In 1991, a poem commissioned by the Arts for Transit program was installed in a corridor connecting Port Authority and the IND 8th Ave line to the rest of the Times Square subway station. It is depressing as hell, but also kind of perfect. Maybe you never noticed it because you were too engulfed in your own sweaty rage as the seemingly endless urine-scented tunnel stretched out before you? Next time, look up, and enjoy Norman B. Colp’s “A Commuter’s Lament, or A Close Shave,” which at the very least will make you feel seen. Too listless to read along? Here, we had actor Justin Kirk do it for you:
The poem is a nod to the Burma-Shave ads that were put up all over U.S. roadsides in the 1920s. They were taken down in the ’50s, but some recreations still exist—most notably along Route 66.
While the subway installation was meant to be temporary, it is now in the MTA’s permanent collection. It reads, quickly and painfully:
Why the pain?
Just go home.
Do it again.
The final sign has no words, just an image of an unmade bed.
“Two smiling college students with their whole lives ahead of them” tried to make the installation more optimistic once, but that didn’t last long. As is, it really is a perfect punch, straight to the soul, of that dry New York wit and realness. And Norman B. Colp knew it. And he knew his audience. “I wanted to address the working public,” the late artist told the NY Times in the ’90s.
The director of Arts in Transit at the time, Sandra Bloodworth, added that New Yorkers think it’s “great,” however, “every once in a while, somebody’s having too bad a day to find it humorous.” And maybe that happens more often now, as we constantly deal with and navigate around a severely malfunctioning transit system.