Tuesday, September 20, 2011

One Track Mind

One Track Mind, a film by Jeremy Workman, chronicles an obsessive love affair--that between one man and the New York City subway system--and the efforts to preserve every nook and cranny in a massive collection of detailed drawings and notes.

Phil Copp might remind you of Joe Gould, the Greenwich Villager made famous by Joseph Mitchell for his non-existent, 9-million-worded "Oral History of Civilization." But Copp has succeeded where Gould failed--his opus exists, on real paper, as the multi-volume, never-ending "Silver Connections."

It's a story of old New York, a place filled with eccentrics and obsessives, where a strange and wondrous love for the city can take root and bloom in the shadows of the underground. I talked to Jeremy and Phil and asked them some questions.

Jeremy Workman

Q: Who is Phil Copp and what's his subway project all about?

JW: Phil is a subway historian extraordinaire. He is a regular guy from New York and New Jersey who works at a printing press. A kind sweet man. A bit on the quiet side. An avid church-goer. But he's had this lifelong obsession with the decor and design of the New York City subway stations. He's spent most of his adult life creating a study called "Silver Connections," a massive homemade, self-published, illustrated encyclopedia of the the decor in the stations. He's studied it historically, artistically, and sociologically. It's like a billion pages and it has literally thousands of amazingly detailed hand-drawn sketches and diagrams.

PC: My study has two purposes. First, to record the art & architecture of the NYC subway stations in word and picture. Second, to reveal the persons who designed or crafted the decor. Both subjects of my study were neglected and unheralded (especially in the late 1970's, when I began this undertaking).

Phil Copp

Q: Jeremy, how did you find Phil and what drew you to his story?

JW: Randy Kennedy (who's interviewed in the documentary) wrote a piece in the New York Times about a group of hyper-extreme subway obsessives. At the time, I was tipped off about Phil by another NY Times journalist, as I was beginning a documentary about New York obsessives. When I met Phil, I realized that he should be the subject of his own film alone since his story was so interesting.

Q: Phil, what has it been like getting so much attention for your project and seeing yourself in this film?

PC: First reaction--utterly honored. Second reaction--utterly squeamish to see myself in that NY1 interview, or giving that lecture for the senior citizens. Third reaction--grateful to the friends I've made who said such nice things about my mania. Fourth reaction--loved that smash rapid fire ending!!! And the music chosen--wellllllll, it was different (like my study) (and a better choice than hitting you all with Wagner and Tchaikovsky: my idea).

Q: One of the people in the film says you are "possessed" by your study of the subway, that you have a "certain kind of mind." How would you characterize that kind of "one track" mind?

PC: What kind of "possessed" mind do I have? There's two of me, after a fashion. The everyday me goes to work, goes to church, does all the special occasion and holiday stuff, does the house chores, et al. Just like any of you. Then there's the me who has filled 36 notebooks with sketches & transcriptions, journeyed on field trips, drawn the illustrations, wrote the texts, and got it all published, and so on. Sometimes I don't know how I've done it. This endeavor has been my abiding passion for about half of my years lived so far. I'm possessed in that I know I must finish this.

JW: People are often blown away by Phil's level of commitment even before they've seen his book. Then, when people see the multiple volumes of Silver Connections (which can pile waist-high), their jaws invariably drop to the floor. I've never met a person with this level of commitment to one particular subject. He's been working on this study for over 30 years and is totally undeterred by anyone's else interest (or lack of interest) in his study. It's incredible.

Q: The scene with the elderly audience, all of them falling asleep with boredom, is hilarious and poignant. I find myself hoping that Phil has found a cohort of like-minded folks with whom he can share his passion. Or does his subway project remain a solitary enterprise?

JW: He's totally alone in this. He doesn't seem to associate with the subculture of subway enthusiasts. And Phil is not so much interested in the subway cars or the subway tracks per se; rather, he's ONLY interested in the actual stations and their decor. He's just on an island doing this by himself and seems to prefer it that way. I spoke to a guy once at the NY Public Library who said that there's no other resource on this subject other than Phil's book. That's it. It's Silver Connections and nothing else. All this great history would be lost without Phil's study.

Q: Phil, what are you working on today?

PC: Revising Volume I. The text is in sore need of a balanced mind--which I was sure I had in the late 1970's/early 1980's, but the maturing years that have passed since then have revealed the awkward, mawkward horrors I committed to print, and induce me to remedy my embarrassing ways. Plus I'm adding new material and new illustrations & station layouts. Much needed.

  • Watch One Track Mind here.
  • Some of Silver Connections are available for sale by contacting Phil at philoceans@gmail.com


BrooksNYC said...

I've always been fascinated by (okay, envious of) people who have this kind of passion for something....anything. And aren't the drawings beautiful?

I think Mr. Copp's project is worthy and wonderful, and I'm grateful to Mr. Workman for having documented it. Fantastic!

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Fascinating, like preserving medieval art work and this is only a subway, built by man about 100 years ago.

Anonymous said...

wow. just watched the documentary. Thanks for sharing Jeremiah. Phil Copp is really interesting. I especially loved the part where they start showing his book.

Greg Masters said...

best post in a long time, thank you, Jeremiah

onemorefoldedsunset said...

What a beautiful mission. The books are incredible. Hope I see Mr. Copp on a platform one day.
Great documentary & post. Thanks.

Jeremiah Moss said...

the drawings are stunning. and i love a good old-fashioned obsessive myself. we need more of them.

James Campbell Taylor said...

Brilliant! I'm looking forward to watching that film when I get a chance.

Something about the subway, or maybe New York in general, seems to encourage an obsession for detail. I attended a lecture at the MCNY last December on the subject of subway map design, during which it was revealed that the earliest white-on-black subway decals didn't use the iconic Helvetica typeface but rather a cheaper American alternative. You can tell the difference by the "e" and the "s". I have a great time spotting them.

Another example is my egg cream project: a fun weekend activity that rapidly spiraled out of control to consume my waking existence...

Jimmy said...

I saw this film at the Tribeca Film Festival. It's awesome. Thanks for posting it here!

Peter said...

Just ordered a copy of every volume. So psyched!