Riding the Nostalgia Train sounds like something you do when you’re lost in reverie and memory, pining for what used to be. If that’s what it is, then many New Yorkers are casting backwards through time on Sundays this month, riding antique subway cars along the M Line, from Second Avenue to Queens Plaza and back again.
The people on the Nostalgia Train are a different breed.
Some come dressed in period costume, Depression-era hats and coats, shoes and neckties, dark lipstick shades of another epoch. These otherworldly anachronisms dance on the station platform to the music of a little swing band, the slick-haired singer crooning “Night and Day.”
Others come in MTA paraphernalia, railfans dressed in t-shirts and knit winter caps proclaiming their favorite subway line. The F and the 6 are tops. One young man sits grinning, running through a near constant patter of conductor announcements. He’s got the script down and compulsively, giddily recites its length and breadth. “This is Broadway-Lafayette,” he calls out. “Transfer is available for the 6 train. Stand clear of the closing doors.” Another young man, wearing an Amtrak t-shirt, holds his iPhone by the open door between the cars, audio recording the clickety-clack in the dark tunnel’s roar.
Haloed by warm incandescent light bulbs, an older man stands and pontificates on the state of today’s New York, city of yuppies, cell phones, and drunk Santas: “Is this the city you and I were raised in? It’s become alien. I have no feeling for it anymore. It’s scary!”
But no one listens. They’d rather pretend it’s the past.
Retired motormen trade stories. Clasp hands. Greet each other warmly, saying, “Hey, I ain’t seen your ugly mug for a hundred years.”
Among the fanatics and nostalgics, other New Yorkers climb aboard, acting like the everyday subway riders they are–tired, bored, going to work, coming home from a long day already. They’ve got no time for reminiscence.
The Nostalgia Train doesn’t sound or feel or smell like today’s bright and whispery subway cars. Heavy in its bones, it broadcasts a loud symphony of sound, rattling and wheezing through the underworld. Inside, ceiling fans whiz overhead. The air is olive drab or else some shade of sea foam.
Open windows let in the smells of the tunnel, which shift from swampy organics to a fragrance you’d swear was burnt buttered toast.
Soot flies in and lands in your eye. In these old cars, you are not sheltered from the city. You are joined to it.
There is no stillness here. The rattan benches bounce your spine up and down as the jolting car keeps all bodies in motion.
But the best part comes when the train dives beneath the East River and launches forth to Queens. The driver lets out the throttle, like letting loose the reins of a horse, and the whole thing torpedoes ahead. It dives deeper, faster, jerking from side to side, shuddering in its bolts. A gritty wind blasts through the openings, strong enough to knock off a hat, if it tried.
In this unbridled speed, the riders are giddy. It is a relief to feel the city thrumming in your gut, to not be insulated from it, to not be held in some sterile, hospital-lit tube.
This feels real. This knocking around. This sucking down the filthy wind. This robust mechanical jolt.
This is New York.