I was late. My train was departing from Grand Central Station at 7:55 am, and it was already 7:45 as I entered the packed subway station from the Port Authority Bus Terminal on West 42nd Street. I sprinted with my Metro Card in hand, swiped the flexible card as fast as I could, and darted down the corridor leading to the Times Square S shuttle to Grand Central, in hope that I would somehow arrive in time for my Composition class at 8:30. With weary eyes and a glum spirit from staying up too late the night prior , I advanced down the crammed hallway and allowed my mind to wander. I was mentally and physically done with this commute. The taxing and frigid cold journey that I took every Tuesday from my girlfriend’s house in Edgewater, New Jersey to the Bronx was starting to wear me down.
To make my commute worse, I noticed the most depressing public work of art I had ever seen, and it did not fail whatsoever to crush my demeanor. The phrases, “Overslept. So tired. If late, Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again” hung over my head on successive panels on the ceiling, culminating in a black and white photo of an empty, undone bed. This poem that hovered over the lengthy underground passageway is entitled, “The Commuter’s Lament / A Close Shave” as I came to find out when I researched it after class. It was created by Norman B. Colp in 1991 as a $5,000 commission from the MTA’s Arts for Transit program. The poem’s second title “A Close Shave” signifies its Burma-Shave influence, as the company ran billboards in the 60s which displayed a similar style of short phrases in consecutive order (Keyser). Subsequently, I discovered that in 2011 two young cheerful college students set out to change the tone of the poem into a positive message, transforming phrases like, “Why the pain?” into, “Much to gain” (Keyser). Unfortunately, the MTA quickly restored the poem to its original state, claiming that the alteration was disrespectful to the poet (Paddock).
After hearing of this change, I was first shocked. Why would the MTA encourage pessimism and depression amongst their customers? I could not understand. However, I eventually began to realize the true intent of the art piece. I recognized that the MTA’s change was necessary because Norman B. Colp’s poem, along with its location in the mass transit hub of Times Square, effectively captures what it is to be a New York commuter.
In Midtown Manhattan lies a major intersection encompassing the blocks between 6th and 8th Avenues from east to west, and West 40th and West 53rd Streets from north to south. In 1904, the area, previously named “The Longacre,” was renamed Times Square after The New York Times moved its headquarters there. Soon after, the region would enjoy a meteoric rise as an icon for the heart of the city, with its world premier theaters and entertainment. Unfortunately, after the Great Depression many theaters had to close or offer lower prices, contributing to a slow decline that reached its lowest points in the 60s and 80s. In the 80s and 90s, government officials began to restore Times Square to prominence; today, they seem to have accomplished their goal. The globally iconic region now boasts over 27,000 residents and over 26 million visitors each year. In addition, it makes grand contributions to New York City’s economy as its annual total output is comparable to countries like Bolivia and Panama (Moon).
As you can imagine, such a vital, economic, and touristic hub attracts a lot of people who need to travel to various places. To meet this need, the Times Square – 42nd Street / Port Authority Bus Terminal subway station. This large station complex is located under Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The terminal houses all of the New York and New Jersey bus lines. In addition, it is the busiest subway complex in the system with 63,617,614 passengers served in 2013 (“Annual Subway Ridership”). Keeping the immense number of travelers in this subway station in mind, we can see that the location of the poem “The Commuter’s Lament / A Close Shave” is crucial, as it allows for many people to see it and also appeals to those specific people. By placing the poem in the busiest subway station of the metropolis, Norman B. Colp and the MTA were able to reach millions of trudging travelers, the exact nomadic and despondent crowd the poem was written for.
This appeal and goal that the MTA sought can be seen when Norman B. Colp described the work’s purpose: “Want[ing] to address the working public” (Stewart). And what a job the poem does at that. In an effort to address the public, Colp created a witty poem that commuters could relate to. Through the poem, Colp essentially reproduces the plight of the New York commuter. This plight is one that sometimes consists of a $400 a month price tag for traveling, commuting more than an hour, and stressing over departure times (Landsman). Not to mention that commuters typically do their traveling during the early morning rush hours when they are still half-asleep and the evening rush hour, which is as equally hectic. In short, commuting is not fun business, especially in the overcrowded and highly expensive city that is New York. Colp and the MTA recognized this situation and tried to relate to commuters. The MTA’s artistic goal can be seen when the director of Arts in Transit, Sandra Bloodworth, said of the project, “Ninety-nine percent just think it’s great. Their reaction is anything from little smile to great big smile. But every once in a while, somebody’s having too bad a day to find it humorous” (qtd. in Stewart).
Considering the two college students’ desire to alter the depressing poem, the project clearly is not provoking laughter or happiness in the subway. However, regardless of whether it is negatively or positively received, the poem does indeed relate to commuters. And that rare relationship between art and human emotion is precisely why the college students were wrong in trying to change the poem’s message. By adding positive phrases to the poem and trying to make “New York City a little bit of a happier of a place,” the students really distorted the meaning of the art, while equally harming the connection between the art and commuters. While art can serve a number of purposes, including positive inspiration, this particular piece was made to embody and reflect the attitude of the New York City commuter in Times Square. Colp’s widow, Marsha Stern-Colp, reflected this point of view when she stated, “His empathy for the overtired, overworked populace trudging to get to work was what it was all about” (Paddock).
Reflecting on that frigid Tuesday traveling in the subway, I now realize how important that seemingly depressing poem was to me. While it did make me feel worse about my commute, it succeeded at simply making me feel. It established a connection with me and reflected my plight, as I was a New York commuter that day. I, too, wished I could just go home and lie down again in my crumpled bed, just as all the other commuters wished as they trudged on to their destinations. But giving up and going back home is not what New York commuters do. That is the humor in the poem. The notion of giving up and going home is simply funny to commuters. The MTA understood the perspective of the commuter. Norman B. Colp understood this as well. They knew that changing the tone of the poem to be positive would harm the original meaning of the poem and distort the “close shave” that Colp describes his art as. See, the “Close Shave” not only reflects the Burma-Shave billboards that influenced the poet, but it describes the constant struggle of New York commuters to travel everyday stoically without giving up—the struggle to closely shave without cutting themselves.
“Annual Subway Ridership.” MTA.info. Metropolitan Transportation Authority, 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Keyser, Hannah. “The Story Behind the Peculiar Poem in NYC’s Port Authority Tunnel.” Mentalfloss.com Mental Floss, Inc., 10 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Landsman, Stephenie. “NYC’s ‘extreme Commuting’ Costs Getting out of Control.” CNBC.com. CNBC LLC, 9 Nov. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Moon, Johnny. “Times Square New York City.” timessquarenyc. org. Times Square District Management Association, Inc., 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Paddock, Barry. “Bronx Student Turns Grim Poem in Grimy Subway Tunnel Around.” Nydailynews.com. NY Daily News, 29 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.
Stewart, Barbara. “Lament Of Commuter In 8 Parts.” New York Times. New York Times, 11 Oct. 1997. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.