This is the latest installment of Public Streets, an urban observation series created by Ellis Avery and curated by Abigail Struhl.
– CHRISTINE (ON STAIRS): I remember growing up in the 50s and 60s, we had to do air-raid drills, and the threat was from overseas. The threat right now is amongst us. It’s frightening now, but at the same time, I feel hopeful—we take our rage and put it on the stage and the page and engage.
– MAAJI (RED DRESS): I grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, among Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Pakistanis, Indians. This is different than the Queens that Trump grew up in.
– JON (LEFT): When the status quo is the status quo, you tend to let water flow off a duck’s ass, as my grandmother used to say. But now, I’m doing more advocating than I’ve done in quite a while.
– BILL (RIGHT): I’m reluctant to think about what tomorrow may cost, and how I am going to pay to live. I’m retired and on a fixed income, and I’m somewhat at the mercy of the federal government. It worries me.
– CYRIL: I’m a political scientist and one of the things I study is American political rhetoric. It is well known that rhetorical constructions often depend on inexactitudes and poetic license. But it is somewhat astounding to me how much the Trump administration misrepresents ordinary facts. One newspaper report shows that by Day 84 of the Trump presidency the President had made “394 false or misleading claims.” That works out to an average of about 4.7 such claims per day.
– DEBORAH: My daughter is 17, she’s in the 12th grade. She was at an election party with her friends. She came home and asked me if we were all going to die. I can’t remember in all my years—and I’ve lived through a few elections—ever having to worry about whether the next president was going to cause my life to end.
– NAOMI (SUNGLASSES): For those of us who are not white, we understand the threat we are under. He says during the campaign, “Make America Great Again”—we know what that means, and it doesn’t include us. We cannot let these people think for a second that we’re not on top of them. I was born in the Dominican Republic. I was brought here when I was two years old. My father is British, my mother is half Dominican and half Haitian. I understood at a very young age that color is what people see first.
– MARIA (UPPER STAIR): My dad immigrated from São Paulo, Brazil. As a daughter of an immigrant father, I’m not for the wall. People want to come here for a better life.
– RACHEL: I’ve worked with unions and service workers, especially in hotels. It’s appalling that Donald Trump has made much of his wealth in luxury hotels and golf courses that rely on the physical and emotional labor of low-paid workers, many of whom are immigrants. Yet his administration is busy dismantling protections for such workers and at the same time attempting to engineer tax cuts for the highest earners.
– LACEY (RED DRESS): Due to the current political climate, many are experiencing extreme anxiety, since it is apparent that oppression is still real. Many communities are under attack. I pray that we can continue to have undaunted strength in such adversity.
– NOAH (BEIGE COAT, RIGHT OF CENTER): I’m grateful that more people are paying attention to issues that so many of us have been working on for so long. I’m keeping focused on creating the kind of world I want to live in. This requires acting out of compassion and love, not anger and fear.
– KAYHAN: After a rally, I was on the subway and an elderly white woman came into the car and stood in front of me. She stared down, hard, at my chest. I realized I was wearing a ‘Love Trumps Hate’ button and I felt my heartbeat speed up. Was I going to get told off by an old lady on the subway? Was I going to tell off an old lady on the subway? She looked back up at me, her brow furrowed, and gave me a big smile and thumbs up. I almost started crying. Has it really come to this? Am I guilty of it too?
Late on election night in 2016, I rode the subway home from what I had hoped would be a celebration, but the car was full and quiet and covered by a pall. Perhaps not everyone was thinking of the election, but the collective sense of gloom among New Yorkers was palpable.
In that scene, I saw some of the faces from George Tooker’s arresting 1950 painting, “The Subway,” in which people in moods of despair and anxiety are stuck in a purgatorial subway station. They wear dull expressions and clothes in shades of brown and beige, save for the woman in front who wears an alarm-red dress.
In the year after the election, I took photos of friends and other locals to make a modern gloss on “The Subway,” one that would capture something of the spirit of New York in these times. The people in Tooker’s painting are all white; the people in my photos are more diverse, more like New York itself. Many are the very kinds of people who are most under assault in the country today—poor people, people of color, immigrants, trans people. I asked them to strike a pose like one in the painting or to do whatever illustrated their feelings about the current political moment, whether despair, anger, indifference, sorrow, or determination.
In the painting, there is a maze of pillars and gates with no indication of an exit. Downstairs there are no trains. The passageway in the center seems to end in a wall. Even the stairs on the right lead up only to another level of gray; a man seems to guard the would-be exit, but perhaps only to say, “Don’t bother. You can’t leave.”
In the painting, there is no way out. In New York, and in the country today, we must make one.
George Tooker, “The Subway,” 1950. Photograph courtesy of Wikiart
The series continues. If you’d like to pose for a picture, please contact me at TheSubwayToday@gmail.com.