An Invitation To Resistance: One Subway Car At A Time
By Noni Pratt
“Here we are in this big, wonderful mess, together,” was my oft-repeated refrain for years about the joys of city living. These days, the “big mess” doesn’t feel wonderful, but it gives both energy and inspiration to soldier on and offers many different crowded places to lift a voice. The subway is one of my favorite platforms.
Small projects that involve personal interaction with strangers have been born in jury duty, and on the subway in numerous times in my life.
On jury duty, the dull, crowded, sleepy, florescent-lit room colored by a monotone barking voice of orders was suddenly transformed when I thought to ask fellow jurors for helpful household tips. The room became a colorful, place filled with individuals remembering household tips, usually passed down from previous generations. They were from many countries. We all had a wonderful time.
On the subway, a request for money from a man turned into another small project. I had realized upon exiting the subway, that if I had given the dollar to the person next to me, two would have given, rather than one. The energy of giving and circulation seemed more important than the object of the dollar, itself, and the dollar seemed like a great already-existent means of circulation. So, fresh, new dollars were marked with instructions to “give the dollar to others, or…to give it to others to give to others.”
Ideas and actions can easily multiply in a subway car, both negatively and positively. For example, it was rare for a well-dressed white man to accept a dollar and not give me a sneer or pull away from me. Once one person denied the bill, an average of 7 people continued in the denial. Equally, a happy,”yes!” would arouse curiosity and many wanted to join in. One day, one dollar was passed throughout nearly the entire car. With each pass, another person lit up and became aware of the others…the ones who had received it and the ones who soon would. We were all in it together, giving to each other. We stopped what we were doing and became a part of one another in a tiny, wonderful moment in time.
I had another thought one day on the crowded subway. I looked down and saw everyone’s shoes. I was overwhelmed by a flash of understanding that all of those shoes have held suffering and pain at one point or another. The car, at that point, felt very warm.
Because it seemed important to be a little dot amidst the others, I went to Washington D.C. for The Womans March. It seemed essential to be counted as one interested in protecting the constitution, and everything else that is currently in danger. On my poster is a permanent side and a changing side. The permanent side is a funny hand-painted (by a polish immigrant) picture about “alternative facts,” and the other side says, ”Make America Kind Again” with the “again” crossed out with a black line as it was never “kind” for slaves and Native Americans. Below that heading are suggestions for daily actions and also, more recently, questions.
Now, instead of just bringing it to rallies, I bring it with me when I ride the subway. So, once again, I am on the subway asking and questioning and inviting others for participation. Now that people have these devices, I invite them to photograph the poster and pass it along to their friends…being a little speck, hoping to encourage others and send ripples.
Sometimes, there are cold responses and I feel embarrassed and small, but it really doesn’t matter. That is beside the point. Many times, however, it is met with smiles and supportive camera shots.
A few days ago, the dollars reappeared and i suggested (on the poster) that people mark dollar bills with their causes and messages. Mine have said different thing, today’s says. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on one side and “protect Liberty! Protect Immigrants” on the other. The possibilities are endless.
I can’t put the poster down once I reach my destination. So, I hold it up, walking in the streets and am met with smiles and disdain and am grateful to be connected to it all.
When people say it is brave. I disagree. It feels like a tiny step, putting one foot in front of the other, (literally in the steps of my daily rounds) with the hopes to encourage each other to action in this extreme time. It feels like time well spent and makes me grateful to live in a big city in “the mess of it all.”
Noni pratt has spent a good part of her life as an installation/ performance artist and as co-artistic director of Conway and Pratt Projects. At present, she lives in Queens, New York and, among other things, studies Tibetan Buddhism with Ven. Achok Rinpoche at Gadenpa Buddhist Center in Long Island City.