Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Luxury Transportation

Another photo from the Mt. Vernon, New York page on Facebook.  I don't know where these people are finding this snapshots, but I hope they keep them coming.  It brings back my childhood and a world that was so simple.  In a hometown that was so livable.  That's not the case right now.

Okay, truth be told, I wasn't around to see trolleys on Mt. Vernon Avenue shown above.  This picture looks to be set somewhere in the late 40s, judging by the cars seen.  That trestle is still there.  Those Tudor-like apartment buildings are still around.  They would be right across the street from the Kimball Movie Theater, which is still a charred eyesore after a fire about ten years ago.  Indeed, I see cars stationed next to the Mt. Vernon West train station of the New York Central Harlem Line.  My guess is that these autos are cabs waiting to transport folks home.  I'm sure you can still find taxis parked there to this day.

I look back at this train station and it rejiggers a whole slew of wonderful memories.  Not that my family used the New York Central railroad a lot.  Actually, the most we were on there was....never.

You see, back in the day, this was luxury transportation.

Of course, when I was a kid, you generally stayed in the three mile radius of your home.  For me on South Fifteenth Avenue, I went as far as the Public Library of Second Avenue in one direction and our church on East 219th Street in the Bronx going the other direction.  Everybody in our family lived somewhere in between, either in Mount Vernon or the Bronx.  There was no need or thought to expand horizons.  All you needed was right there.  Relatives.  Food stores.  Doctors.  Movie theaters.

Going to Manhattan?  Oh, good Lord, no.

Meanwhile, there were rare occasions when we went "downtown."  Our regular holiday forays to Radio City Music Hall.  The circus or the rodeo at the old Madison Square Garden.  When they happened, we went on the subway.  For whatever small coinage you needed to buy a token.

The New York Central?  Both my father and my mother would scoff.

"That's for rich people."


I was intrigued by this Mount Vernon West station so much that, when I would take my dog Tuffy on long walks either Saturday or Sunday, I would go down to the depot.  I'd climb the stairs on either the northbound or southbound platforms with the dog.  And I'd wait for a train to pull in.  I wanted to see who got off.  I wanted to see what rich people really looked like.

Of course, on weekend afternoons, nobody got off.  I was confused.

We even had a New York Central employee in our extended family.  He was a conductor on the railroad.  I used to see him leave holiday parties in his uniform and cap with that ticket puncher secured in his belt like a gun in a holster. Still, we never took that train "downtown."

I thought there was a chance to join that lofty crowd.  When I was about six or seven, I had a bunch of eye doctor appointments to a specialist on East 68th Street.  Heck, this was a medical condition.  I should be traveling in style.


Because my mom was so unfamiliar with the subway, we got hold of another relative, Aunt Edie, who just happened to be an expert on transportation.  If you ventured anywhere out of the territory, you had to take her.  It's like she was the family Sherpa.  Oddly enough, her husband just happened to be the guy who was the conductor.


I'm not 100% sure of this event, but I think my first solo ride on this luxury transportation was when I was 13.  I was already going to Met games at Shea Stadium on my own with a capable friend in tow.  On one Saturday, I was going to a game with a friend from school who had some mobility issues.  

"I can't take the subway.  Too many stairs."

Ironically, in 2014, I would probably reply in the same fashion.  But, back then, I realized that if we were going to this game together, I was going to have to step onto a New York Central train.  At this juncture, I think they might have even been calling it Penn Central.

I recall being on that train and sitting in style.  Sure, it was a couple of bucks to get on.  Yes, my father had sneered when he heard my plan.  And we actually were going to have to use the subway to get from Grand Central Station to the ballpark.  But, for me, this was glorious.

Once I got onto that railroad, I didn't want to ever venture onto the dirty subway ever again.  When I was looking for summer jobs in Manhattan, I boarded at Mt. Vernon West.  I was now officially a transportation elitist.

My mother climbed on board, so to speak, as well.  When she finally took a regular nine-to-five job, it was in an accounting firm.  On East 42nd Street.  It's not like she could take Aunt Edie to work with her every day.  She was one of those rich folks now.

Well, not really.

Frequently, I would go down to the train station to meet her when she came home.  I took the dog with me.  It was like old times for both of us.  More often than not, Mom would pile into one of those taxicabs for a ride home.  Nobody really liked to venture up that steep hill, which was Mount Vernon Avenue.  Plus the neighborhood was changing and ugliness was taking up residence. 

My family had evolved.  We were now embracing the very transportation we once thought was above our means.

Eventually, I started to work in Manhattan.  Oh, for cost cutting purposes, I took the subway for a while.  But a transit strike propelled me onto the Penn Central and I never looked back.  For almost two decades, from first Mount Vernon and then Yonkers, I was one of "those people." 

And, over time, I learned a lesson.  These were not rich folks on board.  They were all like me.  Reading the Daily News.  Gossiping about their boss.  Discussing that episode of "Moonlighting" the night before. 

And I looked around.  As Penn Central morphed into the much more reliable Metro North, torn seats were replaced.  Air conditioning was fixed and available in most cars.  But, more significantly, this travel was now commonplace.  Nobody lived in their three-mile-wide cocoons anymore. 

I remember one of my more recent trips on the train when I was back east.  I got off the train at the Greystone station on the Hudson Line.  A young boy was waiting for either his father or his mother.  He held the family dog on a leash.  They were anxiously anticipating the family unit coming together for another evening.

The more things change, some do stay the same.

Dinner last night:  Sausage pizza at Fabiolus Cucina.


Leotalian said...

Yes, we too were exclusively a subway family. Even after moving to Yonkers we'd go by the more conveniently located train to get to the el Staton on 241st. Happy to say that the train is now the primary means to get downtown. The subway is for nostalgic trips and adrenalin rushes.

Andre Higgins-McMickens said...

My family rode the Hudson Line between the city and Peekskill. It meant changing trains at Croton Harmon because that was where the electrified rails stopped.

When I lived in Brooklyn, it was how I got back and forth to visit Yonkers, then the home of the blogger.

But we were a subway family. My aunts even lived facing the el tracks on Jerome Avenue. Oy, the noise.