The Tour Guide

One highlight of the New York subway is the unique experiences afforded to its passengers who expect nothing more than an uneventful ride to another side of town. New Yorkers rarely pass up a chance to express their beliefs and desires, and the subway is just one more outlet for these voices. Voices in the form of artwork in the subway station, the elevator at 190th Street where people taped pictures of their pets to the walls (since deemed a fire hazard), or, one of my favorites, the train conductors themselves.

Sadly, the new subway cars operating on the 2, 4, 5, and 6 lines are equipped with the pre-recorded male and female automatons, but most of the trains still rely on the conductor to make announcements. I've always felt the subway conductor contributes to the culture of New York in the variety of voices, accents, and moods shared with the millions of daily riders.

I've heard black voices, white voices, Italians, hispanic and, of course, New York accents. I've heard people chastised for not getting on the train quickly enough. But, on the 1 train, I often hear the tour guide.

I hear him along my commute from 157th Street to 79th Street. Along the way he never misses announcing Columbia University at 116th Street or City College at 137th Street. However, I would soon come to learn that our tour guide's knowledge of New York history is sketchy. For example, he always announces 145th Street and Broadway as Sugar Hill. Sugar Hill is located between 145th and 155th Street along Edgecombe Avenue, overlooking Coogan's Bluff, which is occupied by Jackie Robinson Park. The name Sugar Hill became popular from the 1920s to the 1950s, when many famous blacks, including Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall, and Langston Hughes, lived along this street.

While Edgecombe does intersect 145th Street, it does so four blocks east of Broadway. Had I heard this on the A or C train, I might forgive him for this, but there is something more egregious that takes place at the 125th Street station. Without fail, he says, 125th Street, home of the legendary Cotton Club in the village of Harlem.

I've got no problem with the village of Harlem, but the legendary Cotton Club is long gone. The Cotton Club opened in 1922 on Lenox Avenue at 142nd Street. It was the most famous of the city's nightclubs in the 1920s and 1930s and included performances by the most prominent jazz musicians of that time. The house orchestra was led by Duke Ellington from 1927 until 1931, when Cab Calloway took over. In 1936, the club moved to 200 West 48th Street and lasted until 1940.

The existing Cotton Club is but a mere shack in a seedy part of town. Beneath the elevated train where 125th Street crosses 129th and 130th Streets sits an oddly shaped building on a triangular traffic island. More of a tourist trap now, its owners hope to capitalize on the legendary name to bring people to their establishment.

Each time I hear this subway conductor, I can only imagine he's being paid to plug this place. Someday I will ride the entire line with him to see what else he plugs...