For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

The BMT


by Rev. Colman Nolan

I

n '42 my family moved from Lynbrook to Decatur Street and Saratoga Avenue. Before I took up stickball with new Italian pals who hung out by the candy store at Hopkinson Avenue, I found the BMT. It wasn't long before I thought of myself as living in the world of the BMT. Other Brooklyn people were IRT people or Independent people. But for me, the BMT "el" was four blocks from home. There wasn't any other world!

To break into city life, as a kid, I "rode the rails." I went all alone that first summer as far as the Bronx Zoo, and Coney Island. I sat in the very last seat of the balcony of Radio City Music Hall. Got there, of course on the BMT, probably via Times Square, or was it 49th Street?

I discovered the fascination of looking out the front window of the first car on the BMT trains. Leaning/hanging on the top edge of the half-opened window, I'd be standing almost beside the motorman-engineer. He was partially hidden, enclosed and seated in his box on the right hand side of the lead car. The wind blew in my face, not his! I was driving the train!

In the world above Broadway, Brooklyn moved beneath us at a smooth, rhythmic pace. It swayed a bit too. Its beat was punctuated now and then by the rail switches: at Eastern Parkway, at Gates Avenue, at Myrtle Avenue, at Marcy Avenue. From the old, wooden platform Marcy Avenue station, we took the curved, upward graded approaches to the Williamsburg Bridge quietly and gracefully; we never fell into the broad plaza down below the "el."

High in the air over the East River we'd snake across the bridge. Formidable girders told us that we wouldn't slip sideways into the river. For the "huddle" at the front window of the train the magnificent view glided under us in too short a time. There was always something to check out - the Williamsburg Bank, Farberware factory, the Navy Yard, boats on the water, the high, towering apartments near the river in Manhattan, the tunnel that would swallow us into darkness just before Essex Street on the Manhattan end of the bridge. ("Change at Canal!") The somber, magical world inside the Manhattan BMT tunnels lived on blinking reds and green signals and glistening rails.

For my high school years I went to St. John' s Prep, at Lewis Avenue and Hart Street. All I knew was: take the red-amber lights Canarsie Line train from Halsey Street to Myrtle. Two greens, the Jamaica Line, was cold blooded. It was the express; it just roared through the middle track at Halsey Street with folks from Woodhaven and Richmond Hill. From Myrtle Station we'd walk a few blocks to school. The BMT was such a routine that at the end of school hours I got to know the motorman of the red-and-amber Canarsie local! He'd open the door of his driver's box just to say hello to the kid who would look out the front window. I lost his name in my move from Brooklyn, but I remember that from his warm, round face came a tone of Irish friendliness too. Once in a while I'd "linger" on the ride home and get off at Chauncey Street. I guess I enjoyed the ride!

'Twas only years later that I realized that the stretch from Decatur and Saratoga wasn't all that far from Lewis and Hart. I probably could have walked it every day! It would've given me exercise! But now I figure I wouldn't have seen the architectural, rooftop proof that Brooklyn was a city of churches; or known just how artistically the Jamaica Line connected with the Ridgewood/Myrtle Avenue Line, and with the Lexington Avenue Line (with its cars with "open air" platforms). I wouldn't have seen how solid those steel subway cars made in Berwick, Pennsylvania really were. I wouldn't have had the urban excitements, the real, "city kid" refinements that I got from the BMT.

*BMT means Brooklyn Manhattan Transit




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