Subway Series #1:
Conversation on the Blue Line

by Steven Hill

I was catching the 6:27 to work for the 183rd time this year. As usual, bleary-eyed and half asleep, I stumbled to my favorite seat, which is most always vacant at that hour. Another twenty minutes and the car would be full, but at 6:27 all the regulars get our seats. Usually by the time the train hits 134th Street its rhythmic sway has gently rocked me back to a snooze. I look forward to those few precious moments; they're a welcome respite before the doors snap open and the daily Manhattan rat race begins.

So no wonder lately I've been annoyed by the chatter of a couple of loud mouths disturbing my subway slumber. Arguing, arguing, all they do is argue. They're both opinionated sorts of guys, and think everybody in the world's entitled to their opinion. Too much, especially at this hour.

Like yesterday morning. They're rattling on and on about some innane notion, couldn't help but overhear 'em whether I wanted to or not.

"Listen here Madison," says one. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."

"Nonsense Jefferson," bawls the other. "Each individual is blessed or cursed, depending on their unequal abilities of acquiring property."

"See here Madison, it says right here," cavils the one called Jefferson. He's madly waving aloft some treatise the thickness of the Brooklyn telephone directory -- at 6:31 in the morning, mind you -- about locks or by Locke or something like that. I can' t quite make out what.

"Men being by nature all free, equal, and independent..." He points to the sacred passage with his finger like it's Scripture. "You see? It says right here -- free and equal!"

Hoo boy, I think to myself. Here we go. They won't settle this one, not for centuries.

Madison shakes his head. He's a short fellow with ruddy cheeks. You know the type -- a first class know-it-all. He probably bets on goldfish races and Soapbox Derbies, and debates endlessly whether the '54 Giants were better than the '27 Yanks or the '73 Knicks. Whatever.

"There, there Jefferson, it's as plain as the King's powdered wig, isn't it? As a result of our unequal abilities of acquiring property, some people end up with more and some end up with less. Inequality is the natural order of things, that's how the Creator made us, I'm afraid."

So, I thought? Is that it? Madison said it with such lofty conviction, like this was some sort of major revelation or something. Heaven spare us, it's 6:35 in the morning!

Jefferson was similarly unimpressed, and scoffed at the notion; he was quite a bit taller than Madison with red hair all aflame. He puffed up his chest as if stature alone might win the argument.

"Equal!" he barked.

"Not!" countered Madison.

Back and forth, back and forth. Awright awready! Which is it boys, which of you are we to believe? Either we are created equal or we're not, you can't have it both ways! I covered my face with my hat and tried to ignore them, praying they would settle the question later. Instead, they growled louder, rising above the grind of the train wheels.

About 112th Street, Madison decides to up the ante. He shouts out to anyone within earshot.

"How many here think that all men are created equal?"

It's 6:39 in the morning, mind you! Glazed eyes snap awake long enough to glare menacingly at this lilliputian madman.

"What about women?" yawns a woman near the back of the car. Madison ignores her.

"You see there?" he taunts Jefferson. "No one agrees with you! Those who are with and without property -- resulting from our unequal abilities -- form an insurmountable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. And the protection of property is the first object of government."

Ah hah, I think to myself. I get it now. This Madison's one of those anti-tax, anti-big government, property rights fanatics. Perhaps a Libertarian, maybe even a Branch Davidian. Now that he's got his, he wants to protect it. Hold the world at bay with a semi-automatic arsenal. Probably a member of the NRA besides. Oh, the nerve of some people. And at 6:42 in the morning!

Jefferson just stands there, kind of hanging his head.

Come on man, defend yourself! thinks the idealist in me. But Jefferson sees that his 'All men are created equal' line isn't going to sell, at least not this early in the a.m. If his maxim were true, how come we're all stuck here bouncing in this subway together at this ungodly hour, like sardines in a can, while our bosses are chauffeured to work late, or worse yet call the shots from their posh homes in Greenwich or Mt. Kisco? All men are created equal -- yeah right. If only these two would shut up equally, like the rest of us!

Jefferson scratched his head, trying to think of a good comeback. Mercifully for the rest of us, he couldn't. But did that satisfy Madison? Not a whit!

"The causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man," smirked Madison. "The unequal nature of man." His air of pomposity made my teeth grind.

I felt like shouting at him, 'Not very distant, are we Madison, from the Law of the Jungle? Not as removed or evolved as we like to believe about ourselves? Welcome to Western Civilization, and its over-rated democracy and free market economy. Where if you don't measure up, they'll tell you it's because of you're 'unequal abilities' of acquiring property. Welcome to Life in the Foodchain!'

6:50, it was almost my stop, and that Madison had really got me worked up.

"Welcome to the goddam red-eye express, delivering me to another day in the rat race," I muttered, loud enough to get a double-take from my seat mate. I tried to explain to her. "The authorities should be more careful about who they allow on the subway." I gestured over my shoulder toward Madison and Jefferson.

She nodded and smiled back. It was a strategic response. Most New Yorkers know better than to disagree with a perfect stranger, especially one that is mumbling to himself. No telling who's packing what these days.

Darting off the subway, cross and cursing, I promised myself that from now on I would bring ear plugs. Unfortunately a question was gnawing in my brain that was to nag me all day long. "Are we equals or not?" The question begged an answer. We can't have it both ways.

One other disembarking passenger, noticing my extreme consternation, whispered consolingly in my ear.

"It's true, we are all equal -- but some are more equal than others!"

And then he vanished with a grin into the rush hour crush of bodies. I found out later his name was Orwell.

Private Property and Democracy Free Speech and Democracy Representation and Democracy Gender, Competition and Democracy About The Author