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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Third Avenue El, New York City

April 2021

Third Avenue Line at 169th Street

The Third Avenue Line at 169th Street, a part of the first Subway system constructed in New York City. Photographed by the Historic American Engineering Record between December 1973 and January 1974. Source: Historic American Engineering Record; Library of Congress.

When my parents and I lived at The Penington, sometimes we took the Third Avenue El to New York City’s uptown. It ran along Third Avenue a half a block from the residential hotel that was home for the year. It trains didn’t shake the building, but its noise deafened the avenue’s pedestrians and often woke me in the middle of the night in my third floor back bedroom far from my parents. I wonder what it was like to have a second or third floor apartment on the street that faced the El. The people who lived there were only one sidewalk and a car lane away from the trains that went by.

My parents room was on the second floor in the front where the windows overlooked 15th Street. My room overlooked the playground of Friends Seminary, the kindergarten through prep school where I went that second grade year. When I had a bad case of the flu and had to stay home, my classmates waved up at me, and I down at them, so wishing I felt well enough to go outdoors to play. I guess we wrote letters to sick classmates because I still have mine in my school scrapbook from that year, the one Mrs. Shipman had everyone keep. It became not only a year’s worth of writing lessons, but also a delightful book full of memories. I remember Tony’s penmanship was not the best and mine was superb. However, that cast no prediction of the future. Anyone can read Tony’s beautiful letters and words today, but sometimes I can’t even read my own. Instead, I have to look at the aberrant letter to find a match or see if the context will help me decipher the word. I must be careful whom I criticize no matter my age.

I had moved to New York from living in a large house on an acre of lawn and gardens with trees taller than our four-story house. I think it was New York’s jumble of people and my parents’ hands that made me feel secure in this enormous complex of streets and buildings.

I liked the smell of the trains and their metal poles, the sights and varieties of folks on the platforms and trains, a humpty-dumpty of people and the myriad of foreign languages and colors of clothing. I can still taste the metal of poles, tracks, wheels, and trains even now. It’s a taste of New York. If I’m in London or Moscow, I taste them then too, but I immediately remember New York.

Even today, my dreams often include a playground scene out my third story window, empty and lonely as I looked out on a weekend or late afternoon. I also still dream of the backs of other buildings and the alleys or the walled-in empty spaces between the buildings. The bad dream, though, was the rumbling, then screaming noise of metal wheels against the metal tracks of the El as the train passed by in the middle of the night. I don’t remember waking up to it, but I remember the raucous, thunderous noise of the elevated train that gave me nightmares when it screamed through my room in the dark of night. The El still echoes for me everywhere, even as I sit here writing with no bad memories.

Some days my mother and I went uptown on The El. I felt excited as it meant we were on our way to a museum, gardens, or a shopping trip. I held the railing if I was close enough to the side, and I always held her gloved hand with my gloved hand. Why gloves? It was a part of getting dressed to go out—coat, hat, and gloves in those days. The gloves make sense today too, because New York is a filthy city. Then or now, white clothes were grimy by noon and ready for the laundry by supper.

I also held my mother’s hand because I was afraid I’d fall through the empty spaces between the steps up to the El platform. Or was it that I didn’t like the shifting background as the sidewalk from the avenue rose or descended unevenly. That’s why I held her hand: I couldn’t always maintain my perspective of where I was. As a university student, I learned the name of that, the figure-ground image, only mine too frequently kept moving. I couldn’t always make the cityscape or landscape keep still. To distract me from the odd movement of objects, I touched something, anything—a stairway handrail, an inside wall, or the pole on the subway train.

In the front or back of every building was a fire escape with its grated steps. I always felt I could slip through them to the pavement. I wouldn’t fall. I’d just float down or the pavement would rise up to catch me as if I’d just jumped a few steps. Still, it scared me and I found the missing risers terrified me. The stairs felt far more open than reality and I thought a skinny child my size could easily slide through. I tried to act like my mother and everyone else. If I had told my mother, she would have said, oh don’t be silly. All these other people knew where they were going and walked up the steps with confidence. This must mean that I had to behave like everyone else—with confidence, albeit false—and ignore my fear. So I did.

Ignoring the vertigo as a young adult, and again, not knowing its cause, I decided to get rid of it once and for all. Living out west, I went spelunking and started to climb mountains. I loved those expeditions, but they didn’t get rid of the vertigo. The good part was that I learned how to navigate the rapidly reversing figure-ground images as I walked stairs, mountains, or flat level ground.

We left the City after second grade and moved to a small university town in Maine. When we moved back to the City in 1952, we lived on Fifth Avenue and then Washington Mews, only a mile away but a different part of town. The Third Avenue El was demolished in 1955. I still don’t understand that and I miss it. Chicago still has their El. Why didn’t they leave the one on Third Avenue? I would have ridden it for fun some afternoons when I left school, maybe walked over to Fifth Avenue to take the bus downtown to home.

If you’re an El fan, no matter what city, or you just want a trip down memory lane or a new look at a bygone era, take a look here for a Third Ave. El ride. The views are great, but the Hayden music soundtrack is definitely of 1940s homemade quality and horrid.

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