Bonding over Bowie

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  • The Broadway-Lafayette subway station transformed.

  • Bowie in the Ziggy Stardust days. Photo: Mark Nimar

  • As a squire in the subway stairwell. Photo: Mark Nimar

A fire-haired man in a onesie, walking among the stars. A chap in a loincloth, draped in animal hide, clutching a wooden cane with an elephant lurking in the background. And a squire with sleekly combed hair and a classic herringbone jacket, pensively looking off into the distance. These are the many forms of the great English singer-songwriter David Bowie, captured in posters splashed across the Broadway-Lafayette Street subway station.

The space is transformed: pewter cones glowing with fluorescent lights skirt the station’s geometric blue columns. Quotes proclaiming the artist’s undying love for New York decorate the drab, gritty walls. And a rectangular emerald sign displaying the moniker DAVID BOWERY hovers from the concrete ceiling.

“There was no one like David Bowie,” said Sam Huber, a Finnish man with an astronaut head on his T-shirt. I met Sam while he was snapping photos of the fantastic Bowie posters with his iPhone. “He did what he wanted. He was brave ... experimenting with different styles. He didn’t care what other people thought.” Sam remembered listening to Bowie in the ‘80s when he was eighteen, before he had ever been to the U.S. And because Bowie had been such a big part of his youth, Sam was devastated when he heard about Bowie’s passing. “[I] listened to his albums over and over again,” Huber said. “Bowie is always on my mind when I compose. Even when I don’t try to emulate him, he always shows up in my music.”

“His songs are weird, but fun,” said Marc Rodriguez, a man in a suit and tie. He had come to the Broadway-Lafayette station after a long day’s work just to see this exhibit. “I came here just for this. I [really] nerd out over the subway,” he said. His ex-girlfriend, a blacksmith who had moved to Connecticut, was the first person to introduce him to Bowie. “She was obsessed with Bowie,” he said. “She was a theater kid and just loved him.”

Their relationship did not last, but his love of Bowie did. His eyes shined when he spoke of Bowie’s hit songs, many acting cameos and overall swagger and brio. I was genuinely sad to see Marc go as he flashed me a smile, and descended onto the subway platform.

But then I met another Bowie devotee. Her name was Carolyn. She was a spunky sixty-year old who called Bowie “androgynous and galactic.” “He lets us all be ourselves,” she said. “I love his grace. He is grace. He shines his light, and it allows everyone else to be themselves, and feel freedom. Gratitude is the essence of grace, and he had it.” Carolyn first listened to Bowie at Kirkland College upstate in the eighties, when she was first dating her now-husband and coming into her own. Bowie has been a part of her life since her youth, and as she spoke, her quick, excited speech and beaming smile revealed how much Bowie had meant to her. “He changed the style,” she said.

Carolyn then did something that never happens in New York. She took my arm and wished me luck. Under normal circumstances, the intimate touch of a stranger on the New York City subway would totally gross me out. But after talking to her about Bowie’s talent, it felt perfectly natural. For one moment, an artist’s daring, soulful work had bonded us, and transformed us from complete strangers into instant friends. As Carolyn blended into the sea of commuters, and I returned to the lines of my notebook, the somber sounds of a trombone playing “Cry Me a River” wafted up from the subway platform below us. And in that moment, I felt grateful that the work of an iconic artist had the power to transform a drab train station into a colorful place of love, art and friendship.

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