Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
At 10:15 p.m. on the dark platform at Ditmars Blvd. in Queens, a gaggle of young men with backpacks and digital cameras paces around, craning their necks, anxiously waiting for the last train. They refer to themselves as “transit hobbyists” and many have been riding the trains since noon. While many are regular commuters, on this day they are riding to make history. That’s because Friday was the last day the V and W lines will run--the MTA is taking them out of commission to help close a massive budget deficit.
“I don’t do cars,” shouts Trevor Logan, 30, a manager of charter buses, part-time bus operator and founder of transiTALK Transportation Media Group, which helped organize the day’s train riding activities. “It’s terrible. There’s no problem with the Q, but they should’ve just left the W where it is. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
“They’re stealing my old train from me,” says Justin Saunders, 30, another W fan, shaking his head. “It’s part of my New York, like Colson Whitehead,” he says, referring to the Brooklyn writer known for capturing the essence of New York.
The last W headed to Manhattan pulls into the station and the group piles in, taking up half a car. The young men, ranging in ages from 14 to 35, debate why the MTA is having to cut services and what it could mean for commuters.
Some argue about the frivolity of printing signs for service changes. “It’s not like anyone reads these signs,” says Dennis Axenov, 14, wearing a Museum of Bus Transportation, Hershey, Penn. T-shirt.
By 10:30 p.m. the train pulls in to the Lexington Avenue 53rd Street station.
“And what about the handicapped?” someone yells. “They need to get from A to B.” There are groans of acknowledgment.
“They force you to use Access-a-Ride, they force you,” says another young man shaking his head.
The train pulls into 14th Street Union Square, where the uptown platform is already crowded with revelers waiting to catch the last W to Queens. Saunders and a few others cross the platform while the transiTALK enthusiasts stay on, headed to Whitehall Station to bid farewell to the downtown W.
The uptown crowd has a different sort of enthusiasm. The group is a bit older, and unlike the transit fans, who carried rolled up W and V transit signs for their personal collections, this group is traveling with beers in brown paper bags and plastic party cups with straws. They are passing around flasks like it's a New Year’s party.
Bill Reese, a cherubic 26-year-old who started a Facebook campaign over a month ago promoting a farewell sendoff for the W, got a boost when Gothamist and The Awl blogged about his idea last week.
“In the suburbs they have their cars, well, the W is our car,” he says.
He strums “Hey Jude,” waiting for the last W to pull in. Then, at 11:00 p.m. he leads a chant of “W! W! W! W!”
The train pulls in and the revelers bang their palms on the windows, startling a few commuters. “W! L'chaim!” shouts Ben Nathan, 24, before cracking a Sam Adams Summer Ale and climbing in the first car.
By 11:11 the car pulls into Times Square and the W party is picking up momentum.
Unlike regular commuting behavior, where straphangers sit where they can, avoid prolonged eye contact and generally keep to themselves, the first three cars tonight are filled with W-lovers standing on chairs, blowing bubbles, hugging, making out, drinking unconcealed alcoholic drinks and even at one point lighting up a cigarette (although even that was too much for some and the young lady was asked to put it out).
Reese leads the party car through “Hey Jude” (again), “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” and “We Will Rock You.” When the train pulls out of the 57th Street station he belts out The Proclaimers’ “I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles),” only to be interrupted when someone shouts, “Last stop in Manhattan.”
A sloppy version of Sinatra’s “New York, New York” follows.
“Five more stops,” someone yells, and the car erupts with the drumming of palms pounding on the ceiling and feet stomping on seats.
“What if we don’t get off?” someone else yells.
Reese has an answer for that. “Our hearts will stay on the W,” he says, half joking. “But this night will live forever.”
A round of high-fives ensues.
At 11:37 the train pulls into the station. The revelers fall out of the car onto the platform. Some stumble to the nearby Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden, others simply cross the tracks to take the N train back to Manhattan.