After 33 years of service to the MTA, this past Wednesday August 6th, my father rode the 5 train for the last time as a train operator and entered retirement.
In 1952 my father, Israel Garcia, was born to my grandmother Elena Soto Crespo and my late grandfather Israel Garcia Soto in the small town of Añasco on the western coast of Puerto Rico.
By 1965, at the age of 13, my father had reached the shores of New York City and landed in The Bronx along with his eldest sister and my grandmother and the rest of the Puerto Ricans who were still arriving for the last several decades. Things between my grandparents hadn’t worked out and were divorced before my father was even a year old but grandpa was never too far from his kids especially once they were all in The Bronx.
Almost immediately dad began working. He worked at a local bodega on 152nd and Tinton Avenue at the age of 14 making a whopping $3 bucks a day or shined shoes at the corner of Prospect Avenue and 149th Street. By the time he was attending Morris High School, he was working at a local pizza joint making 25 bucks a week for 3 days work. Back then he felt like he was bringing home a lot of money. Eventually he began working 6 days a week and his salary increased to $65/week.
By the time he met my mom, got married and I was born he was working various jobs at factories throughout the city but soon began to realize that he needed something more solid that would guarantee a better salary and life for the family.
That’s when he began working for New York City MTA in May of 1981.
For a little over a year dad worked as a conductor, opening and closing the doors of the graffiti covered trains of the 80’s but when the opportunity arrived for a promotion to train operator (or motorman as they were called before everything became PC) he jumped upon the opportunity. He studied for the exams and aced them and was called right away to begin training as a train operator.
Working for the MTA was a huge sacrifice for the family. As a rookie, he had to work all odd hours and shifts and family time together was limited. We couldn’t even take vacations together until I was a teenager because he had to build up seniority in order to get to pick time off during the summer.
Dad worked a lot of overtime. He never said no to work when it came to him. Although he worked a lot of hours, he always found time to be there for me and mom. He was always there giving me advice as I grew up and take an interest in my school activities. On weekends, we would always go to grandma’s on Saturday nights for dinner and during the summer months we’d go to the park, beaches and lakes.
When I turned 14 and entered Cardinal Spellman High School in Baychester, dad transferred over to the #5 line so that he could sorta keep an eye on me and he would introduce me to all his colleagues and supervisors. He would show me where to go in case I ever ran into trouble. It was still the late 80’s and early 90’s and the subways were still dangerous.
During his 33 years of service, my father sacrificed so much of his time. He led millions of New Yorkers to work and back home safely each day. Never missed work unless absolutely necessary. On his last day, one of his supervisors said, “Garcia, you always came to work, you were always here and I thank you for that.”
I spent the last day of work with him on Wednesday and it was something I will always carry in my heart. The love, respect, and admiration the MTA has for my father, whether a colleague or supervisor, was so overwhelming for me. Several times during the day I had to sneak away and wipe away tears as I swelled with such pride, hearing his fellow workers tell me how much they love my father and admire him.
Throughout the decades, I often rode the train with him whether by chance or planned because I knew his schedule. Even at 39 years of age it never got old for me. Now, a big part of my life is over. No longer will I ride down the 5 train with my dad driving it as I sit down proudly thinking to myself, “That’s my pops.”
It’s not every day you get to hear what a great man your father is from so many people. I always knew what a great man he was but to hear it from the dozens of folks that day was something else. These were people who were genuinely sad to see my father go, telling me, “…one of the last great ones from that generation is leaving us.”
I watched from afar as my dad interacted with his MTA buddies as they hugged, clapped for him, and congratulated him. I watched the bittersweet look on my father’s face. He was happy to be retiring but you see, he was sad to leave his second family for these are the people who looked out for him and each other when away from home. When one of them was sick or suffered a family loss there was always a collection to help each other out. When one was retiring, my mom would make the pernil for the retirement celebration at Dyre Avenue terminal (her pernil was legendary and for almost 2 decades, mom was the only one they wanted).
After he said his goodbyes for the last time, we headed to the train yard at 239th and Nereid Avenue in Wakefield so that he could sign out from his shift one last time. Watching him exit that gate for the last time as a train operator and entering the outside world as a retired civilian was one of the proudest moments ever.
He is one of New York City’s unsung heroes. The kind who make this giant metropolis of over 8 million function properly. Without workers like him, we wouldn’t have the right to call this the greatest city in the world.
Thank you papi for all the sacrifices you made for the family, for everything you ever did and continue to do for me and now it’s my turn to say, “I’m proud of you.” Love you pops y bendicion.
Slideshow of Dad’s last day at work: