The subway station at 53rd Street and Fifth Avenue is among the most heavily trafficked and congested places in New York. Watching people elbow each other for position on the platform during rush hour is like watching two NBA centers do battle in the paint. It’s hot, the air is thick, and you can tell by scanning the crowd that most people waiting for the subway here would rather be just about anywhere else. So when one hears the rich booming baritone making pronouncements like, "WHITE WOMEN GET IN YELLOW CARS DRIVEN BY BLACK MEN," it’s almost dream-like, a voice from the collective unconscious of the rush hour crowd.
In fact, the speaker is Carl Robinson, an enigmatic homeless man who for the past twelve years has spent his days at this station — usually on the downtown platform — making statements that one MTA track worker, Frank O’Conner, described as "Zenlike. Some people think he’s a crackpot, and other people think he’s funny as hell."
Robinson, a black man with maybe a trace of Asian Indian mixed in, has a round, inviting face, and a devilish grin that suggests he’s in on a joke the rest of us are not privy to.
When asked about his ethnic background, he said, "When in Eurocentric areas, you always say white. ‘Cause if you’re not white, you’re not right."
He was equally evasive about revealing his age, his past, or why he comes to this spot everyday and says the things he does. Another homeless man, Mark Davis, said Robinson used to sell costume jewelry on the street by the Lexington Avenue station, until the cops busted him and took away his merchandise for operating without a license.
"He wasn’t the same after that," said Davis.
Late last summer, during a pre-9/11 news drought, a captive audience listened to Robinson on the platform. Some people shook their heads in disbelief, some nodded sympathetically, some tried to ignore him. But mainly they laughed. A family of Japanese tourists, whose grasp of English didn’t appear to be strong, looked understandably puzzled by what he said, but videotaped him nonetheless. One passerby handed him a dollar bill, which he hadn’t solicited but accepted.
"You can’t refuse money," he said, "because when people offer you something, they’re really offering themselves. Reject them, and you’ve made an enemy where there was a friend."
He sat against a wall facing the tracks, adjacent to a long flight of stairs and a set of escalators. He scanned some headlines on copies of the Post, the Daily News, and the Times lent to him by a nearby newsstand vendor. He scans newspapers rather than read them because he claims that reading them can infect your brain with "bogus propaganda." An article about Abner Louima’s financial settlement with the Police Department interested him.
"POLICE ARE YOUR FRIENDS!" he bellowed. "FRIENDS FIGHT AND KILL EACH OTHER ALL THE TIME." Then: "JOIN US AND KILL PEOPLE! RECRUITMENT DAY. SPONSORED BY POLICE HEADQUARTERS. FRIENDLY FIRE IN THE COMMUNITY."
"Brother-man, telling it like it is!" a man said as he walked by.
It might have been the power of Robinson’s oratory, more than the substance of his message, that inspired the passerby. Some commuters were clearly annoyed by him. One imagines, however, that many are angered by the same issues that obsess Robinson, and would enjoy sounding off as freely as he does. Yet they don’t say a word, and and ride home without the friction the having to articulate their feelings.
An E train entered the station and the crowd dispersed. A pay phone rang; Robinson uses it as his home number. It was a friend of his, a Columbia student seeking relationship advice. "Women," he counseled, "I gave ‘em up a long time ago." He concentrated on an ad in the paper about domestic violence, and milled around for a while, forming his next rant.
"I HAVE TO GET ON THAT TRAIN," he exclaimed as an F pulled into the station and the crowd pushed its way inside. "I NEED TO GET HOME. FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE." He repeated this a second time, and punctuated it with a diabolical laugh.
A few minutes later, another train arrived. Just before its doors closed, he thrust his head inside and announced: "CROWDED TRAIN . . . SEX ABUSE . . . STRANGE PEOPLE . . . TOUCHING MY BODY." A well-tailored woman who he had been speaking to earlier, waved goodbye and mouthed, "See you tomorrow, Carl."
Asked what his last remark meant, he explained, "This is a classic state of denial. If you were to touch any of these people’s bodies on the platform, they would accuse you of sexual attack. But on the train they press their bodies into yours and say it’s non-sexual. It shows you the duplicity in human psychology, and how they will deny a situation simply because they perceive there is a greater value. See, it’s so important for people to reach home at a quick pace that they’ll allow themselves to get sexually harassed. They simply deny that pressing into somebody’s body is sexual. I love it!"
He shook his head and chuckled as he walked down the platform and disappeared into a sea of people.
"GIULIANI IS A BENIGN, GENTLE, KIND-HEARTED TYRANT," he called out, his voice echoing off the subterranean walls. This was greeted by an eruption of laughter. Then another train arrived and people got in. It pulled away and Robinson’s audience was gone. For the moment he was silent, standing alone on the platform.