Monday July 26th, 2010

Improbable Lives


Subways Are for Sleeping by Edmund G. Love
1957 (Harcourt, Brace), 190 pp., Currently out of print

You might not think homelessness would make the most promising subject for a Broadway musical. You would be right. Reviewing Subways Are for Sleeping in the New York Times on December 28, 1961, Howard Taubman didn’t mince words:

The new musical, which arrived last night at the St. James Theatre, stumbles as if suffering from somnambulism. Its book is dull and vapid, and its characters barely breathe. Occasionally it gives off a burst of energy, like a great man struggling to stay awake, but the effort is not sustained. Someone must have slipped it barbiturates instead of Benzedrine.

But the source for the musical, a book of the same name by Edmund G. Love, is a treat in the vein of Joseph Mitchell or Damon Runyon, if not quite up to those timeless standards. Each of the book’s 10 chapters focuses on a different person imaginatively (and barely) making ends meet in 1950s New York. The title story, about Henry Shelby, a 41-year-old with a master’s degree in economics who has become “one of the thousands of men in various stages of vagrancy who wander the streets of New York City at all hours of the day and night,” first ran in the March 1956 issue of Harper’s. [You can read the piece in its entirety at the Harper’s site, and listen to a winningly dated CBS radio adaptation of the story here.] Committed to never being in possession of less than fifteen cents, the cost of a subway ride at the time, Shelby is “not a hopeless man, but he is certainly bewildered.”

Love’s subjects are down on their luck, but there is very little about them—at least in Love’s telling—to pity. Several of them are living the way they are by choice. In slamming the musical in the Times, Taubman seemed less inherently offended by the subject matter than disappointed that it wasn’t handled with more snap. There is snap in the book, and whatever offense might be taken in creating lively pieces from the lives of the less fortunate is headed off in the introduction, where Love admits that he himself drifted on the margins of society for a time, and that he considers everyone profiled in the book a friend: “I say all this because I want it understood that I did not drop into this world of which I write simply to study it. I was there because I couldn’t seem to escape it.”

Because he feels affection for his subjects, Love is eager to differentiate them from true “bums,” a word used liberally throughout the book by the author and others:

They are people of ingenuity who do not conform to the patterns of life which “sound” people prescribe. . . . I have found them in cities other than New York, but in no other city except New York have I found the same ingenuity. New York attracts the most talented people in the world in the arts and professions. It also attracts them in other fields. Even the bums are talented.

But these people I write about are not really bums. The big difference between them and the real, down-and-out bum could be called a matter of hope. I recognize in them something of what I felt myself. Most of them are in a state of reassessment. . . . These people are like the man who takes a short cut, gets lost, and then explores the countryside, forgetting completely why he took the short cut in the first place. All of them have built their improbable lives to furnish temporary security until they can achieve their goals. As time has passed, they have become attached to their way of life. It gives them real security. They become afraid to leave something they are sure of. To them there is more security in a home on a fire escape or in a job washing windows than there is in a furnished apartment or a regular job. An apartment might burn down. A man with a regular job might get laid off.

It’s harder to imagine the scrappy lifestyles of Subways Are for Sleeping—sleeping on fire escapes, trains, and in the apartments of friends, occasionally staying in a cheap hotel to shave and shower—on the fringes of the outer boroughs these days, much less in Manhattan. In 2010, slumping economy or not, people feel “lucky” to be renting 1,200-square-foot lofts across the bridge from Manhattan for $2,500 a month. Anyone attempting some of these schemes now would be living an even more dire existence, if living at all. One could undoubtedly write another book (or series of them) today about the city’s regulars, but the fact that many characters must be priced out of the new New York is one of the poignant elements of Love’s book.

On the more entertaining end of things—the end that might have tempted the musical producers—are characters like Mitts Flanagan. That’s a pseudonym for a man who lives a respectable life in Boston but visits New York when he feels the approach of one of his epic drinking binges. Flanagan is not a vagrant so much as a grown-up version of Rushmore’s Max Fischer, impulsively embracing whatever adventure or possible chance for self-improvement occurs to him: he takes piano lessons, enthusiastically jumps into stick ball games played by young kids, and convinces himself that he can win a major golf tournament despite not having played since college (which experience might be a lie):

One night, after exhausting the supply of practice driving ranges, Mitts retired to an Eleventh Avenue bar where he began lamenting the lack of further practice facilities. One of his friends who was in a slightly more inebriated condition than he was, suggested that Flanagan step outside and take a look at Eleventh Avenue. It was then three o’clock in the morning, and the traffic was almost non-existent. It seemed like an entirely reasonable place to drive golf balls and that is exactly what Mitts did, standing calmly, almost majestically, at the corner of 59th Street by the IRT power station, and teeing off in the general direction of the Lincoln Tunnel.

The chapter ends with a memorable scene in which Flanagan fulfills his very recently contracted dream of operating a building’s elevator: He’s doing it secretly, in the middle of the night, having enlisted 24 patrons of various bars to “play” the building’s residents while he works the levers.

Flanagan’s exploits, on his visits from Boston, have to do with himself and his goals, but the full-time New Yorkers are usually more outer-directed, dealing with fellow citizens, patrolling city blocks for one social purpose or another. Ernie Clay spends most of his time in Union Square, where people refer to him as a “defensive lecturer . . . ready to protect the citizens against the bombardments of the invaders with soap boxes.” He often strolls down to the parks in Greenwich Village, whose artist-residents he considers pretentious. (“I’ve never seen so many people who know so much,” [Ernie] has said. “I decided to puncture the whole damned lot of them all at once.”)

Ernie knocked people down a few pegs, but a character named Father Dutch wanted to lift them up. A former Jesuit priest, he devoted himself, from his own homeless position, to helping alcoholics with no place to go. He was nicknamed the Body Snatcher, because he would find safe harbor for lingering drunks (often literally dragging them to it) before they could be taken away by police. The final scene of Dutch’s chapter—and of his life’s work—is the book’s saddest moment, with a sober power that can’t be undone by Love’s breeziness.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Mentioned in this review:

Subways Are for Sleeping