Adventures in the World Beneath New York
By Randy Kennedy
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2004 The New York Times
All rights reserved.
CITIZENS OF THE SUBWAY
SMITTEN BY THE SUBWAY
If you have set foot on a subway platform during the last 20 years, there is a decent chance that he has been standing there next to you, a small, smiling man in no hurry to catch a train.
He was probably carrying a green satchel with a tiny American flag stitched on the flap. From this satchel, he probably produced a pair of junk-store binoculars or a camera and pointed one in the direction of a rust-stained wall that seemed to warrant neither close inspection nor documentation.
You probably did not notice him. He tends to fade into the tilework. And that is how Philip Ashforth Coppola of Maplewood, N.J., likes it. But once, on August 29, 1978, he pinned a plastic envelope to his shirt, slipped a name tag inside and summoned up the courage to conduct his own private poll at four Midtown subway stations. As he later wrote, he "collared whoever looked like a likely candidate," and with all the intensity of the Ancient Mariner, he asked a question:
"Are you aware of the subway art?"
The art to which Mr. Coppola referred was the art that he loves most in the world, the masterpieces in mosaic, faience, terra cotta, tile and steel that a grander generation of public builders bequeathed the humble and hurried subway rider.
That summer morning, his questions elicited mostly ignorance and indifference. But the subject mattered dearly to Mr. Coppola for a couple of reasons. One was that so many of his beloved treasures were either crumbling or being blithely entombed in subway renovations.
Another reason was that Mr. Coppola, then on the verge of turning 30, a sometime dishwasher, sometime printing press operator with little training in design and none in writing, had just decided to devote the rest of his life to writing and publishing at his own expense an exhaustive, multivolume, painstakingly detailed history of the design and decoration of every one of the stations — 496, by his count — that ever existed in the subway system.
In the pantheon of the New York City subway buff, a loose fraternity of urban transit fans who range from simple romantics to near-maniacs, you could think of Mr. Coppola as the obsessive's obsessive.
He does not, like one buff in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, have a mock-up of a motorman's cab in his bedroom, supplemented with recorded sounds from the subway to make sitting in the cab feel more authentic.
He does not, like another buff in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, live in an apartment that has been converted into a miniature subway system, full of expensive handmade model trains.
He certainly does not, like one veteran buff who turns up at Transit Authority functions, sport a large tattoo of a subway car on his bicep.
But what Mr. Coppola has done takes him far beyond the bounds of even the most devoted railroad hobbyist. For a quarter of a century, he has spent nearly every spare minute of his life — weekends, vacations, long nights too many to count — haunting subway stations, libraries, archives, museums and creaky microfilm readers in search of even the tiniest shards of fact for his masterwork.
He could have ended up another Joe Gould, the Greenwich Village eccentric who claimed to have written a nine-million-word opus called "The Oral History of Our Time," largely drawn from overheard conversations and, in the end, largely existing only in Mr. Gould's imagination.
But Mr. Coppola was not just a dreamer. In 1984, after almost six years of hovering over his sketch pad and his I.B.M. Selectric II, he self -published the first heavy volume of "Silver Connections: A Fresh Perspective on the New York Area Subway Systems." Another volume appeared in 1990 and a third in 1994. The fourth and most recent, a thick digression that covers the design of the old Manhattan and Hudson Railroad, came out in 1999. And after revising the first volume ("Simply far too much purple prose in that one," he says, warning, "Do not read too deeply into it.") he plans to begin No. 5, which he hopes will appear in 2004 and take the subway saga all the way up to 1915. Through the years, he even built a readership, including the artist Roy Lichtenstein, who consulted the volumes when making the subway mural that now hangs in Times Square.
Stacked on top of one another, the volumes, published in small batches, measure nine inches. Not counting the mind-boggling bibliographies and indexes, they add up to more than 1,900 pages, several hundred thousand words and more than one thousand of Mr. Coppola's hand drawings.
Mr. Coppola is now 52 years old.
He has 404 more subway stations to go.
"I always thought nine was a good round number, nine volumes," he says. "Now I am not so sure."
He hopes his readers will like his volumes, of course. But you get the sneaking sense from Mr. Coppola that his most devoted reader will always be Philip Ashforth Coppola.
"Now if you're not the sort to be terribly concerned about whence there came the New York subway, nor how it came about," he writes in the introduction to Volume I, "then I still suggest you keep this book on your bedside table, in case you can't sleep some night; I especially recommend my thoughts upon the extensions to the upper Broadway stations, found in my review of the 137th Street IRT station (pp. 338 -341).
"A paragraph or two," he adds, "should send you off splendidly."
To outsiders, the world of Mr. Coppola, the world of the true subway buff, or rail fan, as many like to be called, has never been easy to visit.
On some level, of course, every New Yorker has felt the fascination. The subway has always meant a lot more to the city than just a way to get around. As much as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, it has represented the monumental ambition of the city itself. It has also been one of the best methods for veteran New Yorkers to travel back in time, to the old neighborhood, to the transit gloria of Ebbets Field, to that rite of passage when they were finally old enough to ride by themselves.
Many buffs approach the subway as pure sentimentalists, drawn to the subject by a mixture of nostalgia and municipal pride. These are the buffs who know the map so well they don't have to look at it, the ones who like to stare out the front windows of trains, who still argue about the relative merits of the IRT over the BMT in an age when few commuters know what the letters ever meant. (The Interborough Rapid Transit system is now the numbered lines, and the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit system is part of the lettered lines.)
These are buffs like Stan Fischler, who has written four books on New York subways and trolleys. His favorite facts are the purely personal ones, such as how the old BMT "standard" cars had a jump seat that folded down so that a 5-year-old Stan could stand on it and stick his head out the front window. Or how the old trains on the Brighton Line, as they passed the curve at Beverly Road, used to bang out a rhythm that sounded exactly like the drumbeat in Benny Goodman's "China Boy."
"When I first found out it was a nickel," said Mr. Fischler, "I said to myself, 'Oh my God, I'd pay five bucks for something like this, easy.' For a kid, it was paradise."
But the subway also tends to take its votaries to levels of fascination where most people find the air too thin.
In many ways, of course, they are no different from any other hardcore buffs: Trekkies, Civil War re-enactors, J. F. K. assassination buffs who come to blows over the role of the umbrella man in Dealey Plaza.
But while the lure of those subjects is somewhat apparent, it is not as easy to figure out what motivates the dedicated rail fan.
One of the telltale signs is that he — it is nearly always a he; most rail fans are male, middle-aged and single; the married ones call their wives "rail widows" — can sit for several hours watching stunningly prosaic slides of subway trains that, to the untrained eye, all look pretty much identical.
But for the buff, a train picture holds the same appeal that a pinned butterfly holds for a lepidopterist. At an early summer meeting of the New York chapter of the Electric Railroaders' Association, a club formed in the early 1950's, about two hundred people filled an auditorium at the College of Insurance in Lower Manhattan to see the work of Harold Pinsker, a popular amateur train photographer, who presented what the program called "a mix of his best slides from the 1980's."
The textbook train-buff photograph is known as a roster shot. To the outsider, one thing becomes apparent immediately about roster shots: there are no people in them. The aim is to show trains and only trains, with no passengers to block the view or scenery to distract the eye. (An Internet guide on taking roster shots counsels: "The main idea is to portray the locomotive in a very realistic and straightforward manner. Leave your artistic ambitions at home.")
An authentic rail fan also devotes as much of his vacation as possible to riding on and taking roster shots of subways around the world. While Mr. Pinsker's slides flashed on the screen that night, Charlie Akins, the longtime president of the rail club, whispered about his coming vacation to Budapest, where he would spend a week checking out Hungarian subways with a group of fans from around the United States.
Mr. Akins, 54, a manager for the Social Security Administration, has also vacationed on subways in Hong Kong, London, Paris, Montreal and every American city that has one. (A rail-fan vacation guide warns about the pitfalls of taking nonfans on such trips: "If you want to be accompanied trackside by a spouse, child or buddy who doesn't like trains, in an attempt to enlighten them as to the mystique of the rails, then by all means do so. But be forewarned, you do so at your own peril.")
Truth be told, even people who consider themselves fine amateur subway buffs probably could not handle it.
"Let's put it this way," said Gene Russianoff, a lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, the riders' advocacy group. "Transit advocates are from Mars and transit buffs are from Venus. They're really two completely different types of people."
"I just can't sit there and hear about which cars are married pairs and which used a certain kind of lug nut," said Mr. Russianoff, who has been an advocate and subway expert for more than two decades.
Over the years, the unusual ardor of rail fans has given rise to a long list of less-than-flattering nicknames. The most widely used term is foamer, which may have been used first by Amtrak employees to refer to rail fans who grew so excited when looking at trains they seemed to be rabid. Another theory holds that this term was adapted from the acronym FOMITE, which stood for "fanatically obnoxious mentally incompetent train enthusiast."
Other names include glazer (eyes glaze over at sight of trains); gerf (glassy-eyed rail fan); and flim (foamer living with mother.) Transit Authority employees privately use a much stronger term: fern, in which the "r" and the "n" stand for "rail nut" and the "f" stands for what you think it stands for.
Many Transit Authority officials hold so dim a view of rail fans, in fact, that they do not like to comment publicly about them for fear that it will only encourage the more unstable, some of whom, officials complain, trespass into rail yards and risk life and limb to get pictures of trains.
There are even a few who cross the line into real criminality — fans who love trains so much that they feel compelled to take them.
Darius McCollum, probably the best known, began at 15, persuading a motorman to let him drive an E train. Over the years, he frequently impersonated Transit Authority employees, commandeered buses and, once, sneaked into a control tower at 57th Street and tripped the emergency brakes on an N train.
"There are people who are interested in subways, and then there are people who are crazy," one transit official said. "They tend to show up at any event where we're rolling out new equipment or making any changes in the system. You always know who it's going to be. And they don't look like regular human beings."
Rail fans hate it when the term subway buff is used in newspapers to describe someone who decides to steal a train. "Guys who do that are not rail fans," said David Pirmann, a buff who maintains one of the best Internet collections of New York subway history, lore and facts (www.nycsubway.org). "Guys who do that are crackpots and vandals, and they should be locked up for a long time."
In their defense, buffs point out that if it were not for buffs, many of whom are or have been New York Transit employees, many pieces of history now in the authority's Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn probably would have ended up in a metal shredder. In his book, "The Subway," Mr. Fischler relates the story of Frank Turdik, a transit employee who, in the mid-1960's, took several old cars that were about to be scrapped and hid them in an unused tunnel. The cars were preserved and are still around today, rolled out by the Transit Museum for special events.
"A lot of people ask me how I can be so into this," said Mr. Pirmann, a systems management consultant in Manhattan. "And I say: 'Look, it's a hobby. I mean, my parents collect little glass shoes. They must have seven hundred of them. This is what I do. You might think it's crazy, but I think it's cool.'"
The birth of the subway and of the subway buff were roughly coincident. But the obsession gathered speed when the Transit Authority began to scrap many of the first subway cars after World War II.
No one really knows how many serious buffs are out there now. The Electric Railroaders' Association has about 650 members in the city. Mr. Akins, the president, says a striking change over the years has been the growth in the number of members who are transit employees, apparently more emboldened now to admit that the subway is their passion as well as their job. The next largest club in the city, the New York Railroad Enthusiasts, whose interests extend to steam and diesel trains, has about 150 members. But there are thousands more buffs who are simply not joiners and will never be counted. They are scattered throughout the city, the country and the world, nurturing their fascination in solitude.
One such buff is Derek Nisbett, an intensive case manager for the state's Office of Mental Health. Mr. Nisbett, 44, is the man who has bought more than one hundred scale-model brass and plastic subway cars, costing about $500 each, and has been slowly turning his Fort Greene studio apartment into a miniature subway system. The crown jewel will be a set of elevated tracks that will circle his bed. "I collect only subway trains," he said. "Everybody who knows me knows that."
Another is Paul Kronenberg, 56, a math tutor in Sheepshead Bay. He is the man who has built the eerily realistic mock-up of a motorman's cab in his bedroom from old IND train parts. He said the idea came to him when he was working near a Coney Island subway scrap yard in the 1970's.
"Originally I just wanted the controller from a cab," Mr. Kronenberg said. "Then I bought a brake stand, a door, a windshield, the brake boxes, the motorman's seat, a pressure gauge." He built the walls out of particle board and painted them the exact gray-green color of the old trains by mixing Sears paint with pigment.
"Someone I knew saw it, and he said, 'When you drop dead and the authorities come in here and see this thing, you're going to make the newspapers,'" he said. "And I just kind of freaked out when he said that. But most people who know me don't think it's all that strange. They know I don't take it all that seriously."
Arguably the most isolated subway buff of all is a man named Michael Vincze. He is not, however, a loner by choice. He is incarcerated in South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, N.J., where he dreams about the Polo Grounds shuttle of his youth and has built a substantial library of subway books in his cell. He is such a devoted collector, in fact, that he has bought all four volumes of Mr. Coppola's "Silver Connections," and, like many of Mr. Coppola's fans from New York to Texas to Minnesota to Maryland, the inmate has kept up a correspondence with the author for a decade, even while being transferred from prison to prison.
"I really don't know much about him," Mr. Coppola said the other day. "I've never asked him why he's in prison. From what I can tell he has a fine mind and a nice personality. He knows a lot about the story of the subways."
Mr. Coppola wants desperately to tell him, and everyone else who is interested, the rest of the subway's story, if only he can find time to tell it, between his job as a printing press operator and the care of his 90 -year-old mother, Mary, with whom he has lived since his father, Joseph, died in 1974.
The other day, wandering the empty, cathedral-like Chambers Street station on the J line, one of his favorites, he was asked to explain why he loves the New York City subway so much, enough to devote his life to it.
After all, he has spent nearly all his life in Maplewood, nowhere near a subway station. He never dreamed of growing up to be a motorman or a conductor. His father, who worked on Wall Street, hated the subway and avoided it whenever possible.
"Why did I pick the subways?" Mr. Coppola says, pondering for a long time. "Oh Lordy, that's a good one. I guess I felt like it needed a little public relations work, that's all." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Subwayland by Randy Kennedy. Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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