Move Over, Big Town


Arts & Culture, Our Daily Correspondent


More calculated than you’d think. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Last night, a circa-1877 water main burst on Fifth Avenue near East Thirteenth Street, resulting in substantial flooding and, one imagines, a grueling night for any number of MTA workers. Reports the New York Times on the City Room blog,

Basements were flooded when it cracked, but there were no injuries, said Michael Parrella, a Fire Department spokesman.

Fifth Avenue remains closed between 14th and 12th Streets. The break opened up a big hole in Fifth Avenue that repair crews were working on.

Buildings along Fifth Avenue from 14th to 12th Streets were without water this morning, the Department of Environmental Protection said.

A reader reported that buildings on 10th Street also remained without water.

The A, C, E, B, D, F, M, and Q trains all had to be rerouted, so needless to say the morning commute was disrupted for a lot of people and, if you read Twitter, was basically the Worst Thing That Has Ever Happened. People were inconvenienced, and the world needed to know.

Easy for me to say. Now that I am working from home, I don’t need to be on the subway by nine anymore—and believe me, I understand how crushing it can be to watch six trains stream past, knowing all the while that the first to open its doors will be packed beyond the dictates of civilization, sanitation, or fire safety. Usually in such situations there is a hapless MTA representative at the station who fields the queries of the baffled tourists and furious New Yorkers who have all been Personally Inconvenienced by any such mishap. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have both an entire preschool class and a high school field trip waiting on the platform with you.

As it happened, I did need to be on the subway early this morning. But I decided to hoof it the two miles downtown. It wasn’t, in fact, the scrum of angry commuters, or the cranky children and their poor, harassed minders, or even the prospect of the long wait that made my decision for me. It was the “Jailhouse Rock” guy.

The “Jailhouse Rock” guy is normally one of my favorite buskers. He sings only one song—“Jailhouse Rock”—and he sings it on an interminable loop, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, ad infinitum verses same as the first. He has a guitar which he strums enthusiastically and randomly with one hand, while his fret hand lies idle. I have heard people literally groan when they enter the station and realize he is our morning’s entertainment. Once a crazy woman sort of went off on him. He doesn’t care. 

Today I couldn’t do it.

But who cares? We all know what it is to feel imposed upon by musicians during a harried commute. (Likewise, it goes without saying that subway music can be revelatory and interesting. Who at Eighty-Sixth Street wasn’t moved last week by that vet in a wheelchair playing “The Weight” while half the platform joined in on the harmonies?) I’m just another person among thousands, giving money or not giving money, depending on my mood and my finances, on some level thinking of these people with their real lives as somehow a passing soundtrack to my life.

Louis C.K. has a bit about self-absorption. “I can’t believe this is happening to me, ME!” everyone thinks. Because a 127-year-old pipe burst, and hundreds of people had to wade in freezing water overnight fixing it, and others were probably scrambling to prevent everyone being electrocuted, and still others had to reorder all the subway routes, and a man who may or may not be mentally ill was singing a song I didn’t feel like hearing, I walked forty blocks. As the novelty tee would have it, COOL STORY, BABE. NOW MAKE ME A SANDWICH.

Have you seen Jailhouse Rock? Elvis plays a construction worker who accidentally kills a man in a bar brawl, gets one to ten in the state pen for manslaughter, and is taught to play guitar by his cellmate. I won’t get into the whole plot, but suffice it to say, his character encounters a lot of rejection, a lot of class snobbery, and a lot of humiliation. When he does find success, he becomes so self-absorbed that he loses everyone in his life. And “Jailhouse Rock”? It’s a pop song his character writes in a cynical attempt to make it big. The stylized cell-block dance sequence you have seen is in fact a number the Elvis character performs on a Bandstand-style TV show, rather than a lighthearted musical number from a similarly-toned film. The original title was The Hard Way.

Although box-office sales were healthy, Jailhouse Rock received mixed reviews; several critics apparently didn’t like that a film for young people featured an antihero. During filming, one of Presley’s dental caps got lodged in his lung and he had to be hospitalized. Costar Judy Tyler was killed in a car crash two weeks after the film wrapped, and Elvis was so depressed that he didn’t attend the premiere.

As they say, everyone’s a critic. The MTA reports that service has mostly resumed, with delays. No one got a tooth in his lung.

Oh, and for the first time, today, that guy wasn’t playing “Jailhouse Rock.” He was playing “Tutti Frutti.”