For 20 years now, commuters trudging down the pedestrian walkway between Port Authority and the Times Square subway station have been met with a series of lines of poetry that comprise what the New York Times has called "The World's Most Depressing Subway Poem." It's entitled "The Commuter's Lament" or "A Close Shave":
Why the pain?
Just go home,
Do it again.
The poem is the clever product of the late conceptual artist and poet Norman Colp. Colp wanted the poem to connect with the trials of the New York City commuter. And it does -- just not in any sort of life-affirming way.
Twenty-year-old Josh Botwinick, a Bronx college student, recently decided that he'd had enough of Colp's misery-inducing poem. He rewrote it with more positive lines like "Overexcited," "Energized," and "Much to gain," then he recruited his girlfriend, Margot Reinstein, to help him tape his revisions over Colp's original one night last week. "I was nervous someone would stop us," Botwinick said, "but it was worth it to make New York City a little bit of a happier place."
And it was. According to The Daily News, commuters were largely supportive of Botwinick's revisions. But when the paper contacted the poet's widow, Marsha Stern-Colp, she wasn't impressed. "Why be optimistic in these times?," she asked, "Be realistic -- life sucks. You get through it the best you can." Yikes.
An MTA official was similarly unmoved, calling the temporary edits to the $5,000 installation "a disrespectful thing to do." I'm not so sure. Colp intended for the poem to be a piece of conceptual art: it calls attention to the drudgery of the daily commute, and it does so in a place that's a pretty bleak part of the daily commute for many people. And Botwinick's act of turning the decades-old, pessimistic poem into an optimistic one is a significant artistic act in itself. Maybe Colp would have appreciated it.
We know that Colp wasn't thrilled with how his poem was being displayed. Just five years ago, he wrote a letter to the MTA complaining that his poem was incomplete. He reminded the MTA that he'd intended the poem to be an homage to a once-popular Burma Shave ad campaign that posted sequential pieces of witty poems on roadside signs, so he didn't like that they'd removed labels that made reference to the poem's alternate title, "A Close Shave." This Burma Shave connection gave the poem a nuance of meaning that's been lost over the years, which is too bad, since it makes the poem feel considerably more lighthearted... even though it evokes razor blades.
The MTA "repaired" Colp's poem shortly after The Daily News brought Botwinick's changes to their attention, ensuring that commuters wouldn't miss their daily dose of depression. And if you aren't commuting to Port Authority today, don't despair. Thanks to YouTube, you can take a virtual trip down its underground pedestrian walkway anytime and... well... despair.
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