Growing up on the subway

Dave Tutelman  --  May 10, 2016

In the suburbs, where most of my acquaintances live and where I brought up my family, the transportation umbilical isn't cut until the late teens -- 17 years old in New Jersey. Until you are 17, you are tied to your parents if you want to go shopping, go to school outside of normal school bus hours, attend a sporting event, or even visit a friend who lives outside walking distance. (Well, bicycles may work for some of these, but hardly all of them.)

Growing up in New York City was different. We had the city bus system and especially the subway. My parents started training me for it when I was ten. By the time I was twelve, I could go anywhere in the city by myself -- and did. I got to my eighteenth birthday (all through high school and freshman year of college) without even thinking about getting a driver's license. What would I do with it? Owning a car in the City was a lot of negatives and very few positives. There was traffic, the cost of garage space, the difficulty of on-street parking if you didn't rent a space, the cost of insurance,... And on the other side of the ledger, the subway (and bus, if necessary) got the job done perfectly well. If you really needed a car ride, the occasional taxi was not a problem.

So I didn't get a driver's license until I was 18 and the family took a cross-country car trip. Mom did not like driving and Dad wanted a second driver to spell him. We were in Colorado when the decision was made; I learned to drive on the spot and got a Colorado license. After the trip was over, I didn't use the license again until I was 21 and moved away from New York altogether.

Here are a few highlights of growing up on the subway.

Subway 101

In 1952 I was ten, brother Bob was seven, and sister Ruth was five. Mom and dad decided we should develop some independence, and the subway was an integral part of that. Mom was taking some sort of course once a week at Hunter College in Manhattan. So we started having dinner once a week at a restaurant near Hunter, after mom's class let out. The thing that made this exceptional was that we met mom and dad there!

This entailed my hustling us out of the apartment (at five o'clock if I recall correctly). We walked to our local subway station. That was the 177th Street - Parkchester stop on the Pelham Bay line, which became the Lexington Avenue local further south in Manhattan. (The #6 train, for those who might remember the subway system.)

It was a straight shot, no changing trains. As long as we got on the southbound train at Parkchester and got off at 68th Street, we were fine. It was the evening rush hour, true; but people were going the other way, and our train was usually pretty empty. We never had any trouble for the months that mom was in the course. No wrong trains, no missing our stop, no drunks hassling the passengers. (Thugs and muggings were simply not an issue. The subway, and the world in general, was different then.) The point was for us to get comfortable on our own. The ride was not a challenging assignment, and we had no trouble with it. I don't remember for sure, but Bob and Ruth probably set off on their own in the subway younger than I did, because they "audited" my shot at Subway 101.

Yankee games

I grew up in the Bronx, so it was natural that I would be a Yankee fan. Once I was OK on the subway, it became OK for my friends and me to go to Yankee games. This was a more intricate subway trip, because it involved changing trains. Another minor complication was that, unlike Subway 101 where dad drove us home in the car, we had to do the route in reverse by ourselves at the end of the game.

As before, I would start at Parkchester, my home station. We took the #6 (Pelham Bay local) to 125 Street. There we had to change to the uptown #4 (Woodlawn) line. That required getting to another platform, which involved climbing up stairs and finding the right staircase to climb back down. Yet another lesson in coping with the subway.

The original Yankee stadium; it has been torn down and rebuilt twice since. Taken with my Kodak Duaflex II during a game vs the Red Sox. Yogi Berra at bat, Joe DiMaggio on deck.
(Click for a bigger picture.)
Since Yankee games were an activity with friends and not a family outing, it came out of my allowance. In fact, almost the whole day was allowance money. I think I correctly remember the prices; they're in the right ballpark anyway (pun intended).
  • Subway: 10 cents each way, for a 20-cent total. The fare increased to 15 cents shortly after we started going to Yankee games.
  • Ticket to the game: $1.25. Almost the entire upper deck was general admission. We would get there early enough to have our pick of seats. Our favorites were about the third row (first two rows were reserved seats) behind third base (behind the visitors' dugout). We also tried behind home plate, but found we couldn't see as well.
  • Program: 25 cents. The program contained the scorecard and all the players' numbers, so it was an essential if you wanted to wrap yourself in the game -- and of course we did.
Mom either made me a sandwich to bring along (they allowed it then) or gave me money for a hot dog. If I wanted a soda it was on me, but only another 10 cents or so.

The total was more than a week's allowance, so I couldn't do it all the time. My friends and I picked a couple of Sundays each season, days when there was a double-header. Back then there were no day-night doubleheaders, and they didn't clear the stadium between games. So that general admission ticket bought us two games -- a veritable orgy of major league baseball. We would get there a couple of hours before the first game started, in time to find good seats and watch both teams' batting practice. (Watching batting practice helped give us an "eye" for where the ball was going and how well it was hit; I needed some time to develop the proper depth perception.) Then we'd sit through both games, keeping score diligently. If you think we were really into it, you'd be right.

The Planetarium

When I was in Junior High School, my friend Bruce Bassman and I were crazy about astronomy -- and, by extension, the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History. The planetarium had a new, hour-long show almost every month, and we made sure to get to see it. On months when the show was a holdover from last month... well, the museum itself was a major attraction, especially the dinosaurs.

This was a much more involved subway journey. Four trains and three changes at different stations. And every station was indeed different. Different layout, different lines, even sometimes different sign styles. It was a challenge. The first time we went there, we took a wrong train at one station. It took us another hour to get it right. But we did get it right, and never made that mistake again. The itinerary was:

  • Start at the Parkchester station, as usual.
  • Pelham local to 125 Street.
  • Woodlawn local (#4 train) to Yankee Stadium. So far, it's the same route we used for Yankee games.
  • Change at Yankee Stadium for the D-train southbound (downtown). The #4 train was elevated at that point, the D-train underground. We actually had to get a paper transfer ticket and go outside to change trains there.
  • Change at 145th or 125th Street for the local (AA or DD). This was easy; the local was the other side of the same platform as the express.
  • Off at 81 Street, the Museum stop. There is a Museum entrance right in the subway station; you never need to go outside.
Bruce and I did this every month for close to two years.

By the way, this trip was training for the trek to college. I spent my undergraduate years at City College of New York, which was a few blocks from the 145th Street station on the D-train. So my trip to college was a slight shortening of the trip to the planetarium -- just leave off the last train.


Women shop! Everybody knows that. Teenage boys? Not so much.

But wait! Maybe not shopping for clothes or furniture or decorations, but my friends and I had lots of hobbies. Shopping for our hobbies was something we were willing to spend time on. Starting in Junior High, age maybe 12, I found places I liked to go to shop, mostly way downtown. The places we usually went were easily accessible from the Lexington Avenue local, so I didn't even have to change trains; I could get on at Parkchester and get off at City Hall or Canal Street or Cortlandt Street.

Here's a map of where I usually went.

    Radio Row in the 1950s, from the Francis Yonker collection of photos. I even worked in that Arrow Electronics building for the summer of 1960.
  1. Usually we shopped the bustling small-store commercial area across from City Hall Park and extending several blocks southeast. Many novelty and souvenir stores were there, but also surplus shops and specialists in some hobbies. I was a stamp collector and also collected rocks and minerals; there were stamp shops and gem shops aplenty on Park Row and especially Nassau Street and the surrounding blocks. I was also a gadgeteer and model builder, and the surplus stores had lots of things of interest to me.
  2. The last two blocks of Cortlandt Street before the Hudson River were known as Radio Row. All the businesses there involved electronics, mostly components but also assembled gear. Everything from brand new boxed tubes (radios and TVs had tubes then, not transistors nor microchips) to military surplus electronics. Being an electronic hobbyist and later an engineering student, I loved shopping there. (I also worked there one summer in college. That's another story for another article.) In the mid-1960s, Cortlandt Street became the basement of the World Trade Center when the twin towers were built, and Radio Row was no more.
  3. If the shopping trip was about my rock collection, I would generally travel with Peter Flusser and David Flynn, two fellow rock collectors. We would start with the gem shops around Nassau Street. But there was always a big finish to the expedition. A world-renowned mineralogist had a shop (actually a third-floor office suite) near the end of Wall Street. Hugh A Ford's shop was a delight to browse, and we usually bought something not too expensive when we visited. He would never have made his rent if he depended on our business, but he was always happy to play host to interested youngsters and teach us about minerals, geology, chemistry, collecting techniques, etc. He was seldom very busy when we visited, and I think he welcomed the eager company.
  4. Not shown on the map is Canal Street, one subway stop to the north. There were dozens of hardware and army surplus stores there. A gadgeteer like me could spend the whole day browsing and be constantly entertained, even if I didn't buy anything. But I usually did buy something; I seldom took a trip to Canal Street unless I had a project going and a shopping list with me. Heres a link to photos of a typical Canal Street store (or, for that matter, Radio Row store), the sort of place I could browse for a long time.

The school bus

In one way, New York City is like the suburbs. If you live more than a mile from school, you are entitled to transportation to and from school.

But the similarity ends there. The city did not have school buses when I was in school. (They may now, but mostly for special needs students.)

No, student transportation was the city's public bus and subway systems. This was not an issue in elementary school, and hardly an issue in junior high. The population density in New York was so high that any school's district was unlikely to exceed a mile in radius; everybody walked to school. But high school was a different story. I lived four miles from my high school; clearly I needed to be transported. But no school buses. Instead, the school gave out bus and subway passes. I don't remember the details, like whether it was free or there was a very low, subsidized charge. I remember that there were both bus and subway passes, but I don't remember whether they were one and the same. But there were indeed passes.

There were some time constraints, but they were fairly liberal. I had no trouble getting on the bus early enough to make an 8am class or even a 7am swimming team practice. But there was a Cinderella rule; I remember running to the bus stop after a late extra-curricular activity, so I could be in time to use the pass to get home. Similarly, I'm sure the pass was not valid on the weekend.

Normally I took the bus to and from school -- the Bronx #40 (Tremont Avenue) and usually a few stops on the Concourse line. The Concourse bus was the last leg of my trip; with only a half-dozen blocks left, it was easy to walk if it was a nice day or the buses were too crowded. And often they were. I remember getting on crowded, rush-hour buses to get to school in the morning. Often I couldn't get on the Concourse buses at all; they didn't even have standing room. Fortunately, at that point in the trip I could walk it. Things were better in the afternoon, because school let out hours before the evening rush hour.

It is important to understand the assumption behind the policy. It was simply expected that you knew how to use the subway and bus system by the freshman year of high school, and were capable of traveling by yourself. That would be age 13 for many students, not very much beyond the age that I was on my own on the subway. So my experience could not have been all that precocious by New York standards.

On Friday afternoons in season, we had swimming meets at a venue (another high school, but with seating at the pool) that was easier to get to by subway than by bus. And subway was the easiest way home from there after the competition. So I used the subway for those trips.

Mosholu Golf Course was an 18-hole city parks course, at the end of the same subway line that ran by my school. (It is down to a 9-holer today, and hosts New York's First Tee program.) My school locker was big enough to hold my small golf bag with my half-set of clubs. On nice days in the Spring that my classes ended early, I would bring the clubs to school on the crowded bus in the morning, then take my clubs on the subway to Mosholu after my last class. I would sign up for my place on the starter's list, then do homework on the bench outside the clubhouse until my name was called. I'd play until dark, then take the subway home -- with my clubs, of course.

Leaving New York

I got through high school and college using public transportation. Sometimes a taxi ride was called for to get my date home in the wee hours of the morning. But after she was home, the subway or bus was just fine to get me home.

Then I went to graduate school at MIT in Boston.

My starting assumption was, "Hey, they have the MTA. Buses. Subway-like light rail. Should be just like New York." Wrong! I was disabused of that equivalence within weeks. The MTA did not run as often as I was used to in New York. And they didn't go where you wanted to go, at least not in one hop.

For instance, it took two trains to get from MIT to Simmons (one of the dating "hunting grounds" for Tech students). That was a total traveling time (including a brief walk at each end) of 20 minutes. But that doesn't include waiting time; it only applies if the train is waiting for you at both stations. Never happens! Typically the trip took more than 40 minutes. Now bear in mind that I'm a fast walker; probably part of growing up in the City. I could walk from MIT to Simmons in 20 minutes, and to Boston University in even less time. So what was the MTA good for?

Well, perhaps it might be useful if my date lived a little further from the center of my universe. I did go out with a girl from Revere Beach, and the MTA does go there. That was my next deal-breaker with Boston transit. The MTA observed the original Cinderella rule; it turned into a pumpkin at midnight. In order to get home, Elaine had to be home and I on my way before 11pm, or I'd be stranded somewhere in downtown Boston or even, heaven forbid, Revere Beach.

So for the Fall semester, I walked if my destination could be reached in a half hour. I bought a bicycle for daytime errands outside the half-hour walking radius. For most of my purposes, that would get me there faster than the MTA. When I went home for Christmas break, I made a deal with my Dad. He wanted to get a new car, and I said I'd take the family's eight-year-old '55 Chevy back to Massachusetts. I still had a Colorado driver's license, which I used to get my New York State license. (Written test only; they accepted the driving test from Colorado. Not a good plan when you consider the difference in driving conditions and attitude, but I wasn't complaining.) And I went back to Boston with my own car.

So I guess my experience isn't just a city experience, it's specifically a New York City experience. Still, it was a wonderful way to grow up.

Last changed - 7/29/19