For a lot of people in New York City, riding the subway is a way to get from point A to point B, and if there’s a point C, you could take the D to 7th Avenue for the E. From where I lived in Brooklyn, the closest I was to Dino’s Wonder Wheel or a Coney Island hot dog was the F train, from the G. To a lot of other people, this just sounds like alphabet soup, and I can’t say that I blame them.
I’m a bona fide resident of Brooklyn, New York. I was born in St. Mary’s Hospital in Bedford Stuyvesant in March of 1986, and I’ve lived in Bushwick my entire life so far. Back in the late 80s, early 90s, the trains were a mess. Some of the stations were poorly lit, and like the stations, the trains were graffiti-filled. To a lot of people, the subway was a part of the blight that gave New York City its black eye. To me, it’s what gave each borough its character, all for $1.25 (back then).
When I was a kid, a trip on the subway meant an adventure. It meant having fun and taking a grand tour of the city for the price of a slice of pizza and a soda. It meant going underground, and as a kid, there was no commuting; there was just taking the train.
My view of the train was as follows: I would climb up on the seat onto my knees in front of the cleanest window I could find to look at the graffiti on the tunnel walls and to observe the show that the tunnel lights provided at 30 MPH between stations. It was an added bonus to be on one of the older express trains. They were faster. The passengers, wall mosaics, and signage of the local stations would fly by like the pages of a flip book, and every time you’d cross a gap in the third rail, the overhead lights would go out, then come right back on. Couple that with the people you’d see and the occasional musical performances on the platform and aboard trains, the subway was the quickest and sometimes the most interesting way to get you where you wanted to go.
It wasn’t until I was 14 that I started taking the train by myself. I was a student of a weekend program at Lighthouse International in the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan. Along with the soft skills for getting and keeping a job, I also learned how to cook, clean, and keep a tidy home. One of the biggest steps toward independence for me was through my Orientation and Mobility. After I demonstrated to them that I was able to handle myself and get to and from the Lighthouse building safely, I became a part of a small group of people cleared to travel independently. That might not mean much to some of you, but being able to hang out with my friends and then get on that number 4 train to Brooklyn made me feel…human. From then on, New York City was my oyster.
When you think of the New York City subway, you think of commuters – the working class, students, and the like, jamming into these stainless steel, air-conditioned cars. Nobody really knows each other’s destination. The only people striking up conversation are the ones familiar with each other or the ones who are just about to be. Otherwise, you’re either a part of headphone crowd or one of the few people who don’t mind the sounds of the subway clickety-clacking through the tunnel mixed with different conversations and pierced by the occasional announcement by the conductor.
Occasionally, I would be in one of those rambunctious groups causing a commotion. The subway was also a place where I would meet with groups of friends, and we’d ride around the city. From the Bronx to Brooklyn, the Rockaways to the Staten Island Ferry, and right back into the city, we’d share stories and shoot the breeze. We weren’t too pretty. We weren’t too proud, and we were the ones laughing a little too loud. For every story, there was another laugh. Whether it was two random guys screaming at each other from opposite sides of the track, or our imitation of those two guys as we walked to an ocean-side Wendy’s in Rockaway Park near Beach-116th Street and Beach Channel Dr., or to Boardwalk Pizza on Beach – 67 St. and Rockaway Beach Blvd., those memories were etched into our subconscious.
Other times, I’d enjoy the journey to wherever on my own. I’d throw on a pair of headphones, pack a lunch and my camera, and go wherever the rails would take me. As a person who loves being near the water, I’ve always felt a sense of serenity as I looked out at Jamaica Bay on my way toward the Rockaways. This tranquil feeling only got bigger when I took trips out to Long Island and up to the Hudson Valley. For once, I wasn’t in control of something. I wasn’t trying to push forward on some assignment or project; I didn’t need to be overly-alert. I could just be. I wasn’t moving. I was being moved. I wasn’t giving energy.
That’s how I got to work, how I got home, or how I got away from it all, if even for a little while. I got on the train. It went wherever I needed. When I’m not in my truck, the train is still there for me.
We return to the road in our next article! Stay tuned and follow from a safe distance. It’ll be worth the trip.