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. Immediately, I stepped off the train, found him, and asked if he was the guy. Vasquez flashed a mischievous smile and said, “Maybe.” Then I got back on and heard a more definitive response over the PA: “Yes, I am the Batman.”
* * *
Though it’s pretty rare for conductors to take such expressive license, every once in a while an adventurous talker like Vasquez comes along. Not long ago, a conductor on the No. 7 train was reported to have gone out on such a limb, greeting passengers in six languages. The most famous has got to be Harry Nugent, who was also a conductor on the No. 1 line a few decades ago.
“I wanted entering a station to become an event to announce, like an emcee introducing an act,” Nugent explained in a 1990 Channel 13 profile of him. When he retired three years later, at sixty-four, the New York Times lamented his departure, calling him “a merciless punster and master of metaphor” who “transformed his No. 1 Broadway local into a subterranean Circle Line, his colorful announcements transcending the name of a station stop to give something of the flavor of New York.”
“You say you like canals but you don’t like water,” Nugent announced in the Channel 13 video. “Well, this is the stop for you. No water here. This canal has a street in it.”
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? And besides, the great Harry Nugent himself made such unauthorized announcements to great effect for years and was celebrated for it.
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.”
The second 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.
* * *
Standing in his blue uniform outside Dunkin’ Donuts next to the 242nd Street stop twenty minutes later, with a Yankees cap covering his shaved pate, Vasquez was having a smoke and sipping coffee during his twenty-minute break.
He has always lived in Washington Heights, within the large Dominican community. For a time, he majored in English at City College, but that got put on an indefinite hiatus when he took the conductor job two years ago. Now he’s considering taking the test to become a train operator, a position that requires at least six months of training. (Conductors, stationed in the sixth car, manage the doors, announcements and the flow of passengers; operators do the driving up front.)
He described himself as “shy,” which is not what you’d expect from an obvious ham who can’t resist the power of a live mic—though the speakers that broadcast his disembodied voice do distance him from the audience, making the whole thing a bit mysterious.
“There’s a veil of secrecy,” he said. “Like Batman.”
After I met him that first time, I kept in touch and decided to ride his train during evening rush hour from 79th Street down to South Ferry and then back up seventeen miles, to 242nd Street/Van Cortlandt Park.
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.”
I still wondered, though, how his superiors might feel about this. I e-mailed the MTA to inquire about conductors who go off-script, and a reply swiftly came from a “staff analyst” who thanked me for my interest in the transit system and explained that lots of training goes into the delivery of those announcements.
“The training includes a thorough review and practical application of our guidelines for communicating service information to customers,” he wrote, “and supervision regularly monitors announcements for timeliness, appropriateness, content, and clarity.” He continued: “Employees who fail to comply with our guidelines are subject to corrective action,” and concluded with a request that I report such an infraction if I ever happen to come across it.
I didn’t oblige, and of the multitude of passengers who have heard him over the past eight months, it appears no one has filed a formal complaint. Meanwhile, Vasquez hopes this catches on among other conductors. Though as more automatic announcements with robotic inflections crop up, like on the Q, E and No. 2 lines, the days of a live voice with a New York accent telling you to stand clear of the closing doors could be numbered.
Asked what he’ll do if he’s told to cut it out, Vasquez considered this for a moment. And then, with an impish look in his eye, said, “Like Batman, I’ll go underground for a while. And then I’ll emerge again.”
* * *
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.