Celebrating a century of subway

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Stan Fischler is giving a tour of his subterranean playground.

"You know these trains sing, right?" Fischler, "the hockey maven," asks with a twinkle as a downtown express No. 2 train closes its doors at the 96th Street IRT subway station.

Fischler knows things. Things forgotten, things overlooked, and things just plain weird.

And then, just after the doors chime closed and as the subway edges forward, the wheels emit a high-pitched whine that by some freak of friction clearly hits the first three notes of the second line in the ballad "Somewhere" from "West Side Story."

Who would have figured? The answer is implicit in a grin through a well-trimmed white beard. Stan Fischler, 72, hockey writer, television analyst and subway aficionado, has written six books on subways, trains and trolleys, with the latest published over the summer in honor of the New York subway's 100th anniversary on Oct. 27.

While he knows subways, he's famous for hockey. A Brooklyn native, Fischler has written more than 90 books on hockey during a print and broadcast career spanning more than 50 years.

"Stan is an institution," says Kara Yorio, a hockey writer for Sporting News. "Like him or dislike him, hockey's not the same without Stan around."

There are those who contend the hockey maven is a cantankerous old coot - rife with unpopular opinions and quick to assert them. They could be correct.

He's the kind of guy who would argue with that statement not so much because he doesn't agree with it, but because agreement would end a potentially interesting discussion. And who could argue with that?

So ask Shirley - his wife for the past 36 years and his co-author on more than 15 hockey books - how they get along as married collaborators, and she pleads ignorance. "I have no idea how we do it," she says. "We're both foul-tempered, evil-mouthed, stubborn and controlling."

But his passions and opinions - the same contentious pronouncements hockey fans love to hate - are not limited to the action on the ice. They are equally strong for subjects under the streets of New York.

Fischler's quirky affinity for the city's mass transit began early and grew like the system itself. In 1935, when Fischler was 3, he walked out of his three-story brownstone at 532 Marcy Ave. in Williamsburg to find a crew of workers digging up the street.

Before long, the GG line ran directly beneath his bedroom. "I'd have my head on the pillow, the train would brake, and I could hear the doors opening and closing," he says. "And those doors are not loud!"

"It was soothing to me," he says with a straight face. "Like music."

Fischler, who played drums in a series of jazz bands gigging around the Catskills and the city in the early 1950s, can find music everywhere.

He hears the clickety-clack of subway wheels over rail joints as imitating Gene Krupa's drumming in "China Boy." He recalls that the sharp curves on the GG line to Manhattan squeal "C over high C, like a soprano going as high as she could go."

He can distinguish the clacking of older tracks laid over gravel beds and the steady hum of newer ones over concrete. He loves the sounds of switches, of entering and leaving tunnels, and of hairpin turns.

Apparently the best sounds occur on the old Brighton BMT Line, as he reminisces about rumbling down the Beverly Road curve with the sliding window open in front, his face hanging outside, wind through his hair, every sound - with no reverb off the walls - distinct and unmuffled.

Like many New Yorkers in the 1930s and '40s, his father, Ben, a paint and putty factory worker, and mother, Molly, never owned a car. The family always traveled by subway or trolley.

Stan first went to Newark alone by train when he was 6 years old, and although he was given a Lionel electric train set when he was 7, he didn't see much need for model trains. The New York City subway system was his toy.

His youthful sense of wonder permeates his subway writing. His first book on the subway, "The Subway: A Trip Through Time on New York's Rapid Transit" (originally published in 1976 as "Uptown, Downtown: A Trip Through Time on New York's Subways" and now in its seventh printing) remains widely referenced.

Charles Sachs, senior curator at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn Heights, considers it one of four useful books on the city's subway system. "While not necessarily a scholarly work, it's a very valuable, basic reference for a popular audience," he says.

Fischler is the first to admit that what fascinated him are not the trains but the sights, sounds and people.

His subway books offer reviews of lines like they are rides at the county fair and provide personal stories that solidify the hold subways have on this city. "People have enormous nostalgia for the subway," Sachs says. "They can associate key moments in their own life with moments in the subway's history."

Fischler's new book, "The Subway and the City: Celebrating a Century," published by Frank Merriwell Books, has chapters titled "Going to Canarsie" and "Going to the Garden," with half of the material devoted to personal experiences heading to those and other destinations. "It's the greatest subway book possible," Fischler says without any shame for his boast.

Yet he believes his 100-year- old toy is in danger of losing its allure. The Metropolitan Transit Authority's newer trains feature an engineer's cab that stretches the width of the lead car.

There's no room for an extra seat. No room for a subway buff. "It makes no sense," Fischler says, as though personally insulted. "What does the motorman need all that space for? Is he going to lie down and take a nap?"

While mostly supportive of the MTA, Fischler does have his gripes. "They're like the National Hockey League," he says. "They're trying to do the right thing, but because they are what they are, they screw up."

For example, after two trains crashed on the Williamsburg Bridge in 1995, killing an operator and injuring dozens of passengers, the MTA began enforcing orders to slow trains, reducing top speeds to 40 mph.

Trains have run fast for decades, Fischler says, and he insists there's no reason to change. "It's not an overreaction," he says. "It's an over, over, over, overreaction."

Starting the tour riding a downtown No. 1 train from his stop at 110th Street and looking out the front window of the older train, Fischler mocks the amber tunnel lights that instruct the conductor to crawl through a gradual bend. "Wow-ee- wow, oy vey," he says. "Do you think we'll make that curve? That was a close call."

The sarcasm, however, is not typical of this outing. It's an abbreviated version of his standard tour, one that was auctioned for $650 at a New Jersey Devils fund-raiser in March.

Sipping a Diet Coke that subs for dinner, he hops from train to train and station to station with the enthusiasm of someone unveiling overlooked treasures.

At Columbus Circle, he points out tiles depicting Columbus' ships, the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. He drops his hand to cue the precise moment a stopped train releases its air brakes to make the familiar chsssssssh sound.

In the Times Square station, he explains that the sealed door labeled "Knickerbocker" once led up to the Knickerbocker Hotel and that in the 1940s, there were colored lights on the ceiling to direct riders to the different lines. When he sees a couple on a train scrutinizing a map, he asks, "Where do you want to go?"

And then there's always the frustrating fun of monitoring the apparent war between the express and the local. He cites the habit of an express train to exit the station just as a local arrives - or even soon afterward so that those seeking a transfer are greeted by doors sliding shut in their faces.

"It happens too often to be ignored," Fischler says. "Like these guys go to conductor school just to learn how to screw the local."

Fischler never went to conductor school, although it crossed his mind as a child. He remembers shoveling snow at age 5 when a neighbor asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. "A subway motorman," he said.

The neighbor called him crazy. Told him they only make $35 a week. Stan walked away thinking, "Wow, $35 a week, I'd do it for nothing."

Now, 67 years later, and back in his Morningside Heights apartment, Fischler eats cottage cheese and hummus while sitting in a rusty barber chair. And he ponders the track not taken. "I still think about it," he says. "I wonder if they have an age limit. I wonder if I would get bored doing it."

Evidence of a life lived without much boredom fills a small, cluttered study in the back of his 10th-floor apartment in a building where he and Shirley, 64, have lived for 32 years. It's a room comfortable with the past.

About 40 battered hockey sticks lean in a corner, stamped with such names as [Chico] Resch and [Wayne] Gretzky. An Egyptian army helmet found on the side of the road during the 1967 Six Day War with Israel rests on the radiator.

Emmy Awards for broadcast features in 1988 and 1999 sit on a shelf. A third one, awarded for a piece on a blind hockey fan, rests as a gift on a shelf in her house in New Jersey.

Springs from a LIRR train adorn the bookcase near an old sign from the New Lots Avenue IRT stop, a looped metal subway handhold serves as a paperweight.

Fischler graduated Brooklyn College and worked briefly as a New York Rangers publicist in the 1950s.

He wrote for the Brooklyn Eagle and the New York Journal-American between 1955 and '66 before serving as a bureau chief for the Toronto Star, 1966-77.

He began broadcasting games for the World Hockey Association's New England Whalers in '73 on a reporting team that included his wife, the first woman to cover the NHL. Fischler claims he was so hated in Boston that he was told by team management, not entirely jokingly, to leave for his own protection.

In 1975, he returned to cover New York-area hockey. In 1992 he launched "The Fischler Report," a weekly newsletter for hockey insiders.

He earned a master's degree in education from Long Island University and has taught feature writing at Columbia University, Fordham University and Queens College. Shirley Fischler notes that interns who've helped him through the years, some who have become prominent in hockey circles, still keep in touch. "Although I don't know why," she says. "He's so abusive."

His introduction to hockey, naturally, involved the subway. In 1939, his father took 7-year-old Stan to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at the Globe Theater. They exited the IND station at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue into pouring rain.

Ben Fischler decided to duck into a minor league game between the New York Rovers and Washington Eagles at the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden.

His heart set on seeing Happy, Sneezy, Dopey et al., Stan was annoyed at the change of plans. "My father was rooting for the Rovers in red, so I rooted for Washington in white and picked out this blond player, Normie Burns, who looked like the Lone Ranger to me. Turns out he got three goals, Washington won, my father lost, and I was thrilled."

Fischler hasn't stopped watching hockey since. He is best known these days for playing devil's advocate on the New Jersey Devils and New York Islanders hockey broadcasts for the MSG and Fox Sports networks.

On the ice, on the air or on the tracks, Fischler can slip into different skins. When I first met him, he answered the door with accommodating good cheer, wearing a white cotton undershirt and sweatpants after speed-walking off jet lag acquired while returning from playing the bongos at a son's wedding in Israel.

That night Stan answered questions with zeal while sipping coffee from a faded mug. He gamboled over to demonstrate a rusty and peeling green controller from a train on his childhood GG line, turning the black knob as though he expected the apartment to pitch forward.

"I resent the fact that they deducted one 'G' from my line," he said. "I think they're storing one extra 'G' in the basement somewhere."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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