The Further Importance of Being First

A distant voice rises in protest: one more tunnel, one last trolley, one final shot at history

Because I live in retirement in Mountain View, California, 3500 miles from the distribution of New Times, I ordinarily do not read your publication, but Robert Andrew Powell's June 15 article, "The Importance of Being First," was sent for my perusal and comments. [The article detailed the passion shared by, and the rivalry between, brothers Omero Catan and Michael Katen for being first in line at openings and historical occasions.]

That nineteen columns would be devoted to the exploits of two brothers who are jealous of each other and are feuding over events that took place over the past 67 years would indicate that there is not much of interest taking place out there on the Florida peninsula, except perhaps an occasional hurricane, which also creates a lot of wind. I am sure that your readers will hang on tenterhooks waiting to see who will win this battle of the egos. It might even be more exciting than the soap operas.

I am the third person in this article, identified by name and as an "unemployed nineteen-year-old laundry worker" in 1938. Only the name is correct. The truth is that I have never had a month without wages since 1937.

The difference between the brothers and me is that Omero was looking for publicity by leading a parade of patrons, drivers, or some other segment of the public into using a new tunnel, bridge, subway, parking meter, ice skating rink, or perhaps a new toilet facility somewhere in greater New York City. But I, too, have my share of "firsts," as well as some "lasts."

An enthusiast of public transportation, I am the third generation in my family to serve the public on horse cars, trolley cars, elevated trains, subway trains, cable cars, and rapid transit in Atlanta, Brooklyn, New York, Oakland, and San Francisco from 1890 on. I am retired from both East Coast and West Coast transit systems and, to my knowledge, am the only retired person allowed to ride free for the rest of my life on the subways of New York and on the cable and streetcars of San Francisco.

My first time at being first was in April 1937, when the new Independent Eighth Avenue subway opened its extension to Jamaica, Queens. As a boy selling magazines in Queens County, I often spent time looking down into the construction of this line and I hoped someday to ride the first train. Whether Mr. Catan was thwarted by my being first at the turnstiles and returned home, I have no idea; we had not yet met. But he was first at other points as the subway inched its way out of the city.

After the subway opened but before the opening of the Marine Parkway Bridge connecting Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, and Rockaway, Queens, I first met Omero, on July 1, 1938. He impressed me as a fine, handsome gentleman who amazed me by his ability to walk along and spot four-leaf clovers, which he added to his collection. At the bridge opening, Omero paid the first auto toll from Brooklyn, while I paid the first toll from Queens. After all, the traffic was opening for both directions so it was equal honor for both of us.

Around this time I began my love affair with trains and trolley cars. Electric-powered trolleys were being denounced as "old-fashioned and slow, blocking the way of the motorist" and needed to be replaced by "modern, sleek" buses. The fact is that buses belched out poisonous fumes, had narrow aisles and low ceilings and were driven by operators whose eventual demise would come from pothole-induced kidney ailments. Trolley companies across America were being bought out cheaply by General Motors, whose publicity experts extolled the virtues of the omnibus. Within twenty years, only six cities in America still used trolleys.

In my opinion, the public was being taken for a ride not of their choosing. The nation would eventually regret eliminating electricity from its streets and relying instead on foreign oil. Realizing that the trolley would no longer be seen, I began riding the final cars on many lines and so became a "last" passenger many times. There were no news photographers or reporters around to record this momentous change in transportation, but that didn't deter me from riding those final cars into history.

On New Year's Eve of 1937, I passed up a party to pay the last fare on the old New York, Westchester and Boston Railway that operated from the South Bronx to New Rochelle. Today that line is the Dyre Avenue line of the IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit) subway.

When the Lincoln Tunnel was scheduled to open on December 22, 1937, Catan and I were parked on opposite sides of the Hudson, he in Weehawken and I in Manhattan. Because the toll booths were on the New Jersey side only, he paid the first toll from there and I came through in record time to pay it from New York. I was given a beautiful clipping book from the Port Authority of New York as well as a bronze medal engraved with my name and what I had done. Whether Omero received the same I do not know. Several days after the opening, we both appeared on the WEAF-NBC radio show Energine Newsreel, although he was not happy sharing the limelight with me. I was also filmed waiting for the opening by the Fox Movietone newsreel.

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