Ten-year-old me would jump at the chance because it was one GLORIOUS COMMUTE between our leafy-green suburban town of Bergenfield, N.J., and the biggest and most interesting city in the whole world. I would enjoy rides on a train, ferry and trolley, my three favorite modes of moving from one place to another at the time.
The "glory" began right at the New York Central train station a few blocks from our home, with the throaty two-tone steam whistle heralding the approach of our train... The earth literally quaked beneath the pounding drive-wheels of that behemoth of a steam engine as it ground to a halt with brakes screeching, bell clanging, and the hissing and huffing of escaping steam... The conductor's "All Aboard" was just barely audible over all that marvelous racket...I was having a fine time already and we hadn't even boarded the train yet!
My dad would let me have the window seat so I could soak up the trackside scenes along the 15 mile trip to the Weehawken terminal. He'd been making this trip almost daily for about 10 years and I think he still enjoyed it, but now he looked more at his newspaper than at the scenery.
The train routed us through the back yards and industrial areas of the towns along the way, revealing scenes not usually seen from a car on the road. The factories and warehouses, fuel depots and power plants were all very interesting and beautiful in their own way, once you saw past the dirt and grime... A good-looking form is a good-looking form, no matter what goes on inside it. Buildings are often a lot like people in this regard.
The train stopped for additional passengers and mail at several stations along the way, and the accompanying sounds of slowing down, stopping, and the huff-and-puff starting-up again of the steam engine were delightful at each and every stop, especially with the windows open. And of course that wonderfully loud two-tone steam whistle blew at every grade-crossing en route, and there were at least twenty of them.
After the last stop at Little Ferry, the train took us through a long stretch of swampland euphemistically called the "Jersey Meadows." Here, on this land that nobody wanted, appeared the shacks and shanties of hobos and the homeless, and there were a lot of them in the 1930's... I would smile and wave, receiving sullen stares in return. My father would look the other way or at his newspaper. He felt very lucky, I think.
As we approached the mile-long tunnel which cut under the Palisade highlands blocking the meadows from the Weehawken Terminal, the conductor would come by and insist that all windows be closed, and with good reason. Otherwise the coal-smoke would asphyxiate us all before we made it through. As it was, the car doors and windows leaked some, and we got a good dose of coal-gas anyway, but to me it smelled better than roses! I later changed my mind about this, and wondered what it was like for the poor souls who lived near the smoke vents on top of that tunnel.
Anyway, the interior car lights would come on as we entered the tunnel and all I could see in the blackness were reflections in the windows, except when another train roared by in the opposite direction. Then I'd see a double-speed blur of fast-passing bodies in lighted windows, and occassionally the face of another child pressed against the window, as was mine. It would always be too late to wave!
The Weehawken end of the tunnel opened out onto a vast freight-yard, where dozens of switcher engines were chugging to and fro, assembling freight trains for all over the land... Our passenger train slowed down to a crawl as we approached the terminal, and I'd open the window again to savor every last chug in passing, sometimes to the annoyance of less fascinated fellow passengers.
The Weehawken train terminal connected with the Ferry Terminal on the Hudson River, and there began the next leg of the Glorious Commute.
About 50 cars and trucks and several hundred passengers boarded the ferry in just a few minutes, and off it steamed cross-river, the majestic New York skyline in full view... The Empire State Building (which would be climbed by King Kong this very year of 1936) was straight ahead and, on a clear day, you could make out the Statue of Liberty several miles down-river.
A whole new set of waterbourne sights, sounds and smells unfolded as we crossed the Hudson, dodging tugs and barges and sometimes freighters and even ocean liners on their way to and from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. When the Queen Mary sounded its deep-throated three-tone whistle, you knew you'd been whistled at!
The smell of salt was in the air, mixed with that of marine engine oil and who knows what else, and I liked it. Sometimes there were musicians on the ferry, pretty good ones too, and my dad would give me a few coins to put in their cup. In these Depression years of the 1930's this was their livelihood.
On the New York City side of the Hudson River the Ferry Terminal connected with the Crosstown and Uptown trollies for the third and final leg to my father's workplace.
Big city, big buildings, big sights: A symphony of street sounds, lots of traffic -- clang! clang! clang! went the trolley bell, chasing errant cars, trucks and taxis off the tracks; many and varied peoples, hawkers, venders, pushcart peddlers; stores and shops offering everything imaginable from all over the world; Irish cops at every street corner keeping order in the potential chaos.
The trolley took us to just outside my father's studio in the Lincoln Arcade Building at 64th & Broadway, where Lincoln Center now stands... We'd top off the journey in with a 15-cent lunch (two hot-dogs, with kraut, and an orangeade) at the Nedick's (yesteryear's MacDonald's) in the Arcade.
The whole three-legged, 21 mile journey took an hour or so, about as long as it still does today, but now on a relatively boring bus.
On the return trip I'd sit on the opposite sides of the trolley, ferry and train, and a whole new set of images would impact on my wide open brain. It was, I say again, a truly GLORIOUS COMMUTE!
Carl Baumann -- BHS '43