It should come as no surprise that when I received the Transit Museum’s mailing about the summer tours I signed up as quickly as possible for all three nostalgia trains. These started much later than last year’s, the first one being on July 1 rather than May 22.
Though I got up plenty early the morning of this trip, I was somewhat scatterbrained as I got ready. It seemed like such a long time since I’d done a nostalgia train or any type of all-day excursion like this, I’d almost forgotten what to pack and how to prepare. Leaving the house later than I wanted, I still managed to catch the Metro North to Grand Central where the Lo-V train was to meet us.
On Metro North I made a mental checklist for my arrival at Grand Central: I needed to get coffee, water, breakfast, and pee (TMI) before boarding. I was able to do all of that quickly and then hurried over to the shuttle platform to check in. The museum staffer attached my wristband as she slowly and clearly told me some details about the logistics of the trip. I giggled to myself – if she had recognized me (as most of the museum folks do by now), she would know I was a regular and I didn’t need the beginner’s digest.
Armed with my wristband, I sat on the floor of the platform and ate my breakfast. We still had a bit of time before the Lo-Vs were to arrive. I got lost in my thoughts which were a mixture of nostalgia for last year’s Lo-V ride and fresh eyes for this year’s. I hoped I could recapture the best parts of previous rides – smelling the old train, listening to its raw, grinding motor noise, the exhilaration of going fast, the feeling of oneness with the equipment, and a sense of freedom and independence. But I knew that this ride would be different too. No two trips are exactly alike, it had been a long time since the last one, and no one is exactly the same person they were a year previous.
As I mused I noticed, as I had last year, the interspersing of “normal” people and tourists rushing on and off the shuttle trains with the dorky railfans and museum-goers statically waiting for the Lo-V to arrive.
Before my coffee was even gone, fans began to gather behind me. I was pretty sure they saw something so I downed this last bit, pitched my cup in the trash, and skipped back over to see. Sure enough, the Lo-V train was pulling out of the tunnel towards us.
I felt my usual sense of nerves as we got ready to board. I’m still unsure of where all that stems from, but a mixture of sleep deprivation (excursions usually start early), caffeine, and uncertainty about exactly how the day will play out is my best guess.
Passengers funneled towards the couple of open doors on the train as museum and MTA employees hurried to check wristbands and turn away confused and/or interested shuttle train riders.
Once on board, many railfans rushed to the front (south end) of the train. It’s a rare treat to be able to look out the front window as you can on these old trains. Many fans clamor for the opportunity to do that, and usually to take photos or video as well. The rest of the crowd made themselves comfortable near where we got on. A bit overwhelmed by all the foot traffic, I made my way to the north end of the train and sighed with relief upon finding that car mostly empty. I looked out the back window at the poor, displaced shuttle train waiting in back of us to resume her regular duties.
Waiting to depart, I took some photos inside the train. Generally this is better to do when stopped in a station, as the light’s better and you’re less likely to have a shaky hand. I didn’t want to be one of those people who takes the same shots every time they photograph a train, so I tried to think creatively and click sparingly. As on previous trips, I was drawn to the repeating patterns of ads, lightbulbs, and handholds; and the secretive spaces created by the vestibules.
Before too long we were off. We headed downtown with a considerable amount of stopping and starting. The train was behaving herself, but apparently we kept getting caught up by red signals. It’s no surprise that this old beauty doesn’t get the right of way on a working railroad but I still longed for fast stretches with the wind blowing through my hair and the engine roaring.
One such stop was near 18th Street. A couple of employees called out for the riders to look out the windows – the old, abandoned 18th Street station, coated in graffiti, was visible from the train. I wished I could go play there.
In search of non-redundant things to photograph, I noticed myself being drawn to observing the people more than the equipment. I revisited the front of the train, with its impassable clump of railfans gathered at the window. While it’d be fun to join them and look out, I preferred a less crowded time like on the back-and-forth rides in the middle of the trip. I watched funny railfans wave out the windows at people standing on platforms and saw their disbelief (“What is this train, and who’s this guy waving to me?”) I saw riders unintentionally strike the same pose as each other, families with young children, and older men discussing train history. A group of three men clustered around a bank of windows having serious conversation as if in a sports huddle.
On my walk-and-people-watch through the train I intentionally avoided the employees a bit. From going on so many trips, I say hi to many of them. Some (I know) don’t like to have their picture taken and posted, and in general I just feel weird photographing people I know but not very well. So I mostly avoided them with the camera lens and greeted instead with an awkward wave and sometimes a “how’ve you been?”.
We essentially traveled the route of a 2 train once we got to Brooklyn. This is a line I am completely unfamiliar with south of about Borough Hall. My ignorance of the stations and the fact that this first leg was entirely underground (unlike most of the other trips) added a sense of mystery. Occasionally the train would temporarily lose connection with the third rail and one or more of the cars would flicker dark for a minute or two. There was something about this that was equally thrilling whether my car or the adjacent car went dark.
We made our first planned stop at Flatbush Avenue, the Brooklyn terminus of the 2 line. Changing ends, we then headed back north on the same route.
When we reached the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum stop, the doors opened. Riders had the option to go visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and/or the Brooklyn Museum for free and expedited admission, respectively, included in the cost of their nostalgia train ticket. Most of the folks I call museum-people (to generalize, middle-class culture enthusiasts) and families got off the train at this point. Railfans stayed to soak up more time with the old train on the extra rides. After my indecision on last year’s first trip about whether to stay or go, I had established in my mind that I was one of the hardcore ones and that I’d always spend as much time as possible with the train. So I stayed put.
The smaller crowd on the train gave me lots of time to relax, wander around, and admire details I was previously distracted from by other riders: the ceiling fans, the wicker seats, the open windows, and the continued mysterious dark tunnel outside the dim, safe little box we occupied.
Just after Utica Avenue we emerged from the tunnel in a bright flash of light. Again, not knowing this portion of the line at all, it was a fun surprise to finally be outside.
I turned my attention to the sights out the windows, which were mostly urban landscapes. I was present in the moment, taking it all in and capturing a few scenes with my camera. But in the back of my mind I was also planning where in the train I wanted to ride and what I wanted to take photos of on the next little trip-and-a-half.
We reached the end of the line, New Lots Avenue, and changed ends again to head back. This time I shuffled up to the front between railfans to look out. Granted, it was less crowded than before, but there was still a good cluster of men and boys up there. One tall man turned around to look at me nervously every few seconds and eventually offered me a spot in front of him. “I can take pictures over your head,” he mumbled. I think the fact that I might not have been able to see over him made him nervous. So I accepted the kind, awkward offer and continued taking photos of the interesting sights before us: variations in track architecture, juxtapositions of vertical buildings with horizontal tracks, and more.
Soon there was a very cool sight ahead, the mouth of the tunnel we came out of before. While I wasn’t necessarily ready to go back underground, I admired the changing perspective as we zoomed closer to the entrance. This was perhaps one of my favorite panoramas of the day.
I peeled myself away from the window and through the crowd to chat with my train driver friend for the rest of our underground journey. Too soon, it was time for us to change ends and for him to operate again as we headed back to New Lots for our second trip.
As we emerged from the tunnel the second time, I carefully remembered the things I wanted to look at more (and photograph) like the L train station below us at Van Sinderen Avenue. I also tried to take in sights I hadn’t seen before. I alternated looking out the windows on the different sides of the train.
On the final leg of our in-between trips, I let train driver friend snap some photos of the train out the window.
Back at Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum, we were all ushered off. It was time for the train crew to eat lunch, for the train to rest, and for us passengers to explore. It’s always a bit sad to leave, but I was comforted by the knowledge that the beautiful machines would be back to take us home.
I knew already that I didn’t have much interest in visiting the Brooklyn Botanic Garden or Brooklyn Museum that day. While I’m a fan of those places, the nostalgia train experience feels quite separate from a visit to these cultural institutions. I can go to those anytime, and spend more time than I had today, I thought. I emerged from underground in front of the neoclassical museum building hungry, tired, and hot.
As previously mentioned, I’m not familiar with this area much at all. Luckily, and totally by chance, my dad had recently emailed me an article about things to eat and do in Prospect Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods. I’d skimmed the text at the time, but now used my smartphone to return to the article and browse for a place to eat. I selected Tom’s Restaurant, a divey but highly rated diner. It was just a few short (but hot) blocks away.
I stood in line outside the restaurant. Periodically the pretty, young hostess would pop out the door and walk down the line. “How many? How many?” she asked. I felt weird saying “table for one” – this was perhaps one of the first times I’d gone to a restaurant alone – but it did help me get seated quickly! My table was between those containing a gaggle of hipsters and to my right, a little family. I selected one of the many pancake variations from the menu and passed the time checking my phone and reading the literature about the trip.
Breakfast food for lunch hit the spot. I paid and left, planning to walk around the neighborhood. I knew this was sort of a fancy area with old houses, so it’d probably be nice to walk through. Maybe, I thought, I’d also check out Grand Army Plaza. I’d only seen this in passing from the car before.
The houses turned out to be even more beautiful than I thought. They were mostly old but well-maintained brownstones, interspersed with a few taller (but mostly just as old) buildings. I looked with awe at the structures and the people coming and going from them, and wondered what that kind of life would be like.
As I rounded the outer loop of Grand Army Plaza, I noticed the unusual design of the benches around its perimeter. In a few places, people sat on these in the sun. Sweating as I walked, I wondered what would posses them not to seek shade.
One other unusual sight among the pristine buildings was a parking garage. The architecture of the building seemed like it may have been as grand as its neighbors at one time, but now was stripped down with peeling paint and a loud sign. I wondered what purpose this big structure was built for originally.
As much as I loved seeing this neighborhood, the midday sun beat down on me. I even made a quick stop to apply some sunscreen to my face. It was time to seek a cold drink and air conditioning. Smart phone told me of the location of a nearby Starbucks, so I headed that way through more pretty houses and into a commercial district.
One shop facade cracked me up: It was named “Rivet” (haha, like the rivets on the old trains) but had preppy clothing inside. This juxtaposition and my own goofy mental reference to the trains made me laugh. Others passing by had no idea why I was photographing this random store, I’m sure.
Finally, I arrived the promised land, air-conditioned Starbucks. I scoped out a bench away from the crowds with their laptops and ordered a cold drink and water. While waiting, I ran into a friend. It was random to see her, since neither of us live nearby, but quite nice. She made a funny face when I told her I rode a train from 1917 to get there. I don’t think she fully believed me until I showed her the pamphlet. After getting our drinks, she and her friend parted ways with me. I sat and tried to rest and cool down.
Time went faster than I thought it would. Two and a half hours to kill by oneself seemed like an eternity when I started out, but now our 4:15 reconvening time fast approached. I double checked how to walk back to the Brooklyn Museum station on my phone, found that I could at least take a quick spin through Grand Army Plaza, braced myself for the heat, and set out on my way.
I couldn’t help but continuing to admire the beautiful buildings as I walked even though I had picked up my pace.
I didn’t pay it much mind the first time I saw it, but for the second time this day I saw clothes strewn out on the stoop of one of the brownstones. I have no idea why. Perhaps they were a giveaway, like how people leave furniture they no longer want out on the curb? But why spread out and arranged with a degree of care?
I arrived at the monuments of Grand Army Plaza with just a few minutes to spare, so unfortunately I didn’t have much time to explore. I’m not sure if I would have wanted to anyway on this hot, sunny day. I looked up at the enormously-scaled monuments and recalled my only other handful of experiences here – nearly getting lost while trying to navigate this gigantic traffic circle in the car. I’ll have to return here sometime so I can really enjoy it and create memories other than chaotic driving and rushing to the subway station.
The monumental Brooklyn Public Library also sits on this oval plaza, further reinforcing the area as a cultural center. Its architecture is quite interesting, and not easily pinpointed.
I was making good time now, and descended the stairs into the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum station. I took a quick moment to notice the unique tilework in the station.
Transit Museum employees holding the emergency exit gate open for free reentry seemed like a kind of welcoming committee. Down on the platform, though, the temperature was not so welcoming. Faces were blotted with handkerchiefs. One woman fanned herself with a folding paper fan. The only relief came from the hot breeze and brief gusts of air conditioning emanating from passing trains.
I probably only waited fifteen minutes or so, but it seemed like a hot, sticky eternity. Finally our train rolled into view – what a welcome sight!
Boarding went quicker than I’ve ever seen, probably because everyone wanted out of the heat. Wristbands were checked, the conductor closed us down, and off we sped.
As we headed back, I took note of the stunned faces watching us from the platform. This is always one of the funniest things about these trips. People have no idea what the old train is and why they’re seeing it. While they may be confused or even think we’re weird, in my mind we’re pulling up in the limousine of trains. I feel like a celebrity riding the magnificently restored beauties with everyone staring, and this makes me smile.
After we dropped off a few riders at Bowling Green, we went for a fast run uptown on the express track. I was lucky enough to have stationed myself at the back of the train so I could watch and record this, the fastest and most efficiently we’d moved all day.
The train began to empty out as we traveled even further uptown. I watched people depart, knowing I’d be one of the ones to stay on until the last possible second.
Soon, we were aboveground again, this time in the Bronx. And again, I turned my attention to the sights outside.
As we came around curves on these elevated tracks, train driver friend snapped some more pictures of the the train’s front out its windows.
All too soon we approached Gun Hill Road, the train’s final discharge point. As we got close I felt a familiar pang of not wanting to leave this train I’d bonded with throughout the day. I wasn’t quite as sad as at the conclusion of previous rides, maybe because there are two more nostalgia train rides scheduled for later in the summer, or maybe because I’m just better equipped to handle it now. I said my goodbyes to the train personnel and stepped off.
The Lo-V pulled away and I began a bit of a wait for a “regular” train so I could go home. I appreciated the breeze up there on the platform. Interestingly-shaped clouds were gathering and the sun was beginning to set. The sky was tinged with pink and periwinkle, casting a soft light on the buildings around me.
After a little while a shiny, new train pulled up and I boarded. I was on my way home after this long, hot, but fulfilling day. I can’t wait until the next summer nostalgia train.
[Map of my walk coming soon]
Update: others’ photos from the day: