I heard whisperings on an earlier nostalgia train trip that the Lo-V cars would be running in September as some sort of promotion. I had to find out details! A few days before the first weekend of the month, and concurrently with my asking around, the media picked up the story (I thought it was supposed to be 100% viral marketing, oh well).
Of course I couldn’t stay away – just a Metrocard swipe ($2.25) to ride these beautiful old machines every single weekend in September? What a luxury!
Since the 1 train wasn’t running between 242nd and 168th Streets for weekend construction, I hopped in my car and drove down to 96th Street and meet the train. Coffee and bagel in hand, I found a cushy parking spot on a section of West 93rd Street currently being resurfaced. I got there in plenty of time and strolled over to the 96th Street station.
This station is a place I’d been many times. It’s the northernmost point at which the local (1, my train) and express (2, 3) trains on this line both stop, so I often transfer here. A few years ago the station was entirely underground and the passageway between the uptown and downtown platforms was a low, foul-smelling corridor. More recently construction workers had torn into the wide median of Broadway at this intersection and completely overhauled the station. Its main entrance is now above ground in a light-filled, airplane-hangar-like, glass structure. Two plentiful rows of turnstiles face each other, and four open stairways lead down to the two platforms. Even on this overcast day this street-level room was bright.
I swiped in and went down the downtown platform stairs. Ever since this new construction I’d noticed the relative openness from the platform up to the street level. If you stand in the right place you can see a shafts of light coming down around the stairwells.
I paced the platform a bit, looking for the familiar railfans and sightseers with cameras who frequent the nostalgia trains. It’s strange, but spotting these groups of people, even if the particular individuals are unfamiliar to me, is always such a reassuring sight. It tells me I’m in the right place at the right time, and to a certain extent around people with similar goals.
I nervously sipped my iced coffee. Even with this small amount of reassurance I always get these crazy nerves about nostalgia train trips (and perhaps all excursions). I’ve been trying to figure out for myself why that is, though with not much of an intent to change it. There’s a feeling of unknown – both in the human interaction and the logistical sense. Who will I see? Will things be awkward? Will everything go smoothly? What if something unexpected happens? I’m a planner, so the unknown is somewhat frightening. And there’s usually a time constraint – wake up, get ready, don’t forget your camera, and don’t get there late. Time crunches always stress me out. Finally, it’s the anticipation: the excursions give me such an extreme sense of euphoria. It reminds me of how I could never fall asleep on Christmas Eve because what awaited Christmas morning was so exciting. Indeed, I similarly sometimes have trouble sleeping the night before an excursion.
Though the train came just a few minutes after noon, it was none to soon for my nerves. I wanted to hug it as it pulled into the station. Railfans mobilized and I happily skipped on board with them.
I first walked from car to car to locate my train driver friend. We chatted for a few minutes.
Between sentences I looked up and around at the train. While it was covered inside and out with Boardwalk Empire advertisements, I was glad to see that they were done in a tasteful way. Aside from the Facebook mentions, they actually could have been from the time period they represented.
I enjoyed the familiarity of the train, this was the same one I’d ridden on in May. The fans and open windows blew the wind through my mostly-pulled-back hair. The train smelled of old and oil. She groaned to start rolling and had a low, powerful grind as she whipped through the tunnel on the express track. This was nothing like the high-pitched clattering and squealing of modern trains! The lights were dim incandescents that flickered every once in a while over rough patches of track. I smiled and closed my eyes for a few seconds, absorbing the experience with my other senses in a ritual I repeated several times that day.
Far too soon we’d reached the 42nd Street/Times Square station. “Last stop, last stop!” called the MTA workers. We all began to shuffle off, some tourists hanging back to snap one last picture of the mostly empty train.
I stood and stared at the beautiful antique train as it sat for a moment then, with a “toot toot,” went on its way. It was time for it to turn around so it could head uptown.
Once it was out of sight I climbed the stairs and hustled across to step down the stairs to the other platform, unsure of how long the relay (that means turnaround!) would take. Periodically I poked my head out over the yellow bumpy part of the platform, seeing if I could see our train. A few normal, modern trains passed by before our beauty arrived.
We roared up towards 96th Street, stopping again at 72nd Street on the way. Our short, 4-car train stopped in the middle of the platform, causing passengers (including me, on several occasions that day) to run down the platform to board this special ride.
In general people’s reactions were quite hilarious. Some stared, mouths gaping and/or cell phone cameras clicking from the opposite platform as we went by. At stops, some took tentative steps forward, looking as if they really wanted to be a part of it, and asked, “where is this going?” Some boarded blindly, found out we were only traveling between three express stops, and got off to find a normal train (that behavior I will never understand).
Once on, the hilarity continued. Railfans obsessively documented the experience or enthusiastically discussed this and other trains with their buddies or unwitting strangers. Tourists and natives alike snapped pictures with devices ranging from old candy-bar style phones, to smartphones, to expensive cameras. Awestruck passengers read the signs to each other: “Boardwalk Empire… huh…” and “This says ‘I was born in 1924!’ 1924, honey!”
I walked from one car to another and rediscovered one of the joys of the earlier Lo-V trip – these train cars have vestibules at the ends. They’re like little dark, secret hiding places. This day they served as a refuge from the flash photos, zooming videos, and passenger chatter. I wished I could spend all day in this little space. One moment I faced the big sliding door, the fingers of my outstretched arms just barely touching the sides of my tiny “room”. The next I braced myself for a stop or start, discovering each different surface my hand and arm could rest on for support.
I was also fascinated by what I could see rushing by from my little hiding spot. Local station platforms were blurs of relative brightness. We were still for a moment at 72nd Street and I spied across to the platform where people waited for trains bound in the other direction. At one point a 3 train passed us. I stared, seeing who on that train noticed this strange beast next to them and who didn’t bother to look up.
I was jarred out of my secret world by our arrival at an end station again. I think every time “last stop” was called out that day I grimaced.
I stayed with the train until she pulled away, then it was up and across to the other platform again.
It was hot underground. This I knew – my hair went up in a ponytail in the first five minutes, and I had been sweating. The heat and the gaps between train trips became tiresome already. During the waits I alternated between sitting on a bench, milling around, taking random pictures, and even playing on my phone (something I don’t often do on excursions).
I studied the railfans and others on the platform – perhaps conversations and interesting or strange people could make time pass a bit faster.
I counted the normal trains that went by in between. Sometimes it was two, sometimes three or even more. Always, the sights and sounds of the Lo-V approaching were welcome ones.
Being on the train was such a sweet, beautiful nugget between laborious, hot, waits on the platform. I drank in my time experiencing the train and peppered in some time to say hello to the workers I always see on these trips.
Conversely, being shooed off the train and into another wait was always so sad. Every deboard it was like a miniature version of what I’ve come to call PNTD: Post-Nostalgia Train Depression. Each time, though, I stayed with the train, soaking up the time with her, studying her features, and trying not to get in people’s pictures until her taillights were no longer visible.
On one exhilarating ride I was at the back of the train. One can’t look out the front or back windows of modern trains, so it’s a luxury to be taken advantage of on the Lo-Vs. On an earlier ride I caught a glimpse of shafts of light coming down from grates at the street level as we whizzed through the tunnel. Now my place at the back of the train allowed me to fully appreciate and capture this sight. Frozen in time though we were going fast, these beautiful visions recalled the Amtrak tracks beneath Riverside Park. This century-old tunnel structure was aesthetically like the abandoned spaces I love so much, but with the added touch of being a natural home for the old train on which we rode.
Between these brief glimpses of the shafts of light, dark tunnel illuminated only by glowing blue and white blobs stretched out behind us. Stations, when we passed them, seemed dim and mysterious.
Too soon again it was time to get off the train, change platforms, and wait in the heat for the relay.
Then happiness to spot the train and be back on it – a seemingly endless loop of rides. Stations, platforms, and directions blurred together.
Once, at 72nd Street, some real characters got on. They were a herd of five or six rowdy young people, somewhere between hipsters and fraternity/sorority members. They wore cut up t-shirts, bandanas, and neon clothing. One girl, the loudest of the pack, wore blue butterfly wings. They boisterously exclaimed over the uniqueness of the train and snapped some photos of each other, but also seemed preoccupied with whatever party they were coming from or going to. They seemed surprised to be ushered out with the rest of the passengers at 42nd Street and stood, stunned by the whole experience, on the platform for a minute.
I tried to immerse myself in my own experience of the train and not all of the different types of distracting people, though they were all certainly a part of my excursion. I focused on myself in the space – and tried to take pictures representing this, my own physical relationship to the train.
It’s always something I think about on excursions – how do I physically and concretely relate to this space? After all, the project that this blog is part of isn’t about these places only historically, objectively, factually; it’s about my relationship to and strong feelings about the spaces. Along these lines, and perhaps because of my dance background, I consider questions like, “what does my body want to do in this space?”, “how does this (physically) feel?” and even sometimes “what do other people think when they see this particular physicality on me in this space?” I use my body to drink up the experiences – in this case to connect with the living, breathing beast of the train in motion.
The next trip I rode up front with my train driver friend. On this run the old train stalled out. Another MTA worker rushed to her aid, briskly popped open a metal panel as large as a door, and flipped a switch to restart her. I seized the opportunity to see the switches and circuits behind this panel and marveled. (Disclaimer: I don’t know the technical names for anything in this paragraph.)
She stalled once more during this run, but kept going after another kickstart. All too soon it was time to hop off again and say goodbye for the relay.
As with most every stop, the platform was a flurry of activity as people snapped photos and tried to stay out of the way of their fellow shutterbugs’ shots.
More waiting in the sticky heat for that welcome sign – two red lights on top, two white headlights below – that signaled our train was coming.
Another ride, sights flying by too fast, as if the entire 54-block journey lasted only two minutes. Another ejection, another wait, another relay – some intervals longer than others.
As the day wore on, the train had been getting more and more crowded. But now as we neared the end of the day of trips the crowds waned just a bit. This gave me more time to revisit and more deeply experience the details of the train.
The cushiony but roughly-textured wicker seats seemed quietly architecturally powerful in their long, uniform rows, now uninterrupted by sitting humans.
I walked from end to end, passing the conductor. When stops approached he stood outside(!) between the two middle cars, one foot on a tiny ledge on each car, watching for his signal to close the doors. I thought how exciting and dangerous it would be to do this job, and wanted very much to try it.
Too soon and not soon enough, I could feel it was the last ride. I looked at my phone for the time – yep, they could only fit one more in before six. I started whimpering internally. I’m always so upset when these trips draw to a close. It’s as if I think I could live on these trains, in their world, and I would never have to go home to my real life. I tried to calm myself with the reminder that there would be so many more trips in September. I could be back in just six days if I wanted! I went back and forth with myself as we rushed through the tunnel, heartbreak and reassurance.
At 96th, whining audibly now, I bid my train driver friend farewell. One last time I watched the beautiful train pull out. When she disappeared I felt empty, lost. I can’t imagine what tragedy the people around me must have thought I experienced to look so glum. I know well it was visible on my face.
I slowly ascended the stairs back up to the room of light at 96th Street, moping and looking around as if to spot others as sad as I that it was over. A railfan or two did say goodbye to me, but then bounced off with his friends to catch a normal train, unaffected.
Not wanting to go home right away, as if it would be admitting it was all over, I wandered. Maybe a snack and a second coffee would help (I didn’t finish my first but tossed it out so as not to have food or drink on my sweet train). I acquired these items and took a seat on a bench across from the 96th Street station I’d spent so much time underground in that day.
I looked all around at the pedestrian traffic. So many people going about their normal day, unaware of the nostalgia train and of this person, me, sitting there so affected by it. My sad eyes felt deep and piercing, critical of this normal world I was dumped back into.
In no hurry, I eventually found my way the few blocks back to the car. I tried to cope further by catching glimpses and snapping blind (not looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD screen) pictures of some of my favorite infrastructural places on the drive home: Inspiration Point, Billings Terrace, and the Broadway Bridge.
Nothing quite lifted me out of my funk, though. It usually takes me a day or two after this kind of long, intense excursion to really recover and feel back at home in my real life.
I began planning and looking forward to riding these beauties again the next week.
Other photos from the day:
Want to experience these Boardwalk Empire Lo-V nostalgia trains? You can! Here are the details:
- They run on the 2/3 line, express track, express stops, between 96th Street and 42nd Street/Times Square (that’s 96th-72nd-42nd-72nd-96th, etc.)
- 12PM-6PM every Saturday and Sunday in September, 2011
- Just swipe your Metrocard and you can ride as many times as you want
- For more information, see the Boardwalk Empire promotion page on the MTA’s website