In the 1940s, before he found acclaim as a painter, Alex Katz, now eighty-nine, was a student at Cooper Union. Uninterested in the models his teachers asked him to draw, Katz rode the subway for hours, often into the early hours of the morning, sketching the passengers who caught his eye. Through June 30, Timothy Taylor Gallery is hosting an exhibition of his subway drawings.
The other day I noticed something for the first time. “Please allow all customers off the train,” said the recorded voice over the subway sound system. Customers. Not passengers, not riders: customers.
What did it mean? Something bureaucratic, obviously—but philosophically? Had the transaction at last been stripped of all artifice? Had the civic connotations of public transit been cast off in favor of naked commercialism? Or was this a simple acknowledgment that we’re paying for the ride—and that, in the way of all American customers, we are always right? Read More
We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!
Back when I was at my loneliest, I decided it would be a good idea to force myself to do all sorts of things alone. It’s not that I had an aversion to solitude: I’ve always enjoyed, for instance, dining solo, and I like watching movies without the pressure of other peoples’ reactions. But that was not enough; that was too easy. If it was not galling, if it didn’t make me feel acutely self-conscious, somehow it didn’t count. Accordingly, I started singing karaoke and riding carousels and seeing bands with grim determination. I won’t pretend this phase lasted long, but it was horrible while it did. I still can’t hear the song “Veni, Vidi, Vici” without a pang.
The point was not to meet anyone; I shunned company. It was some combination of self-improvement and self-punishment. One June evening, I determined that I would go dancing. I didn’t want to—of course I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to do any of it. Read More >>
Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story. —E. A. Poe
With time to kill before my train, I moseyed into the New York Transit Museum’s shop at Grand Central Station. A train-mad little boy was going wild, and a clerk spoke to his mother sharply about not touching, which seemed to me tantamount to cruel and unusual punishment. There were lots of T-shirts with the logos of different subway lines on them.
The shop was also selling merchandise bearing images from the MTA’s recent “Courtesy Counts” campaign—cheeky subway posters prohibiting “man-spreading,” in-car performances, incivility. My favorite is the one that portrays a female figure brushing her hair while a nearby male clips his nails. “Clipping? Primping?” it says. “Everybody wants to look their best, but it’s a subway car, not a restroom.” Read More
On an uptown local train during the height of an August rush hour, an old man fell asleep in his seat. It should be said that the man in question probably believed his music was contained; he was wearing earbuds. But either he’d neglected to properly plug the headphones into the outlet or the mechanism was somewhat faulty. Because for whatever reason, “Let’s Get It On” started blasting loudly in the otherwise quiet car.
The average urbanite sees a few things in a lifetime of public transit. Kids fighting. Women screaming. Perverts perving. Madmen ranting violently. And the occasional eel, escaped from a shopping bag, writhing wildly down the length of a J-train car. On one occasion, a seven-foot schizophrenic caked in filth spent the better part of an uptown express trip berating a woman whom he claimed had grabbed his ass, threatening to turn her into the transit cops for sexual harassment.
And yet, I have never seen a trainful of passengers more uncomfortable than in the moment when the first four insinuating notes started to play, and Marvin Gaye’s sensuous, passion-roughened voice filled the car. Read More