Saturday, November 29, 2008

Far from forgetable: the F train.

(Illustration from the New York Times, 2004)

The F train, as far as I'm concerned, is a train of mystery. It goes where no other trains go, dodging and darting and twisting in a huge expanse from deep within Queens, through Manhattan, and on into Brooklyn all the way to Coney Island - but not by the same paths as other Brooklyn trains. It has forged its own path, and maybe because of this it is a train that draws reactions. No one is lukewarm about this line; it is Love or it is Hate. People write about it, make art about it, take video of it. Of all the trains that do go to Coney Island, a guerrilla art group chose this one for its livingroom style attack. It is also an eventful train; just this past June a woman gave birth on it - a woman named Francine, no less. And merely a month previous to that life-giving episode, a man was hit by an oncoming F train at Delancy - and lived.

The F has always been a train of wild times... here, Miss Amanda Brown (of Thibadoux / Chapel Hill infamy) has a quick bite before taking a ride. This pic was actually taken long before my official F train ride, but it was just too perfect a shot not to include here.

In the genre of beautiful women, the F happens to be the favorite line of the stunning and brilliant Miss Sarah Riley, film maker of Che La Ke fame, and as such she finally joined me for a ride.

The F seemed to be doing its damnedest to evade us - we'd been trying to make the journey for weeks and were thwarted by such events as work schedules and sinus infections. Hell, just to get on it we had to ride the E well into Queens - to Union Turnpike - thus retracing in large portions my previous subway journey. At least they were the express portions. Or, well, they would have been, if there hadn't been a "malfunction" with the emergency brake - slowest ride on the E ever. But despite all odds and forces conspiring against us, that mid October day Ms. Riley and I did eventually make it into the depths of Jamaica, where our journey truly began.

When we looked at the subway map with the ubiquitous "you are here" arrow circle, Sarah laughed to herself saying, "Fresh Meadows? I doubt it." It was kind of hilarious. That one's always full of surprises.

We emerged from a fairly unremarkable station to find ourselves on the border between two very distinct neighborhood types. To one side of a major road, which I now believe to be 179th Street, we found QUEENS. The kind of row houses and old lady gardens that one envisions when you hearing the name, thanks to Woody Allen movies and Peter Parker's humble upbringings. I kinda love it. To the other, we found Jamaica Estates, a large development of all-too-manicured houses, perfect sidewalks, and expensive cars. We did, however, find this intriguing mailbox. The most perfect paint spill ever? Perhaps. An interesting side note that came to my attention after the fact: Jamaica Estates is where the McDowell family lives in the movie Coming To America. In case you haven't seen it, that movie is effing hilarious.

Returning to the subway, we came upon a likely commissioned graffiti-style mural - and them is some tough vegetables!

Now, this may surprise you, but for some reason there just aren't very many art installations in the subway stations of northeast queens. Shocking, I know. And since I'd already been through most of it with the E - almost all of it, in fact, since in an absolutely brilliant logistical move all the trains out there use the same wide vein of track - there wasn't really anywhere else to stop until we got to Roosevelt Island. We did pass through the 21st Street / Queensbridge station, a station at which I have gotten out a few times, and also the locale of a very unfortunate event which was to take place only a few days after our ride.

At any rate, about the island. I've talked a good bit about its history in previous posts, so I will only focus now on that day's experience. Sarah and I got out and explored the station, oh so deep under ground, before emerging into the bright blue day and hopping onto the red bus that circles the island's perimeter at a mere 50 cents per ride. For reasons that we did not fully understand, we noticed scores of Hasidic Jewish families seeing the sights around the island; it somehow seemed appropriate to see people in somewhat antiquated dress in a place with such history.

We took the bus up to The Octagon, a truly bizarre establishment. I've done some internet research, and it's rather pricey to get a condo in this converted building - a studio goes for a bit more than what we pay for our one bedroom. There are two extra-special weird things about this particular condo building: 1) they consider themselves to be 'in Manhattan', despite the fact that they're on a different island, because yes technically Roosevelt island is part of the Manhattan borough, and 2) the namesake of The Octagon, the beautiful octagonal building that serves as cornerstone for the L-shaped development and its main entrance, was originally the main entrance hall to one of the most notorious LUNATIC ASYLUMS in the whole country. (Funny enough, as much as they like to tout that the octagonal beauty is "historic" on the condo website, they don't so much talk about what that history might be.) That's right folks, spend an arm and a leg to live on top of the site of the place that Charles Dickens, Nellie Bly, and countless others have written about as a place of suffering and horror. Uh... no thanks?

But, of course, we couldn't resist taking a look inside now could we? We walked in, and the front desk guys were eying us immediately. I imagine they get not a huge number of spectators, but enough that they know what's happening when it happens. They instantly saw Sarah's video camera and informed us that no photography was allowed. No problem, guys. The architects really did do a wonderful job of restoring the structure; the building itself is indeed quite beautiful, with a spiral staircase winding around the perimeter of the atrium. The wings that held cells for patients are long gone; at one point the thing burned to the ground (likely with most of the inmates inside), and it was rebuilt after that, but at any rate all that remains of the original structure is the octagon.

At first the space felt like most newly constructed spaces feel - sort of vacant and dead. But then, all of a sudden, a wave came over me - of panic, of fear, of Very Bad Things. I looked around, and the lobby was still as calm and unremarkable as could be. But this energy was surging through me with a force that made me feel as if I might fall down. I collected Sarah and got the hell out.

We crossed the street to a little area with benches and a sundial, and it took me several minutes of sitting and breathing to collect myself. Now, I am not one to go in for a lot of heebee jeebee mumbo jumbo. But I have this thing with places. I suppose the best way to explain it is that I believe in energy; that a place can be infused with the energies of its occupants if those energies are strong enough, good or bad, and that the traces can last long past their actual presence. I know it sounds a little goofy, and maybe I just watched The Shining too many times when I was a kid. But I've felt many things in many places, and never in my life have I felt anything like that. And I lived in New Orleans for chrissake. Granted, I went in knowing the history of the place, but it certainly isn't what I was thinking of at the time. I was thinking about how pretty it was, and the nice weather, and how yuppies like to live in expensive places with tennis courts. And it just hit me out of nowhere, like a sickness. Whatever it was that happened in there, it is not an experience I have any desire to repeat.

After I'd got myself together a bit, I explained what had happened to Sarah. She's the kind of girl who understands these things and didn't think it was terribly crazy - remarkable, perhaps, but not crazy. When my strength was regained I went to take a look at the sundial that was at the center of our little area of respite. Being placed as it was, directly across the street from the old insane asylum, I found the sentiment rather ironic. (In case you can't read it, it says "count none but sunny hours")

Once we were thoroughly over our Octagon experience, we walked up to the very tippy top of the island, at which there is a spooky little lighthouse built by inmates of the Blackwell Island Prison with stone that was quarried there... yeah, that place is just nuts.

I, of course, had wanted to visit the southern end of the island, at which lies the ruins of the abandoned smallpox hospital. Yeah, seriously. But, for some effing reason, the city has seen fit to fence off the whole bottom fifth of the island and post guards at the gates that allow access. I've made it this far without a police record, and if I'm gonna start one now goddamnit it's going to be for breaking into an abandoned station. Anyway, here is a picture of the hospital that I managed to take from Manhattan's east side. The ruins are collapsing, and there are factions that want them preserved as a historical landmark. There are also idiots (on the internet) who think that the smallpox virus will still be alive and active in the rubble. Um, sure.

We stayed on the island for a long, long time. It's really quite beautiful; I'd consider living there if it wasn't prohibitively expensive, crawling with feral cats, and possibly the most haunted piece of land on the planet. But as it headed toward late afternoon, we realized that we were still pretty far north and had a long way down to Coney. So, back to the subway we went.

This is just not a line with many installations, and the stations that do have them largely also have other train lines stopping at them, which means that I can show the cool stuff to you at a future time. The very next station we passed after resuming our journey was the Lexington Ave / 63rd Street station, which is only vaguely interesting in that when the Second Avenue Subway finally opens up - at this point supposedly in 2015 - that station will be a junction. It seems that there is already a platform for the new train line built and sitting behind a red brick wall; all that must be done to connect the two is to remove it. I hope it's not load bearing. They thought of that, right?

We actually didn't get out of the train again until the end of the line, but as is so often the case in Brooklyn this train came on up out of the ground and gave us some things to look at through the windows. Near the Smith and 9th Street station, which incidentally is both the station with the highest elevation in the entire subway system as well as the terminus of the G train, the most notable feature is the Kentile Floors sign. Kentile is a name quite familiar to me for... uh... professional reasons. Let's just say that, for several decades, they specialized in manufacturing asbestos floor tiles. Ahem. Anyway, it's quite a cool sign, and a nice feature in the skyline.

Paradoxically, just two stops after reaching the zenith of the entire track system, you're back under ground. You are also, I must note, interred only one stop before it, at Carroll Street. This strikes me as very odd, and I really do need to do some investigating as to why they'd turn the subway into a roller coaster for that moment. I'd like to assume there are structural reasons, but you just never can tell.

We rode through the strange and mysterious depths of Brooklyn without incident, but fully in the knowledge that this train did not trace the steps of any other - not the B or Q or N, which all also end up at the massive Coney Island convergence. At Neptune Avenue, there are stained glass installations in the "wind shields" of the platform; I did not, however, manage to photograph them. At the next to last station, West 8th St / NY Aquarium, the exoskeleton of the station itself is a work of art, a glass and steel sculpture resembling a marlin or sea beast - very cool, very massive, very hard to frame properly. And finally, we arrived at the end of the line, the big Coney Island station at which so many trains are anchored.

Naturally we got out to walk on the boardwalk. By that time the sun had begun to set on the autumn day, casting a golden patina over the fading relic. Coney is a place like no other, and yet it is now facing irrevocable change. As of the end of this summer season, the majority of the amusement parks were to be closed down, leaving only those like the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone that have achieved landmark status. Why? Well, to build condos of course. Why else would something special and irreplaceable be destroyed forever?

We walked west, into the wind, into the sunset, Sarah filming bits of beauty in every direction. Perhaps, like New Orleans, this is a place that will retain its spirit regardless of what fate befalls it; maybe its true self will shine through whatever polish the developers choose to slather on. We can only hope. After all, it has seen many changes already and is long past its glory days. After all, with every visit I have wished that I could have seen it in the days of Steeplechase.

After a long and weary day of travel, we two considered dinner in the city but thought better of it and returned instead to our houses - Sarah to her abode in Brooklyn, and I to my Astoria pre-war nest. But the day remained with me, the rhythm of the train continuing its lull like the rocking of a boat will do after a day's travel on the water. Yes, everyone either loves or hates the F train. For me, as far as having to depend on that line, well, I would never want to try. But for an adventure, or a joy ride, or just a unique subway experience, I'll vote love. After all, it wouldn't be the first time that I loved someone, or something, unpredictable.

**See all of the photos we managed to snap hight here.

And for your further viewing pleasure, video snipetts compiled by the lovely VJ Sarah...

Friday, November 21, 2008

Is it because they're at the end of the alphabet?

So, the economy is bad. Obviously that means we should make life more difficult for people who depend on public transportation - you know, the rich and elite.

According to the MTA's new budget plans, released Thursday, we may soon be seeing both an increase in fares across the board and an overall decrease in service. The service cuts will reduce the frequency of trains during non-rush hours, and will also completely ax the W and Z lines.

Raise fares AND cut service? Simultaneously? Really?

Am I the only NYC subway rider who remembers two Christmases ago, when the MTA boasted huge surpluses, and handed out discounted fares for a whole month like they were candy canes? I thought it was stupid then, and now my suspicions have been confirmed.

Speaking of suspicious confirmed, also being cut permanently is G service north of Court Square. Mmm hmm. Tonight I'm riding the new extent of the G line, almost by accident - it's the most convenient way for me to get from my office in midtown to my appointment near Carroll Gardens. I wonder how long it will be before the G is gone altogether? Before they tell us, what, just take the J through Manhattan? Or take one of our wonderful busses? Not the M though, because it will no longer be running into Brooklyn.

Good ol' Bloomberg wants us to tighten our belts and stick this thing out together - good ol' Bloomberg, whose net worth is estimated at $20 billion. Have we mentioned that the MTA's deficit, the one that is purportedly the motive for these cuts and fare hikes, is a mere $1.2 billion? Does anyone else find that frustrating?

Oh, MTA. Why, why must you forsake us all?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

A successful mini-ride on the 6.

Today I finally, finally, finally made my ride around the southern terminal loop to confirm my suspicions about the old City Hall station. Indeed, what I had conjectured is true. Unfortunately, you can't see much, but whatever. It's still awesome. When I made my ride I was in the front of the train, but of course in the R142A's with double panes of tinted glass you can't really see through the front. I want to try it again in the back, and in the daylight because apparently the skylights are no longer boarded up. I'm getting mixed stories on that one.

On the way down, I was also able to spot the fabled 18th Street Station - man, is that some serious graffiti.

Anyway, at the moment I'm allowing my creative worlds to collide, and my 6 train ride got incorporated into the novel I'm writing for NaNoWriMo. The passage goes something like this.
Once her friend was fed she had to leave; there was nothing else to be done, no reason to be foisted upon the girl, and anyway it was difficult to watch her like that. The day kept getting colder and windier though, and as Kansas had had quite enough of being cold she decided it was a good train riding day. She rode the N train the wrong way, up to Ditmars, and then waited for it to turn back in the other direction toward Manhattan. Perhaps, she thought, she'd ride all the way to Coney. She'd forgotten though that they'd be doing construction on the tunnel all month, and at Queensboro Plaza she was forced out onto the outdoor platform to wait for the 7 into the city. She rode it to Grand central, where she caught the 6 train headed south. She'd long had a bone to pick with the 6, and it was time that it be addressed.

A few stops passed uneventfully: 33rd Street with its oddly looped seat poles, 28th Street, 23rd Street utterly boring. After 23rd Street though, her pace began to quicken, and she moved to the windows at a set of right hand doors. As they left the station, she cupped her hands around her eyes so as to see better out the window past the glaring reflections from the lights inside the train; for a few moments she was only staring at the rapidly moving walls. It was dizzying. And then suddenly, the wall opened up before her into a wide platform, with intermittent poles. It was an oddly shaped space full of geometric angles, and every square inch had been covered in graffiti since the station had been abandoned. No longer a rumor, she had seen it with her own two eyes: the 18th Street Station. She wondered what had happened to the entrances above. Had they been bricked shut, paved over? She would have to investigate, see if there were traces to be found, clues to the former existence of the passageway.

This train held further mysteries, so before the doors opened at Union Square she took a seat, knowing full well the flood that would be arriving momentarily. They passed Astor Place, with its odd beaver reliefs as tribute to the Astor family who made their fortune in pelts. They passed Bleecker, name of origin unknown, but it might have been her favorite street in the entire town; she had walked it end to end more times than she could count. That station connected with the Broadway Lafayette station of the F and V lines, with its odd metal cones perforated with glass circlets, which flashed lights at indeterminate intervals. Next Spring Street, the epicenter of the SoHo shopping district – Kate's Paperie and Spring Street Natural and Pylones a stone's throw. Then Canal Street, the ubiquitous street name phenomenon in every port city, here the gateway to the ever expanding Chinatown. And finally Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall... or at least, what they were calling the City Hall station these days.

The original City Hall station, opened in 1904 complete with chandelier lighting and amid much fanfare, had been closed for decades. Because of its location directly beneath City Hall, it was designed as the “jewel in the crown” of the whole Interboro Rapid Transit system. People stopped going to the station, though, because of the much larger Brooklyn Bridge station only a block north which had express service... How quickly they forget. And so, the station was retired in 1945, the skylights boarded up, the entrances sealed, the the chandeliers allowed to crust over. It had only been open for 41 years, so in fact had been abandoned far longer than it was ever used.

But. The 6 trains, upon finishing their southbound route at Brooklyn Bridge / City Hall, needed a way to get to the uptown bound platform four tracks over. The way they did it was to loop through the old station. Or at least, this was her conjecture. She'd looked up old track maps and it all made sense, all fit together. She wanted to find out.

When her train pulled into the station, she sat tight, listening. Sometimes the trains got pulled out of commission at this point, sent straight back north to Pehallam Bay. That would be bad. Or maybe not; it would be an adventure, but the MTA officers likely would not be terribly pleased upon discovering her. The announcement was made though: “This is the last southbound stop on this train; the next stop on this train will be Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall on the uptown platform.” Perfect.

The train sat for a few minutes with the doors open, and then it sat for a few minutes with the doors closed. And then it began to move. She could feel that they were traveling through the wide arc of the old paths. She waited patiently by the doors, on the righthand side of the car, watching, watching. And then there it was. It was indeed a short platform, very short and not very wide. City Hall was spelled out in tiling like in so many of the old stations. In the middle of the platform there were stairs leading up to a mezzanine level; she believed this was where most of the resplendent features of the station lay. She wished, though, that she could see the ceiling, vaulted and arced with leaded skylight detailing...

It was over all too quickly. Her train passed the platform in a matter of seconds, and then waited at the end of the loop for several moments in deafening silence for clearance to enter the uptown 6 platform at Brooklyn Bridge. Overhead, a 4 or 5 train roared by every few minutes. As they finally emerged from the tunnel, she thought, this city is amazing.

Emerging into the great circle that held the Ugliest Fountain, she found the world dark despite the early hour and colder than ever. Tonight she would not be able to sleep in her studio, with the bone-chilling winds making her old jaloused window rattle loose in its wall of glass brick, and she still without a proper blanket. She wondered what had become of Mr. Norris's things after he had passed. And then a vision in her memory made her stop dead in her tracks: at the very end of the Old City Hall Platform, there had been something. Someone. Standing, stoic. The goat, sturdy as always, patiently chewing cud.

I'm throwing in this youtube video I found, because it shows exactly what I was able to see on tonight's ride of City Hall. Whoever shot this is a lil bit goofy, but that's alright.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Subway riders vote for president too: EVERYONE VOTES ON TUESDAY.

* * * PLEASE REPOST! * * *

It seems that someone or someones have been circulating flyers, at least in Virginia and New York and possibly elsewhere, that say something pretty ridiculous. The flyers have an official looking state seal on them, and claim that due to the high expected voter turnout republicans will vote on Tuesday and Democrats will vote on Wednesday.

THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE. That may seem obvious, but who knows. All kinds of crazy shit happens with elections these days, and there are plenty of kids voting for the first time in this election. So let's get it out there real clear: It is not true in any state or district. It is a fallacy; personally I think it should be a felony. Regardless, please just tell everyone you know. Spread it around the office. Tell the fam. Everyone, and that means EVERYONE, republicans and democrats and greens and independents alike, VOTE ON TUESDAY. Again, EVERYONE VOTES ON TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 4TH.

Besides that, contrary to what flyers in Philadelphia might state, voters with outstanding parking tickets or previous convictions will NOT be arrested for turning up at the poles.

It's not as if the president is elected by popular vote anyway, but that's a debate for another day and beside the point anyway.

To the criminals that are trying to throw the election by such absurd methods, I have only this to say: Yes, tomorrow a black democratic man may be elected as president. COPE.

And p.s. - No, I wouldn't approve of these tactics if they were aimed in the other direction. It is wrong, period.