One of the fun features of the New York City subway system is that when you use cash to buy a train ticket from a vending machine your change is returned in coins. Golden dollar coins. These days, that’s rare. The clink and clang of the coins, as they start dropping into the dispenser, provide a sense of excitement, as if you’ve won a jackpot.
On a particular ride a few months ago, among the coins I received were golden Sacagawea dollars, engraved with her high cheek-boned silhouette, carrying her infant son. These coins are larger in circumference and thicker in heft than your average coin. It feels so Old School.
I slipped them into my coat pocket and waited on the platform for my train. It would only be a short ride on the express from Columbus Circle up to 96th Street. Just as the doors slide shut and the subway begins to move, the rhythm of a rap bursts forth from an African American teenager. Here goes another subway rapper, was the look on the faces of most riders.
Now that’s a whole ’nother ball of wax — the fascinating underground world of the New York subway with its storytelling, musicality and vibe. The New York subway system is a lively sepulchral world all its own. For those of us who regularly navigate the system, there is a special art to traveling by rote; weary New Yorkers reflexively continue with whatever it is they need to do, ignoring the many unexpected and colorful stimuli that might appear out of nowhere, often including rappers or other entertainers who flit between stops and subway cars. It’s what might be called the New York “Art of Ignoring.”
An acknowledged nod here, a bobbing head there, a pressed coin or dollar into the hand of a particular performer — but overall, unless it’s out of the ordinary, no reaction. These street performers who pop on and off the subway cars carry on with their gig with the confidence and flair of Tony Award-winning actors. The subway car can be packed to the gills or practically desolate, they’ll belt out their act as though they were performing to a captive audience at a stadium with bleachers filled to the brim.
This is how the New York subway system is a great equalizer. The hipsters, the homeless, the yuppies, the affluent financiers, the broke students and the academics, the venerable and the decrepit, the flamboyant and the conservative, the old and the young, the faithful and the faithless — we are all there in those subway cars, riders apart but together.
So this young kid starts with his rap. It’s pretty extensive. The lyrics are OK but the tempo, the beat and the flow are catchy. I feel like tapping my foot. He’s young and can use encouragement. I slip my hand into my coat pocket and hold the golden dollar coins in my palm, reaching out to give them to him when suddenly I’m jolted by the words that he musically says nonchalantly as part of his rap: “[Expletive deleted] the Jews.” Then he casually continues on with his ta ta ta ta ta.
Excuse me? My cheeks flush with anger! In my life, only once before had I encountered an act of anti-Semitism and it was overt and intentional toward me and my father, who was wearing his prominent yarmulke. And, in my life, until this point, I’ve rarely said a word on the subway.
But how can I remain quiet? Here we are. A subway car full of people. No one says a word. It’s just “[Expletive deleted] the Jews,” sure no problem. I was so upset. But as out of character as it was for me, I heard myself ask the lad: “What did you just say?” Ta ta ta ta ta, he goes on rapping.
“Did you just say [—] the Jews?” I ask, my voice rising. I show him my filled palm with the golden dollars. “You know, I was about to give you these — no one here gave you a second look — I wanted to show you support. … I’m Jewish and you just cursed my people!” Ta ta ta ta ta ta. No pause from him whatsoever.
Meanwhile, this middle-aged black lady on my left gets up and says to me, “he didn’t mean it like that, he just…” I didn’t let her complete her sentence. “He meant it exactly as he said it! What he is saying” — by this time there was a round-two of “[expletive deleted] the Jews” — “is crystal clear. What if he had said [expletive] the blacks? Somehow that’s not OK, that’s racist, but for the Jews it’s an acceptable form of hate?”
I was just finishing my sentence when a black man seated nearby locks eyes with me, in support and affirmation of what I am saying. “She’s right!” he suddenly shouts to the woman on my left.
I’m in the crosshairs when the train starts pulling into 96th Street, my stop. I am shaking from the experience, taking tentative steps to get off the train, the golden coins still pressed into my palm, when the car bursts out in cheers and some applaud just as I step through the sliding doors onto the train platform.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News