Caught in a Cage

“I see colors.and I say to myself: It’s a wonderful world.”

The late Louis Armstrong sung this song to millions who wanted to glimpse rainbows. But orange is the color of surprise or sunrise. Construction workers wear it to be visible in darkness or light. Hunters were it to avoid being taken for deer. Buddhist priests wear it as a continual prayer.

The artist Christo choose to use orange to cover arches with curtains that we could walk through in Central Park-at a cost of 21 million dollars. The arches and curtains are gone now. He choose to call these banners that billowed like sails at times The Gates.

But underneath the meadows and rat-attacked sewers of New York City are gates that threaten us all.

He looks distinguished. Grey-white hair, a tan camel hair topcoat covers his broad shoulders. He has Roman features, perhaps a descendant of Julius Caesar.

We began talking on the subway platform when the instructions for boarding and un-boarding the E train were confused during one of the incessant repair schedule rerouting that “improve our service.”

The stranger in the camelhair coat and I exchanged conjectures about what train one should take to get to and from our respective stops. After two minutes, the stranger’s Caesar-like features crumbled into a fearful, vulnerable mask. He gasped, covered his mouth, then spoke.

“I was caught in these damn turnstiles at Steinway two days ago.”

“What happened, a mechanical problem?”

“No a chick put her foot in the turnstile and when I told her to move her foot, she said my foot is stuck. Then some dude, I think it was her boyfriend came up, and pulled a gun and robbed me. I couldn’t move. I saw my whole life pass in front of me.”

For those reading this who are unfamiliar with one of the newer innovations of the New York Transit Authority, explanation may be due that the turnstiles in the station the man referred to are not the wooden, waist high variety that one could jump over if presented with danger. They are a series of metal, curved, horizontal bars arrayed in a seven-foot tall circular device that turns and rotates one’s body into the station. When one swipes a Metrocard through the slot and is granted entrance, the series of bars is allowed to turn enough to pass his or her precious body into the station.

But the geniuses that designed the metal circles on a pole were not aware, hopefully, that they had designed a virtual cage. A trap in which a predator can hold an innocent victim immobile sine the bar can only rotate in one direction. Yet the bars are sufficiently spaced to allow the prisoner to hand his valuables to a robber holding a gun. A few months ago the Transit Authority began implementing plans to shut down 177 token booths and replace them with the high entrance/exit turnstiles, which trapped my new acquaintance. At a hearing for public response to the token booth closings Gene Russianoff, staff attorney with the Straphangers Campaign, a riders’ advocacy group that has been working to preserve the booths said, “The subways are a service industry and there’s a combination of both safety and convenience that a station agent serves that cannot be duplicated by a vending machine.”

A week later, the police were delayed from reaching a crime scene in a Chelsea subway station because the station booth was staffed; the cops had to implore civilians to use their MetroCards to permit New York’s Finest to attend to victims of a shooting.

Hence the comparison with Christo’s Gates. The artist utilized wit and ingenuity to get the project approved; he and his engineer designed metal bases to mount the gates, eliminating the need to dig holes in the park. He hired more than 1,400 employees to monitor the gates day and night.

Writer Peter Schjeldahl noted in the New Yorker on February 28 that Christo has his game plan down to a science in getting his grandiose projects approved. “They propose a grandiose, entirely pointless alteration of a public space, the advance their plan in the face of a predictable and bureaucratic resistance, which gradually comes to seem mean-spirited and foolish for want of a reasonable argument against them. They build a constituency of supporters, including collectors who help finance the project by buying Christo’s drawings and collages of it.”

It seems that the Christo paradigm holds much promise for fundraising for those of us who wish to be avoid being caught in a cage underground. Perhaps we can sell sculptures of people caught in a turnstile cage with a action figure of a gunman laughing at them. The jury is out on whether the backdrop cloth of the art work should be the orange of warning or the red of crime.

FREDERICK B. HUDSON is a columnist for A Good Black Man. He can be reached at: