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Song of the subways

Stan Fischler is giving a tour of his subterranean

playground.

"You know these trains sing, right?" Fischler, "the hockey maven," asks

with a twinkle as a downtown express No. 2 train closes its doors at the 96th

Street IRT subway station.

Fischler knows things. Things forgotten, things overlooked, and things just

plain weird.

And then, just after the doors chime closed and as the subway edges

forward, the wheels emit a high-pitched whine that by some freak of friction

clearly hits the first three notes of the second line in the ballad "Somewhere"

from "West Side Story."

There's a place for us

Somewhere a place for us.

Who would have figured? The answer is implicit in a grin through a

well-trimmed white beard. Stan Fischler, 72, hockey writer, television analyst

and subway aficionado, has written six books on subways, trains and trolleys,

with the latest published over the summer in honor of the New York subway's

100th anniversary on Oct. 27. While he knows subways, he's famous for hockey. A

Brooklyn native, Fischler has written more than 90 books on hockey during a

print and broadcast career spanning more than 50 years.

"Stan is an institution," says Kara Yorio, a hockey writer for Sporting

News. "Like him or dislike him, hockey's not the same without Stan around."

There are those who contend the hockey maven is a cantankerous old coot -

rife with unpopular opinions and quick to assert them. They could be correct.

He's the kind of guy who would argue with that statement not so much because he

doesn't agree with it, but because agreement would end a potentially

interesting discussion. And who could argue with that?

Married ballistics

So ask Shirley - his wife for the past 36 years and his co-author on more

than 15 hockey books - how they get along as married collaborators, and she

pleads ignorance. "I have no idea how we do it," she says. "We're both

foul-tempered, evil-mouthed, stubborn and controlling."

But his passions and opinions - the same contentious pronouncements hockey

fans love to hate - are not limited to the action on the ice. They are equally

strong for subjects under the streets of New York.

Fischler's quirky affinity for the city's mass transit began early and grew

like the system itself. In 1935, when Fischler was 3, he walked out of his

three-story brownstone at 532 Marcy Ave. in Williamsburg to find a crew of

workers digging up the street. Before long, the GG line ran directly beneath

his bedroom. "I'd have my head on the pillow, the train would brake, and I

could hear the doors opening and closing," he says. "And those doors are not

loud!"

"It was soothing to me," he says with a straight face. "Like music."

Fischler, who played drums in a series of jazz bands gigging around the

Catskills and the city in the early 1950s, can find music everywhere. He hears

the clickety-clack of subway wheels over rail joints as imitating Gene Krupa's

drumming in "China Boy." He recalls that the sharp curves on the GG line to

Manhattan squeal "C over high C, like a soprano going as high as she could go."

He can distinguish the clacking of older tracks laid over gravel beds and

the steady hum of newer ones over concrete. He loves the sounds of switches, of

entering and leaving tunnels, and of hairpin turns. Apparently the best sounds

occur on the old Brighton BMT Line, as he reminisces about rumbling down the

Beverly Road curve with the sliding window open in front, his face hanging

outside, wind through his hair, every sound - with no reverb off the walls -

distinct and unmuffled.

The only way to go

Like many New Yorkers in the 1930s and '40s, his father, Ben, a paint and

putty factory worker, and mother, Molly, never owned a car. The family always

traveled by subway or trolley. Stan first went to Newark alone by train when he

was 6 years old, and although he was given a Lionel electric train set when he

was 7, he didn't see much need for model trains. The New York City subway

system was his toy.

His youthful sense of wonder permeates his subway writing. His first book

on the subway, "The Subway: A Trip Through Time on New York's Rapid Transit"

(originally published in 1976 as "Uptown, Downtown: A Trip Through Time on New

York's Subways" and now in its seventh printing) remains widely referenced.

Charles Sachs, senior curator at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn

Heights, considers it one of four useful books on the city's subway system.

"While not necessarily a scholarly work, it's a very valuable, basic reference

for a popular audience," he says.

People, not trains

Fischler is the first to admit that what fascinated him are not the trains

but the sights, sounds and people. His subway books offer reviews of lines like

they are rides at the county fair and provide personal stories that solidify

the hold subways have on this city. "People have enormous nostalgia for the

subway," Sachs says. "They can associate key moments in their own life with

moments in the subway's history."

Fischler's new book, "The Subway and the City: Celebrating a Century,"

published by Frank Merriwell Books, has chapters titled "Going to Canarsie" and

"Going to the Garden," with half of the material devoted to personal

experiences heading to those and other destinations. "It's the greatest subway

book possible," Fischler says without any shame for his boast.

Yet he believes his 100-year- old toy is in danger of losing its allure.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority's newer trains feature an engineer's cab

that stretches the width of the lead car. There's no room for an extra seat. No

room for a subway buff. "It makes no sense," Fischler says, as though

personally insulted. "What does the motorman need all that space for? Is he

going to lie down and take a nap?"

While mostly supportive of the MTA, Fischler does have his gripes. "They're

like the National Hockey League," he says. "They're trying to do the right

thing, but because they are what they are, they screw up."

For example, after two trains crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995,

killing an operator and injuring dozens of passengers, the MTA began enforcing

orders to slow trains, reducing top speeds to 40 mph. Trains have run fast for

decades, Fischler says, and he insists there's no reason to change. "It's not

an overreaction," he says. "It's an over, over, over, overreaction."

Starting the tour riding a downtown No. 1 train from his stop at 110th

Street and looking out the front window of the older train, Fischler mocks the

amber tunnel lights that instruct the conductor to crawl through a gradual

bend. "Wow-ee- wow, oy vey," he says. "Do you think we'll make that curve? That

was a close call."

The sarcasm, however, is not typical of this outing. It's an abbreviated

version of his standard tour, one that was auctioned for $650 at a New Jersey

Devils fund-raiser in March. Sipping a Diet Coke that subs for dinner, he hops

from train to train and station to station with the enthusiasm of someone

unveiling overlooked treasures.

At Columbus Circle, he points out tiles depicting Columbus' ships, the

Ni�a, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He drops his hand to cue the precise

moment a stopped train releases its air brakes to make the familiar chsssssssh

sound. In the Times Square station, he explains that the sealed door labeled

"Knickerbocker" once led up to the Knickerbocker Hotel and that in the 1940s,

there were colored lights on the ceiling to direct riders to the different

lines. When he sees a couple on a train scrutinizing a map, he asks, "Where do

you want to go?"

Express vs. local

And then there's always the frustrating fun of monitoring the apparent war

between the express and the local. He cites the habit of an express train to

exit the station just as a local arrives - or even soon afterward so that those

seeking a transfer are greeted by doors sliding shut in their faces. "It

happens too often to be ignored," Fischler says. "Like these guys go to

conductor school just to learn how to screw the local."

Fischler never went to conductor school, although it crossed his mind as a

child. He remembers shoveling snow at age 5 when a neighbor asked him what he

wanted to be when he grew up. "A subway motorman," he said. The neighbor called

him crazy. Told him they only make $35 a week. Stan walked away thinking,

"Wow, $35 a week, I'd do it for nothing."

Now, 67 years later, and back in his Morningside Heights apartment,

Fischler eats cottage cheese and hummus while sitting in a rusty barber chair.

And he ponders the track not taken. "I still think about it," he says. "I

wonder if they have an age limit. I wonder if I would get bored doing it."

Evidence of a life lived without much boredom fills a small, cluttered

study in the back of his 10th-floor apartment in a building where he and

Shirley, 64, have lived for 32 years. It's a room comfortable with the past.

About 40 battered hockey sticks lean in a corner, stamped with such names

as [Chico] Resch and [Wayne] Gretzky. An Egyptian army helmet found on the side

of the road during the 1967 Six Day War with Israel rests on the radiator.

Emmy Awards for broadcast features in 1988 and 1999 sit on a shelf. A third

one, awarded for a piece on a blind hockey fan, rests as a gift on a shelf in

her house in New Jersey.

Springs from a LIRR train adorn the bookcase near an old sign from the New

Lots Avenue IRT stop, a looped metal subway handhold serves as a paperweight.

Fischler graduated Brooklyn College and worked briefly as a New York

Rangers publicist in the 1950s. He wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle and the New

York Journal-American between 1955 and '66 before serving as a bureau chief for

the Toronto Star, 1966-77. He began broadcasting games for the World Hockey

Association's New England Whalers in '73 on a reporting team that included his

wife, the first woman to cover the NHL. Fischler claims he was so hated in

Boston that he was told by team management, not entirely jokingly, to leave for

his own protection.

In 1975, he returned to cover New York-area hockey. In 1992 he launched

"The Fischler Report," a weekly newsletter for hockey insiders. He earned a

master's degree in education from Long Island University and has taught feature

writing at Columbia University, Fordham University and Queens College. Shirley

Fischler notes that interns who've helped him through the years, some who have

become prominent in hockey circles, still keep in touch. "Although I don't

know why," she says. "He's so abusive."

His first hockey game

His introduction to hockey, naturally, involved the subway. In 1939, his

father took 7-year-old Stan to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the

Globe Theater. They exited the IND station at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue

into pouring rain. Ben Fischler decided to duck into a minor league game

between the New York Rovers and Washington Eagles at the third incarnation of

Madison Square Garden.

His heart set on seeing Happy, Sneezy, Dopey et al., Stan was annoyed at

the change of plans. "My father was rooting for the Rovers in red, so I rooted

for Washington in white and picked out this blond player, Normie Burns, who

looked like the Lone Ranger to me. Turns out he got three goals, Washington

won, my father lost, and I was thrilled."

Fischler hasn't stopped watching hockey since. He is best known these days

for playing devil's advocate on the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders

hockey broadcasts for the MSG and Fox Sports networks.

On the ice, on the air or on the tracks, Fischler can slip into different

skins. When I first met him, he answered the door with accommodating good

cheer, wearing a white cotton undershirt and sweatpants after speed-walking off

jet lag acquired while returning from playing the bongos at a son's wedding in

Israel.

That night Stan answered questions with zeal while sipping coffee from a

faded mug. He gamboled over to demonstrate a rusty and peeling green controller

from a train on his childhood GG line, turning the black knob as though he

expected the apartment to pitch forward. "I resent the fact that they deducted

one 'G' from my line," he said. "I think they're storing one extra 'G' in the

basement somewhere."

Somewhere.

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