Brooklyn Boro

You call that vintage?

January 20, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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So, there will be a last, nostalgic run for the R-32 subway cars. They are a piece of history. They were the first stainless steel cars, bought en masse by the MTA. What they were not, in my lingo, is vintage, as they were called in the announcement of their retirement. Let’s remember the truly vintage cars that preceded the R-32.

The cars of the ‘40’s and ‘50’s were subterranean versions of the tank. First of all, there was nothing pretty about them. They were steel boxes that started out dark and added to their darkness with the various things they picked up on their runs under and over the city. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call them ugly.

They had no air conditioning. During the summer the windows were opened. That made it impossible to talk, even to oneself. The rumble and roar of the train was overwhelming. Add to it the squeal of metal wheels on metal tracks as the train hit a curve—well it was deafening. It was also dangerous. I’ll be straight up with you, I don’t know if I read this in one of the papers that would carry such a story—The News, The Mirror, the Post—or if it was urban legend. I feel pretty sure it happened. A kid, hotdogging it to impress his friends, accepted a dare to stick his head out the window. Coming into some stations, there were steel and cement floor to ceiling columns that separated trains going in different directions or that protected a lane for the express train to whiz by. One of those posts separated this young man from his head.

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In the summer, rush hour riding was like being in a cattle car cum sauna. In those days people dressed. Men wore suits and ties to work. Women looked like they were stepping out of or into a fashion magazine when they were either going shopping in Downtown Brooklyn or midtown Manhattan. Space to move there wasn’t. Lucky you were if you could grab the pole. Otherwise, you were at the mercy of the cars’ swings and sways. You did what the train did. That meant you were pushing up against someone, stepping on someone’s foot as you tried to stabilize yourself, or being pitched forward or backward, the wall of people being the only thing that kept you from ending up on the floor. Being a strap-hanger wasn’t much better as your knuckles turned white in a desperate effort to keep upright.

Then there was this incident. It happened on a blistering weekend day as the train hurtled towards Brighton Beach. A voice was heard emanating from someone too short to be seen in the sweaty masses that filled the car. It said, “Mommy, I don’t feel well.” That was followed first by a retching sound then then a variety of vocalizations of people who couldn’t get out of the way. Fortunately, I was in hearing distance but not hurling distance.

But it wasn’t always summer. The cars did have heat. The heat came from little steam heating machines under the cross-hatched seating that had the give of a stone bench. However, I must admit, after years of use and abuse, they would begin to come apart. People had the pleasure of having stockings ripped, clothing snared, or body parts pierced by a piece of ‘hatch reaching for the sky like a plant seeking the sun. You got to the heater by lifting the fake straw seat. The cars generally had two temperatures: So hot you couldn’t wait for a station where when the doors opened you might have expected the car would make its own weather as the hot air inside hit the cold air on the station. It was in one of these seats that George Metesky, “the Mad Bomber” placed a bomb that blew the legs off a few innocent riders. The other temperature was so cold that you needed to wear gloves to hold the pole or wear heavy pants to sit on the seat to protect your tutu from getting frostbite. This joy came when the heaters didn’t work.

In these box cars, one could walk from car to car. Standing on the walkway was a trip. It moved. Of course, it moved, or the trains couldn’t do anything but go straight. We’d bend our knees and pretend we were riding a wild horse. The conductor, smarter than we, would shoo us away. On both sides, “protecting” us from taking a header onto the tracks from having lost our balance and being pitched onto the tracks in the dark tunnel, were two sets of chains. Some were covered in leather; some weren’t because, I assume, someone had stolen the leather wrapping.

Those who used the subways during this time remember the constant complaints of both the passengers and the people who worked the trains. It was no wonder. The city had three train lines: the BMT, the IRT, the IND. Each was independently owned and independently operated. It was until the late ‘50’s that there came to be a Transit Authority to integrate and operate the system.

This amusement park-like experience cost one thin dime. Then came the first of many denominations of tokens, the first being 15 cents. While there was a token booth to get change and tokens, the turnstile only took a token. With the age of computers, the city finally was able to stop changing the size of the slot as the size and cost of the tokens increased.

That my friends, was vintage.


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