August 31, 2018: Everyone's Secret

Thank you once again to everyone who contributed to the Signal Problems fundraising drive! I had to end it earlier than planned because I sold out of totes. Speaking of, quick update on that: the totes are on their way from the manufacturer. I’ll let you know when I receive them and start sending them out.


Some time in the early 1980s, although he can’t recall exactly when, Bill Brand witnessed something spectacular on the subway. This was rare in the early 1980s, as the subway was a decidedly unspectacular place. There were 20 derailments in 1983, for example, and the subway averaged one fire per day. Crime was a high, ridership was low, and graffiti slathered every available car surface.

Which is what made this particular event all the more wondrous. “I saw a man with a saxophone wearing a ping pong ball antennae hat,” Brand wrote to me with what is obviously a very good start to any story, “announce (like Sun Ra) that he was from outer space and that he was collecting money to repair his space ship. To prove his point, he said, he'd create an illusion out the window.”

As it happened, the train was just passing the Masstransiscope, an art installation Brand himself created in 1980, which utilizes an abandoned station platform just north of the Dekalb Ave B/Q stop to form a moving image. Brand, an experimental filmmaker, describes the animation as “starting out with the fundamental abstract shape of a circle that gets enveloped by these lines, the circle explodes, and on and on. Eventually [there’s] a mushroom, and a rocket ship.” In other words, precisely the type of illusion a man wearing a ping pong ball antennae hat might conjure.

The panels with the images are inside a 300-foot box. Facing the track, the box has tiny, half-inch slits with lights on either side. Thanks to refurbishments in 2008 and 2013, the panels are still crisp and easily visible from the train.

The B/Q is my line, so I pass the Masstransiscope frequently. But lately, I feel like I haven’t been viewing it in its full-motion glory as often as I used to. Because the Masstransiscope is right before the Dekalb Ave interlocking, one of the most complicated merges in the entire system that often causes trains to slow or stop, I wondered if this might be a sign the subway isn’t running as smoothly as it used to. I figured Brand would know.

Brand said I was not quite right. In fact, he took the interlocking’s design and the signal placement into consideration when making Masstransiscope. “I’ve always liked how the illusion breaks down revealing the mechanisms (the slits and painted frames) that make it work.” This makes me appreciate it all the more. How fitting the art installation on the subway “breaks down” so as to reveal the mechanisms of the parts.

In order to test how the Masstransiscope would look in the tunnel, Brand built a working model called a maquette in his studio. This allowed him to vary the speed, simulating how trains speed up and slow down at that particular junction. (The maquette is on display at the Museum of the City of New York through September 23.)

The maquette. Photo by Aaron Gordon

Brand doesn’t visit Masstransiscope much anymore, maybe only a few times a year. But he did attempt to see it last week with a friend visiting from Paris, only to make the journey from Queens to find out the Q was running along the R and thus not passing his creation. But he gets regular reports from friends who pass it daily, letting him know from time to time that everything is still in good order.

The exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York featuring the maquette is titled “Art in the Open.” It’s a title more apt for the other exhibits, because Masstransiscope is very much not in the open. It’s a sly, fragile work. Turn off the lights and it ceases to exist. Run the train at different speeds and the affect varies. Stare down at your phone or book for too long and you might miss it. Those who do catch it tend to experience it in solitary wonder. As Brand himself put it in the promotional video for the exhibit, it’s “everyone’s secret. Everyone knows about it, but it feels like they take it as their own.”

This is why Masstransiscope is my favorite subway art. We’re all living in our own little worlds on the subway, plugged in or otherwise transported by book or thought to a distant place. We may be adjacent, but we are not close. We’re all looking out the window at our own abstract ball mushroom rocket ship.

“By the way,” Brand added in his email to me as a word of advice, “if you sit in the last car, the train will generally stop before you pass by Masstransiscope. If you go in the front car, it generally makes it past the last image before it stops.” He prefers a middle car, so the train stops just between the first and second sections of the animation. Maybe, with a little bit of luck, you’ll spot Ping Pong Ball Antennae Hat Man. If you do, don’t forget to chip in to his spaceship repair fund.

News You Probably Can't Use, But About Which You Can Certainly Brood

  • If you’ve noticed an abundance of signal/switch problems on the 7 recently, you’re not alone. Last Thursday and Friday (8/23 and 8/24), for example, a switch just north of Hudson Yards was misbehaving for several consecutive rush hours, delaying and cancelling hundreds of trains. For whatever reason, it wasn’t properly fixed overnight, because around 6:30 AM on 8/24, the same switch broke again. The incident report notes that the switch had been “giving them trouble” the previous day. In the end, they had to turn trains at Times Square and reduce service in order to repair the switch in the middle of a weekday.

  • The BQX, de Blasio’s proposed light-rail between Brooklyn and Queens, is the transit project that won’t die. I’m writing about this for next week so I’m not going to say too much here just yet, but: it’s very difficult to see what need this addresses, not to mention how it would be better than other options. And that’s without even considering the price tag.

  • Cathedral Parkway station will re-open this weekend. Rejoice!

  • Cuomo and Nixon debated on Wednesday, and Dave Colon and I live-blogged it for the Village Voice. As you will be able to detect reading the live blog, I found the debate very frustrating. Cuomo repeated many of the same falsehoods or deliberately misleading statements about the MTA that he has said before. Gothamist broke many of them down nicely, but I want to highlight one particularly noteworthy remark. Cuomo claimed: “On the MTA, you’re really referring to the New York City Transit Authority, which is the subway system. It has been declining for decades.” He leaned particularly heavily into the “New York City” part.
    First of all, NYCT is within the MTA (it’s officially called “MTA New York City Transit”). I highly doubt LIRR riders would concede that only NYCT is having issues, nor would anyone concerned about the astronomical construction costs, which are not controlled by NYCT. Anyways, he only said this because it makes it sound like a city-run entity. It’s not. It’s also not just the subway system. It’s the buses (which suck too, by the way), and paratransit (which sucks the most). Also, the subway has not been “declining for decades.” In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The subway may have been in the best shape ever when Cuomo inherited it, in terms of performance and rider comfort, with an On-Time Performance of about 90 percent, an historical high water mark.
    All of this is particularly noteworthy because Larry Schwartz, an MTA board member, was on Cuomo’s debate team helping him prep. These are two of the most influential people when it comes to the MTA (and many other things besides), and their strategy is to come out with well, actually it’s the New York City Transit Authority, not the MTA. It’s just another reminder this is a game for them.

  • On the other side of the isle, Marc Molinaro, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, has (finally) released his plan to fix the MTA. It is the most detailed and comprehensive plan put forth by any candidate so far and the only one to significantly wrestle with the MTA’s astronomical construction costs. I have concerns about several aspects of it, but he is pro-Byford, pro-congestion pricing, anti-Lhota, wants to expand Fair Fares, and fund the Fast Forward Plan. Of course, these plans always sound fine on paper, but the devil is in every single one of the details. For example, “we should renegotiate union contracts so they work for everyone” or propose lowering the MTA’s health care costs are easy ways to write off extremely difficult issues. But, if nothing else, it proves his staff aides are better at smooshing together the Fast Forward Plan and various Regional Plan Association reports than the other candidates’ staff aides.

  • NY1 made a video about taking the subway to the beach, for some reason, probably the same reason there are so few links this week.

In Which I Make An Educated Guess About When Things Will Get Better

This week's estimate: June 2022

Change log:

May 25, 2018: June 2022

March 30, 2018: 2030

March 16, 2018: 2024

February 2, 2018: 2021

January 20, 2018: 2020

Your Upcoming Service Advisories, Provided by Lance from Subway Weekender

Note: the service advisories reflect the most disruptive changes. Be sure to check the maps or the MTA website for a full list of service changes.

Weekend:

  • 1 – No service between 14 Street and South Ferry

  • 2 – No service between E 180 Street and 135 Street

  • 5 – No service between E 180 Street and 149 St-Grand Concourse

  • D – No service between 34 St-Herald Sq and Atlantic Av

  • E – All service runs via F line between Roosevelt Av and 2 Avenue

  • J – No service between Hewes St and Broad St

  • M – No service between Myrtle Av-Broadway and Essex St

  • N – All service is local in Brooklyn

Late Nights:

  • 2 – No service between 3 Av-149 St and 135 Street

  • 3 – No service

  • A – All service is express-only in Manhattan

  • D – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via C and F lines between 59 St-Columbus Circle and Coney Island

    • All service is local-only in Manhattan

  • E – No service between Briarwood and Jamaica Center

  • F – multiple diversions

    • All service runs via Q and D lines between Lexington Av and Coney Island

    • All service is local-only in Queens

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

David Roth’s Esteemed Subway Rider of the Week

“I was kind of disappointed by the people I saw around the last couple days. It was really hot and mostly everyone just looked tired. Myself included in that, obviously. But I did see something good. A little kid was with her mom, wearing a big shoulder bag. In it she had a stuffed dog, stowed and carried more or less the way that people are required to carry dogs by the MTA. It was what first drew my eye to it, as a dog-looker. But the dog sticking its head out of the kid's bag was a plush toy. It was like a scale rendering of the usual dog-on-train scene, without the actual dog. I thought it was nicely disruptive.”

Dog in a Bag

MTA Rules of Conduct Section 1050.9 Subsection (h) Paragraph 2: no person may bring any animal on or into any conveyance or facility unless enclosed in a container and carried in a manner which would not annoy other passengers.

Have a dog in a bag photo? Reading this on the subway and see a dog in a bag? Take a picture and send it to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photo by Jaime Green

This has been another edition of Signal Problems, a weekly newsletter helping you figure out what is going on with the subway, made every week by Aaron Gordon, freelance transportation reporter. Read on the web or view the archives at signalproblems.nyc.

If you’re enjoying this newsletter, please share it with others. It’s the best way you can say thanks.

As always, send any feedback, subway questions, or Dog in a Bag photos to aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you. As someone on a stalled Q train once told me, we’re all in this together.