The system that never sleeps turns 100

Email|Print| Text size + By Gary Gately
Globe Correspondent / December 12, 2004

NEW YORK -- In the city beneath the city, a world that pulsates with a life all its own, Natalia Paruz coaxes the sweetest of melodies from a 32-inch wood saw.

She's sitting on a stool in the Union Square subway station, playing Bach, Mozart, and Schubert with a cello bow, and something extraordinary happens. As the ethereal sounds of "Ave Maria" reverberate in the cavernous station, hundreds of harried straphangers gather to watch and listen to this slight, red-haired woman making music with a saw.

Paruz, a.k.a. "SawLady," has played her saw at Lincoln Center, in Paris, with the Morocco Philharmonic, and with the Israel Philharmonic. But she says nothing compares with this subterranean stage that is the New York subway.

"It's like you're playing in a cave; it creates the best acoustics," says Paruz, 29, who emigrated from Israel 14 years ago. More than that, she says, "I love the atmosphere. When you do a concert on stage, the audience is out there in the dark. Here you see the faces, and you communicate with them. People are so receptive. Everybody's smiling. They always have a million questions."

Not everyone has been so enamored of her music. In 2000, an undercover policewoman gave her a ticket with a $150 fine because the teeth of the saw represented a weapon. You never know when a crazy person might snatch the saw and start waving it around, the officer said. So Paruz went back to her Astoria, Queens, home and cut all the teeth off the saw. Fortunately, that didn't hurt the quality of the sound.

It echoes in my ears like an angel singing before it's overtaken by a train lumbering and screeching through the tunnel. It's still playing in my head as I step into the car full of silent stares, then: Bing-bong. "Stand clear of the closing doors. Please check for your personal belongings." Next stop . . .

And so I begin my journey in this, the subway's centennial year, which the city is celebrating with museum exhibits, vintage subway train rides, a holiday toy subway train layout, subway books, subway photos, subway collectibles. I step into a wonderland where I will encounter magicians, musicians, and mimes, peddlers, preachers, and panhandlers, a man who tangos with a mannequin in a mezzanine, boys who break-dance and do cartwheels on moving trains, the guy who looks like a gold statue and moves only when you give him money.

With a nod to Duke Ellington's rendition of "Take the 'A' Train," I do, from the heart of Harlem through a wildlife preserve, 4 feet above Jamaica Bay, and to the beaches of Far Rockaway. On a dank and gray day, I sit on an empty car with a lone pigeon who boards there, and I momentarily long for summer and the sight of surfers with boards in tow, taking the subway to the waves.

The No. 7 from Times Square is a melting pot in motion that travels through the most ethnically diverse county in America: Queens. Crossing the Manhattan Bridge on the D train to Brooklyn, I marvel at masterpieces: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and, to the south, Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. At the 14th Street station, a woman walks back and forth yelling, "God loves you, each and every one of you."

The subway embodies quintessential New York: loud, boisterous, always in a hurry, as much a part of the fabric of the city as Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park -- as much a New York character as anything on Broadway.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority New York City Transit carries 4.6 million people a day to 468 stations spread over 722 miles in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It is the star of movies and a stage for countless performers. It is democratic in ways the streets and concrete canyons and glass-walled office buildings never could be: Mariachi bands can draw more attention in the subway than the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who takes it to and from work, and no amount of money or power or prestige will get you there any faster or more comfortably than it will the next passenger.

From the beginning, New York embraced its subway. "City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes!" the subway's owners boasted when it opened on a crisp autumn day in October 1904. People jammed the streets. Church bells pealed, tugboat horns blared, and factory whistles shrieked. On that Thursday night, lines stretched around entire city blocks, crowds stormed the entrance, and 150,000 people -- from tuxedoed gentry to tenement dwellers -- paid a nickel apiece to ride. Before long, dancers in Manhattan ballrooms began doing the "Subway Express Two-Step."

Within just a few years, the subway had transformed the city, and the city had transformed the subway. At last, immigrants could move from the crammed tenements of the Lower East Side to form new ethnic neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, and Harlem grew from a little town in the suburbs to a bustling black enclave.

"An immigrant coming over before the subway had to live where his job was," says Lorraine B. Diehl, a historian and author of "Subways: The Tracks That Built New York City" (Crown, 2004). "The subway literally urbanized the city."

For 42 years, the fare was 5 cents, which didn't cover the costs of running the subways, and the two private companies that owned them went bankrupt. By 1940, the city took over ownership, but the system continued its steady decline for decades. As recently as the 1980s, a third of the fleet would be out of service regularly during rush hour, trains often broke down or caught fire on the rails, and graffiti covered the cars inside and out.

Even now, nearly two decades later, I remember the June day in 1985 when I looked across a Times Square-bound train car at a mother holding her young child. I pitied the child. How, I wondered, could any child grow up amid this squalor.

When I would leave work around 2:30 a.m. and venture down into the dump that was the old Times Square station -- eyes darting, mind racing, heart thumping -- I'd jam a pointed finger into my coat pocket, as if packing more than a pen, and mutter. I thought that if perhaps the late-night crack addicts and assorted psychos sized me up as one of them, they'd leave me alone.

Years and many thousands of dollars later, the station bears little resemblance to what I remember. At Broadway and 42d, the new glass-enclosed entrance glistens right down to the shiny white wall tiles with the inlaid letters "Times Square." Above, I see an explosion of bright yellows, blues, and reds in a 53-foot-wide Roy Lichtenstein mural of a futuristic city skyline.

Then I hear children singing in perfect harmony: "I believe in love. . . . Love is everything." In the center of a crowd, I find the Cagle Family. You could call them the von Trapps of the New York subways. The family -- Mama Melody, Papa Monte, and four of their children -- wear matching red shirts and red hats and play drums and guitars and sing and sway. For seven years, they have been singing their Christian music in the subways and have taken their musical ministry as far as Germany, the Netherlands, England, and Spain.

"Everybody is rushing, rushing here and there, and we slow them down a little bit," says Melody Cagle, who taught at a Montessori school in Puerto Rico and now home-schools her children. "The thing that I like so much is that we can touch people." Some regular fans have seen her children grow up. Others, like the guy who had just gotten fired from his job, stop for a few words of encouragement or a hug.

Stations throughout the system seem brighter and gentler than in the days when I would emerge from the underground feeling stronger and tougher somehow for having survived the dingy, subterranean labyrinth once more. I couldn't have imagined then that I would one day encounter the clean, well-lighted places I find on this journey.

Everywhere, it seems, music and art abound. At the Broadway Junction station in Brooklyn, the steel drums sound like a Caribbean carnival. At Columbus Circle, the guy in braids and wire-rim glasses does his best Muddy Waters on a red electric. Kandia Cissoko plays what sounds a bit like flamenco on his kora, a West African harp-like instrument. Then there are the doo-wop singers and bongo players and the two guys who wear matching sombreros and green-and-black shirts and perform Mexican music.

The most visible changes to the stations have come as part of a huge rehabilitation effort undertaken by the MTA, the state agency that runs the subways. The MTA's "Arts for Transit" program harks to the origins of a system built amid a "city beautiful" movement of the early 20th century, and reflected in the mosaic borders and elaborate kiosk entrances, furniture, lighting, and signs designed with an eye toward beauty as well as utility.

Today, a $2 subway ride can transport you through a vast museum of sorts, above and below ground, featuring creations of the famous and the obscure.

Glass and ceramic mosaic murals depict diving turtles in the Houston Street station, a scene from "Alice in Wonderland" in the 50th Street station, and figures from Greek mythology performing acrobatics in the 66th Street station. In the Park Place Station, stone mosaic murals of more than 100 eyes peer out at commuters. Sunlight pours through the skylight with galvanized steel cables at the Brooklyn Bridge station.

At the newly renovated Coney Island station, art imitates life: A glass-block wall stretching some 300 feet is embedded with images of the famed resort, including a roller coaster, children on the beach, a carousel horse. "Work & Nature," a Greco-Roman-inspired mosaic pattern in the Nevins Street station in Brooklyn, pays tribute to the people who use the station on their way to school or work. In stenciled, black silhouettes, a woman operates a sewing machine, an architect studies a blueprint, a mother looks after a child, and a man plants a tree. Vines, leaves, and flowers frame the scenes.

Camilo Jos Vergara finds his art in the faces of the passengers and the views of the world from a subway seat. Vergara, a Chilean-born documentary photographer and 2002 MacArthur Foundation fellow, has been taking pictures in the subways since 1970.

"There is something raw and unforgettable about the experience of burrowing underground in a city whose signature building type thrusts upward into the sky," he says. "There's a sense in the subway of being part of a city, which, above ground, splits and divides people in a thousand ways. When you go on the subway, nobody asks you where you went to school or if you belong here.

"It's always amazing to me when you're sitting in a New York subway and take a look," says Vergara, whose subway pictures are at the Museum of the City of New York and in a new photo book, "Subway Memories" (Monacelli, 2004)."You can't ever ride a subway without asking how all these people came together in this car."

Stations often remind Vergara of small-town plazas: Dressed-up children and women go to church, beggars make pitches, peddlers sell batteries and toy telephones and cotton candy, preachers try to save so many passing souls.

Some people even find love on the subway. Five years ago, Tarri Reaves was taking the A train home from a cousin's birthday celebration in Times Square at about 2 a.m. when he noticed Jakima Wiley. She was leaning against a door, blocking his way. He thought of saying something rude.

"She was a little too pretty to say something mean," Reaves says. Then he asked her why she was reading a racy book.

"None of your business," she replied.

Let's go down to the empty end of the subway car and talk, Reaves suggested. They did, and they exchanged phone numbers. She called him the next day and, soon after, they started dating, always traveling by subway.

Last month, they got married.

"We never thought that meeting that day on the train would lead us to where we are today," says Wiley, 23, a marketing coordinator at an architecture firm. "You just don't think you're going to meet somebody at 2 o'clock in the morning on a subway train."

"I never even approached anyone on the subway because that wasn't my thing," says Reaves, 24, who handles billing at a medical center. "I didn't think it could happen, but now I'm a believer in subway romance."

Now that's a subway story for the grandchildren.

Gary Gately is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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