The 3rd Ave. ElMy friend D. L. is an elderly Communist from New York City, a red-diaper baby who never grew up. I always rib him mercilessly with sly references to his own childhood context, which I know all too well.
"Did you hear," I will ask him, "that Earl Browder was found frozen in amber at the ruins of Camp Woodland? Progressive scientists, using advanced Michurinist biology, are trying to revive him." Or: "Come around to my place for hot mulled wine on December 25, when we celebrate the birth of Paul Robeson." He bears it all mildly enough, with a sheepish grin. "Oh," he says, "you're such an Anarchist."
After the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics joined the Holy Roman Empire in the dustbin of History, D. L. took on a preoccupied, anxious, puzzled look, rather like my retarded son Aaron whenever he is confronted by the need to change a routine. But D. L. chewed over the events of 1989 - 91 doggedly for about a decade, and eventually he was able to rationalize them. "The trouble," he confided to me one day in about 2002, "is that none of the Communist Parties in the world ever installed real Communism." No doubt people in places like Estonia, Poland, and Hungary can hardly wait to see that wonderful experiment tried again, for real next time. I believe D. L. is now, after his decade of despondent inactivity, shopping around for a Groupuscule. During the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, he mentioned that he would like to find a joint solidarity demonstration by Israeli and Arab workers, somewhere, to join with.
Last night, D. L. appeared in my dream. He had, it turned out, composed a symphony, and I was present at its first performance. It was pretty good, particularly the scherzo movement, which was scored for a solo subway car. The music was built out of the rumbles and thumps and creaks, and the flickering of the lights, which are familiar to all New York or ex-New York subway commuters. After the performance, I gave D. L. my congratulations on the piece. He modestly explained that he was able to write it by thinking his way into the mind of a subway car. "When you actually are a subway car," he explained, "life becomes really simple: if you need to get somewhere, then you just go!"
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Perhaps D. L. and the subway car both appeared in my dream because several weeks ago I paid one of my rare visits to NYC. There, I renewed the close investigation of the subway system that I began at age eight, but largely discontinued a dozen years later, when I left the city for good. My old cunning at navigating the system is still intact. For example, I deftly solved the puzzle of getting from Grand Central Station to Park Slope in Brooklyn with only one change of train. I made use of the little-known transfer point to the F train at the Bleeker Street station (only possible on the south-bound side) of the IRT line. I was also able to advise a woman on another train that she could get across town on a line at 14th Street --- only to have people around us comment that the 14th Street line was used only by weirdos and people going to Canarsie, two populations which are apparently viewed as equivalent.
I found that the old names of the major lines have gone out of use, and people looked at me oddly when I referred to the BMT, IRT, and IND. And they looked at me even more oddly when I mentioned my own, all-time favorite, the old 3rd Avenue El. It has been so long gone that most contemporary New Yorkers don't even know that it once existed. I could swear that, when I was in elementary school, I rode it every day to school.
The train of my fond memories ran about six feet (and it seemed like six inches) from the windows of the surrounding tenements. As we went by, we could see everything going on in these apartments, and it often felt as if we were hurtling right through their kitchens. I loved looking out of the train windows and into the apartments, where I could study the people watching me watching them. I could also take a reverse role, at my grandparents' apartment near 138th Street, which had windows six feet (or was it six inches?) from the El tracks. When visiting them, I always gravitated to the window to watch the trains go by; I think I expected to see myself watching me from inside one of the trains.
But nowadays, nobody even knows there was an El on 3rd Avenue. Or was there? Maybe it was all a dream, like D. L.'s scherzo.
--- Dr. Phage