Saturday, March 1, 2014

I've got sunshine...

The underworld of the New York City subway is worthy of study.

Last weekend, I rode the subways from Grand Central into Brooklyn and then back again the next morning. Along the way, I experienced confusion switching trains as one of the lines was under construction.

Having grown up riding the subways of Philadelphia, I still find my brain addled by the New York subway. A friend advised me to take the R to Union Square and then the 6 to Grand Central, or switch from the R to the N at 59th or 36th. Except, when the trains arrived I didn't see Rs and Ns. I saw Ds and Qs and city employees told me it was ok--it would take me over the bridge.

I made it over the bridge each time, but along the way the subway culture vied for all of my senses. 

Did you know there are concerts at various subway stops beneath the earth? Enormous crowds gathered and watched dancers, bands, rappers, and performers of all sorts of novelty. And they were damn good.

Even with the clattering and shaking trains, the announcements of stops, and roar of trains flying past in the opposite directions, dozens of people of all ages slept peacefully. Heads back, mouth open, asleep. And then when the train stopped at their destination, up they popped and continued on their way through the doors.

Announcing himself as homeless, a man stood in the middle of the car and projected loud enough so everyone could hear. He would never beg for money, but would work for it. He said he hoped to bring us a small amount of joy on the way to our next stop, and then he looked down at a child and said, "Hello, gorgeous."

Bent forward with arthritis up and down his body, he must have been over 60 years old. But he sang "I got sunshine, on a cloudy day..." like a younger, happier man. He held his notes like The Temptations. Remarkable. That song in that moment from that man. Just simply remarkable. Several people pressed a few coins into the singer's palm and then he shuffled along to the next car.

Another man, who could have been in his 50s, had set up a small easel in the aisle and worked on a pastel from his seat. He was sketching an image from a newspaper; he kept pulling the paper (folded into a narrow strip) from inside his coat, up close to his face, and then dabbed a few colorful grease marks onto the paper, only to pull the paper out again moments later. He reminded me of the WWII veterans who drank in corner tap rooms on bright weekday afternoons.

Across from me, a man read Dust and Shadow: an account of the Ripper killings by Lyndsey Fey. He was old and frail and knock-kneed. On his left hand was his college ring. I imagined it was from City College. Noticing the library sticker on the spine, I envied that he had easy access to one of the greatest libraries. Like the artist just a few feet away, this man also held what he needed to see close to his face. His nose might have scraped the pages.

I wondered what I would do and who I would become without books. I wondered what would become of that man as he lost his physical capability to read.

These people were New York. They had a pulse. They had culture, history, and resilience. And they were comfortably at home in the underworld of the New York City subway.


  1. Love this post and like you, I love New York!

  2. So much to take in- on the subway and in your writing. I really loved your piece.

  3. your words an images are those of our diverse and crazy NY subways....a word within a busy city...

  4. Thank you for sharing this moment in time. Living in the west I had never ridden the subway. I still remember my first trip to New York - one of my goals was to ride the subway.

  5. I was so excited when I saw your name on the Slicers' list today. And THIS is why. I just took a ride on the NYC subway with you, and it was awesome.

  6. Wow. Thank you. That sunshine song, the knock knees, the nose close to the page, you remind me of the importance of spending words to build the image. You brought the subways and our "museum week" riding them back to me. Walk the walk, indeed. I'm so excited to have you slicing with us.

  7. Though I do sometimes use my subway commute for sleeping, it's also great for people-watching! I'm glad you enjoyed your trip out to Brooklyn (as a Brooklynite, I had to wonder which neighborhood?) and our wacky trains that got you there and back!

  8. Subway systems are indeed worlds unto their own, with stories and characters galore. I am always fascinated by the maps of the systems and the colors of lines, and where they lead and don't lead. Where we get lost.