RIDING THE J TRAIN
NEW YORK: 1975
Think of The Big Apple and the mind instantly conjures up images of The Rockettes at Radio City Music hall, the lights of Times Square … and the graffiti riddled subway
It was my first trip back to New York after many years. Now I was eager to see the results of the smart revolutionary method the Transit Authority had adopted to overcome the graffiti problem, a method that involved the use of a new material that was both paint proof and washable.
As I sat there in the J Train heading for Coney Island, I could see that this had worked for the greater part: the walls were now clean and free of the mostly bizarre art which had once threatened to strangle the entire system. But now, as the doors of the carriage opened at the stations down the line, it was obvious that the artists had looked upon this as a challenge they could not ignore. The artwork had moved to the high domed ceiling, to the pillars, and even on the advertisements hanging on the walls. And I wondered: how did these aspiring modern day Michaelangelos manage to find the opportunity and means to reach up so far to the ceiling to paint?
It was not too long before the carriage was crowded. People stood along the center aisle, they braced against the doors, they hung on to the overhead straps suspended from the roof of the carriage. I looked at the advertisements framed high on the wall. They were a strange bunch, these ads, selling services and products I had never seen offered anywhere else.
The first one that caught my eye was over the door. It read: “D o you suffer from Anal Warts and fissures? Manhattan Medical Clinic can get rid of them through their revolutionary laser method – no surgery required. “
Directly across from me, standing in front of the door as the train slowly made its way on the elevated line, was a tall man in black clothes with matching sneakers and curly hair. His eyes were focused on the guy in the three piece Grey suit seated next to me reading, minding his own business, like so many other people on the train who were engrossed in novels, magazines, newspapers, or had earphones plugged into cassette decks or radios.
The Man In Black continued to stare. He had a black wrist band on his right hand and every now and then his index finger stabbed the air in my direction, like someone in the throes of a voodoo incantation and about to cast an evil spell. A black duffel bag hung on his left shoulder and he had to reposition it several times to prevent it from slipping to the floor. Just about the only thing not black about him was his pearly-white teeth that flashed every time he opened his mouth to mumble something under his breath.
On my right, a woman who was already on the train when I boarded, was half asleep, gravitating ever so closer in my direction every time her head bobbed down to her chest. From the corner of my eye I saw her wake suddenly. She smiled, a wide effusive smile as she mumbled something under her breath. Then she laughed, clapped her hands as if she had been suddenly made privy to something funny, closed her eyes and nodded off again.
The Man In Black was tall, so tall that he had to stand with his head bent along the curve of the roof, to the point where he touched the ad on the wall. It read: “Tired of living the high life? We can help if you have a drug problem.” And the Mid Town Crisis Clinic offered a serious solution to a growing problem. And right next to it another ad: “Manhattan Footcare. Let us fix your feet right the first time.”
At the end of the aisle, next to the small conductor’s cabin, the door slowly slid open. The sign that said: “Warning. It is dangerous to walk between carriages” retreated into the door cavity and then reappeared behind the woman who entered, slowly making her way to the center of the carriage. She stopped, almost in front of me and waved a Daily Mirror in the air. She said: “Ladies and Gentlemen. Could I have your attention.”
There was a shuffling of shoes on the floor, the rustle of paper, a noticeable change in activity throughout the carriage as all heads turned towards her. She said, above the harsh clatter of the wheels on the tracks, “Please buy my newspaper. I’m being put out of my apartment. Please help me out. I appeal to you.” And without waiting for a response she continued her way to the door at the other end of the carriage, passing close to the Man In Black who pulled aside to make way for her, mumbling in an audible baritone: “Crazy woman. Why don’ she leave people alone.”
Still more ads on the wall. “Say goodbye to wrinkles. Competent Plastic Surgeon will give you the lift you need in life.” The one that really caught my eyes was right next to this. It read: “Torn Ear Lobes? We can fix it. Quickly. Painlessly. Cheaply.” I looked around my fellow passengers to see how many people were really going around New York with torn ear lobes. And how in the world did they ever get that way?
The Man In Black had made his exit at the previous stop. We were now on the outskirts of the borough of Queens, coming up to the end of the elevated portion of the line, almost into Manhattan. We passed houses, apartments, business, all merely feet from the tracks, even closer at times as the train screeched its way around curves, sending sparks through open apartment windows. At eye level: iron bars on windows; entrances with metal encasements for storm doors; an air conditioner hanging outside a window, a steel mesh surrounding it. There were children playing in hallways, people staring from open windows, curious about who was riding the train, as inquisitive as I was over who lived there. And which had come first? Which half crazed city planner had actually zoned apartments so close to a train line? Or which deranged engineer had thought of placing a subway line in such proximity to a residential area?
Then below: abandoned cars in the middle of the street, stacks of tires, construction material, litter, and empty lots overgrown with weeds. In the middle of it all, an oasis: a field, lush, verdant; a green palette splattered with bright red tomatoes, purple egg plants, yellow string beans hanging from vines.
Still more signs on the train. “If you’re going to do it, do it right. Use a condom.” Sponsored by NY Aids Hotline. And: “Safe abortions. No risk. The best pre and after care in Manhattan.”
We were now passing a cemetery. Huge tombs, sparkling white and adorned with flowers, filled the landscape. They all looked alike – the same size, same structure: arched roofs, pillars holding them up, like a miniature version of a Roman temple. And the names on the walls facing the train: Zylberg, Sandberg, Isenberg. Next to the cemetery, a Mason Works, a yard filled with pre-cast concrete slabs, blank headstones lying around, waiting to be claimed.
As we pulled into Brooklyn, into rail yards looking like Concentration Camps with barb-wire curled in huge spirals high above street level, I thought of Stalag 17. There were even watchtowers overlooking the yard.
I took one last look at the ads on the way out. “Pregnant? We can help. NY Abortion Clinic. Free Walk In Consultation.” And: “Designer Braces. We can brighten up your smile today.” Also: “Hernias need not be a problem. Let us take the weight off your feet..” Next to it: “Show off your skin. Don’t be ashamed to come out into the light – NY Dermatology Clinic.” Then there was: “Tooth Savers Dental Center of NY. Don’t wait for the Tooth Fairy. We can save your tooth.” Finally: “Madame Zola. Put yourself in my hands. Fortune Telling. Palmistry – know what the future has in store for you. “
As I stepped on to the platform, with walls now sparkling clean and looking almost sterile, the thought struck me: Had the city really licked the problem; or had the graffiti moved within the carriages and become institutionalized?