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September 26, 2007

Opera Man

The life of a subway sardine is never fun. Anyone who lives in New York and uses public transportation encounters it, particularly during evening rush hour. It's generally the same old story- the oblivions who refuse to move into the middle of the train, the person who insists on bringing smelly food onto a crowded car and eating it, the jerk who apparently thinks that his balls are too big to close his legs so that the correct number of people can sit on one bank of seats. The crowded commute home sucks. When this happens to me, I generally disembark hating everyone around me, including myself for settling in the city.

A few years ago I found myself in this situation. It was a cold winter day and the train was overheated. The F was running more slowly than usual, pausing between stops, and the number of people far exceeded the average person's cubic feet of airspace needed for their patience to survive. The car was pretty quiet, perhaps the result of the uncomfortable conditions, or out of frustration, or maybe just the fact that it was the end of the day and everyone was really tired.

The sound crept into audibility slowly. It was almost as though someone had snuck a record player onto the train and gradually turned the volume knob up. It rose from the mass of disgruntled passengers and then abruptly stopped. People looked over their shoulders and then, just as we cast our eyes back down to the dirty floor, it began again. The smooth, steady tenor voice filtered through us- a beautiful sound yet the source was nearly impossible to identify. For ten minutes, as the train sat somewhere under the East River, the voice dissipated and surfaced, and finally, when the doors opened at York Street and people stepped aside, the singer was revealed: a short, balding, slightly odd looking man with a nervous smile. More passengers piled in at Jay Street and as soon as he was hidden by people, the short bursts of melodic opera began once more.

I never could figure out exactly what motivated this man. Part of me wondered if it was some sort of Tourette-like affliction, though it is quite possible that the guy just really loved to sing. Regardless, last night while I was on my way home in an airless, packed 2 train, this little man came to mind and I could not help but yearn for him. Of all the oddities that I have encountered in New York- the bizarre, the vulgar, the troublesome and the humorous- the opera man was the most spontaneously joyful. Remembering him as a woman rested one large ass cheek firmly on my thigh, the other on the entire seat next to me, I couldn’t help but smile. Maybe New York needs more nervously-inclined spontaneous opera singers. For now though, I’m just content with the memory.

Posted by callalillie at September 26, 2007 8:42 AM | City Life


Hello there. Great post! I've appropriated at bit of it for my blog at Hope that's ok :)

Posted by: The Omniscient Mussel at September 26, 2007 12:32 PM

I love those moments. I wish there were more of them, because they make living here a little more bearable.

Posted by: jenblossom at September 26, 2007 1:01 PM

That man was my neighbor in Park Slope! I heard him one day as I was getting off at Grand Army Plaza. The sound was echoing around the subway platform and then in the street as I walked home. Eventually I managed to figure out where it was coming from, saw the funny little man you described, and recognized him as my rather strange neighbor.

Posted by: Kelly at September 26, 2007 4:56 PM

Toronto could use one (or two) of those. Rush hour on the subway/streetcar/bus can be transit hell.

Posted by: Gail at September 26, 2007 8:38 PM

I experience this rush hour train situation every evening (and the same experience on the bus every morning). You described our shared experience artfully.

Posted by: Gina at September 27, 2007 8:23 AM


Until 2005, when the classic London "Routemaster" busses were retired (, there was a jamaican conductor called Baysee Rowe on one of my local routes that used to play the blues harmonica on the open step at the back. He was superb (he had a single out at one point that did quite well) and used to really cheer up peoples day, playing blues and motown. The passengers loved him so much that he played with the bus companies blessing inbetween collecting fares!

Posted by: discostu at September 27, 2007 1:20 PM

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