(This post is also known as “THE LOST LINE, PART 2.” Next week, Part 3!)
The Third Avenue El in New York City was dismantled in 1955, so… it’s gone. Forever. It only today exists in our memories, collective consciousness, photographs, moving pictures, and really strange blogs (know any?).
Cosmologists explain that, from a multi-dimensional point of view, time can exist as a distinct physical address. So, if you were to be a sentient being that exists in, say, 5, 6, or more dimensions, you could easily wander to the following spatial coordinates as if you walked from one house to another:
- Longitude: Third Avenue,
- Latitude: 53rd Street,
- Altitude: street-level, and
- Time (CE): 12 Noon, August 22, 1943 (the date of Bernard Olcott’s mother passing).
Just go to that location right now and look up! You’ll be looking at the 53rd Street Elevated Station!
Given such liberty, it would be possible go anywhere in time, forwards and backwards, as if these were all reachable places. Logically, all times past and future exist NOW; it’s just that they are inaccessible to us mortals.¹
The Bernard Olcott Story blog, unfortunately, cannot literally take the dear reader to the past (or future). But what it can do is to present a brilliant short art house film that brings the Third Avenue El back to life, in sight and sound (complete with a harpsichord accompaniment). It’s about eleven minutes long and follows four passengers as they journey uptown and downtown. Click the Read More link right here to see the film:
In preparation for this week’s post, I interviewed Producer and Director Kit Davidson who currently lives in Burlington, Vermont. He explained that although certain scenes like the beatnik and the drunk, were filmed in a single day, the film did take him several years to make. In preparation for filming (in the early 1950s), he told me, he wrote a lengthy and scholarly letter to the Transit Authority requesting approval for him to make “a nice documentary about the El.” After 6 months, he finally got a response; in this case, a rejection.
Undaunted, Kit proceeded to start filming anyway. He told me that train crews were very helpful. For example, a friendly motorman would condone the opening of the front door of the train by a passenger (typically for ventilation). You could cool off that way on hot days. In Kit’s case, he needed to open that door for the sake of filming the ride. The motormen assisted enthusiastically — especially as he filmed the Harlem River Bridge turning to allow river traffic and tug boats through. Station employees were less cooperative.
After he wrapped up filming, he decided to take on the transit bureaucracy one more time while he reviewed and re-edited his work. Writing, “I’m just a flunky working at Dynamic Films making this documentary in my spare time,” initially again he was met with no response. But then to his great surprise, some two and a half years later, he received official approval. Now he could release his sanctioned film record of the line soon to be lost in time.
The film is composed of four vignettes about four different riders on the same El line. A veritable Rashomon in New York!
The first rider was the BEATNIK photographer. I asked Kit if that could have been his alter-ego. “Very possibly,” he said. The beatnik appears right after the bell tolls for the doomed line. Whereas the other characters in the film look like 1950’s period pieces, this guy is oddly modern — perhaps timeless — in his appearance. If seen on the street today, I bet he would answer to today’s greeting “Yo Dude!”
The second rider was the DRUNK. Kit said he found that guy outside a Labor Office. The drunk staggers on and soon becomes seduced by signs for liquor stores and gleaming brass kettles of breweries to be seen beyond the trestle. Kit throws in some reverse color shots as the drunks goes blotto (an ersatz premonition to Kubrick’s Star Gate sequence 14 years hence, perhaps)². It’s interesting to note that the drunk gets on – and off! – at what seems to be the very same station. A ride to nowhere!
Thirdly, a LITTLE GIRL and her father, representing the future. They ride the train all the way up to the Bronx. Curiously, the train is stopped at the Harlem River bridge crossing. Kit films the rails being raised and turned away, a harbinger of the line’s future.
Fourthly, a COUPLE, perhaps on their way to a night on the town. This sequence is notable for some nighttime shots.
The common theme running throughout is a dime – no longer the fare at the time since it had been raised to 15¢ a few years earlier – stuck in the old floorboards (which reminded me of some of the older trains I have ridden on the London Underground). Each character bends over – in the drunk’s case, falls over – in a fruitless attempt to extract the coin and get a free ride. Only the man in the last vignette is successful. He’s got the coin, the fare, the girl, the night, the good fortune, and I guess the love. Must be a symbol for my Dad!
Kit was fascinated by railroads, obviously. When I asked him if the Third Avenue El was beautiful or ugly, he quickly affirmed “it was beautiful!” Third Avenue in the East 50s, he affirmed, was one of the hot neighborhoods of the time, principally for its bars and restaurants.
Kit left me with me with this obscure Dylan Thomas quote: “I don’t believe in New York, but I believe in 3rd Avenue!”
“3rd AVE. EL” was nominated in 1956 for an Oscar in the “Best Short Film” (single reel) category but lost to the film “Survival City.”
¹ – For more on this topic, please see Brian Greene’s book, “The Hidden Reality.”
² – Special thanks to alert reader Ned McDonnell for picking up on this. Which, somehow, I had missed!