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Song of the Subway: Walt Whitman on the Downtown Express

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I wasn’t thinking about Walt Whitman when I hopped on the subway at 72nd and Broadway. My time was short, and I wanted only to get down to Chambers Street as quickly as possible, before the courthouses on Foley Square closed. But what happened on the first leg of my trip prompted my own poor imitation of a Whitman poem. Call it “Song of the Subway.”
Had Whitman lived a bit longer, and been in an unaccustomed rush, maybe he would have immortalized the subway ride from Brooklyn to Mannahatta the way he already had crossing via ferry. And were he around now — though, of course, he’s forever reminding us that he is — he might have rhapsodized about how the subway, which only a year ago shut down every night for the first time in its 117-year history, now stands for a city coming off the ropes.
There’s no poetry in the word “infrastructure,” a word, I’m pretty certain, Whitman never used. But I’d bet he’d have regarded the subterranean tube running the length of Manhattan as another open road, equally worthy of praise.
I know that the interval between 72nd and 42nd on the 3 train is not the longest in the subway system, nor, as far as I know, has anyone composed a ditty about it. That distinction belongs to the stretch between Columbus Circle and 125th Street on the A line.
But the men behind New York’s first subway lines, known to old-timers as the IRT and BMT (as opposed to the municipal bean-counters who built the A and D of the IND some 30 years later), were out to dazzle. The stations they created were both handsome — how else to explain how the elegant rectangular tiles lining their walls now beautify the bathrooms of people too fancy to ride the trains? — and grand, featuring those wonderful, whimsical mosaics. Many have been restored, and the cars running through them are bright and shiny.
By contrast, the A and D lines, completed under Mayor LaGuardia, were utilitarian for starters and left to rot ever since: While some of the cars date back to Mayor Wagner, the ambient grime seems untouched since Mayors Impellitteri and O’Dwyer. Even Whitman, who loved all conveyances carrying lots of people, couldn’t have found anything poetic about them. The trains on those misbegotten lines take forever to come, as if, mindful of their grim destinations, they never really want to arrive.
But just as I entered the old subway shelter on 72nd Street, the one with the elegant Dutch facade, the monitor over the turnstile reading “No. 3. New Lots Av” switched from solid chartreuse to pulsating amber: My train was pulling in. With that swift swipe New Yorkers have perfected and a burst down the stairs, I could make it.
As always, I surveyed the assembled people with whom I’d share my journey — another advantage of the trains over antisocial cabs and Uber — and settled in for the ride. But another sensation soon distracted me: After a slow start, the motorman had opened up the throttle.
It rarely happens. There are all those decrepit hundred-year-old signals you’re always hearing about, the ones taking another hundred years to be replaced. And that ubiquitous “train traffic in front of us.” And those tyrannical, anonymous dispatchers who, we’re informed, are forever holding trains in stations. Or the assorted, unexplained stops and slowdowns that capture the subway’s festering wounds. But this day at least, marshaling all the power at its command, the train was soon hurtling, careening — “careering,” Whitman might have said — down the tracks. The sleepy backwaters of the Broadway Local, its patrons watching forlornly from the platforms, flashed by in blurs — 66th Street! 59th! 50th! — getting the back of the hand from the mighty, haughty Express.
There was absolutely nothing elegant about it — “No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,” as Whitman wrote in “To a Locomotive in Winter.” But the Subway in Summer was every bit as purposeful, ferocious, disdainful and defiant, accelerating as if to let itself jam on its brakes even more emphatically only moments later. Appearances, and comforts, didn’t matter: As always in New York, there were places to get to, work to be done. True, this train, unlike Whitman’s, belched no pennants of smoke, but it was “throbbing” and “convulsive” just the same.
Of course, no one was paying attention; all eyes were glued to cellphones. Miracles often pass unnoticed; airplane passengers ignore the clouds, too. But has anything ever glided so effortlessly beneath a place so dense, and congested? And 120 years after stalwart workers bore through all that schist to blaze the trail?
Griping about the subway is a birthright of a native New Yorker. But to us grateful auslanders it’s the subway, more than anything else, that embodies the freedom we fled to New York to enjoy, the very freedom Whitman celebrates, the freedom to be who you want where you want when you want, untethered to anyone else’s tastes or clocks or cars.
A couple of deals before dawn, as another poet once wrote, New York’s streets belong to the cop and the janitor with the mop. But after pulling yet another of its all-nighters, the subway is what brings that cop and that janitor to work. Let’s just admit it: The city, or at least most of it, does sleep. It’s the subway that never did, at least until Covid came along. And now, barreling down to Times Square, it was springing back to life, 24 hours a day.
I stayed on the train: I had three more leaps, beneath three more civilizations, still to go. And I got there with time to spare, for when it clicks, the subway makes even procrastinators punctual.
But Whitman, I imagine, would have alighted at Times Square, “afoot and lighthearted.” As he’d have heard the conductor say, there were so many more roads to explore: the A, E and C; the N, Q, R and W; the shuttle to Grand Central, the 7 downstairs, the 1 across the platform. Or maybe he’d just walk upstairs, head over to Bryant Park and write another poem — one celebrating the subway’s, and the city’s, return.
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