A monthly blog about the sensory experience of New York City

Thursday, February 7, 2008

SOUND: The G train Recharging at Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn

On a typical day, the G train runs from Court House Square, in Long Island City, to Smith-9 Streets, in Red Hook, mowing a green zigzag swath across the outer boroughs. After discharging its last passenger in Brooklyn, the G continues along the tracks to the 4 Avenue F train station, in Gowanus, to recharge before chugging back toward Queens.

I used to live near this stop, an elevated outdoor platform with sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. But the sight I enjoyed most was the apple green circle at the front of the G train emerging over the railway bridge, its headlights dim. It chugs to a stop on the center track, sighs, flexes its brakes in rhythmic thrusts. It exhales a whoosh of pressurized brake steam, then shudders to stillness. The digital window signs still flicker from CROSSTOWN LCL to LAST STOP/SMITH-9 STS. There’s a metallic hum. The car lights dim. Sometimes a conductor moves through the cars with a broom.

Inevitably, an F train hurtles into the station, pings its doors open and closed, and sweeps out, hardly casting a glance at its hick cousin, who will never have its floors anointed with bags from Zaro’s Bread Basket, will never know the thrill of burrowing beneath the East River or the corner of Central Park.

But the G train has had a moment to collect itself. There is a clicking. The window signs go blank, then flash LONG IS. CITY/COURT SQ. The lights brighten. The train brakes suck in air as they get ready to roll. Folklorist Amanda Dargan claims that she hears the first musical phrase of the song Somewhere– as if singing “There’s a place for us” when this happens on the 4, 5, and 6 lines. But I can’t say as I’ve ever heard the G train sing.

The wheels turn over once, squeal to a stop, and rotate again with increased confidence. A shiver, then a grinding lurch. The pigeons that have settled on top of the cars scatter. The green G recedes against the skyline of a city it will never enter. It feels like--for a moment--I knew the G train, having witnessed its most vulnerable moment. But now it’s unreachable once again, like an old friend who’s moved on.