Two exciting infrastructural things happened this past week. First, my trusty explorer-friend sent me a link about the MTA running vintage trains this month. Second, the Roosevelt Island tram reopened after 9 months of renovations. I ambitiously set out to visit both before my rehearsal Sunday.
I was nervous about riding the vintage trains – how would I know where to go? What was up with the weird route (kind of like a combination between the F and the old V, both lines I never really knew). After some reassuring from explorer-recommender-friend, I formulated a plan to drive to Queens and catch it on that end. I knew I had to go early because of rehearsal constraints, but that worked out well in any case since I’m sure the trains get more crowded as the day goes on.
My drive wasn’t bad and although the Queens Plaza area is quite confusing to navigate, I found an acceptable parking spot. I booked it downstairs into the station. Friend said I should be early. I hadn’t eaten breakfast in my rush to get there. To be fair, I might have had time to, but I’d rather have been early than late; this was the only train I could ride that day.
At first I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, unfamiliar station, no signage! But I started seeing more and more people with serious cameras gather. One man snapped pictures of his tween daughter while mother looked on. Others fiddled with their heavy lenses and peered down the track.
After what seemed like an eternity, even though it was right on time, the train squealed up to the platform. Many pictures were snapped and there was some confusion as people weren’t sure whether to rush onto the train or hang back and look at its exterior.
I stepped aboard and was enchanted. I don’t quite know what it was – perhaps so much anticipation, perhaps being hungry, perhaps just the clash between familiar (NYC subways) and unfamiliar (vintage cars) experiences. I’m quite sure my mouth gaped open as I stared at the old interior, complete with period advertisements.
I sat for a minute, then started a slow walk towards the back of the train. Others had similar ideas, there was far more standing and walking than on your typical train. Each car was different (though many similar) so most people wanted to see it all! Though the ride expectedly far from smooth, I was often able to keep my slow, tactile walk that I often use at my excursion destinations. I didn’t feel out of place doing this; everyone wanted to absorb the environment.
I noticed the people more than I usually do on excursions. Normally people stick out in my mind only if they are doing something extraordinary, like the couple walking on the curb together in Riverside Park. But this time, perhaps at least partly because of the close quarters, I took note of them so much more. There were many MTA employees, at least one in each car. They seemed to serve the triple purposes of protecting the beautiful trains, answering questions, and looking out for passenger safety. They would yell out the doors at the stops the destination of the train since there were no PA systems!
The non-employees were an interesting crowd too. It was a mix between geeks (of the photo and/or train persuasions), families having a fun holiday outing, and people who seemed to be totally unaffected by the fact that the train was a classic. I watched all of them, and even took a photo for a family of three.
Progressing through the train, there were so many different eras of cars. Differences ranged from the subtle, like a change of paint color or bench upholstery, to looking dramatically more modern down to the lighting and route signs.
The entire time the stops seemed totally unimportant as I knew I’d stay on the train for a full round trip. They served only to allow me to get steadier-handed pictures. I finally made it to the back of the train which you could see out of, unlike modern trains. The image of the station receding from view out the back window was striking (and not accurately captured by this picture through dirty glass).
As we approached Second Avenue, I began talking with one of the MTA employees. It was the kind of event that makes you not intimidated to talk to others – sort of a shared experience thing. Plus I was just about bursting with excitement about being on these old train cars. The man told me that he got to drive the train when it turned around, so cool! We chatted outside of the train through the short layover at Second Avenue and he offered to take my picture with it.
My new train driver friend went on to talk about the vintage train riders. He said I was lucky to have come early in the season, it’s a madhouse later. At first I thought he just meant in terms of crowds, but it became clear that there was a particular type of rider he was talking about. I learned about “railiens” (not sure on that spelling, it’s rail + aliens, I believe) and “rivet-counters” (who say things like “there are supposed to be 1792 rivets on this model of train and I only see 1791!”). It reminded me a lot of nerds on the internet, arguing over the best way to do this or that in networking, web development, or grammar. Train driver assured me that, indeed, these folks were also on the internet. I did some research later and was fascinated to learn about Railfans and the like. I suppose I could have guessed one could be nerdy about anything, but this was a whole new world. Part of the concept appeals to me so much, this sort of “collecting” element, wanting to have ridden every type of train and know every fact about all of them. Also, the subculture element to it is personally intriguing – I’ve always felt a part of one or another subculture myself. Finally, given my day’s excursion, the mention of railfans being attracted to trams as well was uncanny. All interesting, but it’s not for me. My infrastructural interests are much broader and more artistically-focused. Not to mention I was put off by my driver-friend’s descriptions of some of their behavior.
As I bid farewell and “drive safe” to my train driver friend, I began my walk back to the other end of the train. Since we turned around, I was again walking towards the train’s back. I began to notice guys who fell into the category of awkward railfans left and right (not many women). Some chatted each stranger up with the same opening line, “hey did you know each car is different?” Some just lurked with their MTA-button encrusted subway line t-shirts and hats. Others played knowledge wars with other fans or MTA employees. A gaggle of teenagers with Domo-Kun t-shirts rowdily played king of the mountain in one car.
On my leisurely walk back, I stopped to read some of the vintage advertisements. They ranged from the charming, like the fun facts; to the hilariously out of date, like on of tuberculosis; to the frightening, a drawing of a child getting run over.
I walked all the way back through train history and photographed some more details. The doors between cars were locked in an open position to allow for easy movement between cars. Sometimes the movement of the train would make a strong wind blow in through the doors; exhilarating. Walking through the gaps between cars while the train was moving was still scary. I stared out the window for the part of the drive where we went under the East River. A thick pipe followed us – maybe for utilities?
At the end, I wound up in the oldest of all cars. A sign announced sweetly in first-person, “Hi, I am an R-1 type car. I was born in 1931”. This car looked the most like raw infrastructure: exposed rivets, dark and musty.
We all had to get off back at Queens Plaza so our drivers could turn around. I knew I couldn’t ride again because of rehearsal, but many people stuck around, I guessed to ride it all day. I milled around in the station for a few minutes, and waved goodbye to my train driver friend as the cars pulled out for their next trip. I want to go back.
I checked the time and although I should have been exhausted and starving by this time, I was energized. I wanted to ride the tram! It was bitterly cold but sunny and clear, a perfect day for it. I would go for it!
On the way back to the car I walked over a what looked like two construction sites. I was pretty sure I knew what it was and confirmed online later: the tunnel for the MTA’s massive Eastside Access project! They have some images of the tunnel under Northern Boulevard here. What’s hard to see in my images is the giant, gaping holes in the ground.
I did the quick, easy drive over to the Roosevelt Island bridge. I almost know this by heart. It would be easier to park there than in Manhattan, I thought, and I was right. I found a parallel spot on the street and walked briskly through the whipping wind to the tram station.
The trams looked beautiful – both of them sitting there in the station with bright, shiny, new, apple-red paint. I just made it onto one departing the station. The inside was so nice, not tarnished yet. I found myself trying to recall details of the single other time I had ridden the (old) tram. I think the new ones are definitely larger with better windows.
The nice tram operator stepped in, pushed a button to close the doors, and we were on our way. I was very excited and shuffled a bit to get a good photo spot. The ride went absolutely too quickly. There was no time to both enjoy the gorgeous view of the river and the city and snap photos. I loved seeing the buildings on both islands, all the way to Randall’s/Ward’s Island to the north, the river, the sky, FDR Drive, and our tram’s mighty cables’ support towers.
I chatted with our operator, since I was standing close to the door and his post, on the descent into Manhattan. We were both so glad the tram had reopened. He was quite nice and seemed like a long-term staple of the tram ride. I felt a little dorky for loving Roosevelt Island so much and not living there.
The ride was overall smoother than I remembered the old one at least in terms of side-to-side movement. This new car is attached to two cables instead of one which accounts for the additional stability. The moments of going under the support towers gave us a bit of a bump, and the wind rushed over the door’s seal with a whizzing noise. Still not for the afraid-of-heights, I think.
Everyone had to hop off in Manhattan, and unfortunately I had to pay a second time to go back over. I took a quick run around the platform, with its beautiful view of the Queensboro Bridge approach, and jumped back onto the same tram.
I situated myself on the other side of the car this time, though it was just as crowded if not more so. I watched the city, and then the Queensboro Bridge, go by outside.
The ride again went by too quickly and at this point I started to feel hurried. I took just a few moments when I got off the tram to watch the next cabin depart across the river. I could have watched them go back and forth for hours.
One more minute was spent stopping in the newly renovated Roosevelt Island Visitor Center. I chatted with a kind young woman, a Roosevelt Island native. I wanted to buy everything in the store: historical books, tram periphanalia. I settled on just one item, a tiny, pewter tram pendant on a black cord. So glad I did. I want to wear it every day.
I grabbed some coffee and a sandwich on my way out, and drove off to rehearsal (for those wondering, I did make it on time!) I glowed from my adventures of the day. They were so different than other excursions. It was a day of beautiful infrastructure, but also a day of connecting with strangers: train driver, tram operator, and visitor center lady. I wondered if it was my openness or their kindness that allowed me to have such a gratifying day with them. And how do these human interactions figure into my usually solitary excursions and the bigger project that they make up? Big questions.
Map coming soon!