I'm a New Yorker and I've been riding the subway pretty much from the day I was born. That's why I have no memory of my first subway ride. It happened when I was too young to form long-term memories. That's one difference between native New Yorkers and people who move here as adults: new arrivals always remember their first ride.
In the 1970s, when the subways were in decrepit condition, muggings were routine, and the fare kept rising, from 20 cents to 30 cents to 35 cents, I was living in Brooklyn and going to school in uptown Manhattan. My commute took well over an hour each way, not counting the walks to and from the stations. In my freshman year at City College, before I found a quicker route that involved fewer trains and more walking, I took the F train from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Jay Street/Borough Hall; then the A train to 59th Street/Columbus Circle; and finally the No. 1 train to 137th Street/City College—and I somehow made it to an eight o'clock History of Architecture class on time.
I spent so much time on the subway, it felt like my second home, though not as much of a second home as it was for a guy sitting next to me on the A train one morning, on his way to school. He had a portable typewriter in his lap and was tapping out a term paper due that day, as he told me when I asked.
Because of the pandemic, I stopped taking the subway for more than four months, from late February into early July, even for trips to distant neighborhoods. Despite what I'd read about the relative safety of New York's mass transit system, and the fact that ridership had declined by as much as 80 percent, the subway still seemed like a place worth avoiding. I walked everywhere.
Then, on two brutally hot July days, I broke down and took the subway. It was an exercise in underground anxiety. Too many people on the platform weren't wearing masks, and though there were never more than a dozen people in the car, there was always at least one maskless rider.
I again stopped taking the subway.
My lack of subway riding had me thinking about the long-ago days when riding the subway was an adventure, and on Saturdays my mother would take me to Manhattan, on the Brighton Express from Church Avenue, usually to visit a museum.
I described those trips in Bobby in Naziland, and so clear was my vision of late-1950s and early-1960s subway cars, some of which remained in service until 1970, it never occurred to me to check the accuracy of my memory against a photograph. Then the other day, I came across the above photo and was pleased to discover that everything I wrote about the subway cars of my childhood is accurate.
The car in the photo appears to be from an exhibit at the New York Transit Museum. You can see the padded wicker seats, the white enamel poles and handgrips, the exposed ceiling fans, the bare light bulbs, and the period advertisements. Though Lux soap and Heinz mayonnaise are well represented, there are no ads for cigarettes, nor are there any Miss Subways posters.
My nostalgic subway reverie has since ceased, and I again find myself longing for pandemic-free days when taking the A train uptown to Harlem is routine, and a pleasure trip to Brooklyn, across the Manhattan Bridge via what used to be called the Brighton Express, doesn't seem like a reckless act of life-risking insanity.