Observing people and having random encounters with strangers are two of my favorite things about living in a big city. In New York City, there is no shortage of opportunity. An especially fertile ground for this is the R train, a subway line that runs from Forest Hills, Queens into Manhattan and then ends in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. It never fails. Something about the R attracts solicitors, performers and characters of all types.
Everyday after class I ride this line home. Soon after I am seated a show begins. Today, as if by clockwork, a three-piece mariachi band enters through the door that connects to the next car and stops dead in front of me. They always stop in front of me. The men then perform one abbreviated number. I sit there examining their get-ups. Polished gold cowboy boots that match the cording and fringe of their western style shirts. Snazzy slacks reminiscent of tuxedo pants only with more flair. Delightful dress; who doesn’t love tassels and fringe? When they finish, one of the three flings his guitar onto his back, takes off his sombrero and offers it to the riders in the hopes of getting money. No wallets open, they walk on by.
Moments later a troupe of a capella singers parade down the aisle in a trail of harmonious voices ranging from falsetto to bass. They usually sing standard subway fare. “On the Boardwalk” is a common song as are “Stand by Me” and the doo-wop song “Earth Angel”. These songs have been exhausted for years by subway singers in both New York City and Chicago where I am from. Okay, I’m sorry but pick it up boys, broaden your song repertoire and you might score more green. Sure, the tourists may be inclined to throw a buck your way, to them you are a novelty. But this is New York, locals need to be profoundly impressed before they dole out. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve heard all about the boardwalk and we don’t care. Yawn.
They go by and I have a moment to look around. Who is riding this car with me? Across from me a tourist couple sit, tightly clutching shopping bags from the clothing outlet Century 21 (Century 21 bags scream “tourist”). They vigilantly examine everyone, eyes wide, with a look showing hints of fear behind their obvious fascination. Tourists are easy to spot, they just have “that look”, plus, they gave to the doo-woppers.
Just then another solicitor enters our car shouting as if to an arena of thousands. He declares that he alone is here to speak for the multitudes of homeless living in the tri-state area and if, per chance, any one of us could spare a dollar, a quarter, or yes, even a penny, that would be a big help! Even, he insists, if you have any food or drink to give, a morsel of nutrients, this would be invaluable.
Rrrright. Okay, I thought, anything less than 100 bucks in New York City does nothing. Living in New York City for three years has caused me to lose all respect for the value of the dollar. You walk outside your over-priced apartment and 100 bucks instantly evaporates from your pockets. Who is this guy kidding? A penny? Mmm, well, I did have a half a bottle of warm Vitamin Water in my bag as well as the dregs of my daily pretzel portion; bits of microscopic pretzel pieces swimming in a sea of salt at the bottom of a ziplock bag. Perhaps I should offer him these? I wanted to but didn’t. As he continued to yammer on, loudly, I fantasized about muting him with a remote control.
I was, by this time, at Dekalb Avenue, not far from home. Tired from my day, I was growing more and more peeved from the influx of stimuli. There is a point at which train solicitors go from being a slightly amusing diversion to just plain annoying.
Suddenly the side door flew open. Three young men entered, one carrying an audio CD player, the blaring of which flooded our car with sound. Two of the boys started dancing to the techno hip hop bass beat that reverberated so hard it practically shook our seats. They jumped in unison into a backwards summersault, a sneakered foot flew right by my head, all four feet landed with a loud thud. I leaned back and lifted my arms up for protection. After a few more flips, two of the boys sat down to rest while the third, the more lithe of the group, continued. Using the poles and handrails as leverage to aid his flips and leg twists. He moved and flexed and danced back and forth at an increasingly accelerated pace. He flipped and flipped, feet flying, all propriety abandoned. After his final flip, one of his feet landed squarely on a young woman’s sandaled foot. She bent over in pain letting out an anguished whimper. She looked at him in shock as if to say, “Why did you just do that?”
The young man reacted flippantly. He rolled his eyes, blatantly discounting her. The woman limped off the train looking at him in angry disgust, she said a few words I did not hear. After the doors closed behind her he launched into a tirade about how she is rude, a bitch and full of shit. He is the victim here. His chest swelled, his voice got louder. His friends nodded and agreed saying similar unsavory things about the outraged rider. It is his right to perform on the subway and isn’t she a sucker because she probably has a regular job with a paycheck, the government gets all her money while he can easily make 100 dollars a day. Every word he spoke seemed to empower him. He then bragged about his body, 0% fat and look at his abs, tight as shit! “Check this out!” he said lifting his shirt. “And I fathered tons of children! I dunno, it may be 20! And more to come, more just like me…” And on and on.
I had to suppress the urge to let loose on him and yell, “it is NOT your ‘right’ to solicit on the subway! This is a public place and what you are doing is illegal. You could have broken her foot! You arrogant brat, we didn’t ask to see you flip around and we would all be better off if you would shut your fucking…” But I held my tongue.
The train finally arrived at my stop and I couldn’t get off fast enough. I, fed up with this zoo on wheels, walked hurriedly off the train and out of the station. I found myself wondering when can I move back to Chicago.