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LL New Lots And Canarsie

caught a doseI ride the trains nearly every day, have for years, and have never grown sick of it. On the platforms and in the cars, I have witnessed nearly every kind of insanity you can imagine,from the simply peculiar to the genuinely frightening. On one of my very first hour-long trips down to Coney Island, I watched as a gentle, gaudy, 300-pound transvestite who’d covered his entire face with lipstick tore the pages out of a TV Guide one by one before stuffing them into his purse. I’ve also watched a monstrous, shrieking lunatic swing a baseball bat at passengers as the train rolled merrily along.

I’ve vomited on myself twice while riding the subway, and learned that there’s no better way to get a seat, no matter how crowded the train is. I’ve seen rats the size of dogs waddling down the tracks without a care. I’ve witnessed strangers beaten by gang members for no reason other than that they were there, and have been beaten by gang members myself for the same reason.

I’ve shared personal secrets with strangers I knew I would never see again, and dodged people I knew I’d be seeing later in the day. Once, I watched a well-dressed man completely undress on an R train during the morning rush. Nobody seemed really sure why he was doing this,but nobody said a word about it. I spent two hours trapped in a stalled train under the East River and saw lifelong friendships forged. I met an amazing musician who could play Shostakovich on a xylophone constructed from soda bottles filled with water to various levels, and a one-armed man who tooted feebly on a harmonica while trying to collect handouts. I’ve seen stolen property ranging from newspapers and batteries to complete computer systems sold at bargain-basement prices on the trains. Things happen down there that simply wouldn’t happen, and couldn’t happen, anyplace else.

It’s easy to get all poetic about the form and meaning and metaphorical implications of the subways,and that’s just fine. Lots of people have done it. But for my money,none of that really matters when you ride the trains every day. More than anything else, at eye level the subway is a self-contained traveling theater with an ever-changing line-up. While most commuters are content to keep quietly to themselves, they can rest assured that some sort of entertainment will be showing up soon. Musicians of every stripe, preachers, hucksters, madmen—all with a captive audience for at least a few minutes. On some days a simple ride from Brooklyn into Manhattan can take the form of a musical comedy, on others an action-adventure film. It can be a medicine show, a Greek tragedy, a love story, a taut thriller, a disaster movie, a police drama, or a savage quickie horror film. (In fact, I’ve often suggested that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority—the corrupt and ill-managed agency responsible for keeping the whole system running— should use Walter Hill’s 1979 low-budget street-gang fantasy The Warriors as a public-relations tool. No other film in recent memory more loudly sings the praises of the near-Gerthe rockmanic efficiency and reliability of the New York subways. Whenever you want a train, the film promises, there’ll be one waiting for you.) —Jim Knipfel, excerpted from “Subterannean Vaudeville” in New York Calling. Jim’s next novel, Unplugging Philco, will be published by Simon & Schuster in April 2009.

Swan, Transportation Editor, adds: The greatest uncensored subway writing of more recent vintage comes from Angry New Yorker, who’s rightly indignant over the proposed elimination of the W line; we here in Brooklyn are likewise defensive about the M train, although I’m not too partisan to admit the W is more important, if forced to choose… which in a corrupt city/state that’s giving even one cent to the goddamn Mets and Yankees, we should not. (Will we have to pay for George Steinbrenner’s funeral too when he finally croaks? Rejoice!) Roll over Mike Bloomberg and tell Christine Quinn, the  bums, creeps, crooks, dipshits, douchebags, dumbasses, feebs, fucktards, jackoffs, knuckleheads, liars, thieves and Randy Levine the news. Angry has all the fresh flavor of just brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now… wow! Safe when taken as directed.

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