Sunday, March 22, 2015

Meet Me at the 18th St./ Lexington Avenue Station

I rode the subway a lot whenever I was in New York City. First time was in the mid-'50s, when I went up there as a guest of my buddy Bob Richardson's family. We rode the Lakawanna ferry across from New Jersey. The Richardsons had relatives in South Orange I think it was. One afternoon, while we were sitting around the South Orange house, they ordered one of the best deli sandwiches I ever had--still!--what they called in that part of New Jersey the "sloppy Joe." Anyways, we took that ferry over, and got on the subway and rode down to the Bowery stop, and walked Bowery and Canal looking for interesting industrial stuff that Mr. Richardson might want to buy. That was the first time I'd ever seen a falling down drunk homeless person. If any such persons lived in Raleigh I guess they might have been found in the park downtown.

Everytime I got to New York City I took the subway. When I was in the 10th Grade I went up there on the train with my journalism class. We went to a couple of plays, including Raisin in the Sun, and Carol Burnett's Once Upon a Mattress. I'd find bits of time to explore, and rode the train down to 14th Street from the Times Square hotel where we all stayed, where I had the good fortune to see Miles Davis playing in a little club. Another time, maybe I was in college by then, I went up for a few days with my friend Neal Jackson and we toured various spots in the Village, again riding the subway. In 1964 I hitchhiked up there mid-summer and stayed for nearly a month with a painter, Harold Bass, who'd been living in Chapel Hill. He lived down on 3rd Street, between B and C, with his girlfriend, in an old-timey tenement with a bath tub in the kitchen that served with its removable metal top as the kitchen food prep space. I slept on a couch in the living room and wandered the streets by foot and subway. I began to notice how beautiful the tiling was on the BMT line. I learned how to ride for entertainment, and understood the subway maps, and how you could simply ride as long as you wanted, transferring, going to the end and walking across to go back, seeing at least the underside of all the boroughs, noticing all the mysterious names: Myrtle Avenue, DeKalb, Far Rockaway, Chambers, Van Cortlandt.

When I was in Diamond Studs, in 1975, I had the chance to actually live productively in Manhattan for much of that year. I'd ride the train from where I lived, an apartment on 95th between 8th and 9th, down to the theatre, on 43rd. I'd take the IRT Seventh Avenue line. We did eight shows a week, with Monday off. That turned me into a professional performing musician. On Mondays I'd take the train different places, go to museums, just look at stuff. I wish I'd brought a camera. There was some graffiti in those days, but it didn't seem as insane as it's become since. I never felt afraid in the city. I had some street smarts about how to walk and where not to go. I was surely lucky too. Later on, when the Ramblers were doing occasional New York City gig stops, one of our band was mugged up on 110th street when a guy followed him and his girl friend (who lived there) into their building, then held them up and took all of his money. We were playing that night at the South Street Seaport Pier venue--a great summer gig we did several times. Jim showed up very bummed and broke. We'd divided up our money before coming into the City so we'd have some spending money. I think that's when Jim pretty much gave up on New York City.

The next big trip to New York was with Libby. We went up there on the way to Maine and visited one of my fiddle students and his family at their Brooklyn apartment. They had a son who was an early teen, and he knew the trains as only a kid growing up in the City can. We toured around the place with him as a guide one day, including walking through the plaza of the World Trade Centers, and a quick trip through the Met (shades of Godard's Band of Outsiders). Since that trip I've not been back. I miss the place. But it might be the place that I remember. Hard to say.

There's a whole lot of stuff on line about abandoned subway stations. The first link I hit had a picture of the abandoned 18th Street station. That resonated with a memory, of seeing the 18th Street station go past riding in an express train. At first I thought that was really an interesting thing, that in fact I could never have gotten off at that station, express or local. It was just sitting there, in view but not accessable. Then I realized after more reading that actually the 18th Street station I remembered was the one on the 7 train, on the west side, which was still open. I rarely rode the Lexington Avenue train, so I doubt I ever saw that ghost east side station, closed since the '40s.

This is what the 18th Street/Seventh Ave. station looks like. It's open, but you can't get off there if you're on an express train. I kinda liked the idea that there were these various abandoned places on the New York subway system, that you could in some cases see, but not actually visit. (I mean without doing fairly extreme things like walking down the tracks, which some people do, but you sure ain't talkin' to me, to quote Charlie Poole.) These abandoned places reflect a sense of lost connections and anger, when you look at their pictures. It's pretty shocking that in a place as grand and organized as New York City you'd find so much anarchic expression.

I began to think of this ruin as symbolic of our current political tangle. Can the people who "own" this actually be expected to make sensible political decisions about their own futures. I read this week that a poll of Tea Party people in Texas yielded the strange and contradictory conclusion that these people--winning election all around the country--do not understand that the government assistance they themselves use and depend on will be destroyed by the kind of policies the people they vote for are advocating. Somehow the connections have been lost. It's just like the joke posters: get rid of big government, but don't touch my Social Security. The cartoons are true.

But then I found some other, contrary evidence. Check this out:

There are many art installations in the New York City Subway system. The part that is operating at least. These birds are part of a large number of cast bronze grackles and blackbirds installed around the Canal Street station. I can't think of anything much more hopeful. There's a whole lot of information on this phenomenon too. Here's a link to a whole book about art in the subway.

Maybe they can even merge these two seemingly opposing trends. Here's the most amazing abandoned subway station, and it's been preserved apparently, although it's very hard to go there:

They closed this magnificent station when both the cars and trains were made longer, which made the curve too tight for the new trains to operate on. The ornate street entrance was demolished, and for decades the station sat dark and closed. But what the hell? The art of the station itself is as wonderful as the many art installations which the current subway system has deemed worthy of installation and maintenance. Maybe, instead of seeing a dismal trend towards entropy and anarchy, we ought to consider the possibility that we ride a tide. The red bud is out today. It's a good sign. Meanwhile, you can ride a train past that east side 18th street station. That's a pretty neat experience I'd think, and if I ever do get back to New York I think I'll make it a point.

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