On Sept. 10, 1932, one minute after midnight, a 7-year-old boy named Billy Reilly dropped a nickel into a turnstile and boarded an A train at 42nd Street. It was a southbound express, and it was Billy's first ride on an A.
It was the city's first ride, too - 171,267 passengers rode it that September day in 1932, its first day of operation. The line, then called the Eighth Avenue subway, spanned only 19km and 28 stations, from the top of Manhattan to the bottom.
Some 75 years later, the A line stretches farther than it did back then, literally and culturally.
Over the years, the A line has become less of a train and more of an icon, a symbol of the nearly 500,000 varied and eclectic New Yorkers it carries through the city daily. The A line is certainly not the oldest in New York's subway system, nor has it ever been the smoothest-running, the most punctual or even the cleanest. But an argument could be made, thanks in large part to Duke Ellington's up-tempo stamp of approval, that it is perhaps the coolest.
Monday, on the A line's 75th birthday, transit officials celebrated the occasion with a ceremony at the start of the line at the Inwood/207th Street station. A special train made up of six prewar cars provided service along the line's original route to the Chambers Street stop in Lower Manhattan.
Back in 1932, the new subway was part of the Independent Subway System, or the IND. The Eighth Avenue subway was the IND's first line, and it dazzled riders with longer stations to accommodate 10- and 11-car trains, and sleek R1 cars manufactured by Pullman Standard expressly for the IND.
"The R1 cars that ran on the A train at that time were phenomenal," said Stan Fischler, a subway historian. "If you had put air-conditioning into them, they'd be good enough to run today."
The A train is the longest line in the subway system - 50km, from northern Manhattan through Brooklyn to Far Rockaway in Queens. New York City Transit, the arm of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that operates the subways, says the A line is the longest subway line in the world.
The A often feels like the city's very own transcontinental railroad, traveling deep under the ground and soaring high above it, below the bustle of Washington Heights, past old tombstones in graveyards in Ozone Park, over the waters of Jamaica Bay. Perhaps the most famous section is the run under Harlem heard between the notes of Ellington's Take the A Train.
"Think about what a bargain it is," Fischler said. "For two bucks you go all the way to Rockaway. Do you realize what that would cost you in a taxi? You couldn't afford the tip."
There is a strange symmetry to the line. You step on at the 207th Street station in Inwood, in northern Manhattan, and you step off at the Far Rockaway/Mott Avenue Terminal in Queens, near a western Long Island hamlet named Inwood. Those riding the A train the weekend before its anniversary, however, could hardly enjoy such uninterrupted, long-distance travel: because of weekend track work, people had to board shuttle buses to get from Howard Beach to the Rockaways.
On Saturday afternoon, the line that carried Billy Reilly on its inaugural run - he moved to the front of the crowd at the 42nd Street station when a transportation commissioner learned he was born the day of the new subway's groundbreaking, March 14, 1925 - carried Morrow, who sat reading The New England Journal of Medicine, listening to a Tom Waits song on his iPod.