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One day on the subway

April 14, 2023

Ever been in a situation where everyone thinks you’re a sleaze, but you know you’re not? Let me tell you what happened to me on a New York City subway.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

It was the last day of fall term at the Manhattan School of Music, on the Upper West Side. I had to take three final exams, then jump on the IRT downtown to Times Square and transfer to Grand Central Station and get on a train to Chicago for Christmas.

I got up early (for a jazz musician), slurped down a double espresso in the kitchen and hustled up Claremont Avenue to take my sight-singing final. That done, I scuttled back down Claremont to my dingy apartment on Tiemann Place, gulped another double espresso, and hiked back up Claremont to take my final in musical dictation.

Back again to Tiemann Place, one more espresso, and back again for my piano practicum: Sebastian Bach’s Prelude in C Minor from the "Well-Tempered Klavier." Nailed it. My fingers can still play that one in my sleep.

Back home: Grab the tenor sax, lock the door twice, climb the stairs to the 125th Street stop on Broadway, and away we go downtown. 

Bear in mind that I had not had so much as a smackerel to eat. Just five cups of espresso.

You could smoke on the subways back then. (OK, if you insist, it was 1974.) It was a warm December day, and as the train dove underground, somewhere north of 96th Street, that subway car got hot. And it was jammed with people smoking cigarettes, trying to get somewhere in a hurry. I grabbed a seat on the aisle, keeping a wary hand on my Selmer Mark VI.

Get the picture? It was hot, smoky and sweaty, and crammed full of New Yorkers — and those five cups of espresso were backing up in my guts. I felt a bit nauseous — then nauseated — then really bad — then those five cups of espresso attacked me, with malice prepense.

Mind y’all: I was wearing (I admit it) bellbottom jeans. And a shirt of many colors. And (forgive me, father, for I have sinned) platform shoes. Brown. (What did I know?)

So, people eyed me suspiciously as I tottered to my aisle seat and then swayed there uneasily. In my bellbottoms and ridiculous shoes, with a saxophone.

OK, I admit it: I looked ridiculous. I was sweating and turning white. OK, white-er. Then all at once my stomach sent an urgent message to my brain: We’ve got to get rid of that espresso. 

I leapt from my seat and sprinted down the aisle, leaving my saxophone behind, slid the car door open and, just in time, vomited most of that espresso onto the train tracks. 

Which, I swear to god, was the best thing I could have done at the time.

This done, I reentered the car, and, surely with a bit of a smile on my pale white sweaty face, staggered back to my saxophone, which no one had stolen, yet, and sat back down.

Then, as Arlo Guthrie said, “Everyone moved away from me on the benches there.”

No, really. People got up from their seats on the subway to stand rather than sit — just to get away from me. And I knew what they were thinking. Well, wouldn’t you?  Sweating … pale face … puking … relief after vomiting … the saxophone and the g.d. bellbottoms? They thought I was a junkie.

But, hey, it was better than it coulda been: At least my fellow subway riders left me alone while they loathed me. Man, those 60 people (five juries) would have convicted me of anything then.

But I was not a junkie! I was getting a master’s degree in performance from the Manhattan School of Music! Studying with Joe Allard! I was — excuse me — un artiste! So why did they look at me that way?

I know, I know. And so do you. Never mind. I know why they did it. So would I have, if I were them, which I ain’t, and praise god for small favors. 

(Courthouse News columnist Robert Kahn retired from the jazz world because of its well-known prejudice against people with no talent.)

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