Before It Was a Rail-Trail: A Silent Love Story from New York's High Line

Posted 02/12/18 by Gina Zammit in America's Trails

High Line Mural Art | Photo by Gigi Altarejos

I don’t have to tell you that there’s a certain romance to the rails. A train is not simply a means of transportation, but the promise of an adventure or a life-changing occurrence—even just one stop away.

While most people think of luxury locomotives like the Orient Express as the places for kindling a courtship, love can be found and cultivated anywhere—such as on the old New York Central Railroad, for example. This is certainly the case for two relatives of mine—Joseph (Joe) and Irene Buffamento—for which an ordinary trip on the elevated rapid-transit railway (decades before it became one of America’s most famous rail-trails) sparked a “meet-cute” fit for the silver screen.

Seventy-two years ago, in the summer of 1946, 18-year-old Joe and 17-year-old Irene were riding on the High Line—then a portion of the New York Central’s West Side Line—through Manhattan. (For those interested in a few more details on the history of the line, check out this short timeline from Friends of the High Line.)

Joseph and Irene Buffamento Wedding Photo | Photo courtesy Joe and Irene Buffamento
Joseph and Irene Buffamento wedding photo | Photo courtesy Joe and Irene Buffamento

Joe was immediately stricken by Irene’s (née Paruolo) good looks. According to Joe, he first noticed her slender legs that peeked out beneath her knee-length skirt, but his gaze was broken by the sight of her hands. Joe had been born deaf—in a time when America was only beginning to make real advancements for the Deaf community—and he was in disbelief when he saw Irene, who is also deaf, having a conversation with her Aunt Ida in sign language. While American Sign Language (ASL) was developed more than 100 years prior, it was incredibly rare to see someone using ASL during the 1940s, even in a city of nearly 7.5 million residents at the time (8.5 million today).

Joseph and Irene Buffamento | Photo courtesy Gina Zammit
Joseph and Irene Buffamento | Photo courtesy Gina Zammit

Seeing Irene using ASL was all the motivation Joe needed to walk across the crowded train car and ask Irene out on a date, in ASL, of course. And while the rail line would formally cease operations in 1980 and deteriorate into blight for the next two decades, that chance encounter on the short-lived railway would lead to a lifetime of happiness. Only a year after meeting, Joe and Irene married at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, and they just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary on Sept. 13, 2017.

They lived much of their life together in the Bronx; Joe worked at a paper and cardboard factory in Queens, while Irene raised their son Don and worked part time at her grandfather’s hat factory.

Now 88 and 87, Joe and Irene have since settled down in the suburbs of Nanuet, New York. And they are pleased that the site of their meeting—once considered a burden to local developers—has taken on a new form as well. Transformed into a rail-trail beginning in the early 2000s and officially opening in 2009, the High Line is now a lush escape from the city streets and one of New York City’s most famous attractions. More than 5 million people visit the park every year, and just like the love of Joe and Irene over decades of marriage, the rail-trail continues to thrive.

The High Line had been overlooked by society in many ways after the train closure, just as the Buffamentos had been by society for being “different,” but both resulted in something more beautiful than either could have imagined.

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