Breaking For It
The subways in New York have been overflowing this summer. Whatever time of day it is, the cars seem to be full. There’s an influx of out of town visitors at this time of year, of course, but there are also more restless natives out on the town, and underground. On a stifling day, it feels good down there, soaking up the free air-conditioning.
Yesterday I took a 4 train from Brooklyn to Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon, a time when I usually expect it to be, if not empty, at least on the sleepy side. Instead, the car I was in was jammed. Old-timers say the city is blander than it was once, but it still has more characters than any place I’ve ever been. A woman sitting next to me, having her lunch, was putting salad dressing on her potato chips. Another woman, standing across from me, was doing a strange, slow-motion version of calisthenics. A few seats down, there was an intense young man reading a part from a play, loudly. The car felt like one big communal living room.
At 14th St. two guys in their early 20s, one black, one white, both shirtless, got on. One of them announced, in a booming voice, “It’s showtime, people!” This elicited groans from most of the car. "Oh no,” one said. “Jesus, not now,” said another. “Man, there’s no room for this,” said a third. They knew what was going to happen next.
It was break-dance party time, which on a New York subway means arms and legs flying all over the place to a boom box beat—it’s part dance, part gymnastics. There really didn’t seem to be room for it. Fortunately, the two dancers couldn’t find their music. “Where’s Jimmy?” one of them asked in rising disgust. It turned out that Jimmy, the man with the beats, had walked into a different car. We were in luck.
Or were we? The dancers were apologetic and told us they wished they could have given us a show. This seemed to sway the audience to their side. “Do it without music then!” the woman with the salad dressing yelled. She and a few others began clapping time. One of the breakers picked up their beat and started chanting, “No mu-sic! No mu-sic! No mu-sic!” to it. It felt like we had a Grandmaster Flash song going in the car, just like that.
The other dancer took the hint and began doing his thing. He spun, he did a somersault, he did a back flip. The clapping got louder, and a few people went “Whooooo!!!!!” Encouraged, he kept doing back flips, until he was virtually a blur. Then he jumped up and hung between the bars at the top of the car (“Whooooooo!!!! again). By that point, he been given a wide berth—there was room for showtime, after all. For the finale, one of them threw the other across the car, where he landed and went right into a somersault. That was it, we were at 42nd Street. The audience clapped and cheered, and one of the breakers took off his backward hat and held it out for donations. There wasn’t time for people to get their wallets out, but that was OK, according to him. “It’s not about the money, anyway,” he said as he ran through the crowd of passengers and off the car. “Have a good summer!”
I'm not sure why I'm telling you this story, except that, like the man said, it’s summer, which means it’s time for a vacation. I’ll be out next week, and will return Tuesday, July 24. By that week’s end, the Olympics will be here. Until then, enjoy the tennis, and all the other ways you make your Julys last.