I Took the A Train
By Debra J. White
Growing up with the New York City subway was an adventure. I rode the RR train from my Astoria neighborhood to Mater Christi High School near Ditmars Boulevard, to my first job at the now defunct Alexander’s Department Store on East 59th Street and to listen to folk music at coffee houses in the artsy Greenwich Village. The subway became part of my heritage.
Introduced me to the subway in the late 1950s by my father, cars then looked like cast iron, black and ugly. Seats made of rattan were coated with shellac. When the seats frayed, bits of rattan poked you in the butt or scratched your leg. Unruly subway seats snagged women’s panty hose now and then.
Air-conditioned cars didn’t exist then. Overhead fans swirled stupefying air to cool passengers in summertime. Underground delays during July made the subway feel like a swamp. There were no overhead broadcasts either. Conductors waited for the train to stop, hopped in between the cars, and clicked the doors open. The big black beasts roared through the tunnels, screeching as the wheels hugged the curves. The noise was intolerable but what could we do? That was part of the subway’s charm.
Vending machines on platforms spit out tiny boxes of Chiclets for a penny. What a bargain. I’m not sure what other cavity-causing goodies were sold but there likely was an assortment of candy available as well. Bathroom fixtures were often old and decrepit but the stalls were somewhat clean and almost always safe. Yes, people actually used them without being mauled by muggers.
I lived near an elevated subway station and hiked up several flights of stairs to reach the platform. In winter, waiting for a train stretched my tolerance. Slacks were not permitted at my Catholic high school. A pair of flimsy panty hose didn’t shield my skinny legs from the blustery cold. Unlike the commuter railroads that had waiting rooms albeit unheated, there was no way to escape the frigid winds. When it snowed, the New York City Transit Authority wasn’t always timely in shoveling snow off the platform. Riders without boots had frozen toes by the time they reached the office.
Scuzzballs and withered little prunes have always ridden the subway to prowl for women. I had my first encounter with a sex-starved mole one morning when I was stuffed into an impossibly crowded train on my way to school. A grungy looking man, sweating like it 100 degrees even though it was 2 above zero, rubbed his pelvis against me. As soon as I caught wind of his lewd and lascivious behavior I elbowed him below the belt and shouted for help. The surrounding crowd pounced on the swine and he bolted out the door at the next stop. Women never acted so crude around men by bobbing their boobs.
By the 1970s young graffiti artists scrawled their boredom across much of the ghetto. They branched out to the Transit System. Ugly rants about who knows what covered the windows and doors on nearly every subway car making it nearly impossible for passengers to read the names at each stop. Riders were furious. The cars looked utterly junky. As soon as maintenance workers scrubbed off the spray paint, the gangs invaded the train yards and struck again. New York City seemed on a downward spiral.
The city fought back, ordering new cars made with resistant coating. Spray paint was easily washed off. In addition to rounding up the graffiti artists and throwing them in jail, educational campaigns encouraged young people to direct their artistic talents and misguided rage elsewhere and to leave the trains alone.
Violence pervaded New York and naturally it swept through the subways too. I was on the E train to Queens with my friend Randi having spent the afternoon shopping at Macy’s on W. 34th Street. As the train chugged into the 74th Street Station in Jackson Heights, a loud pop followed by screams caught our attention. A passenger resisted a robbery and was shot in the head. The gray haired man slumped over, his arms dangling by his side. As soon as the door opened the murderer blended in with the crowds. Shivering, Randi and I stared at the dead man, blood gushing from the hole in his head. His wallet sat by his feet. The senseless carnage on the subway continued for years.
Speeding trains also attracted desperate souls. Over the years I was occasionally late for work because someone ended it all as the train bounded into the station. Police and emergency crews were called. Transit officials emptied out the train. Rather than feel sympathy for the anguished rider who took his life on the tracks, some people were irked by the inconvenience.
The Transit Authority added new lines, upgraded others, and ripped down aging elevated lines that posed safety issues. The remains of an icon of the subway system, the Third Avenue El, that snaked from lower Manhattan into the Bronx was finally demolished in 1973. At the time, I worked as a part-time waitress in a now defunct restaurant called the Dutch Treat that once made its home in Macy’s basement. I struck up a friendship with Rose, another waitress, who lived near the Third Avenue El in the Bronx. On the night before the last of the elevated train was to be razed, Rose and I shared a six-pack. We sat on a park bench, belted down a few beers, and Rose poured out memories of her youth riding the elevated train.
Riders, including me, relished the chance to grab a seat during rush hour. Selfish dimwits in three-piece suits reading the Wall Street Journal often spread their legs so wide they hogged space. I tapped one scholarly looking banker’s paper and said, “Are your privates made of glass? If close your legs I can sit down.” Maybe his red cheeks were a sign of contrition. At least I got my seat.
A steady stream of artists, some who specialized in scams, patrolled the subways trying to scrape up a buck. Talented musicians and singers entertained riders for spare change as they poured out of crowded trains. Shabby people holding beat up coffee containers just asked for money claiming poverty, disability or hard luck. Homeless men and women in filthy clothing reeking of rancid body odor and stale urine made people turn the other way. Looking into their broken faces was a reminder of society’s failures.
The subway made a lasting contribution to my literacy. I devoured books, magazines and the New York Times instead of staring at grumpy passengers or the overhead placards. When I was a kid, I was entertained by the smiling winners of the Miss Subway beauty contest, a prize of questionable value. Vermin skittering across the platforms sometimes scared me, especially when smoky gray rats raced near my feet. At night, young punks smoked cigarettes and the putrid smell annoyed me. Ask the offenders to stop? Not if you valued your life. The boom box era of the 1970s pissed me off but riders put up with the punks. Young men with garish gold jewelry carrying radios the size of suitcases played music so loud my ear drums shook. The music lovers ignored posted signs that said no radio playing. If we were lucky a Transit Authority police officer passed through the car and asked them to turn off the music. I always wished they’d hurl the over-sized radios on the tracks and let the trains crush the boxes. Jeez, how I hated boom boxes. I sometimes rode the train with my dog, against Transit Authority rules. If thugs rode the train with guns, sold drugs, and played music so jarring it was like torture then surely I could ride with my dog. At least he was well behaved.
I can’t ride the subway anymore due to a disabling car accident in 1994. Some people would rejoice at leaving the New York Transit system behind. Not me. I long to take the A train to Brooklyn and tour the transit museum. I miss the endless waits for the IRT Broadway local late at night when I couldn’t afford a cab. What I wouldn’t do to hustle down the stairs at Grand Central and squeeze through the doors on the #6 ready to pull out of the station. Maybe one day when the system becomes accessible I can roll onto the D train and ride to Brighton Beach and let the salty air tickle my nose. The subway always kept me connected to the city I loved.