Subways are one of the last places on earth safe from cell phones—for now. I hear the tunnels are going to be rigged up for satellite service soon. I book about an hour of my time on subways daily, and with all of the white noise and people minding their own business, it’s usually an enjoyable part of my day. I can get a lot of work done on the subway when I get a seat. I plug in my iPod, open my notebook, and start writing. Every once in a while, though, my private time is intruded upon.
Today it was the subway dancers—a duo that’s been haunting the Q line the past couple of weeks. I was in a half-empty subway car yesterday when the pair came in and judged the car not at a capacity where they would dare deign to dance for us—thank God. I didn’t get off so lucky today. The dance team came into the car, checked both adjoining cars to see if there were either more people or cops, and then started loudly clapping and the call and response that is now de rigueur for subway dance performances. “What time is it, folks?” “Showtime.” “What time is it?” “Showtime.”
Now, this back and forth is between the two performers, not the performers and those forced to be the audience. The performers will have their boom box cranked to the highest level, and my poor little iPod can’t compete, not even if I’m playing Judas Priest. The dancers will tap people on the shoulders who are near poles and have them move to the side, regardless of whether they paid $2.50 for their rides or not. This is so they can move freely through the car using all available poles and railings. And then the dancing begins.
About six months ago, there was a trio going through the cars who had co-opted stripper pole moves and used that as part of their routines. It was fun once or twice, but I started to become resentful when it was the same thing day after day. Today’s duo had the hat trick—“Watch the hat, folks. Watch the hat”—and again, I’ve seen it lots, and it wasn’t that impressive the first time around. If you’re going to rip my attention away from something I want to be doing, at least be original. I suppose I should just count myself lucky that I got the dancers and not junkies trying to hustle their next fix or subway preachers telling me all about Jesus and my sins.
I hunker down and wait for the performance to end, sure I’m going to get a foot in the face as the dancers clamber up and down the subway car’s poles and rails, using them as acrobatic and trapeze equipment. Afterward, they go up and down the subway car soliciting “donations.” Usually this is when I close my eyes and pretend that I’m listening to my iPod, which has been drowned out up until now, unless it’s been a pretty spectacular performance. If I’ve seen something good, then I give up the Sacagawea coin that I carry around in my MetroCard wallet for just that purpose.
These two kids finish soliciting, then start talking about how lame the audience in our car was before moving on to the next car. This pisses me off. It’s not like I’m at the Metropolitan Opera with a hundred-dollar ticket to see a performance of La Bohème. I did not pay to see a secondhand hat routine, and I do not appreciate being critiqued as an audience member, especially when I wasn’t looking to be one. It makes me wish one of the harsh reviewers from one of those dance reality shows, like So You Think You Can Dance, was there and could take these two down a peg with their forced routine and bad use of props.
The crap routine almost makes me nostalgic for the L train and some of its crazy performers. You’re not really living until you’ve stood during primetime rush-hour traffic in a subway car with a mariachi band playing around you, as my friend Sarah found out when she came to visit me her first time in New York. Another favorite was a guy I would see about once a month who had made himself a fake horse out of a bedsheet splattered with painted-on spots. He would ride his horse while singing “La Bamba” and sweat heavily during his routine.
What the L train was most famous for, though, was panhandlers—usually younger kids with lots of tattoos and piercings, so I’m pretty sure I know where that money was going. The best thing I ever saw was when a social worker confronted a frequent panhandler on the L line, a woman with a high annoying voice and the scabby look of a meth head, who would hector subway riders with, “When I was in a position to give, I always did. Somebody please help me get something to eat.” This man got up and said he would take her down to the food stamp office to file for emergency food stamps; he’d even help her fill out the application. She stopped immediately, looked down at the ground, and silently got off at the next subway stop. From there, she got on the next subway car and started hustling again, and I was relieved to finally get some peace.