Subways

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Today I traveled an enormous distance—from Wall Street to 125th Street—from Downtown to Harlem. Now in the grand scheme of things that is really only 7.74 miles but when you compress such vast differences in neighborhoods I passed through, you end with a montage of rivaling American poetry: from Carl Sandburg to Malcolm X, from show tunes to hip hop. Over two days I emerged to photograph several icons in between: Times Square, 42nd Street, Central Park, etc.

"The oldest subway in the world is London, 1863."


Subways are to cities what the six gun was to the Old West—the “Great Equalizer”. In the crush of rush hour they transport teeming masses around metropolises all over the world. Subways distill the various strata of humanity, rich/poor, majority/minority, intellectuals/crazies—noone gets there any faster. They are a platform (no pun intended) to panhandle for spare change, preach the gospel according to whomever, audition thespian or musical talents & accost hapless strangers. Because once the metal doors close behind you, you are a captive audience. NO EXIT.

In my youth, a girlfriend, who had moved to Manhattan, gave me my first lesson in subway etiquette, “Don’t look anybody in the eye!” Later on, like Lot’s wife in the Bible’s parable of Sodom & Gomorrah, I turned around, met someone’s gaze & paid the price. “What you looking at?” Nobody comes to your rescue.


"He may ride forever
‘neath the streets of Boston
He’s the man who never returned."
--Charlie on the MTA



It is no secret my love affair with subways. For years I have had a recurring dream of traveling crosscountry as a straphanger, if it were possible to make all the transfers—standing up if necessary. The nocturnal nature of being underground, of it always being nighttime can be eerie. But some systems make up for it & are intentionally designed for the dramatic. Moscow has Romanesque ceilings, mosaics & crystal chandeliers or stepping out of the darkness into the overlit Olympic village with its Disney-like atmosphere or emerging, first time, from Paris’ Metro at L’Opera can be breathtaking.

"Moscow has the biggest ridership of all metro systems throughout the world with 3.2 billion riders annually, 8.2 million passengers daily."


Some places tolerate an entire subterranean existence—an alternate reality. Homeless live in the tunnels, buskers entertain passing travelers. An alternative economy barkers its wares of handicrafts, clothes, knock off electronics, oils & unguents, CDs, black market money exchange. Denizens of the Demimonde. It is hard to imagine the entire contribution made to the GNP, if much of the income is even reported.

Some cities are so congested that subways are a much preferred, more efficient method of getting around. On my first assignment that took me to Japan I tried to haul all my equipment around using taxis. New Japanese cabs are truly one of civilization’s luxuries. Clean. Polite drivers. White gloves. No tipping. But the bone crushing traffic made each trip a frustrating, expensive ordeal. When I learned to muscle my heavy lighting kits up & down the station stairs & throw them onto the trains, I made better time.

I have endured the subways in many cities: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Atlanta, Paris, Seoul, Boston, Kyoto, Athens & Washington, DC. Notice it is definitely an urban mode of transportation. You are never going to stand on an underground platform beneath the cornfields of Iowa. Once you make your peace with them, subways can still be “a cruel & tempting mistresses or a dear & dependable friend.”

"New York City has the world’s only 24 hour subway service."



In London the repressed British will take you anywhere on “the Tube”. When I was a naïve college student, a very English gentleman dressed in tweed suit & proper club tie put his hand on my knee while giving me quite explicit directions to my destination. I thought at first it was just the European way. “Please, Mind the Gap.”

"apropos orpheus descending
the spiral staircase into hades
(more than mortal)
in search of Eurydice
throngs of commuters jostling
downward

RR tracks tracing the multicolored schematic diagram
underground
permanent midnight
doors close
sartres NO EXIT

with all the insanity
every single soul vying for your attention
your senses compete
after all the smells—sound
radios blaring
steel wheels screeching
babies crying
inane dangerous conversations
in barely recognizable dialects
& if—somehow—you could turn off noise
& hot/cold temperatures
youre still a character in a graphic novel
in color
downtown/uptown
express/local to unknown"
--laj, august 2009



To be useful, metros have to be accessible to the least common denominator. Otherwise language, sophistication & custom would render them opaque to new customers. Besides the fact that it requires a PhD in astrophysics to decipher some of those colorcoded schematic maps, the scariest moments in subway usage is figuring out how to pay for the privilege. Buying a token will bring you to your knees. You do not know hostility until you have backed up an anxious mob behind you trying to decode the automatic ticket machine in Dusseldorf.

Prague is a magnificent old city. It was spared bombing during World War II so it remains intact from ancient times. Its subway is not nearly as old but parts of it are byzantine like many of the buildings overhead. After a seventeen year absence I fumbled with money, figured out the transfers & rode the train to photograph just as the sun set behind infamous Charles Bridge. I had been contemplating the shot for what felt like an eternity.


Japanese trains are a model of technological efficiency. If your train is scheduled for 11:37am, you can step off the empty platform at 11:36 & be confident that when your foot comes down it will be safely inside a car.

The only time I ever encountered a delay was after stopping at a large elevated station. The most ominous sound filled the air. The whole atmosphere made noises. I was dumbfounded. Not a soul moved or spoke a word. Too polite. Even in a society that is noted to be taciturn, this was bizarre. After several minutes I finally asked my stoic “fixer” what had just happened. He told me it was one of Tokyo’s frequent earthquakes. After many more minutes of testing the tracks, we were on our way. Not a word was uttered again. Too embarrassed.

"Midnight in the subway
She’s on her way home
She tries not to run"
--Subway Song, The Cure



The New York City subway is like the movies. We have seen its florescent green palette on television for decades. Crowded, impersonal, graffiti. It is the spine of a city that never sleeps. But you can sleep on the subway. Read newspapers. Eat your dinner. But verbal encounters have their own set of rules. Some cultures invite conversation but most discourage it. In such close quarters it is a pressurized environment. Ask directions, verify schedule. But anyone who chats you up is usually crazy, a predator or a tourist.

Alcoholism is a huge problem in Japan. You can buy it from vending machines on many street corners. A gang of drunken teenagers surrounded me late one night on an empty subway car. They decided to f**k with the American geijin. After several tense minutes I beguiled the leader & by the time they staggered off we were “best friends”. I was shaking all the way to my hotel.

"On some Tokyo Metro lines, the first or last car of a train is reserved for women during peak hours."


Although the perfect photo op, it is problematic to photograph on subways. Some systems, like Paris & Tokyo, it can be done but many municipalities require some form of credential. More importantly it is the subjects who are likely most paranoid. The feeling of being trapped in a fishbowl exacerbates belligerencies. Be careful. However I once watched as a woman stealthily photographed in a large station. Every time the guards moved in her direction she went another way. To her credit it was a wonderful cat & mouse game she was playing.

Riding at rush hour, cheek to jowl with locals, one hand harnessed in an overhead strap, feeling numb because of blood rushing from your arm & the other hand glasping your wallet because of a loudspeaker announcement to watch for pickpockets is the ultimate kaleidoscope experience. Now do not get me wrong. Under the barometric pressure of summer, stuffed into a subway car with broken air conditioning is penance for most of the sins of mankind. But I am happy to endure because of the promise of where it puts me. It is not ironic that a single “carnival ride” combines both heaven & hell in this urban theme park.

13 comments:

Michaela,  October 7, 2009 at 3:12 PM  

This is wonderful Lou. It reads like a book... and it feels like a film with Tom Waits in the soundtrack. I want to see all the photos. I love that crazy underworld, and yes, fear is part of the love.
-Michaela

pat wj,  October 8, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

ha! great stories, beautifully written. Felt the anxiety of backing up the line in Dusseldorf. I even had trouble with the new paper system in Boston - all in English . . .

And no one explained the NYC "no look" rule to me. I learned it on my way back from a visit to Jamaica. I took the local bus from a town on one side of the island to the airport. I was obviously a stranger - and they treated me like one of their own. There were no empty seats. We were so crammed in that some people "sat" where there was no seat in the isle - suspended by the pressure of being squeezed by seated passengers on both sides - at least according to my faded memory. They befriended me by plunking a young child on my lap - everyone held something - kids, bundles, cages of chickens. When we stopped in villages, men jumped out the windows and helped throw . . .i don't remember what - whatever people were taking to market, i guess, on top of the bus. And - they sang - they really did. I don't remember the songs, but it was like something out of a musical. It was like being in a musical. It was really really fun - by far the best public transportation ride i've ever had.

After i landed in NYC, i took the subway to visit a friend in Queens. It was just a few hours after my Jamaican bus ride. I was still high from the energy and friendliness of the Jamaicans. I entered a sparsely inhabited car. The few people were spaced - as though someone had measured - exactly equidistant from each other. Shocked by the silence and open spaces, i had the sense to leave exactly the same number of feet and inches between me and the people on either side of me - even if it made me feel lonely. I looked across the way at a fellow passenger who stared straight ahead. What was wrong with this person? I smiled. No eye contact. Obviously this person didn't want to be friendly. I looked at the other person across and down a bit from me. No eye contact. I smiled. Nothing back. These people were like stone statues. What was wrong with them? They probably saw me out of their peripheral vision and wondered what was wrong with the weirdo smiling at them. . . What is wrong with our culture? I wondered what it must be like for a Jamaican immigrant or visitor to get on a similar car direct from the airport.

This is not my experience on the Boston subway. I often meet and talk with my neighbors - if they're not reading, and occasionally, even if they are. NYC's a nice place to visit, but i don't think i'd want to live there.

Anonymous,  October 8, 2009 at 3:15 PM  

So where's the pic of sunset on the Charles Bridge in Prague?

Anonymous,  October 9, 2009 at 6:12 AM  

hi lou,
enjoyed this fun read and pics! my friend
shared a very funny story with me of a recent ride home from work one evening. while he was in a subway car with few people on it, a rat, and a big one, ran in while parked at a station. as soon as the doors closed the rat went bezerk running up and down the car, onto empty seats, under shaking legs, squeeling at the top of its rat lungs the whole time. the passengers were frozen in their seats looking at eachother bug eyed with "oh my God what do we do" looks on their faces. when the train stopped and doors open, the rat bolted out and all breathed a deep sigh of relief with eachother. just another adventure on the subway! never a dull moment!
denise

Srfotog October 9, 2009 at 10:25 AM  

Yah, I remember subways, all right. I got out of NY because of the subways. I was assigned to shoot the mole people as the people who live in the tunnels are designated.They were the mentally ill and the drug addicts that were at the bottom of their descent. The smell was indescribable. I heard stories of limbs being cut off when people were hallucinating or drugged out. I met one older man who police said was schizophrenic who lived under a manhole. He was very neat with his clothes hung up on pipes with hangers and a small kitchen made out of a camping stove and boxes for tables and a counter. The police let him alone because they liked him. Of course this assignment was at Christmas-time and I got vey depressed about NY and begged out.

Mike October 11, 2009 at 9:17 AM  

Hi Lou,
You did not mention the number one advantage of Subways: fewer calories than McDonalds. Remember their ads featuring "Jared"? Of course, I always thought that he lost weight because if the only thing to eat is Subway, you go without.

Charles Matter,  October 11, 2009 at 4:03 PM  

Funny that I've never thought of you as a Subway lover, Lou. Maybe because none of your places I knew of was really near any Subway??
So.. let me see; which ones do I know? Paris, Milan, Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Philadelphia. Certainly other places that don't immediately come to mind. My favorite? Paris. My least favorite? Boston. I live in New York, and so take the Metro for granted as a way of life.. necessary. One of the main things I like about Subways is that they are self-service portals to the cities they serve.. meant to be. While I love riding the trains; my relationship with them is more utilitarian.. less romantic. I seldom photograph on the subway; but I look constantly, absorbing everything. Many sparks of inspiration have developed from this watching.. and remembering. Subways invariably mirror the tone and temper of their cities, too. Masculine, Energetic, Incessant: New York. Self-absorbed, Elegant and Beautifully Feminine: Paris. Provincial Awkward and Redundant: Boston

Charles Matter,  October 11, 2009 at 4:09 PM  

And, oh yes.. of course.. the London Tube. Last time I was there, my main impression was the lack of trash containers.. thanks to the IRA. Heh. Then there's the "Chunnel"... the Eurostar thru the tunnel under the English Channel. I guess that could be considered sort of an "Uber" subway. Maybe a portent of things to come? I love the Eurostar. Fast, efficient, a real Euro Subway.

Martha Pinson,  October 11, 2009 at 8:26 PM  

I love the New York subway. It's fast and cheap. Ideal form of transportation.

Anonymous,  October 14, 2009 at 6:57 PM  

There's a cool video short @ YouTube by Pierre Bennu, called "Damn." It's amazingly on point...about love almost found on the subway. Any subway rider can relate....
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B1gk40d0eTU

J.M. Lawrence October 14, 2009 at 7:35 PM  

Beautiful and intriguing essay, Lou. What a different world we might live in if we got rid of the SUVs and everyone -- old and young, rich and poor -- everyone had to ride the subway together, see each other, smell each other, make way for each other. The great underground equalizer makes us all just humans.

Robert February 15, 2010 at 2:03 AM  

After a bit of trepidation, I entered the Marseilles subway at Vieux Port, not far from where the movie "French Connection" was filmed. Clean, graffiti-free and efficient. But as with most underground modes of transportation, one still needs to be on guard, mainly for pickpocket artist.

Candace Clemens,  July 12, 2013 at 2:57 PM  

Nice piece on an interesting subject. Nice comments, too. Each city/country really does have such a different flavor, cache (or not) and gestalt to the existing public transportation -- subway or bus. With my visit to London still fresh in my memory, I loved how my youngest daughter has become such an expert and fan of "The Tube" as well as the red, double decker buses. Once a wicked Boston driver (I've been told the new term is "Masshole"), and only using the T for special events (pub crawls), Gracie now raves about how much money she has saved and how much weight she has lost since trading the car-addictive life style for London's public transportation.

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.