A Subway Ride in…
The Twilight Zone
With its vintage fleet of
eight subway cars that were once in service from 1932 to 1977,
the train emerges from the tunnel, as if out of a time warp.
Then as I board, I see a sign and a gentleman at the far end
of the car, attired in as if in the 1940’s. What’s
I expect at any moment, that Rod Serling will
appear. And with upper lip stuck to teeth, will introduce
another train story. But this time it’s about a subway
train. And it’s going in an opposite tense, than that
which once headed toward Willoughby; an archetypical Main
A hokey reference perhaps, but this really
does feel like time travel. In reality? It’s the “MTA
Holiday Nostalgia Train,” scheduled to run for a small
window of time leading up to Christmas.
And that fedoraed gentleman, caught up in
the spirit of it all and dressed for the occasion, when later
recaptured on my iPhone (and slightly Photoshopped), re-emerged
as if in a Hopper painting.
Unlike a trip through a history book, an old
magazine, or something virtually delivered, this experience
is in real time, three-dimensional, and decidedly not some
theme park simulation. I cannot think of any such opportunity
in another realm. You can’t ever go back again for a
Sunday ride in the family station wagon (“Are we there
yet?”). But on this ancient yet still functioning transport,
on one particular Sunday, “We are there. Now.”
The senses all come in to play, excluding
taste of course. Though that old subway fragrance— call
it Eau de Industrial Metallic— assails the
nostrils in a way, as to almost make its way down to the tongue.
Once in motion, the ears remember that familiar
old sound of OARRRRRRRRR; shaped by the tubular underground
hollow. And a wind shoots through open windows and doors,
to enjoin with the air being churned by overhead fans on this
unseasonably mild day. Just contemplating a world once without
air conditioning, is enough to make one sweat.
As I run my hand along a cane seat, I recall
an association I once made in a stanza within a poem I wrote
Then picking at the cane seat on
the uptown IND
as it drills through the yellow teeth of stations—
a blur out each window and yet not fast enough—
I head up to the Stadium with my dad.
The right-angled layout of some of these seats
in smaller spaced cars, could potentially lend itself to some
unwanted intimacy during cattle-car hours. That would never
fly, in the heightened sexual harassment awareness of today.
the infringement on space was an issue even then. Though for
different reasons, than say, backpack rudeness (Give Us
This Day Our Daily Backpack, NOVEMBER,
2017 MUSE-LETTER). But a 1935 recommendation as to how
to deal with one particular problem, is startling for its
bluntness and political incorrectness. Even the font seems
confrontational. Though accompanied by quaint sort of Monopoly-game
Such action today could be dangerous. A woman
was recently punched in the face by a guy, because she complained
he was “manspreading” on a rush hour subway.
The eye is drawn to such original posters
and ads that run the length of each car. In fact, they soon
upstage the train itself, to whose cacophonic rhythms in movement,
one has become reacquainted.
Most aspects of daily life experience are
directly or indirectly represented here. Economies, lifestyle,
aesthetics, social mores, and particularly poignant to me,
political sensibilities. And for better or worse, they speak
to an America that no longer exists.
Take the feasibility of advertising a five-cent
pack of chewing gum or candy, to an essentially adult audience.
Could such ads for something so mundane really have any impact?
And worth the cost to an advertiser? Especially given the
absurd claims (with no legal substantiation required), as
to the benefits of the product, that anyone would realize
can’t be true. And there would be no disclosure of ingredients
upon purchase, as mandated today.
“Perfect Gum in the Perfect Package”?
Jelly candy loaded with corn syrup and sugar is “Wholesome”?
But all “candying” aside, we have
always been concerned to some degree with good health. Smoking
was suspect even then. Though it seems tuberculosis was once
rampant, and apparently of more concern than cancer. An appeal
was made to riders to get a chest x-ray; a photo-op I somehow
missed in my snap-happy delirium.
Along with spitting, apparently a nasty habit
of past baskets of deplorables, smoking was specifically forbidden
on board. But if you had to have a cigarette after getting
out of the train station, a bold ad told you there was a healthier
way to do it.
Then right alongside the “healthy cigarette
smoke,” is another wondrous “health-benefit”
ad for a commodity, costing just a nickel— though apparently
for women only— let’s hear it for a bar of soap!
Accompanied by a come-hither portraiture bordering
on fine art, the safety claim is unclear. Safe from what?
(An unwanted pregnancy?). And I guess my mind is in the gutter
(as Sarah Huckabee Sanders might have it), but ‘neath
this guise of good health, in this ad’s totality, I
detect sexual innuendo.
good health, was good grooming. And here’s where the
men come in. Nothing was once more important to a man then
a good shoeshine. And I can’t help but think that with
all our “business casual,” sports fitness wear,
and just prideful sloppiness in general, where is the pressing
need for polish today? Literally and figuratively? On this
subway car and out in the world at large?
But maybe if I knew I could get something
that was “2-in-1” as promised here (a leathering
equivalent of e=mc2 ?), I might start to reconsider.
And dare I once again wax philosophic on the
death of the tie? (That the Tie Has Died is News? AUGUST,
2016 MUSE-LETTER). Or the “cravat,” as it
was apparently referred to in Arrow-shirt circles. That a
knot will fit perfectly with a Gothic collar, is a moot point
these days, no?
And what more can you say about the benefits
of a hat, than that which was allegedly said by 84 out of
100 women? This following ad goes beyond innuendo and into
#MeToo territory. (Who knows what Matt Lauer would have done
back then if he was wearing a hat).
But now it’s time for a return to a
hero of yesteryear. For in an adjoining car, “The Lone
again!” On behalf of a brand of bread, that died with
its bleached-floured boots
on, about 45 years ago. A bread I made my mother buy for the
“Hi-yo Silver!” picture premiums offered for a
while, on the end of the wrapping. And whatever did happen
to our good old American giddy-up anyhow? The last man I saw
on a horse was Roy Moore. But more horseshit; a zero hero.
Patriotism was always at the forefront of
American life. Especially during the war years. Or at least,
“The Greatest War” years. Everyone who sat on
this train when it was still the big engine that could, seemed
to be on the same page (or “the same cane”).
Polarization? Would that be something having
to do with Admiral Peary? Or Santa? Though now, that word
seems to have given way to tribalism. (Can Our Democracy
Survive Tribalism? A recent article from New York
Anyway, there it is. Unabashedly out there.
Not something you’d see any more on public transportation.
I expect James Cagney to come stiff-legged
dancing through the cars, deftly avoiding a collision with
Rod Serling, still standing in my mind’s aisle.
one last walk through the train still in motion (something
no longer allowed), I am caught by an appeal for funding a
library to honor “our” president, Kennedy. Was
Obama “our” president? Was he honored? The two
Bush’s? Clinton? And it would be ludicrous to even ask
those questions about the current guy.
This PSA assumes a bi-partisanship we haven’t
seen since, well, November 22, 1963? A concept that is supposed
to guide governmental affairs, and to be practiced even among
the public at large, is now beyond our wildest imagination.
The speculations for that, which have been debated ad nauseum,
need not be rehashed here.
with a jolt—the last stop. The doors have opened. Time
to get off.
To paraphrase—with a twist— that
familiar quote that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”
(which by all accounts is incorrectly attributed to Freud)…
“sometimes a train ride isn’t just a train ride.”
Back to the present. 2018. Happy New Year!
Picture a Palindrome
Baby”: The Poem
a spiny-finned fish
found on the western coast of the Atlantic
I took my girl to Coney Island
when the moon was in its infancy.
And we swam in its newborn light
those at one with this specific ocean,
the spiny-finned fish.
Then finding sea legs and exhaling,
we emerged to walk
one plank at a time
to the b-side of The Excellents:
You’re my Coney Island baby
You so precious, so sweet.
Endless nights of cotton candy
melting on tongues
a wheel of wonder
the challenge of the Cyclone
that very first deep drop
off the heightened edge
catching our breath
hanging on dearly
in a free fall to where?
How her honeycomb hair
flared so madly behind her;
shrieks and squeals
in that park of no apparent theme
but indulgence in Doo-wop desires
that went the way of Steeplechase.
2018: A Year of Notable
50th Year Anniversaries
“There you go again.” Time passage.
As I just went through a train ride going back over eight
decades and in un-rounded numbers, what is so special about
50 years? And why a need for some specific half-century shout-outs
to what will be arriving this year?
Fifty years seems expansive enough to be called history.
Yet well within an average human life span. Therefore, the
possibility of personally recalled experiences. Some of which
might be applicable to today, considering some of the current
social and political upheaval.
I can’t help but think at times, of the opening lines
from Kipling’s If.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
But we’ve been there before. Seen worse. At least these
eyes have. And have survived.
The year was 1968.
It was packed with events that still seem to reverberate
in some way. For one thing, they demonstrated that what was
unimaginable… could actually happen. Much the same way
that fifty years from now, people of all political persuasions
will still be dissecting how a man without any prior political
experience, could make the leap from reality TV host to the
presidency. And the profound change it made on the nature
of that office.
as they might one day still be referencing the #MeToo movement.
Time’s “Person of the Year” (though
I don’t think calling them “The Silence Breakers”
will have any legs), could turn out to have created a Defining
Moment. Time, not the magazine, will tell.
need be said at the outset, that 1968 was not all doom and
gloom. There were some events which were unequivocally positive.
The first human heart transplant (Christiaan Barnard on scalpel),
and astronauts orbiting the moon for the first time on Christmas
Eve (“In the beginning, God created the heavens
and the earth.”), readily come to mind. In fact,
that Apollo 8 crew was Time’s “Men of the Year.”
Name drop alert: I once got to meet Jim Lovell. Good guy.
But in the main? In bullets points (certainly no pun intended),
and without need of Googling…
• March 31st: Lyndon Johnson announces he will
not seek another term.
• April: Martin Luther King is assassinated.
• June 6th: Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
• August: the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
• November: Richard Nixon is barely elected.
Johnson, who upon announcing he would not seek another term,
became the first president to suffer a TKO while in office.
(An equivalent of “No mas,” once uttered by Robert
Durán from his corner). Technically, it was not a resignation.
That would come seven years later. Nixon would be the first
to actually resign. (Under the dangling sword of impeachment,
Watching the telecast that April Fool’s eve, you couldn’t
help think at first, ”Is this a joke?” It wasn’t.
In the growing vocal disgruntlement with Nam (even Walter
Cronkite became disenchanted), Johnson became another casualty
of the war. This was unprecedented. It meant that people taking
to the streets in protest, could make a difference in an immediate
And it seems today, that there are more people, taking to
more streets, about more things, than I can recall since.
Soon after, Martin Luther King was gunned down.
Upon his assassination, there was much rioting and looting.
I can remember seeing damage done on the subway in angry response,
later that night. And soon thereafter, being approached on
another dark night by “merchants” forcing on me—at
super bargain basement prices— the spoils of the rioting.
Call it Close Encounter of an Urban Kind.
Me: (playing dumb) “How can you sell it
They: (in exasperation) “The riots man!
Me: “I’m sorry. I’m broke right now”
(holding my breath that they would let me be).
Less than two months later, Robert Kennedy, who had quelled
the anger of one crowd over King’s assassination, suffered
the same fate.
Following a brief victory speech after the California primary,
when at around 2 or 3AM (EST) Kennedy concluded, “Now
on to Chicago,” I went to bed. I was awakened the next
morning by my mother telling me he had been shot in the head.
Moving on to Chicago, the Democratic convention was the scene
of a first: America beating up on its people on live TV!
You might have been watching something coming out of a third
world country, with protestors chanting, “The whole
world’s watching! The whole world’s watching!”
And it was. Questionable excessive police force is still an
Another first, was a member of the press, CBS’s Dan
Rather, getting roughed up by security in the midst of reporting
from the convention floor. What the hell is going on? The
First Amendment was seemingly being trampled on, both in and
outside the convention hall.
That November, I stayed up all night watching the election
returns drip in. Too close to call. I had my army physical
coming up that very next morning. And as I was likely to be
drafted, I had a dog in the hunt. Yes, it was all about ME,
as is often the case of youth. (Not to mention, the case of
The implications of a Nixon victory over Hubert Humphry were
critical: a more prolonged, intense and expanded war. For
certain. (Not to mention all that would transpire during his
truncated tenure, which we had no way of anticipating).
“I” would lose the election, pass the physical,
yet avoid the war. A story too long to tell, that seemed to
include some form of divine intervention.
draft card was ultimately reissued with a deferment designation,
and in my new name (at the time). I still have it. Not the
name, but the card. And for those who might have never seen
one of these things and are curious, “submitted for
your approval” (or disapproval), Exhibit 3A. Many of
course did not defer, and my hat remains off to them (A
Year in Nam: Fifty Years After, MAY,
Every generation will have its events, that 50 years later,
will still be talked about as if they occurred last Tuesday.
Often because they represented something bleak and unimaginable.
Those who came before, had their Titanic, their Black Tuesday,
their Pearl Harbor. Gen X’s and Y’s, on September
11, 2051, will recall where they were when they heard the
news. And how it affected them.
Such anniversaries become meaningful as a reminder of how
they altered the way one comes to look at things, and literally
at times, altered lives. Hopefully in some positive way. But
I guess as always, when trying to impart the importance of
the tales older folk tell from long ago, say 50 years ago,
well…”You had to be there.”
Quote of the Month
An Alternative Question
UFO’s. They’re baaaack. In the
news. And this time it seems different, as the government
has gone public with documents that for years were kept under
wraps. And those documents reflect some serious attention
to the issue.
Recently on CNN, a former Pentagon official,
Luis Elizondo, said he believes that there is evidence of
alien life reaching Earth. This in conjunction with a video
just released by the US Department of Defense purporting to
have spotted a UFO off the coast of San Diego in 2004. Why
not? Great weather! That’s where I’d go if I was
Beyond such intriguing sightings, there is
always the “mathematical-probability” position
for life elsewhere. As expressed in laymen’s language
by a Propulsion Systems Engineer at NASA, Robert Frisbee (an
ironic name given the subject matter at hand) it goes like
this: “Given the 100 billion stars in our galaxy, someone
out there somewhere, is gotta’ be kicking around on
Then there’s something called the Drake
Equation consisting of seven variables, that attempts to predict
the chances of advanced alien life existing, or having existed
at one time in the Milky Way galaxy.
But tweaking that formula (among other things),
a new study published two years ago by a professor of physics
and astronomy at the University of Rochester, concluded that:
"Our result is the first time anyone
has been able to set any empirical answer for that question,
and it is astonishingly likely (italics, mine) that we
are not the only time and place that an advanced civilization
“Astonishingly likely.” Never
heard anything phrased quite that way before.
54% of Americans believe ET’s currently
exist, according to a new poll also taken couple of years
ago (Newsweek, 9/29/15). I am personally, astonishingly open
to the possibility.
But the more astonishingly hypothetical question
for me, is not about ET’s existence, but lack thereof.
To wit (with poetic line breaking for emphasis):
What would be
if against all probability,
it was ultimately determined
beyond a shadow of a doubt,
that we are alone
and always have been?