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 , 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.
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–
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.