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Nothing Beats New York City's Subway Culture

Nothing Beats New York City's Subway Culture

 

Those of us who live in New York City ride the subway. Most of us take for granted that it will get us quickly across great distances. Before the new Second Avenue Subway opened, few of us saw art or culture, in the visual or theatrical or any other sense, in the subway. But it is everywhere. Count the ways.

First, the subway is a map of our world and its time zones. Stations in the Wall Street area are hopping very early in the morning, with suits and secretaries. Williamsburg is not hopping at all at that hour. Anyone moving is likely to be a school child or hung over. People of all persuasions are mixed up everywhere, though people of Asian origin may predominate in stations here, Hispanics there, African Americans somewhere else.

Second, extraordinary visual art can be seen throughout the system. Not even counting the works at the newest stations, almost three hundred works are scattered all over, some old, some new. Stained glass, tile, sculpture, mosaic. Romaire Beardon, Peter Sis, Tom Otterness, Vincent Smith, Elizabeth Murray. A number of students. Sometimes political, like the recent post-it installation at Union Square. We especially like the Otterness creatures populating Fourteenth Street and Eighth Avenue. Take a tour, or take yourself with this guide

Third, there are views. Some of the subway is not subterranean. It is elevated. Some of the elevated routes are spectacular. The 7 train in particular curves around buildings of all kinds on its way to Citifield, and provides unexpected and cool glimpses of arresting landscapes. And amazing graffiti enclaves. Ride on a moonlit night, with your honey. But expect rowdiness if the Mets win.

Fourth, there is poetry, in almost every subway car, short and sweet and very New York. 

Fifth, musicians are everywhere. In Union Square, especially, the music is eclectic, and first rate. People, and sometimes puppets, dance to it.

And often there is improv.

One evening, a young man boarded, a bag in his hand, and sat opposite us. As the train moved into a long tunnel, he took out a bowl of noodles, and a plastic fork. He dropped the fork on the floor. The young man asked his companion whether he could still use the fork. Firmly, she said, "no, the five second rule does NOT work on a subway car floor." He was crestfallen. “I’m hungry.” At that, a man standing at the other end of the car walked over and gave him a small bottle of hand sanitizer, for cleaning the fork. A woman nearby dug a plastic spoon out of her bag and handed it over with a smile. Another man came by with a wooden fork in a plastic cover. And a fourth person provided a napkin.

As the train pulled into a station, one of the young man's benefactors got off, calling: “Have a good dinner!” The young man looked dumbfounded. He said, loudly: “This is the BEST train ride I have ever been on!” Everyone clapped!  Arthur Miller would have, too.

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