Take the A Train

Moving three miles uptown, from southern Harlem to Washington Heights, meant more than a change of zip code.  It meant a quick, involuntarily-raised eyebrow when I told someone familiar with New York’s geography where I lived.  It meant trading in nights disrupted by college parties for nights spent awake to reggaeton pumping from cars parked below my bedroom window.  It meant that my roommate would reveal to me a few months into freshman year how surprised she had been when she learned I wasn’t black, being from, you know, the city.  It meant lower rent and cheaper groceries, an eruv strung by the Chasids along the telephone poles outside my window, street venders selling churros and empanadas.  It meant a new consciousness of my skin, my dress, my hair.  It meant riding the A train.

Used to taking the 1 and the (now obsolete) 9 trains, with their familiar run up and down Broadway, I didn’t quite know what to make of the A.  Or, rather, I didn’t know what to make of the idea of me riding the A.  I had always thought of the A, and its cohorts the B, C, D and E, as functional enough, but decidedly foreign.  They went places I didn’t go, places I, a white girl, a prep school student, didn’t belong, like 168th Street, where giant fans circulate stagnant air all summer long and the 110th Street station where a man was stabbed mid-morning a few years back.  With its express run from 59th to 125th Street, the A seemed to skip every stop where someone like me ought to be getting off the train.  It rolled past Lincoln Center, gaining speed as it rumbled through the West 72nd, 81st, 86th, and 96th Street stations and left behind the Natural History Museum and the string of Barneys-Banana Republic-Citibank-Starbucks storefronts lining the Upper West Side.  Columbia University whipped past in a dazzling blur of white and blue until, with a long moan of the brakes, the train eased to a stop at Harlem: 125th Street.

The A’s route dictates an unmistakable and specific purpose for the line: to ferry the residents of Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood downtown and back up again.  And suddenly, accidentally it seemed to me, I had become one of those residents.  Riding the A uptown from Canal Street or Washington Square, I would watch the riders whittle down as the train approached 59th.  Fashionable young women, families from Texas, scruffy hipsters, and teenage girls in Coach flats peeled off at 23rd Street, 42nd, and 59th, careful not to miss their stop on a train that rockets from familiar to foreign territory in a single sprint.  When the doors closed at 59th, it was not so much on a collection of strangers, as on the gathered population of Manhattan’s northwest corner.   There were middle-aged actors and set designers headed home after work, young mothers with babies in strollers, older men in undershirts who fell asleep with their heads on their chests and their hands on their round bellies, teenagers back from school, dressed haphazardly in uniform and crowded three to a seat.

There is a moment when the train heaves into motion at 59th street of collective exhalation and, perhaps, of recognition, that grazes the line of subway etiquette.  It was a moment that made me self-conscious, as I would often notice, especially at night, that I was the only white passenger left on board, the only teenager wearing a plaid scarf and reading Paradise Lost for class.  I did not feel ashamed or threatened, but out of place.  I was reminded of a story my father had told me about how once as a teenager, when walking with his friend German who lived in Spanish Harlem, a man had come over to him and pointed: Downtown is that way.

Yet it was more than just the discomfort of being out of place.  Rather, it was a feeling that made me think of an uglier story, when a man yelled at my mother as she waited for the bus, White bitch, get out of Harlem.  It was an isolated incident, but one that I can understand better than I might like.  We were in southern Harlem because the rent had risen too high in Morningside Heights, because of all those designer bag-clutching, Botox-injecting bitches who had moved in.  And now we are in Washington Heights because the rents got too high in Harlem, which was as much a product of my family, with our wool coats and our produce from farmers’ markets, moving there as it was the eventual reason for our departure.  When riding the A, I cannot help but look at myself as I looked at the women with their Coach bags crossing the street in Morningside Heights, as that man looked at my mother that morning, and I wonder if that is how my train companions look at me, slouched in my yellow plastic bucket seat as we head uptown.

What makes this all the more difficult is that I have come to feel great affection for the A train, with its dark blue insignia and its stop on my corner at 181st Street and Fort Washington Avenue.  It is a humble and admirable line that receives little praise for its service.  Few people would guess that the A covers more territory than any other New York City subway line, traversing an astonishing 31 miles from its start in Far Rockaway, Queens to its quiet destination—Inwood, 207th Street.  The trains themselves are comfortable and mostly clean, not of the newest model with light-up maps and computerized announcements and walls so white it feels as though you are rocketing underground inside a new refrigerator, but neither of the decidedly grimy ‘60s generation, with dank yellow lighting and grey seats, a color I suspect was chosen more for its powers of concealment than its aesthetic merits.  No, for the most part As are R44 and 46 models designed in the ‘70s, meaning they have steel walls, windows marked with a modest amount of graffiti, and orange and yellow seats grouped in pairs or sets of four to ensure a comfortable, and somewhat private, ride.

On a good day, the A can get me downtown in under twenty minutes, a remarkable time considering the plodding pace of New York traffic.  But good days are few and far between.  Shuttle buses replace the train for several stops, your express ride turns local and triples in length, the train switches tracks, then switches back, then back again.  I’ve waited for the A for forty minutes, watching four Ds and just as many Cs arrive and depart in the meantime.  On weekends, the question is not whether the train will be rerouted, but rather how and to what extent.  The A’s near constant state of disrepair is, I think, connected to the fact that very few people seek out a pleasure trip to Harlem or Inwood or Washington Heights.  And maybe it is connected to who it is that is inside the train when the doors close at 59th Street.

But would I still love the A if it ran on time?  As long as my block glows dimly at night with the light from Jin’s Superette and coffee goes for a dollar a cup at Vicky’s Diner on the corner, the A will continue to be late, slow, construction-ridden.  To run on time, the Holy Moses Dress Shop across the street would need to be replaced by The Gap.  To run on time, the A would need to be filled with people more like me.

Perhaps my favorite thing about the A is that it is the only subway line with its own song. The famous jazz standard “Take the A Train,” composed by Billy Strayhorn a mere seven years after the line’s launch in 1932, strums and croons its admiration for the A through six laudatory minutes.  Recorded in 1941 by Duke Ellington, the song became his signature, and since then many other jazz musicians have covered it, most notably Ella Fitzgerald. The lyrics vary artist by artist, but most run along the lines of:

You must take the A Train,
If you want to go to Harlem.
Come and take, take, the A Train,
You’ll find the quickest way to get to Harlem.
Hurry, hurry boy it’s comin,
Can’t you hear those engines strummin?
All aboard!  Get on the A Train,
You’ll find the quickest way to get to Harlem.

I like to sit on the couch and listen to Ella sing sometimes, drinking a cup of coffee and looking into the windows across the street, where a young woman leans out to smoke cigarettes and an old bald man sits with his wife.  Ella’s voice is full and smooth, and I lie back and listen to her praise, her demands, her questions, though I know she isn’t singing them to me.

Laura Blake (JE ’12) grew up in Bloomington, IN and St. Louis, MO before moving to Manhattan, NY. She wants you to take the A train and come hang out with her in Washington Heights. Send her an email at laura.blake@yale.edu. 

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