November 24, 2008
My scariest experience in the New York City subway involved neither crime nor craziness.
In the early 1980s, when dilapidated subway trains screeched through the system completely covered by graffiti, the MTA proposed to replace them with new Japanese cars featuring paint-resistant exteriors.
One Saturday in July when everything measurable was 97 (including the IQs of those of us outside), I was waiting . . . and waiting . . . in the 42nd Street station for the A train to 175th Street. Increasing numbers of prospective riders crowded onto the platform, where the atmosphere rapidly became as steamy as everyone’s mood.
I began thinking the otherwise unthinkable: perhaps I should take the IRT.
Back then IRT trains stopped overnight in hell, from which they emerged each day filthy with nothing working, including the air conditioning. In the summer, the windows were jammed open because a gritty breeze and deafening noise were all that riders could expect, along with cattle-car elevators in northern Manhattan that carried us to and from street level.
But the A train refused to arrive, so I moved reluctantly to the IRT platform, which was deserted and spooky except for a young couple seated on a bench. I walked to the edge and peered down the tunnel, hoping somehow to make transportation appear.
Sure enough, I saw distant headlights. They seemed too bright for a train, yet as they approached, I could see the familiar outline in smaller colored lights. Then a face appeared distinctly—that of the motorman.
What glided slowly into the station behind him stopped my breath. It was an IRT train that was pure white.
Every light outside and inside shone. Through sparkling windows I could see the usual nonchalant riders, which made no sense. Riders could not have boarded unless the train had stopped at a station, where it would immediately have been swarmed by graffitists exhilarated by its pristine exterior.
Then it hit me—this was the Flying Dutchman of subway trains, a phantom carrying the doomed beneath the city for all eternity. No way was I boarding.
The train stopped; the doors opened; out blew a blast of air conditioning, and I thought, “On the other hand . . . .”
I walked in, sat down, and stared. The interior was freshly painted in shades of brown and beige. Every unpainted surface—grab bars, seats, even the floor—was covered with fine scratches left by scouring. Each fan circulated cool air. The train resumed its route as smoothly as new.
Booming through the car and making me jump came the voice of . . . who?! God?! Actually the conductor’s announcement of 59th Street sounded equally alien considering its rarity. Riders boarded and left; I calmed down, and uneventfully I rode to 181st street, where the cattle-car elevator to street level seemed steamier and uglier than ever.
For weeks afterward I wondered about this train until finally I saw two paragraphs, one each in the New York Times and New York magazine, that explained it. Having decided that importing new trains from Japan was absurd, a group of IRT transit workers had applied for permission instead to refurbish a junked train just to prove that it could be done. For good measure, they painted and named it Snow White. And that was the last I heard of it.
Snow White comes to mind each time I view the local group site of www.freecycle.org, members of which give away, pick up, and request all sorts of used possessions. The resurrected train exemplified such renunciation of clutter and waste. I wonder whatever became of it.
Copyright © 2008 by Janice M. Cauwels, Ph.D. All rights reserved.