The trains lurched through the Harlem darkness, rattling above an all-night pawnshop, a swell of reggaeton music and a man in a headdress, squawking from his bicycle.
The name on the side of each passing car made for train buff poetry at East 125th Street — the Babbling Brook, the Birken, the Kitchi Gammi Club.
They were led by a train car called the Hickory Creek, due south like the rest to Grand Central Terminal, where, in 1948, then-general Dwight D. Eisenhower presided at the car’s welcome ceremony.
From the rails, some travelers waved to no one in particular, taking a curtain call for a feat that the commuters of Metro-North Railroad seemed to ignore. Others slept aboard the cars they had purchased and refurbished and, finally, delivered to Midtown Manhattan for a gathering unlike any in the hub’s 100 years: the most exhaustive collection of privately owned train cars ever assembled at Grand Central, to be displayed Saturday and Sunday.
But this was the spectacle before the spectacle, the part that had to come first. It is the vintage convertible driven through Brooklyn traffic to film a climactic period scene on the cobblestones, the circus elephant led through the Queens-Midtown Tunnel before the tents go up.
Sixteen cars were pulled by two separate locomotives, about 90 minutes apart late Thursday night and into Friday morning — hard-charging flashes of the barbershop seating, stainless steel and master bedrooms of the rails.
And yet, Harlem appeared unmoved. A Mercedes scorched tire marks into a 24-hour parking lot, its sharp turn coaxing fumes to the track level. A man on the platform begged for charity, the left arm of his black jacket dangling. He had lost a limb in war, he said.
Nearby, Allen Boes and Fiona O’Leary of Yonkers were finishing their date. Mr. Boes handed her a bouquet of lilacs. “I’m a very old soul,” he said.
Stu Brown, 77, sat alone on a bench, with his newspaper and umbrella in a Starbucks bag. A train approached, convulsing the bench. “I’m getting a call,” he said. Strange. No one there.
The man in the jacket returned to petition another traveler. This time, his right arm was missing.
Around 11:10 p.m., the first old collection arrived. A few riders looked up, then back down. It was not their train. But the man in the black jacket was on the move.
“Time to go,” he said, as a police officer chased him to an exit.
The man jogged down the stairs, and the officer followed. A few eyes tracked them, toward the ticket area and into the night. When they looked back, the train was gone, too.