Discover more from What's Good?
Heaven and hell on wheels
Let me indulge my readers about high school by tying it to a re-released photo book. #49
In 1977, photographer Willy Spiller traveled from Switzerland to New York City and traveled on the subway for the first time as he recovered from jet lag and a night of too much partying at the Chelsea Hotel.
What he saw, wrote former LIFE Magazine editor Bill Shapiro in Brooklyn Magazine, “was terrifying. And electrifying. And, truth be told, addicting.”
His photos captured New York City at a pivotal moment, two years after the city’s fiscal crisis began. There are cops and suspects and subways covered in so much graffiti you can’t even pretend that it’s charming.
“Despite having mainly photographed local events for a weekly newspaper in Zurich (which, at the time, had a population that was less than a tenth the size of New York’s), Willy Spiller quickly came to understand that there is nothing more New York than its subways, each car a sweaty, rattling microcosm of the city itself — a loud, crowded, colorful melting pot where everyone is thrust into everyone else’s business,” Shapiro wrote.
His photos were later released in a photo book that’s now known, in later editions, as “Hell on Wheels.” A new edition of the book was released this spring, and the cover photo is the one that resonates with me, the picture that first drew me to Willy Spiller and his photography.
“Schoolgirls on the A-Train to Far Rockaway, Subway New York, 1978” features four Catholic school girls barely looking his way on a subway car that looked like what you’d expect towards the end of a decade of disarray. I don’t know what Spiller was thinking when he captured the scene. Maybe he was drawn to the contrast of the girls with feathered bangs and uniform skirts surrounded by so much grime.
When I first saw the photo I instantly knew, without proof, that they were Stella girls. Something about the attitude from the girl in the middle, taking two seats and leaning back like it was her living room. I recognized the light from the window of the A train as it went over Jamaica Bay. I knew those uniforms from the years I spent reading old yearbooks in the library.
And I knew, without actually knowing them, that they were as tough as that subway car, because decades later those girls were me and my friends.
Stella Maris High School was special, even with its many issues. It was the cheapest of the Catholic high schools, a sand-colored brick building on the edge of New York City, overlooking a beautiful beach not yet discovered by the hipsters or gentrifiers or whatever you want to call them. In my four years there, we were aware of our bleak financial reality. There was one week in February we did not have heat (I convinced my classmates to show up in robes, a bit of dark humor.) Our soccer team could not afford new uniforms, so our coach had to “find a guy” for a discount. Our cafeteria chairs were wood and often ripped our tights. My class was small, just 72 girls, and the rows of empty lockers in our school building were a daily reminder of the days when hundreds more girls packed the halls of our school. It can get in your head, thinking that you’re in a place whose better days were long behind us.
Every day we could see Manhattan through the windows of our school building, a far-off island of tall buildings and money and promise and a future we could only dream of.
I’ve been thinking about my high school, and Willy Spiller’s photo, over the last few weeks because I recently attended my 20 year reunion. Our school closed down in 2010 so this was an unofficial party at a bar we went to when we were teens. I was nervous for some reason – I talk to who I talk to, so why have a party? But then I stepped into the courtyard of Jameson’s and saw our 2003 balloons and familiar faces and heard the accents and all my anxiety disappeared.
It’s hard to describe a bond like the one I formed in high school. Other Catholic school alums understand it, too; there’s a shorthand to our experiences, our traditions, our challenges, the limitations. I joke with friends who went to “real” high schools, with boys and football teams and pep rallies, but I know – I even knew back then – that I experienced something special. We had fun every single day. Our classes were like group therapy. We counseled each other over boyfriends and family drama, we got into verbal and physical fights and then cried when we made up. We shared everything, our lives and our lunches and our cigarettes and 40s. We got into trouble, and were stupid a lot of the time. When it was all over we promised we’d be friends ‘til the end, whatever we thought that meant at the time
So it was nice to be back with the girls I met at 13, drinking too many Coors Lights and talking shit but also comforting each other while we shared our disappointments and fears after two decades of adulthood. I want the best for everyone in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever rooted harder for a group of people the way I root for my “Stella Sisters,” because I know where we come from and how hard it can be.
We parted ways after many hours of drinking and not even a two-day hangover could have erased that feeling of connection and joy (and not just because I could still fit into my senior graduation jersey.)
This feeling is why I keep a framed copy of Willy Spiller’s photo on a bookshelf, next to family photos and trinkets and awards. It reminds me of that three-story building on the boardwalk, a gritty heaven before we were thrown into the real world.
I’m not in the photo but that doesn’t matter. It’s still a photographic representation of who I was, and who I’ll always be.
✨Other interesting stories this week✨
◆ More than a dozen peer navigator jobs at homeless and runaway youth drop-in centers are likely cut from this year’s budget [THE CITY]
◆ “I’m farting!” [PAGE SIX]
Harry Siegel and I spoke with Jonathan Bowles from The Center for an Urban Future about the city’s retail industry [FAQ]
A new favorite t-shirt I spotted in Brooklyn. Thanks for reading!