The Lobster Shift: Why settle for a beer when the Nutcracker is here?


Illustration: Laura Davies

Illustration: Laura Davies

The Lobster Shift is a monthly column by Kenneth R. Rosen that explores the city at night.

There are roughly three different modes for subway cars, in my experience. There is, first and most familiar, the crowded commuter car in morning and early evening, where mere inches of personal space segregate straphangers into parcels of remorse or happiness or anger, based primarily on the day ahead, and its promise, or the day behind, and how those promises were either met or denied.

Second, there is the alarmingly vacant car, found in summer when the air conditioning succumbs to underground heat, or in winter when a homeless person claims a third of a car, cordoned off by garbage bags.

“It’s Saturday night,” he shouts, “get your head right.”

Third, there are subway cars that are sparsely populated, something dangerously close to pleasant in the early afternoon before school lets out, and downright sleepy at night, when passengers find themselves traveling underground, for any number of reasons, past the hour of midnight.

No matter which variety of car I find myself in, I am nearly always self-conscious.

My time underground is delegated to baseless fear and anxiety. It’s existential dread about being too close to someone, or unknowingly breaking one of the many unspoken subway laws–manspreading, pole hogging, staring. Sometimes I’m simply flustered about my appearance–the blemish on my face, the tear in my pants, the stain on my shirt, and I believe everyone is looking at me. This rarely happens above ground, outside of confined spaces. These fears surface most acutely in autumn for me. Call it subterranean affective disorder.

I once missed an express A train, the last one departs at about 11pm from Times Square, and found myself inside a later, local-bound car not quite like any of the ones I’ve described, or like any car I’d ridden in before. This was something different. It was not the first type of subway car, nor was it the second or third. It was not a distinct fourth type either—it was a car in transition.

It fluctuated between all three, a miasma of spark-spitting, shuttling and roaring, where you had those of us who had missed our normal train saddled next to those who’d been out late in an unfamiliar part of town and just wanted something to take them someplace other than where they were. There were also the long-haulers, regulars waiting for the final stops, striving to make their way home, willing those sleepy, late night vibes to kick in. This train didn’t seem to care about its final destination. It was all about the ride.

I’ve discovered that one of the regulars on that transitional train is an entrepreneur who operates a quintessential and thriving New York business. Call it the showtime of the early late night. He’s not selling candy for no basketball club, he’s here to make a living.

He, the Nutcracker hawker, is New York of yore, of sweat and blood, graft and hustle.

He’ll stride onto the train somewhere downtown, dressed in black, wearing a T-shirt with an A-train logo, as though he were in the MTA’s employ. Black do-rag, black sunglasses. His black padded Primo rollaway suitcase clips along the streaky linoleum floor behind him. I hope he won’t see me, confront me, as I hope with all subway entertainers and entrepreneurs.

“It’s Saturday night,” he shouts, “get your head right.”

He sits down and unzips the front pouch of the rollaway.

“Why settle for a beer when the Nutcracker’s here.”

Inside is a rainbow of clear bottles, a boozy cocktail of an undisclosed recipe.

The Nutcracker has been around in the 1990s. Fruit juice and liquor are the only ingredients, every vendor is in possession of their own secret recipe. Sold for $10, they are a summer staple on Coney Island and in the Rockaways and now, during any season, late at night on the A train. Drink one and the edges become fuzzy, in the summer heat or underground. Drink two and your vision starts to double. Please don’t drink three.

He, the Nutcracker hawker, is New York of yore, of sweat and blood, graft and hustle. He performs a subtle act of charity to the blood-alcohol-crashing, overnight-shift-working, bloodshot-eyed straphangers. He is an amalgamation of life underground, of every type of train ride, one who brings the light to where it is dark. Nutcrackers are not his only wares.

“Newports,” he shouts. “Two for a dollar.”

“I’ll take one,” someone says, and they exchange cash. Our train-bound businessman tries to persuade him to buy a drink as well, but the passenger already clutches a beer.

Sometimes, if you care to lock eyes with a stranger, you’ll see a distinctly childlike wonder.

It is late-November, that odd holiday seasonal intermission when stores are selling discounted Halloween candy and stocking Christmas ornaments. Seasonal affective disorder settles in. Subway cars are great spaces for reexamining life, to relish the jewel of loneliness. But not here in this car, right now. Not with Nutcrackers and Newports on offer.

“Action and adult, four dollars,” is the last refrain we hear before the doors open onto the platform and the man disappears.

The car is still as it was before, but more charged and alive. Sometimes, if you care to lock eyes with a stranger, you’ll see a distinctly childlike wonder. It is a mysteriously pure joy because, on its face, what we’ve just witnessed is an illegal hustle. But isn’t that why we’ve all decided to stay in this city? To keep on our hustle?

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)