Home » The NYC Transit Authority Will Sell You a Used 7-Inch Sealed-Beam Headlight for $45, And It Might Not Even Work

The NYC Transit Authority Will Sell You a Used 7-Inch Sealed-Beam Headlight for $45, And It Might Not Even Work

Subway Sale Ts2
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Dispatches from the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s third annual “Memorabilia and Collectibles Pop-Up Shop,” a yard sale for decommissioned subway car parts and station equipment.

If you woke up Friday morning in need of a 7-inch round sealed-beam headlamp, you could wander down to Wal-Mart and buy a brand-new example made by Sylvania for around $13. Or you could make your way to Coney Island, where the Metropolitan Transit Authority—the agency that oversees every subway, bus, and commuter train in New York City—would sell you a used one for $45, a 10-percent discount from yesterday’s price.

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For a certain type of customer, this used item would be worth more than three times the going rate for a brand-new lamp – because it was recently removed from an R32 “Brightliner” subway car. The longstanding icon of subterranean travel in the Big Apple, the washboard stainless-steel subway cars were put into service in 1964 and could be seen throughout NYC’s subway system until 2020, when the last in-service example was retired. (Considering the average subway car travels 60,000 miles a year, with headlights on whenever the car is active, it’s likely that the MTA’s lamps would be close to the end of their useful life, if not fully burned out.)

Bob I

This week, the MTA hosted its third Pop Up Shop, offering transit nerds the chance to bring home all sorts of decommissioned detritus chiseled off the hull of America’s largest public transit system. On a bright, crisp morning, I drove down to Coney to browse. A cheery crowd had already materialized when I arrived, about 80 percent 30-somethings in spotless Carhartt jackets, the rest neighborhood old-timers, reminiscing.

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Bob F

A steady flow of commerce was taking place, but a lot of folks seemed just as happy to meander. There was much fiddling with vintage cameras and selecting of grid-worthy iPhone pics. Most of the folks I spoke with had found out about the event from Instagram or TikTok, and seemed to have lots of time to browse on a Friday morning. (No judgment—that’s me, too.)

Here you could finally press the buttons and spin the dials that normally stay locked away at the front of the train. You could crank the Master Controller, the imposing lever that accelerates and slows the subway car, as tantalizing to a city commuter as the glimpse of the cockpit is to a geeky airline customer (again, no judgment). The red-handled emergency brake cable that dangles in every subway car, inspiring intrusive thoughts in reluctant commuters, could finally be pulled—albeit unsatisfyingly.

Bob K

“Nothing sits, that’s the crazy part,” Paul Dvoskin told me. As director of supplier management and asset recovery for the MTA, Dvoskin oversees the agency’s yard sales. “Everybody loves this so much that things are just going.” The MTA sells decommissioned items year-round online, but the in-person sales have been a particular hit. Transit Authority employees cheerfully helped as folks searched out items from a particular station, or consulted as couples figured out how to fit a three-person bench yanked from a subway car up a flight of stairs and into a cramped kitchen.

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Station signage made up most of the inventory. Ripped from its context on a train platform or the side of a building, a subway sign ends up being about 30 percent bigger than you’d guess. Most are flat sheetmetal, light enough to heft under your arm, but long enough to clonk into someone behind you as you walk around.

Bob C

New Yorkers are insufferable about New York stuff, but I think anyone who obsesses over big people-moving machines can understand what attracted this crowd to this gravel lot on this day. Nobody travels anywhere without a reason; how we get around becomes part of our story, sometimes overshadowing our destinations. The sign for the highway exit that brings you home, the number on the flight that reunites you with your loved ones—these things take on meaning.

Also, for those of us who love Modernist design but can’t afford an Eames chair, the MTA’s memorabilia sale offers a chance to hang an authentic Massimo Vignelli work on the wall, with patina intact.

Pricing is determined by the three L’s: Location, location, location. Signs for well-known stations or neighborhoods get the biggest interest—and thus, the highest fare. “We had a couple of Times Square signs, I believe those went for over $2,000,” Dvoskin told me. “Lemme tell you, they got scooped up immediately.” A couple people on Dvoskin’s staff come up with a price for every item, from the dime-sized fare tokens that were replaced by swipe cards in 2003 ($3.25 each) to the massive wooden platform benches (500 pounds, buyer responsible for transport). “It’s historical significance, it’s geographical significance,” Dvoskin says of the pricing strategy. “If it’s something from, like I said, Times Square, Wall Street, stuff like that, that’ll be worth a little more.” The proceeds go into the MTA’s general account, same as your $2.90 turnstile fare.

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Bob H

So who treks down to the southernmost edge of Brooklyn on a Friday morning to buy grabholds from a Redbird, or a battle-scarred (hopefully disinfected) refuse bin, or a sealed-beam headlight—identical to the mandatory lamps on every US-market vehicle from 1940 to 1975—with Transit Authority provenance?

Bob L

“We’ve had rail buffs, we’ve had New York buffs, just regular New Yorkers who love the city,” Dvoskin told me. “We’ve had people who moved away years and years and years ago and then decided to come down and pick something up, just to remind them. I mean, people love this stuff. We had one gentleman last year that set up a replica of an R32 subway car in his basement.”

Bob A

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I ended up buying a six-foot-long wayfinding sign from a station not too far from my home. It was too big for the trunk of my Grand Marquis, so it rode shotgun with me on the way home, perhaps the first time this piece of steel has seen sunlight since the day it was installed. As for the $45 sealed-beam headlights? They’d sold out yesterday.

Photo credits: R32 subway car in top graphic via new.mta.info; all other images by Bob Sorokanich

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Nick Fortes
Nick Fortes
3 months ago

I’d love an MTA sign even though I live in Philly. Something about the MTA signage is just perfect modernist art. The font, the black background, the train number all together is perfect. SEPTA doesn’t quite have the same effect.

lastwraith
lastwraith
3 months ago

I get why this stuff is popular, but as a kid who grew up taking the subway (and who still does from time to time), any memorabilia from there is just going to remind me of the smell of urine and citrus cleaner….because that was the subway for me as a kid. Sadly, it still makes up much of the current experience, but it’s certainly improved.
I would definitely obsessively clean anything that is a subway remnant though, and I have suspect thoughts about putting signage on my cream-colored front seats, haha (as the author did).

Last edited 3 months ago by lastwraith
Mr. Frick
Mr. Frick
3 months ago

About 20 years ago, hundreds of NYC subway cars were sunk off the coast of Charleston (after being cleaned of toxic materials) for an artificial reef. I was fortunate to be on one of the first dive trips. It was surreal to descend the roughly 90 feet and see them scattered around the bottom like toys. Swimming through the cars and poking around for small souvenirs was a blast. I’ve got a nice photo of me hanging on a strap in scuba gear. Now, it has become an awesome habitat for all kinds of sea life. There are a bunch of good videos of what they look like now.

While we down there, I found a really nice tackle rig that looked brand new. Back on the boat, I was showing off my find when another boat pulled alongside. One of those guys said he had dropped that over the side and offered me $100 for it. Good day of diving.

DadBod
DadBod
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

That is so cool!

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

Oh wow! TIL this is a thing, and I love it.

Maymar
Maymar
3 months ago
Reply to  Mr. Frick

There’s a kids book about a Redbird’s car’s life from being built to being used to start a reef!

https://books.google.ca/books/about/Subway_Story.html?id=gy6NEAAAQBAJ&source=kp_book_description&redir_esc=y

Rafael
Rafael
3 months ago

Everyone feels like the protagonist of their own lives, and having the chance of owning these pieces of day to day scenery evokes the same feeling of movie memorabilia. For me it feels like materializing the emotion I had associated with a fading memory.
Memories associated with our commute are particularly interesting because they sit on the background, threaded and rethreaded so many times without thought that they run really deep, but are ignored – until they are long gone.
I had to leave the country I was born and start anew in a new culture, and soon the time will come for me to change again. Before (and during) that, I’ve changed cities and addresses more times I’d care to count. I like to hold on to some of the background stuff like old fans (got two), kitchen appliances (a scale was all I could save), and other common objects that were extras on my movie long ago, but the footage where they used to appear has long faded.
I’m sure I was going somewhere with this, but I got lost in the journey 🙂

Lardo
Lardo
3 months ago
Reply to  Rafael

everyone should be the protagonist, nay the hero of their own life.

Máté Petrány
Máté Petrány
3 months ago

Nice score Bob, looks like it’s been a proper nerd meeting on a crisp Coney Island morning. BKV, aka Budapest Transport Company does the same via online auctions, which is great, since once you win an item, you have to go to their headquarters for pickup, which is one of the few remaining buildings in Budapest with a still functioning paternoster. I do own a greasy bearing housing cover with the massive M logo of Metrovagonmash, plus three metal numbers from the side of an Ev subway car.

Slower Louder
Slower Louder
3 months ago

Paternoster. Thanks for the mention. I had to look it up. Wikipedia has a seemingly exhaustive list of functioning paternosters, mostly in Europe. Next trip it’ll be something to look for. I can remember a belt manlift in a hotel parking garage, early 60s, Salt Lake City. Had to be dangerous as hell.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
3 months ago

I don’t suppose there’s something similar for the Paris metro?

Mmm dat Art Nouveau!

Last edited 3 months ago by Cheap Bastard
Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
3 months ago

A nostalgic part of me would like sign or piece of car hardware but I’ve no great desire to travel to NYC. I can satisfy myself by finding the MTA hard hat that’s somewhere in the garage.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
3 months ago
Reply to  Bob Sorokanich

I grew up in the suburbs and rode Metro North and the subways. My father-in-law was a transit engineer so we have all sorts of pins, and obscure inside knowledge of San Francisco cable cars. Those builder’s plates look like the sweet spot for shipping.

Phantom Pedal Syndrome
Phantom Pedal Syndrome
3 months ago

“The longstanding icon of subterranean travel in the Big Apple, the washboard stainless-steel subway cars were put into service in 1964 and could be seen throughout NYC’s subway system until 2020, when the last in-service example was retired.”

Gloriously concise explanation there.
Your writing is evocative and terrific.

A. Barth
A. Barth
3 months ago

This was far more interesting than I expected. 🙂

Slower Louder
Slower Louder
3 months ago

Good article, and nice to see Mr Sorokanich on The Autopian.

Chris Stevenson
Chris Stevenson
3 months ago

London sells theirs online, always worth a peek: https://www.ltmuseumshop.co.uk/vintage-shop

PaysOutAllNight
PaysOutAllNight
3 months ago

With so much empty manufacturing, warehouse and retail space in old disused buildings in the country these days, it seems like we should have this kind of flea market in every city. Not just for municipal goods; there is probably a lot of other stuff that could be diverted from the landfill, too.

I know the logistical, safety and practical challenges prevent this from being common. This only happens where dedicated individuals with inside connections find the unusual opportunity of a steady stream of goods, or a particularly large occasional trove.

It’s nice to see an example of this working so well, even though all the stuff pictured in this article is junk to me.

DadBod
DadBod
3 months ago

For real, I fished some awesome furniture out of a massive pile when a school threw all their old shit away. It could have been auctioned or sold but I guess that was too difficult to deal with. I can sympathize, now I have my own pile to contend with.

Bob Boxbody
Bob Boxbody
3 months ago

I have no ties to New York, but it would be a lot of fun to browse through one of these sales.

Dogapult
Dogapult
3 months ago

There’s probably still a lot of stuff that gets tossed when they update, but man, this sort of thing tugs on my heartstrings. I love that MTA has found it worth it to sell all this stuff, lights, gauges, buttons, stuff that wouldn’t be saved otherwise.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
3 months ago

I kid you not, this is the first time I’ve wanted to go to New York for anything. Never had any desire to go before. But now I wanna go ogle miscellaneous beat-up electromechanical doodads and come up with ideas for how to use them. Those switches, dials, gauges, and horns are calling me…

DadBod
DadBod
3 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Dude NYC is a trip, you should get a hotel room in Chelsea or whatever and just walk, eat, maybe hop on the subway, eat, walk and walk. Just being on the streets, taking it in. And eating.

Lardo
Lardo
3 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

I was born in NYC as was my father. My mom was a nurse at St. Claire’s. I was born there amongst her friends from nursing school. Just recently realized St.Claire’s was in Hell’s Kitchen. So yeah, I would be spending some $$$ at this event.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
3 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Gosh, I’m not usually into super-touristy places and still found a ton of interesting stuff around NYC to visit. It’s a fun place. Also, I always eat all kinds of great stuff I can’t get at home or that don’t exist in the same…quality? Looking at you, halal carts.

I, too, kind of want weird old train stuff in my house now.

Last edited 3 months ago by Stef Schrader
Austin Vail
Austin Vail
3 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

My mom has been to New York and the most interesting conversation she had was with someone who couldn’t believe other states don’t have subways. She was like, “How do you even get around then?” Couldn’t believe we just drive everywhere…

I suppose that’s a good thing about New York. They do have pretty good public transit. I do wish we had subways too… or a regular train. It’d be nice to not have to drive to work every day, then owning exclusively impractical cars wouldn’t be so impractical.

Last edited 3 months ago by Austin Vail
Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
3 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Heh, yeah. I’d love better train service here, too. The subway is a really cool way to get around.

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