There is much criticism today about the Long Island Rail Road and the New York City transportation system, but, in my opinion, commuters’ hurdles during the 1960s, 70s and 80s far outweighed current transportation problems.
It was in late 1964 when I boarded an LIRR train to embark on my first job in Manhattan while attending college in the evenings. Thus began a 55-year journey — perilous and pleasurable — through strikes, blizzards, blackouts and breakdowns. My commute these days is not nearly as chaotic, unpredictable or uncomfortable.
The wildcat strikes could occur anytime and could be over in a matter of hours — or days. The union strikes were difficult and exhausting. The subways and buses struck for 12 days in 1966 and 11 days in 1980. The LIRR had a 50-day train strike from late 1972 to early 1973, eight days in December 1979 and 10 days in 1987. Suitcase in hand, I left home during strikes to stay nights with friends, co-workers and relatives in all boroughs depending on whether my evening courses were in Brooklyn or Queens.
During a strike, a six-hour daily commute was not unusual — three hours each way by traveling to a mall or other site to board school buses, then transfer to subways and city buses in Queens, and reversing course in the evenings.
The trains’ penetrating cold in winter and stifling heat and hot air in the summer were nearly intolerable. Communication between LIRR passengers and train management or crew was almost nonexistent. Before cellphones, emails, texts and tweets, riders with complaints (such as waiting more than an hour for a connecting train without an announcement) had to call customer service from a pay phone or write letters. After commuting for many years, one of my missives resulted in a luncheon invitation from the LIRR’s president and vice president.
Back then, some of train cars were designated smoking cars, where it was almost impossible to see through the thick smog when passing from one car to the next. The morning coffee car could have been called the “coffin” car, so deadly was the air with smoke — as was the evening bar car, which reeked of alcohol.
The blizzards and blackouts paralyzed service. Management would operate trains until they broke down in snowbanks; today, train service is suspended before the weather worsens. I sat on newspapers on the floor in Penn Station during the blackout of 1966, napped in the pews at St. Francis Church on 32nd Street during the 2003 blackout, spent a night in a Massapequa Park diner when the train broke down during a blizzard after a four-hour trip from Penn Station, and slept in a ramshackle hotel after a train suspension caused by trees across tracks.
Nevertheless, there has always been a great benefit to commuting on the LIRR, namely the time available to spend reading. The cars are usually quiet during the weekday morning and evening commutes (except summer months on the Montauk line), so my tote bag becomes a pop-up library filled with newspapers, books and articles.
One enduring complaint: On crowded trains, commuters take an extra seat for their handbags, totes and/or backpacks. I hope the LIRR addresses this as summer travelers will soon throng Friday night and Monday morning trains.
Still, I am happy to be among the “Dashing Dotty / or Dan” crowd, as LIRR riders were called a half-century ago. My advice to fellow LIRR commuters? Place your possessions on your lap, the floor or the overhead rack, take advantage of the quiet time, and enjoy the ride.
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