WPA Federal Writers Project

From nycsubway.org

Subway Stuff: Folktalk

WPA Federal Writers Project · Folklore Project · November 23, 1938

By Sidney Ascher.

Place of interview: I. R. T. Subway (New Lots Line)

A trip in the city's subways may, if one is so inclined, prove to be more educational than a college course in psychology; more entertaining than a good motion picture and more dramatic than Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is reasonable to suppose that since New York City is a melting pot of all types and nationalities, an alert observer may, if he wishes, obtain an absorbing cross-section of the life, loves, happiness and sorrows of the New Yorker.

During the morning rush hour (from about seven to nine) one sees people rushing madly about to get on a train as if there will not be another for at least an hour! As a matter of fact, during rush hours, trains are run on a one minute schedule. The New Yorker is fully aware of this but he still insists on crowding into a train until he loses his individuality and becomes merely one of the "tightly packed sardines in a car that lacks only the oil to make the illusion complete."

After nine o'clock and until about two in the afternoon we find housewives going downtown to see if the stores have any "specials" or else to attend a "bargain matinee."

At three o'clock the trains become filled with homeward bound students. The noisy pupils are either straphanging, indulging in a bit of horseplay or heckling the conductor, but regardless of what they say it is at the top of their lungs. Infrequently some are to be found actually reading a text book.

After four o'clock the trains become jammed with workers who are going home. And just as much as they hurried to get to work, so do they shove madly into a train to get home. After six-thirty, the trains are occupied by recreation seekers. The same wild, crowding rushing New Yorker out to play but this time he proceeds at a slower pace. Some are bound for a movie, others to night school, a show, meeting, concert or lecture. And so until after midnight when the trains take on a new class of passengers. The night worker, that individual who lives an abnormal life, who works while the city sleeps. It may be noted that he does not rush to work. Men and women hurrying home so that they may get a few hours sleep before beginning their daily workout on the morning train. Toward dawn is a lull. The passengers are sleepy individuals, drunks, and homeless. And so on it goes, day after day.

Two Jewish girls, (with little education as their conversation seemed to prove) about nineteen years of age were discussing their "dates" of the night before.

One was slender, with nice features, and a clean, clear complexion, that is, it might be clean were it not for the fact that her face was struggling under an over-generous coating of powder and rouge. Her eyebrows were tweezed to a thin tapering line, and for her beautiful eyelashes credit must go to some false eyelash manufacturer. Her thin lips were smattered with a thick layer of purple (Ye gods!) lipstick. Her beautiful black hair was dressed in "page boy" style, and she wore a black sport hat with a long feather, and a plain black box coat. The second girl was about the same height as her companion, five feet three inches. She was pleasingly (?) plump, around 150 lbs, and was also disguised with a poor paint job which she must have deemed so vital. In addition, she was also the possessor of a moustache which peeped through faintly in spite of an obvious application of peroxide or some other hair lightener.

Miss Moustache is speaking, "Yeh, I had some lousy time last night. I thing he's a fag. [Wheredoyuh?] think he took me? Yeh, we went to a Broadway show but was that lousy. What was it about? It was so stupid. I didn't even know what it was about myself. Some old man gets another man up in a tree and then he puts a fence around it so he couldn't get out. It was so dumb. All the time the man was in the tree nobody could die. If that wasn't dumb I don' know what is. I would rather want to see Tobacco Road. Sadie told me they talk right out plain in Tobacco Road. It's a wonder it wasn't raided Sadie said. (The show Miss Moustache described so brilliantly was On Borrowed Time, one of the season's biggest hits.) You think my Mother raised crazy children? Sure we ate. He said he wanted to go to the Automatic to eat just for the fun of it. I gave him fun. I'm wise to that baloney. We went to Chin and Lees. After we ate, he took me home. Yeh, and he lives all the way in the Bronx. Yeh, I think he's faggy. Whatta think-- he didn't event try to kiss me good-night. So what if it's the foist time we went out--maybe I wouldn't of let him kiss me but he coulda tried. No, he didn't ask me for another date. I think he's a fag. Say whatta 'bout you? Where didja go?"

Miss Purple Lipstick replied, "Oh, we just went to the chinks, and to the movies. We saw If I was King. Gee, that Ronald Colman, can he kiss! He can put his shoes under my bed anytime. It was one of them custom pictures. No. Frances Dee was the girl in the picture. She looked so pretty. She has a long face. Didja ever notice? Gee, they way they push around in this train. I hadda use my hatpin yesterday. Some wiseguy had hand trouble. They oughta have special trains for women. Somebody slit my girl friend's coat last week with a razor blade or somethin'. She didn't even know it was cut until she got off the train. They oughta catch the louse who does them things. I'm changin' at Utica, Rosalind. Will I see you tonight? Come over to my house, I'll letcha do my nails. So Long."

(Two girls-- First Miss--) Gee whiz, it gets worse every morning. If I ever quit my job its gonna be because of the crush in the trains. By the time I get to work I'm knocked out. I'd work for a couple of dollars lest if I could get a Brooklyn job. You know, I'm sorry I couldn't meet you las' night. It was like this--when I got home I was so tired that I taught I'd take 25 winks--so I laid down on the couch and woke up it was ten o'clock-- so what did I do? I got undressed and went to bed, and like a dope I couldn't sleep all night. So maybe it wasn't so smart to take the 25 winks. Was it a good picture?

(Second Miss) It's good you didn't go. I dun't like dese silly pichures. The Ritz Brothers are awful silly. I liked the oder pichure, "The Lady Objects," see det pichure learns yuh somethin'. It was refeened. It shows how you can't have your husband and a good job both at the same time. If I get a man with a decent job he should make his thirty-five dollars a week steady, I'd give up my job--no career for me.

(Girl to man who is reading her paper over her shoulder.) If you want I should give you this paper, so so--I wouldn't want you to strain your eyes. You wouldn't think of taking my paper, so alright, don't be reading it with me. I'm not being sarcrastic but if you haven't two cents to buy a paper for yourself I'm sorry for you. Some nerve, you wouldn't buy the Mirror!

Two men shabbily dressed, one, the speaker is in need of a shave, and haircut, they are about thirty years of age....

"Just think, I'da had a couple hundred bucks this morning if it hadn't been for my lousy brother-in-law. Aw, he's an awful louse. Saturday in the shop I got a tip on a horse and nobody wanted to lend me money to place a bet. I went to my lousy brother-in-law and asked him to go partners with me. So what think, the skunk he asts for security. Whatta nut. Didja ever hear of getting security when you bet on a nag? So, he didn't wanna go partners and he wouldn't lend me the money. So I ate my heart out when the nag pulled in to win and paid $57. I coulda kilt my lousy brother-in-law. When I tole him the horse won--he said he was glad he didn't bet because if he woulda won he mighta been encouraged to bet again, and then before he knows he'd be losing a lotta money. Some louse."

Miss Purple Lipstick of a previous "Subway Stuff" tale is talking to a young man: Say, what happened to your friend Jack, did he drop dead? He hasn't come around to see my girl friend for a week. I heard she's in love with him. Anyway he's got a hell of a nerve. [Haveyuh gottapiece?] of gum. He makes a date with her. That's why we came down to the club. She was all dressed up and there he is in a polo shirt. Is that the right thing to do? Where can you go in a polo shirt?

A shabbily dressed middle aged man carrying a carton: Laydees and Gentlemen--A very famous stationary manufacturer whose name is so big that if I were to mention it, you'd know immediately who I mean--has his warehouses overstocked and that's why I'm selling these mechanical pencils and notebook sets at less than the cost of manufacture. I have to clean out the warehouses. Yes, siree, this beautiful pencil and notebook is made in America by American union labor. I'm selling the set for one dime. The pencil expels, repels and mis-spells, hah, hah. Who else wants one of these beautiful sets? Bring one home for the kiddies. Have one in your office. Buy one, buy a dozen. Ten cents a set, and as an extra special for today only--ten sets for one dollar.

Living Folklore Among Transport Workers

WPA Federal Writers Project · Folklore Project · January 31, 1939

By Herman Partnow and Herman Spector.

Place of interview: Transport Workers Union, W. 64th St. Manhattan

The union headquarters. A four story building in a neighborhood dominated by brownstone buildings, bars, dance halls. Mr. Forge editor of "Transport Workers Bulletin," was interviewed in his office, and he gave reporters access to back issues of the Bulletin. All material included here was culled from these issues.

Transport Workers Bulletin: All I Say Is..., by Rhyming Riveter (Pseudonym of Brother Hornbeck, structural steel worker on transit lines, now an official of T.W.U.)

AT 5 A.M. the alarm rings
And brings me down from heaven.
At 6 o'clock I'm on my way
To be on the job at seven.
at 7:30 comes a yell
The men all turn to work.
The sun is hot, the wind is stiff,
In snow, or fog or murk,
"Come on you guys, come shake a leg,"
From start to end we hear
Until the hour reaches noon
And eating time is near.
We grab a bites, a gulp and snatch,
Providing we can spare it.
No turkey dinner, quail or steak
Nor port, Bordeaux or claret.
In half an hour back we go
The foreman keeps on chasing;
"Faster, faster, fast and fast!"
The men are running, racing.
Quitting time will come around [?]
In time, or fifteen after ---
The foreman says his watch has stopped
Oh yes, it does - the grafter.
We have not even got a pail
To wash off grease and dirt
Because the bosses seem to fool
That showers and soap may hurt.
We wear our work clothes on the train
Although we might not like it,
Than leave it on the station rail
And have somebody take it,
We scatter each in his own way
The end of day we call it
And so for home, and so to bed;
That is --- if we can make it.

Transport Workers Bulletin: She Will Have No Slacker, by Ryming Riveter

'Twas on the night of the Ball that I met her,
Her eyes were like stars in the sky.
She was lonesome, I tried to befriend her
But she said it was useless to try.
I insisted on knowing the reason
But she held out and would not tell
Until we parted, then she accused me of treason
For I was not a union man.
Since then I've done plenty of thinking
As to who and to what it's about
And now I've cut out my shrinking
And joined in with the rest of the crowd.
Some fine day in June I'll get married
To the girl of my dreams from the Ball.
When we do, all you men are invited
To the feast at the Union Ball.
For she says she will have no slacker
At the party whenever it'll be.
So if you all want to came to our wedding
You must show up some evening to me.
Yes, we intend to have a few babies -
Maybe three, perhaps four if we can
And you may tell the bosses and beakies
They'll grow up to be UNION MEN.

Transport Workers Bulletin: Simple Queries, Anonymous

I am a Conductor young and fine
And work all night on a transit line
Many questions do I get
Which I answer, you can bet
But now I wish to ask one myself
So please don't put it on the shelf:
My wages per hour are fifty-three cents,
Which is not enough to meet the ends.
Yet the B.M.T. made a million dollars more
Than it ever did before;
Now what I really want to know
Is, where does all the money go?

* * *

Last Saturday night I had a dream. I dreamt I was dead. When I landed at the gates of heaven a man outside the gates asked where I came from. I told him. He then asked me where I worked. When I explained that I was a tower-man on the BMT he directed me to the arena across the way.

I walked across an he instructed me and entered the arena. It was about an big as Madison Square Garden. The place was filled with transit workers of New York and it was explained that St. Peter was coming to find out what good deeds each one of us had done on earth.

There was a stage at the front of the arena and I made my way to a seat close to it. I recognized many faces. Right next to me, upon my word, who do you think were sitting, but Al Beers and Charley Landon. Beers never looked better alive. He wore a new suit, his trousers creased, shined shoes and a clean shirt on. And Landon was really without his perpetual smile. Beers would not forget his old habits and kept bumming the price of a cup of coffee and a cigaret from other fellows.

Tom O'Shea, McMahon and Quill were seated on the stage. In the back of the stage, McCarthy and Hogan were sitting near the gate leading to heaven. O'Shea then rose and announced the arrival of St. Peter. A silence I never experienced set in. After a short introduction St. Peter addressed the assembly. He closed his remarks by announcing that all the members of the TWU please stand up and walk through the gate. Everyone in the room rose. St. Peter then said that admission would be by membership book. About 10 percent fainted and slumped in their seats. St. Peter continued the address.

"You members of the TWU have performed noble work in New York. Your fight was a hard one. Enemies you had many. You {Begin page no. 4}had to fight the tranist trust, the Company Beakies, the bankers, the anti-labor papers and a host of others. You have done a good job. Form the line and walk through the gate at my right. Have your books ready."

As I came near the gate I asked permission to remain in the arena for a while. This request was granted. I took a walk around the arena. Way back in a corner I noticed a small group of men. In the center of the group there was a man who seemed to be in terrible agony. When I asked what was the matter, this man appealed to me to help him by using my influence as a TWU member. "My name is Patrick Joseph Connolly," he said. "See what you can do to get me through these gates." "Oh, so you are the [Scab?] of [?] from the IRT?" I exclaimed in surprise. "And your mother named you after Ireland's Patron Saint. What a disgrace to St. Patrick and the Irish people you are. And who are these mugs surrounding you, may I ask?"

"These are my delegates, my thugs and stool-pigeons who served me on earth," was his answer.

As I was walking away I felt somewhat sorry for Pat. "Well you would not have to worry about snow storms where you are headed for, anyhow, Pat. So long."

When I reached the stage again I met another surprise. There was Pete Coons pleading with St. Peter. As I got closer I heard St. Peter ask him what action had he taken when the BMT made the towers automatic and did away with the Towermen "Well," he pleaded "I have only 250 in our union and what could I do about it?"

"What could you do?" Saint Peter was losing his patience. "Why did you not make common cause with the TWU?" His excuse was that he thought they were superior and better than the other crafts. "And moreover, Mr. Menden and Mr, Egan would be extremely displeased if he worked together with TWU, of courses, we are all for the principles of the TWU."

"Well," St. Peter admonished him, "If George Washington had done as you did you wiould still be paying the Tea Tax to the British Crown. All brave and honest men displease their oppressors and make enemies. Good deeds are what count, not good excuses."

The next to be interviewed was Mary Murray, BMT Ticket Agents Reo. In answer to the question as to what good she had done, Mary cast a longing glance toward the gate to heaven and coyly replied; "Last spring I spent four weeks in Albany trying to help the enactment of Murice Fitzgerald's Bill."

Ding, ding, ding... The alarm went off. My dream was over. if the dream continues some night I will let you know the rest.

When worn by a worker these glasses make his own pay check look very big and the company's profits very small. When worn by a company official an excellent record of an active union man turns into an indictment of public enemy number 1. It has many more uses in the same direction.

Abie The Agent

Oh read of the tale that is here related
About one of the "men" on the Elevated;
This story is true - it cannot be negated,
So read to the finish, and your breath will be bated.
He's called "Abie the Agent" (a gent be it stated
Who wears seven shirts lest he got ventilated.)
Now to this Abie gent there was one day donated
A TWU Bulletin in which 'twas narrated
How company unions could be exterminated
How stoolies and spies and scabs should be treated
How cowards and cravens and their ilk should be hated.
But did Able read all this? Alan, no, 'twas not fated.
For the NAME of the paper made Abe agitated,
His knees knocked together, his heart palpitated,
"Take it away, take it away," he howled and spated.
"I'll be fired. I'll be fired," he then iterated.
Then Able sat down, and for a while cogitated;
He figured he ought to be congratulated
For avoiding the peril of being implicated
With anyone, or anything, that the "Brotherhood" hated.

Stop Dozing B.M.T. Switchman

Who is he who with all his might
Through day and dusk, and dawn, and night
Heaves coal, runs towers and handles a train,
In warm and cold months is under a strain?
When rails are covered with ice and snow
He shovels and sweeps to make them go,
He seen that the switches are able to throw,
That danger is lessened for the traffic's flow.
He is busy at times breaking trains in the yard
For rush-hour service that soon will start.
In snow or hail or torrents of rain
He never can stop when making up a train.
Never forget the live rail in the yard.
The juice, if you touch it, will stop your heart;
The overhead wire works just the same
When letting off brakes on a freight hauling train.
These are the Switchmen on the BMT
Whose rates per hour are as low an 53.
You watch them work, you watch them speeding
What a man had to do to make a living.
Stop dozing you man with such rates of pay
And those who get somewhat more for their day,
To get what you need, things that are due you,
The one medium that I know of is the TWU.

Passenger's Adventures

Uptown in a train I decided to rush,
So I sped to the subway and into the crush;
But after I got there, I learned with a shock
The trains were not running because of a block.
"What the heck is the matter?" I yelled in a rage
To the agent who sat like a sap in his cage.
I flew out the wheels, and I glared at the youth
As he counted some pennies he had in the booth.
"Return me my nickel, you silly jackass."
"Sorry, sir, can't," he said, "but here is a pass -
Take it and use it - tis good on the El.
When this block will be over, I cannot foretell."
I sniffed and I spat, and I cursed through my teeth,
Then I sped up the steps and into the street.
I spurted and sprinted, and came to an El.
And I charge up a stairs like the hammers of hell.
I'd forgotten the pass when I got to the top,
And I reached in my pocket for a nickel to drop,
A dame was in front of me taking her time,
Requesting the agent for change of a dime.
I bowled her clean over and shot for the wheel,
And was out on the platform before she could squeal.
The door was just closing, but I ran like share,
And was aboard in a flash, with nothing to spare.
Perspiring and clammy, and sticky with heat,
With a sigh of relief I flooped down on a seat,
Then all of a sudden, a fearful suspicion,
Reduced my whole mind to a dreadful condition.
I turned to a woman, who was nursing a pup,
And hoarsely I asked her - "Ain't this train going up?"
She looked me all over, from my toes to my crown.
"Why, no" she said cooly, "it' going downtown."

Happy New Year in the Power House

It was New Year's in the Power House
And the Seven-Day Slaves were there
All doing their work as usual
And breathing foul air.
When the foreman slowly entered
And gazed about the place;
"Happy New Year, all you slaves,"
And the slaves all answered; "Beans"
This made him very angry
And he said, "By all the gods
you'll got no five percent for that,
You dirty bunch of slobs."
Then up spoke one of the seven-day Slaves,
And his face was hard as brass,
And he said, "You take that five per cent
And stick it up your hat."

A Seven-Day Slave

Recently a train pulled into the East 180 St. Barn with the letters TWU chalked on its side. Chewing Gun Kid Maffey nearly broke his neck looking for a Trouble Man to blot out the TWU sign. The mere sight of it ghrows him into a rage. He can't take it. But even his friends in the office gave him the ha-ha. The Chewing Gum Kid is shooting his mouth off that he knows all the members of the Transport Workers Union in the 180 St. Barn and that in June they are all going to lose their jobs. Is it possible that the Kid knows that the snow has melted since last winter? And who is going to do the laying-off, the Kid himself on his own authority? --Invisible Man of 180th St. Barn.


Folklore Project, Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

nycsubway.org is not affiliated with any transit agency or provider.
Not mobile.