Song of the Subway: Walt Whitman on the Downtown Express | tnewst.com Press "Enter" to skip to content

Song of the Subway: Walt Whitman on the Downtown Express

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There was absolutely nothing elegant about it — “No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,” as Whitman wrote in “To a Locomotive in Winter.” But the Subway in Summer was every bit as purposeful, ferocious, disdainful and defiant, accelerating as if to let itself jam on its brakes even more emphatically only moments later. Appearances, and comforts, didn’t matter: As always in New York, there were places to get to, work to be done. True, this train, unlike Whitman’s, belched no pennants of smoke, but it was “throbbing” and “convulsive” just the same.

Of course, no one was paying attention; all eyes were glued to cellphones. Miracles often pass unnoticed; airplane passengers ignore the clouds, too. But has anything ever glided so effortlessly beneath a place so dense, and congested? And 120 years after stalwart workers bore through all that schist to blaze the trail?

Griping about the subway is a birthright of a native New Yorker. But to us grateful auslanders it’s the subway, more than anything else, that embodies the freedom we fled to New York to enjoy, the very freedom Whitman celebrates, the freedom to be who you want where you want when you want, untethered to anyone else’s tastes or clocks or cars.

A couple of deals before dawn, as another poet once wrote, New York’s streets belong to the cop and the janitor with the mop. But after pulling yet another of its all-nighters, the subway is what brings that cop and that janitor to work. Let’s just admit it: The city, or at least most of it, does sleep. It’s the subway that never did, at least until Covid came along. And now, barreling down to Times Square, it was springing back to life, 24 hours a day.

I stayed on the train: I had three more leaps, beneath three more civilizations, still to go. And I got there with time to spare, for when it clicks, the subway makes even procrastinators punctual.

But Whitman, I imagine, would have alighted at Times Square, “afoot and lighthearted.” As he’d have heard the conductor say, there were so many more roads to explore: the A, E and C; the N, Q, R and W; the shuttle to Grand Central, the 7 downstairs, the 1 across the platform. Or maybe he’d just walk upstairs, head over to Bryant Park and write another poem — one celebrating the subway’s, and the city’s, return.


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