Quick Hit: The Unisphere!

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Unisphere, taken between 1980 and 2006 – Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I have gushed before about visiting Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the site of both the 1939-40 and 1964-65 world’s fairs. One of my favorite fair remnants is, of course, the Unisphere, which has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Queens, though few people get out to see it in person. 

The structure is huge, and it’s very, very difficult to get a feel for its scale in photos. Standing 140 feet tall (that’s 12 stories!), it’s the largest globe structure in the world. It was built for the 64-65 world’s fair, the theme of which was “Peace Through Understanding”. The Unisphere itself was dedicated to “Man’s Achievements on a Shrinking Globe in an Expanding Universe”. I love that dedication — I think it’s entirely relevant today, nearly 50 years and several paradigms later.

The structure was built on the foundations of the Perisphere, the centerpiece of the 39-40 World’s Fair. It was donated by the US Steel Corporation and built by Mohawk ironworkers. The three rings represent the paths of the three satellites that were in orbit during the fair, and at night a light glowed from the site of each capitol city on the globe, including one for the Kahnawake Indian Reservation, in honor of the Mohawks. In order to prevent any of those lights from going dark during the two fair seasons, there were three bulbs on a rotating base that could be rotated out if any light burnt out.

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Nowadays, the Unisphere mostly looks like this photo, taken in April – sort of sad. The fountains at its base are usually empty (or holding some stagnant water if there’s been a rainstorm lately), and kids are usually playing on its base or skateboarding around the edge of the fountains. There is one glorious time of the year, though, when Flushing Meadows-Corona Park takes the national stage, and the Parks Department decides it’s worthwhile to turn those fountains on.

In late August and early September, the US Open tennis tournament enlivens this end of the park with scores of people hanging out all day long to watch tennis matches. AND the Unisphere has its pools full and fountains on, spraying water joyfully into the air! 

If you’re heading out there between now and Monday to catch some tennis, definitely stop by the Unisphere for a gander and a photo. And, if you’ve been meaning to get out to Corona to explore the World’s Fair history there, it’s as good a time as any. Unfortunately the Queens Museum is closed for renovation until October, but there’s still plenty to enjoy – including baby sea lions at the Queens Zoo, also located in the boundaries of the park!

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The Metropolitan Opera: Pre-recorded but in HD

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The Metropolitan Opera’s Summer HD Festival began on Saturday night, and of course I forgot about it until Sunday morning. Every summer, the Met airs some of its recorded performances on a screen outside on Lincoln Plaza, and it’s one of my favorite festivals in New York. It’s easy to get to, you know exactly what to expect, there are chairs (!), and you can arrive less than an hour before the “curtain” and still get a decent seat. No camping out for hours in the heat to sit on a blanket on the ground so far from the stage that you might as well not be there (I’ve been burned before, can you tell?).

I decided to brave last night’s screening despite an iffy forecast, and enjoyed about half of The Tempest before the rain arrived and sent my friend and I scurrying to a restaurant for a late dinner.

The festival continues with screenings through Monday, September 2. The only one of this series that I’ve seen is Aida, which is a spectacular production that would be great for first-timers or seasoned opera fans alike to take in (THEY HAVE HORSES ON STAGE!).

More info on the Metropolitan Opera’s website.

The Cat’s Pyjamas: The 2013 Jazz Age Lawn Party

 

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This past weekend was the second and final weekend in 2013 for the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governors Island. Now in its 8th year, the Lawn Party is hosted by Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra, and is a chance to put on some 1920s duds, learn the Charleston, sip champagne cocktails, and listen to the beautiful melodies of the Jazz Age. In previous years that I’ve attended, it’s been a relatively sleepy little event, something that was a bit of a secret. This year, though, it was clear that the secret was out — when I arrived at the ferry terminal for the second ferry of the day, the line stretched far beyond the building along the lower Manhattan waterfront.

First, some photos. And please excuse the horrific quality – I’m in the market for a new camera.
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First, the good things about Saturday’s event.  It was very well attended and everyone seemed to be in a great mood. The costumes were fantastic (though seriously, ladies, let’s all agree not to order the “1920s flapper!!!!” Halloween costume for the event next year, okay?), and several groups really went the extra mile and brought pretty insane picnic setups that were fun to look at. The expanded food and beverage offerings were a great addition, and I was happy to see more vegetarian options available. St. Germain was out in full force and kept the revelers well-supplied with champagne cocktails. The weather was glorious! And the entertainment? Flawless, as usual.

However, there were also some problems. The event has grown magnificently in the last few years, to the point where it’s sort of outgrown its space. The Lawn Party takes place in Colonel’s Row, a long, narrow, triangular patch of grass lined by beautiful old trees and lovely old brick buildings. It is the perfect space for this event. However, this year’s crowd overwhelmed the space, so that by 1:30 pm there were picnickers set up everywhere and very few paths through the blankets to get to the food, or to the dance floor. There were also only two entrances to the space, meaning long admission lines even for folks like myself who had purchased tickets in advance.

The ticket prices have also climbed significantly over the last few years. If I recall correctly, 2011’s tickets were $8. In 2012, general admission was $15. And this year, tickets had soared to $30 per person. I do feel that the entertainers, vendors, and other attendants deserve to be paid, and paid well, but if tickets continue to rise, they will need to host the event at a site that is larger, with infrastructure such as actual restrooms in place. The roughin’-it feel was fine when the event was smaller, when it felt covert, when it felt like a secret. Now that this has become one of NYC’s better known summer to-dos, a place to see and be seen, attracting a wide range of people and families, perhaps its time to think about moving the event. I love, love, love Colonel’s Row for this event. I think Governors Island is pretty much the best possible venue for suspending disbelief and relaxing into a different time period for a moment. But if ticket prices continue to rise, there will be an expectation that the amenities will, as well. And while the organizers have managed to continuously expand the food service and ticket package offerings, they will need to consider the overall experience and amenities, as well.

Concerns aside, I had a wonderful time on Saturday and am hoping I’ll be able to attend again next year. I love the chance to sit on a blanket in a cloche hat, sipping a drink, listening to the band, and watching the parade of well-dressed folks wander by. And apparently, so does Bill Cunningham, who stopped by later in the afternoon on Saturday.

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Coney Island & the New Steeplechase Plaza

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Sunday morning I woke up well before my alarm and knew I wouldn’t be falling back to sleep. Rather than torture myself by tossing and turning for another hour or two, I bit the bullet and got out of bed. Without any concrete plans for the day and with these few “extra” hours of time, I decided to head to Coney Island for my first visit of the season. In August. Suffice it to say, I’ve been a little preoccupied this summer.

It was early, but the train from my neighborhood takes a little over an hour. I arrived along with the early morning beach bums. I decided to take my usual route, wandering through the amusement areas towards the beach and walking the boardwalk down to the New York Aquarium. As I strolled along the weathered wooden planks of the boardwalk, I immediately noticed something: my old pal the Parachute Jump was looking pretty spiffy.

The Parachute Jump may be a Brooklyn landmark today, but it was actually built for the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair, in Queens. Two years after the fair, it was moved to Coney Island, where it continued to operate until cost and safety concerns shut it down in 1964. How does a structure like this operate as a ride? Well, it’s missing a few parts today…

This ride, to me, looks completely, totally, absolutely terrifying. I would never ride it. But, hey, I’m pretty into it as a landmark and for its historic significance.

The Parachute Jump is right up against the boardwalk near MCU Park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team play. It sits a little back from the main boardwalk, and until this year, was fenced off and physically separated from the walkways. I was there in May when E finished the Brooklyn half marathon on the boardwalk, but in all the excitement I didn’t take a close look at the Jump. So imagine my surprise when I walked that way this morning and was greeted with this view:

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A carousel pavilion AND all that beautiful, uninterrupted open space around the Parachute Jump? Well, I do declare!

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This new area has been developed as Steeplechase Plaza, in honor of the amusement park of the same name that stood on this site. Steeplechase Park, known for the ride bearing the same name, was one of several iconic amusement parks at Coney Island that saw destructive fires in the early years of the twentieth century; when Steeplechase Park burned in 1907, its owner George Tilyou declared that he would rebuild a bigger, better park on the site, and then charged 10¢ for people to come in to see the smoldering ruins. Tilyou’s son purchased the Parachute Jump and moved it to Coney Island.

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Now, you can walk right up to the base and peer underneath it. There is landscaping, and some stepped seating around it. And, it also just got a brand new, very expensive set of LEDs installed on it — I’ll definitely be back before the end of the season to see the show.

The other reason for a return visit is just next door: the restored B&B Carousell (yes, that’s how it’s spelled)! The carousel was built in Coney Island, and operated there and in New Jersey between 1906 and 2005, when its owners planned to dismantle it and sell it off, horse by horse. The city purchased it and it spent five years being restored in Ohio, before returning to Coney Island and its brand new, shining, neon-encrusted pavilion right next to the Parachute Jump.

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Photo by Todd Heisler/The New York Times

I was there too early to see it in action, but I’ll be back. I grew up near a wonderful old public carousel in Bushnell Park in Hartford, Connecticut, and so I’ve always appreciated the whimsy of a standalone amusement ride. Next to the glitz and flash of Coney Island’s attractions, the B&B Carousell won’t be quite so exciting as the lonely carousel in the park in Hartford, but I’m sure it’s just as charming. And I’m glad to see New York City welcoming a carousel back home, and adding it back onto its roster.

Summer Streets: Putting the Park in Park Avenue

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Last Saturday, I got up early and headed into Manhattan to play on Park Avenue as part of Summer Streets, three consecutive Saturdays when the city shuts down motor vehicle traffic on nearly 7 miles of Park Avenue from the Brooklyn Bridge to Central Park. Instead of the whir of engines and the smell of exhaust, the streets are full of the sounds of bicycle bells and feet on the pavement.

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I joined the pedestrian traffic heading north at 23rd Street. There was a steady stream of people, even at about 7:30 am, and many organizations were present to teach people about bike safety, give out samples of food and energy drinks, and help out with our new bikeshare program, Citi Bike. There were many bicyclists, runners, and training teams, as well as a fair number of people just out to enjoy the morning with a leisurely walk, like me.

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One of the major draws for me was the Voice Tunnel, an interactive art installation in the Park Avenue Tunnel. Running from 33rd to 40th Streets, the tunnel is usually closed to pedestrians. For Summer Streets, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer created a light and sound installation where visitors record messages at the center of the tunnel that are then played on speakers synchronized with spotlights at about 10 foot intervals throughout the tunnel. It’s loud in the tunnel, with variable lighting conditions and moments of total darkness that can be very disorienting. However, the chance to walk through the tunnel was enough of a draw for me, and the artwork was an interesting bonus.

The Park Avenue Tunnel was originally built to carry the New York and Harlem Railroad, and then a streetcar line. Originally an open channel, the tunnel was roofed over in the 1850s with granite from the original railroad track below 14th Street. Now, it carries one lane of northbound automobile traffic.

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Emerging from the tunnel at 40th Street, I continued on the elevated roadway up to and around Grand Central Terminal. The facade of Grand Central is lovely and detailed, but because of the elevated roadway it’s usually impossible to really get a good look at it. Luckily, during Summer Streets, you can.

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I walked up to 60th Street, where I got on the subway back out to Queens. Summer Streets will be happening again tomorrow and next Saturday, with 7 miles of streets to explore, rest stops with activities for kids and adults alike, and a great opportunity to have enjoy a new perspective on familiar New York City streets. The event runs from 7 am to 1 pm, and you can get more info at the NYC website.

 

All the Island’s a Fair – Fête Paradiso on Governors Island

It seems sort of appropriate that most of the times I make Governors Island a destination, it’s for some kind of time-bending event – a game festival featuring a time travel agency, an 1860s baseball game, the Jazz Age Lawn Party (which I’ll be attending again next weekend! Stay tuned!). Governors Island lies between Manhattan and Brooklyn, and it feels like a place that time has passed by.

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Last weekend, while my sister was visiting, we ventured out to Governors Island to check out Fête Paradiso, a traveling Parisian carnival featuring museum-quality 19th- and 20th-century amusements. That you can actually ride.

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Nolan Park is a beautiful expanse of grass shaded by old, tall trees and surrounded by cheerful, bright yellow houses. A refreshment area under a large pavilion occupies the center of the space, with the amusements dispersed around it. There are attractions for kids and adults alike — more than one of the adults I saw on the high-speed dragon carousel looked like they were significantly more terrified than the kids!

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There was also this carnival game, which had to be manually cranked by an operator to open and close the targets’ mouths. Having worked in an amusement park in college, I was immediately grateful that the games all operated themselves with the push of a button after watching this man struggle with levers.

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One of my favorite things was this bicycle carousel, which may look familiar if you’ve seen “Midnight in Paris” (the only other one in the world was in the movie and lives at the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris). The rides were originally created to familiarize people with the mechanics of riding a bike when bicycles were first invented, and require rider participation in order to move.


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The idea of getting comfortable with a new technology by playing with it is hardly novel to most of us; the best way to learn a new piece of software is to just dig in with a fun project. However, I thought that the scale and publicness of the bicycle carousel (or Velocipides
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Fête Paradiso will be running weekends in Nolan Park from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm until September 29, and it is well worth a trip out to the island on its own. There are also usually a bunch of other things going on out on Governors Island — even if the real draw for you is just basking in the sun on an open patch of grass.

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Ferries leave from Manhattan and Brooklyn, or, for $4 per ride, you can take the East River Ferry up to Long Island City, Queens (we took a beautiful sunset trip, pictured above); more information is available from the Trust for Governors Island website.

Ghosts of the IRT Subway System

In case you’re feeling as braindead as I am this morning, a quick hit: footage of the NYC subway from 1905. The IRT subway (Short for Interborough Rapid Transit) opened in 1904 and ran from City Hall to 145th Street. This clip shows the train moving through several stations, with riders running to catch the train.

In 1940, the city took over operations of the IRT system, and it now operates as the A division of the NYC subway (lines 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and the Times Square/Grand Central Shuttle). In 1945, the IRT’s crown jewel, the City Hall station, was shut down. I checked it out with with the New York Transit Museum in 2011, and now you can stay on the downtown 6 train from the Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall stop as it makes its loop back around through the ghost station.

Beautiful Bronx Gardens: Wave Hill


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A few months ago, I made a list of New York City Things that I hadn’t gotten around to doing yet. My Brooklyn Bridge walk was on that list. Also on the list was a visit to one of New York City’s historic mansions and gardens. I’ve been to several houses that are part of the Historic Hudson Valley Estates, but was always interested in visiting one of the estates within the boundaries of New York City. On our way back from visiting family in Connecticut one Sunday, I finally got to cross that item off the list. Well, sort of.

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We visited Wave Hill in the Rosedale section of the Bronx, which is actually a botanical garden and cultural center. But there’s a big house! An interesting one, too. It was rented out to a variety of cool folks, most notably Bashford Dean, half of whose very large collection of arms and armor eventually made their way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his time at Wave Hill, he actually began a stone museum onto the mansion to house his collection, which was finished after his death. (He’s also the only person – so far! – to simultaneously hold positions at the American Museum of Natural History and the Met, which is pretty stinkin’ awesome.)

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Of course, when we went, the main house was just finishing up a two-year renovation, so we couldn’t see it. BUT, we wandered through an art exhibit at Glyndor Gallery, enjoyed a variety of greenhouses, and took in the gorgeous gardens in all their late Spring glory. It was a pretty perfect afternoon.

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Wave Hill is perched high above the Hudson, featuring sprawling grounds with a variety of landscaped areas to choose from. You can sit on the perfectly manicured lawn outside the main house, or traipse through leaves along a woodland trail. There is a picnic area, and when we were there I saw a few food trucks peddling their wares.

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All in all, although Wave Hill may not have technically quenched my thirst to wander through a New York City mansion, it was definitely worth a trip to the Bronx. And with free admission Saturdays from 9-12, it’s probably even worth splurging on a MetroNorth ticket to make your trip north a little faster. They are also open late on Wednesday evenings in the summer for sunset-gazing – I’m sure it’s beautiful with the view over the New Jersey Palisades. For more information, check out Wave Hill’s website. And if you make it up there, keep this warning sign in mind:

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Not creepy at all, Wave Hill. Nope.

An Overdue Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge

When the Brooklyn Bridge opened 130 years ago, it was a technological marvel – the longest suspension bridge in the world! – and people didn’t know if they could trust it. A few days after the bridge opened in May 1883, a rumor that the structure would collapse caused a stampede that killed 12 people. P.T. Barnum, ever the master showman, saw an opportunity to promote his circus, and renewed an offer –  already once turned down – to stage a spectacle on the bridge. This time, with the recent deaths and persistent mistrust of the bridge at top of mind, officials allowed him to. The following May, he marched 21 elephants, including that gentle giant, Jumbo the fucking elephant, across the Brooklyn Bridge.

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Look, I go to a lot of zoos, and that is one seriously huge elephant.
(Image from the collection of the Barnum Museum)

Obviously the Bridge is still standing, so we felt it safe to join the throngs crossing it by foot one beautiful spring day a month or so ago. Somehow, despite living here for the past few years, visiting the city many times before living here, and having worked in lower Manhattan several times each, neither of us had ever walked across the bridge. It was time to make like Jumbo the elephant.

A walk across the Brooklyn Bridge is just over a mile long, with a pedestrian walkway and bike lanes suspended above the car traffic. The views are lovely – the soaring towers of lower Manhattan on one side, Brooklyn looming straight ahead, and my favorite harbor bridge, the Manhattan Bridge (it’s true!), off to one side.

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Attached to many surfaces were Love Locks, or padlocks that couples attach to bridges while making a wish for everlasting love, and then throwing the key into the river. This is another reason not to eat anything anyone catches in New York City’s rivers: it probably has a key in its belly from one of these clowns.

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When we made it over to Brooklyn, we waited in line for half an hour to eat Grimaldi’s pizza (I hate waiting in line for things, but I will admit that this was absolutely worth the wait! There was a pizza-shaped hole in my heart, and Grimaldi’s filled it.) and then wandered into Brooklyn Bridge Park, where E and our friend D played catch on a tiny patch of unoccupied lawn.

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We wandered through Smorgasburg in the Tobacco Warehouse, and then headed back to the subway. This was, in all honesty, probably one of the most lamely touristy excursions we’ve ever made in the city (and I hope I’ve made it clear that I love doing touristy shit), but I admit it was fun. It’s always good to get a new perspective on your city, and a slow journey across a very large bridge is a really excellent way to do so.

I still feel like we maintained a bit of our insider cred, though. We stayed on the downtown 6 train after its last stop at the Brooklyn Bridge – City Hall station and looped on through the abandoned City Hall subway station to show our friend D. And the lights were on. So, I mean, that must count for something, no?

Transportation Remnants on National Train Day

Last Saturday, after a disappointing afternoon running errands in Manhattan, we descended into the subway system at Times Square to head home, and stumbled on an antique subway train on the tracks. The three-car train represented three different moments in the city’s subterranean history, and was full to brimming with excited passengers waiting for the doors to close and the journey to Grand Central Terminal on the shuttle line to begin. E and I deliberated for a moment before deciding a trip onboard was worth a slight detour from our route, and jumped into the R10 model car.

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 Saturday was National Train Day, and we had gone to Grand Central that morning hoping to see the “Parade of Trains,” a gathering of antique trains on some of the tracks in the station, including the 20th Century Limited. When we got there, the line to see the trains was 2-3 hours long, and they reportedly had to cut the line early to ensure that people in line would be able to get in. The antique subway train on the shuttle line was part of the festivities, but not a well-publicized one.

These chance encounters with historical objects are successful because they are surprising. In a city with as many layers of history as New York, it’s easy to forget about everything that has happened on the spot where you stand before you got here. Every day I walk on streets and work in buildings and ride through tunnels that are many, many decades old, and yet most of the time I’m more focused on what I need to pick up for dinner than I am thinking about the human drama that has played out on this set. And then I see a subway car from another era in a station that I regularly pass through, and it jars me out of the mundane.

Riding on a train allows you to understand it, and how it works, much better than looking at pictures, reading about them, or even boarding a train as it stands still. The conductors on Saturday were focused on running the trains, and there wasn’t any additional interpretive layer. Still, riders learned things firsthand: without air conditioning, subways were hot; they were noisy, because the windows were usually open to try to generate a breeze; for the same reason, they smelled; and riders in the past had a much more intimate experience with the subway tunnels thanks to those open windows.

At the New York Transit Museum (one of my favorite museums in a city of wonderful museums), you can board any of the trains I rode on Saturday as they stand inert on the tracks of a disused subway station-turned-museum. It’s a fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon, but it sort of feels like visiting ghosts in a forgotten place. Trains come alive when they are in motion. True, without interpretive labels you didn’t have the benefit of knowing when the trains were in service, or particulars about their design, technology, and construction, but most of those facts are immediately forgotten by all but the most devoted of train enthusiasts.

The NYTM takes several opportunities throughout the year to roll its stock onto the active tracks of the subway system and delight MTA riders. I have boarded the holiday “nostalgia train” in December, letting modern trains pass me on the platform while I waited anxiously for it to arrive, brandishing my camera gleefully as I rode to Rockefeller Center for some classic NYC holiday fun. But then, I planned my trip, and I felt like I was in on the joke. I loved watching the reactions of people on the platform as this ghost clambered into the station and people boarded a train they may have recognized from their childhoods. On Saturday, I got to experience that surprise and delight along with many of the other people on board the train.

I didn’t get to see the assembled trains at Grand Central, but I still got to celebrate National Train Day, and it was a lot of fun.