Asleep On The Subways

I proceed on uncertain footing with this one, venturing into unfamiliar territory. Hallowed literary ground. It already feels ill-fitting and clumsy. I mean, five or six attempts to get this first paragraph sounding right should serve as proper warning sign that this couldn’t possibly work out well.

But, fuck it, throwing caution to the wind and blustering on through does seem to be the modus operandi around here these days.

So I give you an analogy.

Our last night in New York City, back in the hotel room, with some wine on board I should note, I finally conceded to the lure of the Crosley box turntable and decided to give it a… ahem, ahem… spin. Me being totally ignorant that Crosley was, you know, a thing, I wasn’t even sure it worked. It could just as well be a decorative touch, to give the place some additional ambience.

Turns out, the turntable was in very good working condition, far better than I expected. Like I said, Crosley is a thing, a digital contraption with an analogue throwback, designed, at least in part, to hit the nostalgia button for those of us who grew up on the vinyl. With the reminder wine had been consumed, I can tell you that I was captivated.

Yes, there was a little bit of my obsessive 14 year old self plugged into listening to music that doesn’t happen very often anymore. Who’s got the time, right? You slap something on in the background while going about your daily business without taking the time to pour over the album cover and liner notes. Besides, CDs kind of killed that thrill long before the advent of cold, clinical, distant downloading.

But there I was, sitting at the end of the bed as the record rotated, the arm gently undulating I guess you’d call it. Watching as well as listening. It was a much more inclusive experience, a bigger connection to the music. Nowadays it’s mostly about clicking. Click to download, double click to play. Done and done. To listen to Bill Evans’ We Will Meet Again on vinyl, I opened the box, turned the unit on, slipped the record first out of its cover, then out of the paper sleeve, set it gentle onto the turntable, lift the arm from out of the cradle and moved leftward toward the album, the turntable began to turn. As gently as possible set the needle down into the groove. The first sound is that familiar crackle and pop. And then the music starts.

I should totally get one of these, I thought as I poured out another glass of wine. Listen to how rich that sound is. I could start making mixed tapes again, reacquiring the skill of placing the needle just right in that groove between songs. Can you imagine?

Seriously. Can you imagine?

Yet another piece of machinery to house somewhere and maintain. And what about collecting LPs again. Where the hell are you going to keep them? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for those plastic milk crates. Never mind having to get up and push things along when the needle gets stuck which it did twice, once per side. The first time probably due to the fact of guys like me trying to set down the needle just so and scratching the record up while doing so. The second seemed to be the ball of dust that the needle had collected.

In fact, truth be told, I’m not even sure the music was that much better sounding. It’s just something I’ve read along the way. A myth propagated by elitist audiophiles and the vinyl industry that fronts them and benefits most from a record revival.

On that note, let’s talk about subways. (Yes, folks. That there is the awkward clumsy segue toward a hoped for analogy.)

Having spent 4 days in a city chock full of them, up and down, right to left, under bodies of water, above ground in places, there is no argument that they aren’t great, perhaps the best mode of urban public transit there is. In places with extensive lines like New York and Paris, you can get from one corner of a big city to another in the matter of minutes, the blink of an eye. Here’s to subways. We all should have subways.

Except maybe not, not always, not everyplace.

Like the long playing albums of yore, for all their appeal and plusses, subways have their drawbacks. The expense of not only building but operating them is one especially in these days of cutbacks and austerity. It’s interesting to note that some of the more ardent fiscal hawks around City Hall seem hell bent on foisting such a costly system on the city’s taxpayers when less expensive options are already in place. I guess to them, subways just sound better.

Subways will also affect future development in ways parts of Toronto will resist. Build it and they will come? Eventually but is everyone prepared for the kind of density needed to make it feasible? Returning to Brooklyn from Manhattan on Sunday night and I was struck by the fact that if was one of the very few trips I took on the subway that I actually found a seat. The trains were full throughout the day and night. You know why? Because New York City is dense. Dense, dense, dense in a way we won’t be for decades if ever.

Not to mention that they have a subway tradition, actually dating back over a 100 years rather than the imagined century of subways Mayor Ford claims for Toronto. So there’s the infrastructure in place there. A  turntable, if you will, still capable of churning out subways. Ours is a much more torturous, push-pull relationship. We love subways in theory (and out on the campaign hustings where nuance and detail take a back seat to empty rhetoric) but when it comes to implementation we’ve proven to be more than a little tone deaf.

Like vinyl records, subways sound great initially. Crisp, clean with a full sound that is entirely pleasing. Subways? Nothing beats them. But then upon a closer, second, third listen, there’s that hiss and pop right before it gets stuck on that almost imperceptible scratch. And, of course, have you ever tried to get around town while listening to an LP? Pretty much impossible.

Beware the pleasing sounds and easy listening of the call for subways. Nice to have but at this juncture and for the parts of this city in most need of rapid transit, they seem to be highly impractical and out of place. A novelty item almost. An expensive novelty item at that, providing less benefit for fewer people. Not a transit strategy so much as building a collector’s item.

stereophonically submitted by Cityslikr

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