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I got on the train at 50th Street, just north of Times' Square. It's cold here in the winter, and my first priority upon boarding the train was to quickly stake out a seat near a heat-vent and settle in. I spotted one in the middle of the car, and puffed up my jacket like a big downy bird getting comfy. The train started rolling, and I busied myself with the usual games; scoping out the other strap-hangers and checking my reflection in the car window to see if my hat is on at the correct angle. By the time I looked up, we were pulling into Columbus Circle.
This tired looking guy about my age got on there. In the great cast of characters constantly strutting their strife-filled pageant on the stages of the NYC Transit, this guy would be the one they called The Artist.
He had in his right hand a cardboard subway advertisement; some ConEd public relations blitz. In his left was a silver speedball paint-pen, which he was shaking maniacally. He asked me something. I reached into my breast pocket and flicked off my tunes. He asked me again... where was I getting off? I was getting off at 110th Street, which I told him. He mumbled that he'd be getting off after me, and chuckled the words one two five.
He asked me if I'd give him a couple of bucks if he could draw my portrait on the back of the advertisement, with the aforementioned pen, before we got to my stop. I grinned and gave him the nod; affirmative. He may not have noticed that we had just sailed through 86th Street, but I had. This was a wager I so could not lose.
The Artist set to work like a greased lightening bolt from a subway-scented thunderclap. Before the cap hit he ground, he had already set to paper the curve of my hat, my forehead and where the brim covered my left eye, but the southpaw subway sketcher kept moving the paper to get a better angle. Between his constant shuffle and the commuters passing between us with their damned packages and strollers, I didn't get a good look; I hardly got any look at all. And didn't he need to see me to draw me?
He drew, drawing fiercely. He sketched so hard the silvery tip screached along the paper's shiny, slick surface with a squawk. The Artist primed the pen into his hand and, as silver ink dazzlingly dribbled from his cupped fingers, streaked and shaded his sketch around the eyes and the fuzzy jacket collar. As we rolled into my stop, he gave magical life to the marriage of ink and paper, his silver-shadowed fingerprints rolling in every crevice over my caricatured nose and lips, the hollowness of my eyes, the tinted grayness of wintery despair clinging to everyone on the train like the fetid city grime dripping from our sneaker soles.
He flipped the paper towards me, beaming. He had drawn a simple but uncanny line drawing likeness of me. I dug it down to my eyebrows. Was he more than the usual stiff hawking doodles to eternally bored souls on the train? I was having thoughts in my head like where I was going to hang this drawing in my house, the great story I could tell about the circumstances around it, and that maybe I should give him more than the three bucks in my chilly hand.
Bing, Bong. The doors open and I quickly step up with the wad of crumpled ones, ready to clap them into his silvered hand, but he's rolling up the sketch and sticking it in his bag. But he's reaching out for the dough. But... I'm confused. He tells me that yes, he finished it before my stop, just like he said he could. Now could I please give him his bucks? Which I did, muttering, ok, I get it, still blankly watching the subway doors scissor shut, as he rides off laughing, his voice camouflaged by the conductor's staticy station-stop announcements on the oscillating PA.
Did you ever notice that the trains get emptier as they go uptown? It's because that by the time you get into the triple-digit streets, everyone's gotten off but the boricua kids, the working-class blacks, the poor students, the mamasitas and a shotgun spray of hoodrats. And the suckers. And you. And all the other extras, who you probably never thought counted. But amongst us tonight in New York City walks The Artist, who just got paid. And everyone that gets paid is happy when they finally get off.
This article has been viewed 12103 times in the last 9 years
Jamie: 5th Mar 2005 - 15:23 GMT
This was great read; intensely captivating from start to finish. I have never visited new york. Never ridden it's subway but for a couple of citynoise minutes at least, i was there in the thick of it. Encapsulated by your prose, i too was duped by The Artist, whilst at the same time befuddled by the fact that i've never read this story before now.
N: 6th Apr 2005 - 17:14 GMT
Amazing story, i am moving in a year and honestly it put me RIGHT smack dab in the city from here. Great.
Peter: 12th May 2005 - 13:24 GMT
thanks- when it happened, i knew i had to come write the story down to share.
Cosmo: 26th Aug 2006 - 23:27 GMT
I came here mainly for visual stimulation and I usually skip big text entries. Sometimes I wade a bit into some text, and am reminded of why I came for the visual.
But you hooked me early and kept me with this one. Nice word capture here!
(and as I click off to some other page I can still hear the sounds of the trains fading off...)
Mike: 22nd Dec 2006 - 03:10 GMT
Peter: 27th Dec 2006 - 01:54 GMT
in all my years in nyc, ive encountered but one subway sketcher. that leads me to think it could be the same guy you encountered, mike. 96th... im thinking we were on the same line... you never know...!
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