Riverdale was a bucolic Bronx community where I lived with my parents during middle and high school. I returned to Riverdale after college as the first phase of a carefully planned move toward Manhattan living.
My teenage years in Riverdale were magical. It didn’t take long during my second tour of duty to learn it was disappointing for a 20-something. Riverdale offered residents peace, parking, greenery, tennis courts, bagels, and Chinese food. It did not cater to people who worked unconventional jobs; wanted after-hour bars and dance clubs; or needed to eat out and shop for cool stuff.
This was a problem. Wedged between where I lived (as in slept) and where I lived (as in worked and had fun) was roughly 10 miles of raw, unadulterated NYC chock full of crime, maniacs, super aggressive squeegee men, crack addicts, lunatics, prostitutes, subway rapists and the shady like. After all, it was the 80s and early 90s….Mayor Guiliani hadn’t sunk his teeth into my quality of life yet…and he needed to – because it really sucked.
Each day began with planning how I was going to get to work and back again. I had two options.
There was my old friend the City Bus which would chug me down to the #1 Train. I climbed the ornate and rusted stairs up 4 flights to an old-west style “waiting” room with sawdust on the wooden floor and matching turnstiles. Once you dropped your token you became a ward of the MTA and all Old World charm was behind you. Once on the platform which was held together by corrugated steel sheeting you were offered the charm of a busted up view of the world which existed below the tracks. People would sometimes fall through those tracks, in pieces usually. I thought that maybe the victims might have felt that jumping was more attractive than embarking on a trip to the South Ferry. I had my jump planned…not all of the railroad ties were evenly spaced. Some were right above the bus stop…if you timed it right….you might have a shot of survival.
Eventually the train rattled into the station, spitting sparks before it screeched to a painfully long and extremely loud stop. People’s windows were a Kojak jump across from the platform – they slept, ate, watched TV. How they managed I never knew. I would try to peek through the steel sheeting to see how they did it…but never got a good shot.modesty you know. But this is beside the point…
Riding the #1 Train was a demonstration of the Survival of the Fittest….and THAT was during rush hour. No one took it after hours…unless you were The Undead or planned to join their ranks…
The biggest challenge in my mind was that every surface of the #1 Train was covered with graffiti- doors, windows, seats, maps, cielings…i am sure if a passenger sat still enough they would be tagged too. It was a liberarting time for graffiti artists. Their artistic expression, however, not only was sort of depressing and dirty – but it also prevented the brave souls who boarded the train any sense what might be happening outside their car. Once you were in – you abdicated all control of your life to something higher (or lower) than yourself. That was quite a leap of faith given the train stopped through some of the more down-trodden neighborhoods in Manhattan often making riders solitary passengers in their own car. Who knew who or what was in the other cars or on the other side of the subway doors once the train had stopped.
The #1 Train provided the ridership with mind-numbing displays of human waste, destitution and depravity. I liked to think being a freckle-faced red head who looked like she was from Omaha might have been interpreted as the ‘Stay-the-Fuck-Away-From-Me-Cuz-I-Have-To-Be-One-Messed-Up-Mutha’-To-Be-Here-On-This-Train-Looking-Like-This-White-Girl-Shit-with-Penny-Fucking-Loafers-You-Mutha’-Fucka-I-Mess-You-Up-You-Even-Look-At-Me-Trying-Not-To-Sleep-Shit-I-Got-Razor-Blades-In-My-Mouth-I-Will-Whip-Them-Out-Before-You-Know-What-Hit-You’ type of depraved being who others needed to avoid themselves.
I liked living. I even liked my crappy-paycheck-to-paycheck quality of life. I didn’t enjoy the stress of the #1 Train. So it was often, almost always, that I had no other course of action but to exercise option #2 – The Express Bus.
The Express Bus served the Riverdale Community with mid-town direct service (with just a few…NOTE: 25….stops in between) for the cost of roughly twice the price of the subway. It hurt each and every time I put in my hard-earned and desperately saved one-way fee of $3.50 into the hopper thingamagig.
I rationalized this ransom payment by creating a swanky aura of the Express Bus. It started with the self selection by leaving the City Bus Stop crowd to step up to the driver. His cap matched his uniform. No tokens were accepted – only cash or a ticket. The windows were darkened affording you a private ride. There was air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter. Riders could request the driver adjust the temperature to their liking! Unlike city buses, a center aisle took passengers to one of many forward facing seats. There was even a rack overhead to store your belongings. There was never a muttering person with too many bags or questionable personal hygene practices. Try as I might to convince myself, the Express Bus was hardly swanky.
The blue haired ladies and suit-clad citizens sat up front where they could either take control of the wheel in an emergency or pay witness to crimes on the street. They were good people. As I ambled by my fellow men and women of Riverdale…they clutched tight their purses on the empty seats next to them, or suddenly shifted to the aisle…No room for me with them. I was a bus leper.
So to the back I went. At first I preferred to sit next to the wheel well seat. No one wanted to sit ontop of the wheel well because your knees would be too close to your chest. If someone were bold enough to gesture they wanted to sit next to me – ie “shove over girlie” I replied by getting up and graciously offering up the wheelwell. They would sneer and keep walking. It was passive aggressive but in my mind, it countered the ageism I was subjected to.
Over time I learned to stake my claim to the very last row of the bus. The five seater was toasty hot. Too hot for most. And a bit too bouncy. Only guests in sheer desperation would come back there. As a result, it was roomy and private. If you slouched low enough no one could even see you. You could sneak a forbidden snack or soda onboard and enjoy it in peace. It was sort of bad-ass in the back row.
The Express Bus had parallelogram shaped windows. There were black handles at the base of each which you had to lift to shove the window open. There were red signs emblazoned under the handle with instructions on how to escape the bus if there should be an emergency. Usually that was where the rain would splatter through the weather stripping. As soon as I sat, I would battle the window open just enough to allow some fresh air into the cabin. The stench of Jean Nate, and industrial bus freshening agents was too much. Then off we bounced, lumbered and nearly tipped through the streets, over curbs, and into potholes. The distinctive nap of the velor seats guaranteed to snug your garments into at least one wedgie per ride.
As the engine struggled and sputtered it was very likely that exhaust fumes were belched directly into the bus from a broken seal under my seat. It was a vapor at first, but soon became an opalescent smoke. Being young and romantic, I was certain the seductive curls of smoke in the broken sunlight would make good for opening-credits to a movie… But it wasn’t something you actually would want to live through.
By the time we got to 125th Street the whole bus was polluted…we would start ditching as soon as 96th Street….we were united as a battalion of dizzy and ill comrades in the fight against Carbon Monoxide poisoning. Usually, in your delirium you would take note of the bus number – so if you should need to report it to the paramedics. Better, if in the future you had flexibility in your schedule you could wait for the next bus if you should see this one approach. In retrospect, it would have been an easier task to remember the NON-toxic bus numbers. CO poisoning blurs one’s rational thought…I guess.
In all, battling fumes and being shunned was far better than taking the #1 Train….unless… 1- you were really hard up for cash…which I was, often…or… 2 – the buses weren’t running at the time you were travelling – which also happened often.