From the archives on the occasion of the original old cars of the Subte's A Line being retired yesterday.
Originally published February 2006 in the-vu.com
We all love trains--the waiting, the leaving, the whistles. Who can hear the distant “woo-woo” of a train without feeling something…a longing, nostalgia, the urge to hop on and leave your old life behind? Literature abounds with romantic train symbols: The Polar Express, Streetcar Named Desire, Train to Nowhere, The Last Train Home.The same for tunnels, which can be passages to somewhere mysterious and unknown. Aren’t the words, “secret tunnel” exciting? Tunnels are a metaphor of life and death? Mystery and secrets? The birth experience, with light and life at the end?
And when there are trains in tunnels, well, in the old movies Hollywood movies during the moral censorship days of the Hayes Code, when a train went into a tunnel, the audience knew the stars were having sex.
Most people don’t find the subway so romantic. But taking the A line of the Buenos Aires subway is usually an opportunity for me to be transported to realms other than the stations of Peru, Piedras and Pasco.
The “A” line is the oldest in the Buenos Aires subway system, or Supte. Construction began in 1911 and opened to the public in 1913. It’s a short line of only 13 stations, beginning from the Plaza de Mayo. There the President’s Pink House and the Cathedral sit at right angles around a plaza full of history, monuments, protests, and souvenir stands hawking blue and white Argentine flags.
A couple of cars have been replaced, but generally when I ride to my Castellano class or to church, I take one of the original wooden cars. At times it’s almost a mystical ride, especially early in the morning or late at night. As I sit on the wooden slat benches, the train rocks me from side to side, the rings hanging from the ceiling swing hypnotically. The original incandescent lighting is still in use in old-fashioned glass shades, and the light glows on the wood, brass and beveled mirrors. These original cars have windows at both ends so you can see right through to the next car or to the black tunnel you have just left or into the one you are entering. The world up top seems so far away.During the day, cars passing over the grills on the street above, make daylight come and go as the train rumbles along in the dark tunnel.
Light in tunnels is a strong metaphor. During a series of site-specific dance performances in Los Angeles by Collage Dance Theater in the year 2000, abandoned subway tunnels from the 20’s were used in the work, SubVersions. A brilliant idea full of symbolism, dancers dug through rubble for lost hope, and waltzed as phantoms through the elegant art deco Terminal building. Finally they built a makeshift boat full of happy passengers waving goodbye, which was borne on shoulders, down the dark tunnel until its light disappeared.
Because tunnels are so appealing, wise businessmen around the world put the lure of exploring history underground to good use. In Seattle, Washington, a popular tourist attraction is a walking tour of the subterranean tunnels under Pioneer Square, once the main roadways and ground-floor storefronts of old downtown.
The abandoned silver mine shaft in Zacatecas, Mexico, was turned into an amusement park-type of attraction with an underground disco. Patrons take the old mine train from the entrance and pass the centuries old chapel with flowers and burning candles still honoring the miners who lost there lives there underground.
In Paris, tourists line up to explore the Catacombs, and not too long ago they also went on underground sewer tours.
Here in Buenos Aires are forgotten old tunnels as well. El Zanjón de Granados, on Defensa in San Telmo, is 150 meters of tunnels, 4 meters wide, dating from the beginning of the 19th century. And under the Manzana de las Luces are Jesuit tunnels even older.
I’m not a spelunker, or cave explorer. I don’t belong to any narrow gauge or steam train club. I don’t search out the roller coasters of the world. I’m not about to climb into an old well or abandoned mineshaft.
I’m just going to keep on taking the A Train. It’s not hard to imagine, as the train appears from nowhere in the station, that the next stop is somewhere ethereal and strange. I take my seat and vanish into history.