NY Conversation May 2011

“The subway is a porno,” goes a lyric in Interpol’s “NYC”, and while this might make you wonder exactly what sort of thing Paul Banks likes to Google surreptitiously when his girlfriend’s not at home, after enough trips on New York’s iconic metropolitan transit system, you do kind of get what he means. The subway is New York City’s great leveller. Unless you’re one of the city’s genuinely super-rich and travel by helicopter or hyperspace transfer or something – or you have a particularly strong liking for sitting in traffic and looking out the window of a taxi – then you catch the subway like everyone else, rich or poor, black or white, young or old.

Given that New York is one of the world’s most ethnically, socially and, um, mentally diverse cities, this means that a ride on the subway is one of the world’s great people-watching experiences. There’s the daily commuters, of course – besuited executives, yammering schoolkids, balding weary men in polo shirts and chinos who smell of coffee and stale sweat and desperation and are all called Walt or Jim. The occasional carbuncular secretary studying the ads for Dr Zizmor’s famous fruit acid chemical peel very carefully indeed. Laughing graphic designers and advertising types, comfortable in their stylish affluence. Grizzled MTA contractors carrying lights and esoteric tools, all with the tired but satisfied air of a long night of track work behind them.

Would you trust this man?

There’s the tourists who shuffle on at 42 St, clutching shopping bags and furtively studying subway maps while trying not to look like tourists. And there’s the musicians who entertain the tourists. The fresh-faced drummer on the platform at 14 St with a full kit and MIDI percussion pad, who NY Conversation saw getting fined by the police one night and who hasn’t been seen since. Gospel singers good and bad. Several different Mexican mariachi bands. The breakdancers, who work the long non-stop express journey between 125 St and 59 St with a little portable stereo and a routine that’s so well-rehearsed and well-oiled that it feels tired and somehow a little sad.

There’s the homeless people sleeping on the platforms during the winter, and the characters you see from day to day. Large intimidating potential gangsters with small effete dogs. The watery-eyed Courtney Love lookalike reading a “Welcome to Narcotics Anonymous” pamphlet. A gentleman in a cape and English highwayman gear. Creepy Christian families with children in matching outfits. An old man quietly and carefully pissing into a bottle.

And then there’s the bona fide lunatics, like the sinewy veteran crackhead who’s often seen running around in circles and talking to her reflection in the window of the carriage, smoking a cigarette all the while – although once, in a glorious only-in-America moment, another commuter produced a can of air freshener from her handbag and sprayed it pointedly in the direction of the smoking crackhead, who eventually put her cigarette out and then resumed her sad, broken laps of the train. The small Christian lady in shorts and large heavy hiking boots who attempted to convert said crackhead to a life of Jesus-lovin’ evangelism, with predictably disappointing results.

The seven-foot Amazon in leopard print dress and heels who may or may not have been a transexual but either way took quite a shine to NY Conversation, prompting visions of a potential Kip/LaFawnduh scenario and a distinct sense of relief when our station came around. The derelict magician whose tricks involved producing various items from his “magic box”, including lacy (and possibly soiled) underwear, and, implausibly, an actual live dove, which took off and flew around the carriage, terrifying pretty much everyone until he managed to convince it to return reluctantly to the confines of the box.

Coming soon to a subway near you

And, of course, there’s always something to challenge your own preconceptions. A while back, NY Conversation sat across from a dignified-looking late-middle-aged African or West Indian man with greying dreadlocks and an elegant olive green suit. As we watched, he extracted a Border’s bag from his leather satchel and turned it over in his hands a few times. As we waited for him to remove its contents, we amused ourself trying to guess what sort of erudite reading matter he’d purchased – a Toni Morrison novel, perhaps, or some sort of post-colonial discourse by Edward Said – and started thinking about how great it was that New York attracts such intellectuals from around the world, men who’d probably be persecuted in their own countries but here were free to express themselves and contribute to the greater good of humanity and etc. As we sat basking in thoughts of glorious intellectual liberation and the betterment of man, the gentleman opened the bag and produced…

A three-DVD box set of The Complete and Unadulterated Best of Benny Hill.

C’est la vie, say the old folks. It goes to show you never can tell.

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