Notes From Underground

Reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground


A few weekends back, L1 and I were headed to the Coffee Shop at Union Square, where they do a stupendous breakfast in classic diner surroundings. It was L1’s first foray underground. He couldn’t get over the industrial feel of everything, how it was all – both trains and track – just big hunks of metal held together by bolts and rivets. It has character, sure, but also a whiff of dinosaur.

A few days later, reading the New York Times, I understood why. The New York City subway, loved, hated and relied upon by some six million people a day, has been neglected. “The Making of a Meltdown” screamed the headline. “How Politics and Bad Decisions Plunged New York’s Subways into Misery.” Apparently we’ve arrived here in a year that has seen one subway disaster after another – the derailment of a Q train, a track fire on the A line, a stalled F train that had overheated passengers clawing at the windows – all of them attributed to century old tunnels, and track routes that are crumbling as a result of decades of underinvestment. The accusations were endless: Signal failures are twice as frequent as a decade ago; New York is the only major city that has fewer miles of track than in World War 11; and New York’s subway now has the worst on-time performance record of any major rapid transit in the world. (Though, suspiciously, London’s Underground wasn’t even on the list.)

The system throws out other challenges, in addition to crumbling tracks, signal failures and derailments. The noise in some stations will deafen you. The heat will make you long to strip down to your underwear, or at least to remove five of the six layers you donned to protect yourself against the icy wind outside. The wait for a 6 train at Hunters College might make you wish you’d walked the twenty-seven blocks instead. You might never know when you’ve arrived at your intended destination because on most trains there’s no friendly voice announcing the name of the stop and you can’t see a thing for all the bodies pressed together and blocking the windows. And if you buy one of those $42 re-useable tickets, watch out. You had better master your swiping technique at the turn-style double quick or you might find yourself still there tomorrow, screaming for someone to let you through. (You could also find, as I did, that all those inept swipes have wiped the card clean of cash.)

And it will take you months, if not forever, to get to grips with the terminology required to successfully navigate the system. Because, you see, although all the subway lines are denoted by different colours, nobody actually refers to these colours. You can’t say, do I take the green line down to Soho? Or will the orange line take me across to the West side? To do so will immediately mark you out as an ignoramus. Instead, you have to talk about 6 trains and 4 trains and Q trains and F trains and so on. Then you have to master the difference between fast trains and slow trains, and figure out which one is hurtling through the tunnel towards you.

But all these challenges are nothing as compared to this one: if you travel more than three stops on the New York subway you will almost certainly find yourself being asked for money. Probably more than once. On L1’s second foray underground (en route to the Lower East Side) we were approached no less than four times. And I do mean approached, as in someone coming deep into your personal space and making themselves difficult to ignore.

On that particular journey, a tiny slip of a young boy chose the floorspace directly in front of L1’s feet in which to set up his makeshift drum set, which consisted of three plastic crates and a single stick. I was sitting directly opposite L1, so I could see his eyebrows going into action as the boy proceeded to bash the crates in some vague approximation of a rhythm and to offer up an ear splittingly awful rendition of Justin Bieber’s Love Yourself. What’s the title of that film – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Well, it was like that. L1 (whose other name, some of you will recall, is Awkward Alan) was already sweating because he’d stupidly chosen to wear his new, extra thick polo neck, but the stress sweat was making matters infinitely worse.

Just as I thought L1 might internally combust, the boy picked up his drum kit and hopped off the train. L1 didn’t give him any money and neither did anyone else. (Although L1 said later that he’d considered handing over a couple of dollars just to be rid of the dreadful caterwauling.) I’ve noticed that no one gives money on the subway. I think it’s a survival strategy developed in reaction to being trapped.  People who take trains every day can’t possibly contemplate handing over cash at the rate of a dollar every three minutes, so they look down or away. They fiddle with their phones. Not giving seems to be a long established, unspoken rule that, as a newbie, you find difficult to break.

I watched  as L1 exhaled and his eyebrows settled down a bit. But he would soon start to sweat again, because the little drummer boy was followed by a group of young men collecting for a kids’ basketball team, a rapper with a gargantuan speaker and a decidedly average lyrical talent, and finally a drunk (and very likely homeless) man holding out an empty paper cup and making a lengthy plea for donations. And they all set up their stalls directly in front of L1. (In retrospect, I think it might have been a mistake to sit in the middle of the carriage). It was the longest train journey of his life.

I can understand the rationale for not looking, and not giving, because where does it stop? But it’s excruciatingly difficult to look away from a hungry man. No matter what his story is, no matter how culpable he might be in his own downfall, no matter that he might take your dollars and spend them on drink or drugs, no matter that it won’t fix the underlying problems in his life, no matter that you can’t possibly give money to every single person that askes you for it. No matter all of that. The act of looking away from him is dehumanising. For him and for us.

What is to be done? It’s an age old question, and one to which Dostoevsky gave voice in the nineteenth century when he wrote Notes From Underground, a novel probing the mind of an alienated man living on the margins of society. It’s thought that Dostoevsky was inspired by another book actually titled What is to be Done? I don’t think he ever found his answer; certainly,  his political beliefs veered from one extreme to another during his lifetime. Most political debate is, of course, about people’s different answers to the question what is to be done? But I’m asking a slightly different question, which is what am I to do? Every day, on the streets and underground. It’s an unavoidable question for every one of us. Whether you’re a social worker or a banker, whether your annual contribution to charities is ten dollars or tens of thousands of dollars, you’ll still face it.

For the time being, I’ve settled on an approach based on dollar bills and apples. Before I go out, I stuff my pockets with single dollar bills so that I can easily grab one if I come across someone needy. I also try to carry a couple of apples, because I figure that if you’re desperately hungry, a fresh, crisp apple might just look like a gift from heaven. When I’m handing over the dollars or the apple I feel, if not that I’m making a genuine human connection, then at least not inhuman.

But the apple strategy isn’t by any means foolproof. The other day, coming out of Morton Williams with my groceries, I walked up to a young woman in a wheelchair and smiled in a way I hoped was kind rather than patronising.  Then I fished a shiny red apple out of my pocket and offered it to her. She looked at it as she might a dog turd, and then looked up at me like she thought I actually was a dog turd. Then she said something I couldn’t quite decipher, so I leaned down to hear better. I didn’t really need to get any closer though, because at that moment, she chose to shout.

“I don’t want that!”

I leaped back, a bit embarrassed, as passers by glanced over to see what terrible suffering I might be inflicting upon this woman.

“You’re not hungry?” I said.

“I don’t want that!” she shouted again. “I gotta have cash.”

So I stuffed a couple of dollars in the money belt that was resting on top of her blanket, secured to her wrist, and scurried away.  I didn’t feel I’d made a connection, and I didn’t feel I’d done any good. I might even have done some harm, by contributing to the support of the vile system of which the woman was undoubtedly a victim. Because I had a suspicion that L1’s theory about the disabled people stationed along Third Avenue might be right. They can’t possibly have got there by themselves. Which means that other people have wheeled them into position and left them in the cold all day and all evening, using them to generate cash, not for themselves, but to feed the upper echelons of the nasty, illicit business for which the wheelchair is a cunning front.

What’s to be done about that, Fyodor Dostoevsky?

If dollar bills and apples aren’t the answer, volunteering might be. And finding a way to volunteer isn’t difficult in this city. A quick turn on Google turns up an organisation called, which will direct you to the nearest food bank where you can donate food or time. There’s also, a frankly amazing A to Z of non-profit organisations doing a thousand types of good works. One click and you could easily find yourselves teaching kids at an inner-city school to read, or pulling together care-packages for needy families.

Thinking about all of this while walking through Upper East Side streets lined with handsome Brownstones or ogling the exquisite Christmas window displays along Madison Avenue (where, incidentally, roses are on sale for $10 a stem, and Christmas poinsettia’s are $120 each) can make for a surreal experience. In this city, as in major cities all over the world,  the daily witnessing and experiencing of such extreme contrasts – between rich and poor, top and bottom, success and failure, cleanliness and filth – is disturbing. And when you allow yourself not to feel disturbed, you can end up feeling disturbed about that too.

Luckily, there is art, with its power to uplift, distract and provide perspective. On Saturday, L1 and I wandered over to Fifth and 72nd to see the Frick Collection. The collection is housed in what was once Frick’s own home,  an unusually intimate environment for viewing great paintings and sculptures. Our hands-down favourites were the two Holbeins either side of the fireplace in the drawing room – one of Thomas More, the other of Thomas Cromwell, quietly staring one another down. We could have looked at those all afternoon, and very nearly did.

This week we’ve also been charmed and entertained by M, the handsome friend of our eldest and her boyfriend, who pitched up on Thursday evening lugging a case full of beautiful, outlandish shoes and boots designed by his Icelandic designer friend and destined for a showroom in Soho. It’s been lovely to have a young’un around – a bit like being back in London with our own young’uns. And strangely comforting to be listening out once again for the turn of the key in the lock circa midnight. M has been great company, popping in and out of the apartment, regaling us with tales of sights seen, mountainous club sandwiches consumed, and pool games lost in the bars of Brooklyn. He and I also took in Sarah Meyohas’ Cloud of Petals, an exhibit at Red Bull Arts New York on West 18th Street.

The exhibit is, apparently, a site for contemplation about a post-human reality, and probes the future of labour in the face of automation.  I only understood about a third of the handout that explained it, but never mind. It was stunning. Three thousand two hundred and eighty nine painstakingly preserved rose petals, in addition to several arresting displays of wires and circuit boards set within illusional glass tunnels. Even the canary yellow bathroom was a thing of beauty, and I wondered if the artist had insisted on having it redecorated before moving her petals and circuit boards in. (New Yorkers have a thing, by the way, about great bathrooms. There are websites and instagram accounts devoted to featuring the best bathrooms in the city, and Bloomingdales’ retro restroom is ninth on the list of 111 Places in New York That You Must Not Miss. I reckon the bathroom at Red Bull Arts would give Bloomy’s retro version a run for its money.)


My favourite bit of Meyohas’ exhibit was standing beneath a virtual reality waterfall of multi-coloured rose petals, swaying to the hypnotic sounds coming through my headphones. It was a breathtaking experience that I might have missed had it not been for M’s keen eye for an exhibit off the beaten track.


Exhibits aren’t the only thing for which M has a keen eye. He spotted more celebs in six days than L1 and I have spied in six weeks: Hank Azaria in Pain Quotidien, Frances McDormand walking along Spring Street swathed in quilted coat, and one male of the I’m-sure-I’ve-seen-him-in-something variety hovering in the lobby of our building.

We were all hoping for a first-rate, A-list sighting when our New York dwelling friends, E and C, generously treated us to a quite excellent Sunday lunch at an Upper East Side restaurant that Tom Hanks is known to frequent. Mr Hanks was top of mind for me, in particular, because I’m about to dive into his new volume of short stories. Sadly, he didn’t show up. But L1 and I were thrilled to feel, for once, like veritable spring chickens. We figured that our table – which included M plus two more young’uns – had brought down the average age in the restaurant by about fifty years. And while we’d been denied the opportunity to steal surreptitious glances at Tom Hanks, we were all suitably entertained by the steady stream of terrible face-lifts passing through the restaurant. It was like another world. About as far removed from the underground – both Dostoevsky’s and New York’s – as you could possibly get.

Speaking of the underground, a news flash just made its way to me via a WhatsApp message from M, now safely back in Blighty. London’s Evening Standard just ran an article under the headline Why our Tube is perfect role model to help fix New York’s broken subway. Better get yourself over there Mayor de Blasio, and take a good long look.

Next week – a pre-Christmas visit from our eldest, H, and her singer-songwriter boyfriend, who will be performing live somewhere in the city. I’ll also be making sure they find time for the Sarah Meyohas exhibit before it closes, because whose life wouldn’t be enhanced by a minute or two standing beneath a waterfall of rose petals?


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