Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Straphanger's lament

So, this post concerns both Christmas trees and file cabinets, but trust me, there's a connection.

As part of our holiday season music, Coco put into the rotation an iTunes collection called A Frank Sinatra Christmas, which contains a lot of groovy, swingin' arrangements of holiday standards and novelty songs. One of the latter is "I Wouldn't Trade Christmas," a cut from the album The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas which features Tina, Nancy, and Frank Junior singing along with Ol' Blue Eyes. One of the lyrics goes like this:

The jingle bells jingle, you feel the old tingle,
You buy the Kris Kingle scene.
The idea is clever, but subways will never
Quite handle that huge evergreen!
That last couplet hit me right in the feels, as the kids say: if anything can make me nostalgic for my childhood, it might be a reference to both family holidays and urban living at the same time. And something that says Christmastime in The City even more than "Silver Bells" is the image of trying to take your Xmas tree home on the subway.

Y'see, when I grew up in New York - and it'd be the same in any Real City, I imagine - mass transit was just the default travel option. Very few people I knew drove or even had a car. When our family's 1955 Chevy BelAir gave up the ghost when I was in seventh or eighth grade, Pop had it towed for scrap and never replaced it. My family moved when I was in second grade - the move occurred while my sister and I were in school, and instead of walking home to our old place we just took a bus to our new place. (Norma Jean was in fourth grade and had the address written on a piece of paper wrapped around two tokens.) For all four years of high school I took the subway an hour each way to and from school - the BMT (RR and N trains) to Union Square and transfer for the IRT (5 or 6) to Yorktown on the upper east side. I wasn't special - it's just what we all did.

So the notion of trying to take an evergreen tree home on the subway sounds both plausible and familiar to me - and from experience, so does the failure of the attempt.

As luck would have it, I was reminded recently (perhaps nudged by having heard the song) of my own attempt to push the envelope on the common carriage afforded by the subway. One of the loose ends from the move to Bellingham from Seattle is my obtaining a file cabinet for materials that had been stored in now-repurposed bookshelves. Scanning craigslist for cheap affordable option, I encountered this ad, and that was all it took to throw me back to Brooklyn.

"Vintage" indeed  - I bought one of these in, let's see, it must have been 1972. My oldest pal Robert (now Rob) and my best high school buddy Liam (now Bill) were hanging around in Bay Ridge and we happened to pass the Triangle sporting goods store; they had a cabinet just like the model pictured in this ad standing outside with little handwritten For Sale sign on it, apparently clearing out after a remodel or renovation. I was thrilled - I needed something to hold my burgeoning comic book collection - and I paid the exorbitant sum of five dollars to make it mine. Of course, I had to get it home.

So, we started a round-robin carrying scheme - one in front, one in back, and one spotting - rotating every so often or whenever someone complained loudly enough (and if I recall correctly both Rob and Bill complained a lot) and headed off, with little or no discussion, to the nearest subway entrance, about two blocks away.

We struggled down the station stairs debating the best way to get it into the platform - open the wooden, spring-loaded exit door and go in that way, or just have two carry it over the turnstile and the third drop the tokens in. I don't think we ever resolved the question, but it didn't matter - as soon as we got down the stairs, the token booth guy yelled "You can't take that on the train!"

Dumbfounded, we asked why not.

"You can't take that on the train!" he explained.

We offered to pay a separate fare just for the file cabinet.

"You can't take that on the train!" he countered.

Faced with such eloquence, we had no choice but to shoulder our burden once again, head up the stairs, and schlep the cabinet the twenty or so blocks back to my house. The trip gave Rob and Bill even more opportunity to practice their complaining and develop a repertoire which I am sure serves them even to this day, but we made it without any blood or tears, although with a lot of toil and sweat. We installed the cabinet in my bedroom, where it became a useful feature until I sold my comic collection in an ill-considered financial re-organization a few years later. I still insist we could have easily managed a file cabinet on the RR.

Well, I don't buy Xmas trees anymore and I don't think I will buy either of these craigslisted file cabinets, but if I were to make either of those purchases I am sure I would bring them home in a car and not try to take either on the subway. And in some ways, more's the pity for that.

BTW,  $5 is about $28 in today's money,
 so I got a great deal on that cabinet, eh?

1 comment:

Richard said...

There's much I can relate to here...and as I've said many times before, it's always fun to see NYC reminiscences from you (particularly when they involve neighborhoods I know well).

Also: the Sinatra family's wardrobe choices on that cover are awfully strange.