I’m sweating in my driving goggles as I hurtle down Northern Boulevard in my jalopy. The speedometer needle inches dangerously close to this fine vehicle’s face-melting top speed of 40 miles per hour.
I check my pocket watch. Holy Fats Waller! My train leaves in four minutes! I almost swerve into some aristocrat who is strolling across the street with his mustache twinkling. “Watch yourself, see!” I yell out the window. “I’ll sock you like a palooka!” (That, according to my 1930s dictionary, is an “inferior or average prizefighter.”)
I squeal into a parallel parking spot, race down into a subway station, throw a nickel in the turnstile and am on the platform just as the train rattles in. The train is dark green and welded with visible bolts and is soon filled up with my noisy fellow straphangers. As it clatters to the next station, wind rushes in through open windows and fans chop the air above.
Then I reach into my pocket, remembering that I have the new Stephen King book on my iPhone.
OK, so my car isn’t a Model T Ford and I don’t carry a pocket watch — I’m no hipster. The train fare was $2.50 and what I actually said to the jaywalking aristocrat shall not be printed in this family magazine.
But the 1930s-era train was, quite awesomely, very real.
As a New York City subway rider, I find that the trains do not regularly stir feelings of romanticism and nostalgia inside me.
Maybe I take the wrong subway line. Maybe the No. 7 from Flushing is a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie on steel wheels. And this is not a knock on riding the train in New York. In New York, where all residents must agree that the city has the best bagels and bialys in the world and then get upset when you say you don’t know what a bialy is, we tend to suspect that we also have the best subway system on the planet.
But you ride it every day with so much routine that your feet know your stop without your brain being involved. Sometimes there’s a weird smell. Sometimes your transfer between trains is magically smooth. Sometimes there’s a fire on the track. Never can you hear the garbled but all-important announcements on the public-address system. Usually you just read your book, study your smartphone or listen to music until you get where you’re going and then resume your aboveground, unjostled existence.
Like any commute, the subway ride is the time in between the rest of your life.
From late November through December 2013, those sentimental characters over at the Metropolitan Transit Authority decided to show New Yorkers just how much in-between time has passed while they’ve been doing their thing. Every Sunday, real “vintage” trains — the one I rode was from 1934 — were beckoned from retirement to run along the M Line between Long Island City in Queens and Lower Manhattan.
People rode the trains in old-timey getups, and dance parties erupted with guys in fedoras banging on cellos while flappers stepped the Charleston in the subway aisles. Even more entertaining in my eyes was when a modern-day subway phenomenon clashed with old-school environs.
In recent years, break-dance troupes screaming “It’s showtime!” before spinning on poles and trotting on the subway ceilings have become a ubiquitous hustle in New York. Of course, these dancers had to find the vintage trains and send Adidas sneakers flying on 80-year-old steel.
Today, I ride the noisy ancient train from Queens to Manhattan. My favorite part is the no-nonsense commuters who couldn’t care less about the spectacle. One man grumbles through a Chinese-language newspaper under a menswear advertisement featuring a dandy model and the tag line: “Fits the cravat knot perfectly!”
Whatever a cravat knot was, it was gone by the era of Honey Boo Boo.
Since the days of this relic train, New York subways have hit rock bottom and been remade a couple of times. In grittier days, the trains were covered inside and out with graffiti. There was a horrible thing called “sucking tokens,” when grifters would put their lips up against turnstile slots and — well, do what the name suggests — for the $1.50 coins. (Token attendants started sprinkling the slots with cayenne.) Nowadays, the trains are sleek, perpetually scrubbed silver, and tokens have been killed by the unsuckable MetroCard.
Some things haven’t changed. One of the antique placards on the vintage train features a woman about to smack a large man with a handbag as he leans against the door, blocking it from closing. “Hit him again lady!” reads the sign. “We don’t like door-blockers either.”
The train loudly shudders to a stop at Rockefeller Center, and my legs spring to action. I rush out of the train and up the steps to resume my day.