PASSING SHADOWS IN NEW YORK CITY TRANSIT
An Observation Underground
by John Pietaro
Native New Yorkers regard the subway system as mere fact. A reality, an utterly necessary, invisible labyrinth beneath our feet. The winding, darkened terrain of electrified tunnels propels trains throughout the city, 24 hours of each day. Standing in a busy train hub, most ignore the mechanical earthquake ascending through the mass of concrete. In a city torn by real estate developers’ gentrification, that which pushes out the poor and working-class in favor of the very rich, our subway system is the equalizer: regardless of one’s status, the rider stands on a station platform until the train pulls up and the doors open. It’s quite simple, you see. Most of the ride is beneath ground but some lines hit the open air, offering an elevated view of the life of the streets. But in or above the inferno, the rider is immersed into a multi-cultural world of faces, voices, accents, experiences, ages, foods, languages and actions that represent the real New York. A special added attraction is the city’s own musicians, dancers and other performers that ride the rails seeking simple compensation for their art.
I’ve got sunshine/on a cloudy day
This past February, the 34th Street station played host to a performance that spoke soundly of the main attraction, a man singing through a yellow plastic microphone and loud, distorted amplifier, accompanied by a boom-box blaring tapes of ‘60s R&B and pop. With eyes closed and head back, the man emoted powerfully over the vocals of the Four Tops, the Temptations, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye and the emotional resolve in his eyes was evident to anyone who stopped long enough to look.
His voice was weather-worn, tired from the frigid dampness of subterranean winter, but somehow remained enthusiastic in its presentation. Not one of our most talented vocalists, but a special character that the uninitiated saw as laughable, the overly sheltered as threatening. No, he was simply a New York original; unique, singular, strong and engaging. Waving to the harried passersby, his outreach was met by those struggling only to avoid his eyes. He was a bearded man, big and heavy, a wall of a man draped in a long over-coat, colorful scarf and tall woolen red cap. He tightly held the yellow plastic mic in one chapped hand, emphasizing each declamation with full body gestures and fist-waving. The man’s boom-box and amplifier sat in a grocery wagon adorned with a professionally painted sign advertising his talents and credits. It seemed a prideful thing.
When it’s cold outside/I’ve got the month of May
‘CAPT. JACKSON’, the sign read. ‘WORLD FAMOUS SOUL SINGER AND ENTERTAINER: from the Ho Chi Min Trail to 42nd Street’. Beneath this headline was a large illustration of the man wearing a blue tuxedo, onstage, in the warm glow of a spotlight. The placard bore the years, the scratches, the pocks that seemed to have marred Jackson’s inner-most self. The fraying of his coat became more evident with a closer look, as were the lines on his face and the wiry gray usurping his once rich, black beard. In the drawing, he appeared thinner, vibrant, youthful, in a moderate Afro and hip sunglasses. Which nightclub had brandished this piece of his history? Which Vietnam raid had the Captain long ago survived but remained unable to move beyond?
As the train pulled into the station, a hissing cloud and distant shadow touched this pocket of underground Manhattan. Capt. Jackson sang the final repeats of “My Girl” through the fade and then took a deep, earnest bow to a rush-hour audience seeking to return to warm homes. The loud-speaker announcement of “Stand clear of the closing doors” cut through the moment and the memories. And while he was still facing downward, I left the Captain’s side, hurrying to join the others.