Monday 28 August 2023

The Curse of the Subways

At an out-of-state wedding recently, I fell into conversation with a cheerful gentleman whom I didn’t know from Adam, or Eve for that matter.

Upon hearing that I was from New York City he inquired if the subways were as bad as ever.

I replied that they were quite pleasant nowadays, and compared to the 1970’s the experience was comparable to traveling first class on the Orient Express.

 “That’s hardly likely.” He declared.

“Why not?” I rose to the challenge.

“Because on the news every night, it’s one thing after another, murders, robberies, all manner of mayhem.”

“What channel do you watch?”

“Fox,” he smiled, “like any sane person!”

I began to look for an exit, but it was four deep at the bar, besides my drink was barely dented.

“Listen,” said I, cornered but unbowed, “I’ve never seen as many cops on the trains or in the stations since this new mayor got in.”

“You support that lunatic?”

I wasn’t sure if I did, but Hizzoner Eric Adams had made a promise to make the subways safer, and in my book, at least, he’d kept it.

From there the conversation degenerated, culminating in an exchange of views on a certain Republican presidential candidate.  Who knows what would have transpired if the bride and groom hadn’t been called upon to hit the boards for their first wedded dance.

And there we left it, after shaking hands graciously, but this chance clash of opinions got me thinking.

I occasionally take a taxi or an Uber, but like most New Yorkers I’m a subway rider.

Why?  Because they run frequently, 24/7, pretty much on time, are relatively inexpensive and safe. 

With a 0 .0001% chance of any violence being visited upon you, you’re more likely to get hit by a cyclist or car on the city’s streets.

That being said, there are certain rules to be followed, including always keep your eyes peeled – although you’re not in Columbus, OH where violent crime per capita is higher, there is always a need to be vigilant in New York.

Stand with your back to a wall, if possible, and do not approach the yellow border next to the tracks – the train won’t come any quicker because you lean over to check its progress.

Don’t stand in clumps - keep the walkway open. And above all, be courteous. New Yorkers value manners.

There are still some homeless people who ride the subways, although the numbers have greatly decreased. Respect them. There go you but for good fortune.

As always, New York is in flux, rents are high, the poor are finding it harder to get by, and there is great income disparity.

Still, for the most part, our citizenry coexists peacefully, it’s hard to find a more friendly city, and I’ve been way lonelier in many a small town.

The curse of the NYC subways - and the city in general - is the rise of ear-buds, earphones, and the like.

We live in a very violent country that boasts more guns than people.  And although shootings are down 26% in our city in the last year, you still should be aware of anyone approaching you from behind, and that’s unlikely with Taylor Swift massaging your eardrums.

Why anyone would want to program their own soundtrack is baffling anyway. There’s a rhythm and a beat to New York unique to the city. It’s why Bob Dylan, Henry Miller, Miles Davis, Edward Hopper, Joey Ramone, Walt Whitman, LL Cool J, and so many others lived and worked here.

None of them wore ear-buds above or below ground. They moved to the tempo of Gotham like millions of the rest of us. They watched, listened, and sidestepped to let their fellow citizens hurry past.

They avoided becoming part of that almost non-existent 0.001% that have been victimized on our streets or subways; of course, you’d never know this from watching, listening to or reading the sensationalist media outlets that exult in misfortune in order to sell advertisements or mold political views.

Brendan Behan hit the nail on the head with his observation that New York City “is a place where you’re least likely to be bitten by a wild goat.”

Should I ever run into my wedding acquaintance again I’ll mention this to him. Perhaps, he’ll come visit.

Wednesday 9 August 2023


 Maggie Higgins may have been the most consequential American woman. When it comes to the change she wrought, they don’t come much more important than Margaret Louise Higgins.

She was born in Corning, NY in 1879 to Irish immigrant parents. Her father, Michael Higgins, a free thinker and atheist, was a headstone maker who specialized in sculpting angels.

Maggie’s mother, Anne Purcell Higgins, married Michael in 1869. Both parents had an enormous influence on their daughter – Anne in particular, for in 22 years she conceived 18 times with 11 children surviving.

After a married life of almost constant pregnancy and near poverty, Anne passed away at the age of 49 from tuberculosis.

For some years after, Maggie tended to her brothers and sisters, and domestic duties in the Higgins household. But eventually she rebelled and set out to do her life’s work as a birth control activist. We know her now as Margaret Sanger.

She became a nurse probationer at White Plains Hospital. At that time, according to Maggie, doctors tended to keep business hours at hospitals, so during the night nurses were forced to make vital decisions about the health of their patients.

She specialized in obstetrics and gynecology. Women’s lack of knowledge of their own bodies due to church teaching and social convention astounded her.

Precocious and independent, her midwifery skills became well known and she was often asked by grateful patients how they could delay further pregnancies.

Doctors rarely gave such advice, for the Comstock Law of 1873 defined contraception as obscene and illicit; besides most Christian churches railed against it.

Maggie might have continued her nursing career to quiet and local acclaim, but two events set her on a different track. She contracted tuberculosis, the curse of the Higgins family, and she came to the attention of William Sanger, an aspiring architect and artist.

With her auburn hair and vivacious personality Maggie would remain attractive to men all her long life. Sanger was no exception and he fell head over heels in love with this young Irish nurse.

Jewish-Irish marriages were rare in those days but Maggie had long before rebelled against the dictates of the Catholic Church. The two settled in their dream house that Sanger designed and constructed in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Despite her tuberculosis Margaret Sanger had 3 children with her husband.

William Sanger was an active member of the Socialist Party and Margaret threw herself into political activity.

One cold winter’s night, a fire from an overheated stove burned down their home. Sanger rebuilt the house but Margaret’s suburban dream was over; she moved her family to an apartment in Manhattan and began socializing in Greenwich Village with such characters as Jack Reed, the subject of Reds, and Emma Goldman.

In a city jammed with immigrants she found much work as a visiting nurse on the Lower East Side and was horrified by the poverty, lack of any sex education, and the drastically high death rate among the newborn.

She became a member of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies) and along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn led the successful Bread & Roses campaign for a living wage and better conditions for the textile workers in Lawrence, MA.

But she never lost sight of the fact that working families could not prosper unless pregnancy could be regulated. She did not believe in abortion (except in a medical emergency).

In 1916 she and her sister, Ethel Byrne, opened the first family planning and birth control clinic in Brooklyn. When they were arrested Ethel went on hunger strike and became the first woman striker to be force fed in the US.

Due to the ongoing publicity and notoriety engendered by the case, Judge Frederick Crane in 1918 issued a ruling that allowed doctors to prescribe contraception.

Margaret Sanger overcame many obstacles in her life’s mission to make contraception available to all women, and in 1960 the FDA approved the sale of Enovid – the first hormonal birth control pill.

She died in 1966, a year after the US Supreme Court’s landmark decision to legalize birth control for married couples in the US.

On July 13th,2023 the FDA approved the first over-the-counter birth control pill that will allow all women and girls to buy contraceptives. Maggie Higgins’ impossible dream back in Corning is about to come true.