The Uptown Express

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, we spent many weekends trekking into the city, and for us, there was only one way to get there:  the New York City subway system. We’d take the E or the F train to mid-town Manhattan. Once there, we became creatures of habit.

First, we’d go to Radio City Music Hall, where we’d take in the latest Doris Day flick, followed by a spectacular show, featuring the world-famous New York City Rockettes. Then, lunch at our favorite automat, the Horn & Hardart, where individual servings of Salisbury steak, macaroni and cheese, and warm apple pie were neatly displayed behind glass cubicles. You’d insert a few nickels in the coin-operated slot next to the food item of your choice. The door would unlock, and–voilà!–a fresh, tasty dish, piping hot from the oven, was yours for the taking.

“His Master’s Voice” was RCA’s trademark, depicting this real dog, Nipper, listening to his owner’s voice on a phonograph.

After our meal, we’d cross the street to the RCA building, where you could see a life-size version of the RCA dog, proudly listening to his “master’s voice.” How I loved that terrier and so wanted one of my own.

Sometimes, we’d stop by the Time-Life building, too, to view the photo exhibit in the lobby area.  During the holidays, we were sure to visit Rockefeller Center and gaze upon the breathtaking Christmas tree, all decked out in dazzling lights that reflected upon the skaters below. Then, there were times when we’d take the uptown express to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I loved our trips to the city. Whenever we went, no matter where we’d go, these were magical times, indeed.

Taking the subway was the only way to go. If you ask me, it was the fastest way to maneuver through the city. I was fascinated by the long, pitch-black tunnels that stretched from one end of the city to the other, crisscrossing it (see map), in a mad-dash attempt to keep New Yorkers, moving.  I took comfort in the whoosh of the express train as it sped through each station. The rattle and clatter as it swayed side to side, and the lights that would turn off at random moments, leaving passengers in utter darkness.  It was enough to stir the imagination of any wide-eyed child. It was more than enough to inspire me to write this poem about the subway of my youth.

Laughter From the Uptown Express

We boarded the Uptown Express,

Mother, Older Brother and me,

On a clear afternoon in November.

The train heaved from the station,

Mother sighed, closed her eyes,

Brother tugged at his red bow tie,

While I pressed my face against the window,

Scummy from a thousand rides before.

Darkness swallowed us as the subway

Plunged ahead, grinding a path through the

Blackness, mad maze,

Screeching like nine monsters prowling

  In the night,

Racing like hungry rats down a crooked track,

Fingers curled tightly around the seat’s edge.

The lights flickered off inside when the train,

Rocked and reeled down a curve,

Shaking furiously till Brother fell against me,

And the door between cars flew–

OPEN!

Brother grabbed my arm as a lone woman,

In the doorway’s shadow swayed on flaming stilettos,

Elegantly wearing the glint of an emerald snake on her brow,

While the train howled down through the tunnel.

Moving toward Brother and me,

Frenzy spinning about her head like

Moths caught in a spark,

One thin arm reached above us as we cringed

In anticipation and—OH the lights came on!

The woman saw me shiver and Brother squirm

In his scarlet bow tie,

Her painted lips shaped a wild, cunning laugh,

Like purple goblins dancing maniacally in the wind.

The train slowed,

Grinding to its knees while Mother stretched

From a deep, somber sleep,

Glancing at Older Brother and me,

Meekly sitting beside her,

She took my hand and adjusted Brother’s crimson tie,

 Swiftly leading us off the train,

The door shut tightly behind us,

And as we reached the stairs on the platform above,

I could still hear the laughter from the Uptown Express.

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32 thoughts on “The Uptown Express

  1. So vivid. I love how you take us right there with you. A few Christmas memories to make us feel warm and fuzzy and then a shivery thrill from your poem just in time for Halloween.

  2. Monica, I love this! You should send it to the subway transportation management system – you make the subway so magical and wondrous that they could use it in an advertising campaign!

  3. Love the Poem Monica, I’ve taken the subway in NY and loved it. I actually love taking the train anywhere. I used to live in Sydney and traveled on the train to work everyday. I could not imagine life without it, but here I am, driving everywhere now :-)

  4. Lucky you, growing up in the “city that doesn’t sleep”! I’ve only visited New York a few times, but it was amazing and busy and different from the Midwest. Rockefeller Center was fabulous during the Christmas season, too!

    • I took these experiences for granted at first, but as I got older I recognized that I was indeed lucky to have this fabulous city at my fingertips–just a short train ride away! If you ask me, the world was, indeed, my oyster. ;)

  5. Thanks for a visual tour. You made me also hear what that experience was like and I’ve never taken a NY subway. I kept imagining the poem as a picture book; Brother tugging at his tie, a little girl dressed in a pretty coat sitting and going through dark tunnels, the woman towering above two scared children while Mother slept, etc…It’s so nostalgic and picturesque.

  6. Great post. I grew up on a farm in Wisconsin 30 miles from the nearest city. How I envy you; my brother lives in NYC now. Visited him once. Your poem really captures the subway experience. Thanks for sharing.

    • Growing up rural brings its own, priceless memories, that I hope you’ll share with us. I sometimes wondered what it would be like to grow up on a farm. But, if I had to grow up by a city, I’m so glad it was this one. The city that never sleeps. :)

  7. Wonderful, Monica. The memories of your trips to the city are priceless. How lucky you were to enjoy such sights as a child. I also loved your poem. You put us right in that subway and on that ride.

  8. You had the childhood I dreamed about. The first time I saw New York I thought my whole body had been plugged into an electrical outlet. I remember my first subway ride, rotating door, buzzer for letting someone in, bagel – I’m southern we were more into biscuits – visit to the MOMA, Central Park, plays on Broadway….are you sick of my reminiscing yet? Christmas in NY? Fabulous! There’s just something about walking through the city decked in finery, boots, scarves and hats and then slipping into a little diner for a cup coffee or glass of wine. Perfection.

    • All those things you mention, we did and we did often. The city was ours. I cannot tell you how many times we went to the top of the Empire State Building, or to the Statue of Liberty, particularly when we had out-of-town visitors. Shopping at Macy’s, and browsing at F.A.O. Schwartz was so much fun. Sure, I’d whine about going to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but only because it was too cold out. Or rainy. Besides, I was just a kid. I got to see Mary Martin’s performance of Maria in “Sound of Music” on Broadway. I saw Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Later, when I was in college I saw Liza Minnelli in “Chicago” and Angela Lansbury in “Sweeney Todd.” My love affair with Broadway started when I was just learning to walk.

      I remember running into Rod Serling in Central Park and my mother telling him how much we enjoyed watching The Twilight Zone. The Metropolitan, the Guggenheim, you name it, we went. It was a fine time. These were ordinary, common experiences for me then, and now, I have nothing but extraordinary memories. Thanks for reading my blog! :)

  9. Love your blog! I have only been to NYC three times, all just a few years ago, and all three times were in November to see the Radio City Christmas show. My Mom’s company took employees on this trip each year and sometimes they had extra tickets. We also got to do some whirlwind touring and shopping and eating. You bring it all to life and I’m right there with you. What a wonderful city – there is no other like it for atmosphere. I grew up in the Washington DC area and there is no comparison. Apples and oranges. (And we know which one is the Apple!)

    • What would New York be without all that shopping! I love to shop there and often find myself pining to go back just so I can hit the stores. I love your apples and oranges comment. It’s so true! Btw, I lived outside DC for a while and your city, true, has an entirely different flavor, but has much to offer, too. All the history, for one thing. Besides, you’re close enough to New York to be able to go once in a while, so good for you!

      Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting! I so appreciate it! :)

  10. In my pre-teen years, my best friends and I went to Radio City every year for the Christmas show. I remember standing in line (freezing), to get in before 11:00 a.m., when the tickets were cheaper. Of course, there was the subway — the only reasonable way to make the trek from Brooklyn. There were times, too, when I traveled by subway, as a young girl, with my father, caught up in the magic of being in the first car — i.e., the first to see the light in the station as we approached. Something in me remains forever a city girl (having lived in the heart of it for many years). The subway is a constant, as much a part of the New York experience as the Empire State Building. And you do indeed capture, in your post and your lovely poem, the screech and the frenzy and, yes, the magic. Would love to meet you when you do come for that visit.

    • Thank you so much! I love Shary’s blog, and I saw that Lola recommended yours today. Congratulations. Shary and Lola have good taste, so I’m looking forward to reading more of yours. I did read the puddle hopping story. That’s a dog of a tale, if you ask me! ;)

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