For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Bronxites

The D Train, What a Ride

by Thomas Williams


e looked at me in disbelief. : "You didn't get your driver's license until you were twenty-two years old?"

"I didn't need one, I had the D train," I said calmly. He was lost. This big guy on campus, this dean's list student in graduate school at Notre Dame was lost. This classroom leader in the American Studies department apparently hadn't heard about the D train. What did he know; he was from Bootheel, Nebraska, or some place like that. What would he know about the D Train, the Bronx's Orient Express?

I grew up in the northeast Bronx. I lived near the 205th stop for the D train. It was the last stop on the line, or the top of the line as we liked to say on Decatur Avenue. It was great living near the 205th stop because you always got a seat on an empty train starting the run to exotic places like Fordham Road and the Lowe's Paradise; 161st Street and River Avenue, the absolute center of the universe, and eventually to Greenwich Village.

The D train took me anywhere I needed to go. It ran all day and all night, and it ran seven days a week, except sometimes on New Year's Eve when Mike Quill called a subway strike. And it was cheap. My first rides cost a dime. I remember mostly twenty cents as a kid.

I grew up on the D train. I rode it to Robert Hall's on Fordham Road to get new clothes for school. I rode it to school, on dates, to work, to weddings and to funerals. On many a summer evening, while sitting on the stoop on 209th Street, we'd hear the Yankee game coming from someone's TV or radio; it was summer and everyone's window was open and Mel Allen was everywhere. One of the guys would say, "Hey, it's only the first inning, let's go to the Stadium." Off we'd go on the D train and be in our seats in the right field bleachers by the top of the fourth. The Mick was in center, Roger Maris was in right field, and Whitey Ford was on the mound. Life was perfect.

The D train was my wheels to anywhere I wanted to go in New York, but mostly it was a library and a locker room. Four of us who grew up together attending St. Brendan's grammar school on 206th Street would ride together every day to high school on 14th Street. We'd be all together in the last car, hunched over, passing homework back and forth. I would always do the Latin; Johnny would do the Algebra, Patsy the English, and Jimmy Social Studies and History. We didn't worry about Religion homework. You could always talk the brother out of detention. Who ever heard of detention for not doing religion homework? We'd do our specialty the night before. Then it was passed around and we'd copy each other's work. It was great. The only trouble was after Tremont Avenue when the D train became express for the morning rush hour. Those motormen liked to squeal steel. We'd be roaring down to Manhattan with four kids trying to copy pages as fast as they could while those cars rocked back and forth. I never heard a complaint from the Christian Brothers about my penmanship, though. Maybe they never read the stuff.

We'd make it from 205th to 14th Street in about forth minutes. Coming home was another story. At 2:30, the D wasn't an express. It was more like an hour and fifteen minutes going home. We had a little game we used to play. From Bedford Park Boulevard to 205th Street we'd grab onto the strap bars that ran the length of the car and bend our knees so that we weren't touching the floor. The one who held out to 205th was the winner. I'd like to see that on those strongman TV shows. There's a lot of track between Bedford Park Boulevard and 205th.

Then there were high school sports. If you ran track. you rode from school to some armory for practice with your track stuff jammed into a school bag during indoor season. The armories had lockers, so that wasn't bad. Outdoor practice was something else. There were no lockers in Van Cortlandt Park, so you rode to practice with your track stuff under your school clothes, tie and all. The ride home was worse. Baseball could be tough, too. Often, we'd ride to the field in uniform because the game began as soon as the teams arrived. Then back to school to change. Thirteen, fourteen guys getting on the subway in uniforms, bat bags rattling; most New Yorkers never looked up from their Daily News. What a great city.

But the D train as a noisy library is my most lingering memory. Even with the windows open in the summer, the wheels squealing and the lights blinking, you could get lost in a book, especially if you were dating a girl in Brooklyn and were on for the long ride out to Coney. I read some great novels on the D train. Maybe I'm recalling the novels more than the train ride, I don't know. I'll always remember the earth moving for Maria somewhere between Tremont and 183rd and wondering if Hemingway ever rode the D train or if they had subways in Spain.

Coming back from a date on the D with a St. Brendan's girl on a summer's night was always something special. The short ride from the Concourse and Lowe's Paradise to the relative quiet of Perry Avenue, when you came up those steps at the 205th Street stop was, well, romantic. Almost like William Holden and Kim Novak dancing in the park in "Picnic."

Many, many years after my travels on the D train had ended because I had moved from New York, I was doing some work in Eastern Europe, in Hungary. One Sunday afternoon I was homesick and watching people shopping in a great open square in Budapest near the Danube. I had read that the world's first subway was built in Budapest in the 1880s. I went looking for it and found it. Within minutes I was sitting in a little car rattling along and rocking back and forth under the streets of Budapest. The lights were flickering, too. I was home! The few people in the car were looking at me. I must have had a strange look on my face. Suddenly, I couldn't resist. I stood up, went to the middle of the car, and with my best D train balance, I rode the rest of the way not holding on to a strap or pole or anything. I didn't see any strap bar to hang from with my knees bent. If I did I would have shown those Hungarians a thing or two. The Danube, who needs it. I grew up along the Bronx River and we had a subway, too. And what a ride it was.

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