way to work, when I saw a story about the subway. They were running a restored train, with cars from 1917, on the Times Square Shuttle (the shortest line in the system, running endlessly between two stations on track left over from the original 1904 IRT line), from 7:30 to 10:30. We were already going to be late for work, but I let Andy talk me into riding it.
We walked down the long tunnel between the A line and the IRT Times Square station (this morning's musician was singing gospel music) and through the maze of ramps, stairs, and escalators that is Times Square underground. Past TA employees handing out fliers and little commemorative metal tags, the sort they give you at museums, that say 1904/90th/1994 (but, oddly, nothing about trains), to the shuttle platform. It was even more crowded than usual, with all the rush hour commuters plus the people like us who just wanted to ride the old train.
We got on the train, and I slid into one of the last free seats. Yellow cushions on metal benches, more comfortable than today's molded plastic. When I first started riding the subway by myself, in 1974, there were still a few cars with that kind of seat, but all too often the cushion was missing, leaving a bare bench with a thin ridge at the edge, which no human being could sit on comfortably. Andy stood, holding a metal stirrup that was, and always had been, just a little too high for me to hold comfortably. There were two poles in the middle of each car, which short people could hold on to, though they looked as though they might be structural. Instead of air conditioning, the train had fans attached to the ceiling, spinning freely. As someone near me remarked, if you're too tall, you get a free haircut. (One car's fans weren't running, and we watched the train crew lift a seat cushion to get at the controls. That design would be irresistible to vandals, hackers, and curious kids.) The windows can be opened easily, but are harder to close, because you have to lift the heavy glass and metal above shoulder height. Bare light bulbs, harder on the eyes than the modern fluorescent lighting. The emergency brake cords run along the ceiling, exposed. We rode out to Grand Central, and back. Then we did it again, even though we were already late, because we might never get another chance. As the train finally left without us, Andy studied the undercarriage, trying to figure out how old it was, and I watched the conductor, who was standing with one foot on a ledge at the back of the second car, and the other on a matching ledge at the front of the third car, holding onto the folding gates that linked the cars. Fine for a run like this, but I wouldn't want to try that on an elevated express train in February.
That old train took me back, maybe not all the way to 1917, but past 1974 and those beat-up GG locals with the old seats and graffiti-covered windows. When I was 6 or 7, I guess, the Transit Authority announced that it was taking the last wooden subway trains out of service. My parents decided that my brother and I should ride on them at least once in our lives, so on that last day, they drove us over to the Myrtle Avenue line. Mom, Mark, and I rode the wooden train diagonally across the rooftops of Queens, while my father did his best to follow the train line in the car. I never thought to ask why he didn't just park--we could have ridden there and back for the same price, which I think was a quarter in those days, with my brother still young enough to ride free--and we weren't trying to get anywhere, just ride for the pleasure and novelty of the trip on a sunny afternoon. Maybe he just didn't feel the romance of the rails, having spent too many years commuting by subway, but I've had it in my blood ever since, despite thousands of prosaic trips under the streets of New York, despite freezing at Times Square, roasting at West 4th Street, being rerouted for track work, and sitting in the dark with no announcements. Thanks, Mom.
Copyright 1994 Vicki Rosenzweig
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