The Subway Chronicles, November 2005
Late last night, local weather god Sam Champion of channel 7 Eyewitness News said that the precipitation probably wouldn’t begin until after 9:00 AM; upon rolling off the pullout couch at 6:15 this morning, however, I look out the window and see that it is not only snowing, but there is already an inch or two of snow on the ground. I suppose it could be worse, and, if I had a choice, I would rather do this today than on one of those sticky New York City summer days when the subway tunnels are so oppressively hot that people are passing out on the platforms. Besides, this is something I’ve wanted to do my whole life that for one reason or another I haven’t gotten around to yet, so when I circled this particular day on the calendar, I promised myself that today would be the day no matter what and at this point I’m not about to let a little frozen precipitation get in my way.
* * *
The first few years of my life were spent living in the upstairs apartment of a house on a dead end street in East Rockaway, Long Island. At the end of the street there was a tall, rusty, chain-link fence, and behind that fence were the electrified tracks of the Long Island Rail Road (L.I.R.R.). Ours was the last house on the block and was so close to the tracks that after we moved in my mother thought we were having an earthquake the first time a train went by. It seems quite obvious now that this was the root of my fascination with trains, and throughout my childhood my father would take my younger brother and I to Penn Station and back just for the ride. We didn’t even care about the rest of the city; Penn Station was a wonderland to us, particularly the area where they kept the train schedules for all the different branches that I collected more fervently than baseball cards. Each branch had a different color: East Rockaway was a stop on the Long Beach branch and that had an orange schedule; after moving to West Hempstead, we had our own branch and a blue schedule; and finally, after moving out to Massapequa on the Babylon branch, we had a green schedule. To this day every town on Long Island is color-coded in my mind, and I still have a difficult time believing that those few towns that don’t have their own L.I.R.R. station really exist.
Then there were those rare occasions, usually just before Christmas when we made our annual trip to Rockefeller Center to see the big tree, when we were fortunate enough to ride the subway, which was an even more fascinating and mysterious world than the L.I.R.R. Our old man was a little tight in the wallet, so if the weather was nice enough we would have to walk up Fifth Avenue and look at all the holiday displays in the store windows, which did not interest me in the least. The interest was, and still is, in the roars and screeches I heard through the sidewalk grates and corner stairwells all over the city. If we didn’t at least get to ride the subway back to Penn Station, the trip was a disappointment and the memory of that Christmas season was slightly tarnished.
* * *
I always thought that someday I would be lucky enough to ride the train to work every day, but that didn’t happen until my late twenties after moving back to New York from California in late 2000. I stayed at my mother’s house in Massapequa and eventually found a job in the city working for a magazine in the Graybar Building, an old New York skyscraper adjacent to Grand Central Station.
The commute from Long Island usually took at least an hour-and-a-half each way. First I had to drive fifteen minutes to the Seaford train station (there are actually two closer stations to my mother’s house, Massapequa Park and Massapequa, but it is rather expensive to buy a parking pass for these stations and Seaford has an enormous lot that offers free parking in the more distant section). Then I had to get on the train and take an hour ride from Seaford to Penn Station that often involved changing trains at Jamaica, Queens, which is the major transfer point on the L.I.R.R. Finally at Penn station I had to take the 1 or 9 subway up one stop to Times Square/42nd Street and from there squeeze on the shuttle train that runs between Times Square and Grand Central, which was the most intimate part of the journey that made the meaning of the term “subway sex” crystal clear. One of the shuttles was usually waiting there, and the longer it waited, the more people tried to squeeze in so that it almost always took several attempts for the conductor to close the doors without any appendages or personal belongings sticking out before the train finally departed on its three minute journey to Grand Central.
A few months later I found a small apartment in Astoria, Queens, right around the block from the N subway line. Now all I had to do was walk around the block, take the N a few stops to Queensboro plaza, and from there take the 7 into Grand Central. The new commute usually didn’t take more than half-hour and allowed me to sleep an hour later every day and get home an hour earlier. I also now had unlimited access to the New York City subway system and decided that one of these weekends I was finally going to fulfill my longstanding fantasy of spending an entire day riding the trains.
I quickly discovered that one of the biggest challenges of living in New York is getting used to the noise, and once you do, the mystique of the city begins to fade. Since the N line is elevated, I had to get used to the constant rumble and screech of trains going by down the block; when I finally did, they too lost their mystique. By the time I was settled into the new apartment I had been riding trains and subways nearly every day for the past five months, so the idea of spending an entire Saturday or Sunday riding the trains lost its appeal. I had officially become a New Yorker.
* * *
Now, however, it has been three years since moving to Maryland, where my wife and I live in a small town out in the country that has tracks but no trains, and I have come back to New York with a rekindled determination to set out on this adventure once and for all. To prepare I watched The Warriors a couple of nights ago, a cult classic and one of my all-time favorite movies that has some of the best New York City subway scenes ever filmed. (There is apparently a new version of the movie being made for release in 2006, which will probably be an overblown Hollywood monstrosity compared to the B-movie charm of the original). It is based on a book written by Sol Yurick, who borrowed the plot from Xenophon’s Anabasis, an ancient Greek tale written around 400 B.C. that chronicles the retreat of the Greeks through hostile territory to their home turf on the Mediterranean coast after the Persian prince Cyrus is slain outside the gates of Babylon. The movie chronicles the Warriors’ retreat from the Bronx back home to Coney Island after the big “conclave” in Van Cortlandt Park attended by representatives from all the major gangs in New York City and emceed by an almost god-like figure also named Cyrus, who envisions organizing the gangs and taking over the city. This vision, however, is brought to an abrupt end by a guy named Luther, the psychotic leader of a gang called the Rogues who guns down Cyrus during his speech. The scene quickly turns to chaos as the gangs attempt to flee the park and the cop cruisers are rolling in, at which time Luther makes eye contact with one of the Warriors and starts yelling, “The Warriors shot Cyrus!” Most of the Warriors manage to escape to a nearby cemetery, but they are now stuck all the way up in the Bronx and have to get home to Coney Island with every gang in New York City out to bop them.
The Warriors was filmed in the late ’70s, which I think of as the glory years of the New York City subway system. Back then the trains were covered with colorful and artistic graffiti, and simply taking a ride on the subway was an adventure since most passengers considered it good fortune to emerge from the depths unharmed and still in possession of their wallets. That element of danger was exciting to me and such a different world than the whitewashed suburbs of Long Island, where almost nothing exciting ever happened and where there was nothing interesting to look at.
Today there is hardly a hint of graffiti in the subway system (except for the horrendously ugly key scratchings on the windows of the trains), and while there are still plenty of shady characters roaming the platforms, there are now so many cops and security precautions being taken in the wake of September 11 that the adventurous form of excitement has been replaced by a far more terrifying element. My biggest fear after the attacks was that terrorists were going to target the subways much like suicide bombers have done on the buses in Israel, and I find it truly remarkable that something like that hasn’t happened here. Yet, despite how drastically the city has changed since I was a kid, riding the subways is still a thrill to me, and there are still plenty of things in this city I haven’t seen and plenty more that are worth a second look.
* * *
My plan for the day is somewhat structured, but I think it is flexible enough to allow for some diversion. First I am going to repeat my old commute from my mother’s house in Massapequa to Grand Central Station; from there I will ride up to Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx and emulate the Warriors’ retreat by subway all the way down to Coney Island, a journey that I am going to roughly estimate at twenty-five miles and probably further than most New Yorkers will ever travel by subway on a single trip; finally, I will visit my old neighborhood in Astoria before concluding my day back in Manhattan, where I am to meet my sister and her husband for dinner on the Upper West Side.
Since I’ve been gone, the L.I.R.R. has acquired a number of brand new cars to replace some of the old electric beaters they have been using since before I was born. While I’m waiting in the snow up on the platform in Seaford, a couple of the new trains speed by, but the 7:04 Brooklyn-bound train I board is an old one and the only open seats are near the lavatory at the end of the car that reeks of urine. To get to Penn Station I have to change trains at Jamaica and again I wind up in an old beater, but hopefully on the way home I will get to ride in one of the new ones.
When I get to Penn I purchase a $7 “All Day Fun Pass” MetroCard from the vending machine, but subway maps are only available from the booth attendant and the line is too long here so I decide to wait and pick one up at Grand Central instead. I only have to wait a couple of minutes for an uptown 1 train to Times Square, and from there the shuttle train is packed as usual and it takes the conductor several attempts to get the doors closed.
It is good to hear the violins and pan flutes in Times Square and Grand Central Station again, and they sound much more pleasurable today since I am not on my way to work. I walk across the Main Concourse at Grand Central and look up at the star-crossed turquoise ceiling high above that swallows up most of the noise in the enormous room so that all you hear are echoes and the occasional clink of steel that I used to think were switches down on the tracks, but, after spending enough time here, even a skeptic such as myself can start to believe that this place is full of ghosts. It doesn’t seem likely that the building was designed with feng shui in mind, but walking across the Main Concourse every morning always had a meditative effect that enabled me to face the stress waiting for me up at the office and at the end of the day helped release any lingering bad vibes that I had brought down with me.
It has been three years since I last walked through here, but I remember everything so vividly that it almost feels like I should be heading up to the old office (which is actually no longer there, the magazine having been acquired after I left and the office moved to a new location). When I get to the Zaro’s Bread Basket next to the Graybar Building entrance, where every morning I used to buy my buttered roll and large coffee and today order the same, I am surprised to recognize several of the faces behind the counter. The familiarity of everything is pleasantly disorienting as if I had been afforded the rare opportunity to physically walk through my past, and though I am happy with where my life presently is and wouldn’t trade it for anything, I do miss this routine a little bit now that I am beyond recalling how grinding it is on a daily basis and the toll it takes after an extended period of time.
I head downstairs to the Dining Concourse, my old cafeteria where I used to eat lunch every day while reading a copy of the Times or the Post or the News that I had dug out of newspaper recycling cart; after I was done eating, I would then work on my novel or read until it was time to go back up to the office. The Dining Concourse is basically a food court that has several different cafeteria-style lunch counters that are a bit more upscale than what you’ll find at your average shopping mall, and the tables and chairs scattered about are for general use so you don’t have to buy something here to be allowed to use them (I usually brought my own sandwich because it is too expensive to buy lunch down here every day). Most of the counters are lined against the wall, but in the middle of the floor there are two circular counters surrounded by hard plastic easy chairs that, despite being made of plastic, look very elegant from a distance and are comfortable enough to lull you into an unintentional nap until a friendly police officer comes along and gently reminds you that you can’t sleep here.
Today I get lucky and secure one of the easy chairs right away, but at lunchtime it is very difficult to find one that isn’t occupied. Some go as far as to stand around trying to look like they are waiting for a train but are actually subtly watching and waiting like vultures ready to pounce as soon as someone gets up to leave. In fact, I notice one woman standing in the vicinity right now who is trying to make it appear as if she’s not watching but is well aware that the guy sitting in the chair next to me is almost done with his muffin and is about to get up. After he does, she waits a moment for him to clear the immediate area before casually strolling over but peripherally making sure that no one is trying to beat her to the vacant seat.
Since last night I have been looking forward to this buttered roll, and it doesn’t disappoint. The buttered roll seems like such a simple concept, but I’ve been all over the country and the only place you can get a good one is the New York City metropolitan area. Once, when I was a freshman at college only a few hours upstate from here, I went into a deli and ordered a buttered roll; after giving me a funny look, the guy behind the counter smeared some butter on a seeded hamburger bun and charged me a buck for it. Being away from home for the first time, this incident was an early indicator that the world is a very different place outside of New York City.
After breakfast I consult my map and decide to take the 1 or the 9 (of which the only difference is a couple of local stops on the northern part of the line) up to Van Cortlandt Park and then take the 4 back down. It is not possible to follow the same exact route that the Warriors took back to Coney Island since many of the subway lines have changed since 1979 and the movie was purposely vague in some scenes because they were shot in different locations than the ones they were depicting, so my journey will follow the basic storyline rather than actual filming locations (even the Van Cortlandt Park scene was apparently filmed at Riverside Park). I will, however, make it a point to pass through two of the stations where major scenes did take place:
1. 96th Street (of which there are actually two such stations in Manhattan, but I will be passing through both), where Fox, one of the Warriors, was tossed in front of a speeding train by a cop after the actor portraying him requested to be written out of the script (in fact, the guy who was thrown in front of the train was a stunt double since the real Fox had already stormed off the set; if you look closely, you can see the double struggling unsuccessfully to conceal his face from the camera since he looks nothing like the original). Also, it was outside the 96th Street station where several of the Warriors encountered the infamous Baseball Furies, a gang of mimes wearing baseball uniforms who turned out to be wimps whom the Warriors bopped rather easily despite being outnumbered and the Furies being equipped with baseball bats.
2. Union Square, where a few of the Warriors were lured off the platform up to an apartment by a group of cute ’70s chicks belonging to an outfit called “The Lizzies,” who, not too surprisingly, turned out to be a gang of lesbians. The Lizzies started flirting with the Warriors, who let their guard down and barely escaped when one of the Lizzies locked the door and another started shooting at them. Union Square is also where the reunited Warriors (minus a couple of members by now) encountered “The Punks,” a gang clad in denim overalls that made them look more like a bunch of farmers than real ’70s punks, which is especially strange since this movie was filmed during the height of the punk era led by the Ramones and the Sex Pistols when the city must have been teeming with real punks who could have been used as character studies.
On the shuttle back to Times Square I step into the Deadwood car, the inside of which is plastered with stickers that make the walls look like wood paneling and the seats look like wooden benches for the purpose of advertising HBO’s old west series. Being in a subway car that appears to be made of wood is a little disconcerting, and with advertising threatening to cover every square inch of available space in the entire subway system, I’m beginning to wonder how anyone can think that this soulless commercial graffiti is preferable to the old spray can variety, which was at least original art. Also, many of the subway cars have “NYC 2012” stickers next to the doors because the International Olympic Committee was recently here scouting New York as a possible location for the 2012 Summer Games, which current mayor Michael Bloomberg seems hell-bent on landing despite strong opposition by city residents and the 2004 Summer Games being such a financial disaster for the city of Athens. The Greek government recently announced that the $18 billion tab for their already forgotten Olympics has, in addition to leaving Athens littered with shoddily constructed sporting facilities that have yet to be paid for and will never be used again, left the country with the highest debt level in the entire European Union.
On the uptown 1 train there is an old bearded panhandler with a sign around his neck that says “Please Help.” He is shuffling slowly through the car and not saying anything or even looking directly at anyone, just holding his cup out for anyone who feels inclined to drop in some spare change when he passes by. As he approaches the end of the car where I am standing, a man in a pink sweater standing a couple of feet away from me is watching him and shaking his head. When the train stops at 59th Street, the pink sweater guy steps off the train but then steps back on just before the doors close when he realizes that the panhandler has proceeded to the next car.
“Disgusting,” he says with a snobby lisp to the woman standing next to him. The woman, however, does not respond or even look at him and gets off at the next stop. When the train starts moving again, I notice that the woman is now standing in the car that the panhandler is working, and this time she drops some change in his cup as he shuffles by.
Just before 125th Street in Harlem, the train emerges from the subterranean depths and I see my first daylight since just before the L.I.R.R. train I was on an hour and a half ago ducked into the East River Tunnel. As we approach Washington Heights, it is hard to believe that this is still Manhattan since there are no tall buildings and the neighborhoods look more like those in Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. The line only stays elevated briefly before descending back underground and rising up again at the tip of Manhattan, where it then crosses over the Harlem River via the Broadway Bridge and enters the Bronx.
When I got on this train at Times Square it was crowded and I had to stand, but now I’m the only passenger in this car and maybe even the whole train since the connecting cars are empty as well. There’s something eerie about being the only one in a subway car, and I am reminded of the scene towards the end of Saturday Night Fever when a distraught Tony Manero (played by John Travolta) rides the subways all night while this funky cosmic synthesizer music plays in the background, which is my favorite scene in the movie.
There are three stops in the Bronx before the end of the line at 242nd Street. I get off the train and head down the stairs to the southwest entrance of Van Cortlandt Park, which appears to be completely deserted. It is snowing lightly and there is a chilly breeze blowing in my face that makes it seem appropriate that I am wearing the Alaska baseball cap I purchased during my honeymoon in Fairbanks a couple of summers ago, where my wife and I stayed in an old Alaska Railroad train that had been converted into a bed & breakfast (we stayed in the caboose, which was the “honeymoon suite”). I head east towards the 4 line and walk along the southern edge of the park, cross over the Major Deegan Expressway, and climb a long set of concrete stairs that takes me up a big hill and drops me off in a nice, quiet residential neighborhood with the park still to my left and apartment buildings to my right. The road I am walking along is narrow and doesn’t look like it would lead to a subway station, so I turn and head south towards a bigger road, and, like the Warriors, get a little lost. After walking for twenty minutes or so, my face is starting to hurt and my nose is running, and unfortunately I did not have the foresight to bring any tissues. Eventually I spot the elevated 4 line in the distance and picture the scene in The Warriors when Rembrandt is perched on a giant tombstone and spots the subway and says, “Hey, you guys, the train’s right over there!” I pass by Dewitt Clinton High School and, after stumbling up the stairs of the Mosholu Parkway station and getting my hands all muddy and scraped, I get on the downtown 4 train and take a seat.
After a few stops I finally feel warm again, but my runny nose is becoming a nuisance. I am in one of the new subway cars that came into service a few years ago, the ones with the automated announcements that at first had been notorious for announcing the wrong stops but seem to be functioning properly now. I know I am sentimental towards the old cars, but I haven’t liked these new cars from the start. The fluorescent lighting is too bright and ruins the ambience of the car, the computerized chimes that sound when the doors are closing are almost as annoying as the chipper recording of the mechanical man telling passengers to stand clear of the closing doors at every stop, and the color scheme of black speckled floors, white walls, and light blue seats is just plain wrong. The only reason these cars even seem nice at all is because they are still new—I don’t think they are going to age well. At least they have retained the double sliding doors (of which the L.I.R.R. has abandoned on their new cars in favor of a wider single door that slowly slides open to one side, which is a little too Amtrak for my taste), and they do have one new feature I like, maps of the line with little Christmas tree lights illuminated for each stop so that each time the train pulls into a station, the light for that stop goes dark.
Sitting in a subway car full of Bronx residents with my Alaska hat on and my subway map unfolded in front of me, I must look like a pathetically lost tourist. I am also a little self-conscious of scribbling away in my notebook with several people watching me out of the corners of their eyes, which reminds me of a verse from Neil Young’s “The Loner”:
If you see him in the subway,
He’ll be down at the end of the car—
Watching you move
Until he knows he knows who you are—
There is a guy sitting across from me who is being kind enough to share his talents as a rapper with everyone in the car by loudly playing a track he has recorded on his cell phone. A woman selling bootleg DVDs of movies that aren’t even in theaters yet just went by, and sitting next to the cell phone rapper is a brave soul wearing a Boston Red Sox cap right here in the heart of Yankee-land. This gets me thinking about baseball, so, despite being a lifelong Met fan, I get off the train at 161st Street to walk around Yankee Stadium.
The last time I was here was October 21, 2000, for game 1 of the Subway Series between the Mets and the Yankees, an event the city celebrated by painting both teams’ logos on some of the subway cars that ran on the 4 and 7 lines. As a Met fan I have always considered this enemy turf, but, as a baseball fan, I also recognize the sacredness of this place.
The subway lets you off at the back of the stadium where the entrances to the outfield bleacher seats are and where I sat for game 1, and across the street shadowed by the elevated subway tracks are Billy’s Sports Bar and Stan the Man’s Baseball Land, both of which are presently closed. A thin layer of snow has covered the walkways surrounding the stadium, and the place is so quiet that all I hear are my sneakers squishing in the wet snow. The start of the season is less than a month away, so the box office window is open and there are a few people on line buying tickets. Around the other side of the stadium, the ritzy-looking Stadium Club is closed.
After walking all the way around and setting my nose off and running again, I arrive back at the subway and am faced with a decision. In addition to the 4 train up above, there is also a D station down below, and that happens to be the line that runs all the way to Coney Island. I could conceivably get on the D train here and ride it all the way down to the end of the line, but in doing so I would miss Union Square, which I decide is unacceptable since so much action in The Warriors takes place there. I consult the map and decide to continue on the 4 downtown, but then I realize that the 4 is an express in Manhattan that does not stop at Bleecker Street, where I will have to get off and walk through the station to the connecting Broadway/Lafayette Street platform and catch the D. I can, however, get off the 4 at Union Square, walk across the platform, and get on the 6, which is a local that does stop at Bleecker. These kinds of tactical decisions are what make the New York City subways so interesting, unlike the BART trains out in San Francisco or the Metro down in D.C. where there the lines are very straightforward and there is usually only one way to get where you’re going.
The 4 is the most linear route in the entire system, running straight down from the Bronx all the way to lower Manhattan before bending over to Brooklyn and ending in Crown Heights. It doesn’t stop at 96th Street, but it does pass through the station as an express, so I will count that as fulfilling that part of the mission since the Warriors did not have to change trains there either (the only reason they ran into so much trouble there in the first place was because the train they were on stopped and for some unknown reason waited there with the doors open, which is when a cop on the platform spotted them and they had to scram).
* * *
Since the 4 is an express in Manhattan, I get downtown rather quickly. At Union Square the platform is curved, so in order to close the huge gap between the train and the platform, sections of iron grating jut out from the edge of the platform and press against the train where the doors are.
After the train pulls away, I hear a man on the platform pleading loudly and rather obnoxiously, “Has anyone got sixty cents they can spare? Can anyone spare sixty cents?” What makes it particularly annoying is that not only is this guy not homeless, he is wearing a very expensive-looking maroon suit and alligator-skin shoes and sounds like someone who is used to getting his way. He knows most of the people waiting on the platform can easily spare sixty cents, which seems to be making his pleading sound even more desperate and accusing. Finally some guy takes a buck out of his wallet, but, before giving it to the guy, he dangles it in front of him and calmly explains, “I’m not giving this to you because I want to help you—I’m only giving this to you to shut you up because you’re annoying the piss out of everyone on this platform.” A few people laugh at this and one woman even starts clapping.
The 6 train pulls in and I take it two stops down to Bleecker. I like the grubby old tiles at Village stations such as Astor Place and Bleecker Street that for some reason always conjure up an image in my mind of a young, still unknown Bob Dylan standing on the platform with guitar case in hand. And this image suddenly reminds me of something that I have completely forgotten about, something that I had meant to do when I was living in Astoria and that I had even read about recently in Dylan’s book Chronicles, Volume One—making a pilgrimage to the house on Coney Island where Woody Guthrie spent the last years of his life.
In the book Dylan mentions having taken a subway out to Coney Island to pick up a box full of song lyrics that Guthrie had offered him. At the time Guthrie was dying of Huntington’s Disease in a New Jersey hospital where Dylan used to visit him regularly with guitar in tow and perform Guthrie’s old songs for him, and it was during one of these visits that the offer was made. When Dylan arrived at the Guthrie house on Mermaid Avenue, however, Mrs. Guthrie wasn’t home, and young Arlo, Woody’s son and future composer of “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” didn’t know anything about any song lyrics in the basement. The babysitter was visibly uncomfortable with Dylan being there, so he eventually left without the lyrics and never gained possession of them. Thirty years later some of these lyrics were set to music and recorded by Billy Bragg & Wilco on two volumes titled Mermaid Avenue, the first of which is one of my favorite albums and the reason I wanted to make this pilgrimage in the first place.
While making the long walk through the Bleecker Street station, I stop at a newsstand to buy a much-needed package of tissues for 75 cents, which at this point seems like an incredible bargain. Feeling much better but starting to get hungry, I jump on the D train and am soon rolling over the Manhattan Bridge high above the East River with a stunning view of the Brooklyn Bridge next to us and the 59th Street Bridge up the river. On the Brooklyn side there are factories and warehouses, and after descending the bridge the train heads back underground. The D only makes one stop at Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street before becoming a local at 36th Street in Sunset Park, and though the train is fairly empty right now, it’s probably a pretty tight squeeze during evening rush hour.
As I’m writing in my notebook, the train emerges from the tunnel and something feels different. There are shadows passing through the car, and suddenly I realize that yes, the sun is shining in Brooklyn! Up until this point the morning has been so gloomy that sunlight is a remarkable sight, and the fatigue that was starting to creep in has now suddenly disappeared. The sky is still mostly overcast, but there are some breaks in the clouds that are allowing the sun to poke through.
There is still plenty of graffiti left on the old brick buildings here in Brooklyn, and the gang scene is also still alive and well, as I find out when the train stops at the 9th Avenue station. A group of ten or so teenagers wearing folded black bandannas around their heads pass by on the platform and are assisting two of their own, both of whom have their arms draped over the shoulders of their comrades and streaks of fresh blood running down their faces. This is a pretty disturbing sight and a gruesome reminder that while the cartoonish depictions of street gangs in The Warriors are mostly humorous, the real thing is taken seriously in some parts of the city, particularly here in Brooklyn. About fifteen years ago a friend of mine from high school had a cousin who lived in Marine Park who was badly beaten up for simply walking down the wrong street on his way home. He wasn’t even in a gang, but the guys who attacked him felt that he was trespassing on their turf, so they made an example of him by putting him in the hospital for a couple of weeks.
Much like the Warriors at 96th Street, the train sits at 9th Avenue with the doors open while I’m nervously waiting for it to get moving again and hoping that a new fight doesn’t break out on the platform and spill onto the train or that a stray bullet doesn’t come sailing through the car. After about ten minutes, however, the doors finally slide shut and we continue on our way through Borough Park, Bensonhurst, and past the big rail yard before pulling into the Stillwell Avenue station at 12:09 PM, exactly two hours after I boarded the 4 train at Mosholu Parkway in the Bronx, which I think is pretty good time considering that I stopped and took a stroll around Yankee Stadium.
* * *
The view from up on the Stillwell Avenue platform is quite different than it was for the Warriors back in 1979 now that the station is currently in the process of being refurbished and covered with a semicircular roof that looks like a European airport terminal. No longer does it seem appropriate to make a disparaging comment like, “This is what we fought all night to get back to?” as Swan did towards the end of the film while looking around at all the run down buildings surrounding them; nor does it seem appropriate to slide three empty beer bottles on my fingertips and rhythmically clack them together while calling out in a half-crazed voice, “War-ee-ahs, come out to play-yay,” as Luther did in what has become the most famous scene in the movie. Instead I just head down the stairs and keep my mouth shut.
Just down the block on Surf Avenue is the original Nathan’s Famous, a true slice of Americana still alive and well despite the more than half-century that has passed since Coney Island was known as “America’s summer playground.” Efforts to revitalize the area began a few years ago with the building of Keyspan Park, the minor league baseball stadium that is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, class A affiliate of the Mets and the first professional baseball team to call Brooklyn home since the Dodgers left for L.A. after the 1957 season. In addition to the stadium and the work being done to the subway station, there are also plans to build new playgrounds, add new restroom facilities, refurbish the boardwalk, and repair the old parachute jump, which is no longer in use but has become a local landmark known as “Brooklyn’s Eiffel Tower.”
The inside of the Nathan’s doesn’t look much different than any other Nathan’s I’ve ever been to, and I appear to be the only tourist in the place since all the attractions outside are closed. I order a hot dog and medium fries (which are served with a little plastic pitchfork), and at the condiment station I squirt some mustard on the dog, which is all I need since I don’t like sauerkraut or relish. Like the restaurant itself, the hot dog and fries don’t taste any different than what is served at other Nathan’s restaurants but is still top notch fast food, though I am not tempted to make a run at the world record set this past 4th of July by 135 pound Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi, who wolfed down 53½ wieners in twelve minutes at the annual hot dog eating contest.
After lunch I head out to the boardwalk and there are a few people out and about, but aside from the crying seagulls and the heavy construction equipment over at the subway station, Coney Island is eerily silent. The cars have been taken off Wonder Wheel, the crazy Ferris wheel in which the caged cars slide along twenty foot tracks within the framework of the wheel so that when the car you’re in reaches the top, it starts sliding down the track and feels as if it has become disattached from the wheel itself and about to plummet 150 feet to the pavement below. Then, of course, there’s the rickety old Cyclone, built in 1927 and still annually voted as one of the best roller coasters in the world. I was a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast when I was a kid and my father once took us to Coney Island just to ride the famous Cyclone, but I didn’t like it because it is a particularly jarring ride that shakes you like a can of pop for a minute and fifty seconds and left me with a terrific headache for the next two days.
No one is on the beach and the sand is smooth until I make a trail to the water and watch the small waves crash and the mighty Atlantic sparkle in the sun beyond the breakers. Though I’ve been here before, the idea of standing on a sandy beach in New York City still seems strange. After walking a little further along the shore and taking some pictures on the boardwalk, I decide that it’s time to go find Woody’s house. I’m sure a road named “Mermaid Avenue” couldn’t be too far from the water, so I head back to Nathan’s to ask someone in there. Inside I find an E.M.T. ambulance driver eating lunch and figure that he, if anyone, would know.
“I think it’s that way,” he says with a mouth full of food and points west down Surf Avenue. I thank him and walk down a few blocks, but all I’m coming across are numbered Streets, which makes me realize that it must run parallel to Surf Avenue. At 20th Street I make a right, head up one block, and, sure enough, there it is.
I have no idea which house it is, and most of them look similar to the one I remember from the cover of Mermaid Avenue, Volume I—two story structures with aluminum awnings above the windows (many of which are covered with iron bars), little gated driveways that are hardly big enough to fit a single car, tiny backyards. I don’t know what I’ll do, I don’t know what I’ll do… I’m willing to part with the satisfaction of having merely found Mermaid Avenue, but then I spot a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library down the block.
Inside I quickly discover that a username and password are necessary to log on to the Internet terminals, so I ask the librarian sitting behind a desk near the computers how I can log on and he tells me that I have to go over to another desk, fill out a guest card, and pay $2. I don’t really want to spend time doing all that, so I say, “Alright, maybe you can help me—Do you know where Woody Guthrie’s house is?”
“Ah, yes, the famous question,” he says and pulls open the lower desk drawer, which is filled with coffee table books about Coney Island. He takes out a few and says, “I know the address is in one of these,” and starts flipping through one. As he is doing so, a short, stocky, NYPD officer with a “Special Patrol” patch sewed on his sleeve comes over and sits down at the vacant desk next to the librarian’s. Except for the close-cropped haircut, this guy looks more like a biker than a cop, his thick forearms and neck covered with tattoos of flames and a word tattooed across his throat that I can’t decipher because he is wearing a wide silver chain that is obstructing the letters. With a classic Brooklyn accent he starts telling some patron standing near the desk who apparently remembers him from a few years ago about how that because he is working at this branch again, he can go home and walk the dogs during his lunch break, which makes me picture him as someone who breeds pit bulls as a hobby. After the patron leaves, he turns to the librarian and asks him what he’s looking for.
“Woody Guthrie’s house?” he says after the librarian tells him and then looks up at me. “It’s on Mermaid Avenue. But I don’t know if the actual house is still there.”
“Here it is,” the librarian says and hands the open book over to me. There is an old black & white picture of 3520 Mermaid Avenue that has the upstairs apartment window circled in red, so I thank both of them and set out on the fifteen block journey.
Coney Island must have changed drastically since Bob Dylan made this same walk almost forty years ago, as in his book he described fields and swamps and his legs sinking into the ground up to his knees while my journey is nothing but concrete and asphalt. The neighborhood starts getting sketchier the deeper I walk into it, the houses looking a little more run down and there are guys who don’t look like they’re out there to enjoy the weather hanging out in front of the storefronts. When I finally reach 35th Street, I discover that the cop was right—where 3520 should be, there is now a twenty story building. I take some pictures anyway and am satisfied with hanging out on Woody’s old block for a few minutes before turning around and heading back to the subway with my feet starting to blister and a sweat breaking out on my brow from the warm sunshine that is making the cold snowy morning I encountered up in the Bronx seem like days ago.
* * *
My next maneuver is the most complicated of the day. From Stillwell Avenue I will attempt to take the subway to my old neighborhood in Astoria without passing through Manhattan. I could very easily just jump on the N train a few blocks away at Gravesend/86th Street and take it into Manhattan and back out to Queens, but I would see nothing new on the N in Manhattan, and this may be a little faster. I also want to ride on the G train, which runs from Brooklyn to Queens and is the only major subway line that does not pass through Manhattan; but first I have to get on the D again, and since there is no direct transfer point to the G along this route, I will have to get off at the Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street stop in the fringe neighborhood between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope and then find the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station on foot, which, on the map, looks like it should be only a few blocks away. From there I can take the G to Steinway Street, which is about a mile from my old apartment and, as long as my feet hold out, will allow me to take a nice walk through the old neighborhood.
After getting off the D, however, and emerging from the underground Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street station, I immediately lose all sense of direction and am lost before taking my first step. I consult my subway map, which is not very helpful for walking because it only names major streets, and walk up a few blocks thinking that the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station must be right up ahead, but it is nowhere to be found and I end up in an area where there are no major streets, thus rendering my subway map completely useless. I ask an elderly gentleman sitting in a plastic deck chair outside a bodega where I can catch the G train and he says, “I think it’s that way,” and points in a direction I haven’t yet been, which makes it seem like the right direction. After a few blocks, however, I find myself even more lost and my feet getting worse with each step, my right foot in particular starting to swell up.
During my Wolfean trek through Brooklyn I ask several more people along the way, including a booth attendant at the Nevins Street subway station (where the 2, 3, 4, & 5 lines pass through), who incorrectly informs me that it is right around the block and I promptly get lost once more. Finally, after scouring the neighborhood at the untimely hour when the schools have just let out and the sidewalks are teeming with high school kids, I find an NYPD officer who at first points me in the wrong direction before correcting herself and pointing in the opposite direction, where a block away I find the station stairway hidden between two storefronts.
* * *
My plans are altered en route when the Court Square/Long Island City station is announced as the last stop. Upon consulting my map, I see that the lime green of the G line is dotted beyond this point and described as a ‘part-time line extension,’ which apparently means that it is not in service at the moment. The 7 line, however, is right up the stairs, so I can take that one stop to my old transfer point at Queensboro Plaza and from there get on the N, which would drop me off right around the block from my old apartment. By now this sounds like a better idea than walking a mile from Steinway Street because my feet are hurting pretty bad and I’m starting to get tired.
It seems strange not to see the “redbirds” running on the 7 line anymore, the old brick-colored trains that were the last cars to have overhead metal straps for passengers to hang on to (as opposed to the plain overhead railings that the newer trains have). After forty years of service, the old redbirds were finally retired in late 2003, thus officially ending the “straphanger” era. Today many of the old redbird cars are sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean serving as artificial reefs meant to attract marine life to the barren ocean floor off the Atlantic coast, which is sometimes described as a “submarine desert.” This practice, however, has been controversial since some of the materials used in making the cars contained asbestos. Supporters of the project claim that asbestos is not harmful underwater like it is when airborne, but some environmentalists contend that this claim has not been proven and have accused the city of using this project merely as a less expensive alternative to finding landfill space.
The 7 line is one of the more popular subway lines in the system, as determined by rider polls conducted by the Straphanger’s Campaign, a consumer advocate organization that has served as “a respected voice for the city’s nearly 7 million daily subway and bus riders since 1979.” The line is elevated from its origin in Flushing, Queens and offers spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline before descending deep into the ground under the East River and arriving at Times Square, where it makes a 180º turn and heads right back out. It is also the subway line of the New York Mets and the U.S. Open tennis tournament, the Willets Point station just across the street from Shea Stadium on one side and the National Tennis Center on the other.
After a quick stop at Queensboro Plaza, I board my beloved old N train to Astoria and start feeling a little sentimental. The apartment I had lived in was in the back of a tiny one story house that reminded me a little of Thoreau’s place on Walden Pond except that it had aluminum siding and there was no pond. I paid $900 a month for a 225 square foot studio, which was one of the only apartments I could find in Astoria or any other habitable place in the city for under $1,000. My landlord, a native of Greece (as many in Astoria were), had a small office in the front part of the house, and upstairs in what must have been an incredibly cramped attic with slanted ceilings that probably made it impossible to stand up straight, lived two young Greek guys whom I suspected were not legal citizens.
After getting off at my old stop at 30th Avenue, I head down the station stairs feeling excited to be back and a little like I’m just getting home from work until I turn the corner and stop dead in my tracks. Like Woody Guthrie’s old place, my house is no longer there, at least not in a form I recognize. Gone is the little Thoreau house and in its place is a little Thoreau apartment building, a tiny two-story brick structure that may have been built on top of the foundation of the old house but looks so different now that I can’t tell. For several minutes I stare at it from across the street dumbfounded and begin to wonder if the bigger shock may be that three years have already gone by.
The nightclub next door has closed down as well and the building appears to be vacant, which I would have appreciated a lot more when I was living here instead of having to endure the dance beat booming through the wall next to my bed until six in the morning on Friday and Saturday nights. Because of the nondescript exterior of the place and the vague sign that simply said “WORLD,” I had no idea that it was a nightclub until after I moved in.
This morning Grand Central was just as I remembered it, but Astoria feels like a parallel universe; some things are exactly the same, yet others are completely alien and are making me feel like a stranger. Around the block my landlord’s old coffee shop is also gone, where I used to see him sitting at the counter at all hours of the day with a newspaper and a cup of coffee in front of him. I’m guessing that he moved back to Greece, where he spent his summers and where he was during the September 11 attacks. When international flights finally resumed afterwards and he was able to get back to New York, he knocked on my door one evening and with tears in his eyes said he was glad I was safe and hugged me and asked if my family was okay. I told him they were, and while I was telling him about my experience that day of having to walk all the way back here from Grand Central since the subways weren’t running, he just kept shaking his head and saying with his heavy Greek accent, “This is terrible, this is terrible…”
As I’m heading back up the stairs to the subway platform I feel like this place isn’t mine anymore, but that’s okay because now all I’m leaving behind is the sentiment. Upstairs I get on the N to go back to Queensboro Plaza, where I will take the 7 Express out to Flushing so I can walk around Shea and rid myself of the guilt that has been gnawing at my gut since circling Yankee Stadium earlier.
* * *
High up on the platform at Queensboro Plaza overlooking the Silvercup Studios sign (where The Sopranos is filmed), it has gotten considerably colder and there is a chilly wind blowing. Friday afternoon rush hour has begun and the platform is crowded, but the train I’ll be taking back to Manhattan in a little while should be empty. I let the 7 Local go by and am waiting for the express thinking that it will be right behind the local, but the frequency of the 7 trains seems to have diminished since the days when the old redbirds used to roll in one right after and often got backed up just outside the station.
When the express finally arrives it’s a tight squeeze getting in, but the train gradually empties with each stop so that by the time we get to the Willets Point there are very few passengers left. By now my feet are beyond pain and just numb, so walking around big Shea isn’t that bad except now it’s getting really cold. The doors of the centerfield wall are open and through a tall chain-link fence I can see patches of snow on the field, which makes spring still seem like a long way off.
As many times as I’ve been to Shea Stadium, I don’t recall ever having been to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, site of the 1964 World’s Fair, so I head back through the subway station and follow the walkway that leads to the park. The place is empty except for a few skateboarders and some geese, and the giant globe doesn’t look too far away so I start walking towards it. The further I walk, however, the further away it seems to get, but eventually I do catch up to it and take some pictures. By now I’m out of gas and wondering if I can call a cab to get back to the subway station, which I’m guessing is close to three quarters of a mile but seems more like fifty to a hundred.
The walk isn’t too bad, however, and it only takes about fifteen minutes to get back. I don’t have to wait long for the next Manhattan-bound train, which is mostly empty except for a REALLY annoying young couple sitting right across from me playing kissy-face and making sucking sounds that are causing the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I seriously consider getting up and changing cars, but I’m just too tired to move and even nod off a couple of times only to be awakened by the screeching of the brakes at each stop.
* * *
The energy of Friday evening rush hour at Times Square gives me just enough of a boost to enable me to walk the entire length of the station from the 7 train to the uptown C platform below Eighth Avenue, which is a pretty long walk. The C and the E share the same track for part of the line, but I need to get to 86th Street and the E swings over to Queens long before then, so I have to wait for three E trains to pass through before a C finally rolls in.
After I’m aboard and the doors are closing, a woman on the platform determined not to miss this train sticks her arm out and gets the shopping bag she is holding stuck between the doors. The conductor, who is on some other part of the train where he probably can’t see what is happening, opens the doors slightly and closes them again, but in that short interval the woman has managed to squeeze herself between the doors and now her whole body is stuck. The trains have a mechanism that does not allow them to move unless all the doors are closed completely, but these have been known to malfunction at times, and if that were to happen right now this lady would be in a world of trouble. Finally the doors open all the way and she is able to get inside safely before they close again, and a well-dressed gentleman who looks to be about her age (mid-40s/early 50s) starts shaking his head and tells her that she should know better.
“I know, I know,” she says wearily before the gentleman invites her to sit down next to him.
“Then again,” he says, “If you hadn’t been so bad, you wouldn’t be here sitting next to me right now!”
The woman laughs hysterically and gives him a playful slap in the arm. Soon they are talking like they have known each other their whole lives and are hitting it off quite well by the time I get off at 86th Street.
* * *
It is dark now, and up on the street I realize that this is the first time all day I’ve been on the surface in Manhattan. I also realize that I’m walking dreadfully slow, so I duck into a Starbucks and slam a vanilla latte that gives me just enough energy to make it through dinner. Afterwards, however, when my sister and her husband invite me downtown with them to meet up with some friends, I have to decline because I’m dangerously close to collapsing from exhaustion. We ride the downtown B train together from 86th Street and change to the C at 59th because it passes through Penn Station while the B doesn’t. As the train is slowing to a stop at Penn, we say our good-byes before the doors slide open and I step out of a subway car for the last time in what will probably be a while.
Fortunately I don’t have to wait long for a Babylon-bound train back to Seaford, but once again I’m stuck in an old beater, which means that I won’t get to ride in one of the sparkling new trains this time around because I don’t have to change at Jamaica. That’s okay, though, since this old train I’m sitting in right now may have been one that passed by a house in East Rockaway thirty years ago, much to the excitement of a wide-eyed two year old with his hands pressed against the windowpane who is still alive and well at this very moment. ▪
More than anything, this was an essay of personal indulgence, tapping into something I would have wanted to do as a kid in taking the Long Island Rail Road into the city and riding around the subways all day. I still love those old ’70s movies heavy on the NYC subway scenes—Serpico, Death Wish, and, of course, The Warriors.
At over 10,000 words, I wasn’t concerned about it being published, but it found a home in The Subway Chronicles, which has since gone the way of the EE and the 9 lines.