Sunday, December 26, 2010

Dog and Christmas


My dad's holiday dog says Merry Christmas!

I know, he's still wearing the black Pilgrim hat. It looks like he's saying "Christmas is serious business".

When we cleared out my father's place, we found the box with the dog's hats and signs, but the Santa hat was missing. I thought several times that Helen and I should make him a red hat, but we never got around to it. Sorry.

This is not an old family tradition. Where my dad lived, a lot of people had a small table outside their apartment door with an objet d'kitsch, and I think he wanted to participate. Thus the dog. We never had a real dog and never wanted one. But if I was looking diligently through mail-order catalogs for something to put outside my door, I don't think I could do better than this. You can tell why I claimed the dog. It's funny my brothers and sisters did not ask for it.

There it is. The traditional fake tree, making its second appearance in as many years.

It looks like the tree sprouted from the books and art, doesn't it? It's organic. I'm happy the cats have not knocked it over yet. They keep sniffing at the low-hanging ornaments but they've been pretty good about it. The two things standing at the base of the tree have gone down a couple of times. That's all.

Look what was in the tree box. I never sent in the warranty card to American Tree and Wreath on Jingle Bell Lane, West Coxsackie NY. I just checked— that's a real address and they're still there! Anyway this particular tree has long outlived its five year warranty. I bought it for Helen and me at Woolworth's in 1973.

Here are some blurry photographs. I'm really short on time this weekend so I didn't go get the tripod out and set up better ones.

Here are some close-up photos. In these photos I want to convey the feel of getting up on Christmas and running to the tree with sleepy eyes. This is my artistic impression of how it looks.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Riding the El - 5 - 155th St


We're going to look at more of the '120' negatives we started in Riding the El - 4.

If the film roll numbers are chronological, our photographer visited 155th St again a little later in 1939 or 1940. This time, he definitely had access to non-public areas, so we get a better look at the yard and Putnam Bridge.

And there are some wonderful images in this group.

140-1. Looking south from control tower toward 155th St station.

What an array of switches, on six-track wide elevated railway.

Passenger trains either ended at 155th St or continued over Putnam Bridge, on the left. The tracks below us lead only to the train yard. On the right is a special platform for fans leaving the Polo Grounds.

The closest two cars on the stub track on the left are Composites, the original equipment for the IRT Subway from 1904. They were wooden with copper sheathing. The development of steel cars, which were stronger and more resistant to fire, progressed so rapidly that the Composites were all replaced and moved to the elevated division by 1916. The center doors were added during the cars' time in the subway. The other elevated cars did not have center doors.

140-2. Tower operator, 159th St yard entrance.

The handles controlled signals and switches at the yard entrance. The board hanging above shows 155th St station, lower left, and the array of yard tracks on the right. I love the phones. The striped awnings aren't bad either. The homemade chairs have the same kind of rattan seats as trains.

140-3. 159th St Yard looking north from control tower.

The last track on the right is alongside the Harlem River, and materials could be loaded off barges using the rig that's partially visible.

The sign on the shed says: MOTORMEN & SWITCHMEN / WILL INSPECT ALL / TRAINS BEFORE LEAVING / THE YARD. Was the paper on the floor left by an exhausted employee who thought he had to look at a hundred trains before going home?

One of the work cars has "I. R. T. Co." on the side.

The trains in the background are New York Central Railroad coaches in a storage yard that is still there today between the Hudson Line and the river.

140-4. 159th St Yard looking north from control tower.

A great general view of most of the yard and the repair shops. Just about all of this is on elevated viaduct, not ground level. In the background is High Bridge Park and the heights of upper Manhattan.

As far as I can see, all of these are wooden cars built for service on the elevated system. Most of them are gate cars with open end platforms. On the left (see the middle picture) you can see side by side two sets of gate cars and one set of converted "MUDC" cars that had their end platforms enclosed in a modernization program.


I wonder what this is. It looks like it would tap the third rail shoe.

140-6. Looking west on Putnam Bridge toward the Polo Grounds.

Notice the point of view. Last time (131-6) we had a view like this from the walkway, but now the photographer is up on the bridge structure.

On the right side at ground level is the Polo Grounds Beer Garden. Beyond it is another weird support column just like the one I mentioned last time.

140-7. Looking west on Putnam Bridge toward the Polo Grounds.

Same point of view, looking a little to the left. I scanned this one a little darker to give a better view of the station and the viaduct.

In the foreground is a dilapidated boatyard.

140-8. Harlem River near Putnam Bridge, looking west.

The boatyard was Wessner's Gas Station (for boats), and they have a few customers.

I'm not sure whether the photographer was on the Bronx shore or in a boat when he exposed this one.

Up on the bridge there are a pair of towers (for purposes unknown to me). The one almost off frame on the right was the viewpoint for 140-6 and 140-7.

141-1. Looking south along the Harlem River from the 159th St yard.

This is looking the opposite way from 140-3, above, and from ground level instead of up on the structure.

Putnam Bridge and Macombs Dam Bridge were almost twins. Both would turn 90 degrees on the center pier to allow tall ships to pass.

141-2. Looking north along the Harlem River from about 162nd St.

At the extreme north end of the yard, a few tracks came down to ground level, with third rail, but the switches were not controlled by the tower. A gentleman not in trainyard work clothes demonstrates how to move the "armstrong" switch with one's full body weight.

The stone wall at the left is still there. It supported the Harlem River Speedway, which came downhill from 155th St to river level at this point. The speedway was originally used for amateur horse racing. The grade is now an entrance to the Harlem River Drive.

On the Bronx side we can see some New York Central trains on the Hudson and Putnam lines. High Bridge is in the haze at far left.

That's it for this time.

I added one photo, 132-3, near the middle of Riding the El - 4, because it might have been taken the same day. It shows the viaduct looking north, with a good view of the south side wing, similar to the wing seen in 131-3.

The next group, I promise you, are not at 155th St. It's time to go somewhere else, isn't it?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Why I Was Late


It started like any other morning. It was as cold as hell, and there were snowflakes in the air, and we don't get that every day. But on the whole, it was like any other morning.

I walked to the railway station in South Orange. I did not see Runner Girl, but that's the new normal. I saw Dog Guy. I bought my paper from the machine I like, not the other one, because the other one is gone now, and the one I like is the only one.

I went into the bakery and got a cup of steamin' hot joe, and sat there for ten minutes looking at the meager content the Star Ledger still provides and drinking the liquor of coffee beans mixed with the juice of a cow. This was civilized. They would do this in Paris. Admittedly in Paris it would be black coffee, avec a croissant, unfiltered Gitanes, and Le Parisien. But it's the same thing.

It was like any other morning.

At the usual moment I rose, tossed out the coffee cup, and walked through the station. How cold was it? It was so cold that the Indian girl with the short school uniform was wearing track pants under her skirt. Take it from me— that is cold.

I ascended to the platform. The Modigliani woman with the metal coffee cup was there. The five gay guys who talk together were talking together. The woman who looks like Alyson Hannigan was there. Wall Street Guy was there (I don't know what his job really is). I boarded the usual train and sat in the usual seat, and it left at the usual time. We made the usual next stop at Brick Church.

East of East Orange, the world changed.

East of East Orange. In the cut. We stopped. And waited for our destiny.

Around us, life went on. Up on the streets, people walked past, probably. Cars went by, probably. Hard to say, from down in the cut, whether they did, but why would they not? I looked out at the track. A few snowflakes swirled.

I finished the Ledger. Time passed. We were warm and we had seats. Our tickets had been checked and the world was peaceful. We were peaceful, unbothered by the vibration of movement.

More time passed. There is so much of time, and we can only rush forward through it. It was the only dimension through which were moving.

We were on the center track. A train flashed by on the side track, the diesel engine at its hind end roaring at us, and then all was still again. After an interval, an outbound electric multiple-unit passed on the other side.

Presently the Rear Brake passed through the car, saying we might be going to Hoboken.

Hoboken! The terminal. The end place. Where commuters go to cry.

More minutes passed. I closed my eyes.

An announcement came over the speaker system. A trainman was speaking softly. I think I heard that there was a train ahead of us that had been disabled and was now moving, and there was a disabled train behind us that was not moving. I wondered vaguely why they had not switched us to the side track, away from the disabling effect of this center track we were on.

And, the announcement went on, we would be making an extra stop today at Newark Broad Street. An extra stop? That bothered me. An extra stop. That sounded like trouble.

I checked the time on my cell phone. I was some 60 minutes into my 35-minute journey. Another train passed on the side track.

The train slowly began to move. If electric locomotives have an idle speed, that's what ours was doing. And not for long. We stopped again.

We were almost out of the cut now, and I could contemplate, parallel to our path, the mournfully inadequate section of old state highway that poses as Interstate 280 in Newark. Cars and trucks rolled by bumper to bumper at no more than 30 miles an hour.

I took the time, for I had the time, to study the crumbling concrete wall bordering the railway, and the power cables slipping off their carrier wires, and the rotting ties where water had accumulated on the track. I had never been able to do this, not at the speeds we were accustomed to on this stretch. It gave me a new perspective on the impermanence of the material world and the impact of time.

A different conductor on the speaker now let us know that there were a lot of trains together here because of congestion. And, I realized, there were a lot of cars and trucks out there on the highway because of traffic.

He also said that we would be going to Secaucus and Penn Station. Not Hoboken!

That sentence provided hope. Something to hold onto. A dream.

We all need dreams. I imagined that we would escape our sorry lot, hobbled between disabled and formerly disabled trains. I imagined that we could run free, directly to New York.

And we moved again. We slipped smoothly into the confines of Newark Broad Street station. And there we stood. We stood there for a little while.

I checked the time again on the cell phone. I would normally be at work by now. I had some things to do at work.

Yet another conductor on the speakers said that now we were going to be delayed. As if this would be a new development, the way he said it.

We would be delayed up to one hour because of a disabled train at Secaucus. "I am very sorry", he said in the earnest tone that only an Indian accent can impart. I believed him. He could do nothing about it. He was only the messenger. It pained him greatly to be the one who had to tell us this news. I felt his sadness along with my own.

But, he added, if we liked, we could take the opportunity to go to Hoboken on the train now arriving on track 2. Track 2. What civilian knows these track numbers of which he spoke? I knew the secret that track 1 is in the middle, and therefore track 2 would be on one side of it. Even I was not dead certain which side, but it stood to reason that track 2 must be the track for trains running toward Hoboken. The track that was not conveniently across the island platform but rather that other track with the side platform.

To get there I'd have to go down, cross under, and come back up. And would the train wait for us?

I was near the rear of the train. I was the first person off. I quickly descended the stairs to the street that crosses under the railway. I turned left, and I expected that after passing under two tracks, I would turn left again and find a stairway up. Simple. But no. That's not how some fiend designed this station. I stared dumbfounded along the base of the blank concrete "Chinese wall" railway embankment. There was no stairway at all.

Then I turned and saw. It was across the street. I'd have to cross the busy street and take the stairway they had placed on the other side. The street was full of crazy Newark drivers on their way to work. There was a crosswalk and a traffic signal with one of those placebo buttons that was supposed to change the light. I ignored it and waited for a break in traffic.

I ran up the stairs. The short Hoboken train was way up near the front of the platform, and I was coming up at the rear. I ran. I can run short distances without even breathing hard. I like to show this off. I ran to the train and got on.

The train actually did wait a few minutes, and so some people got on who cannot run as easily as they would fall off a log (which I am told is easy, though I have not fallen off a log).

But then the crew started trying to close the doors. They were announcing to people that "there's a train right behind this one", the lie they all learn in conductor school. Maybe this time there really was a train right behind that one. After all there were a lot of trains around, because of congestion.

A journey via Hoboken adds about 20 minutes to my time. I always have to roll the dice on this choice. Will the Penn Station route will be delayed more than 20 minutes? If so, go to Hoboken. Often it is hard to say. This date it looked like a sure bet.

While they were getting the doors closed, the train that I had been on left the station.  No!

But a mile out, at Harrison, we passed it, standing still, and then we even passed the train in front of it. Heh heh. Losers.

The trip to Hoboken was blessedly uneventful. We did not stop for employees at the Meadows Maintenance Center. We did not even stop to wait for a track in the terminal. We went straight in. And most wonderfully, we came in on track 14, the special track, the only one with platforms on both sides. That speeds up unloading since at Hoboken you have to disembark down steps to old-fashioned rail-height platforms.

"Tickets will be cross honored."

The seasoned commuter knows these words. It means that theoretically we can enter PATH Hoboken for free by showing our passes. In practice, it means we can just enter PATH Hoboken for free, since they don't really have enough staff on hand to look at all of our passes. An official person was writing something on a clipboard. Maybe it was those strokes in groups of five to count how many of us he thought there were. Maybe it was just notes for his blog.

In the PATH station, there were no trains on the two tracks for 33rd St trains. Strange. Then a train came in, and we heard an announcement that the train would only discharge passengers. It was going out of service. What new hell was this? But then I realized the answer was simple. By now rush hour was over. They were starting to send some trains to the storage yard.

Moments later, we were permitted entry into the next train. I got off at 14th St. I like to change there. It's a straight shot down the south sidewalk of 14th St one long block to the subway at Seventh Ave. And that's an express stop on the subway.

As I waited to cross Sixth Ave, a metal star spun past my head and embedded itself in the side of a van double-parked on Sixth. No! How did they find me, so far from my normal route and normal time?

I sprinted across Sixth Ave. A taxi was accelerating forward to beat the light, but I evaded it. I had no time to wait for the light that was about to change. I ran down the sidewalk.

A few stores down, an elderly black man was picking up a newspaper from a sidewalk rack. His eyes met mine, and he shook the paper behind him in a way that I recognized. Seconds after I ran past, I heard the unmistakable sound of the ninja hitting the sidewalk. My ally had of course hooked his foot on the ninja's. I glanced back and saw that he had managed to fall on top of the ninja, and was making out that he was having trouble getting up. I kept going.

Sounds of shouting made me look back again, and since I had lost myself now among the the crowd of civilians on the sidewalk, I dared to pause. The driver, a large man, had leapt out of the van and was standing above the two on the ground, gesturing wildly and shouting things in a language I could not identify. It was turning into a thing.

Stupid ninjas.

It was probably just an opportunistic amateur, but I didn't know. I shot off away from them as fast as I could run, way beyond my normal running pace.

By Seventh Ave I was dead tired. They would expect me to take the Seventh Ave subway. I considered running on to the Eighth Ave line. But I just couldn't run any farther at this pace. Damn the years. I pulled out my Metrocard and went down the stairs and through the iron maiden.

An express train came in the moment I reached the platform, and closed doors as soon as I boarded. This was good. I stood with my back to the doors and scanned the other passengers in the car. I wonder when I do that whether people take me for police, or retired police, because they do that too. These people looked all right. There was a "homeless" man in the corner seat with a headband in today's color but I gave no sign. The "workman" with the battered metal toolbox bore some watching, but he got off at Times Square.

By 96th St I was content that all was well. Except the time. The time! As I waited on the platform for the local I checked my cell phone but it said only "searching for service". Searching for service. Aren't we all searching for service?

I arrived on campus one hour and 50 minutes past my normal time. I ran to a meeting that had started 20 minutes earlier.

As I sat down I made some slight comment about the trains being late.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Riding the El - 4 - 155th St


I said back in Riding the El part 1 that I had been sent a packet of negatives in two sizes. The three parts documenting the Sixth Avenue El in 1938 and 1939 completed the '117' size film. The photographer— I assume it is the same photographer— then acquired a better camera that used '120' film, and he set off to document other Manhattan elevated railways that were scheduled to close in 1940.

The first subject he covered, very thoroughly, is the 155th St station of the Ninth Avenue El. The Sixth and Ninth Avenue Els had a joint line from 53rd St up Columbus Ave, 110th St, and Eighth Ave to the Harlem River. The Sixth Avenue El closed in December 1938 ; the Ninth Avenue El in June 1940. Sometime in that year and a half our photographer went up to 155th St.

He might not have realized that a stub el service, from 155th St to the Bronx, would continue to run past 1940. The 155th St station was not closed until 1958.

130-8. Looking north (east) from 155th St station toward Putnam Bridge.

Putnam Bridge was opened in 1881 for mainline railroad service. The New York and Northern Rail-road, later the Putnam Division of the New York Central Railroad, originally ran from 155th St elevated station to Brewster NY, using separate tracks added to the east side of the elevated structure. In 1918, elevated railroad service was extended over the bridge, and the Putnam Division began using a new terminal at Sedgwick Ave on the Bronx side of the bridge.

The tracks continuing straight, to the left edge of the image, go to a large storage yard.

130-8 detail. Putnam Bridge.

Although it's a little washed out in the sunlight, this is a great view of the bridge. In the right-hand distance is the Sedgwick Ave elevated station, beyond which the el runs into a short tunnel. The mainline terminal is obscured by the bridge. Notice that there was a public footpath on the bridge. This was a swing bridge that could rotate 90 degrees to allow tall ships to pass— a feature required on navigable waterways but not much used on the Harlem River.

The large building in the center is the H W Wilson Company, publishers of library reference books.

130-8 detail. Stairway.

By overexposing the image I was able to lighten up the shadows in the stairway on the right-hand side. They're all the same: Sunshine Krispy Crackers, 1st in Flavor.

131-1. Looking south at 155th St station.

The structure running left to right and over the el is the 155th St Viaduct, opened in 1893, connecting Macombs Dam Bridge to the heights west of Eighth Ave. Pedestrians on the viaduct could walk down to the elevated station.

The big ad under the platform was for Watkins's "Mulsified" Coconut Oil Shampoo, a much advertised product for many years.

131-1 detail. Uptown platform.

I like the pipe-railing construction holding the weatherbeaten enamelled metal sign for 155th St, and the evenly spaced reverse-threaded lightbulbs along the roof edge.

131-1 detail. Downtown platform.

I didn't notice at first that the advertising woman with a HEADACHE had the outline of a circular saw around her head. Yow!

The train on the right, pulled partly past the platform and with its end door open, is not in service. The open door and the white-shirted man down the platform make it seem like it was a warm day, but other photos show people with jackets.

One track in the distance seems to go up a grade worthy of a roller-coaster. More on that in a moment.

131-2. 155th St station looking north from the 155th St Viaduct.

We're looking down from the viaduct, and we can see the whole station and Putnam Bridge. On the left is the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants baseball and football teams at this time.

131-2 detail. Subway entrance.

You could almost miss the simple stairway down to the INDEPENDENT SYSTEM subway, for the station called 155th St / Eighth Ave. There must have been quite a crowd squeezing into that stairway after a game.

I can see a pitcher, left, and a squatting catcher, near the subway entrance, but otherwise I am not sure what the people in the empty lot are doing. Maybe they have arrived early for a game and they're waiting outside.

131-2 detail. Putnam Bridge.

On the far side of the bridge you can see New York Central Railroad cars at the Sedgwick Ave terminal. One reason the el was kept open north of 155th St was that it was the only transit connection for passengers arriving on the Putnam Division. Imagine, from June 1940 on, they would change to the el for one stop, change at 155th St with a stair climb and few steps outdoors to subway local trains, and change once more at 145th St or 125th St to subway express trains. It's amazing passenger service on the "old Put" hung on till 1958.

131-3. 155th St station looking east from the 155th St Viaduct.

What a crazy mess of stairways! The people at the upper right are on a side wing of the viaduct, which is otherwise just out of frame on the right. They could go down to the upper mezzanine of the elevated station, and from there they could go into the station or continue down to the street.

The elevated railway staff quarters has striped awnings and an amazingly tall exhaust pipe.

The bridge at the upper right corner is Macombs Dam Bridge, 1895, a road bridge that is still there. The empty lot at the bottom is the same one seen in 131-2.

131-3 detail. Eighth Avenue Coach bus.

I bet some of my readers want a good look at that bus. The Eighth Ave bus is still the number 10 (or M-10). It replaced the Eighth Ave streetcar line in 1936.

131-3 detail. Viaduct entrance to the 155th St station.

Three well-dressed people pass the time of day as if they were on solid ground. There's a traffic sign to the right, because cars could drive onto this little side extension of the viaduct.

All of these stairs and platforms are gone now. The viaduct is just a straight shot for motor traffic, and there are no access stairs at all between the viaduct and Eighth Ave.

132-3. Eighth Ave looking north to 155th St.

This shows the other side wing of the viaduct, on the south side. The tower controls the tracks on the south side of the station. The towerman doesn't look too busy.

132-3 detail. Eighth Ave at 154th St, looking north.

Street life circa 1940, and some old brand names.

131-4. Eighth Ave, looking south from the 155th St Viaduct.

This is the opposite of the previous view. That's the same control tower.

So there's that ramp. It lines up with the center one-way express track in the distance. The track that goes under connects the uptown local track with the additional fourth track in the foreground. They went to some expense (company money too) to make sure those two paths did not cross on the level. I don't get it.

131-4 detail. Eighth Ave, looking south from the 155th St Viaduct.

You could get a good look at the ramp from the 151st St local station. Just wait.

It's a little hard to see, but the center track ramps up again at the next station, 145th St, an express stop where the center track has its own upper-level platforms. A good view of that kind of station will be coming up in a future installment.

131-4 detail. Eighth Ave at 154th St, looking south.

Some street life, and a very nice example of a bishop's crook streetlamp. Everyone is wearing nice clothes. Maybe it was Sunday. Mr Cool with the light-colored suit is leaning on a newspaper rack near the little girl. I think he has some white on his shoes and his hat.

The downtown train has BURNSIDE AVE in its passenger-side front window, indicating that it is returning from a trip to the Bronx that ended on the center track of the Burnside Ave (Jerome Ave) station.

139-8. Eight Ave at 152nd St, looking north.

We're on the uptown platform of 151st St station looking back uptown. Trains ending their run at 155th St switched left and ran to the west side island platform, and the equipment then either ran back downtown or was taken into the yard. Trains continuing to the Bronx switched right, ran to the east side island platform at 155th St, and continued over Putnam Bridge.

139-8 detail.

Right behind the signal is a train to the Bronx. Above it is the 155th St viaduct.

139-8 detail.

More nicely dressed people enjoying a walk. This is from a different roll of film than the other pictures we're looking at, so I don't know whether it is the same day.

131-6. Looking south (west) from Putnam Bridge.

The Polo Grounds did not have a big sign anywhere that said POLO GROUNDS, which is just as well since polo was never played here. The big sign they had said N Y GIANTS.

There's a subway-style interlocking signal with two colored-light heads, and beyond is a semaphore signal. It was a little confused. Two oil lamps hang on a pole. Judging by the point of view there may have been a public footpath on both sides of the bridge.

Car 122 was still a gate car, a car with open platforms and gates at the ends. The trains in the station were among the many that had been modified with closed ends and automatic doors.

The control box is supported on Phoenix columns, a patented design for a cylinder made from four curved pieces of iron bolted together. Putnam Bridge was built by the Phoenix Iron company, so the box is probably an original 1881 structure that controlled the mainline terminal track at 155th St.

131-5. Looking west from Putnam Bridge.

The point of view is a little farther out on the bridge, maybe even over the water. At left is the uptown end of the Polo Grounds, and there's a glimpse of Coogan's Bluff, the cliff wall of Washington Heights.

The size of the elevated railway storage yard is matched by that of the two switch towers that control access to the dozens of storage tracks. Beyond the trains is a large shop building where trains were kept in repair. The multiple slanted roof sections were intended to bring daylight into the work areas. The slants all face south.

I don't know the purpose of the horizontal structure on the right that runs out to the edge of the water.

131-5 detail. Under the el.

There's always something funny going on in isolated areas under elevated railways. I wonder what's in some of those trunks, know what I mean? The man on the right with a white hat is doing some car repair right on the public street. The engine is under two hood flaps that open from each side. Does he know about the kids watching, behind him?

But wait a second... holy cow... what is the deal with that support column? It's indescribable. The columns in the street are Phoenix cylinders, and the ones at the far curb are boringly ordinary square-section beams, but this thing... uh. Let me get a grip. The lower part might be an early 1870s column from Greenwich St with a spreading top. But then what? Did they mount another one upside down on top of it? I think we were not meant to notice this. Maybe they had to do an emergency repair one day and this was all the good iron they had handy. I am speechless. I must stop here.

More next time.