I rode the Number 1 train into Manhattan this morning and it was quite literally a special journey. When there is construction down under and the train doesn’t complete its usual appointed rounds, it is deemed “Special” by the powers-that-be in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Today, the train’s last stop on its southbound run—and start of its northbound return—was 14th Street, instead of South Ferry. Less is better and special on the New York City subway. Superstorm Sandy damage repairs are reportedly still being done below 14th Street. The “storm of the century” occurred five years this October. Not convinced that time flies and circumstances change, I give you Chris Christie, “America’s Governor” in the immediate wake of Sandy.
When I was in high school, I took a city bus there every day—one, in fact, that was christened “special.” The various “special” buses were leased from the city to take students from certain neighborhoods—like my own Kingsbridge—directly to our school. There were a lot of us, so it paid to do so. Crammed like sardines into the bus—with an unhealthy share of teens smoking in the can—it was a hellish daily adventure. I typically began my day reeking—skin to clothes—of cigarette smoke. Ditto at the end of the school day, but that was more tolerable for obvious reasons. Now that couldn’t have been too healthy. I can’t say what, if any, the long-term physical damage was of my inhaling all that second-hand smoke, but the psychological effects in real-time were pretty debilitating. What a way to start a school day in a place that I dreaded going to—“special” bus or not!
When I was in high school in the East Bronx during the 1970s, the area of Manhattan that I found myself in today was a little different in appearance and feel. Well, more than a little. I passed by a building that once housed a gay bar of renown called the Badlands. I’ve seen pictures of the place with the old elevated West Side Highway still standing in the backdrop. Gritty images from a time and place that are no more. That part of lower Manhattan was a veritable wasteland of rotting piers and such—stark but with character that’s vanished.
As a teenager, I didn’t meander around Manhattan like I’ve done the past few decades. Then, trips “downtown” had a purpose like Christmas shopping, a movie or show, or some school trip. My friends and I weren’t about to indiscriminately roam in the big city’s no man’s lands. It wasn’t only considered too dangerous; it was too dangerous. Still, I would have liked to explore that kind of character, which I remember in so many other places in town. A character that is pretty much history.
As I was strolling along the previous wasteland—now gentrified with hipsters galore bicycling and jogging along the Hudson River—the wide walkway suddenly narrowed to one lane. Bicyclists whizzing too closely beside me in their allotted path on heavily trafficked 11th Avenue made me pine for home. One little swerve on one of those bicycles traveling at such high speeds would have seriously put a damper on this special day of mine.
(Photos from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)