Subway Stories

I spend a lot of time on the subway because I live way uptown, to get to where friends live I have to ride some trains.  Yesterday I took the C Train and then the A to 14th Street, walked up and down to the L, got off at the second stop, Union Square, where I was going to meet an old friend for lunch at the Old Town Bar on 18th right off Broadway.  The Old Town has, alas, become a tourist destination, but since everybody in this city comes from elsewhere, who’s complaining?

Union Square is maybe my favorite place in this town.  How could it not be?  Walk south and you’re in the Village, on your way past Strand Books toward NYU and the Zinc Bar.  Walk west and you’re in Chelsea, hob-nobbing with your fellow wizards of homo-normativity.  Walk north up Broadway and there at 23rd is the most incongruous and intriguing structure outside of the pyramids—the Flatiron Building, another bizarre, three-dimensional rendition of a triangle, but pressed into its most aggressive forms, the prow of a ship and the edge of a knife, it always looks like something coming at you, and sometimes it makes you think you’d better get out of the way.  Walk east, well, I never did that.

The A Train runs express from 125th to 59th, so that’s where the artists set up shop, in the middle of the car—Mexican duets, two guitars and cowboy hats, gymnastic break-dancing to the tune of hip-hop, actors in character as homeless individuals, whatever.  I always have a couple singles in my pocket to donate to the cause, even when the performance is awful: once upon a time, my highest aspiration as a musician was to play and sing in a subway station.  But yesterday the man in the middle was playing a cello, so I was ready to give him more than a buck.  Except that he sucked, I swear he was playing scales—he was practicing for god’s sake, in a subway car.  So I abstained from my usual tithe.

Meanwhile the fifty-something guy next to me is reading Jean Baudrillard’s America (1986), when he closes his eyes and leans back, he’s thinking about the weird shit he’s just confronted, I say, “So what do you make of it?”  He looks at me all startled like I woke him up, and I nod toward the book in his lap, and he looks down as if I put it there, gathers himself, turns to me and says “I love this stuff, have you read ‘Paroxysm’?”  I say, “No, I’m a big fan of the early stuff, why are you reading Baudrillard if you don’t mind me asking?”  He says, “I don’t know, why did you?”

I say, “professional obligation, to begin with,” and we start discussing Baudrillard with the cello as background.  It turns out that he’s a lighting designer always looking for ideas about what his clients take for granted, so he wants to know what they can take for granted—and that means he has to understand American history and culture.  It also turns out that the Situationists had an effect on him.

As I climb out of the station at Union Square, having caught the L from 8th Avenue, I’m still smiling even though I’m a little late, the sunshine fills the stairway and I’m thinking of the impromptu seminar I’ve just attended on the A Train.  And then I’m in the foot traffic created by the famous Farmer’s Market, it slows everybody down to the speed of a toddler or a geezer, so I’m pissed.  I say to myself, but out loud, “Jesus fucking Christ, the fucking farmer’s market has gotta be every fucking day of the fucking week, I can’t just walk to 18th Street, I have to fucking saunter along here with the fucking tourists on their way to fucking nowhere?”

The guy behind me mutters, “Whoa, you got some anger issues there, mister,” and that just makes me laugh out loud, I stop and turn back to thank him for the reminder of where I am in the world—maybe my favorite place in this town—but he stops, too, he raises his eyebrows and his hands as if I were pointing a gun at him.  So I turn and go, still laughing.  It takes me another five minutes to get to 18th Street.

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