As I’ve said before in this space, I love the New York City subway system. It’s quick, mostly reliable-barring repairs-and an entertainment venue unto itself.

The best entertainment is free. The people-watching, for example, is spectacular on my line: every age, race, culture, religion, profession, persuasion, taste in couture and skin art, and behavioral quirk you could imagine is represented on the Q.

There are the posters, a commuter’s eye view into the city’s psyche: lawyers for your pain, Dr. Zizmore for your zits, bed sacs for your bedbug protection, ESL classes, and a campaign by Delta Airlines, encouraging you to See the World in a Different Way, that features slightly smeary, badly-skewed and too-dark photographs of world capitals.

There’s the MTA’s own art: renderings of the train as a flying fish, the mosaic hats in that station in the twenties that, when people stand in front of them, give the illusion of being worn. And that very cool piece of “moving” art by Bill Brand, exclusive to the Q and B, just after Dekalb station: it’s an optical illusion with animated yarn that knots and unwinds and rockets that launch themselves, all brought to life because you see them through a zoetrope formed by a succession of openings into an old now-unused subway station. (You can see it here:

Some of the entertainment seeks payment. The slightly-off-key mariachi guitarists; singers; the guy selling Rubic’s Cubes, who dazzles his audience by speed-solving the device. The kids who do a tumbling routine that marries break-dancing with gymnastics while the train is moving-that’s actually gotten my dollar, not just because they’re good, but because they’re so incredibly brave, turning somersaults on a subway floor. Myself, I wouldn’t put ANY part of my body not protected by at least a half-inch of leather or rubber on a subway floor.

The subway also has its beggars, in spite of all the official MTA signs railing against them. Sad women reeking of alcohol, who tell you about living on the street and needing a meal. Shaggy men who insist they can’t get a job, even though they’re two, three, six months clean and sober. Children selling candy bars for spare cash.

They are not entertaining.

I find it annoying to be approached by beggars on the subway. I suppose that’s partly because it’s so blatantly illegal. But it’s also because solicitation in a closed moving car feels like being publicly shamed into shelling out money before a captive audience. I give change to beggars on the streets, but I don’t give money on the subway.

Nor do many others. Most Brooklynites ignore them, and they wish everybody a good—or, often, “blessed”—day and move along to the next car.

Whatever their shtick or personal tragedy, I have never found solicitors-be they beggars, salesmen or entertainers-threatening.

Until yesterday.

The man was thirty-something, pale and wiry. He paced the car, intense black eyes crawling from face to face, and told us us that he had just gotten out of the state penitentiary after serving seven years for Armed Robbery. He couldn’t find a job, but he’d learned his lesson, yes he had, and with God’s help, he planned to stay on the right side of the law.

All he needed was money from us.

He would show us his prison papers, if we wanted to see them. He had them in his pocket.

He moved deliberately from person to person, confronting each of us individually, asking none-too-humbly for a contribution to his new, straight life.

I’m not easily intimidated. Even when I got my iPhone stolen-you can read about it on my blog by going to my page ( and clicking the “Blog” link at the bottom-I chased the thief up the stairs, for what little it was worth.

But this guy…

The car was completely silent. The threat beneath his words, a 500-pound, very possibly armed gorilla, stalked after him on his slow slouch up and down the aisle.

Nobody gave him money. It was a car full of Brooklynites, after all; Brooklynites will not be fazed.

But when he left, the very train seemed to let out a breath of relief.