The New York City subway system is one of the most fascinating curiosities in a city full of mysteries. Miles of underground track shrouded in darkness, littered with abandoned stations and secret passageways — it’s a common object of desire for the urban explorers among us.
And, occasionally, New York City acknowledges the delightful mystery surrounding its 24-hour transportation system. The annual “Shopper’s Special” train line is a perfect example of this:
The train line, consisting of eight vintage NYC subway cars from several different eras, runs for a few weekends each year — from the Sunday after Thanksgiving to the end of the year, only on Sundays.
So what’d we do this past weekend? We got on the train and took a ride!
I got on at the Second Avenue stop in Manhattan -- the train runs between the Second Avenue stop in Manhattan and the Queens Plaza stop in Queens.
Even though we arrived at 12:30, there were already a bunch of people waiting -- some were clearly tourists, others were clearly New Yorkers.
A ton of people on the train were dressed in period-appropriate clothing. Of note, these are not paid actors.
The gentleman here in the white hat told me that he and his crew were going to a party afterward at Webster Hall, an event space/concert hall in Manhattan's East Village.
But you're here for the train, right? So was I! It arrived about 10 minutes ahead of its 1:03PM departure time -- plenty of time for photos!
Since the Shopper's Special line runs during the holidays, it's festooned with Christmas wreaths on the back and front:
While the train was stopped, people dressed in anachronistic clothing posed for photos next to the antique train cars:
Many of the advertisements on the first train car were from the 1940s, such as this advertisement for war bonds:
The cars are near-perfectly restored, from the metal 'straps' you can hang on, to the yellow-orange seats.
The light bulbs have all been replaced, and the ceiling fans are all running (pushing air out of the vents along the top of the car).
This car was built in 1932 by the American Car and Foundry company, so it's assuredly gotten some love in the past 80 years.
In addition to restoring the lighting and ventilation systems, the MTA also restored the station ID placard. Remember how there weren't always screens everywhere?
A lot of the fun is in the details. I couldn't stop gawking at every old advert, like this adorable Wrigley's ad:
There's something inherently more classy about calling it the 'City of New York' instead of just New York City, isn't there?
Nearly 100 years later, and the NYC subway is still running ads for New Yorkers (and tourists!) to visit Coney Island.
Some of the ads are for events long-passed, like this 'I Am An American Citizenship Day' -- an apparently free event in Central Park.
And yes, Citizenship Day is a real American holiday that you've probably never heard of (I certainly hadn't). It takes place on September 17 every year -- it serves to commemorate the signing of the US Constitution (on September 17, 1787). The holiday was originally called 'I Am An American Day,' which was celebrated during the 1940s; it became 'Citizenship Day' in the early 1950s. Probably not a bad idea considering America's history as a nation of immigrants.
To the next car! The Shopper's Special keeps the doors between cars open, so you can freely walk through its eight cars:
This is not a bathroom -- this is for subway operators, despite looking like some sort of nightmare prison:
The sliding doors were far less safe on these early trains. If you got caught in between, it felt like two metal doors were closing on you!
Despite the subway car being from the 1930s, advertisements in this car started erring toward the 1960s:
This older car looked a bit worse for wear -- the metal 'straps' were extra worn, and the fans were worryingly close to riders' heads:
And our friends dressed in vintage clothing made another appearance, classic photography gear in-hand:
The next car was far more modern, but that's not because it was built much more recently than the other cars:
The 'straps' were much newer, as was the lighting and the seats. This looked the closest to the modern NYC subway:
These cars ran through the 1970s -- some of the riders were discussing when they used to ride on these trains in NYC:
For the final car, another throwback to the 1930s (though the decoration on the interior is from the 1940s):
My final look into the train was perfectly representative of the bizarre mash-up of antique train cars with modern life: a woman, dressed in antique clothes, listening to music on her smartphone.
We arrived at the Queens Plaza stop not long after boarding at Second Avenue in Manhattan. Here's the Shopper's Special antique train line as it rides away, with one of the many passengers posing for a final pic:
The Shopper's Special train line runs every Sunday from 10AM to 4PM, starting at the Second Avenue stop in Manhattan and completing at the Queens Plaza stop in Queens. It runs along the F/M line, making a handful of stops on the way.
If you can't get there, don't worry too much -- the entire subway line is normally on display at the New York Transit Museum.