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Going Underground

By posted at 4:18 am on September 26, 2008 1

A few years ago, I was standing on the platform at College subway station in downtown Toronto. It was 9 pm, well beyond the evening rush. Further along the platform and also waiting to board the next train was someone I recognized – a colleague from work – older and embittered, a grumbling and grouchy sort. I’d barely spoken two words to him in the newsroom and wasn’t in any mood to increase those numbers.

The train arrived and this happened: A few people piled out and then one person in particular came out of the train and stood face to face with my grouchy colleague on the platform. They began punching each other in the face as if they were sworn enemies, all the while adjusting themselves on the platform so that Grouchy could go into the subway car, and the other guy could come all the way out. It was as if they were doing a dance. Before the doors had closed, and after at least a dozen punches had been thrown as they did their subway ballet, Grouchy was in the car and the other guy had gone up the stairs. I was within earshot – not a word had been spoken, not an insult slung. I guess some people just piss other people off.

So that’s my subway story. That and the time I slipped on the top step at an outdoor entrance to Leicester Square tube station in London and tumbled down an entire flight of stairs, to the bemusement (and in many cases, indifference) of London’s commuting throngs.

Every commuter or traveler seems to have his own subway story. The front page of a recent Globe and Mail Travel section takes the reader into the subways, undergrounds, tubes and metros of cities around the world. Writer Mark Kingwell, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, is the tour guide, expertly guiding the reader through some of the world’s buried treasures. It’s a fascinating read, and includes bits by other writers and travelers, each sharing subway anecdotes. All packaged with some fine photos.

coverAll of which leads me to a book I purchased a few years ago – Underground: Travels on the Global Metro – a coffee-table book featuring some stunning work from photographer Marco Pesaresi. The cities explored are: New York, Tokyo, Moscow, Calcutta, Milan, Mexico City, Paris, London, Berlin and Madrid. Each section is prefaced by a short essay. The book even has an introduction by none other than Francis Ford Coppola.

Pesaresi is a remarkable photographer. His camera sometimes conspires with the passenger – causing a pose, an attitude (Mexico city). Sometimes, it is seemingly invisible (Milan) capturing but not appearing to intrude on a pre-existing mood (Tokyo). Sometimes it seems to be lurking, capturing quiet moments that likely would have been shaken off by the subjects, had they been overwhelmed by a more intrusive photographer.

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One Response to “Going Underground”

  1. Sean Ferrell
    at 8:26 am on September 26, 2008

    My subway story: I had just had the worst job interview in history. It was immediately clear that I was not qualified for the job and the interviewer decided that it was MY fault that she had called me to her office to talk about it. I left the interview and decided I would head straight home to Brooklyn and hide under my bed for a few hours.

    I waited for an "N" train and as I climbed aboard the doors shut on me – one of them hit me square in the face and I was pinned for a few seconds. They reopened and I climbed aboard a very full car.

    I stood there for a few minutes and slowly realized that the twenty-something slacker ahead of me was laughing at me. I turned away and saw my reflection in the car door's window. When the door had shut on my head it had left a perfectly strait line from my temple, down beside my eye, down my cheek, all the way to my chin. It looked like someone with a marker and a ruler had drawn a vertical line down my face. The fact that I was in a suit made the whole look rather punk. I rubbed furiously at the line but it was a mix of subway grime and deteriorated rubber which didn't come off fully until I got a hold of some soap, so for the rest of my ride home I looked like a rather dirty, lined, unsuccessful interviewee.

    I wish I had a coffee table book about that day.

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