Langston Hughes, one of my favorite poets from the Harlem Renaissance, wrote a poem called The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Wanna hear it? Here it goes:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Beautiful, deshou? The man was a God with a typewriter!
Well, this here negro is about to speak of Subways! (Mainly cuz if it ain’t the Hudson River (or East River) I don’t know jack about it except what I’ve read in books (btw, best book ever about a river: Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain…if you haven’t read it you should be ashamed of yourself!)
Well, I’ve known Subways…
I grew up on the NYC Subway the way one says I grew up on a farm or a ranch. The subway was my first love, even before I understood what I was feeling. My first whatchawannabewhenugrowup dream was not to be a Police Man or a Fire Man, or even a King. It was to be a Motor Man on the subway (or even a conductor, though driving that sucker held a stronger appeal than conducting- that is, opening and closing doors and announcing stations- ever held.) My family and friends rode the train merely for transportation. Not I. I not only rode the trains for transportation, I rode them to be transported; to be spirited away, in exaltation, to a realm where power and speed were mine to command; on a whim I could cover a great sweep at a terrific clip to join the Hardy Boys on some exotic mission or play catch with Willie Mays. Adventure lay ahead…even if the last stop was only Coney Island, or Far Rockaway…
On the train, I was Huckleberry Finn and the subway was my river, the “A” train my skiff. I knew the subway as well as Twain knew the Mississippi. If anyone wanted to know how to get anywhere, even at a tender prepubescent age, I could give directions and even illustrations if they needed them. I used to steal subway maps from the train, take them home and study them like they were my homework. I’d also steal advertisements from the walls of subway cars and hang them in my room so even my bedroom would have a subway feel to it. My older brother, an accomplished graffiti artist of some note back in the day- and I can say without reservation had a more intimate relationship with the subway then even I had- having spent a great deal of his free time roaming the train yards with his crew of artists / vandals: NSA,
dodging yard bums, dogs and police in order to spend several hours painting a piece that had a possible shelf life of a week dependent entirely on the diligence of the subway car cleaning staff), had spray painted his girlfriend’s name the width and length of our 10 x 30 foot bedroom wall (something I didn’t appreciate at the time but thinking back I realize it was actually an exceptional piece) so our room even had the aroma of a subway car.
We were intimate, the subway and I. It played a cameo if not a starring role in many precious and indelible moments of my life.
I can still remember one of my first subway rides.
Compared to the subway cars now it was a dark (turd brown actually), gloomily lit, uncomfortable death trap (see above) but it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. I was small and the windows were tall so I had to be lifted by someone to see the dimly lit tunnel we raced through. The seats were made of a sort of shellacked straw or something like that. It had ceiling fans with exposed fan blades overhead! (I wonder how many people lost fingers stretching) It shook, rattled and roared its way from station to station. The wheels against the rails made a wrenching grinding metallic yet raw and melodic tune, like a skiffle band, or the sound that inspired Johnny Cash.
My heart danced to it. I could hardly contain myself the combination of power and beauty was so impressive. And it was so loud you had to yell to be heard. “Nooooo,” I had to yell at my father when he told me we were to get off at the next station.
I still get the same thrill on a speeding train.
There were also the first day of school ride, the first solo ride, umpteen girlfriend meets (and break-ups), my first (and only) arrest (for turnstile jumping- something I did so regularly that I felt like I was being bilked every time I was forced to pay to ride the train), numerous robberies (fortunately I was neither perpetrator nor victim in any,) some of the best ZZZs I’ve ever gotten (something about trains just relaxes me like nothing else,) the setting of many a function (old school nickname for a marijuana session,) my first witnessing (and unfortunately not my last) of a murder, etc, etc, etc… Yep, the NYC subway is a stage for life’s comedies and tragedies…or at least it was.
The subway in NY never had a schedule, far as I know. At least not one that was taken seriously by any native New Yorker. What it did have was…well, I guess the best word for it would be tendencies. These tendencies varied according to the time of the day, or night (NYC subway, unlike Tokyo / Yokohama, is 24 hours.) To be honest, I knew some trains’ tendencies better than others. For example, The “A” Train’s tendencies I knew like the beating of my heart. It was consistent yet as unpredictable as the weather in NY. It tended to rain in spring but sometimes it snows in April. It tended to be be frigid in January but sometimes it’d be so warm and wonderful that you’d swear the end of the world was at hand. That was the “A” Train. In the morning, you might get used to catching the same train at say 7:20-ish. The whole week it’ll be there 7:20-ish, until that day you have to meet that girl you’ve been coveting for a month or that morning meeting you can’t miss…then that fucker’ll arrive at 7:30-ish and you’ll stand there cursing at your watch with a few thousand other people…and when it does arrive you best be having your shit in-gear or you’ll be waiting for the 7:40-ish, which’ll also be packed to the teeth.
As far as etiquette is concerned, well, it depends, you know? I mean, a push is precursor to an altercation usually, so you best be apologetic, at a minimum. And, depending on who you’ve pushed and who you are, it could get out of hand easily. So, as a rule, I didn’t push unless it was imperative, and rarely was it imperative enough to go jostling strangers on the subway. But, there are people who push with a devil-may-care posture and depending on how overpowering and threatening that posture is or on how vexed the pushee becomes, does the response depend. I’ve seen pushes escalate into fisticuffs and I’ve seen them forgiven, seen them ignored and seen them ignite a flame of indignation and rage so ferocious I’d cleared out in anticipation of a hail of gunfire and the ever-present stray bullets we all know have no names and claim the innocent with the same frequency that they claim their targets. That’s the thing about the NYC subway- it’s like that Forrest Gumpian box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get.
People have loud conversations, homeless people prowl the cars for handouts, performers do all kinds of things to get attention and maybe a little money. It’s all good. There’s a guy named Carlos who lives around my way…rumor has it his family died in a fire and he went crazy. I love the guy and always hit him off with whatever change I might have on me, and one Christmas I gave him a whole fifth of Jack D, and yet in the 20 years or so he’s been a staple in my community I’d never had a coherent conversation with him. Sometimes I’d see him on the train wearing dark shades, a cane and a rattling can of coins and bills, bumping into shit and getting paid. He’s as blind as Columbo. Once I saw him plying his trade and said what’s up and slid my foot in his path to trip him up…he winked over his shades and stumbled over my foot, without falling, with the agility and balance of a Olympic gymnast or a cat. Yep, people from all walks of life give life to the subway.
New York’s subway was born in the late 1800s and hasn’t been well maintained, let the truth be known, so when I was growing up, not surprisingly, senior moments were practically the norm. Trains derailed, delays were common, even some crashes due to signal problems and switch issues, track fires, homeless people living in the tunnels emerging from their cubbyholes misstepping in the rat-infested darkness and falling right into the path of an oncoming train or onto the electrified third rail, etc, etc, etc…
Why the poor maintenance? Who knows? But the NYC Transit Authority loved to blame us, the riders. If we were willing to pay more maybe they’d have the money to replace rails, upgrade technology, repair signals and trains properly, etc, etc…When I left home in 2003 the fare was $1.50…(and unlike Japan, a buck fifty would take you anywhere you wanted to go, except Staten Island…but aside from S.I. residents who would ever want to go there?) and when I went home for a visit it was $2 bucks. I hear it’ll be $2.25 soon. (for my Japanese readers, $1 = about￥１００) So, yes, New Yorkers pay a pittance compared with the commuters in Japan. So, maybe the NYCTA is right: you get what you pay for. Japanese pay out their asses for the trains here but you know what? Compared to NY, I have to admit, Japanese trains are FAR superior…service-wise, that is. It’s almost like the same thing the Japanese did with the automobile and why they dominate the market in the US. Even the subway cars in NY are made by Kawasaki.
Well, I could go and on about the NYC Subway but I’ll let The Duke’s fingers and Betty Roche’s vocal stylings say what would take me an entire book to convey.
Can’t you just feel the train a-coming when you listen to that song?
Mamonaku, hachi ban sen ni kakuekiteisya ga mairimasu. Abunai desu kara ki iroi sen made osagari kudasai.
Rough Translation: The local train will arrive on track eight shortly . It’s dangerous so please stand behind the yellow line.
This is one of the first Japanese phrases I learned upon moving to Japan. Any foreigner living here knows it or some variation of it. I’m not sure why but probably because it’s repeated so often when you ride the train that your brain begins to covet it. Each train line says it a different way. The video above is from the Toyoko Line. My quote is from the JR Line.
Once I’d memorized it I used to repeat it to my Japanese friends. Of course they thought it was an odd thing for me to set to memory. After all it’s a courtesy and a warning most Japanese take for granted having listened to it their entire lives, the way I ignored red lights back home when I was crossing the street (not while driving though). I suspect they don’t even hear it anymore. On the train, there’s an announcement in Japanese (and sometimes in English depending on which line you ride or which company owns the line) of the coming stop and which side of the car the doors will open. On the Yokohama line the announcement is only in Japanese…I used to like to conspicuously react to the announcement to indicate to the people in my vicinity that I understood it. (If you’ve read my essay about Props and Camouflage you know why) If I’m to get off at the following stop I’d glance up from my book or cellphone at the beginning of the announcement, staring into the air like I could see the words, like I was being paged, and when it says the doors will open on the left I’d turn towards the left side’s doors. I’d pantomime these movements purely for the benefit of the natives standing nervously in my vicinity and doing their shifty-eyed there’s a Gaijin near medance. They, however, would not react to the announcement. It’s as if they hadn’t even heard it. Some would still be lined up at the right side doors and only shift to the left side after we’ve entered the station and the doors behind them open. You’d think they were all listening to their IPODs and missed the recording.
In NY, the roar of the train entering the station is the only warning you’ll get unless you’re standing too close to the edge of the platform. If so, the Motor Man of the train entering the station might blast his horn at you, like a trucker might at a motorist driving the speed limit in the passing lane back home, or Louis Armstrong giving the public a taste of why he’s the greatest trumpeter ever- a blast of sound so loud and jarring it might scare the shit outta you, scare you to your death if it really catches you off guard.
When I was a kid, the conductor stood between the cars, with either hand on levers situated on either side of him that opened and closed the doors and shouted up and down the platform,”Please stand clear of the closing doors.” Well, in NY, we’ve come along way, baby. But, in Japan, they’ve come a much longer way! For you Trekkies out there (like myself) just think the difference between Captain Kirk’s Enterprise and Captain Picard’s.
Sometimes when I ride the trains here in Japan I feel a certain jealousy and animosity spurred by the arrogance of being a native of “the greatest city on earth”. I imagine that a group of Japanese engineers descended on my hometown, pens and pads in hand, all polite and humble, disarming the bloated egos of those NY transit engineers with filial piety, reverence and a bit of unctuous flattery (お世辞) Japanese style, and studied our subways (my subway) for a couple of years with the studiousness and fastidiousness I witness on a daily basis here from my JHS students…and absorbed everything there is to know about the NY way of getting from point A to point B. Checked, double checked, cross referenced and re-checked their data: the history, the issues and their resolutions (if there were any.)
Then they flew (or sailed) back to Japan (laughing over Sake and Shouchu the whole trip) at how silly, gullible, inefficient and ultimately pathetic those American engineers were while they deconstructed the whole theory of inner city transit and reconstructed it to suit the needs of their multitudes. And once they arrived back in their homeland they proceeded to engineer and build what has to be the most sophisticated and efficient transportation system in the world (or close to it.)
I say to myself (like Sergeant Barnes in “Platoon” in reference to the Vietnamese who had just garroted, castrated and tied to a tree as a warning one of his troops) : Them Motherfuckers! (-:
But this is just my imagination…I’m sure the Japanese engineers gained inspiration from other countries, like England, as well. And, since I live here now and will for the foreseeable future, and I benefit from these advancements, so I can hardly maintain that feeling. It comes over me briefly and then vanishes utterly.
Now, more often, I wonder at the differences and how these differences would fare back home. For example, if you ever go to Shin-Yokohama station and wait for the Yokohama line, while you’re waiting the average 7 or 8 minutes for the next train you’ll notice that the birds in the area are constantly singing, chirping a most distracting melody only birds, bird lovers and Japanese can appreciate fully I expect. And they simply won’t stop. You look around to find out why these birds are perpetually joyful expecting to find some sort of bird Karaoke booth above your head and you realize that the sound is not coming from birds roosting in the station’s overhead shelter’s metal beams for there are 5-inch long pins erected along all perch-able surfaces that would impale any bird unfortunate enough to land upon them.
What you will find are speakers playing pre-recorded bird song…
And initially you say to yourself: “WTF!”
Then you stop and think and look at the blitheness and naïve innocence around you (aside from those people who have noticed you…they are decidedly on guard) and you can feel how these sounds contribute to that feeling…like a subway in the garden or Eden. And you think back to NY and the feeling you had when a lone saxophonist sat on the filthy station platform and did his rendition of Coltrane’s Naima and the feeling that gave you…you know, one of those life is a beautiful thing moments…
And eventually you say to yourself: “Oh, I get it!”
I find myself constantly having these Oh I get it moments here in Japan…
Especially on the trains.