I realize that if I am going to live and work in New York City I am necessarily going to come into contact with bothersome people, and that the effect is magnified in the confined quarters of the subway. Over the thirty-odd years I’ve been living here I have certainly met my share of unpleasant and annoying characters down in those grimy tunnels, but like all Gothamites I have learned that for anything short of aggressive physical contact (which I have had to deal with only on very rare occasions), the best policy is just to ignore such pests and hope they go away, which they usually do.

They come in a variety of (frequently overlapping) taxa: panhandlers, buskers, derelicts, alcoholics, and the insane, to name but a few. One can hardly feel anything but pity for the truly wretched mendicants, and I usually give them something. The “musicians” who strum and holler, then expect payment, are generally less fortunate. But my least favorite of all are the preachers, both religious and secular — and their numbers appear to be sharply on the rise. I still endure them with stoic reserve, but as I get older, and have less to lose, restraint is becoming more difficult. Soon I will not be able to guarantee their safety.

On the F train this past Friday morning, as I was trying hard to make sense of my local paper’s exegesis of current economic policy, the doors opened at Jay Street to admit a pale and wizened harpy a few years my senior — a gaunt and hollow-eyed termagent who harangued us mercilessly, in a nasal, piercing whine, about the moral superiority of vegans such as herself, making her case with shopworn falsehoods about humans not being “designed” to eat meat. When she extended a talon to stick a leaflet in my face, it was all I could do not to leap from my seat and smite her headless. Perhaps sensing from my smoldering mien that she was in imminent peril, she debarked at the next stop and flapped off down the platform in search of fresh prey.

This morning it was a corpulent black man of about sixty, who paced back and forth right in front of me for a few stops singing some doggerel about a golden fountain, and then began braying, loudly and without punctuation, about Jesus. I had been attempting to take in a helpful and informative article about the geographical distribution and practical methods of assorted Mexican drug cartels, but the soteriological blubberings of this garrulous thrall effectively jammed the signal.

What, I wonder, are a person’s rights in a situation like this? Surely this must constitute an assault of some sort; indeed I recall a fellow some years back who called himself “Antenna Man” and who, armed with an alto saxophone, would announce to his captive audience that he would not stop playing unless he was given alms. But I have little doubt that were I to fold such a fellow in half and wedge him under the seat, or drop him off between stations, my day would only get worse.

Maybe I should get an iPod.

Related content from Sphere


  1. JK says

    In my youth there was a storechain called “Spencers.” They sold very useful stuff especially designed for misspending youths.

    Usually when I made my infrequent visits to the stores, (geographic limitations and many miles travel) I’d always buy every can on the shelf of a particular product. Knowing this is a civil site I will change the title of the product slightly.

    “Flatulence in a Can.”

    I’m uncertain as to whether it would be so efficacious on a subway car, but in a crowded elevator, one quick squirt would decide for most of the crowd that the next was indeed their floor. As to whether it would work well in the case of a frothsome Vegan, well it might be worth a try.

    It didn’t work so well in actual churches, so it is unlikely to work on one shouting an odiferous sermon.

    Posted March 24, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink
  2. Kevin Kim says

    I got on the Metro at King Street Station in Old Town Alexandria a few years back. As we were rolling north into DC, a Korean guy stepped on, opened a hymnal, and sang an entire Christian hymn. At the end of it, a black woman seated nearby smiled and applauded him. Take that for what it’s worth. Personally, I was ready to resent the guy, but when the woman applauded, I suddenly realized he’d made someone else happy, at least for a moment.

    On the Seoul subway, I haven’t seen many Christian singers, but as I’m sure Charles will confirm, Seoul has plenty of its own subway types. Some that I’ve seen:

    1. People passed out in their own puke. (Usually a night train.)
    2. The insane. One memorable guy stalked into the subway, lay on his back in the handicapped section, and started shouting “Get the hell outta here!” (“Ka-beoryeo!”)
    3. People who stare angrily at foreigners. One guy did this to me while my back was turned to him, but I saw his face reflected in one of the large windows while we were in a tunnel.
    4. Salespeople. They usually trundle in with a cart of their wares, bow to the riders and start their pitch. Some actually sell worthwhile items for cheap. I once bought a decent photo album for a dollar.
    5. Less common during my most recent years but extremely common in the 90s: newspaper sellers. These folks tended to walk up and down the length of the subways.
    6. Solicitors for various causes. Some of the causes are worthwhile, so I might stick in a buck. Others are either incomprehensible to me because of my limited Korean, or just not my thing.
    7. Angry drunks. This is a different class from the puked-out drunks. My Dad saw one of these guys while riding with me in February of 2006. The guy was angry, and the passengers had given him a wide berth. He started kicking a window repeatedly until it cracked and dimpled outward. It was an impressive display. The guy walked out a stop or two later. I have no idea whether he was caught. Probably not.
    8. Evangelists. Korea is heavily Christian, and many Korean Christians take their evangelism quite seriously (and literally).
    9. Beggars. These folks, some of whom don’t look miserable, others of whom look heartbreakingly destitute, usually wander along the length of the entire train. In some cases, they quietly come in and place a file card in your lap explaining their situation and why they are begging. Then they come around again, collecting the cards, and that’s your cue to give something. Sometimes the beggars will be blind, alone or in male-female pairs, often playing a harmonica or a tape of a sad-sounding Christian hymn.

    Korean women can attest to the existence of a nasty species that rides the rails: gropers. As in Japan, some subways cars are designated “women only” during rush hour to allow women a break from these scumbags’ wandering hands.

    Wild stuff.

    But I’ll leave you with a positive subway story: at the very same King Street Station mentioned above, I remember a night where the subway stopped, the doors opened, and I found myself face-to-face with the most gorgeous redheaded woman I’d ever seen. Her hair was neat, straight, and shoulder length; it fell around her face in two gentle curves. Her eyes shone with intelligence and humor. We shared a moment of telepathy in which we both looked at each other, smiled involuntarily, and giggled, each having caught the other staring (I must have been thinner back then). Then we brushed by each other, and that was that. I can no longer remember whether I was inside or outside the subway when this happened — such was the lady’s beauty.


    Posted March 24, 2009 at 3:38 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Thanks Kevin.

    Jeez, reading your comment I start to ask myself: have I become too much of a misanthrope? Perhaps, if I tried a little harder, mightn’t I be able to see the common beauty in all these people, and remember what a precious, fleeting gift we have in our lives together here on this little blue planet? Wouldn’t it be better if, instead of holing up in my lair writing grumpy blog posts, I were to reach out to everyone in a shared spirit of love and universal humanity?


    Posted March 24, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm, you should just write a novel instead.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted March 24, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Jeffery, but I’ve never shown any aptitude for fiction.

    Posted March 24, 2009 at 4:09 pm | Permalink
  6. Ron D says


    Since I used to ride the F train daily for 14 years prior to living out on Long Island, I can’t help but share a subway story that I know you can appreciate. There used to be a subway musician who was a kind of an electronic one-man band. He played cheezy tunes (Beer Barrel Polka, etc.) with a small electronic keyboard, drum machine, and a speaker strapped to his chest while he played the trumpet.

    I mention this because I, like Malcolm, am a recording engineer. BTW, many readers here probably know that Malcolm is a recording engineer, but he is much too modest to say how GREAT of an engineer/mixer he really is. So, let me say it for him. Malcolm is one of the finest engineers I know and his skill and talent for mixing is amazing. I learned a lot from him early on in my career that I still use today.

    Years ago, one of my clients owned his own recording studio (he will remain nameless due the power of Google) and he often forced me to do some of the worst-sounding mixes. His strong personality combined with the fact that he was signing my paycheck lead me to simply keep changing things until he stopped, which often did not result in the best sounding music. The more he changed things, the worse things got.

    So one day as I was riding the F-train to his studio, dreading the thought of mixing for him. Somewhere along the way, the electronic one-man band came on to the train and performed his usual batch of songs. At that point, I realized that this one man band made up of the cheapest electronic instruments that could be strapped to one’s body sounded BETTER than any of the music I was working on in a professional studio with professional musicians with 100 thousand plus dollars worth of recording equipment. I never questioned my career path until that moment. A short period thereafter, I quit working for that studio and I still cringe every time I hear a polka.

    Ron D

    Posted March 24, 2009 at 10:42 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm, who said anything about fiction? Write a true novel.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 3:43 am | Permalink
  8. Kevin Kim says

    Or write a “blovel,” like Simon of Space.


    Posted March 25, 2009 at 4:12 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Hi Ron, and thanks so much for the kind words. I’m in the studio very infrequently these days, and I’m really starting to miss it.

    I think I know just which ex-client you were talking about there — and that trumpet-playing fellow is still making the rounds!

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Jeffery, that’s a novel idea. And thank you too, Kevin. I will go and have a look at your link.

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  11. But what about the gorgeous redhead?!

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 11:07 pm | Permalink
  12. Malcolm says

    Yes, that was a very evocative description. I want her.

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 11:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Charles says

    “Thanks, Jeffery, but I’ve never shown any aptitude for fiction.”

    Fiction is just fact dressed up in fancy clothes so no one will recognize it–and so that everyone will recognize it. I think your post above (not to mention most of what you write hear every day) shows that you have a delightful way with words. Come on, give it a shot. Write us the next Great American Novel.

    (And yes, I can indeed confirm Kevin’s summary of the subway types here. Fortunately, I don’t have to take the subway too often anymore, being able to walk to my classes, but on occasion I am exposed to the rather colorful word of tubes beneath the city streets.)

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 11:20 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Hi Charles,

    Fiction is just fact dressed up in fancy clothes so no one will recognize it – and so that everyone will recognize it.

    I like that very much. And thanks to you too for your kind words about my kinda words. So far this comment-thread is proceeding very agreeably.

    A novel, huh? Hmmmm. Now you’ve got me thinking about it.

    Posted March 25, 2009 at 11:30 pm | Permalink