Subway Stories

Cars and Crimes and Trains

My wife (we weren’t yet married at the time) had a fairly new ’81 Toyota Starlet stolen in Brooklyn. We took a city bus to the police precinct to report it stolen (no over the phone reports back in those days). Halfway there, we insisted that the driver stop the bus, because there on the sidewalk was the distinctive bright yellow vehicle, correct license plate and all.

The bus driver let us out (maybe he had seen this story before?), but, before doing so, he told us to call the police and report the location and not touch the car, otherwise we might be accused of engineering the theft as an insurance scam. It took a while to find a pay phone (this was before cell phones) in the industrial area where we had spotted the car. 

After the police came and wrote down the details and returned the car to us, we looked around for damage: the ignition lock was totally mangled, the thieves had used a big screwdriver; the radiator was totally missing, and not surgically removed; and there was gasoline on the sidewalk beneath the rear of the car (our mechanic later confirmed that a hole was poked into tank and two or three gallons drained). Gas was about $1.25 a gallon then.

Then, walking past an auto junk yard just down the street, this fellow, who at first seemed to want to commiserate, but was really trying to make a sale—made us an offer on a radiator, a used one he had “just gotten in.”

Well, we were not about to reward someone who probably had received and was trying to sell our just stolen radiator. So we called for a tow and took the car to our (great!) mechanic—which is the only good part off this tale. A week later he had it patched up. Turns out this kind of minimal car (2 door hatchback, manual transmission, AM-only radio, etc.) was in great demand by thieves as it was only made for two model years before being discontinued, so parts were hard to come by. Thieves were going around local neighborhoods and “shopping” for parts. 

Brooklyn was then—for all I know, it might still be—the car theft capital of the world, with higher-end vehicles having their VIN numbers erased and put straight onto cargo ships for delivery to other countries. The city auto insurance rates reflected this. The quarterly payment on that tin can Toyota being equal to a yearly policy on TWO vehicles in rural Maine.

We spent the next year looking out the front apartment window every evening to be sure the vehicle was still there, but we learned—the hard way—to not park on corners where a tow truck could back in and take it away, again!

After that, I was sort of glad that the headache of a car in the city was gone. Sat down did the arithmetic (insurance, gas, registration, taxes, maintenance, theft repairs, parking tickets, etc.) and decided that not owning a car, and instead renting one for vacations, taking subway and buses for daily commuting and taxis for special occasions, was a better choice.  

We did fine for the next 25 years without one. When my young nephew asked me, “Where’s your car?” I explained that it was on the corner down a flight of stairs. When a row of stainless steel behemoths rolled in there, I told him it cost more than one million dollars and that we didn’t have to do any of the driving.

The Accordion Player

I was riding the D train home to Brooklyn, early evening, back when it still went over the Manhattan Bridge, in the early 1980s. 

This middle-aged short fellow with an accordion gets on at Grand Street. I guess he was hoping to have a good solid five-to-seven minutes of playing and collecting tips before DeKalb Ave.

He is at one end of the car and I am at the other. He might have been from Russia, or some other middle-European country, but his country of origin though is not really relevant here. 

He starts playing and he is…GOD AWFUL!

I don’t mean out of tune, just plain cacophony… People-have-their-fingers-in-their-ears bad. No one is giving him money, and before he even gets to the middle of the car, I jump up out of my seat waving a bill and shouting, “I will give you $5 to STOP playing.” And then this other fellow jumps out of his seat and says “I’ll match that with another $2, if you will only stop playing!” 

Lots of laughs from the passengers, but not from the one person we wanted to get the idea, as he appeared to not speak English, or Spanish, or Creole…and he kept on playing! I think finally someone who did speak a language that he understood got across the point and he ceased playing until he got to Dekalb Avenue, and he then switched for a train going back over the bridge again.

I felt a little sorry for him, since I could imagine his family saying, “What are we going to do with Uncle Ivan?” and handed him an accordion with a cup attached and told him to go earn some U.S. dollars.

It’s tough being an immigrant.

Breaking Up A Fight

Many years ago, I “broke up” a fight between a New York City cop and a guy on a subway platform. I was much younger. The cop had asked the guy to put his feet down off a seat on the train, and before I knew it they were rolling around on the platform outside the subway car.

The guy was going for the cop’s gun, and I was only 20 feet away. I figured that I could distract the fellow by thumping him on the back. I guess I thought that it would give the cop a chance to disengage from their wrestling match. Anyway, whatever I did, it worked and the cop handcuffed the guy and called for backup.

It was all over in maybe 30 seconds. I gave the cop my clean handkerchief (thanks for the upbringing, Mom!) for his bleeding head and told him to keep it. Then I yelled at that conductor to not shut the doors, as it was midnight and the next train was at least 30 minutes behind.

The other passengers just watched. Not sure why I did it and it scared the shit out of me thinking about it in the light of the next day. It had just seemed the right thing to do.

I‘d like to think I would do it again now, just slower…

***

Paul Sheridan was born and spent the first 55 years of his life in New York City and now lives in Maine. He is retired from the faculty at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.

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