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Subway Smackdown

Better late than never, here is my piece from last Tuesday night's WYSIWYG Talent Show. This is transcribed from what I scribbled in my notebook at jury duty that day, so for the actual delivery you'll need to check the video clip. And now, without further ado:

Sparky speaks


I taught myself to shed the Staten Island accent was just a wee Sparky, so you might not have realized that I’m the only native New Yorker on the bill tonight. I love New York, every bit of it. I even love it for the things about it that I hate. Originally, I was going to say something about how my lifelong romance with New York City is like any long-term relationship: I adore it and couldn't live without it, even though it drives me crazy. But I know that it won't ever really change, and I honestly don't want it to change, because if it did it would stop being what I loved so much. The city made me who I am, and I embrace it with no misgivings, the same way it has embraced me.

I was going to write about that, but then my number came up for jury duty this morning, and I had to haul myself out to the Queens County courthouse in the ass end of Jamaica near the god-forsaken end of the F train. So I started to think about the subway, and all the time I’ve spent on the subway, and all the growing up I’ve done on the subway.

I’ve spent a huge chunk of my life in the bowels of this city, riding here and there on the subway for over 20 years. I’ve been on every line, been to every borough. A lot of things about New York have shaped me into the man I am today, but for better or worse the MTA's strange underground universe has shown me more than everything else.

I’m one of those New Yorkers who makes people's heads explode in other parts of the country: I never learned how to drive. I never really even wanted to drive, because I enjoy riding the subway so much. If you waited until you were 30 to take driver's ed, and then you had to drive down 14th Street to the West Side Highway on your first lesson, you might swear off driving, too.

But it's not just fear or blissful ignorance that keeps me on the trains. It's the people. And yes, even the people who make me crazy. You can't hide from people on the subway — you can only try to avoid trouble. When you ride the subways every day, you mix it up with people from just about every race, every culture, every slice of life, every level of society. (Well, except maybe the obscenely wealthy fat cats of the city. They wouldn't be caught fucking dead on a subway, but that just means we all have more balls than they do.)

You learn to live and let live, because if you don't you'll get your ass handed to you at some point. You learn to how to tune out what you don't want to deal with, or at least you learn how to fake it so no one hassles you. You learn how to surreptitiously scan a crowd for trouble, for someone you wish you could fuck, or for anyone interesting enough to break up the monotony of your commute that day. If you're really good, you even learn how to stand up during rush hour without holding on to anything.

You learn about people. I don't just mean you learn how different kinds of people dress, or how they handle stress, or how they hold their liquor. I mean you learn about people's lives, like it or not.

How many lovers' spats have you witnessed on the subway? Two people — one waving hands all over, one sitting with arms defiantly crossed — hissing accusations and excuses back and forth, with every whisper getting louder and louder. How many people have you heard bitching about their jobs, their apartments, their husbands, their parents, whatever? How many kids have you heard gossiping about what a fucking slut that Maria is, and how she's going to get a beat-down if she even fucking looks at him again? How may temper tantrums have you witnessed? How many total meltdowns? How many couples with that rosy, morning-after glow? How many times have you shut off the sound on your iPod altogether so you could eavesdrop on the story unfolding next to you? You don't want to be obvious, but you still want to catch every lurid detail. The flip side, of course, is that at some point some straphangers have heard you, too.

You also get to learn about crazy people. In fact, our vast, egalitarian subway system puts you shoulder-to-shoulder with more fruitcakes than any other environment. Except Thanksgiving dinner with family, maybe. (But that’s another show altogether.) All this interaction, as I’m sure you've come to understand, isn't always that pleasant. Often, it's pretty irritating. And pungent. And to some degree or another, heart-breaking. Thankfully, though — and I think this is our reward for all the empathy and patience we develop — these encounters with our charmingly eccentric fellow citizens are often hilarious.

[Ad-libbed story about one of my favorite crazy ladies inserted here.]

The loons, the drunks, the fashionistas, the buskers, the embittered, the hot Mormons, the panicky tourists, the feisty old ladies who elbow past your or dart beneath your armpits to get that last seat, the screaming kids, the junior executives — they're all part of our education, all part of the show. Just like we are. You can't live in your own sheltered universe when you ride the subway. You can't totally ignore the rest of the world. But you can learn how to appreciate it, and how to handle it.

I’ve always wanted someone to develop a video-game version of the MTA experience: "Subway Smackdown." (Maybe one of you nerdy blogger types can take a crack at this.) In the game you're a doo-wop singer, a hunchback, a paranoid schizophrenic, maybe, and you have to get from one end of a ten-car train to the other. You earn points by soliciting change with a battered paper coffee cup, and by taking down whoever else comes into your car to interrupt your schtick. Oh shit! It's the mariachi band! The break-dancing acrobats! The Christian youth group! The magician with the dove in his top hat! The homeless lady with the terrible facial warts! The football team selling Snickers! You've got to out-shout them, out-perform them, or just do a better job of charming the crowd. Once in a while, you have to dodge a transit cop or somebody you slept with once.

Needles to say, you'd want to to play it on a GameBoy so you'll have something to do the next time you're stuck in the tunnel between Bedford Ave. and 1st Avenue. Because it's either that or actually talk to the person next to you.

(Video and video stills courtesy of mt new hero, Rich Calarco.)

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