Do Metrocards Work for Time Travel?
Cover Image by Alan Medvinsky. www.alanmedvinsky.com / Instagram: @alan_scorpii
New York Transit Museum x Underground Jazz Fest = Nostalgia Train Ride into the Past
Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, New York, New York -- Ruby red lips pressed up against a ribbon mike and a waxed mustache puffing on a harmonica. At first I hear drums, tap, tap, tapping to the jazz band’s rhythm, but an opening in the crowd reveals the tell-tale silver flashes from dancing soles of shoes. A girl with checked accordion pleats and a feathered cap spins a crescent moon around a man with fiery red hair and a Windsor-knotted tie.
I’ve only just stumbled off the train, onto the crowded subway platform at 96th street and into the swinging big-band age of the 1940’s.
The train pulls out of the station, depositing me into a moment that can only exist in New York city.
On select Sundays throughout the holiday season, the MTA’s New York Transit Museum shares a little holiday spirit by running their Holiday Nostalgia Train Rides, where they let you ride actual subway cars from the 20’s-60’s with rattan seats, ceiling fans, incandescent bulb lighting, drop-sash style windows, vintage roll signs, and original advertisements.
On December 3rd, New York’s jazz scene added to the fun by creating their annual Underground Swing & Jazz Festival.
I saw the event being advertised this morning. I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into, but I was sold when I read the words “vintage” and “swing.” I quickly called my fellow vintage and swing loving comrade, Delaney, conjured up my best 40’s holiday outfit, and set off to see what the fuss was all about.
So here I am in the train station in my green velvet hat and dress, black star-printed stockings, and brown leather boots.
A white-haired woman with storied eyes twirls a tall college boy with a bowtie while a couple in their thirties spin practiced circles around the crowded platform. The glass beads on her red wool suit catch the light from an incoming train.
I spot a flash of dark hair against a black fur stole which ensconces a pretty face with sparkly blue eyes. I have found Delaney, Columbia University’s Swing Club President and best-dressed Biology major who I had the good fortune to meet at a vintage fair last winter. She sees me by the band and we do our best to catch up on life while drinking in the excitement before us. There is too much to see. Catch-up can happen later.
I send her off to dance while I step aside to play with my camera. I can’t seem to make it focus, but Delaney’s efforts are anything but blurred in her and her partner’s cookie-cutter steps. She has on a black bias-cut 40’s dress with a shirred bodice and red rose print. Her black heels with a nearly identical red motif are tied in with tightly netted stockings and her fur trimmed jacket.
The dancers and musicians alike are red in the face from hours of play.
“10 minutes until the next vintage train,” a man in a striped suit calls out over the music.
People continue to dance, but Delaney and I join him on the south edge of the platform, unwilling to miss a spot on the train.
The man in the striped jacket is joined by 3 musicians and we all get to talking.
A glow lights the tunnel and the familiar sound of steel against tracks rumbles out through the satin. A green train emerges with a big wreath sporting a huge red bow on it's front window. Our new friend in the striped suit follows the musicians onto the 30’s train car and summons for us to follow.
“Hurry, come on!”
The doors close right as my foot clears the opening. Aside from our little group and a couple MTA workers, the train is empty.
“You guys are all part of the band?” Delaney and I exchange looks, but before we have a chance to say otherwise the MTA officer is leading us through the car, explaining the plan.
There’s a plan for this? What is happening? Reading my mind, Delaney whispers, “Lets just go with it.”
Apparently, the band players were the only people allowed on the train at the first stop so they have time to set up. We pass from car to car as the train rolls south down the tracks. From the 30’s car with ornate light fixtures and red seats, we follow the band across the rickety open connecting point between cars. It’s dark and the wind in my hair makes me feel like I’m in an old crime film.
From the 30’s car, we jump straight into the sixties, with a bright blue floor divided by yellow squares. The seats are matching vinyl stripes and a banner with six women with bee-hive hairdos asking, “Who will be Miss Subways?”
We pass through a 50’s car with narrow-striped seats and ads for fairy soap, before coming to rest in a 40’s car with red bench seats and deep green walls. The band sets up just in time for the first official stop, where the train quickly fills to the roof with people.
There are people who had come expecting this holiday train, dressed head to toe in vintage finery, but there were also those who were just waiting for a train like any other day.
I look out the window at the confused expressions on the faces of people taken aback by this strange sight out of the past: A deep green vintage train full of jazz players and people in vintage hats. The doors close again as we proceed to the next stop, gaining new confused and excited riders, while others made the most of their tight spaces by preforming some of the tightest swing dancing in history.
The singer in the band sang jazzy Jingle Bells into a checkerboard megaphone with a gravely, strong voice, and a man in plaid trousers piped his silver Tuba that wrapped around his full form.
As the we approach the last stop on our Nostalgia Train, an elderly lady with a pink feather hat takes my arm. “Your turn!” We swing and turn and laugh. Little girls ask Delaney if they can have their pictures taken with her. I lend them my hat. The whole packed scene is a united conglomeration of smiles and wide eyes, of green and red and stripes, of music and of motion.
Its off the train from here. Past the turnstile, up the steps, and back into the 21st century. Since coming to New York last August, the subway has taken me to the thrills of Coney Island’s beach, to the glamour of Rockefeller Center, and to the beauty of the Flower District, but today, with a swipe of my metro-card, I traveled back in time.
The impossible made possible in a city that knows no boundaries. Not even the boundary of time itself.