NOTE: I submitted this piece to the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize and it was selected as a finalist. Yesterday was the reading and though I did not win, I am proud to have participated. It always feels a bit risky to put yourself out there, but if you don’t you can’t grow. My family has been very supportive and encouraging and I thank them for that!
Rockaway Parkway was my subway station, where I got on the LL (today the L) to go to The City. In Brooklyn we referred to Manhattan as The City. End to end the LL traveled from Canarsie as a mostly elevated line through Brooklyn and ended up at 8th Avenue and 14th Street, the upper reaches of Greenwich Village. I rode that line countless times growing up in the late 1960s and 70s.
After the train left Canarsie it headed into East New York, followed by Brownsville, went underground in Bushwick, continued on to Greenpoint and Williamsburg. It traveled under the East River and emerged in Manhattan. In the 1970s it amounted to a grand tour of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn.
The LL sat at the open-air Rockaway Parkway station waiting for passengers, the trains arriving and leaving the station according to some mysterious, unpredictable schedule. The cars were covered inside and out with graffiti. It looked and felt like chaos.
Aside from the physical appearance, the trains were unreliable. Countless times it would lurch into a station along the route, followed by a garbled announcement that it was going out of service. I heard the collective groan of my fellow travelers. Everyone would exit and crowd onto the platform to wait for the next one. Standing in the bitter cold or sweltering heat -it never seemed to be a moderate temperature – I tried to place myself strategically so that the doors would open in front of me. This was not a time to be timid. When the doors opened, I readied my elbows, and walked with purpose to claim my spot. This is how a New Yorker is made.
I rode that subway line acutely aware of the danger. In the ‘70s, when it was on the brink of bankruptcy, New York City was the murder capital of the world. Muggings were common. On the subways, chain snatching, where a person would grab hold of a necklace and yank it off, fleeing as the doors slid shut, became a fad. We put our jewelry in our purses and held them close to our chests; when we arrived at our destination, we put our rings and necklaces back on.
Since the LL traveled above ground, I could see pigeons perched on the fire escapes of the tired tenements that abutted the tracks. I watched the subway doors open and looked at the people who got on the train from those stations, almost all were brown and black, joining the white folks who had boarded in Canarsie. My neighborhood was 80% white, in fact the block where I lived was 100% white. I wondered about the lives of those who got on the train at New Lots Avenue, how was it for them to live in a neighborhood with such a bad reputation. Here we were, side-by-side, but living in different worlds.
I was 12 years old the first time my friend Deborah and I took the LL, just the two of us, into Greenwich Village. We emerged from the station to see a protest – people carrying signs, chanting, marching in a circle. We didn’t know what they were protesting but we thought it was the coolest thing in the world. It scared us at the same time. We looked around and quickly headed away from the hubbub, looking for bookstores, of which there were many.
When I was 16, I got on the LL by myself to go to downtown Brooklyn to apply for my learner’s permit. There was only one Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) office to service all of Brooklyn and the DMV was spectacularly inefficient so you had to plan to spend hours there. After I got on the train, I realized I had forgotten my birth certificate. I was too afraid to get off at any of the stops until Broadway Junction. I wouldn’t turn around at 105th St., New Lots, Livonia, Sutter or Atlantic Avenues – five extra stops. Each time the doors opened, I looked at the platform and thought, “Should I risk it?” Each time I decided I wouldn’t. Even though it added so much time to my trip, I wouldn’t take the chance.
In my travels from Canarsie, I frequently changed trains at Broadway Junction where the A and C lines met the LL. I descended the stairs from the elevated platform, took a deep breath and held it as I walked as quickly as possible through the underground passageway, which was damp and reeked of urine. I gulped the fresh(er) air when I got to the other side.
One late afternoon I was riding the LL when there was an announcement over the PA. Those announcements were usually so static-y as to be indecipherable, but this one came through quite clearly. “Move away from the windows! There are reports of gunfire. Move away from the windows!” There weren’t very many of us on the train at the time. Most of the people looked incredulous, a few moved tothe windows to see. Some ignored the message entirely. I shifted down on the bench so the wall of the subway car was behind my head. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Riding the L today reveals almost a whole new Brooklyn. Several neighborhoods have gentrified, especially Williamsburg and Greenpoint. Parts of Bushwick have become desirable real estate, as well. Brownsville and East New York are still impoverished. Compared to the 1970s, the crime rate has fallen all over Brooklyn, but the problems in those communities persist. The neighborhood of my youth, Canarsie, has also changed. Though it is still middle and working class, the racial composition has flipped. Today it is 90% black.
The more things change, though, the more they remain the same. People living side-by-side, riding the L, the haves and the have-nots, perhaps still leading segregated lives.