Monday, July 7, 2008

If you must begin, begin at the beginning: The A Train.

Thanks to Duke Ellington (and songwriter Billy Strayhorn), the A Train may be the subway line best known by non-New-York residents. Originating as the IND Eighth Avenue Line, it began running on September 10th, 1932 with a mere 12 mile trek through Manhattan. It now spans 31, the longest in the system, from 207th street in Inwood (also known as Upstate Manhattan) to three separate ends in Queens: Far Rockaway, Rockaway Park Beach, and Ozone Park.

Of course I'm starting with the longest line. Would I have it any other way? I live nowhere near the A train, and its ends are as distal from me as they can really get while still being technically in the city. As such, I had to hop the A in the middle of the line. Joined by Jonathan, my (life) partner in crime, we caught up with the A at Columbus circle (kindly ignore the ad, which I do not support in any way) and from there jetted express like to the tippy top at 207th. That is, truly, where our story begins.

Inwood is interesting. It feels like New York, that's for sure. But not quite Manhattan, but not some other borough either. It has its own flavor, owing at least in part to that fact that the hills that once covered all of the isle of Manahatta are still prevalent there. And of course there's water to each side of you, and to the north of you, at no great distance. Thus the geography, combined with large basically forested areas, make you feel like yes, you're still in New York all right, but you're sure as hell on the edge of Something Else.

From 207th Street, we walked south to the top of Fort Tryon Park. Within this bastion of leafy green is held The Cloisters, an offshoot of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is dedicated to the medieval period. Little did I know that the thing is practically on top of a damn mountain. I found out pretty quick though. Both the museum and the park are beautiful, and worth the trek, but if you're not good with hills or stairs I would most definitely suggest a southern approach.

From there, we traveled south. We for some reason couldn't find the walking path, so instead took the M4 bus one hop down to 190th street where we re-boarded the A. On the street level was the most beautiful subway sign; I'm sort of dying to know if it lights up at night. Possibly enough to go there at night; we'll see. The entrance to the station is flanked by an overlook and park, a gift of John D. Rockefeller. I heard that guy had some money.

The station, at least at that end, can only be entered by elevator. This struck no small amount of fear into our hearts, based on the other elevators that we've been inside at other such public locations, but our worries were unwarranted. Probably because it is so frequented, it was enormous and clean. We in fact rode down with two MTA sanitation workers.

We resurfaced at 125th street to take a look at the world-famous Apollo theater. We couldn't really talk about Duke Ellington and Harlem without going by the Apollo, now could we? Nope. Of course I've been by it many times. When I first moved here I spent a two month stint at 129th and Lennox - very near the corner of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Boulevards. (Oh yeah, I fit right in.) For green trains, I walked east and passed nothing. But for blue trains, I walked west and passed the Apollo.

The theater was in a state of disrepair for quite some time, but it's recently been refurbished. The marquis is really cool these days; it looks old school, except that the letters change about every thirty seconds because it's actually an LED screen. I appreciate the fact that they kept the vintage look, but now no poor guy has to risk his neck at the top of a ladder, desperately digging through a big envelope of plastic letters for yet another "E".

From 125th, the A makes the single longest straight shot in the system - all the way down to 59th street without missing a beat. Express indeed. Having gotten in at Columbus Circle, and due to the fact that I go there once a week, I had no burning desire to get out. Next stop: 42nd street Port Authority. Also known as the bus station. The station is a little bit bizarre, sort of like a giant mall where all the stores left and cheap chain food schleppers took over every slot. But hey, if you're waiting for a bus, your options for crappy food are nearly endless. You can also go bowling at the biggest bowling alley in Manhattan. There are a few interesting installations there; the one closest to the A platform is a tile mosaic by Lisa Dinhofer called "Losing My Marbles". 42nd street is pretty much all I ever need to feel that way, Lisa.

We did not get out at 34th street, Penn Station. I am not yet ready to face what Penn Station is now; I made the mistake of seeing what it was. Before. We'll talk about it later. Some other time.

Ahh, 14th street. At 8th Ave, that is. This station holds one of my favorite art installations ever anywhere. So awesome! So socially pointed! So utterly creepy! Tom Otterness's "Life Undergound" never fails to fascinate. In all of its bronze incarnations, it is stunning. His work has spread to other parts of the city too; we stumbled upon one of his characters perching on the rocks of Roosevelt Island, and most ironically his little comments on capitalism adorn the entrance to a Hilton on 41st street.

At Canal Street we find a different kind of creepy installation entirely - the birds! Crows, to be specific. "A Gathering" by Walter Martin and Paloma Munoz brings a murder of them right into the station: on the I-beams above your head, and some enormous ones on top of the employee booth, but mainly on the fence-like gates that keep payers in and non-payers out of our beloved two-dollar-a-pop pay per ride. When you're just hanging out and you don't know they're there, and then one or two of them catches your eye, now that's some thing special. 'Specially if you see it twitch.

Zoom, swish, and through the business district we go, into the heart of Brooklyn. We passed through Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a fascination station in my mind in that it holds abandoned platforms, and supposedly windows for a long-forgotten department store. Jonathan Letham gave me this obsession, and I'm going to do my best to get him to edify me. But anyway, that station will be explored on another line, most likely the G.

We didn't de-train again until Utica Avenue. Here we found a charming mosaic installation. First it seemed juvenile, and then we remembered why - the artist, Jimmy James Greene, used images actually drawn by children from various community groups to design the piece. Combined with various pieces of iron grillwork it's a nice effect. I hope the kids got to go see the finished product. Way to be, Jimmy James. Also in that station are elaborate covers for what we think are just ventilation shafts. They add to the overall look quite nicely.

It was now time to ride to the end. Trouble is, as I mentioned before, the A goes all Ghidorah on us once it hooks up into Queens and has three ends. Tricky little minx. I knew I had to go to the farthest end, and that meant Far Rockaway. So away we went. To our fairly vast surprise, we emerged above ground somewhere around 88th street to see beaches, graveyards, boats, and all manner of un-New-York-City-like objects along the rest of the way. At the end, we found Far Rockaway, whose inhabitants were maybe not so very thrilled with having us poking around. We didn't stay for long; only long enough to see a group of Sunday School children outside with their teacher, learning a dance to a new song. And to find a manhole cover made in Long Island City. Go far from home and you find... home.

At that point, I didn't know quite what to do. So I decided that really the only fair thing would be to travel to all three ends. So back on the train we hopped, to Broad Channel, where we actually got on a (full length, nearly empty) Shuttle. The A only travels to Rockaway Park during rush hours, which Sunday certainly ain't. From RPB, it was back to Broad Channel on the shuttle to wait for the real A, along with all manner of rabble rousers coming back from a day at the beach. The A then took us back up to Rockaway Boulevard, where we once again swapped sides to head to Lefferts Boulevard in Ozone Park. And that, my friends, is when we finally reached the end of our journey.

31 miles - possibly and then some, what with our multiple ends and all. Eight hours all told, once we stumbled off the train at West 4th street to grab some real grub at Red Bamboo - we'd been sustaining ourselves all day on some cookies and crackers picked up at a drug store in Harlem.

A long day, a satisfying day, a day on the A.

Next up? Why what else, none other than the IND's B! Tentative date: Sunday the 13th.

**See the full set of photographs from this ride here.

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