Despite muggings, a friend’s death, and an explosion, I have fond memories of NYC mass transit

The other day, I found myself in Grand Central Station in Manhattan on the way to an event. I had some time to kill so I decided to hang around the station for a while.

If you’ve not been there lately, trust me: With the many stores, restaurants, and other attractions you can easily spend an entire day inside Grand Central Station. Soon I found myself in the New York City Transit Museum — located right inside the station — which I had never been to before. It was quite a place.

The transit museum has all kinds of displays, memorabilia, and items for purchase concerning the mass-transit system of the greatest city in the world. For someone like me, who spent many, many years riding subways and buses in the Big Apple, it was like coming home again, with the distinct benefit of not getting mugged.

Here’s how I attended Archbishop Molloy High School back in the ’70s: a five-block walk to the elevated J train, then a 40-minute subway ride from Brooklyn to Queens, then a one-mile uphill walk on Queens Boulevard. Repeat in reverse during the way home.

During this trip, I got mugged twice. If you don’t know what a mugging is, it’s this: Someone way bigger and way rougher than you simply demands money, “or else.”

As if this weren’t disconcerting enough, my best friend in high school, Victor, got killed one afternoon on the subway, a couple of stops after I left him on the J train. I still remember going to his funeral and then seeing myself for the first time on TV that same night, walking in the funeral procession. I’ve never really gotten over that horrific event. So awful.

One time, I was coming home about 8 p.m. on the J train, after having worked all day and gone to evening classes downtown at Pace University. The train was just about ready to pull out.

Then a grubby-looking passenger who was exiting, at the last second before the doors closed, tossed in a lit M-80 firecracker. If you don’t know what an M-80 is, think of it as a mini stick of dynamite with no redeeming social or entertainment values of any kind.

When that thing went off in the subway car, which is essentially a large tin can, it was like my head exploded. I had severe ear pain for three days after that. I’m genuinely surprised that my hearing was not permanently damaged.

Despite all that, I still have fond memories and great respect for mass transit systems in general and New York City’s specifically. Can you imagine what gridlock there would be if people weren’t taking subways and buses into the city every day?

If you’ve driven in the five boroughs lately, you know it’s just about gridlocked all the time now. You can thank master city planner Robert Moses’s extreme preference for automobiles over mass transit for much of this mess. See the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro, for all, and I do mean all, of the gory details.

But Moses has been dead a long time now and it’s about time we as a nation get behind infrastructure repair and improvement, including progressive transportation solutions like inner-city lite-rail, electric buses, and dedicated bicycle lanes. Humans need and like to move around for work and for pleasure. Inner-city travel should not be the time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient chore that it so often is.

In the transit museum, they have all kinds of displays about the history of mass transit in the city. They even have a huge operating model railroad display. This was great, very detailed and beautiful.

I can’t wait to show it to my grandson someday. In fact, when I get him down there, I want to take him on the subway and have him look out the window in the first car as we’re going down the tracks. I did this with my kids when they were small, and they’d always fight to see who got the best view. I’m sure my grandson will love it as well.

They have all kinds of transit-related things for sale in the museum. I wanted to get my grandson a neat F train shirt, with the round orange F train logo on the front and “Brooklyn to Queens” on the back, but I couldn’t find his size. Instead I got him an F train hat.

Even though I took the J train my whole life, I’m partial to the F train because, at least back then, it was newer, faster, safer, and cleaner. Even to this day, if you need to go into Manhattan, parking somewhere in Queens and taking the F or the E into the city is a great way to go. Just don’t park in front of someone’s driveway.

I couldn’t leave the transit museum without getting a little something for myself. They have many different kinds of very detailed bus and train models and toys. I’d never seen so many in one place before.

I settled on a scale model IRT subway car, which I have reverently placed by my computer at work. Again, despite all the problems with the much-maligned New York City subway system — high fares, late trains, often filthy cars and stations — without subways, New York City and the other major cities like Chicago, Boston, and London that depend on them would come to a grinding halt.

When it comes to subways, you may love them or you may hate them, but you certainly have to respect them.

Stumbling onto the New York City Transit Museum in Grand Central Station was a real treat. If you ever find yourself in Grand Central Station (free tours of the station and the midtown area every Friday of the year, rain or shine, at 12:30 p.m.) be sure to stop in. It’s a great way to learn more about an often frustrating yet vibrant aspect of the greatest city in the world.