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Each year, on a randomly chosen January morning, a specific announcement is relayed and broadcast to taxicab radios throughout New York. The message excitedly reveals a circuitous route, winding through the streets of Manhattan. Within moments, the mood of the traffic changes. The New York Grand Prix begins. Customers are unceremoniously dumped at the first stoplight or locked in. Golden yellow sedans and minivans jockey for position, racing to pass predetermined checkpoints. The results set the pecking order for the coming year, with losing cabbies yielding fares to higher-ranked companies. Is it dangerous? Of course. But it's absolutely necessary.
"Oh, that is lovely," a middle-aged woman says under her breath as she leans towards the glass. The window display holds shellacked German roaches, immobile and elegantly fixed against a backdrop of wrinkled black velvet. "Which one?" her friend asks, pulling her gaze from the price tags on the second tier. "The blue one, with the diamonds, next to the crimson and green swirls." This is a high-end store, carrying only the highest quality bejewelled and painted urban scarabs. This is Soho, not some chintzy Canal Street card table, where Chinese women hot-glue rhinestones on undersize specimens.
Have you ever wondered what's out there, in the subway tunnels, besides the rats and steel columns and cement surfaces coated with black grime? Have you ever shone a light into the dark of a subway tunnel, or pressed your face against the window as you sped uptown beneath the streets? Billboards line almost every route. The meager viewership means advertisers pay only pennies a week to take their pitches underground. Ads for adult education, white teeth, and domestic abuse counseling wait in perfect darkness, sitting patiently on the off chance someone curious, impressionable, and properly equipped will peer out.
A dozen people wait on the platform, pacing absentmindedly in the cold or watching the rails for the downtown express. Finally, lights appear and slowly approach. Brakes squeal in rising pitch as the train rocks to a halt. But every car is empty. When the doors slide open, no one steps out. There are no passengers. The plastic seats are scattered with abandoned belongings. Upright shopping bags litter the floor beside wet umbrellas. Hot coffee has not yet finished running from a tipped paper cup. No passengers, no conductor. The new Mary Celeste sits quiet and still on the tracks.
"Try your luck! Give it a shot!" The disheveled man calls out to the passing crowd from his alcove just off the sidewalk. "Give it a try! Valuable prizes! Only a dollar!" He stands behind a large cardboard box. Inside are a few hundred small stuffed animals, mixed thoroughly together. A woman steps forward and offers money. He nods, pockets it, then leans slowly forward. He moves his hand out, forms a claw with his fingers. The woman says "Now!" and his hand plunges into the jumble. A moment later it's back up, empty. The woman hands him another buck.
With the 1979 inauguration of New York's first 18 and older subway station, mosaic art was revitalized, allowed to flourish in new public territories, free to explore what had been forbidden. Today, about ten percent of Manhattan's local subway stations are adults only. Anyone disembarking in either direction at the 18th Street "1" station is faced with expanses of warm tones, entwined bodies of Italian glass chips and colored ceramic tiles. Skin gradually darkening into pink crevices and dramatically rising in pornographic splendor. Giant lovers tangle and rest alongside benches, blissfully distracted and ignorant of the winter cold or clamor of the trains.
The West Nile Virus started in New York and spread further West this spring. You won't read this in the papers, but disaster looms. Death tolls were low this year, of course, but death was hardly the worst of it. The virus mainly attacked the elderly, causing brain tissue to swell within the cranium. No one realized that with their newly-swollen minds, the old people acquired terrifying telekinetic powers. Real life scenes right out of "Scanners." Doctors forced to jump from windows. A deranged grandfather wreaked havoc, using his enhanced brain to set fires and burst his enemies' hearts.
Gangs of foreign street crews compete for city repair jobs. The civic officials who pay for these maintenance jobs rarely care who does it, they just want it finished. The first signs of conflict follow the appearance of the flourescent markings on the sidewalk or asphalt. Within a day, seemingly out of nowhere, additional designs materialize, typically from Pakistani or Puerto Rican conglomerates. Chaos grows as arrows, decimals, dotted lines, and cryptic foreign abbreviations overlap. Somehow, the Polish usually manage to be the first to cut ground, diamond blades shrieking, spitting water and smoke in the middle of the night.
A film is an optical illusion, individual images following one another too closely for your brain to separate. Traditional cinema relies on moving the single celluloid frames at high speed through a stationary projector. An experimental partnership between the MTA and NYU Film School has reversed the idea. A short film, fifteen minutes in length, has been reverted to single photographs, enlarged, and posted sequentially on the walls of a mile-long stretch of F Train subway track in Brooklyn. By staring through a window, passengers on the F can experience the same illusion of images flickering into smooth motion.
From a dilapidated storefront in lower Harlem, phrenology advanced through the poorest neighborhoods, crowding Tarot card readers and pushing spiritualists and voodoo shops into retreat. Lacking a university program or a system of apprenticeship, self-declared experts nevertheless multiplied. For five dollars, a somber professorial-type will run manicured fingers over your scalp, thoughtfully examining your skull, taking note of each swell and knot. Purple robes, wooden beads and Caribbean headdresses give way to cheap white lab coats and glass-paned spectacles. The miracle of science, the signs said, revealed your invisible character and illuminated your path through this life.
Everyone felt the tension as the frail grandmother pushed gingerly through the turnstile. She took no notice of anyone else, or seemed not to, and moved silently toward the benches. A Latino man discovered a reason to get up and examine the wall map further down the platform, and the woman nonchalantly took his place. She turned her woolen scarf so the pattern was obvious. The knitted design belonged to the gang of elderly that claimed East Chelsea. The old woman's head turned deliberately and her eyes locked with a late-middle-aged man three seats down. His gaze dropped.
Subway corridors are far from featureless. If you really look at what you pass every day, you will notice doors now and then, inset into tile walls. Solid and unobtrusive, these doors look too strong to interest the criminal-minded and mischievous. This is hardly an accident. Some lead to administration or electronic control rooms, but far more often they open into hidden underground apartments, funded by vaguely-worded line items in MTA budgets, constructed to house favored employees. Workers live in subsidized luxury beneath the city, enjoying subterranean pools, private movie complexes, and company stores stocked with imported wines.
To everything there is a season, says the Bible, and Nature surely agrees. Every December 26th, while homes in Brooklyn's Dyker Heights are still blinding tourists with miles of lights and animated displays, a curious midnight migration usually goes unnoticed. As if on some hidden signal, plaster Baby Jesuses throughout the neighborhood escape their Nativity scenes, leaving empty mangers as they crawl stiffly from their yards toward a nearby park. Like walruses coupling on the beaches of a remote island, the infants congregate and mate beneath hedges, ensuring enough offspring for next Christmas. Nature, like God, works in mysterious ways.
Nellie Bootheby was a loudmouth, a harridan given to incessant, effortless, drunken shrieking. Her verbal rampages were the bane of Greenpoint, echoing against brick buildings facing McCarren Park. But on a cold night in September, 1910, Nellie met a violent end. Four boys carelessly crossed her, and the torrent of abuse that followed began to wear on the lads' patience. Nellie sealed her fate by heaving a brick, which was hurled back with deadly accuracy, cutting her harangue short. Her restless spirit, however, continues to irritate and destroy the neighborhood peace. On quiet, moonlit nights, you can hardly hear yourself think.
Grab your coat, loosen your belt, and tuck in your bib, it's time for the 2003 TASTE OF BROOKLYN! Just buy a special one-day "TOB TRANSIT PASS" and get ready to enjoy mouth-watering dishes served in style! At every station on every line, chefs from over three hundred of Brooklyn's finest restaurants will be serving their delicious specialties RIGHT THERE ON THE PLATFORM, from 8:30am to 11 at night! Cutlery, plates, and napkins will be provided...all you bring is your appetite!You'd better start starving yourself now, because on SUNDAY, JANUARY 23rd, the borough's best recipes are going UNDERGROUND!
A rifle fires twice. Three orange-clad biologists jump down to the tracks. They step quickly but carefully towards a small, sluggish black dog. Commuters cover their ears as another shot rings out. Everyone's used to it by now. This is the MTA's damage control program. Ten years ago, six Boston Terriers were released into the subway tunnels. The agency claimed it was a holistic approach to rat control. For awhile, it worked. But one infestation was simply replaced with another. The rats are gone, but now the tunnels reek of dogshit, and the darkness echoes with non-stop barking.
New York State's successful Adopt-A-Greyhound program places hundreds of the racing industry's abused dogs in warm homes with loving families. But statistics deceive and conceal. The tragedy, though genuine, isn't what promotional literature describes. Both dog racing and pureblood greyhounds would have died out nationwide in the Seventies if an unscrupulous breeder and track owner in Queens had not noticed abused greyhounds inspired public sympathy. He recognized the synergy of linking the failing dog track with the convenient adoption scam. Ironically, were it not for the great demand for "used" dogs, Greyhound racing would have vanished years ago.
A weak sound comes down the tunnel, like a faraway siren at first, then breaking into several choppy stutters before dying. It comes again four seconds later, stronger, and from the platform you can see distant lights. Commuters close their books and stand. They recognize the L Train's signal, coming from Brooklyn, heading towards Eighth Avenue. In the opposite direction, the stutters would come first, the siren second. Every line in the city announces itself with a distinct auditory signal. Different sequences have been carefully designed, and two electronic chirps at the end of any phrase always denote express trains.
They're selling incense on 28th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. Folding tables line both sidewalks, displaying hand-lettered signs and long boxes in orderly stacks. Eccentrically dressed proprietors watch sand pots or small wooden statues which bristle with burning sticks. Smoke billows with the breeze. Shoppers look elsewhere for sandalwood, patchouli or nag champa, however. On this block, passerby catch lungfuls of something that might be bacon and eggs, followed by cheap, smoldering orange creamsicle, followed by an overwhelming, nauseating imitation of imitation buttered popcorn. Step right up---12 packs of Irish Whisky (or Irish Spring) are only two dollars.
Drug dealing, whatever ills might be ascribed to it, is a vibrant part of capitalist economies. Professional workers in the narcotics supply industry must fight competitors, pursue innovation, and maximize existing resources, as in any business. The fact their products are illegal changes nothing. On Bronx streets, where stakes are high and competition heavy, industry analysts point to two recent developments. Many dealers now display custom-made buttons, bold white letters on red reading "ASK ME ABOUT GETTING HIGH." On subway trains and platforms, portable screens of folding cardboard now shield public deals from surveillance cameras, cops, and nosy passerby.
It started with choking. At some point, choking deaths in New York's bars and restaruants reached epidemic numbers, and the law reluctantly stepped in. Posters went up, teaching the Heimlich maneuver in simple, bold graphics. Safety, though, is an strangely demanding mistress. Bed her, and you are obliged to bed her sisters. More posters were commissioned, and soon patrons were taught how to use a tourniquet, build a temporary splint, and attend seizure victims. A year later, diners were led through frostbite, tracheotomies, detached retinas, and emergency childbirth. The latest round covers episiotomies, rudimentary dental work, and irritable bowel syndrome.
New York was built by wave after wave of immigrants. Sociologists have documented a huge range of preserved customs, and many commonalities have emerged. The familiar American game Rock, Paper, Scissors is known to many cultures, though under unfamiliar terms. The game can be described as A beats C, B beats A, C beats B. To Italians, this means Old Man Steals Gun, Terrier Scares Old Man, Gun Shoots Terrier. Norwegians know that Lutefisk moistens Tire Iron, Shotglass Covers Lutefisk, Tire Iron Crushes Shotglass. And to the Irish, it's always been Scally Murders Vicar, Guard Catches Scally, Vicar Seduces Guard.
"Hi! Welcome to the G! Hi there! Hi there, welcome to the G platform! Hello there! Hi! Hi there!" For years, subway greeters have been a favorite part of the transit experience. Tourists and locals alike enjoy the constant patter. These ambassadors of the MTA smooth the way from home to office and back for millions of commuters, instilling a sense of order and familiarity, often working their stop for years. A train draws near and a tired officeworker feels a gentle touch on her arm. "Try the first car," the greeter confides, "I think you'll find it less crowded."
Take a seat in a subway station carrying an express line, a place where some trains never slow. Relax, and let your eyes defocus. Stare towards an imaginary point in the distance when a train speeds past. Within the bright windows, watch the heads of passengers blur into indistinct dark dots and light dashes. Dark, dark light light... the same heads begin to reappear like clouds and trees in Flintstone's background art. Like a Hanna-Barbara animator, God fudges unimportant details. It's evidence that much of the world is set dressing, and the director's attention cannot be everywhere at once.
Every week, the NY Press' film reviewer's embarrassing Steven Spielberg obsession is laid bare in print. Regardless of the film ostensibly reviewed, Spielberg is tenderly worshipped and carefully praised. This unseemly fixation was noticed by an enterprising husband and wife team in New Jersey, and a tiny yet lucrative cottage industry was born. As many as two dozen times a week, the critic dials a special toll number. A breathy Spielberg-soundalike always picks up after a tantalizing delay. "Hello, Armond," he whispers. "I was just reading some new scripts." Armond catches his breath. God help him, he's already aroused.
"You get out there right now and play! Make me proud! I don't care what day it is!" In a blind corner of the Brooklyn's Atlantic Ave. subway stop, a garishly-dressed mother whispers tersely, her nails clutching her son's thin arm. He sobs and clutches his violin tighter to his chest. He's ten. He's been performing below ground for five years now. His mother always lurks nearby, determined to see her child succeed. The competition is shit, she knows that, but failure awaits the lazy. She remembers how fickle showbiz can be, how far one can coast on cuteness.
The Japanese "Beckoning Cat," is traditionally placed by shopkeepers in store windows, near doors. Each porcelain statuette cheerfully waves its paw, attracting customers and good fortune. In Chinatown, however, any advantage a Beckoning Cat once provided has long since been equaled by its presence in competitor's shops. Thanks to the talisman's ubiquity, customized cats began to appear. First came models with two waving arms. Then elongated torsos sported four and eventually six limbs. Mirrors magnified and maximized the radiant charm. Centipede felines now undulate in place, reflected infinitely in gleaming constructs, radiating luck like the brilliant flames in lighthouse beacons.
Until very recently, cataloguing life below New York streets has been left to B-movie directors and horror novelists. But life adapts to far worse environments, and new species are always worth serious investigation. Biologists have discovered thriving populations of sightless, white pigeons. Presumably descended from visiting birds unable to find their way back through turnstiles, they now live and breed without daylight. Colonies of plump, grey Chinese hamsters have displaced rats in some areas under Chinatown. And an entirely new species of squirrel now glides silently over the rails, nesting among girders, no longer looking for handouts from humans.
Fistfights in NY are dangerous and undesirable, but jousting for dominance is still necessary. Introducing a new form of street conflict, called "Preliminaries." The opening threats are now the main event, lasting until creativity fails one combatant. "I'll bruise you in a checkerboard pattern, then carve a chess set from your teeth!" "I'll teach you to play piano, then break your fingers the night before your first recital!" "I'll open an ass-kicking school and teach your ass to kick itself!" "I'll tear your hair out, sell it to a wig shop, then give the cash to a bald child!"
New taxis will appear with the warmer weather this spring. Adding two open-air, outward-facing rows of seats in the rear, these new models attempt to generate extra revenue within Manhattan. Anyone hailing one of these cabs can ride alone or "with company." If company is chosen, distinctive lights flash several times, and an outside electronic readerboard displays the destination. Passerby may impulsively hitch a ride in the outdoor seats for a flat $5, no tip expected, hopping off at any stoplight. The main fare inside receives 5% off his total for each additional passenger, no matter how far they ride.
Civil defense sirens shriek through the cold Manhattan morning. Somewhere, terror is skulking. On the sidewalks, coffee cart owners take action. Awnings bang down. Grills are stowed and greasy fingers punch codes on concealed keypads. One by one the carts tear away from their moorings, leaving dark stains of vegetable oil and coffee grounds. Carts collide and snap tight. Five hundred shiny metal cubes cleave into place, and a silver giant begins to form high above the streets. Quilted aluminum armor reflects the sun as MEGACART strides downtown, mechanical arms flexed, scalding coffee pressurized, eyes scanning the sky for trouble.
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