There are those who make our dreary daily commutes a little more interesting. Surrounded by androids tuned out on ipods and handheld video games, cell phones and Blackberries, a flash of humanity can mean a lot.
Conductor Jason Lewis has been making life on the #2 train more human by adding his own words to those of the automated robot voices, wishing his riders good morning as he cracks jokes and waxes philosophic. This all may end, however, as he was passed over for a job as dedicated announcer. The MTA was afraid he would not conform to their official script. "I'm done," Jason told the New York Times.
In 2003 Carmine Rizzo said he was done, after shining shoes on the Staten Island Ferry for 35 years. He was the last of the ferryboat shoeshine men. I remember him as a stooped little man with an oily wooden box in his hand and a tired voice that called out, "Shine, shine, shine." He said not another word to me when I got a shoeshine from him, but it was a pleasure to prop my foot on his box and feel the thrum of his brushes while I watched the harbor flow past.
I haven't thought much about that man until this weekend when I visited the Staten Island Museum's ferry exhibit where they have Carmine's retired box and brushes on display.
Although the newspapers all say Carmine quit, the guy taking admission at the museum told me he was more or less pushed out by Bloomberg's post-9/11 city and its need for monotony in the name of security. The bands that used to play on the ferries were banned and so was the "rhyming salesman," deemed a "quality-of-life problem" according to SI Live.
New York used to be full of characters, but these days not everyone wants a city with character. Some commuters on the #2 train wish the happy conductor would just shut up and at least one ferry rider had this to say about the shoeshine men, "To me, it just gets annoying putting up with them yelling 'Shine' all the time...I'm glad to see them go."
Such is life in today's vanishing New York. I wish Carmine would come back.
ferry sketch with shine man by Cecil C. Bell