Vintage Train Terror 2015

Wow, what a week. Some of you know about some of this, but just as a more general update (and related to my Facebook profile pic change to a very stern one ((wordpress readers, just take my word for it)), which I just realized is context-free for most of you):

For the past few years, I’ve co-produced/co-organized an event we call the Vintage Train. Basically, as a gift to NYC, the MTA brings several historic cars out onto the tracks and runs them like an ordinary subway train for 5 Sundays. They call them the Nostalgia Train or the Shopper’s Special. A group of swing/jazz/vintage people get together and we dub it Vintage Train Day. This started with like 10 of us looking for a fun photo opp to bring out clothes and props that match the old cars, some of them dating to the early 1930s. The randoms and photographers freakin’ love it and it’s fun for us to be models etc. Everyone wins!

Then a visionary dude, Michael, had the idea to have music on the platform like the buskers do, maybe a little dancing. Then that grew into a bunch of bands, on the platform AND in the train cars! Then as of last year, we scheduled a dozen bands, rotating on the platform and cars PLUS an after-party at the NY Transit Museum, the home of the cars and many other artifacts of public transit in the city. Michael schedules and organizes the bands and I handle everything else: all logistics, media contacts and social media management/communications, finding and scheduling volunteers, communication/coordination with the MTA and Transit Museum staffs, making announcements in advance and during the day, and being a general central point person in every way.

We do it for free and for fun and to bring attention to the musicians and take fun pictures and delight/freak out mundanes. There’s no charge, no tickets, just show up. It’s a contribution to our community and to the serendipitous nature of life in New York.

Last year was the biggest yet  — we had around 1,200 people, more or less, over the course of the day. Swing dancers, jazz musicians and fans, vintage dress enthusiasts, photographers, press, and of course countless randoms too.  It was manageable but incredibly taxing and I was completely wrecked for days afterward.

This year, as we were planning, and as I looked at Facebook options, I thought we should make the event invitation public to facilitate friends-of-friends sharing the word. Also we do get inquiries from outside the community and I thought a public facing info page would be easier than answering lots of emails and having to connect, etc.

Well. The result was FAR BEYOND anything I could have imagined.

First of all, an overenthusiastic fan discovered the “public” invite before I was ready to announce it. (FB no longer allows one to create a private event and then switch it to public, so I had to start with a public event that I hoped to keep discreet.)  I would have preferred to have the information approved by certain key people and permissions granted by photographers, etc. but I didn’t get to do that. Instead the next morning, I awoke to dozens of notifications regarding an invitation I didn’t send and wasn’t ready for publication. He had invited hundreds of people in the middle of the night, most unknown to me. That was first confusing and then embarrassing and then quite infuriating. But that was soon the least of my problems.

Because of the notorious FB algorithms, the invite became prominent in our circles. Then with the rapid positive response, FB saw virality and opened the spotlight wider — “suggesting” the event to apparently everyone in New York. The virality fed on itself, as it does. By the end of the first day, we had literally thousands of affirmative responses, be those “going” or “interested”. By the next morning — one full day — we were up to 7,400 (over 2,000 “going”). The responses were in multiple languages. People were comparing it to the Jazz Age Lawn Party (a very large, ticketed, outdoor event in a park in the summer).

I was in shock.

Every time I opened the invite, the numbers were climbing. It was like the electric meter. This is a subway platform, you guys, albeit a large one,  yet the number of people who said they were “going” was more than the entire capacity of Terminal 5 or the Beacon Theater (or half of Radio City Music Hall!)

Why was no one else considering the logistical nightmare of wrangling several thousand people on a platform! Keeping musicians safe! Keeping dancers, photographers, and randoms from obstructing all the normal subway users! How would we not permanently piss of the MTA?! Not only were we likely to get shut down but probably banned. WHAT THE HELL Y’ALL??

I started to feel queasy and it didn’t let up. I started panicking. I ignored my job. I pushed through the fear and focused on what I could do immediately. I answered dozens of inbox messages. I responded to every comment and question on the invite and the community info page. I took up volunteers’ offers and started inquiring on their availability and ability. I was planning. I thought — how big can this get really??

At the end of the second day, I wrote a long note explaining the capacity limits. I pointed out that the trains run on four other Sundays as well. I reminded them that the pictures would be shit if no one can move. In response, 400 more people joined. That night I decided I had to stop the avalanche — I was going to have to kill the invite.

By the next morning, 500 more people had joined. The latest responses were 3,300 “going,” 8,400+ “interested,” and 4,200 who hadn’t responded …yet.

People were referring to wearing “Gatsby costumes.” A girl said she had bought a plane ticket. A guy posted that 45 of his coworkers had rented a bus.

A bus?!! That was IT.

I screencapped a bunch of inquiries and conversations (unfortunately not the final tallies) and couldn’t delete that fucking page fast enough. You can only imagine the wave of relief. I spent the rest of the day sending followup notes and rewriting a new *private* invitation that will be passed from person to person without “help” from the Facebook gremlins.

There were some complaints. There were a lot of “helpful” comments, many of which insisted that the numbers would “work out” and most people wouldn’t follow through. Yes, I understand that probably not everyone who clicked “going” would show up. But I also can’t responsibly assume everyone will flake, and more importantly, I do need a roughly accurate count! (Give or take several hundred, OK, but give or take several thousand?!)

Yeah, I have a whole event to plan still, but the frightening avalanche was stopped.

That evening I went out to two dance performances and a jazz party, mostly to remind myself why I’m doing this in the first place. I love my community and I love doing this event. It kicks my ass but it kicks ass.

(But I ain’t doing it for all of New York City.)



About amywinns

Semi-snarky, semi-sincere, occasionally ranting, always paying attention. Feminist who can work a skirt and crack a joke. Grammar nerd who is also fun at parties. Mid-career writer/editor with 15 years’ experience in newspapers & magazines who now helps developers at a major media corporation communicate with the suits who write the checks. Pro-women, pro-family, pro-choice, pro-workingclass, pro-entrepreneur, pro-farmer. Like every other bourgeois Brooklynite, I choose local/organic/raw food — mostly vegetables — whenever possible/reasonable/affordable but I’m not a smug asshole about it. Hometown: Atlanta. Weird hobby: lindy hop. No pets, no kids, no thanks.
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