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...


RI 360 said...

Thanks for stopping by our little island!

Eric (Roosevelt Island 360)

melissa bastian. said...

Hi Eric. I do actually like your island quite a lot, so I hope you're not taking offense. It does have quite the colorful history, you must admit. I've been by your blog before and find it quite useful; glad you found mine.

melissa bastian. said...

Apparently another RI blogger found my Octagon experience so entertaining that he wrote a whole blog post about it. I feel kinda famous.