A Stopover in Kingsbridge
The Broadway local stations in the northern Bronx between Westchester County and Manhattan are elevated, reminiscent of the old els that populated most of the city before the inception of the subways at the turn of the century. Here in Kingsbridge, I can sort of get the feel of how the city used to be — sort of — I can imagine none of these buildings around me exist and instead there are rolling fields and hills that punctuate the countryside when this line was originally built. For my subway car reading, I've been diving into New York City Subway history. In one book, The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subway, I recently checked out from the Mid-Manhattan Branch library, depicts the 238 and 231 street stations. The pictures are eerie snapshots from the past. The difference in setting is striking. But the elevated train remains the same. I am on a time machine. The structure of the stations are unchanged. The same Swiss Chalet façade adorns the front (here it is inviting white!) and the steel infrastructure is unchanged in appearance. The difference is the emptiness that surrounds the Broadway local train. I can close my eyes and return to this spot a hundred years ago. Perhaps I am a Manhattan father with two children and a wife. We move north to escape the chaos of downtown and the typhoid and tuberulosis of lower Manhattan tenement living. Here, it must have felt like a spacious Western dream. "Don't fence me in!" The first train passengers more than a hundred years ago probably did not imagine the extent of urbanization New York would undergo. Or maybe they did. Because it did not take long for this area to rapidly acquire buildings and concrete. At one time, though, a cow could have taken a dump right here on the extent of concrete below me. A horse could have been crushed by a drunken driver in a Ford — right here. I take a swig from my Orangina and a tiny Dominican woman offers me a smile.
Northern Manhattan and north of the Harlem river still retain vestiges of the old that most of lower Manhattan has buried. The trains are still elevated, not below the ground; and the streets beckon an old-world feel. Even the name of this neighborhood, Kingsbridge, is antiquated, not Dutch obviously, but a New England name that fits comfortably alongside New York. Kingsbridge, New York. The name is lyrical. The space begs people to notice its own origins. Banners affixed to poles in the street cry out, visit Kingsbridge, "It's all under the bridge!" Instead of cows and horses, the sound of ladies softly alighting their feet on grass, I hear the rush of cars emanating from the Major Deegan Expressway, not far from where I stand, which snakes through the Bronx north-south. I am not really sure what Kingsbridge refers to, perhaps a bridge that once existed here but no longer stands. A quick Wikipedia search concludes that a bridge did stand here but it was covered up and replaced by the Duivet-Spuivel canal. For some reason I think of Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere, of an alternate universe in the London Underground and imagine if Gaiman had written the novel here, Kingsbridge would have to serve as some magical portal to New York’s own Neverwhere. Maybe Van Cortlandt Park to the north would be a faun's playground. I think for a second how fun it would be to write a novel about the subways of New York as a fantasy. Gaiman might sue though. I put my idea on a cupboard in my brain. I can figure out my own creative slant. I'm sure of it.
Interacting with Locals and an Encounter with the Police
After asking her a few questions, which at first startles her, a middle-aged black woman carrying a leather satchel and an umbrella tells me Kingsbridge is a nice place. She points in the direction of Broadway and says something to me about the canal that was dug that replaced the original Kingsbridge. I tell her thank you and walk along Broadway. The heat creeps through the streets. The pizza I ate at Mario's still feels heavy in my stomach. I climb the stairs of the elevated platform and find a quite place to jot down notes in my moleskine.
A policeman from the 50th district stops me and asks me not to loiter. Either get on a train or keep moving. He’s polite enough, but there is an unnecessary heightened sense of authority in his voice so I board the Manhattan-bound Broaway local as quickly as possible. Seated on the train again, I remember just yesterday a New York Public Library security guard had asked me in not so kind words to not sit in the stacks to read a book. “Tables are for reading. Get up.”
In this post, I contribute to my series on the New York City Subway — "238 Street Station" edition.
A lost child's mottled gray marble rolls across the car floor like a cliché. A Dominican woman I've seen before on the train remarks to me with rapt concentration, her eyes on the stray marble, not on me. "Someone's lost their marbles," she says and laughs at her own joke, rapping her head with the brunt edge of her umbrella.
The heat in the train is suffocating. Two girls in summer dresses apply makeup and talk about a party on 168th street. It's the Monday after the Fourth of July and the town is still on holiday. The evening has done nothing to slake the heat. Shirt sticks to skin. The dry heat sits stale. The air conditioning is barely enough to keep us alive. A female conductor's voice reminds us all that it's hot and if we see anyone passed out, let a MTA employee know. Isn't there a subway car that serves beer? I thought I had read about such a train in the newspaper. The train offers a poem by Robert Frost printed on an advertisement called "Train of Thought".
“Dust of Snow”
The way a crow
The subway is a cacophony of bodies in motion. Every station is a change of mood. Most people look angry. But it is a quiet anger. A guy about my age, reading War in Peace, totes a cat carrier, but I don't see a cat. He looks up from his book and glares out the window. He seems to say, to no one in particular, "It's fucking hot in this car." It is. I agree. But heat is nothing exciting to write about. The marble rolls by again, hitting against a boy's skateboard. No one else seems to watch its trajectory quite like the familiar Dominican woman. Every time it rolls by she laughs and points to her head, then at me.
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
An announcement blares from the conductor, "We're being held in a state of supervision." The guy with the cat and Tolstoy rolls his eyes as he reads. I think I heard the conductor correctly. A state of supervision? I knew New York was a nanny state, but come on, this is ridiculous. I situate myself in the seat and prepare for what can only be a state of supervision. Nothing happens. The train sits in its own heat for thirty seconds and then lurches forward again, Bronx bound. Seasoned New Yorkers remain upright. The marble rolls again. If this were the Marble Hills Station, I'd add another joke to the already stale punch line.
I disembark at the 238th Street Station, the next stop on my writing tour. A Manhattan-bound train enters the station seconds after the Bronx train leaves. The train's shadow sparkles light on the exterior wall of a Rite Aid. The structure of the track allows light to flicker through the duvets to create a modest spectacle of sound, light and movement. A policeman guards the platform. I am reluctant to linger, for fear he may ask questions. I carry a black Moleskine to take notes on my subway rides. I am a bit paranoid that he may ask me what I'm writing, so I take the stairs to the street level. This station is similar to every elevated platform station on the 1 line in the Bronx. The façade of the station is the same train station-depot-look that parades the station at Van Cortlandt Park and Kingsbridge.
This station does not sport the same scenic look as Van Cortlandt Park did on the Fourth of July. In fact, I immediately get the sense this station may perhaps be the least populated station on the one line, if not, the entire MTA system. The buses are packed, though, and people seem to navigate mainly in cars.
I am not an investigative journalist type. I do not intend to riddle people with questions about their neighborhood. My subway writing project is simple: I am not so much interested in description, as I am in impression.
My stomach growls. I am on a budget so a pizza looks good at Mario’s. Two Italian adolescents chat on a bench in front of the restaurant. The pizzeria is empty. The beeline bus to Riverdale careens by filled with passengers. When the boys see me they jump up and walk briskly inside to the check out counter. “Hi,” the younger guy says, obviously revealing to me that not only does he relax on the bench outside like a customer, he also works at the place. His accent is most probably Bronx. I can't tell the difference between the Bronx and Brooklyn, New Jersey or Queens. It all sounds similar to me. The guy talks really fast with a cheerful lilt. A quiet Chinese guy sits on a bench in the kitchen. A weathered woman with bleach blonde hair, perhaps pretty in 1981, sits at a booth with two girls. I order the Meat Lovers. I’m hungry. And a meringue soda. I love glass bottles. Bottled in Brookly, the label reads.
“I got to cook up the bacon and sausage for your Meat Lovers, OK?” the boy says. I nod in acquiescence and take a seat to jot down some notes. The boys and the Chinese man (who never emits a word) make my pizza pie. The place is empty, as I said; it is not the typical New York scene. Few pedestrians, if any, walk by. I eat the pizza with menace. Drown the meringue soda. Get up to pay, and the weathered woman gets up with me. I think she’s going to ask me for money. She doesn’t. She goes behind the counter. Her kids sit in the booth and play with each other’s hair. The boys are on the bench laughing and playing with their cell phones. “That’ll be $3.50.” After I pay the weathered woman, figuring what the hell, whom I assume also works here, the Bronx boys come back in the store, grin, and tell me, “Stay cool buddy, cuz it’s hot.” I imagine this joint is their summer job. They’re happy to have a customer. Maybe they just graduated from high school? The woman stands proud at the cash register. A silver sedan pulls up to the curb with several of the boys' friends. I wonder if I am the only customer they’ll have tonight? Feels like I just ate a pizza pie in a Bronx house on 238th street instead of a restaurant. Despite the heat, I am in good spirits. The shadows of a moving train appear again on the Rite Aid façade. I dance a bit in the street, the Merengue flavor still hot in my mouth. Sitting down again in the subway card, the air conditioning has never felt this good.