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
RR tracks tracing the multicolored schematic diagram
sartres NO EXIT
with all the insanity
every single soul vying for your attention
your senses compete
after all the smells—sound
steel wheels screeching
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
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.