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The Curious World of the Last Stop

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The Curious World of the Last Stop

By ANDY NEWMAN

NY TIMES

August 25, 2008

 

24laststop_span.jpg

Richard Perry/The New York Times

L TO CANARSIE Near this terminus in southeast Brooklyn, the names of businesses riff

on the theme: Fixed Ends 2 Barbershop; Cake Enz West Indian Bakery.

 

At the end of the line, the subway creaks to a stop a few yards short of the yellow crash bumper. A few stragglers, or a lurch of homebound commuters, head for the street.

 

Train cleaners wielding worn-sided corn brooms and generic spray bottles marked “lemon” or “Windex” amble onto the cars, rousting any sleepers and drunks unmoved by the conductor’s voice grating through speakers:

 

“This is the last stop on this train.”

 

Beyond the station gates, a priest dreams of a vineyard. A car bursts into flame. An ancient sign in a boarded-up window opposite the platform reads “Wrestling Weight.” A stuffed bear mans a betting window in a struggling OTB parlor. The dead lie in rows uncounted, and the living mourn and wait and work and love and strum guitars on the front stoop, annoying the neighbors.

 

There are 24 stops on the New York City subway system past which you can ride no farther. For those who get off somewhere else — almost everyone — the end is just a sign on the train. New Lots: wonder what that’s like. Dyre Avenue? Sounds kind of grim. Middle Village — what is that, a jousting park? As it turns out, the end of the line, like most ends, is a place of abiding mystery.

 

At the city’s often-threadbare fringes, there is an inescapable sense of lonesomeness. There might be a Last Stop Deli, a forlorn bar, a maintenance yard populated mostly by rows of empty trains. There is, surprisingly often, a cemetery.

 

Yet to visit all the system’s extremities is to see that the last stop is not a single, monolithic place. There are subway lines that end, logically, where the city runs out of land; lines that end, anticlimactically, where builders ran out of money; even a few that fetch up in bustling downtowns of one sort or another. From the marshy lowlands of Tottenville to the lush hills of Riverdale to the ceaseless clangor of Flushing, the end of the line manages to take in the entire breadth of the city beyond Midtown Manhattan.

 

Putting Down Deeper Roots

 

For this survey, every last stop was visited, though not all those visits will be included here. Nor will the last stops on lines like the (C) and the (G), whose endpoints occur along other lines.

 

What better place to begin the tour than at the end of life itself?

 

At the turn of the 20th century, Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx was doing fine, really, as a resting place of the wealthy and powerful. But the cemetery fathers smelled action when they heard that the Jerome Avenue subway line might be extended.

 

“From the earliest point in 1910,” says Susan Olsen, the cemetery’s historian, “our board of trustees are recording in their minutes about their activities with the folks who are building the subway: ‘We want that last stop here; we want people to be able to go.’ ”

 

Woodlawn was linked to the rest of the city on what is now the (4) line in 1916, and business exploded. A sales office opened at the south end of the cemetery to greet the subway traffic.

 

“We’d meet with you here,” Ms. Olsen says at an old wood table beneath the gaze of cemetery presidents in musty gilt-framed portraits. Woodlawn became the cemetery of the Harlem Renaissance, permanent home to Duke Ellington and W. C. Handy, father of the blues.

 

Woodlawn was hardly the first cemetery to recognize the benefits of mass transit. In the pre-subway era there were a Calvary Cemetery line, a Holy Cross Cemetery line and a Green-Wood Cemetery line. In Middle Village, Queens, at the end of the former Lutheran Cemetery line, now known as the (M), stands the Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery.

 

“We still trust God at All Faiths,” a sign there says. Another sign notes that the State Division of Cemeteries has pronounced All Faiths “exceptionally well-operated and maintained.” A robin perches proudly atop it.

 

A few quiet blocks away, the bad boys of Middle Village assemble on Bartholomew Sciacca’s stoop.

 

Mr. Sciacca, 25, a deliveryman for the city’s health department, picks out chords on an acoustic guitar. His friend Jordan Carfagno, 23, Newport tucked behind ear, fiddles with a lighter. Their band is called Starting Last. Their nemesis is the old lady across the street. She is, they say, driven mad by the guitar’s unamplified tinkle.

 

“She doesn’t really say anything to us,” Mr. Sciacca says. “She just calls the police.”

 

“That’s Middle Village,” Mr. Carfagno says. “People try to be nice.”

 

Following Their Passions

 

Where the (N) and (W) lines end at Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria, Queens, there is a doorway near the turnstiles marked “Station Plaza.” It is often guarded by a man in black pants and a black dress shirt held together with a bobby pin; he has blackened fingernails, which he waves in front of his face while humming continuously.

 

Beyond the doorway, a labyrinth of dim halls lined with businesses: electrolysist, lawyer, chiropractor, Internet cafe, cigar store. In “Serpico,” Al Pacino’s character chases a crook from the subway through Station Plaza, out a fire exit into a parking lot, only to be shot at by the cops. In real life, these days anyway, the main excitement in Station Plaza comes from Silver Age Comics, first store on your right.

 

Even by the impressive standards of comic book stores, the staff of Silver Age, custodians of a collection of more than 200,000 magazines, are a rude bunch of geeks, resembling nothing so much as a pack of superannuated teenage dogs.

 

Regular customers come in for a new dose of abuse. “Hey, Vic,” Gus Poulakas, the store owner, says to Victor Dong, a conductor on the N train fresh from his shift. “What would it take for you to leave off coming here?”

 

“Probably the afterlife,” Mr. Dong says, not looking up from a bin filled with back issues of Hulk and Secret Invasion.

 

Back in the station, the humming man, when approached, lowers his hands and introduces himself as Harold Happel, professional singer. He takes a step back and launches into “Band of Gold,” not the 1970 Motownish chestnut but a forgotten hit from 1955 that he renders as a sort of one-man doo-wop.

 

“I’ve never wanted wealth untold,” he sings in a thin, haunted voice. “My life has one design, one design: a simple little band of gold, to prove that you are mine.”

 

Mr. Happel excuses his hand-waving.

 

“I have an affliction that causes me unbelievable discomfort,” he says. “We scratch all day and all night — we can scratch in rhythm. It takes us all day to do a song.”

 

A Karmic Down Payment

 

Coming out of the (R) train at 95th Street, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, is big-sky country, a wholesome, 1950s-looking neighborhood that appears, if not frozen in amber, kept up — it worked, so they stuck with it. Down toward the water, town houses with tiny lawns face tidy John Paul Jones Park. Count the cannonballs — 48 — near a big black cannon aimed at Staten Island directly across New York Bay.

 

Cross over the Belt Parkway into Shore Road Park, and you seem them in the water: four turtles, big as dinner plates, looking for a place to land. They are red-eared sliders, a freshwater species unequipped for the salty bay, doomed by what Allen Salzberg, conservation coordinator of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, called “a clash of the spiritual and the scientific.”

 

Some dumped sliders are overgrown pets, Mr. Salzberg said, but most are placed in the water by Buddhists who buy and release them for karmic credit.

 

“Most of the ones tossed into the surrounding waters of New York,” Mr. Salzberg wrote in an e-mail message, “wind up taken out to the ocean as the tide goes out to die a slow death.”

 

Lady Liberty’s Bodyguards

 

The day before July 4 is steamy and hot. Tourists pour out of the South Ferry station at the base of Manhattan, where the (1) line ends, and make a beeline for the Statue of Liberty boats. Nathaniel Rodriguez, sweating inside his patina-colored Statue of Liberty rubber mask, calls after them: “How you doing, guys? Picture with the Statue of Liberty? It’s free. Small donation.”

 

Mr. Rodriguez drapes his flag around an elderly woman from Norway and beams into her daughter’s camera.

 

“Yesterday I was chased out of Battery Park across the street by the Spanish guys,” Mr. Rodriguez tells a passer-by. A mostly unemployed cook, part-time church janitor and newcomer to the human-statue profession, Mr. Rodriguez complains that he was run off by the Colombian cartel of Statue of Liberty impersonators who have had a lock on the concession for years.

 

In Battery Park, mere mention of the upstart Mr. Rodriguez brings Juan Carlos Arias, one of the Colombians, down off his stack of milk crates. “He’s no artist,” Mr. Arias thunders, ripping off his Statue of Liberty mask like a pro wrestler. “He’s a citizen!”

 

Mr. Rodriguez, 48, is indeed a native of Queens.) Mr. Arias points to his city permit, issued to the Human Statue of Liberty General and Artistic Production Corporation. The job, Mr. Arias said, is best done by immigrant artisans.

 

“I’m protecting the mask, the Statue of Liberty!” Mr. Arias says.

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