High Times


On Thursday, May 12, 1955, passengers took a last ride on the Third Avenue Elevated from Chinatown up to the evocatively named Gun Hill neighborhood in the Bronx. Opened in 1878, the el was not merely a popular and efficient means of transportation, allowing easy access to remote parts of the city; it also became a potent symbol of New York itself. Its monumental structure stood for progress and democracy—anyone with a nickel could enjoy the breeze and, vicariously, the display of life framed by the third-floor windows along its path. But underneath its tracks lay a world of sordid goings-on. It was there a desperate young writer, Don Birnam, looked to hock his typewriter for cash for another shot of the booze that was killing him. Ray Milland played him in Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning 1945 film THE LOST WEEKEND; today you can still glimpse the walking dead along Third Avenue, for whom “one’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.”