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Voices Spring-Summer, 2001:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors! Occupational Folklore of New York City Subway Workers,” by Ryn Gargulinski here.
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Volume 27

Stand Clear of the Closing Doors

Studies of occupational lore vary widely, their subjects ranging from factory workers, librarians, college professors, and hospital workers to window washers and lawyers. Some dangerous occupations that have been examined include police officers, Air Force pilots-in-training, miners, and firefighters. In the transportation category, researchers have looked at New York City taxicab drivers, porters, and flight attendants. In almost all such studies, the emphasis is on logocentrism—the spoken over the written word. "Let the people speak for themselves," as folklorist Jack Santino (1988) put it.

Subway tales can be found in Sally Charnow and Steven Zeitlin’s folklore and oral history of transit, I’ve Been Working on the Subway (in which workers term a number of narratives "war stories"), Robert Snyder’s collection entitled Transit Talk, Marion Swerdlow’s book Underground Woman, and columnist Jim Dwyer’s book Subway Lives. With those sources as background, I decided to hear for myself what New York City subway workers had to say.

My fieldwork began in July 1998, when I approached a token booth clerk and said I was doing a thesis project on the New York City subway system. First he asked, "Why?" Then he held his nose in the universal gesture that says, "It stinks." It has been a long road ever since. I have interviewed at least 50 New York City Transit employees—conductors, train operators, token booth clerks, office employees, track workers, subway managers, even the Transit chaplain—wherever I could find someone willing to talk. . . .

NYC Transit workers

The city’s Transit Authority workers tell and retell stories that entertain, instruct, and horrify. The use of insider jargon in their occupational folklore functions like a password to signal their membership in the group. Photo: Martha Cooper.

After collecting a number of subway stories, I categorized them, analyzed them, and examined their functions. I also examined their themes and variations—which are what make them folklore. How does the transmission of these stories illustrate formulation and dissemination of folklore? Who tells them and why?. . .

What I found amid all the debris, rats, and grime in the subways was a community of close-knit workers who share, besides their jobs in the bowels of the most diverse city on the planet, a number of stories that adhere them. Many of the tales that bind fall into the accident and cautionary genre and can be broken down into five major categories: accounts of death, near-death (and close-call) stories, tales highlighting the unstable environment, hero narratives, and tales that deal with humor, pranks and the absurd. For this article, I focus on a single category: tales of death. . . .

Occupational accident and cautionary narratives are alive, well, and circulating in today’s workplace. They reflect the dangers and concerns of workers in hazardous jobs. They serve a variety of purposes and, as part of occupational lore as a whole, constitute a major part of oral tradition. They also give workers "at least a measure of personal control over [their] working lives" (McCarl 1988: 35). The narratives reveal "a variety of strategies used by workers to insure informal control of work safety. The seriousness of the fatality account resulting in a new safety procedure and the catharsis of the near-miss narrative underscore the way verbal accounts of work techniques provide insiders with necessary information in a compelling form" (McCarl 1988: 40-41). This measure of control is extremely important, especially in unstable environments like the New York City subway system. The tales tell workers what to look out for, how to avoid potential disasters, and how to do things differently than a fellow worker who was not so cautious—and paid the price.


Ryn GargulinskiRyn Gargulinski is a journalist, poet, cartoonist, and humorist. She wrote her master’s thesis on the occupational folklore of New York City subway workers for Brooklyn College (CUNY), where she also received a BFA in creative writing. She contributes a monthly column, poems, and illustrations to 12gauge.com.

Brunvand, J.H. 1981. The Vanishing Hitchhiker. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Charnow, S., and S. Zeitlin. n.d. I’ve Been Working on the Subway. New York: New York Transit Museum.

Cudahy, B. 1999. The Malbone Street Wreck. New York: Fordham University Press.

Dwyer, J. Subway Lives: 24 Hours in the Life of the New York City Subway. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.

McCarl, R.S. 1998. Accident Narratives: Self Protection in the Workplace. New York Folklore 14(1-2). Santino, J. 1988. Occupational folklore: Overview and afterword. New York Folklore 14(1-2): 105.

Snyder, R.W. 1997. Transit Talk: New York’s Bus and Subway Workers Tell Their Stories. New York and New Jersey: New York Transit Museum and Rutgers University Press.

Swerdlow, M. Underground Woman: My Four Years as a New York City Subway Conductor. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

The full article, that we have excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Spring-Summer 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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