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.

There were no openings in 1938, but I was the last paying passenger on Manhattan's Sixth Avenue elevated line at midnight, December 4. I had pleaded with the Public Service Commission earlier that year to spare the railroad until the subway line being built beneath the structure could be completed, thereby providing continuous rapid transit services for the riding public. The money of Rockefeller and the politics of Mayor LaGuardia overcame any and all objections, and the train, like the trolley cars on that thoroughfare, passed into memory.

On to 1939. Waiting at the turnstiles of the World's Fair on April 29, I asked someone to guard my place while I made a short trip to College Point in order to be the last roundtrip passenger on the ferry from there to Clason Point, in the Bronx. This was the last East River ferry line. I then dashed back in line to become, after a 32-hour wait in cold weather, the first visitor to the Fair. Was Omero around to be the first motorist over the Bronx-Whitestone bridge, which replaced the ferry, or did his brother cover for him?

In August 1939, I was the first paying passenger at the Ely Avenue-21st Avenue station of the IND, the Independent subway line. I looked for Omero but he didn't show. Was he discouraged that I had beat him again? At this time the New York Sun wrote a story about my possibly replacing Mr. Catan as "Mr. First," since he was supposedly getting married around that time.

On May 31, 1940, I paid the last fare collected on the BMT (Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit) system from the famous Fulton Ferry on the Fulton Street elevated line; the system was being taken over by the City of New York. At Rockaway Avenue I was issued the first transfer between the old BMT and the new Eighth Avenue subway line. Later years saw me as an elevated train motorman on the remainder of the line to Lefferts Avenue and then as a motorman on the new Independent line to Rockaway and Far Rockaway.

Although I was in the army when the Sixth Avenue subway finally opened, I received a three-day pass to return to New York to be its first passenger on December 15, 1940. Fifteen years later I was running trains under Sixth Avenue from the Bronx to Coney Island, one of the longest runs in the New York City transit system. Twenty-two years later I was a subway dispatcher on this line, with a route just one block from Times Square.

After the war, I was an assistant theater manager and projectionist in a New England theater. Believing that the future of movies was bleak because of the introduction of television, I returned to New York and began work with my first love, as a Brooklyn trolley motorman. Gradually, as many of the lines were converted to buses, I had the distinction of operating most of the final trolleys over various lines in Flatbush, Coney Island, and downtown Brooklyn. As 68 years of railway service over the Brooklyn Bridge came to a close, I operated the last car over the span. The sign I had on the front of my car hangs today in my den.

As the old BMT elevated lines were torn down, I went underground. During my stint as subway motorman, I had the honor of operating the very first nonstop subway train in transit history when I carried several hundred racetrack commissioners from around the country who were in town for the reopening of Aqueduct, in Howard Beach, Queens. All other trains were sidetracked for me; I had orders to make the run from Times Square "as fast as safely possible." It was also the first rapid train to carry passengers to a track since 1907, when the racetracks were closed in New York State by Gov. Charles Evans Hughes, later Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

I was then promoted to yardmaster-dispatcher, in which post I remained until my retirement in 1969. When the Great Blackout occurred one night in 1965, I supervised the handling of thousands of people stuck in the Columbus Circle subway station who needed to reach the surface and find their way home. Keeping people calmed down until crews came along with ladders to help them leave the darkened cars was a trying experience. The elderly I took by their hands or arms and walked them along the catwalks, telling them that my wife would be furious if she found out I was holding hands with a woman on the job.

The last time Omero Catan and I passed each other was in the early morning hours of August 19, 1950, on the Vanderbilt Avenue line, when he was riding the first bus ever to run on that route. I spied him through the window while operating the last trolley inbound to the barn. My car was loaded with people of all ages who mourned the end of the trolley era, while the bus carried Catan and a few night workers on the way to their jobs.

After working another fifteen years in the San Francisco transit system, I pursued in earnest my hobby of making historical 16-mm movies, and I now have more than 500,000 feet of film relating the stories of New York's transportation by elevated trains and trolleys. It is the largest and most comprehensive collection of its kind. Hollywood folks and documentary filmmakers have often solicited the use of my films; I have always refused. I will donate my collection to either the Library of Congress or the National Archives as a record of my life and times. I am also now completing an 800-page, two-volume history of the IRT subway in time for its 100th anniversary and, for fourteen years, I have written a column for the newsletter published by retirees of the New York transit system. Unlike Omero and his brother, who both cherished publicity, I aim to repay this nation for the freedom I have enjoyed.

I sincerely wish good health and happiness to Omero. For his brother, my wish is for him to stop making a fool of himself in his second childhood and to do something for his community, county, state, and nation. He doesn't have much time left in life so he should do something worthwhile that will make people remember him.

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