Ever Since I Been Ridin’

A Subway for New York
David Weitzman

I confess. I cheated.

Making little progress on my stacks of reading material, I started in on the children’s novel I’d assigned Miss AHC, telling myself it was a noble effort to discover what her sticking point was.

That just slowed things down more.

So when I found myself in the local library, I deliberately looked for something, anything, that could be read and finished in a day. That search was successful, even if it resulted in a children’s book that was mistakenly shelved among adult volumes. Despite my familiarity with the material, I learned a few things and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

David Weitzman is an author/illustrator of children’s books. His specialty is using highly detailed pen and ink drawings to explain how complicated things work. Visit his site and you’ll see that mostly means mechanical items such as steam locomotives and early automobiles.

Peter Cooper, 1791-1883
America’s 1st railroader

Though it’s hard to remember, those were once cutting edge technologies, too. Someday, people may be as perplexed by references to Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen and Mark Zuckerberg as (I’m betting) younger folks might be by Peter Cooper and Karl Benz. 

I wouldn’t count on detailed drawings, though. The insubstantial nature of things digital argues against such an approach. Open the hood of a classic car and I, at least, want to know how it all works together and what’s happening inside the parts I can see. That even holds true about old radios and maybe tube amplifiers. Digitize it and my curiosity is severely diminished; all I want the darn thing to do is work.

I’m off topic. The New York subway system and I go back to the womb. My dad–a man who at his retirement got to say he fulfilled his childhood dream of spending his life working on trains–spent the biggest part of his  career in the system, beginning with the pre-MTA New York City Transit Authority. The TA, as that originally autonomous body was called by insiders, dominated my formative years.

Consequently, I’m drawn to almost anything written on the subject. I suspect this book caught my eye not just because of its scant size but because this was a big week in subway news. A fare hike was announced–and the current mayor rode the ‘R’ Train.

Before NYC Transit and the MTA, there was the TA. This is the identity I grew up with.

You would think in a town famous for people who ‘ride in a hole in the ground‘ that a short jaunt on the Broadway Local would hardly raise an eyebrow. After all, the previous incumbent, Mayor Mike the billionaire, famously rode the train to work. But hizzoner likes his car and driver (which followed above and met him at City Hall). So goes life in the big city.

Truth is, and I’ve read enough full-length books about the system to be certain of this, subways in New York have always been political. The first system may have involved a sweetheart contract with August Belmont, Jr., he of, among other things, racetrack fame. (I grew up in the town in which that track is located. Even if I’d managed to avoid a subway connection at home it was waiting for me when I learned to print my address.)

A too-long contract guaranteeing a too-low fare eventually did in what might have been a showcase project for private ownership of public infrastructure.  The result was public ownership of two originally private corporations. After that, every fare increase was a political problem for the administration in power.

None of this has much to do with this book, which focuses on something a lot more specific: the building of the first line. Buffs and transit historians know that the first route built was the Broadway-7th Avenue Line, which ran, when it opened, from City Hall to 145th Street.

Say what you will about Bloomberg, he never let ego get in the way of efficiency.

Only later, after acquisitions and machinations, was the line extended into the Bronx, where it comes near the Westchester border in 3 or 4 places. I suspect the tunneling to Brooklyn could yield its own illustrated tale, but that happens after this book. Here the focus is on the primary method used to build subways in New York: cut and cover.

You might think, given the bedrock that makes erecting tall buildings possible, that there’d be a lot of machines boring holes. In reality, they ripped up the street, dug down, put a temporary road back in overhead and moved forward. The mining-like excavation was limited to the northern end of the line, where you can’t avoid the bedrock. There’s a reason the George Washington Bridge is up there, too.

The book does a really good job of illustrating just how they did that as the nearby illustration shows. The text is perfectly adequate for a kid. Do kids care about the politics of transit? A better question is, should they?

A detail from the book. Amazing detail conveyed so effortlessly a child will understand.

I’d answer no. The subway has always been part of my life. I don’t need an app to know where to stand. I could probably transfer blindfolded in even the most complicated stations. Shamefully, I’m not above telling some newly arrived wannabe-Master of the Universe to take the Sea Beach Express or the Eighth Avenue Local.

What’s great about the subway is what’s great about trains, doubled. You stand on the platform, waiting. The breeze picks up ever so slightly, then grows stronger. Maybe a headlight appears.  A rhythmic noise begins and grows and then the consist roars out of the dark and into the station, air brakes pumping as steel wheels roll and skid on steel rails. The doors open and a mass of humans pour out as another stream fights its way in.

It’s magic. And it still moves my little boy heart.

VIDEO BONUS
On the Town, the great 1940s musical from Bernstein, Comden & Green, immortalized the subway in this number:

 

2 thoughts on “Ever Since I Been Ridin’

  1. That slight up-breeze that signals a near approaching train, on a near silent late night platform is a golden sense memory.

    • That’s a wonderfully evocative way to put it. There’s so much going on down there that and I think so many people miss it. I get past the turnstile and I’m a kid again, sucking it all in.

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