Monday, October 22, 2007

Chatty Conductors & Ferry Shines

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

13 comments:

Josh said...

Call me a curmudgeon, but I can't stand chatty conductors. Public space belongs to all New Yorkers, and a train operator who fills it with his opinions is no better than the hipsters or hip-hop kids who fill the car with their turned-way-up iPod and boombox buzz. We all roll our eyes when some schizo boards the train and proclaims his love of Christ, and then there are the candy peddlers, the DVD hawkers, the amateur gymnasts, the mariachis, and the moochers who expect your spare change for their sob stories. Why make exceptions for the conductor just because he has a real job?

Jeremiah Moss said...

alright, you're a curmudgeon. i find these people you describe far less annoying than the drones with their electronic gadgets. give me a mexican cowboy with a pearly squeezebox! give me a legless man on a skateboard! give me a chinese guy with armfuls of flashing yo-yos! give me a conductor who at least speaks with a new york accent instead of the disney-bland monotone of the robot announcers... but if they annoy you so much, you can just turn up the volume on your ipod.

Josh said...

I don't wear an iPod on the train--I read, which is damn near impossible what with warnings every minute over the PA. I guess holding people hostage with vapid opinions is no stretch for folks who would cripple a city of millions for a few extra dollars. I long for the day when computers replace human train staff. Not outside of a Kubrick flick did a machine ever feel so entitled.

Barbara said...

I assume you are referring to transit workers fighting for a living wage? When did you arrive here, and why are you staying? I'm sure you miss the malls back home, and the quiet of your car.
I find *your* opinions vapid, Josh.

see los urbanista said...

part of the reason city life is remarkable are the people that enter the communal spaces we share. when these everyday characters become museum pieces then a city loses a part of itself. thanks for recognizing this casualty and sharing your thoughts.

Ed said...

I can understand where Josh is coming from, but the problem really stems from the prerecorded announcements being made all the time on the subways. I'm thinking in particular of the announcements that everyone must keep their eye out for suspicious property, and that everyone is subject to search, which makes you think you are riding the subway in some 1930s Central European dictatorship. Once I started being subjected to that, all I really wanted on my commute was silence. I used to be OK with the muscians, buskers, and even panhandlers but now its just too much on top of the PA announcements. And I'm also finding that its difficult now to read on the train than in the past.

I get the impression that there has been an increased in noise pollution in general, but that could just be me getting older.

About the shoe shine guy on the ferry, I can't stand Bloomberg's too successful efforts to make New York more boring either, but isn't this taking nostalgia too far? One trend I happen to like is the acceptance of more casual wear, and its nice to be able to go to work without having to worry about stopping and getting perfectly shined shoes. There is a difference between changes that are basically neutral, like the disappearance of shoe shine men, and changes that are obnoxious, like the recorded MTA announcements.

Jeremiah Moss said...

hey ed, i like casual shoes, too, but the shoeshine is a rapidly vanishing (and cheap!) pleasure. sort of like a poor man's massage. as fred astaire once sang, "when there's a shine on your shoes, there's a melody in your heart."

Barbara said...

I loathe the acceptance of more casual wear--in theaters, in elegant restaurants; the experience loses most of its luster if the clientele is dressed for Yankee Stadium.

Joshua said...

A great article Jerry, and very important, as it highlights a telling feature of the Yunnies' collective personality.
Watching them these past six years, it's seemed to me like they were willing to tolerate any number of annoying, offensive, and/or bizzare behaviors. It seemed like anything any one of them came up with after too many apple martinis was perfectly acceptable. Remember "action groups"? Or "train parties"? And how about the stuff they do every day like monopolizing space, being as loud as possible when in groups or when on the phone, doing chin-ups and other calisthenics on the bars, sitting around with their legs and feet put up in a variety of ingenious positions, taking pictures of each other with the brightest flash money can buy, etc. Oh, and let's not forget the occasional yunnie girl pole-dancing on the fixtures to amuse her giggling friends (her very LOUD friends). Now, with all that in their repertoire you'd think they'd be remarkably tolerant, but I guess even a yunnie has his limits. A chatty conductor, for example, is apparently beyond reasonable endurance.
Likewise, regarding shoe-shine men (excuse me, THE shoe-shine man).
Though it makes sense that a shoe-shine would be an alien concept (and therefore a frightening one) to a white-collar workforce that primarily wears flip-flops, I’m pretty sure the same principal is at work here. They want hipness, “grittiness”, real New York authenticity, but just let a little old man ask them if they want a shoe shine and they crap their $80 jeans.
"To me, it just gets annoying putting up with them yelling 'Shine' all the time...I'm glad to see them go."
Notice the “them” there. I know I've ridden that ferry hundreds of times at all different hours of the day, and I never noticed a mob of maniacal shoe-shine men hollering SHINE SHINE!!! so loud that nobody could hear themselves think, but maybe these yunnie kids have better hearing from growing up in New Hampshire, I dunno.

Anyway, here is a link to a site that I think might be helpful on this subject. It is a page on a yunnie’s blog in which he proudly shares photos of himself and his 300 friends holding what they call a “train party”. If Josh saw this I wonder if he’d still think conductors are the worst thing in the subway!
www.bluejake.com/archives/2004/02/21/death_of_the_q_diamond_party.php

Mike said...

I really didn't like Carmine, although I wish him well. I found his bleat of "shine" very grating. And he would also look at you and make eye contatc with you, if hyou didn't want a shine, and say "SHOshine!!!Five dollah!" C'mon, SHINE" trying to make me feel guilty 'cos I didn;t want a shoeshine. Couldn;t he see I was wearing Keds or Converse Allstars??

I do miss the rhyming Staten Island ferry salesman. He was great: "I got it ALL in my little shopping mall..."

Jeremiah, you remember the panhandler who said his spaceship crashed? He had a cat on his shoulder and the cat had an eyepatch. He blasted away at a saxophone...and promised he would stop the excruciating noise for the right amount of change. He was just looking to get back to his home planet, and he would do that as soon as he collected enough money for repairs...he used to ride the "R" train a lot in the early 1990s.

Jeremiah Moss said...

I *wish* I remember that spacecraft-crashed panhandler. Though he does sound far more "grating" than the shoeshine guy...no?

Seattle.Bound said...

I used to live in Staten Island and I remember "the shine guy." He was an icon on the ferry. It is too bad that he was pushed into retirement if that was the case. My father grew up in the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan and it seems the New York that he talks and tells stories about is gone. It's a shame.

Antoinette said...

One of the Staten Island shoe shine men....Angelo is my father and was not Carmine's brother. Dad enjoyed going to work and seeing his friends (as he would call his customers) and was always deeply hurt when one of his friends was hurt or lost their job. He would bring it home with him. He's gone now, but I did enjoy reading about my dad. Good Memories.
Antoinette Passaro