Dave Van Ronk and Llewyn Davis

Riding in the Front of the Subway Car

Dave Van Ronk

Honesty is the cruelest game of all

Dave Van Ronk and I strode like conquerors into the sunlight, sufficiently beery to face a bright new tomorrow. I was between jobs and working as an apartment cleaner — a dirty job but surprisingly easy, just don’t breathe. Life is about choices; nobody wants to touch old mattresses. Tomorrow requires a today and we were confused. Was this it? We were on St. Mark’s Place, behind us was McSorley’s saloon where Ukrainian anarchist expats clung close to the pot-bellied coal stove and ordered hot ale to clear their lungs. McSorley’s was an exclusive premises that allowed men only, it being considered a breach of etiquette when you’d passed out on the floor that a woman might have to step over you on her way to the toilet — a straight line, there being only one toilet.

The glare hit us like a sack of nickles. We headed to the Kettle of Fish over on MacDougal Street. It was a short walk so we took the subway. Three stops, two transfers and 45 minutes later, we had spent as little time as possible in direct sunlight.

Dave says, “Ride between the cars, that’s something.”

“Yeah, something,” I say, a kid from Wisconsin. Sure, most things were something; that’s how things went. Looking out the front there are no railroad spikes — there are bolts, big bolts. A shower of sparks and a mechanical voice says “Keep clear of the moving platform.” New in town, I felt a tingle of fear at being buried alive. Dave and I are still beery from McSorley’s. Over fifty years later the Coen brothers will make a movie about him, Inside Llewyn Davis.

“Tempt Fate — live a little,” says Dave. “Hang on to the chains, but be sure you get a look out the front of the train. It will change your life.” The motorman is locked in his booth. Big key, big faceplate, burnished look of stainless steel. It means business: Keep Out. Through the reticulated safety glass tracks glisten in the headlights, sending refracted echoes from passing work lights. Red, then amber, then green.

Collars are mock sheepskin this year, a trademarked faux mouton. Bob Dylan has no album covers as yet, so for now they are just coats. With the smell of diner home fries and sweat there are exhalations of talcum powder and perfume, Prince Matchabelli, My Sin, Aqua Velva and Old Spice. Styptic blobs decorate the quickly shaved.

The New York subway system has a wide sense of context, inspiring trust of a sort. Like the trust people place in their kitchen faucets. The water that comes out of here will be good. It is good. There is a rumor of LSD slipped in the Central Park reservoir. These are my pipes, my faucet. The subway car is my car. These are safe places — nothing happens here. Yet there is the fear.

There is almost a stabbing on the D train. “He’s got a knife,” someone shrieks. There is no knife you discover later. They cut the power to the car and we stand in the dark.

Tightly packed riders push away until a slight crescent appears; there is no victim, no perpetrator. The passengers crowd to the far end of the car. An anxious man stands on a passenger’s lap for a better view. There is crisp earthy smell of vomit in the cars; someone has thrown up here. A kid shinnies up the slippery white enamel of a stanchion. “There’s blood.” He is making this up; he can’t see anything. He checks for effect; the nearest try to move away from him, now the focus of their panic. Vomit in the cars, urine in the underground walkways, now blood. Doubt, then fear. “He dead, kid?” It is always a he. Women stab women, men stab men, this is the natural order. But not in the subway. Not in here with us, not today anyway. Miss Subways looks down.

“He dead?”

“Naw. He’s holding his guts in,” the kid embellishes.

“Push!” They have blocked the door to the next car.“Push!” They have blocked the door to the next car. Women in splash ads with big teeth, extravagant hairdos, bouffant with a flip like Leslie Gore, Jackie Kennedy. Miss Subways and Chiquita Rheingold smile down looking for a man with a knife in his side.

“He’s making it up,” says Dave. “Kids need to feel important.” So did we. Now he is — Dave, not the kid.

A Quote

Here is something Dave Van Ronk is reported to have said. The following appears in a galaxy of meaty compendia, clustered with Plato, House MD, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “Honesty is the cruelest game of all, because not only can you hurt someone — and hurt them to the bone — you can feel self-righteous about it at the same time.” Whether or not he said this, he might have, and that’s enough. A great shaggy bear of a man even in his 20s, and as tough as he needed to be at any given moment, Dave was one of God’s gentlemen. I trust this will not hurt anybody’s feelings.

Dave kept a walkup on MacDougal Street where he and a circle of cronies played cards. In those days he didn’t like Bob Dylan. Dylan cheated at Gin Rummy. It is very hard to cheat at Gin. The only fail-safe way is to hide a card when you get the deal. Even at half a cent a point the pot can hit $100.00 in a few hands. I didn’t play cards; I hung out, watched, smoked and drank. Folk music (much like major league baseball for Whitey Herzog) “has been very good to me since I quit trying to play it.” I would have cheated too, but no one asked me to sit in.

The Underground

Riding in the front of the train, our noses flat against the front door’s glass pane, downhill into Prince Street. Riding between the cars; the inter-car doors have no sliding rubber lips — safety edges. They don’t slide but open in. The three feet of open air over 600 DC volts and even with the emergency handle pulled, only the car stands dead, the rails are still hot. The power is shut down only for emergency services, the police, etc. For the trackwalkers with the big wrenches only seldom, they are union men and have to take their chances alone and unmourned like cowboy gunslingers. The transit cops come clambering down the catwalks that lead to the sidewalk grates where kids fish for quarters with chewing gum and a lightweight monofilament line. The transit cops request that all power be turned off before they go in after a murder victim.

There is an emergency brake with its red wood handle — nobody pulls these, not even the kids. The transfer ticket collectors — boxes with zig-zag mirrors so the guard can see at a glance if this is yesterday’s or last hour’s phony scrip. He checks the punch-outs as the tickets fall. There was this rash of setting fire to token booths with the token sellers inside. Gasoline in bottles, a Molotov cocktail with a tampon as a fuse. Inventive. “Shouldn’t you get a haircut? Get a haircut. Get a life; get a job,” says the woman from behind her glass as she shoves change and tokens through.

Dave sings, “When you go down to deep Pelham keep your socks in your shoes / ’Cause the women in deep Pelham got those deep Pelham blues...” We are young. We are indestructable.

“Shut up and sell tokens,” says a bystander.


Most highly recommended is the hard to find (but out there) Let No One Deceive You: Songs Of Bertolt Brecht by Dave Van Ronk and Frankie Armstrong. “Alabama Song” here
Elijah Wald’s website and The Mayor of MacDougal Street.
Smithsonian Folkways clips and downloads

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