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Notes from Underground

By Lewis Clayton

For people in Wigglesworth the 12:45 train into Harvard Square is an annoying shudder coming up from the basement. But for a small group of fanatics, the 12:45 is a sacred institution. These are the subway freaks--the guys who tape small maps of the MBTA to their wristwatch bands, who let three trains pass until they get the right car, who make tape recordings of the Muzak at the Park Street station.

The subway freaks have discovered that subways are great places to meet and watch people, study, hang out, or most importantly--get to know cities. Heaven for the subway freak is certainly New York, with its 26 lines, hundreds of miles of tracks, and an around-the-clock schedule. The MBTA system is pretty small by comparison--it has only four lines, and closes down before 1 a.m., eliminating the best hours for hanging out, but the Boston subways have a certain spirit of their own which merits the attention of even the most crazed Brooklyn BMT addict.

With its big, roomy cars, extensive use of trolleys and elevated lines, and its wide, solid platforms, the MBTA has a hometown, airy style of its own. Even if New Yorkers laugh at the sight of trolleys impersonating subways in the underground stations of the Green Line, the MBTA is still worthy of exploration.

The Red Line.

The best place to begin an investigation of Boston's subways, especially if you're starting from Harvard, is the Red Line, which runs from Harvard Square to Ashmont, Quincy and Mattapan. The Red Line is Boston's most basic subway from the aesthetic point of view. There are no frills (except for the new cushion-seat cars which are the pride of the system)--the Red Line specializes in gutsy subway travel. There are long stretches of dark tunnel, heavy use of underground stations, and a quick, noisy speed between stations. The Red Line is best for deep reflection, or watching people. Of all the lines, it manages to collect the most interesting groups of people--combining Central Square freaks, Harvard and MIT students, and middle-class whites from the end of the line in Field's Corner and Ashmont.

But what makes the Red Line is the ride over the river, featuring an unobstructed view of the Boston skyline and the Charles basin, surpassing any of the river views of the New York system. The sights are especially good at night. Another important feature of the Red Line is the towering wooden escalator at South Station, one of the most humbling rides in the Boston area. While you're at South Station, walk out into Dewey Square and take a good look at the station itself--from a block and a half away, it's a very impressive sight.

Other winning facets of Red Line travel include the famous gas tank painting, which may be spied by gazing leftward after the Savin Hill stop. At the edge of the water stands a huge receptacle owned by Boston Gas, where a spacy artist named Corita was hired to make the tank more "colorful." Intentionally or not, she came up with a few broad paint strokes--the blue one, at a good examining glimpse, is a profile of none other than Ho Chi Minh, with his wispy beard curling to a point at the bottom. Later, at the Ashmont-to-Mattapan extension, the rickety track guides the only subway to the world to run through a cemetary. On the way back, sitting in the front of one of the red-striped, gift-wrapped cushion cars, subway freaks like to watch the speedometer of the future--which operates like an electrical scoreboard, flashing each number one by one, faster and faster until the car hits its stride.

The problem with the Red Line is that it lacks dash; its outdoor stops at the southern end of the line are too sterile and ordinary to get away from a suburban sense of blandness. What would most improve the Red Line is a change-over to a new type of car which would allow riders to look out the front. This would maximize the line's basic underground strengths.

The Green Line

The Green Line's problem is that it really isn't a subway at all. It's more a glorified trolley line and its crowded, jerky electrified buses can't compare with the sleek trains of the other lines. And it's a shame too, because the Green Line has some of the best stations and routes in the system. The Copley Square station is probably the best looking from the outside, with its iron grillwork, blending well with the general atmosphere of the Square.

Boylston Street is run-down, and too large, but the Arlington stop is a winning effort. Arlington's walls feature some crazy line-shot murals of Boston landmarks--their chief virtue being that they are placed on an angle, therefore forcing you to crane your neck. The Green Line's Riverside extension is the only subway line in America that stops so golfers can pick up their stray golf balls. Drivers on the Green Line need great dexterity--kids usually line the bridges atop the line and hail rocks down on the big green sitting ducks. The best couple of jobs in town are owned by the men who direct the second car on the two trolley hook-ups. These guys are dying to talk with you if you are willing to first brave the white stripes on the floor of the car which are supposed to stop you from bothering him.

The Green Line manages to bring together a good group of people--mixing theater and movie people from Prudential and Symphony with a more rowdy crowd from Kenmore Square. And there is a wonderful feeling of gloomy expectation that you get on a weekday night at about 11 p.m. waiting alone at Symphony or Auditorium. What the Green Line needs is some subway cars, at least for the underground routes. If you are in the back of a Green Line car when its old rusty wheels make their hairpin turn from Park St. into Boylston station, hold your ears--the pain is excruciating, especially if your driver decides to break the six mph speed limit.

The Blue Line

The Blue Line is the baby of the system, a spur from downtown out to the Revere area, with only 12 stops of its own. The line has a suburban feel to it, because of its new stations with their shiny benches and photographic murals. For most college students, it serves as a link to the airport, ferrying people into the Green and Orange Lines.

The Blue Line does have the most romantically named station--Wonderland--and its cars are ancient, but somehow winning. After Maverick, it's all elevated, and there's a Queens-like ride along the beach. Ride the Blue Line on a hot day and be sure to stop off at Revere Beach, the best thing on the coast this side of Coney Island. The Blue Line's Government Center station is the most avant garde in town, having been decked out in Bicentennial garb for about two years before everything else in Boston.

The Orange Line

The Orange Line is, without doubt, the class of the Boston system. From Everett in the north to Forest Hills in the south, it's a pageant of all that's possible in a subway line. The Orange Line's forte is the variety of city views which it provides. Its heart is the finest station in the system, Washington Street. Washington Street is truly a big city station--it's one of those big city features which Boston has even though it's really a pretty small place. Washington Street has long, broad corridors built for crowds, and platforms lined with windows from Filene's basement. Long rows of powerful orange columns split inbound and outbound platforms, and the sudden emergence upon the tracks from the long, psychedelicly-colored access corridor make Washington Street station an exciting place to be. All around is the sense of significant intercourse between the Orange and Red Lines, between them branding the city with a gigantic X. This is the place to hang out in Boston.

Moving south from Washington Street, the Orange Line cuts through a fascinating cross section of the city. After Essex, the Orange Line is elevated, and the old wooden trestle winds like a drunk through rows of three-deckers, sturdy brick houses with bay windows and modern subdivisions. Be sure to stand at the window in the front of the train next to the engineer's compartment so you can look right out on the tracks. You can chart rising land values by looking at how close new subdivisions come to the threstle--the closer the homes, the more expensive the lots are for the builder. The trestle neight offers excellent view of North Church, North Station and the Prudential development.

The Orange Line's other highlight is an elevated Dudley stop, with an inbound platform surrounded by the second story of Ferdinand's, an old department store and the remains of what was once a suburban shopping center. Now Dudley is considered urban, not suburban, and there is ironic humor in a large painted sign on one of Ferdinand's walls, which reads, in barely legible letters, "BOSTON HERALD--MOST NEWS."

In the final analysis, however, each subway freak chooses his own spot in the MBTA--and there are plenty to choose from. When I'm depressed, my favorite is the Central Square stop of the Red Line, when the last train of the night is due, and the station is deserted. A big iron monster takes the place of the turnstile after the man at the change booth has gone home for the night. On particularly bad nights, the iron monster will swallow your quarter and not allow you on the platform. But there is nothing in Boston that quite compares with the view from the 59th Street platform of the IND line in New York when the D train slides in marked "PEPE 125" in six-foot letters, three cars wide.

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