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Memories in Transit, On the Nostalgia Train

New York Times, June 29, 2001

On a recent Sunday morning, the 59th Street A train platform was busier than normal for a rainy weekend. Families and a stream of rain-drenched runners, fresh from the Central Park Father’s Day race, were descending the stairs when they encountered a mysterious empty subway train that roared into the station, slowed and sped up again without taking on passengers.

Annoyance turned to amazement when some in the crowd noticed that the train was an ancient dreadnought, something out of a time warp. But what they saw was no apparition. It was a brace of vintage 1927 D-type Triplex cars that make up the Nostalgia Train – one of several tours given by the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. The train was headed to a turnaround spot uptown so it could return to 59th Street and pick up passengers for a journey into the past.

I first took the Nostalgia Train several years ago when my wife gave me tickets for my birthday. A longtime subway enthusiast, I confess that I am not above using a friend’s children as excuses to visit the Transit Museum repeatedly. After we moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn Heights, a few blocks from the museum, I became adept – much to my wife’s dismay – at steering unsuspecting visitors toward the exhibition.

It was during our first Nostalgia trip that I realized I wasn’t alone in my passion. Arriving 15 minutes early, Helen and I discovered a line of 300 people wrapped around the block. There were a lot of children, sure, but a large portion of the crowd resembled the wise-cracking, quick-witted eccentrics one finds in Saul Bellow novels.

The most arcane details about subway cars, routes and stations were bandied about with the good-natured competitiveness of teenagers swapping baseball statistics. I could barely contain myself when a young buff-in-training lamented the passing of a subway line whose vintage made it doubtful that even his father would have been old enough to ride it.

This year’s Nostalgia Train route begins at Columbus Circle and goes to the Transit Museum in the vacant Court Street subway station at the corner of Boerum Place and Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn. After a one-hour visiting stop at the museum, the train moves on through the heart of Brooklyn and Queens, over Jamaica Bay to Rockaway Park, the end of the line. (In other years, the destination has been Coney Island.)

The Nostalgia Train’s passengers hadn’t changed much since my last trip. We had hardly pulled out of the 59th Street station when I encountered a pair of die-hard buffs, two hirsute middle-age men wearing blue T-shirts and caps that read “Metro,” spelled out in official-looking typeface. One, Howard Dennis, is an engineer for the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority, where his job is “to make sure the third rail stays hot,” he said. He and his friend took an early morning Amtrak train up from Washington for the trip.

Another buff named Ken, a mustachioed electronics salesman in his mid-30’s, displays the digital video camera he’ll use to record the entire trip from his hard-won perch at the front of the head car. David Vilabrera, a municipal health-care worker, said his family has “subways in its blood.” His father was among New York’s first black conductors, and his wife’s father worked in the system as well. As a child, Mr. Vilabrera would often ride along with his father, and today he has brought along his brother-in-law, daughter, son and two nephews.

The Class of the Rails

The D-type Triplex is one of the most renowned conveyances ever to roll along New York’s tracks. The Triplex consists of three cars permanently joined into a single articulated unit. (One set of wheels does the work of two. Instead of each section riding on its own, the center section shares wheels with the car in front of and behind it.)

The Triplex entered service on May 19, 1927, and the last one was retired in 1965. Elegantly appointed with fans, woven rattan seats and wide doors, its cars are connected by an enclosed, swiveling compartment so that riders can move from one unit to another without being exposed to the elements.

The Triplex was also the first subway train to feature illuminated signs at both ends of every car, as well as at the sides, indicating its route and destination. If the sign was white, it meant the train was going through the Montague Street tunnel; green meant it was going over the Manhattan Bridge. And the Triplex’s great weight – at more than 200,000 pounds, it is the heaviest car ever used by the New York City subway system – gives it a legendarily smooth ride.

Solid engineering notwithstanding, the fact that the Triplex is still running 75 years later results from the efforts of Mike Hanna and a crew of volunteers who work on it Tuesday evenings in the Coney Island yards. Mr. Hanna worked for the Transit Authority for 46 years before retiring in 1995. At one point, he was in charge of the entire Coney Island maintenance shop, which is, he notes with pride, the largest in the world. “There are about 14 of us who show up on Tuesdays: an L.I.R.R. engineer, a schoolteacher, a motorman, a guy who owns a body shop, a trackman, even a mortician,” he said.

One of Mr. Hanna’s volunteers is Alex Bockstein, a paralegal in Brooklyn, who is also the chairman of the Urban Transit Club. “The Triplex just happens to be the best car that the T.A. ever had, bar none,” he said. “As a kid I used to ride it on the Brighton Line.”

Owning the Underground

Like the subway obsession of most of those I talked to, mine grew out of the experiences of my youth. At the end of spring, when school let out and most kids I knew went off to camps in Maine or New Hampshire, I’d call up a friend, grab a few tokens and head underground. We considered ourselves intrepid subway explorers, urban spelunkers. During the hours commuters were ensconced in their offices, we imagined that the subways belonged to us.

While some people feel trapped underground, I felt only liberated by the subways; they were my escape to another world. I still remember the excitement, at age 13, when my friend Anthony and I discovered an unlocked conductor’s booth and pretended to open and close the subway’s doors at each stop.

I remember my relief when, in my late teens, I returned to the safety of the subways during the summer I was a messenger, after spending a terrifying week navigating my bike through city streets. When I worked in Columbus Avenue restaurants during college, I was shocked to discover how crowded the subways were at 3 a.m. Riding the subway at night felt completely different from riding it during the day. I was being initiated into a secret society: the brotherhood of waiters, musicians and hipsters who owned the subways in the hours before dawn.

Certain locales conjure up powerful memories. The marbled Rockefeller Center station where I’d visit my father’s office and then spend hours browsing at the Gotham Bookmart. The elevated 242nd Street station, swaying gently when the No. 1 train ground to a halt at the end of the line, exhausted from its long run from South Ferry, its brakes exhaling loudly. The cavernous 181st Street elevators that lifted me to Washington Heights, where I’d overhear dapper elderly emigres speaking Yiddish and German.

These memories were reinvoked by the first stop of my current ride. At 10:30 the Nostalgia Train pulled into the lower level of the Transit Museum in Brooklyn. With subway cars from every era sitting on tracks – as well as trolleys and steam trains – the museum is the opposite of everything one associates with subways: quiet, cool, usually empty. There are plans to close it for renovations this October, and even talk of opening the long-dormant City Hall station as a Manhattan branch in time for the system’s centenary in 2004. “Our hope is to reconstruct the original 1904 opening of the subway system as accurately as possible,” said Mark Watson, the museum’s director of education.

New York held a full-blown celebration when the subway opened on Oct. 28, 1904. All that week, courthouses, offices and shops flew flags and displayed bunting; a series of parties commemorated the event. Thousands gathered at City Hall for the dedication ceremony that morning, and 110,000 riders swarmed onto the subways when they were opened to the public that evening.

“All the afternoon the crowds hung around the curious-looking little stations, waiting for heads and shoulders to appear at their feet and grow into bodies,” The New York Times wrote. “Much as the subway has been talked about, New York was not prepared for this scene and did not seem able to grow used to it.”

The first line was the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), 28 stations from City Hall to 145th Street. The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, later known as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit (BMT), opened in 1915, followed by the Independent City Owned Rapid Transit Railroad (IND) in 1932. In 1940, the city purchased the BMT and IRT, becoming the sole owner of all of New York’s subways and elevated lines.

Little of this comes as news to Timothy Chang, a 10-year-old transit buff who is on the Nostalgia Train with his mother, Blanche Chang. Timothy, who lives on Northern Boulevard in Queens, can hold forth on the shortcomings of rerouting plans for the G and B lines. He is something of a transportation visionary and occasionally sketches imaginary maps for improving the system. “If I don’t get a job in the subway, I was thinking of being a teacher,” he said. “But if I do get a job in the subway I want to be a conductor.”

Capturing the Experience

When the trip continues at 11:30 a.m., a scrum immediately forms at the front window as half a dozen men jockey to position their cameras for the perfect shot of the oncoming track. The train’s steam whistle is deafening when used underground. When we finally emerge into the light at Grant Avenue, in order to head south toward Aqueduct Racetrack and Kennedy Airport, the photographers grumble that the rain on the window will blur their videos.

Mike Sileno, 47, who grew up in Brooklyn and lives in Hillsborough, N.J., explained that there is a market among buffs for audiotapes and videotapes of subway rides. “I guess you can play a tape of subway sounds in your car going to work,” he said with a shrug. When prodded, he admited that he owned a few tapes himself (videos from the 1950’s and 60’s), although he claimed he “got them on a lark.”

Mr. Sileno was there with his high school friend and subway buddy, Joe Cunningham, an amateur historian who occasionally guides tours for the museum. Mr. Cunningham wrote a three-volume history of New York’s subways and specializes in this glorious stretch of the IND line, which takes us across Jamaica Bay, over Broad Channel and on to Rockaway. “This wooden section would dry out and often caught fire, so the Long Island Rail Road was happy to sell it to the city,” he explained.

With water on either side and the salty smell of sea air filling the cars, the level of excitement rose and almost everyone stood up to take in the extraordinary view. At the end of the bay we passed a group of stilt-born houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the Mississippi Delta and pulled in to the Rockaway Park station 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Braving the rain, a few buffs struggled out onto the beach; most others made a beeline for the Beach Club restaurant, which was crowded with families out for a Father’s Day brunch.

At 2:30 p.m. a conductor intoned a dramatic “All Aboaaaaaard!” and the Nostalgia Train started back toward Manhattan.

With his wife and daughter napping in the corner, Garry Konner, an electrical engineer from Seagate in Brooklyn, said that, despite the rain, this trip compared favorably with others he had taken. “I’ve been on all the nostalgia trains, the tours of the Sixth Avenue Line, Eighth Avenue Line, the Canarsie Line,” he said. “We’ve taken the Tuesday night tour of the Coney Island rail yards three times. When my son can’t make it, I take my daughter along.”

Mitchell Clark, 7, is probably not the only one who wished the trip would never end. He was visiting his father from Omaha and said he, too, wanted to be a subway conductor – although he wanted to work back home. “I’ve been looking around for subway stations just about everywhere in Omaha,” he said, “but I haven’t found one yet.”