Song of the Subway: Walt Whitman on the Downtown Express

I wasn’t fascinated by Walt Whitman after I hopped on the subway at 72nd and Broadway. My time was quick, and I needed solely to get right down to Chambers Street as rapidly as doable, earlier than the courthouses on Foley Square closed. But what occurred on the first leg of my journey prompted my very 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, perhaps he would have immortalized the subway experience from Brooklyn to Mannahatta the manner he already had crossing by way of ferry. And have been he round now — although, of course, he’s ceaselessly reminding us that he’s — he may need rhapsodized about how the subway, which solely a yr in the past shut down each evening for the first time in its 117-year historical past, now stands for a metropolis coming off the ropes.

There’s no poetry in the phrase “infrastructure,” a phrase, I’m fairly sure, Whitman by no means used. But I’d guess he’d have regarded the subterranean tube working the size of Manhattan as one other open street, equally worthy of reward.

I do know that the interval between 72nd and 42nd on the three practice isn’t the longest in the subway system, nor, so far as I do know, has anybody composed a ditty about it. That distinction belongs to the stretch between Columbus Circle and 125th Street on the A line.

But the males behind New York’s first subway traces, recognized to old-timers as the IRT and BMT (versus the municipal bean-counters who constructed the A and D of the IND some 30 years later), have been out to dazzle. The stations they created have been each good-looking — how else to clarify how the elegant rectangular tiles lining their partitions now beautify the bogs of folks too fancy to experience the trains? — and grand, that includes these great, whimsical mosaics. Many have been restored, and the vehicles working by way of them are brilliant and glossy.

By distinction, the A and D traces, accomplished beneath Mayor LaGuardia, have been utilitarian for starters and left to rot ever since: While some of the vehicles date again to Mayor Wagner, the ambient grime appears untouched since Mayors Impellitteri and O’Dwyer. Even Whitman, who beloved all conveyances carrying tons of folks, couldn’t have discovered something poetic about them. The trains on these misbegotten traces take ceaselessly to return, as if, aware of their grim locations, they by no means actually need to arrive.

But simply as I entered the outdated subway shelter on 72nd Street, the one with the elegant Dutch facade, the monitor over the turnstile studying “No. 3. New Lots Av” switched from stable chartreuse to pulsating amber: My practice was pulling in. With that swift swipe New Yorkers have perfected and a burst down the stairs, I may make it.

As all the time, I surveyed the assembled folks with whom I’d share my journey — one other benefit of the trains over delinquent cabs and Uber — and settled in for the experience. But one other sensation quickly distracted me: After a sluggish begin, the motorman had opened up the throttle.

It not often occurs. There are all these decrepit hundred-year-old alerts you’re all the time listening to about, the ones taking one other hundred years to get replaced. And that ubiquitous “train traffic in front of us.” And these tyrannical, nameless dispatchers who, we’re knowledgeable, are ceaselessly holding trains in stations. Or the assorted, unexplained stops and slowdowns that seize the subway’s festering wounds. But at the present time at the very least, marshaling all the energy at its command, the practice was quickly hurtling, careening — “careering,” Whitman may need mentioned — 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 again of the hand from the mighty, haughty Express.

There was completely 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 each bit as purposeful, ferocious, disdainful and defiant, accelerating as if to let itself jam on its brakes much more emphatically solely moments later. Appearances, and comforts, didn’t matter: As all the time in New York, there have been locations to get to, work to be completed. True, this practice, not like Whitman’s, belched no pennants of smoke, however it was “throbbing” and “convulsive” simply the identical.

Of course, nobody was paying consideration; all eyes have been glued to cellphones. Miracles usually go unnoticed; airplane passengers ignore the clouds, too. But has something ever glided so effortlessly beneath a spot so dense, and congested? And 120 years after stalwart employees bore by way of all that schist to blaze the path?

Griping about the subway is a birthright of a local New Yorker. But to us grateful auslanders it’s the subway, greater than the rest, that embodies the freedom we fled to New York to get pleasure from, the very freedom Whitman celebrates, the freedom to be who you need the place you need whenever you need, untethered to anybody else’s tastes or clocks or vehicles.

A pair of offers earlier than daybreak, as one other poet as soon as wrote, New York’s streets belong to the cop and the janitor with the mop. But after pulling one more of its all-nighters, the subway is what brings that cop and that janitor to work. Let’s simply admit it: The metropolis, or at the very least most of it, does sleep. It’s the subway that by no means did, at the very least till Covid got here alongside. And now, barreling right down to Times Square, it was springing again to life, 24 hours a day.

I stayed on the practice: I had three extra leaps, beneath three extra civilizations, nonetheless to go. And I received there with time to spare, for when it clicks, the subway makes even procrastinators punctual.

But Whitman, I think about, would have alighted at Times Square, “afoot and lighthearted.” As he’d have heard the conductor say, there have been so many extra roads to discover: the A, E and C; the N, Q, R and W; the shuttle to Grand Central, the 7 downstairs, the 1 throughout the platform. Or perhaps he’d simply stroll upstairs, head over to Bryant Park and write one other poem — one celebrating the subway’s, and the metropolis’s, return.