Monday, April 6, 2009

Subway Stories, Volume 1

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images to come

In one of my favorite moments from All in the Family, Archie comes home disgruntled. Edith asks concernedly, “What’s the matter, Archie?” He snarls out, “On the whole ride home, I got stuck next to some guy talking to his daughter.” Edith, confused, asks, “What’s wrong with that?” He spits out, “She wasn’t there, Edith!” That’s the thing about New York City: no matter who you are, if you ride the subway you are going to have stories. Here are a few of mine…

* * *
In 1976, as I had stated in an earlier blog, I worked in the West Village at a Baskin-Robbins. Many times I would lock up the place at 11:30, and then ride the train home. If I saw a midnight movie at the Waverly (now the IFC Theater), it was much later. Despite hearing some horror stories, including the murder of the son of one of my mother’s co-workers while riding underground, I was never afraid to ride, generally, though there were moments.

One night, after a movie I was riding home, a small, thin man in his mid-thirties or so got on at the Broadway-Lafayette stop. He was a very drunk African-American man who appeared to be derelict. He stood in the middle of the car, swaying with the train’s rhythm, talking to everyone and no one, slurring at the top of his lungs.

“I’m fuckin’ Jesus, man! I’m god! And I love everybody. That’s right, I love every fuckin’ one of you! I’m the fuckin’ god of peace and love. I’m fuckin’ Jesus, man…”

He continued on and on, past Canal Street and over the bridge. Everyone in the semi-empty car just sat there calmly. The Hassidic woman across from me read her paper, never looking up after the first glance to check the situation out. People continued either sleeping, or trying to do so. I was reading my book, amused by it all, as were some of the people down the car. Except…

As we approached Pacific Street (since changed to Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street), from the other end of the car a rhythm was generating, as Patti Smith may have said. A huge white guy with a scowl on his face came over to him and yelled at him: “Hey, stop saying you are Jesus! You are going to burn in hell!”

When the doors opened, the big man grabbed the little one by the collar, and full strength threw him out the door. Stumbling, the drunken guy staggered sideways across the whole length of the platform, and if he hadn’t bounced off the column across the way, the momentum would most likely have sailed him right onto the opposite tracks. Stunned, the little man actually shook himself off, looked around confused, and started walking down the platform, hardly aware of the fate he came so close to reaching.

As the train pulled, the big man, who had everyone’s attention at this point, turned and looked around at his fellow passengers in disgust and distain. “You fuckin’ Jews and Italians,” he said in a thick accent, “You are weak and pathetic cowards. You need us fuckin’ Greeks to protect you, since you won’t stand up for yourselves. We fuckin’ Greeks don’t take that shit like you fuckin’ Jews and Italians…” And so on. [Note that I am totally aware this does not reflect on Greeks in general, but this person specifically.]

The Hassidic woman across from me was following the second guy with her eyes, looking over the edge of her newspaper, hoping not to be noticed, scared by his anti-Jewish (among others) rant. When our eyes met – as I did the same hiding with my book – we gave a “Yikes!” look at each other. He continued on with his rant for the next 30 minutes until I got off at my own station. As I walked home, I realized that these guys were identical in their mythology about themselves as saviors of sorts, but it is the difference that is most telling: while the first man was talking about peace and love, and everyone did not feel threatened in any way, the second one had us all edgy with his threats of violence.

* * *
Sometimes, it is the dialog one cannot help overhearing that keeps me amused. One holiday season I heard this exchange:
Woman 1: Y’know what my favorite Christmas movie is? March of the Wooden Robots.
Woman 2: That’s a good one. Me, myself, I like Miracle on 42nd Street.

However, my all time favorite (that I can think of offhand) was one evening on the way back to Brooklyn, I heard these two guys discussing something, and to emphasize his point, one man coda’d his statement with, “All I’m sayin’ is it goes without sayin’.” Brilliant!

* * *
Sitting by the door and heading into Manhattan, two women boarded at the station after mine. One sat by the window diagonally across from me, and the other sat across the train from her, two seats from me. They started talking to each other very loud across the span. After a stop or two, I turned to the one sitting next to me, and said, “You know, if you sat next to each other, you wouldn’t have to scream across the whole train and make everyone in the car have to listen to you.”

She responded, in a thick Spanish accent, “Why don’t you mind your own business?! We have a right to talk!” I said, calmly, “You have every right to talk, and I have every right to complain about you yelling in my ear. Your right does not include annoying every one else who has to listen to you.”

She angrily moved over next to her friend, and they started talking in Spanish, a language I don’t speak, but it was pretty obvious by the way they were looking at me and tipping their heads in my direction, that I was the focus of their discussion. I didn’t care, since it was now at least quiet enough to read my book.

At 34th Street, they both got off, and as they passed me, the one I had the altercation with said to me, “Ass.” Without even looking up, but seeing her peripherally, I said, “puta,” which means “whore,” one of the few words in Spanish I know (growing up in New York, one learns to curse in many languages). Her head whipped around as she walked out the door, as the realization came to her, mistakenly (though I lead her to believe), that I understood everything she and her friend were saying about me in Spanish. She seemed upset about this by the OMG gesture of putting her hand up to her mouth, and as we pulled out of the station, I smiled to myself.

* * *
As I was sitting on the train going home after work, a woman got on playing a DVD device at full volume and no headsets. I believe it was the film, Are We There Yet?, starring Ice Cube. People started grumbling at her, and she said in a loud voice. “I paid my two dollars! I got a right to play to my personal DVD player if I want to!” Gratefully, she got off a few stations later.

* * *
Feel free to write some of your own stories at the comments area of this blog.


  1. ~~
    One Halloween, I was actually coming home from a child's birthday party in NJ. I was on the L train going to Brooklyn and it was pretty late. I wasn't dressed up nor drunk but enjoyed the array of costumed drunks on the train. After a few stops, this big black guy starts yelling at this tiny little white girl. He was telling her things such as she needs to know her place and needs to get the hell out of Brooklyn and out of his face. She was calmly trying to tell him that she did nothing to deserve him yelling in her face. But of course he wasn't having it. The guy was getting really close to her and I was scared he was going to do something to her. But everyone seemed to move away instead of closer in an attempt to help her. But then this black guy sitting next to me pulled out a knife. He said "This son of a bitch makes us all look bad, he hurts that white girl and I'm gonna stab his ass."
    I guess he was talking to me and since he had a knife in his hand I just nodded. The girl wound up getting off and the guy a few stops later. So the guy next to me finally put away his knife.
    A few years ago, I was on the L train (I lived in Bushwick). This coked up white guy and his prostitute looking girlfriend get on the train. A few minutes later he is giving the finger to everyone. Naturally, everyone ignores him except this little black boy who was the youngest of his group of friends. he must have been ten years old. He starts cursing at the guy saying, "I'm gonna break your fucking finger off if you don't put it away." After a while, me and my friend move down to the other side of the car, in fear that this white guy was gonna get killed or pull out a syringe of some sort and go crazy on everyone. After we moved, the little black boy was like, "You girls don;t have to move, I'll protect you from this honkey."
    I couldn't help but laugh.

    Of course I have many more, but those are pretty great!

  2. Thanks for the input, Desiree. I've certainly had some interesting moments on the J train when I worked in Bed-Sty for a few months in the mid-'80s.

    Give my best to Anthony, Ricky (both of Kung Fu Grip, best post-grunge band outta Brooklyn), and Laura, of course.

  3. Love the two Spanish girls. Hilarious! My favorite part about living in NYC was the subway. I loved to get lost on the trains and end up somewhere bizarre and unfamiliar.

    Once a). I knew all the trains and where they went without looking at a map and b). where to sit so I could exit at just the right spot...that was the day I knew I was a true New Yorker. I mean, I was raised in Texas and have since moved back to Dallas...but still...I get the subway!