The Interview

Riding the Rails

See Joe's notes about this interview

Most New Yorkers spend as little time in the subway as they can-even if they have an unlimited monthly pass. But among the thousands of hurried, uncomfortable, irritable, and exhausted riders in the next subway you ride, there may be one who is actually enjoying the trip. Reporter Marianne McCune rode the rails with a longtime devotee of New York City's rail system.

There are all sorts of names for people like Joe Korman- fero-equinologists, trainspotters. Some people say they're off their trolley. But Korman just calls himself a rail fan. He's been one since he was two.

JK: Somebody gave me a little wind up toy train ... the first thing I said when I unpacked it and started to play with it, was, there's no caboose!

Like many rail-fans who grew up in New York, the subway was Korman's first love.

JK: You see youngsters looking out the front door, watching the trains run down the tracks ... ... difference is I haven't grown up yet (chuckle) ...

On a stuffy afternoon, Korman cruises backwards in time on the elevated tracks of the Canarsie line. At 49, he's much bigger than he was, and he has a moustache now. But that doesn't keep him from heading for the motorman's car so he can see out the front window.

JK (on train): It's the only way to go. Look out, see what he's seeing, learn the signals.

The motorman steps into the cab and puts on a zippered leather glove. He's unaware that he will drive the next mile with a kindred spirit.

JK (on train): Now we can see the signals ahead, second one has a yellow bottom so obviously we're going to cross over ... otherwise we'd be in trouble ...

By the time Korman was 6 years old, he was well-versed in subway technology. His Uncle Meish, who worked for the Transit Authority, took him on regular joy rides-and taught him the glory of knowing the system. Train cars and stations were his classroom, his uncle his first teacher.

JK: He was like a third parent to me. We used to call him the talking encyclopedia ... if I get choked up, he passed away about a year ago.

The Myrtle Avenue line was their favorite. The old gate cars rattled along the tracks, a conductor between each one. Before leaving the station, every conductor had to ring a bell to signal to the motorman that all was clear.

JK: You'd hear ding ding, ding ding, ding ding, and the train would start moving.

As Korman got older, he took subway detours just to see what was out there-he went from Coney Island to Brownsville via Yankee Stadium and took the A train to Rockaway Beach-not bothering to get out when he arrived.

JK: I really wasn't paying attention to things other than what was on the tracks ... that's how crazy I was ...

In college, Korman watched from his classroom window as the Myrtle Avenue tracks were demolished-taken apart piece by piece. But his heartbreak didn't last long-his passion is for the whole, not its individual parts.

JK (on train): For some reason this train is going onto the unused tracks, I don't know why. I guess we'll find out when we try to get to Canarsie.

One stop later-at Atlantic Avenue-all passengers are told to exit and wait for the next train. Some look irritated, but Korman is forgiving -- Atlantic Avenue affords him a great view of one of the subway's many stub-ends: old or unfinished tracks that end abruptly in mid-air.

JK: Pieces of history. Little bits and pieces.

This piece includes an iron stairway.

JK: I could never understand why anyone would want to walk up that stairway. It doesn't go anywhere.

It's this attention to the why and how of the subway system that makes Korman's eyes twinkle. He travels in his mind between what is and what might have been. And though he doesn't joy-ride much anymore-he says he's too old-he does visit the subway on his computer everyday. Korman hosts one of the premiere websites about the New York City subway- visited by thousands of rail-fans around the world.

JK: I defy anyone to really explain why any hobby is of interest to any person, other than saying, well, look at that thing of beauty coming into the station! ...

With nostalgia in his eyes, he finds a place on the train and rides toward home-and his home page.

For WNYC News, I'm Marianne McCune.

You can visit Joe Korman's website at The JoeKorNer.

Hear the interview (1.8MB) HEAR HERE.


Notes on the interview:

One day last summer my wife called me to tell me that Marianne called from WNYC and wanted to talk to me. After explaining to her that I knew no one named Marianne, I got the number to call back.

I contatcted Marianne she told me that she was '... looking for someone who liked to ride trains for the ride.' She had found my web page and somehow tracked me down. We set up to meet that afternoon, since she had a deadline at the end of the week and I couldn't make it later in the week. She told me she wanted to go to some of the places I'd visited on the subway.

We met in downtown Brooklyn and traveled to Broadway Junction, one of my earliest subway memories. She started the tape and I started talking. We rode from there to Canarsie, back to BJ to Broadway Myrtle and ended up at Essex St. All told I talked for three hours. Marianne had to cut that down to about four minutes.

Marianne later called me to give me air date, but I was pre-empted for a golf story then the second date was pre-empted. Finally, the week I was in Atlantic City it was aired. So I missed my 15 minutes (4 really) of fame. However Marianne was able to get me a tape. The original of this transcript was on WNYC's web site. It's been removed, so I put it on the JoeKorNer.

Back to Interview


The JoeKorNer - SUBWAY Index


Copyright © 1999 Joseph D. Korman