Inside the cramped and crazed subways of New York, a colorful conductor on the 1 train brightens commutes with off-script announcements.
by Daniel Krieger
Riding the subway in New York City, there’s not a whole lot to smile about. Delays, filth, passengers who block the door or take up multiple seats or eat fried chicken—there’s always something to rankle you. And if you’re already having a rotten day (or week or life), everything seems to take on an even bleaker hue under that dim fluorescent lighting, as you’re hemmed in by humans not of your choosing. This condition is what inspired Victor Vasquez, a conductor on the No. 1 Broadway local, to start veering off-script last summer when making routine announcements.
“A lot of people who get on the train have a semi-depressed look on their face,” Vasquez says. “Standing under someone’s armpit, you just want to get home.”
Vasquez, who is twenty-seven, bearded and a tad heavyset, wanted to make straphangers smile with the hope that they might even pay it forward, which is the gist of one of his public service messages from his own repertoire: “Your smile might make a difference in someone else’s day. Little things count.”
Whether he’s urging good behavior—“Be nice to each other as you go down the steps”—sharing his thoughts about the weather—“Nice breeze we have tonight. Autumn finally decided to arrive”—or just pointing out your location—“Change of scenery; Harlem, everyone”—Vasquez’s casual remarks do seem to lighten the mood, as if he were joining you for the ride.
True, he’s subverting the institutional tone of those humdrum announcements that passengers mostly tune out.
But he discovered that when he throws in a little friendly commentary, some ears perk right up, like mine the first time I heard him while riding downtown.
Vasquez pointed out there’s also a practical side to what he does. “It’s so you pay attention in case I need to tell you something of importance,” he said. “When you stick to the script, no one pays attention anyway.” That there is a rule prohibiting unauthorized announcements doesn’t really faze him. And with all the positive feedback he’s gotten from riders who have thanked him for a memorable ride, that seems reasonable enough. What’s not to like, anyway?
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I counted about 100 passengers in a moderately crowded subway car, so within ten cars you can get an audience roughly the size of what an average Broadway theater could hold, albeit with a constant turnover. As passengers stream off, he sometimes scans their faces to try to gauge reactions to his material. Certain lines always turn up, like at 59th Street, when he says, “Transfer to the first four letters of the alphabet” (the A, B, C, and D trains stop there). Others he does on-the-fly. On this particular day, Halloween was a recurring topic.
“Do you have a costume yet? Don’t pretend I’m the only one,” he said, getting a few laughs. A young couple sitting across from me was listening closely to see what he’d say next. “It’s refreshing,” said Sarah Charles, twenty-two, who had moved here from Baltimore six months earlier to pursue acting. “It’s nice when someone lightens things up.”
Her companion, fellow thespian Michael Kushner, also twenty-two, who had moved to Washington Heights from Long Island two days before, laughed when the train came to a stop in the tunnel and Vasquez said, “We’re not going slow on purpose. Trains have traffic, too.”
“It’s like a theatrical event,” Kushner said. “I’d be doing that if I were in his position.”
Sitting nearby, Mondo Morales, a thirty-two-year-old art director who was also Washington Heights bound, chuckled while playing a game on a tablet. “He’s fucking hilarious,” he said when asked what he made of the conductor’s chattiness. “We need more of this, especially after a long day. It creates a real New York community vibe. He connects people. We’re all getting the humor of it.”
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Riding on Vasquez’s No. 1 train on a chilly evening in late October, I monitored how passengers reacted to him. Some seemed oblivious, engrossed in their devices or lost in thought.
Others were clearly amused, like Ryan Park-Chan, a seventeen-year-old high school student whose smile was still lingering when I approached him. “It’s really cute,” he said of Vasquez’s unorthodox announcement style. “I like it. It’ll make someone’s day better.”
Another time I rode Vasquez’s train was right after the iPad Air was unveiled. Near the Apple store on Broadway, in his signature dry delivery, he said, “66th Street. Reserve your new iPad today.”
Explaining the appeal of this, Ami Aquino, a thirty-one-year-old patient advisor at a hospital who laughed at a few of Vasquez’s remarks, said, “It makes the ride more enjoyable. It’s unexpected. You’re like, ‘What?’”
Later, as the train came out of the tunnel at 125th Street, Vasquez said, “Look at that view across the Hudson. It’s so scenic.”
Several passengers turned their heads westward.
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Read more about Victor Vazquez at narrative.ly
Daniel Krieger, a contributing editor at Narratively, is a freelance journalist in New York. He contributes to The New York Times and his work has also appeared in Fast Company, Wired, Slate, Salon, and New York magazine.
Oresti Tsonopoulos is a multimedia storyteller who lives in Brooklyn, New York. His videos for The New York Times have been featured on JetBlue flights and his musician-centric pieces for NBC New York have been featured in taxi cabs across NYC.
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