, ,

I wonder what the penalty is for defacing a New York City subway car. I see they have a code of conduct printed and posted in various cars, but it just says what not to do – not what will happen if you do… and get caught. I saw a YouTube video of a young graphic design student so bothered by a certain Manhattan doctor’s horrible ads for clear skin she had re-designed them and was sticking her much better version of his ad over the old ones – and nothing seemed to happen to her… In addition to the code of conduct, the New York Transit Authority also has poetry printed and posted in various cars, and I really want that poem. Not just a copy of it, the whole 2 foot by 2 foot poster board print with red lettering on a white background and a big heavy red scaffolding up the side. The program is called Poetry in Motion, and technically my tax dollars go to pay for it, so it is sort of part mine in a way, or at least that’s what I envision explaining to the police. Plus, it would be a gift so stealing it would actually be a generous act of kindness.


Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done,
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be,
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall.
Confident that we have built our wall.

-Seamus Heaney

I alway get excited when I get on the train and realize I’m near the poetry – it’s like finding a little gem. It’s not in every car, and then you have to be in the right part of the car that does have it. This poem, the other morning, just slayed me. Maybe because it is so simple, maybe because I had no idea what it was going to be about, or that the totality of all the conflicting and messy parts of a relationship – loving, fighting, building, breaking – could be summed up in four unexpected lines. It haunted me the rest of the day as I walked around the city – underneath many scaffoldings and past solid brick walls. I kept thinking of scaffoldings I had walked under in Hong Kong made of laced together bamboo poles that seemed to bounce and bow as the sure-footed workers walked on them – behind which were glass-clad skyscrapers that would shoot laser lights from their rooftops at night.

Convened around a dinner table later that night laughing and exchanging stories with new friends, the haunting poem appeared again. One couple had just celebrated their 28th anniversary, and over wine and dessert began to share their anniversary story. They had decided to forgo presents as they had had a “hell of year,” and have just a simple nice dinner out. The wife had prepared a card, and all she said was, “I was on the subway….” and I blurt out – “that poem!” She had copied Scoffolding into her card as a gift for her husband. When he opened the card and read the poem, his reaction was not expected – he wanted to know where she got that poem, why she gave it to him? He had also copied that poem into a card for her after seeing it on the subway, and was convinced she somehow knew until she convinced him it was poetic coincidence. They had both found a gem.

I’ve been looking for that poem all week, yes, to steal, for them. But all I keep seeing are empty two foot by two foot frames where the poetry should be. It seems many New Yorkers are also slayed by the simple complexities of love – being weak and being strong – being vulnerable yet solid – being laced together by the messy handiwork of love, which in the end is the foundation from which we move and flow around the city.

Here is a link to the Nobel Prize Winner reading this poem on his 70th birthday. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNYBwF7lKLA

Helped with stroller on stairs downtown: older man, jeans, red t-shirt, grey hair and crooked teeth. He was very strong despite his age and managed his side of the stroller with one hand. He asked how old Cub was and pinched her cheek at the bottom of the stairs before wishing us a good day.

Tip of the day: Poetry in Motion is often at the end of the train car, on the short wall near the handicap seating. Look for it like it’s a treasure.