After Sandy: Memories of the Rockaway Subway
The devastation brought by Hurricane Sandy to New York has dealt an emotional and psychological blow to me. I never thought I would live to see the day that the mighty and invincible New York City subway would be destroyed by nature.
New York and the subway in particular were built to withstand the worst that nature could dish out. Sandy was not the first hurricane to strike New York. I can recall at least 5 hurricanes which destroyed Florida and the Carolinas which didn't make a dent against the city or its subway. There have been dozens of blizzards in my lifetime which struck at New York but never shut down the subway.
Indeed the subway survived 9/11 and even saved hundreds of lives as people took cover in the subway stations as the Twin Towers came down. Before Sandy, I gave no credence to the doom and gloom prophesies of 2012. Indeed, the subway was sure to survive the phony Y2K scare of the year 2000. The NYCTA even joked that the system was Y2K proof. For me the New York City subway was the benchmark of the state of human civilisation. As long as the subway continued to run, then we would be alright. Even if the city was under a vicious military terror regime, as long as the subway kept going, there would still be hope for a better future.
To be sure, I was aware of natural disasters which could destroy the subway. Namely, an earthquake, of which the subway was a sitting duck, and of a tsunami which would destroy the entire city. However, it was beyond my wildest imaginations and nightmares that a simple hurricane, let alone a so-called superstorm would wipe out the subway. But the subway did not survive 2012. I'm slightly freaked.
The image above is from the wiped out tracks of the A train Rockaway line. This was the best and most interesting part of all 710 miles of the subway. Indeed, this stretch made the NYC subway, in my expert opinion, the best subway system in the world. It's now destroyed and the authorities have no idea when it will be rebuilt and restored.
Below is a reprint of a chapter from my most recent novel "The King of the Woods." Here I described every part of the A train between 14th Street in Manhattan all the way out to Far Rockaway and back. The chapter is set on Valentine's Day 1989. It's the longest chapter in the novel. It's my love ode to the subway. What I have always loved and will always love about my hometown is the subway. Even today under totalitarian capitalism, the subway is the only piece of the city which has any human soul left. New York will never be the same again.
On Valentine’s Day Emily and I decided to go out to Far Rockaway. Far Rockaway was located on the eastern end of the Rockaway peninsula in Queens on the city line with Nassau County, Long Island. Far Rockaway was the furthest distance from Manhattan in the city. To get out there we took the A train. The A train was the longest line in the subway system. It was also the fastest line. When it ran express it would reach a maximum speed of 60 MPH. The fastest trains on the rest of the subway system had a maximum speed of 45-50MPH.
The A line ran from 207th in Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan. It traveled down practically the entire length of the island before crossing beneath the East River to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn it ran from Brooklyn Heights through Downtown Brooklyn cutting a corner of Ft. Greene. It ran underneath the entire length of Fulton Street through Crown Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, East Flatbush and East New York. After East New York the A train zigzagged through New Lots before it followed Liberty Avenue. From there it crossed into Queens as it cut across Jamaica Bay to the Rockaways.
During the week the A train made express stops from Manhattan through Brooklyn before running as a local in Queens. During the weekend however, it ran express only in Manhattan and made local stops all through Brooklyn out to Queens. A weekday journey from 125th Street to Far Rockaway normally took about 90 minutes. A weekend journey took 120 minutes. Over night when the A ran local making each stop between 207th Street to Far Rockaway took 3 hours. We made the journey on a Sunday. We took the M101 bus down 3rd Avenue to 14th Street. From there we took the recently re-christened L (formerly the LL) to 8th Avenue where we transferred to the A train. We left Emily’s house at 10 o’clock in the morning. We didn’t get on the A train until 11 o’clock.
The A train was my favorite line not only because of its speed but it also had the R-74 cars. The rolling stock had a diagonal angle at the front and rear of the train. The front and rear doors had long slanted windows which stood nearly 6 week high. They were the best windows for small children to look out from. I was hoping we would get those cars rather than the renovated cars. It turned out that we got the very last original R-74 before they were eventually renovated.
Emily and I stood at the front window looking out. I pointed out the signalization and track systems. Emily was rather impressed by the train for its great viewing platform, the smoothness of the ride as well as the straightness of the route.
“This is the new system.” I started to explain.
“The trains look new.” Emily replied “When was it built?”
“1934? I thought that you said it was new?”
“I mean compared to the IRT and BMT lines the IND is new.”
“What do you mean by IRT and BMT and IND?”
“See the subway was built in three separate phases by different companies. The IRT stands for Interborough Rapid Transit. It used to be a private company. The BMT stands from Brooklyn Manhattan Transit. The IND stands for Independent.”
“That’s weird. Which lines are which?”
“The IRT are all the numbered trains. The BMT are all the lettered trains higher than GG or now G. The IND are all the lettered trains from A to G or GG.”
“I’ve noticed that many of the old double lettered trains are gone. Remember the AA train?”
“Yes, that just changed two years ago actually.”
“I used to think it was weird that there was an A and AA train. Why did they have the double letters?”
“The single letter connoted Express. The A, B, D, E and F trains were express. The AA, CC and GG were local trains.”
“That’s so weird.”
“But now they have gotten rid of all the double letters. For a while the AA was replaced by the K train.”
“The K train!” Emily trembled. “You mean like KKK!”
“Well not quite, it was just one K.”
“I thought it was a bit fucked up myself too.”
“Why was the IND called Independent?”
“Because it was built and owned by the city. It was not a private company like the IRT and BMT.”
“That’s strange. I would think that the private companies would be independent rather than the government system.”
“You’re right now that I think about it.”
“But doesn’t the Transit Authority run the subway?”
“Yes. In 1949 the city took over the IRT and BMT. The private companies went out of business. They went bankrupt so the city set up the TA and consolidated the system.”
“I hear and read about the TA and the MTA. Are they the same or different?”
“The TA was set up by the city to run the subways. The MTA was set up by the State to run all public transit in and out of the city.”
“Sounds complicated. Are they the same?”
“Sort of. The TA only controls the subways. The TA is the subway department of the MTA. The MTA runs the subways, the Metro-North, Long Island Railroad and all the buses though I think that the express bus lines that run to The Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens are still privately owned and operated. But somehow the MTA still regulates them.”
“I’m getting tired Kevin. How much further do we have to go?”
“Well we’re only at Nostrand. We have a long way to go.”
“How many stops?”
“I think we have about 20 more stops.”
“20 more stops!”
By the time we got to Rockaway Avenue 15 minutes later, Emily got bored of looking out the front window in the tunnel. I sat down next to her. A few of the all Black passengers stared at us. We were definitely not regulars. It was not even so much that we were a mixed couple but rather we were obviously a Manhattan couple. To be more precise, I was clearly neither from Brooklyn nor Harlem. I certainly wasn’t from The Bronx. I was clearly from the privileged zone between 14th and 96th Streets.
15 minutes later we pulled into Euclid Avenue. Emily was losing her patience.
“You said that this was going to be a cool and interesting ride! We’ve been on the train for 45 minutes now! You said that the train would go outside!”
“Yes it will.”
“We’re at Euclid. It’s only two more stops.”
“You ate breakfast!”
“I didn’t know we were going halfway to Europe! I would have packed a lunch and brought some snacks if I knew it was going to take this long!”
The train finally emerged from the tunnel to the steel grey mid February sky. Emily and I turned around and stared out the window. Three storey two family houses lined the horizon.
“Where are we now?” Emily asked.
“We’re in Ozone Park.”
“Ozone Park!” Emily giggled. “Is it really called Ozone Park?”
Emily giggled. “That’s one park I would not want to play in! Why is it called Ozone Park?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know?”
“I don’t know! What do you want?”
“You know everything Kevin! Especially about weird things and places. I wouldn’t expect anyone else to know where Ozone Park comes from but from you, I would.”
“I’m not Mr. Know-It-All Emily!”
“Well you sure act like you are!”
“Look it up!”
We pulled into 80th Street-Hudson Avenue where the A line split into two branches. The A line had two destinations. The main branch went to Far Rockaway. The other branch went to Lefferts Boulevard. The Lefferts branch remained on the Liberty Avenue Elevated trestle. The Far Rockaway branch went onto the old Long Island Railroad line.
“Let’s go back to the front window! This is the best part of the ride!” I exhorted to Emily.
We went up to the front window.
“This part was added in the 60’s. It used to be part of the Long Island Railroad.”
“Wow! It doesn’t even feel as if we’re in New York anymore!”
“Wait until we get across the Bay!”
The train sped along towards Aqueduct Racetrack. The scenery became more rural. Aqueduct Racetrack was the only horse racing track in New York City. There were four horse racing tacks throughout the New York Metropolitan Area. Aqueduct was in Queens. Belmont Park was in Nassau County, Long Island. Yonkers Raceway was in Westchester County. The Meadowlands Racetrack was in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Aqueduct and Belmont featured horseback racing while Yonkers Raceway and The Meadowlands featured harness racing.
“Have you ever been to see horseracing?” Emily asked.
“No, not really. I’m not into the horses.”
“I would like to see a horserace once.”
“I think most of the people that go to the races are gamblers. Gamblers are the saddest people I’ve ever seen. Ever notice the guys that hang out in OTB? Every time I pass by OTB, I see nothing but desperate old men.”
“I’ve never paid attention. I like horses. I would like to go to the racetrack to pet the horses.”
“Did you ever go horse back riding in Texas?”
“No, I didn’t. Texas is fairly modern despite being backwards. There were some horse ranches around Vider but I was never really interested in meeting the ranchers. I’ve always wanted to ride horse back. Do they still have the horse stable on the Upper West Side?”
“Maybe in the summer we can take lessons. I’ve always wanted to ride a horse in Central Park.”
The train made its way towards Jamaica Bay. The next stop was Howard Beach-JFK Airport. That station represented two conflicting feelings with us. On one hand, Howard Beach was the scene of the recent racial murder. On the other hand, JFK was the international airport. It was where we would embark from when we moved to London. Howard Beach was a maritime community. As the train went through Howard Beach, there were water tributaries with small speedboats docked. Many of the small boats were on the land for winter. There were many small one storey houses. Howard Beach was picturesque. It was hard to fathom on two levels. On the first level, it was hard to imagine a rural maritime district in a metropolis such as New York. On the second level, it was simply unfathomable that deep hatred and violence was part of the mentality in such a beautiful part of the city.
After Howard Beach-JFK, the train crossed over the water of Jamaica Bay. The track bed was built on a narrow strip of land with the water on both sides. The train ascended along an iron and wooden bridge. The train slowed down as it crossed over the main crossing of the bridge. Below the choppy waters of Jamaica Bay churned. The train descended back on the wooden and iron trestle and back onto land before speeding up again. The train made a direct line on an island in the middle of the bay.
Suddenly a supersonic boom pierced the sky. Emily and I both looked up. An Air France Concord took off from Kennedy Airport. We got very excited.
“Oh shit! That’s the concord!” I exclaimed.
“That’s so cool! It really looks like a bird! Look at its beak!”
“I’ve never seen the concord for real except on TV!”
“I want to fly on the concord!”
“British Airways has the concord as well. It takes only 3 hours from New York to London!”
“Really! Kevin, let’s take the Concord when we move to London!”
“It’s very expensive. It costs one thousand dollars per seat one way.”
“One thousand dollars! Why is it so expensive?”
“It’s supersonic. It travels faster than the speed of sound.”
“That’s no reason for it to be a thousand dollars!”
“I think it cuts the time travel by half.”
“I guess we are just going to take the regular plane then.”
The train sped along on Broad Channel. To the south on Jamaica Bay lay the Cross Bay Bridge and Parkway. To the north lay the taxiways and runways of Kennedy Airport. A line of jumbo jets waited to take off. On the island of Broad Channel the train passed through acres of high weeds. There were very few houses. The February wind raged. The high speed train cut through the high winds creating strong whistling sounds. We were in the middle of Jamaica Bay. The train pulled into the Broad Channel station.
“Does anybody actually live out here?” Emily asked.
“I guess so. I don’t really know. There are not that many houses. I guess the few people that live here do so only in the summer.”
“Are we in Brooklyn?”
“No we are in Queens.”
“We’re in Queens! I never knew that Queens looked like this! I can’t believe that we are still in New York City!”
“I told you this was an interesting ride!”
The train pulled out of Broad Channel and once again ascended the iron and wooden causeway before coming to the main bridge made of iron. The train slowed down again. The train descended slowly as we approached land once again. We came upon the other side of Jamaica Bay.
“Look to the right Emily! See the houseboats!”
“Oh my God! I’ve never seen those before except in the movies!”
The train passed green houseboats and red houses built upon thick round wooden stilts piled into the bay. The train came upon a track switch and turned left.
“Where do those tracks lead to?” Emily asked.
“That’s the CC branch. That goes down to Rockaway Park. Rockaway Playland used to be down there.”
“The CC comes all the way out here?”
“Well it used to. That was actually the longest line. The CC only runs or used to run on Rush Hours. It went all the way from Bedford Park Boulevard in The Bronx out to Rockaway Park. That’s a long way and the CC made all local stops from The Bronx out here. Can you imagine how long that would take? I think it would take at least 3 hours if not more!”
The train ascended higher and ran on an elevated trestle made of concrete. At last the Atlantic Ocean came into view.
“How many more stops?”
“I think there are 5 or 6 stops before the end.”
“This is too long! I’m tired of riding the train!”
To the right of the train, dozens of housing projects stood between the subway line and the beach. I found it odd and unfortunate for the people to live out here. I thought about the isolation and the distance from the rest of the city. It must’ve been really cold during the winter to live right on the ocean. It then occurred to me how odd it was that we were taking this trip in the middle of winter. It would’ve been much better and nicer to do it during the summer.
The train finally pulled into the Far Rockaway terminus. As was customary at the last stop of each subway line, the train made a loud sigh as the motorman removed the brake handle and locked the throttle causing the motor to shut down and the air brakes to release. The sound seemed to reflect a loud “WHEW!” The sound anyone would make after finishing a long hike. The train was tired. We were tired. It was a long and exhausting ride.
“OK! I’m hungry! I want to eat!” Emily said with a growl.
“There’s a McDonald’s right here next to the subway.”
I looked at my watch. The time was 1:20. It had taken us three hours and twenty minutes to get to Far Rockaway from 26th Street and 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. We spent 2 hours and 50 minutes on the subway with 2 hours and 20 minutes on the A train alone. I was just as hungry as Emily. I was tired from standing up most of the journey. We spent one hour in McDonald’s.
We then walked towards the beach. Far Rockaway was the most populated part of the Rockaway Peninsula making it feel like the most urban. There was no doubt that we were in New York City but at the same time it felt as if we had traveled to the other side of the Milky Way.
“I knew New York was huge,” Emily started, “but I didn’t realize it was this large.”
“It’s true. Most people in the city have never been out here. Most people have heard of the Rockaways but very few have actually been out here.”
“I have never even heard of Rockaway until I started listening to DRE and heard the songs ‘Rockaway Beach’ and ‘Rockaway High’ by The Ramones. At first I thought they were talking about rocking on the beach. It sounds like the Beach Boys. I thought they were talking about going to a rock concert on the beach. I thought the two songs were fantasies about going to a beach and high school where there was always rock music.”
“You are so funny, Emily!” I laughed hard.
“It’s true. That’s what I thought. It wasn’t until we went to Coney Island last summer and you pointed out Rockaway before I realized that it was a real place!”
It was a rather long walk from the subway station to the beach. It took nearly 20 minutes which seemed longer in the windy wintry weather. At last we came upon the boardwalk and stepped onto the beach. The beach was deserted of people. There were flocks of seagulls. We were the only humans on the beach. The lifeguard high chairs were turned down on their sides. The surf was rough and rowdy as high waves assaulted the coast with aggressive anger. The Atlantic Ocean combined with the distance of Far Rockaway reinforced the feeling that we were at the edge of the world. We were at the outer limits of New York and the United States. We stopped and put our arms around each other taking in the scene.
“Here we are at last!” I said.
“Yes. Europe and England is on the other side of the ocean.” Emily replied.
“That’s right. Freedom is on the other side. I can’t wait to get to Europe.”
“Me too. I want to get away from this land. It will be so nice to be over in England where there is freedom and no racial prejudice.”
“I really can’t wait.”
“Did you start to apply for scholarships yet?”
“I’ve been really busy with school. I haven’t had time to look into it.”
Emily broke our embrace and scolded me. “Kevin! I told you that you have to apply for scholarships to England! What are you waiting for?”
“I’m sorry Emily! I told you that I haven’t had any time. I am really busy.”
“You’re just being lazy, Kevin! You must get cracking on that. Our future depends on it!”
“I know, I know!”
“Well if you know you don’t seem to take it very seriously!”
“I do take it seriously, Emily! I’m just under a lot of pressure. I am trying to figure everything out.”
“If we don’t get to England by next year we are finished!”
“Have you started to apply or look for scholarships, Emily?”
“Because I expect you to get it.”
“Emily, we talked about this the other week. You need to also look for scholarships. You have to help out as well. I can’t do it alone.”
“You’re the guy, Kevin. It’s the guy’s responsibility to take care of everything!”
“Oh for crying out loud! How can you really be that old fashioned, Emily?”
“How dare you call me ‘old fashioned’?”
“Well you are being old fashioned saying that it’s only the guy’s responsibility. What about women’s lib?”
“You’re being an asshole again, Kevin! You don’t want to be responsible. You’re really irresponsible. Your father’s right about that!”
“Why are you attacking me?”
“Because it’s true. You don’t want to be responsible for anything, Kevin. You don’t want to take responsibility for us. You don’t think about our future. You don’t think about your own future, Kevin! Don’t give me the bullshit about ‘women’s lib’ as a way to avoid your responsibilities to me! I’m relying on you, Kevin and you’re letting me down!”
“OK. Fine, I will look into the scholarships tomorrow. I will go to Mrs. Adler, my Guidance Counselor and ask her about scholarships for England and then I will go to the main library after school to do some research there.”
“Now you’re talking sweetie!” Emily embraced and we kissed.
“It’s cold! Let’s keep walking.” I said pointing to the west.
As we walked along the beach, many jets made their final landing approaches to JFK. There were about 7 consecutive TWA 747’s landing.
“Damn! TWA has a lot of flights coming in today.” I observed.
“I like TWA. I took TWA from Texas back to New York.”
“I wonder if all those flights are coming from Europe. TWA has lots of flights between Europe and New York.”
“When we move to England, I want to fly British Airways. I don’t want to fly an American airline to England. I want to get away from America. I don’t want to be on TWA or Pan Am when I leave the country.”
“You’re right. I want to take British Airways. I really like their commercials on TV!”
“So do I! British ads are so cool. They are done really well. I only watch channel 13 because they have lots of British TV shows.”
“Really? I haven’t watched Channel 13 in years. My father likes that station. He likes their documentaries. I watched it mostly as a little kid. I used to watch Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact and The Electric Company.”
“Oh my God! I loved The Electric Company!”
“Me too! I thought it was so much cooler than Sesame Street.”
“Me too! I like the beginning!”
In unison Emily and I screamed “HEY YOU GUYYYYYYYSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!” We then laughed and cracked up with each other.
“Do you remember the theme song?” Emily asked.
Together we started to sing the Electric Company theme song.
“We’re going turn it onnnn/We’re going give you the pow-errr/We’re going light the darkest night as the brightest day in a whole new way/
“We’re going turn it onnnnnnnn/We’re going give you the pow-errr/We’re going to tell the truest words that you ever heard anybody sayyyy”
I then hummed the tune as Emily sang the high notes “Stepping out in a new wayyyyy! / Stepping it out in a new wayyyy!”
Then together we sang the last stanza: “We’re going to turn it onnnn/We’re going to give you the pow-errrr/Coming down the line as strong as it can be through the currencyyyy/On the Electric Companyyyyy!”
“What I used to like best about The Electric Company were the silhouettes when two people would form the words and the letters would appear.” I recounted.
“Oh my God, yes! That’s so cool! I remember those.”
“I liked the music to it as well.”
“Do you remember the C words?”
“Let’s sing it!” Emily’s eyes lit up with enthusiasm and excitement.
“Do you want to do the ‘ca” sound or do you want to do the rest?”
“You do the ‘ca’ and I do the rest!”
I began to hum the tune and pronounced the C. Emily pronounced the other letters. Then in unison we said the complete word.
“C” I started.
“at” Emily complemented.
“Cat!” We said in unison.
I hummed the end of the tune and in unison we finished.
We laughed and giggled as we continued to walk along the beach. The word play made us recount our time in Flushing Meadows Park.
“ater” I started
“eater” Emily continued.
“heater” I replied.
“Theater!” We finished in unison. We laughed more.
We walked down the beach for one hour. It was getting dark. I looked at my watch.
“Shit! It’s 3:30! We have to head back. I’ve got a ton of homework to do!”
“It’s that late already?”
”Kevin this was such a cool Valentine’s Day! I love you so much!” Emily put her arms around me and kissed. We stood on the beach kissing for few minutes before I ended it and insisted that we head to the subway.
”Kevin this was such a cool Valentine’s Day! I love you so much!” Emily put her arms around me and kissed. We stood on the beach kissing for few minutes before I ended it and insisted that we head to the subway.
The subway train we took back to Manhattan had the renovated cars. We sat in the corner seats and put our arms around each other and rested our heads together. It was the closest in public I ever felt with Emily. Every few minutes she would plant a light kiss on my lips. By the time the train went underground, she had fallen asleep in my arms. She woke up briefly at East New York asking me where we were before dozing off again. She woke up again at Jay Street before returning to her nap. She woke up again at Chambers Street. Once she realized we were back in Manhattan she stayed awake.
“Can you take me home please?”
“I can’t. I really have to get home.”
“Oh please, Kevin. I don’t want to leave you!”
“I can’t Emily. I’ve run out of money. I don’t have any more tokens. I would need at least two more tokens to take you home and then to go to my house.”
“Oh please Kevin! I’m sure that my mom or grandma would have some tokens to give you”
“I can’t Emily.” I looked at my watch. “It’s already quarter past five. By the time we get to your house it will be six. I won’t get home until seven. I’m tired. I have at least 4 hours of homework to do which I probably won’t even start until after eight. Then I have to get up tomorrow morning.”
“You’re such an asshole Kevin!” Emily seethed. “You don’t give a damn about me! It’s all about you!”
“Oh for crying out loud! Don’t start this now, Emily. Really! We’ve spent the entire weekend together since Friday afternoon. I really need to go home.”
“Oh so you are saying that you’ve had enough of me? You’re saying that you’re tired of seeing me?”
“Ah fuck, Emily! I’m tired because we went out to Far Rock. If I didn’t have so much homework, I would take you home. I would probably even sleep over tonight but I can’t. It has nothing to do with you.”
“You’re such an asshole!”
“Fine, I’m an asshole. Get used to it!”
The train pulled into 14th Street. Emily got off. She gave me the saddest expression of rejection I had ever seen. She looked as if she were about to cry. I got a wave of anguish, guilt and pity. Something told me that I should’ve gotten off with her and escorted her home. I was simply too exhausted. Moreover, I missed my house. I missed sleeping in my bed. I got off at 59th Street and walked upstairs to the Number 1 train.
When I got home, I ate dinner that my mother had kept warm for me. I didn’t realize how cold I had been. The journey to and from Far Rockaway wiped me out. I decided that I would take a short nap before doing my homework. I went to sleep at seven o’clock. I woke up at two-thirty in the morning. I swore aloud to myself. I stayed up doing my homework until six o’clock. I didn’t bother to do the homework assignment for Trig.