If you live in New York, you spend a lot of your waking hours underground, unless you live in Queens. In a normal week, I spend five or six hours down there beneath the city, where even the air you breathe has to be delivered. This is not a complaint: the subway system is a magnificent architectural achievement as well as the best way to get around town.
Unless you get lost down there—it’s hard to do except in Penn Station—you tend not to notice the material intricacy or scale of the thing, because once you descend those steps, you’re in a hurry to get to the right platform, the next train, the destination itself. You tend not to notice the tile work apart from the murals, for example, maybe because it’s everywhere you look, on the floors, walls, and sometimes the ceilings (can all that tile in the system outweigh the metal?). You don’t even notice how insanely long the trains are unless you ride the C, and then you worry that they’ll shut this line down before long because during off-hours, you can have a whole car to yourself (I once thought that if I were homeless, the C would look like the suburbs).
And you tend not to ask why they number the doors starting at the left front of each car, so that no matter where you sit, you have to read backward if you want to get from 1 to 16, and swivel your head, too, which is embarrassing, like moving your lips when you read.
So what are you doing down there? Waiting and watching. Mostly waiting, because even after you board your train, you’re just waiting for your stop. But watching as well, at least to begin with, looking for a seat, looking for signs of something—danger, welcome, novelty, beauty, idiocy—in the clothes and the postures and the colors and the faces of your fellow passengers.
That’s what I do, anyway. When they get on the train, most other people have something to read, or to listen to, or both. Or they play games on their smart phones. They share the sensibility of my girlfriend, who never goes near a subway without a New Yorker or a Times Book Review in tow. But then she doesn’t make coffee or unload the dishwasher without listening to WNYC or a book on tape: either she’s the last Puritan or she doesn’t want to be alone with her own thoughts (but then these may be the same psychological state).
Still, the subway does make everybody wait. My trips aren’t that long, though, and, unlike most passengers, I’m never on my way to or from work. So I don’t mind waiting, and I love watching. I rarely read on the train, unless it’s something I’ve just written. Instead, I look for things and people to look at.
Imagine my surprise, then, last Saturday morning, when I set out from the 14th Street station at 8th Avenue, looking for an E to get me to Lexington and 86th Street, on my way to an out-of-cycle meeting with the shrink. I’ve been waiting on this platform for almost four years, since I started coming to Chelsea to visit my girlfriend, and before Saturday I had of course noticed an ensemble of brass sculptures down there by Tom Otterness, called “Life Underground.” But I had never actually looked at it.
Waiting a long time for that E train let me look closely. I was leaning on some white tile beneath one of the 16th Street stairwells and realized I was right next to a donkey who, according to cartoon convention, is wearing underwear (boxer shorts), work shoes, and a derby hat, but who also has female breasts. That’s an interesting mix of signs, I thought, and then glanced at the donkey’s match, a figure facing the same way on the other side of a three-sided white tile foundation that looks like nothing so much as a wide shower stall. It’s an elephant with a very long trunk, wearing the same underwear but women’s shoes and a top hat.
C’mon, the sculptor put three-dimensional caricatures of the two major parties on a bathroom pedestal, facing downtown rather than each other? Well, duh, I could finally say to myself. (Later I learn that this work was installed by the MTA in 2001; the artist’s commission was $200,000.) Then I notice that between and below them, on the white tile floor, is what looks like two hairy feet facing the same way, except that it’s one huge foot with nine toes and two ankles. Are these parties united by something after all?
These are clothed animals raised above a Big Foot that is clearly prehensile. What are they doing here? Keep it simple. Where are they facing? Downtown, to be sure, but which part of that dense puzzle? The West Village is just below 14th Street, then comes Soho, Tribeca, and the financial district. What do these parties see—or rather, what do we see when we face the same way?
Underneath another stairway opposite these bizarre figures, on the floor, stage center, we see an alligator emerging from a manhole marked “NYC Sewer.” This is not a Santa Claus from the sewer—like that jolly piece of shit Mr. Hankie—who brightens the holidays over at “South Park.” The reptile is gleeful, yes, but he’s chewing on the legs of a little man whose head is a money bag, as in 19th-century cartoons of monopolists and lesser capitalists. The return of the repressed?
Meanwhile, on the railing, stage right, is a fat rodent feasting on the enormous coins that spill from a torn money bag, eating them as if they’re chocolate bars, that’s right, as if he’s munching on shit. Let them eat money.
In the background, stage left, are two rodent policemen—they have caps, uniforms, and holsters—sweeping smaller coins into their receptacles. Some representative of the neo-liberal state has to clean up this mess, might as well be the cops.
And in the dark, way beneath the stairs, almost unnoticeable at the back of this hilarious animal tableau, the smallest figure lays still, on her side, with two plain bags beside her: she carries no money, only her belongings. She might be asleep, but she could be dead. Either way, she’s homeless.
She’s hard to see in this light, isn’t she?
So when we face downtown with the Democrat and the Republican, these two brass animals, we see all the way to Wall Street, where the Law of the Jungle is at work. Not exactly a dog-eat-dog world, but close enough to the reality of the 21st century.