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Posts Tagged ‘subway’

For the 1 Train Dead

August 28, 2014 | by

Robert-Lowell

Robert Lowell at home.

New Yorkers like to affect jadedness in the face of celebrity; we yawn, we stare fixedly in the other direction, we scorn star-struck tourists  And yet today, I had a celeb sighting so exciting I reacted like a middle-schooler at a taping of Total Request Live.

I had just entered a pleasantly empty subway car, only to discover the cause of its emptiness—a broken AC—too late. I was cursing my luck and considering an illegal dash between cars when I saw him. There, across the aisle, and under a Poetry in Motion poster, was Robert Lowell. To the life: the patrician features, the distinctive nose, eyes that had known suffering and pain as well as realms of genius invisible to the normal run of mortals. He was not a man in the first blush of youth; this was “Day by Day”–era Lowell. He was wearing a rumpled linen jacket and tie. Of course he was.

All thoughts of changing cars having fled, I took a seat directly opposite and stared. There was no question about it: this was Robert Lowell. Maybe a ghost. At the very least a relative. He could certainly have made a good living as a Lowell impersonator, traveling the world and reciting confessional poetry with a Brahman inflection. Well, a living, anyway.

I waited for my chance. I didn’t want to strike too soon, but on the other hand I couldn’t live without knowing. Best-case scenario, he’d break into “Life Studies.”

I timed it carefully. When we were one stop away from my point of departure, I planted myself in front of him. “Excuse me, sir?” I said, my voice quavering. He looked up. His eyes were very, very sad. “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like Robert Lowell?”

For a horrible moment, the lack of comprehension on his face was such that I thought he might not speak English. But then he said, “Robert who?”

There were two French tourists watching the proceedings with interest. Maybe they didn’t realize that other cars were air-conditioned.

“Robert Lowell, the poet,” I said. “It’s a compliment. He was an excellent poet! And handsome! I mean, he had his problems”—I said this in case he should look up his biography and think I had been less than forthcoming—“but who doesn’t?”

“Oh,” he said. “Thanks, I guess.”

I turned my back and stared at the doors for what felt like an eternity. It must have been a hundred degrees in there. Frankly, I thought, if that guy wasn’t Robert Lowell, and either mentally ill or supernatural, it was really weird that he was sitting in this sweltering car. Frankly, it was irrational.

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If You See Something

July 28, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jaroslav Thraumb

I was midway through a very different sort of post today when something unexpected happened: I got hit in the face on the subway.

It was an accident, but no less unpleasant for that. On the subway, you expect a certain amount of violence: in the course of a rush-hour commute you’re liable to be jostled, elbowed, crowded, and trod upon. If you are short, the incidence is even higher. But even by those standards this was unusual. Indeed, even by my own day’s standards—which seem to contain more petty indignities than a Benny Hill sketch—this was unusual.

Long story short: as we were both getting up to exit the 1 train, a man hefted his backpack and, in the process, backhanded me. Because his arm was propelled by the weight of his bag, and because I was in the midst of standing up, the blow was really hard. A gasp went up from everyone who had seen. He apologized, twice, but there really wasn’t anything he could do. And because there is nothing worse than refusing an apology for something done without intention, of course I accepted it, and tried to smile and pretend it was nothing.

It has been a while since I was punched in the subway. The last time was much worse. I got on the train with a heavy paper grocery bag in each hand. No sooner had I walked through the doors when a teenager, out of nowhere, punched me in the stomach. It wasn’t that hard, but the shock was enough that I dropped my bags, a plum rolled down the car, and—I would discover later—several eggs broke. His friends cackled with glee. No one did anything.

That wasn’t even the worst part. “Hey, sorry,” said the kid, after I had sat down. Then, “Give me a kiss.”

Now, I’m sitting here with a cold pack to my aching jaw—I have one of those cartoon-drunk ice bags. I think it is going to swell, but hopefully won’t excite too much comment. If I have to, I guess I could make some awful joke about Zsa-Zsa Gabor and New York, and try to be jaunty. But the truth is, I hate having to admit I’m a victim of the city, you know?

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Hunting John Wilkes Booth’s Diary, and Other News

June 11, 2014 | by

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Booth ca. 1865. His diary may be in an abandoned tunnel in Brooklyn.

  • Knausgaard responds to his newfound celebrity
  • … and the French shrug at that celebrity. “Knausgaard gives us one striking example of what looks again like a very French phenomenon … The list of French books in the same vein of meticulous self-analysis is nearly infinite … Let’s hope that Knausgaard’s unexpected success will make them rethink their hasty judgment and consider the French production with fresh eyes.”
  • Is John Wilkes Booth’s diary in a forgotten Brooklyn subway tunnel?
  • The complex, semitragic history of Entertainment Weekly and ent-fo, i.e., “entertainment information”: “The plan was highly digestible reviews intended to keep the bourgeoisie in touch … They wanted to assist ‘the aging baby boomer who still wants to be plugged in,’ using a scale (A to F) that reflected the ‘universal experience’ of school grades. If you read EW, the logic went, you were saving yourself from your own bad decisions: The magazine’s pitch for subscribers even asked potential readers to weigh the $50-dollar yearly rate against ‘the cost of a bad evening’s entertainment.’”
  • Commentators in the nineteenth century argued that chess, being so addictive, would turn our nation’s youths into bloodthirsty maniacs: “The great interest taken in this warlike game—the importance attached to a victory—and the disgrace attending defeat, are exemplified in numerous instances … It is said, that the Devil, in order to make poor Job lose his patience, had only to engage him at a game at Chess.”

 

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The Set

April 2, 2014 | by

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William Evans Burton, comedian. Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February, 25, 1860.

The problem is the beaming. For whatever reason, I frequently boast a huge smile when in public, and as any city-dweller will tell you, this is a bad idea. I may be grinning about a doll, a muffin, a soda label. “She’s mad happy,” a teenager once remarked to another as I passed their school.

Yesterday, at the Ninety-Sixth Street subway station, I know exactly what I was smiling about. I had overheard one woman remark to another, “As soon as we get to the baby gym, all he wants to do is take off his pants and get on the trampoline.” It was all I could think about as I prepared to see my psychiatrist—specifically, I was thinking that this was utterly reasonable on the (presumed) baby’s part, and that if I ever found a gym where de-pantsing and jumping on a trampoline was SOP, maybe I would join a gym. And all of which would have been fine, if I had not been the only person grinning while everyone else avoided the eyes of the man strolling down the subway platform. Read More »

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If You See Something

October 16, 2013 | by

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For the past week and a half, New York City straphangers have been hearing an unusual announcement during their commutes. “Police are seeking a missing child, Avonte Oquendo, fourteen. He suffers from autism and cannot communicate verbally.” The message describes his striped shirt, jeans, and sneakers; riders are instructed to contact the NYPD. The same message runs on the electronic sign boards on the platforms, between wait times for different lines. The MTA is running the alerts because like many people on the autism spectrum, Avonte likes trains, and the hope is that he will gravitate toward subway stations.

Anyone who has lived in a city recognizes the mask of defensive impassivity commuters typically wear. But change comes over passengers’ faces when they hear this public service announcement. In those moments every single person has the same hope: that he be found, that he be unharmed. By now, we all know his face, which is plastered all over the subway system.

Oquendo walked out of his school in Long Island City, Queens, on October 4 and has not been seen since. Hundreds of volunteers have been searching around the clock; the reward is now more than $70,000. Psychics are working with the cops; divers have started dragging the East River. Meanwhile, the MTA has taken the unprecedented step of suspending overnight track work and deploying employees to scour all 468 stations for the missing boy. “No one knows the subway system like track workers,” said Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelsen.

It has long been understood that those with autism and Asperger’s are often drawn to transit systems; the order of the schedules, the complexity of the timetables and maps, can be both soothing and engaging. Darius McCollum, the Staten Island man whose fixation with the New York City transit system (and, more to the point, his penchant for impersonating transit workers and occasionally commandeering trains and buses) has gotten him arrested more than twenty times, is sort of a legend, but his is only an extreme example. In recent years, educators have capitalized on this established correlation: the London Transport Museum has hosted teenagers in its timetabling department, while the New York Transit Museum runs a “Subway Sleuths” after-school program for seven- to eleven-year-olds that is designed to “use children’s interest in transit to help them navigate social experiences with peers.” Studies in the UK and Australia have found that children on the autism spectrum identified strongly with Thomas the Tank Engine; the parent company, Thomas and Friends, has joined up with several initiatives designed to help put this influence to good use.

Of course, to a child alone, the subway system can be anything but a friendly place. One need not enumerate the dangers. To most passengers, the subway is an experience to be borne at the best of times: efficient, affordable, and round-the-clock, yes, but hardly pleasant. It is strange to hear these announcements, and look around at each other, and know we are all realizing that there is a child who finds the same experience we are tolerating magical and reassuring, and that it is also endangering him, and that, at the same time, the whole, big, impersonal thing is being mobilized to try and find him. As the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the trains enthusiast who created Thomas the Tank Engine, once said, “a steam engine has always got character. It’s the most human of all man-made machines.”

Chief of Department Phil Banks said that if anyone thinks they see Avonte, they should call the department’s hotline at 800-577-TIPS.

 

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Sandwich Man

May 28, 2013 | by

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Managing this chain of Subway sandwich shops in Aleppo totally blows. I’m ensuring the bread gets baked, the cheeses displayed properly, that the tomatoes are freshly sliced and that the discs of various kinds of meat do not smell strange and that all the dispensers of condiments are filled. We ran out of napkins during the last bombardment and that was fucked up, but honestly I don’t even know if the home office even knows we are still open, let alone whether we are keeping customers hands clean. They don’t seem to care! But what is worse is that my BEST assistant manager quit in order to start working as a sniper in that old hospital building—she is a total fucking saint, with a quick finger that once punched out subtotals and now rips out bullets, I guess—and all I’m trying to do is hold it together, which is why I was so relieved when I had a little time off this weekend and had the chance to take our girl to a birthday party in Beirut.

She’s just three-and-a-half, which seems really young to me, but what do I know? I just manage a chain of Subway sandwich shops in the embattled Syrian cultural capital of Aleppo. I’m no expert in what children are capable of. Read More »

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