The El the gate Train and the Conductor’s Song
by John Delach
The Myrtle Avenue Elevated line ceased operating this month 50-years ago. I first wrote this piece in 2002 and included it in:” The Big Orange Dog and Other Stories.”
Clang-clink, clank-clank, cling-clank, clang-clink, four bells, each rung twice, eight repetitions, the sound of the conductors’ song. No two sound the same; each bell expresses the identity of the conductor who rings it. Four different conductors play their song every day at each station on the Myrtle Avenue Elevated line.
The train’s crew, four conductors and the driver (or motorman) amble from their rest house at the Bridge Street Station and take their assigned positions on their five-car train. The conductors work outside forcing them to adjust their uniforms to meet their environment. Winter, cold and freezing rain are the worst elements and quilted vests, rubber gloves, ribbed shoes and plastic hat protectors’ help. But, at every station, they must leave the warmth of the coach and return to their position onto the open platforms between each coach.
With a lurch, the gate train leaves Bridge Street and downtown Brooklyn, its courthouses, law offices, the cavernous Dime Savings Bank, department stores like Abraham & Straus, Mays and Martins and its theaters, the Brooklyn Paramount, Fox and the RKO Albee. Nosily, the train crosses Flatbush Avenue and makes its way north through Fort Greene and Bedford – Stuyvesant past tenements and public housing projects, parks, storefronts and schools. Hovering two stories above Myrtle Avenue, trains travel on rails supported by wooden ties and steel beams past windows with open curtains, blinds, or shades revealing living rooms and kitchens, plants, bird cages, furniture, lamps, radios and televisions. Peering from coach windows, passengers glimpse people in their apartments. On hot days, women relaxing on pillows propped on windowsills stare back forcing the voyeurs to avert their eyes in embarrassment.
As the train pulls into a station, each conductor steps between the two platforms and faces the station. Straddling the space between two coaches, he observes the passengers waiting to detrain and board and pulls two iron levers toward him opening the gates. Passengers hurry by and, when all are on board, he takes a final look at the activity on the platform, reverses the levers and closes the gates. Then each conductor in turn performs the same ceremony, pulling the cord to his right ringing the bell on the next platform working toward the front of the train. “Clang-clang” it sings alerting the next conductor that the gates behind him are secured. He yanks the cord twice confirming that his gates are closed. The chorus continues until the final conductor rings a bell in the motorman’s cab signaling him “You have the railroad and it’s okay to go.”
Sparks fly from the third rail, motors strain emitting an electrical odor as coaches move over track joints. Trains cross busy streets active with trackless trolleys, diesel buses, cars, delivery trucks horse, wagons and push carts, relics of a bygone era, Pedestrians J-walk weaving and dodging to avoid colliding with this traffic.
Wooden platforms with ornate Victorian style station houses line the El. Each is named after the street below, many for famous Americans like Washington, Vanderbilt and Franklin.
Afternoon trains carry a melting pot mix of passengers, residents returning to their homes, Black and Hispanic women carrying groceries, their wash or packages from the central post office and German and Italian housewives, together or with children returning to Queens from shopping trips downtown. Post school time trains include high school students, boys from Brooklyn Tech with slide rules, science and engineering textbooks, girls from Dominican Commercial wearing pleated skirts and knee-high socks and boys sporting ties and jackets from St John’s Prep and Bishop Loughlin. Workers from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, tired and dirty, board the train at a station appropriately named Navy Street and brewery workers from Rheingold and Schaefer board at Broadway. The train continues north through Bushwick, crossing into Ridgewood, Queens until it reaches the end of the line at Metropolitan Avenue and the low-density communities and plentiful cemeteries that populate Maspeth and Middle Village.
For 75 years, the melody of the gate train is played until the tide of time and progress stills its sound in 1958. More efficient rebuilt wooden cars requiring only one conductor to operate doors replace the gates and the gatemen. For eleven more years trains continued to roll. Then in 1969, to the relief of all who live there, the Myrtle Avenue El met the same fate as the gate trains and was demolished south of Broadway.
Sunlight returned to a 35-block stretch Myrtle Avenue after years of perpetual darkness and the relative quiet of a Brooklyn street replaced the repetitive noise of passing trains. Still neighborhoods like Fort Greene, Clintonville and Bed-Sty struggled through economic downturns, the drug invasion capped by crack and other crises. Now these neighborhoods are changing once again as gentrification takes hold. Ready or not Brooklyn is back.