Michael Karlesky

A cabinet of wonders. Minus the cabinet. And possibly the wonders.

I am a member of the underground.

I have become a subway nerd. Despite the filth, I love the New York City subway system. The routes. The trains. The history. The stations. The design. The cultureThe performers.

Every time I learn something new about the subway, I learn just how much there is yet to learn.

The subway system in New York is 108 years old. And it followed after 35 years of a previous elevated train system. Some 470 stations. 200+ miles of routes. Over 1.5 billion (with a 'b') rides per year. Nearly 6,300 cars in service. And it all runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It was at one time three separate systems — a mishmash of private and city-owned companies eventually combined into the current system. The march of progress has pushed and pulled on the system in interesting ways. For instance, the most beautiful station in the system, City Hall Station, is no longer in service because train cars have grown too long for the station's curved platform, creating unsafe gaps between the platform and train car doorways. I recently rode the 6 train through its turnaround to get a glimpse of the now dark station. 

You've become a veteran when you know what part of the platform to use to get on a train so that you exit the train at just the right spot; if you've never ridden New York's subway you won't understand how key this is. Small talk in New York is as often about subway construction and best routes as it is about the weather. People complain about the subway often, but I think it's more the way longtime spouses complain about their beloved. There is a romanticism imbued in the subway. Movies, TV shows, and commercials all use it as settings and backdrops. Art projects in the stationson the platforms, and even in the tunnels are numerous. Stunts and impromptu performances with the subway as a stage are manifold.

I've seen many acrobatic dancers. I once had a beatboxing impressionist on my train with a microphone and battery-operated amp strapped to his chest (his impression of the male subway announcer voice brought down the car). I've seen a three foot tall Michael Jackson impersonator. And though I didn't see it with my own eyes, a Star Wars reenactment is my favorite subway performance of all time. So much of my life is intertwined with the subway. I've even done class projects about the subway. I've met people on the train. Had many conversations with friends. I do most of my coursework reading on the train. You have little idea how disappointed I was to be away from the city when the annual No Pants Subway Ride took place this past January. Because they love me, when recently visiting friends said goodbye, they left me with a gift of a toy Q train (the line nearest to my apartment). One of my favorite sights in all of New York City is the Manhattan skyline as seen from the Q train as it crosses over the East River on the Manhattan Bridge.

So it will not shock you to learn that I spent many hours one day during my spring break at the New York Transit Museum. In fact, all of the photos above were taken there. I sat in 100 year old restored subway trains and saw period-appropriate ads on the trains from the mid-Twentieth Century. But the best part? The museum is housed in a decommissioned subway station! The trains are all sitting on real track along a real platform. I saw and heard a working “tower” (subway lingo for the control rooms that are funnily enough underground). And, it's right here in Brooklyn. I can barely contain myself over such things.

With so many and so many different sorts of people, New York has a very tolerant attitude towards what shows up underground. Apart from outright rudeness, there's a very live-and-let-live vibe on the trains and platforms. People are quite friendly and helpful. Someone once chased me down to return my wallet that had fallen out of my pocket in an escalator mishap. Even wackos handing out leaflets advocating the wearing of tinfoil hats seem to do fine. In many ways, the subway is something of the city's rolling public square. This was not quite what I expected. I had a more cynical view of what I would find underground and in New York City in general. I expected a certain level of harshness and rudeness and contempt that I've just not found here.

I also expected a certain high level of “godlessness” in a city I presumed to be too sophisticated for religion. Quite to the contrary, the city abounds with churches, synagogues, and mosques. Of course, since real estate is so expensive, these communities do not always meet in the sorts of buildings that may spring to mind, but abound they do. Beyond organized religion, all sorts of expressions of New Yorkers' wrestling with spirituality surround me on any given day.

What brought me to New York was graduate school (and a certain spiritual motivation underlying that — a long story perhaps for another time). Ironically enough, the one place where I can feel my “Jesus thang” rejected is at school. Not necessarily in my department so much, but it hangs in the air — especially among non-technical people and amidst the classes and settings outside of my core requirements.

Since getting settled here I've been surprised at how many people have taken an interest in setting me up with members of the fairer sex. I haven't even been here a year, nor do I yet even know people with much real depth (at least according to my definition of depth). And so it was recently that a member of a class project team wanted me to meet her sister who is reportedly a cooler and funnier version of said team member (this is saying something). I was definitely interested to do so, but I thought it best to inquire about, shall we say, spiritual compatibility. Sadly, it was not to be, and so I did not pass go and did not collect $200. But in the exchange I was struck by the observation of my classmate in relation to my “Jesus thang” (her words); she expressed her respect for me that I should hold such views in the context of academia. She went on to compare being a Christian in the halls of higher learning to the US military's now defunct “don't ask, don't tell” policy regarding homosexual orientation among its soldiers.

I've been considering becoming a member of the subway museum. In a certain sense, it seems I already have membership in another, much different underground. Perhaps it's the simple reality of being displaced in an unusual life position — in school at the age many, including my professors, are well into their working careers plus I'm far away from what is familiar and comfortable for me — I have been feeling prompted to love those around me in school in a different way than perhaps I might ever have done in the past. I struggle to put words to this. It's certainly not a “turn or burn” evangelical fervency thang. It's something different than that. Something against the current of egos and titles and fretting about competition. Instead, it's more akin to wading out into the waters of murky intellectual cynicism not to tread water alone but to swim alongside those in the water with me. What this will be, I don't rightly know, but I have a few more years and an unlimited use MetroCard.