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Notes from underground

The Subway Chronicles Scenes From Life in New York Edited by Jacquelin Cangro Plume: 212 pp., $14 paper

September 10, 2006|Matthew Price | Matthew Price is a journalist and critic who lives along the N line in outer Brooklyn.

THE New York subway isn't just a way of getting around. It's a way of life, a universe, a vast, grimy town square on screeching steel wheels that will take you just about anywhere you need to go.

Stuff happens down there in the tunnels, on the platforms -- which swelter in the summer and freeze in the winter -- and, of course, on the trains. On any given day, you may meet the love of your life, be serenaded by an a cappella group -- I've heard a heck of a lot of good music riding the rails -- or be exhorted to make Jesus Christ your lord and savior. In Times Square station, the subway's busiest, the Scientologists will be happy to give you a stress test. The people-watching can't be beat and neither can the freak show -- just the other day I saw a guy sporting a pair of fangs.

Then there's the unpleasant stuff: homelessness, suicide, pretty-good-sized rats and the ever-present fear of a cyanide gas attack, which, we're told, is due any time now.

I've often wondered if anyone is getting all this down. A couple of the tabloids used to have subway columnists but no longer. Back in 2002, New York writer Jacquelin Cangro had the good idea to found www.thesubwaychronicles.com, which bills itself as "a place for insightful, creative writing about the New York City subway system."

Now, Cangro has selected a clutch of pieces first published on her site, plus snippets of writing by such notables as Jonathan Lethem (who writes pungently about the wonderfully named Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in his old Brooklyn neighborhood), Colson Whitehead and Calvin Trillin for this anthology of subway writing.

"I bet you will find common threads of love, fear, anger, worry, exhilaration and comradeship among these essays," writes Cangro, and that's true enough. But in book form, "The Subway Chronicles" is a curiously mixed bag. Some of the pieces have a tepid, freshman-comp blandness to them; others are full of distracting navel gazing. Overall, there's just not enough attitude -- after all, these are New Yorkers writing on a great New York institution, so you expect more oomph. But this collection will give you a taste of what life is like underground.

Crime writer Lawrence Block and transit historian Stan Fischler, both veteran New Yorkers, provide the best overviews of the subway's place in the city's life. Fischler, a consummate subway maven who pretty much knows every twist on every track in the system, writes lovingly of growing up in Brooklyn and taking the subway to Coney Island and Dodgers games. Sure, it's a bit nostalgic, but few other writers have evoked how intertwined the subway is with growing up in the city, how you come to know the city by the subway. Still, Block, who digs the vibe underground, writes: "Almost every other system, in this country or abroad, is more modern, more efficient, and more comfortable than ours."

But the subway, like New York itself, has seen far worse days, as Yona Zeldis McDonough remembers in "Under the Skin," about the thrill of being allowed to take the subway alone as a girl in the early '70s, when the system was a mess, and how one trip took an ugly, racially charged turn after a run-in with a girl gang.

The system -- and the city -- have taken enormous strides since then, but, even now, there is squalor and stench. Jennifer Toth, who in 1993 wrote what has become a cult classic, "The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City" (which grew out of a piece she wrote while at the L.A. Times), still can't shake her harrowing forays into these zones of human wretchedness: They were "a frightening introduction to the real world in all its baseness and hope." The subway can be a cruel tutor.

It's not all grim, however; there is plenty of room for offbeat fun in "The Subway Chronicles." The novelist and book editor David Ebershoff is hilariously stonewalled when he tries to interview a group of subway cleaners: " 'What's the worst station to clean?'.... In chorus: 'All of 'em' " 'What's the worst borough to clean?' 'All of 'em.' " And Robert Lanham, author of "The Hipster Handbook," has a nutty time stalking his double, who "resembled some weird amalgamation of Jon Voight, circa 'Midnight Cowboy,' and the guy with the unfortunate bangs from 'Logan's Run,' " in his piece, "Straphanger Doppelganger." I haven't yet seen mine.

There is one absolute gem in this collection, a piece that just nails the crazy energy that can be unleashed when a group of strangers are thrown together by sheer chance. From its over-the-top title ("Porno Man and I Versus the Feminist Avenger and Displaced Anger Man") to its smart-alecky wit and deadpan rhythms ("The train rolled in and I sat down next to two not-unattractive hipster girls who were chatting about something boring"), Daniels Parseliti's sketch of inadvertently starting a punch-up after a homeless man flashes a girly mag is hilarious. What ensues is a pure New York subway moment, off-kilter and a little crazy, that has Parseliti furiously parsing the meanings of "do the right thing." This is great stuff. Now, I gotta go catch a train. *

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