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Why Are Some Letters Missing From NYC Subways?

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If you’ve ridden the New York City subway, you know that the different trains are often designated by letters of the alphabet (or numbers, but we’re not talking about those).

If you’ve ridden the New York City subway a lot, you know that some letters are missing. And it’s not the tail end of the alphabet, either. There’s an A, B and C train and there’s also a Z train. But there's no H train or Y train. There are several other skipped letters, too.

The explanation for the missing letters fall (mostly) into two categories.

Discontinued

H, K, T, V and W are all former trains that have been discontinued. In fact, an in-depth look at the history of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) reveals regular recycling of letters as trains go in and out of use. But let’s look at each of the current letters getting snubbed.

H

Technically, the H train is still in use. It is the internal name for the Rockaway Park shuttle in Queens that connects with the A train to provide service to the western edge of the peninsula. After a few years without any designation on the map, the shuttle became known as the HH train in 1962. Over the next several decades, it was known as the E and then the CC train. In the 1980s, the MTA did away with double letter designation and the shuttle earned its H name. Eventually, however, all shuttles started bearing the grey S designation on maps. Since this would create internal confusion, the MTA continues to call the Rockaway Park shuttle the H train for their own purposes.

H made a public resurgence as the name of a free shuttle that took over service for a suspended portion of the A train in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The letter was available as the storm had also knocked out service on the Rockaway Park Shuttle. When both the shuttle and the A train came back online by the summer of 2013, H slipped back into hiding.

K

The K train used to run on the same Eighth Avenue track that currently sports the A, C, E. It was the name given to the former AA train when the use of double letters was discontinued in 1985. The K train was essentially the opposite of the C. Both ran locally between 168th street and the World Trade Center, but while C train service covered rush hours, the K took on midday, nights, and weekends. The K last ran on December 10, 1988; the next day, C train service was expanded to include all hours.

T

T (and TT) used to be the name of what is now known as the D train. It was absorbed by the B train in the 1960s, which was replaced by the W train and ultimately the D train in the early 2000s. If you miss the T train, never fear: It is the future name of the Second Avenue Subway, which is expected to open its first phase in December 2016.

V

Longtime New Yorkers may remember both the introduction and the dissolution of the short-lived V train. It debuted in December 2001 to replace a rerouted F train, traveling between the Lower East Side in Manhattan and Queens. Unfortunately, limited service patterns—the V only ran weekdays from approximately 6:30 a.m. to midnight—and budget cuts doomed the V train. In June 2010, it was merged with the M train and dropped the V designation.

W

Another short-lived, late-alphabet train, W debuted in 2001 to account for construction on the Manhattan Bridge tracks that disrupted the B train. During nearly nine years in use, its service area changed several times, going all the way to Coney Island to start, then eventually losing the Brooklyn borough altogether. In Manhattan, W traveled along the Broadway line that we now think of as the N, Q, R train, eventually getting absorbed into those lines in 2010 as a result of financial shortcomings.

Potential Confusion

The letters I and O were never used for trains because of their visual similarities to the numbers 0 and 1 and the use of both alphabetical and numerical designations in the New York Subway system. 

U and Y were eliminated from consideration because they are homonyms with actual words—namely, “you” and “why.” Apparently, the founders of what is now the MTA did not find the potential for “Who’s on First”-style confusion to be nearly as humorous as Abbott and Costello did.

The Problem with P

That leaves all the letters accounted for except P. There are several stories of almost-P trains. It was the intended name for the final leg of the Culver service (now the F line) into Manhattan that was scrapped in favor of a shuttle (labeled S as all shuttles are) at the last minute. It was also the name given to a specialty train designed to work around the 1992 potential Amtrak strike. Congress intervened at the last moment and no such emergency service was necessary. The P then stood for the incapacitated Penn Station. However, neither of these instances explain why it was never used for any new trains between the creation of the Culver shuttle and the 1992 near-strike. And so it is fun, if not entirely likely, to consider the theory that the P homonym was simply too immature for polite commuter conversation.

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Big Questions
Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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