Joe De Matteo

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A story about A Magical Train Ride

To get in and out of the northeast Bronx, where I grew up, by train, you had to take the “Dinky.” 

The Dinky was an extension of, hell, I don’t remember…the 7th Avenue line?  I really can’t recall; and at this writing they’re calling everything by other names anyway. 

I’m talking here about the early 1960s.   (The sexual revolution hadn’t taken place yet, which meant you still had to con your way into that heavenly triangle.  Thought I must admit, things didn’t change that much for me during, or after, that particular revolution.  But that sad story hasn’t anything do with subway trains, beyond the obvious metaphor.)

I was a kid, a teenager, and I worked at 32 Avenue of the Americas, the then AT & T building.

Now let me tell you, I was quite enamored of Puerto Rican women.  (There was nothing so erotic to me as a Spanish woman (or girl - I was in my teens, remember?)  Back then, Italian, Irish, and German (immigrant) families referred to Puerto Ricans as “Spanish.”)

Who knew?

Man, I loved Spanish girls!

For me, taking the subway was like watching a porno movie.  Just seeing all these Spanish females - high heels, nice legs, bright kerchief covered dark hair, lovely red lips… Hey, they set my teenage hormones raging.

(Oh god!) the Simpson Street station set off a frenzy of lustful longings.  Simpson Street was the home, so I was told, of thousands of brothels (though we didn’t call the brothels.  We called them “whowa houses.” - I remember the look on everyone’s face when I said the word “whowa” in a bar one night after I’d moved up to Westchester.  Though I’ve since acquiesced and changed my pronunciation, I did it only as a courtesy to these illiterate country folk.)

I was really tired that night.  It was not only late, but it was a Friday of a particularly hard week.  When I fell asleep, I can’t tell you.  But at 125th Street two things happened the conductor asked me what stop I was getting off, and a young, olive-skinned beauty stepped into the car.

I told him, “180th Street,” and he said he’d wake me there.  Of course he would: it was the end of the line.

I couldn’t get my eyes off of her.

She was slender and shapely, had pitch black eyes and hair - I fell in lust on the spot.

Much to my surprise, she walked right up to me and sat down beside me.

She was silent for a couple of minutes.  I was in shock: there were plenty of empty seats in the car.

I had to talk to her!  After a moment, I said, “H…”

She started talking at the same instant and barreled right over me, “I’m sorry to be so forward, but I see you on the train all the time.  My name is Maria.”

“I’m Joe.”

“Joe, I never took the train this late, and I live in a not so good neighborhood.  I’m afraid to be on the train alone.  Do you mind if I sit next to you?”

Right!

“No, you can sit here.  I’ve seen you too. Where do you work?”

“I go to school near Columbia University.”

“What are you going to school for?”

“Well…”

“Come on, what are you studying?”

“I’m studying massage.  After I get my diploma, I’m going to get a job on one of those curse ships, and get the hell out of the Bronx forever.”

“That sounds like a plan.”

“Where do you live?”

Well, it went on like that until Simpson Street.

She had captivated me.  As she spoke the movements of her arms, neck and head brought my attention to her creamy skin; it was all I could do to hold my fingers back from touching her.  I longed to know just how that beautiful skin felt. 

Maria also had the slightest hint of a lisp.

A beautiful, young, shapely, creamy skinned Puerto Rican girl, with a slight lisp: she was irresistible on every count.

The Conductor walked in and told her that Simpson Street was the next stop.

Simpson Street.

“Joe,” she asked me, her black eyes over powering my blue, “Joe, would you walk me home?”

Joe, would you walk me home?

You bet!

“I’m so afraid to walk alone at this hour.  I must warn you, it is not a nice neighborhood.”

“Sure, I’ll walk you!  I had wanted to suggest it myself,” I but hadn’t the nerve.  For a couple of reasons.

We got to her door and she asked me in.  “Won’t I disturb your family?”

“No.” she told me.

She lived alone.

Her apartment was wonderful.  It had a comfortable feel.  Warm and cozy.  Friendly.

She took off her coat, hung both our coats in the closet…

We were kissing.

This beautiful girl was kissing me.

I fell in love on the spot; I was 17 years old, she had to be 20, we were in her apartment, and she was kissing me. 

For the slightest of instances I felt like I was cheating on Donna, but we had only gone out twice.  We weren’t going steady or anything.

We worked our way to the couch.  After a time she got a couple of glasses and an open bottle of wine.  It was sweet and heady, and when we kissed again I could feel everything to the extreme. 

We talked and kissed - I fell in love all over again - and then we made love.

My first time.

Do you know how magical that night was?  I was seventeen years old.  I’d never had sex before, and, not even in my dreams had I thought about having sex in a bed!

We were in her bed.

It smelled of her; it smelled of Maria.

I fell asleep.  Only to be woken by Maria; we made love again.

It was heaven!

I found heaven in one of the scariest neighborhoods in the Bronx.

What would my Italian mother and father say when I introduced them to Maria as the girl I was going to marry?

I woke with a start.

Maria was shaking me.  Shaking me violently.

Noise.

There was a lot of noise.

Banging.  Screeching.

Maria was shaking me.  Shaking me so hard.

“WHAT?” What is it?”

 

“Wake up son, it’s 180th Street,” the conductor said.

 

You’re pretty angry, aren’t you?

This is probably the first 180th Street joke you’ve heard.  Imagine your anger if you just sat through your 10th.

The streets, bars, candy stores and schools in the Dire Avenue line domain were ripe with One hundred and Eightieth Street jokes.  Each started in a different place, with different circumstances, but they all had you on the train at some point before the story got going. 

“Hey,” your friend would scream, “this is a hundred and eightieth street joke, you son of a $#@!”

“No! No, this is what happened…” You’d swear on a stack of Bibles, if that would let you weave your tale; a tale that deviously wound it way toward 180th Street, and anti-climax.

I was one of the guys with the gift, the storyteller gift.  I could tell jokes, or weave fiction, and the other kids would always listen to me.  Even when they secretly believed they were being set up with a “hundred an eightieth street” joke. 

There were two tricks I used.  Sometimes I’d tell a story that seemed unmistakably to be a 180th Street story, but I’d make it something else.  Other times I’d use my devious imagination to make the story so interesting that they would forget all about the set up that put them on a train heading relentlessly toward 180th Street. 

Though, all of the 180th Street jokes were not about an exotic woman, at ages fifteen through seventeen, most of the best ones were.  I’ve been on the platform at 180th Street thousands of times, waiting for my connection to Manhattan, or for the Dinky back to Gun Hill Road, always hoping to meet a mysterious woman, who’d take me on a real life 180th Street story.

I did work at 32 Avenue of the Americas.  It was the 1962/1963 school year.  I was part of the Cooperative Program that had high school seniors working one week and going to classes the next.  We got credits for work, and got to miss school one week out of every two.

My high school, Evander Childs, is on Gun Hill Road.  When I got there I already knew that I wanted a career in business.  Because of that I was going for a commercial diploma; taking business-oriented classes.  However, to get into the Coop Program you had to be in a General or Academic diploma program.  I hadn’t taken classes for an Academic diploma, so I had to move to the General diploma program to get into Coop.  It was a decision that changed a lot of things for me.  But I wanted to work in Manhattan in the worse way.

The negative affect was a big one; one that profoundly changed the very beginning of my working career, as well as my future. 

It was a great school year.  I was sixteen when school started in September of 1962, and working at an entry-level job in the Mail Room at the American Telephone & Telegraph Company was the greatest thing.  Taking the train to work was only the beginning of my subway experience.  In those days before fax machines and email attachments, it took a Mail Boy to get the important documents to the right person in other AT&T buildings.  Alone on a mission in Manhattan: the first week I was lost 99% of the time, but within a month I was passing out directions like a tour guide.  I knew the subway system like the back of my hand by Christmas.

A few months before graduation my boss Tom Peterson took me in to see the big Kahuna, Mr. Queen, who was one of those people that commanded respect on first sight.  Just to look at him was awesome.  “Joseph, I’ve been watching you, so has Mr. Peterson…” 

#$@%, I’m screwed! I thought.

Mr. Queen offered me a full time job with a promotion upon graduation.  Me on the subways everyday going to my job in Manhattan; I was on top of the world.

Two days later I got the bad news, I was graduating with a General diploma and they only hired people with Commercial or Academic diplomas. 

I would have had a great job at a great company, with people that knew me and liked me, if I’d only not changed my diploma program.  But if I hadn’t changed it I’d have never gotten the job to begin with.

This was my first real-life experience with irony.

Those days of riding the subway all around the city were great ones.  It was a wonderful experience that gave me great memories.  To this day, when I hear the word train I can smell the electricity smell of the subway.  The only other smell from those wonderfully exciting days that I can recall exactly in my mind is the smell of roasting coffee.  It was a smell I smelled every morning climbing up the subway stairs at the Varick Street station.

Do you remember, are you old enough to remember, the old Beach Boy song California Girls?  It says, “I wish they all could be California Girls.”  I know that song had to be written by someone who had just been riding a morning rush hour subway in the late spring day of 1964.  So many beautiful New York women, all dressed up in skirts and dresses, high heel shoes, beautiful hair of all colors and types, hanging on to straps suspended from the overhead rail, or seated trying to read a newspaper, all looking absolutely lovely.

The New York Subway system in the 1960s was a wonder filled thing to a young teenaged boy from the wilds of the underdeveloped North Bronx.

 

July 4, 2005:  I am told that Evander Childs High School on Gun Hill Road in The Bronx is scheduled to be closed for safety reasons.  I feel bad about that.  My Dad graduated Evander in 1925; I graduated in 1963. 

Joe De Matteo


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