Politicians on trial for corruption. NYPD officers allegedly taking bribes from club owners. An uptick in homeless and crime numbers. Is New York going back to the "bad old days"?
But from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Sunday in December, New Yorkers can catch a ride into the pleasant past, on a special "holiday nostalgia fleet" of 1930s-era trains running from 2nd Avenue to Queens Plaza.
The eight-car caravan includes different models in service until the 1970s, and the annual chance to ride on outmoded cars draws families, costume partiers, train buffs clutching handwritten schedules, and people who were just trying to catch the M train.
It comes into the station with the dark exterior and slightly slower speed of a garbage train — only on second glance does the image resolve itself to be some weird ghost car of the past.
Wide fans beat the air and rustle the boa feathers of riders dressed in flapper costumes. The lights flicker, due to the lack of battery power — whenever the train loses contact with the third rail, the lights go out.
Gary Pate, a security guard who comes to see the old trains every year, prefers the seating of these cars (a comfortable wicker) to the hard plastic of today. The "friendly hum" of the air brake was also preferable, though he doesn't miss the noisy R10 model: "The four motors each — I used to take aspirins," Pate, 58, says.
Gerard Egan, 61, rode the nostalgia train last week as a passenger, though for 32 years he was an MTA conductor. "I was around so long, I know how to operate these," he says.
During the system's decline in the 70s and 80s, Egan remembers the trains being "very abused." The summertime was "deplorable," like "putting your head in a tin can and somebody beating you." The new cars are Cadillacs in comparison, Egan says.
With subway ridership exploding — according to the MTA 6,217,621 riders entered the system on Oct. 29, the highest since record keeping began in 1985 — New Yorkers are more and more reliant on a system that still uses cloth for wire insulation.
The Second Avenue subway, first proposed before the Great Depression, is finally projected to have a partial opening late next year. While advanced Communications-Based Train Control systems are in the works, subway delays rack up due to old equipment that can't distinguish between a bit of garbage and an express.
Nevertheless, the system is both one of the draws of New York and its constant shame, an achievement and a source of irritation, your opinion of it perhaps tracking with whether you caught or missed the last A-C-E. In other words, it's bound to change.
But then, you might have run out of patience for a subway system that's stuck in the past. A lawyer who declined to give her name because she had "nothing good to say about the people in power," couldn't wait to get off the old train and out of the subway in general last Sunday.
"It's really unbearable," she said. "I don't like them. They're horrible. I detest subways."
"I can't stand riding them," she added, "Our subway system is a disgrace." Channeling her inner Joe Biden, maligner of LaGuardia Airport, she called the system worthy of "a third-world country," saying it's been "particularly awful since de Blasio," the "do-nothing mayor."
She's noticed "many more crazy people in the last year." People her age "don't take trains anymore."
"It's getting much worse," she said. She got off the train.
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