Magazine | February 20, 2017, Issue

Notes from Underground

Trucks at a Ford dealership in Encinitas, Calif. (Reuters photo: Mike Blake)

The most recent culture-war slappy fight involved transportation: Do you know anyone who drives a pickup truck, the vehicle of those who labor in the earth, the chosen people of God? Upstate of course is full of pickups, though my archetype of the country vehicle is the Volkswagen that Doug bought for $400, customized, then drove until it fell apart (its last incarnation was as a lumber wagon). But this for another time. In the city, the vehicle of choice is the subway, which is called the train.

Talk about old technology. With great fanfare and not a little mockery, the transit system opened a new short spur on the Upper East Side. The extension had only been on the drawing board for a century. How did all the other lines get built? There are 236 miles of routes, running from the North American mainland to the barrier reef of Long Island. What made it happen? Cheap labor? No safety standards? Will to power? Something produced a great spurt, on which the city has coasted ever since.

In peak hours the trains can be almost Japanese in density, and in willed ignorance of one’s surroundings. Everyone stands at attention (the seats have been filled long ago). Hands angle for poles or overhead grab bars. The tall can reach up and gain a little stability by pressing a palm flat against the ceiling. If a gentleman swivels up to yield his seat to a pregnant woman, it is as astonishing as the miracle of the loaves and fishes.

Crowding is irksome but normal. As long as we feel the roll and rattle and glimpse the staccato of passing tunnel lights, we’re on schedule, we’re making progress, we’re riding the hay wain together. Normal but alarming are the stops. — ? After three beats we think: Accident? Hijacking by criminal masterminds? Jihad? What fans alarm are the announcements designed to allay it, either because they refer opaquely to “an incident” for which this train is being held, or because they refer in static-ese only to KHKHKXL.

In the watches of the night the train is almost empty, which brews its own weirdness. Years ago I took a crosstown hop. Across from me sat a woman whose blouse was open. Across and down sat a man, obviously not an acquaintance, eyeing her. She giggled; she was high as a kite. This would not close well. Another time my wife and I were returning from a pre-hipster outer borough when a posse got on, jumping up and down as loudly as they could, and shouting “This is t’F*** Train.” Youth must have its day. We looked straight ahead until they departed.

Managing the trains and the stations they serve is a constant struggle against disorder. In the Seventies and Eighties the struggle had gone the way of Canute. Trains and platforms were infested with beggars and panhandling musicians. A nun sat at the bottom of one of the escalators descending into the bowels of Grand Central Station. The diocese had said several times in my life that there are no mendicant nuns in New York. Tell that to Sister Tip-Me. The clergy of the new religion of social justice barged through the cars, announcing that they were accepting donations of food for the homeless. What a great welfare system — half-eaten turkey wraps, available for distribution, oh, maybe four hours after they were collected. You could, of course, also give them money. Blind men rattling cups flourished their canes like vergers’ wands (also “blind” men: a friend of mine once pretended to be one for a day). My standing to complain could be questioned since I met my wife in a singing group that performed, in the larger stations and on the harbor ferries, the music of Guillaume Dufay and cover bands (Josquin, William Byrd, etc.). But our conductor had gone to the powers that be for a permit, and we never solicited or accepted donations.

Beginning in the Nineties, the culture of the city and of the trains changed. No more googly graffiti in cars or on station walls. The only paint you saw was regulation. Beggars and punks got moved along or taken in. The only in-train musicians now are black male a cappella quartets that sing doo-wop or old soul. They drop a tune, then move to the next car, like table-hopping violinists in the posh restaurants of Forties movies. Other music comes from the trains themselves. On certain lines they sing (this is relative, not perfect pitch) C–up to B-flat–A, the first three notes of “There’s a Place for Us,” rudely followed by B natural. From Bernstein to Webern, or Bach: The four notes are, in German notation, an anagram of the BACH theme, C–B(=B-flat)–A–H(=B-natural).

Between rush hour and spooky hour, you can relax and look around. Ads: lots for foot problems and skin care. Non-traditional degrees, more legit one hopes than those once offered by the 45th president. The strange tongues of government announcements: Bernstein wrote a musical about a white–Puerto Rican romance, now it would have to be Company with Chinese-, Russian-, Korean-, and Kreyol-speaking characters. I pray they never install video ads, and pray on my knees that they never allow political ads. My last prayer will probably be granted: The city is a one-party state, why bother? People still do read analog books on the train — and not just schoolwork, by the look of it. Rarely a newspaper though, not even the commuter giveaways.

Strangely, in all my years underground, I have hardly run into anyone I know. Last spring, a man with a Caribbean accent recognized me from TV and asked my esti-ma-tion of the Trump situ-a-tion. He had to get off before I could answer. Good thing: What did I know? And just the other day, I was rolling uptown to a breakfast meeting when I caught, across a crowded train, the eye of a colleague. Almost missed him. I was in the zone.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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