Roundtrip Tokens

The RedBird was the name given to the 7 train. These cars were painted a deep red to combat graffiti, which had become a major problem in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Perhaps most visitors who visit New York City land at JFK or LGA, which are both located in the borough of Queens. I’m sure they don’t realize the distance from the gates of their flight terminal to their final destination, which I assume is a trendy midtown Hotel. No matter the airport, or final destination, I imagine tourists grudgingly boarding their Manhattan-bound taxis, while hoping the numbers on the meter would tick a bit slower as they make their sluggish journey out of the airports. If they’re the adventurous types, and happened to land at JFK, they might hop aboard an Air-train, only to discover they must transfer to a crowded Manhattan-Bound E, J or A train. Those who land at LGA and don’t opt for a taxi, will undoubtably endure a confusing maze of bus routes to the nearest Manhattan bound 7 train station. I imagine their faces, after realizing that they’ve now added an additional hour and 20 minutes to their trip before finally arriving to their final destination.

I grew up in Queens, and when you’re from Queens, most people probably follow up with, what part? So I’ll be more specific. I grew up in East Elmhurst, a small neighboorhood that includes all of LGA airport, Rikers Island, and shares a confusing border with nearby Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst. We had no connection to the subway, unless you waited an hour for the Q72, or walked 30 minutes through Junction BLVD to catch the 7.

My family rarely left Queens, having done so once every two years for our family vacations to the Dominican Republic. These weren’t really vacations though, they were just long family visits to the campo. When we weren’t leaving on a plane, we were in my dads Lincoln town car, which he used to taxi, visiting family around the city. I remember there was a period of time when we would frequently drive up to Washington Heights during some of the hottest New York summers. I was a kid from Queens, we had houses, highways, and malls. We were allowed to play with our friends down the street, on the street, and played outside. In the city there were many buildings, people, smells and sounds. As soon as the car would wind up the 178TH Street exit off the FDR, it immediately felt different. My eyes would fixate on the man splashing brown water with a squeegee in hand on the windshield.

Window washing in the 90’s was prevalent in New York City

There were beggars, people selling cold bottled water, flowers and fruit. Before we would exit the expressway, I’d always crack open the window, against my fathers orders. He would complain about gas prices, even then, and would tell me that I was letting the cold air out. I loved the noise, the sounds, the music. It felt like we had driven to Santo Domingo, but It didn’t look like el campo. To me, this was La Capital. I’d hear my parents talk about it before. My mom would say she hated the capital, because it was so hot, crowded, and everyone lived behind their gates, the complete opposite of the campo we would visit. This had to be La Capital.

I felt the same way when we visited family in the Bronx. My mom would often object to the idea, but after my dad would convince her that it’d be okay, we would be instructed to keep our windows and doors locked, and not make eye contact with anyone in traffic. My father was a taxi cab driver in the 90’s, and I knew that cab drivers would often get shot, killed and robbed. In fact, I have vivid memories of being at one of my friends house, when his mom had just received news that her husband, and my father’s Taxi friend, had been shot and killed in Brooklyn, during a gang initiation. He had been waved down by what he believed was just another passenger. He was shot in the back of the head at a traffic light. Through this event and the repetitive nature of the news, we learned to stay away from Brooklyn. We would still drive through it on the Belt Parkway to Coney Island, or the BQE into Manhattan. The buildings in Brooklyn seemed smaller than the ones in Washington Heights, the neighborhood I, for the longest time, thought for sure was La Capital. The apartment buildings appeared older here, with those old-timy doors. The ones made out of wood with glass. I still don’t understand how those doors have outlived their occupants.

Historic wooden doors, which could be found throughout many parts of Brooklyn.

Whenever we did visit someone in “Bruklin, we’d get to hang out with the Puerto Ricans. Their grandma’s always spoke Spanish, and the kids responded in English. I wish I could speak to my parents in English, I’d think, that’d be cool. Every once in a while, my father would pick up a visiting family member and drive to visit other family members around the City. One time, we got off the wrong exit on the Belt parkway. The loop-shaped off ramp lead him over the Verazzano Bridge into Staten Island, or as I would learn to call it, The Forgotten Boro. I would often join in on these rides, often looking for an adventure outside of Queens. These rides around the city were also the times I would spend with my dad, sitting passenger side, imagining what it must be like to get to see the City at all hours of the day.

When my father was too busy working, my sister and I would make family visits of our own. Fortunately, most of my father’s family lived in nearby Elmhurst. My grandmother lived in a beautiful garden apartment building located on Whitney Ave, my mom would call it “La Whitney, como Houston”, or The Whitney, as in Whitney Houston Street. I still chuckle whenever I drive by this street. We would walk the 30 minutes from our house to grandma’s house. As soon as I’d get to the building, my aunt would have been waiting for my sister and I with a pocket full of train tokens. Metrocards weren’t a thing until 1996, the year we had no choice but to trade in all of our tokens in before the MTA stopped accepting them. These tokens my Aunt had belonged to my grandmother. I still wonder if she ever found out my aunt was taking them from her not-so-secret stash. We’d follow my aunt to Roosevelt Ave, walk up the flight of stairs, drop the metal coins into the slot and hop onto the next Manhattan bound 7 train. We’d take it into “The City”, or as I later learned was in fact just Times Square.

My aunt was quite deceiving, for much of my childhood, she convinced us that she was taking us to the city. In reality, “The City” was just Times Square Station. I have to give her credit though, she managed to “borrow” these tokens from my grandmother, tell her she was going to take us to Queens Center Mall, and instead take us on a city adventure. We would arrive to Times Square Station, and walk around the tunnels, and cavernous walkways. We would almost never left the station, not because we didn’t want to, but because we had no money or tokens left for the ride back. So, instead, after our hour long adventures in the tunnels, we’d board the Flushing bound “redbird”. “The city sure is chaotic”, she’d say. “Sure, it was very congested, and it had low ceilings.”, I’d reply nievely. The people were weird, and, sure, they dressed funny, bu there were too many white people, like the blonde haired, blue-eyed ones. Not like the Italians I was used to. They’d walk around with their expensive shoes, bags and gringo accents. These were like the white people on TV, I’d think. If they’re so rich, why don’t they drive?

Though Times Square was a great place to people watch, catch a performer in action, and buy candy from a street-vendor, I found the view above Queens aboard a moving 7 train to be the highlight of these trips. The train would roar it’s way out of the tunnel, where it would meet with the above-ground world. Station to station, the view would change along with its passengers. After the Manhattanites would get off, we’d share the rest of the ride back with Chinese, Dominicans, Mexicans, Indians, Colombians, Ecuadorians and Greeks, to name a few.

As an introduction to the Borough, stood 5Pointz, with its towering murals of graffiti, and post-industrial facade. If you focused hard enough, you could catch an artist or two working on a new mural, or waving back at us.

5Pointz, 45–46 Davis Street in Long Island City, Queens. Built in 1892, it housed the Neptune Meter factory, which built water meters. (Demolished 2014)

We’d speed through the industrial parts of Long Island City, with the Citi tower in the foreground, surrounded by unobstructed views of the Manhattan skyline. We made our way through Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, and Elmhurst. In the distance one could see Shea Stadium, home of the Mets, and the air traffic control tower at LGA. This place had it all. The city was fun, for a bit, but at the end of the day, there’s no place like home. I fell in love with The 7 train, with it’s iron rails roaring and screeching above Roosevelt Avenue. It represents the fabric of the borough, offering a roundtrip experience through diversity, resistance, and a never ending cycle of change.

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