Cousin Alice's Press - Reading Room: Subterranean Love
Reading Room
Subterranean Love

By Naomi Jones

And the sages of the subway
  sit just like the living dead
As the tracks clack out the rhythm,
  their eyes fixed straight ahead
They ride the line of balance
  and hold on by just a thread
But it's too hot in these tunnels
  you can get hit up by the heat
You get up to get out at your next stop
  but they push you back down in your seat
Your heart starts beatin' faster
  as you struggle to your feet
Then you're outta that hole and
  back up on the street…

"Saint in the City"
          --Bruce Springsteen

 
I live in L.A. now; it’s funny, but the Red and Blue lines just don't seem to hold the same fascination for me as the New York City subway system. After all, the only electrifying moments that occur is when some gambling fool tries to outrun a train in his little tin can of a car.

I am a train-a-holic. Even as a 6-year-old, I would be transfixed by my cousin's Lionel set for hours. Heck, the 2 trains and a bus we took to go what would've been a half-hour drive, was part of our Thanksgiving ritual my mother and I undertook each year. Not a problem for me, no siree; I could chugalug all day long. I think she got a bit weary though; when we'd arrive 2 ½ hours later, mom needed to soak her tootsies, but I'd be beaming.

I think many of my most memorable milestones occurred while negotiating much of the 840 miles of track and tunnels. It was the place where I observed life in all its glory: watching people sleep or catch a quick bite to eat; families juggling packages, going to the relatives for the holidays; punk kids leering at some unassuming sweet thing; lone lost souls clutching a half-eaten something-or-other that resembled food, while glaring at a day-old newspaper with their glazed over eyes, (one time I even saw a disheveled-looking woman covered with sand and wrapped in nothing but a towel, as my mother gave me that "It's not nice to stare" look); fearful grannies whose trained eyes darted around in anticipation of being the next mugging victim; the blind man with a can, a cup and a harmonica. C'mon, he had to be able to see, walking from car to car with such finesse. I searched real hard behind his shades to see if he was fakin' it.

I always felt perfectly righteous when we managed to embark on one of those oldie-but-goody trains. You know, the ones that had those red and green vinyl cushioned seats that faced each other in private little cubbyholes. They smelled different really, like they had some kind of history to them: an aura, dark and mysterious. As my train barreled past flickering stations, I could close my eyes and envision all sorts of sordid scenarios that happened on train trips past. Ooh.

One of my first recollections of defying mother was when a neighbor friend took me from Bensonhurst to Williamsburg to visit a friend of hers. I was eight and she was eleven. Of course our mothers didn't know where we were and when we returned home, her mother whipped her with a hairbrush. My mother yelled some but was so thrilled that I lived to return from that "bad neighborhood" she quickly got over it, though I was forever forbidden to hang out with "that Pauline girl."

Ah, but I was hooked! I could feel a sense of independence and exhilaration at the same time. Totally free. Living adjacent to the "El" (which was depicted in all it's glory in "The French Connection"), I was lulled to sleep each night with a sense of wonderment. What great adventure awaited me tomorrow? There's no telling where I'd end up, as a train pass can be a young girl's best friend.

We were positively grown up when we traveled but 3 stops on the "N" train to Seth Low Junior High. While waiting for the morning train, we puffed on Marlboros and read the walls. Innocuous messages really, like "Pitch a penny on the third rail, see sparks fly" or, "Donna and Jimmy forever." Better yet, "Go to Church"; I loved that one. Sort of a 60's version of "Eat at Joe's." We later discovered the author had been on every station from 86th Street in Brooklyn to the city, instructing the impious to repent.

But of course this was 1970 and who wasn't gonna test authority to the max? When my 12-year-old girlfriend Patty ran away from home, I was undaunted as I traipsed around the Village flashing her photo to every flamboyant or dubious looking character I could find. My mother would've plotzed.

If we weren't sneaking past a rip in the fence and running down a hill to catch a train-ride to the beach, we were plotting some other teenage act of rebellion. One night when I was 16, ten of us boys and girls each told our parents we were at someone else's house while we smoked herb, vaulted turnstiles, and traveled underground the entire night. I think the thrill of almost getting caught kept our adrenaline hopping in lieu of sleep.

My high school, John Dewey, was surrounded by a train yard. During a lapse of attention in class, I would stare out the window and fixate on the colorful graffiti ablaze on the cars. This was pre-gangsta era and the illustrations were more an act of deliverance than anything else. God I wished I could draw like that.

Recently, I was startled to discover that my elementary school (P.S. 248) was now a Transit Authority wasteland. Old trains sit where school kids once played; isn't there a museum somewhere to display these relics?

My first summer job took me to the Parks Department on Prospect Park West. In addition to earning bou-cou bucks ($92 a week), I then started to shop in neighborhoods other than at home. I ventured into downtown B'klyn; roamed around the department store Abraham & Straus and brought home Junior's cheesecake. It didn't bother me in the least that I wasn't a homegirl, so to speak. Occasionally I would even go into a "Blaxploitation" film but with my blond hair, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Though I always walked with conviction, so nobody bothered me. Dems were the times.

Even Grand Central Station, with it's Oyster Bar and Zaro's Bakery; lockers and ticket booths; whistle blowing locomotives leading to exotic destinations that only persons of privilege can go – still captivates me today.

Fourteenth and 34th Streets had great bargains appeal. And when I felt really gutsy, I would saunter past porno houses on 42nd street, just dying to get a glimpse of "it." On more than one occasion I schlepped, all the way to Da Bronx to catch my Bombers in a home game. "Your father is turning over in his grave," my mother lamented. I guess the element of danger added to the journey; it was the going that compelled me. I was headstrong, seasoned and worldly. I was 18.

My nineteenth summer, I started to work on Brighton Beach as a First Aid Attendant. I loved being in the hub of the transit lines. Climbing up steps and then crossing over to another line, which looked out past the Wonder Wheel all the way to the ocean. It was positively dreamy.
Sometimes they would transfer me to Coney Island Beach. The Coney Island station was a combination of long dark chambers riddled with garbage and smelling like grease. I ventured passed the bums (they weren't "homeless" then) and the candy stands chock full of cotton candy, large rainbow-swirled lollipops and plastic monkeys on a stick.
I was fully aware of the juxtaposition of my tanned and bouncy persona against this backdrop of a downtrodden neighborhood, but that just heightened the sense of drama for me; I was invincible you know.

At 20, my girlfriends and I would travel far and wide to see our favorite punk band "Just Water" (who?). Climbing over the dregs of society to go to C.B.G.B.'s had its own special charm. I, being the veteran of the rails, would organize our itinerary.
All five of us lived on a different stop on the "D" train. We agreed at a certain time to arrive at the station and wait in the middle of the platform. It was a comedy of errors when the train would pull in and we would pop our heads out and scream "Get on!" A split second meant the difference between seeing the band or going back home, tail between your legs.

But not all my memories have been pleasant ones.

At 22, I had my first real relationship. Unfortunately, I was so love-lorn by then that I settled for psycho-boyfriend. Though it didn't take too much to stir up the histrionics between us. Our chemistry was potentially deadly.
We both worked in lower Manhattan. Well, during one of our protracted spats, we left our jobs at 5 PM and proceeded to take our altercation straight into the subway. In what looked like a scene from a movie, the near tragedy had begun. He threatened me, I fled, and he caught up with me. I hid behind pillars and ran up and down stairs. In the midst of the yelling, arm flailing, crying and pleading, I heard the train bear down on us. I grasped his jacket and lunged at him towards the tracks. I was so scared. Fortunately, he was firmly planted in place and averted what would've been splat for sure.
He looked at me incredulously and this spurned him on further. I jumped on a train, he leapt aboard too. We both ran through the cars as I tried to blend in with the crowd. At the next stop I jumped off, so did he. I jumped on the next train, so did he. I then tricked him into thinking I got off, and then scrambled to enter right as the doors closed. I finally lost him and managed to be just one train ahead of him as I ran home and had a boy on a bicycle summon the police. Regretfully, it was many more of these scenes before I got up the courage to leave.

In 1980, I left both him and New York City for the uncertainty of Los Angeles. But it seems that drama follows me wherever I go! Be it not for the fires, riots, earthquakes, and floods would I be aching for my former self.

Don't get me wrong, I have adapted well. Now my adventures are behind the wheel…Geese lady, turn off that stupid blinker already! Though I fondly recollect the many escapades of my youth. Sometimes I'd go into the "N.Y. Pizza" here and I'd marvel over their collection of subway signs and maps. It feels familiar and that's a comfort since frankly, the pizza sucks.

Actually my love of trains has not diminished at all. I fantasize about someday having a romantic and exquisite trip across Europe aboard the Orient Express. The obstacle though has been finding someone to share this passion with.

Hark! What's that I hear? A rumbling in the distance; horns blaring, warning lights flashing and gates descending while cars queue up waiting impatiently for the monster of the rails to pass, so they can proceed with their unassuming lives, unaware that a more titillating ride of yesteryear, awaits.
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