During a recent trip to Manhattan, I took a taxi from my hotel in the trendy Meatpacking District to Penn Station. I was planning to ride the Long Island Railroad to my old hometown, Rockville Centre. It was pouring and I appreciated the luxury of hopping a cab right outside my hotel door.
Thirty-five years ago, the last time I traveled on the Long Island Railroad, I couldn't afford a taxi. I was working as a file clerk at Columbia University and earning the grand sum of five thousand dollars a year. Back then, I lived not far from my hotel's locale, on 7th Avenue and 14th Street, and Columbia was a straight shot uptown on the IRT subway, just outside my apartment door. But on weekends, I frequently took the LIRR out to Rockville Centre to get away from the city and visit my parents and sister, who still lived there. I had no idea at the time that in less than a year they'd be moving to Illinois and I'd be married and living in California.
The cabby let me off at the 8th Avenue entrance to Penn Station. I felt sure that as soon as I walked inside, I'd easily find my way onto the train and back into my past. My high school friend, Anthea, was visiting her family in Rockville Centre and we'd agreed to meet there. She said she'd pick me up at the Rockville Centre depot and we'd take a trip down memory lane, driving by my old house on Dorchester Road, past South Side High School, the Fantasy Theatre, and all our other haunts.
When I entered Penn Station, I was bombarded by signs for Amtrak, New Jersey Transit, various subway lines, Hudson Books, sushi, deli, even Starbucks. Nothing looked familiar, but what I did recognize was the sharp, bitter smell of the underground tunnels, that universe of train and subway tracks snaking under Manhattan. To me, it was a sweet scent, reminding me of childhood, of holding tight to my father's hand when he took me with him to spend a day in his office downtown, or later, when I was in high school, riding the train and subway to Greenwich Village on weekends in search of Fred Braun shoes and coffee at the Cafe Wha.
Eventually, I found signs for the LIRR and presently arrived at the ticket/information area. Automatic kiosks had replaced ticket sellers in glass-enclosed booths and the space seemed smaller, but the dirty white tiled walls were the same and the benches in the waiting room looked as if they hadn't been replaced since the days I last sat on them. I bought a round trip ticket and headed down to Track 19. I wasn't alone. Although it was noon on a workday, people hurried alongside me, intent on reaching a particular car. In New York, even non-rush hour was crowded.
The old, dark railroad cars, with stuck windows and no air conditioning, had been replaced by silver models. The air was cool as I stepped inside and the leatherette seats were pale gray and blue, instead of the ancient cracked black leather. As I child, I loved the old convertible bench seats, whose direction could be reversed with a huge heave of their brass handles. Commuters would move the seats so one bench faced another, perfect for a daily bridge game or arguing about baseball. Now most of the seats faced in one direction or the other. But in each car, there were a couple of seats facing one another, a nice vestige of the old cars. Since I was traveling alone, I chose what I thought was a regular forward-facing seat, only to find myself facing backward when the train started. I hadn't remembered which way led out of the station toward Long Island.
Memories flooded back, though, when the train started up and the conductor entered the car, shouting "Tickets!". Much as I recalled, he wore a uniform of dark blue pants and light blue shirt, complete with a hard round hat, and he carried a hole puncher, just like in the old days. After he punched my ticket, he inserted it in a little slot on the back of the seat in front of me. Again, a carryover from the old-fashioned cars. But most evocative of all was the conductor's intonation of the train stops—This is the Babylon line, stopping at Woodside, Jamaica, Lynbrook, Rockville Centre . . . Massapequa, Massapequa Park—in a sing-song cadence that's part of my hardwiring. By the time the train reached Rockville Centre, I had fully arrived, almost as if I'd never left. And of course, as I stepped off the train, the rain stopped.
To be cont'd
2 weeks ago