The subway line that was closest to my house was the G line. This line had been built decades before I was a rider and the trains looked like they were better suited for a war zone than a one-fare transportation zone in Queens. The cars were a horrific shade of army green that resembled what you might find inside a used tissue. The train always looked dusty and dirty, like it had just driven through a sand storm and taken a detour to observe some nuclear fallout. The sound of an incoming train barreling into the station was ear numbing, and while this was way before anyone had ever heard the term noise pollution, we were all sure repeated exposure to a screeching train would cause hearing loss. Luckily in the 80’s we all got Walkman players with headphones and opted for losing our hearing in a more civilized and pleasurable manner.
In order to get down to the subway platform, you had to navigate your way down a few flights of stairs that were often covered with cigarette butts, chewing gum, old newspapers, and occasionally someone who was asleep. Once you got downstairs, you had to make sure you had a subway token which was always mixed in with your loose change and took you hours to fish out. But at least there was no real skill necessary for inserting the token into the turnstile slot, unlike today where you get assorted messages after inserting your Metrocard like swipe again at this turnstile, too fast, too slow, insufficient fare, or do not pass Go; do not collect $200. Despite the ease of token insertion, the turnstiles were not without their own problems. They were made of thick slabs of wood that were old and stiff and could knock the wind out of you if you tried to push your way through them using your stomach rather than your hands (which I tried to do on numerous occasions).
Once you made your way through the turnstile there was yet another flight of stairs to descend to catch the train. If you were traveling with an adult, they would force you to take 5,000 steps back from the platform to avoid the obvious…tripping over your shoelace and being catapulted onto the track, landing smack on the third rail.
When the train arrived and the doors opened, you had the option of sitting in two types of seats. One seat had some sort of fake maroon leather that was usually ripped (nothing like the cool, plush pleather at Jahn’s); the other selection was the wicker yellow and green seat that gave your bottom the same sensation as sitting on a splintered bench at the Saxon Hall playground.
Frequently you couldn’t get a seat anyway, because during certain hours of the day the subways were quite crowded. In this situation, you would do your best to find a pole to hold on to. No kid dared lean on the doors to keep their balance, because their mother had already explained another obvious fact; it was quite likely that the wrong door, the one exposed to the open track, would accidentally open while you were leaning on it and you would once again fall on the tracks and die.
There was also the option of holding on to one of the straphangers that were placed on the ceiling of the train, above your fellow seated, more comfortable passengers, but that was never an option for me because I was too short to reach the straphangers. I’m actually still too short, but if I’m wearing my non-Instant Pants, non-altered jeans with high heels, I can loop my pinky finger in the handle and further steady myself by placing my other hand on a member of the nearby Mariachi band that often performs on my train route.
Once we began our journey on the G line, we would look to our parents for instructions on when to get off the train. This was challenging, even for seasoned train riders for several reasons. First of all, none of the train stations that I can remember had subway maps. And the trains that had maps were difficult to read and easily misinterpreted (kind of like the famous illusion that looks like a young woman to some and an old hag to others). If you were savvy enough to figure out the map, it was usually pointless anyway, since by 1972 all the subway maps were covered with graffiti and impossible to read. Stops were sometimes announced, but more often not and frequently any service change announcements were difficult to hear. The conductor’s message was announced over a crackling, buzzing intercom and you would have thought the guy was broadcasting from an Apollo moon mission instead of a few subway cars away. A typical service announcement might sound something like this. “Attention passengers, this train will be making all local stops until #$%* and then will switch over to the #@%$ line and make all express stops until %$#@ Street. Of course today it’s not much better and it’s not unusual to hear, “Attention passengers; there has been an incident at @#$% Street and $#@& people have been taken into custody after police spotted a suspicious %%$$ in lower %$#@.
To make matters worse, riders also had to contend with the extreme weather conditions that are always magnified when you are hundreds of feet below ground. The trains were cold in the winter, but the real memorable rides were in the summer. Trains did not have air conditioning back then, but instead had old rickety ceiling fans that looked like rejected wood token turnstiles and were just as inefficient for cooling or moving for that matter. Sweaty, grumpy passengers would open the train windows because back then you could and obviously the air circulating in an underground 103 degree inferno would bring much needed relief and a pleasurable scent to boot.
As I got older some of the ancient subway lines were replaced and the city contracted with a Japanese manufacturer to give us some spanking new trains with alternating orange and light orange? seats. The only problem was that the average Japanese ass is about half the size of an American one and we were stuck in seats with half our asses spilling into the seat of our fellow passengers. Call me crazy, but I believe there is a direct correlation between the introduction of these trains and the rise of liposuction in the greater New York area. Hey, it’s just a theory.
Despite my griping about the New York City subway system, I actually enjoy train rides and am in awe of the fact that I can travel across four boroughs, get to a beach, a zoo, the Empire State Building, or even the Shalimar Diner for under three bucks.