“I wonder if they’ve cleaned these train poles since the ‘70s,” a man says to his friend.
“Or the 1930s," his friend responds. "No way I’m catching polio or any of that shit."
I grip the white poles and handles of The Nostalgia Train as it leaves the station. It’s a smoother ride than you’d expect, but all I can think of is how much cleaner they are than the ones on my daily C line commute.
The Nostalgia Train has been an M.T.A. holiday tradition since 2007. I hopped on the train this weekend at 2nd Avenue to find each car replete with ceiling fans, wicker seats and old notices and advertisements from the 1930s through the 1970s. The experience is like a free mini-trip to the New York Transit Museum. The train makes the rounds on the M Line from 2nd Avenue to Queens Plaza, arriving decked with a holiday wreath, lights and red ribbon tied in bows.
No doubt, the biggest treat of visiting the Nostalgia Train is seeing people play along with the time period. I didn’t spot anyone dressed for the 1960s or 1970s; actors seem to pay the most tribute to the 1930s, dressing in the style of the Jazz Age Lawn Party, which occurs every summer on Governors Island. This was the most striking difference between the M.T.A.’s Nostalgia Train and the Transit Museum, the characters making it a living museum.
But what if there was a dark side to the festivities? What if the Nostalgia Train was a time machine back to the era of each car? I asked several passengers aboard about this, and these were their biggest fears about being sent back in time:
“The Great Depression, war, the dustbowl famine.”
“Being a woman in the 1930s ... sounds pretty scary.”
“Polio. Back then diseases would kill you and cripple you, and today we have cures.”
“Well, inequality. Racism. Just as a person of color.”
“Not wearing the correct clothes for the time period and basically looking like an alien.”
And people had a point: Murder rates in New York skyrocketed around the 1970s; by 1930, women were only in their 10th year of being allowed to vote; the cure for polio wasn’t even tested on humans until 1957; and enforced segregation in the workplace and public didn’t end until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I, for one, am thankful we live in the 21st century.
Of course, people are still bound to romanticize the past. Today, the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s seem like a noir wonderland of three-piece suits, well-manicured business men, bejeweled ladies and red lipstick. And in ways, those years marked an age of elegance, when people simply didn’t seem to do business casual, let alone wear jeans to work. New Yorkers love the Nostalgia Train and events like the Jazz Age Lawn Party because they love to see what the city once was, because they love to take part in the New York of the past.
This Sunday is your last opportunity to visit these vintage train cars, so check out the schedule today and make sure to catch the New York of the past before we’re all ushered into the future.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former co-president of SUNY Purchase’s Cheese Club, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
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