The New York Subway System
Bruce Davidson
Those of us who grew up in and around New York City probably spent too many hours underground, fascinated by the noise and speed and light-in-dark: the sparks from the shoe, the rocking of the cars, the generators going on and off, the dark hole before us, racing towards us; kids standing at the front of the train, watching blue and red and green lights swarming past us out of the dark. The lights would kick off, the blue lights come on, or suddenly --- at the 242 St. Station --- the generator would start up, "blump-blump-blump."

Dark and light, the blue lights, the red lights and the naked white lights in a row stretching forth into the coach ahead and the one ahead of that, reflected back into the windows. And the back-and-forth as the electric motor whined up to top speed, a mere 28 mph but with the walls closing in, the south-bound A-Train screaming past ("Take the A-Train" it sang), making us feel like we were going at Mach-3.

And always the characters who streamed in and out: drunk, proper, poor, isolated, fearful, amused, bemused or confused --- or most characteristically, especially for those of us who came from other, different worlds where people occasionally smiled at each other --- the great stone faces, looking off, firmly, into nowhere, even and especially when the car was jammed, all of us cheek-by-jowel, the nuns and the newspaper-reading commuters and the old ladies in house-slippers and the Wall Street Brokers and the janitors and mechanics with giant horny black fingernails --- all pretending that even though the others were so close, so physically close, none of them existed at all, at all.

And at the end of the line, there was the sudden breaking out into the heavens, all of us elevated, rising up to the heavens, between the tenaments --- where, in our omniscience, we could watch people as they lived their tenament lives: cooking dinner, washing clothes, fighting, or just fat arms out the window, leaning towards us in their tank-tops and tee-shirts and bras, those of us on the train racing brightly past them towards Far Rockaway, a long day's journey into daylight.

We didn't know it at the time, but Robert Moses and his ugly co-conspirators had already consigned the underground to criminality and slow decay by diverting all taxes and most of the fares for freeways and highways away from mass transit, beginning a planned decay, not only in New York City, but everywhere in the country, for --- as Robert Caro tells us in Moses --- the engineers and technicians and highway politicians came to New York City from all over, to learn from the Moses-on-high how to drive subways and street-cars and interurbans to ruination for the highly destructive automobile (Marshall McLuhan said in Understanding Media that they always asked him where urban violence came from; no one thinks to plant the blame where it so obviously belongs: on the car that rolls through the cities, dividing neighborhoods with insurmountable asphalt and concrete moats, destroying every kind of social interaction in its wake).

Decay, stink, and breakdowns became the bellwether of our old friend, the BMT. Subways were for sleeping. Guns and murder and assaults moved underground. Moses is now on high, with his ghastly ego, but his terrible legacy lives on.

There are, however, some changes for the better: the coaches from back then were drab and green and bleak. These days, young Matisses spray paint the walls and the cars to add a whole new glorious class-art dimension to the underground, despite the fact that the yahoos in the New York Transit System try to convince us that spray-painting is a felony equal to knocking off the 7-11 --- so they persecute these brilliant artists unmercifully. (Instead of the dodoes that the NEA usually funds, how nice it would be if they would recognize our young urban masters by giving special grants to the those judged to be most elegant in their subway decorative styles.)

Unfortunately, there seem to be some new dangers we never contemplated forty years ago on the Carnarsie Line. Mere commuting, it turns out, can be life-threatening. In one of his journeys to make these photographs, Davidson lost his camera to two Puerto Ricans by means of a knife leveled at his throat.

It's a fine ride Davidson gives us, though. Dark, sweltering, crowded, bleak crowd pictures are mixed with funny, tender, and soulful individual ones. There is an action shot of a man with gun threatening another; there is an older lady, a much older lady, who, when asked if it was all right to take her picture, stripped to the buff for Davidson (he decided to publish this most unusual beaver shot). When you get right down to it, it is New York at its best and worst --- and you might want to get this volume to congratulate yourself on what you are missing.

--- A. G. Waters

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