With all this talk of books and authors lately, I’m reminded of a certain subway ride I took many years ago and one of the most exciting reading experiences I’ve ever had.
This was in the early Eighties and the book in question was Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby.
My interest in the novel was stirred by a theatrical production which came to Broadway from London in 1981.
The show made headlines because it was nearly nine hours long—theatergoers had a choice of attending two nights or seeing the whole show in one setting—and because tickets were going for the then-unheard of price of $100 each.
Today, of course, one hundred bucks is pretty much the going rate for a show on the Great White Way.
We didn’t have that kind of money back then, but my family had a fabulous time watching a televised version of the London production that was simulcast on the local public television and radio channels.
The late Roger Rees played the title role and he was supported by an incredible cast of talented actors.
The show ran for three or four consecutive nights and each evening we’d switch on the TV, tune in this beautiful old German radio we kept in the living room, and travel to this wonderful world filled with these incredible characters.
And each morning at breakfast we’d talk about what had happened the night before. It was such an enjoyable time that I just had to read the book.
So that’s how I happened to be one the N train one night coming home from work when I got to the scene where our hero Nicholas squared off against the most horrible schoolmaster on earth, Wackford Squeers.
Raise the Devil
Squeers is a corrupt lowlife who runs Dotheboys Hall, a hellhole of a boarding school where the kids are beaten with savage regularity.
As I read the book, I was just dying for Nicholas to pound this hump right through the floorboards.
Dickens takes his time, though, slowly building up to a rousing confrontation where Squeers is beating the hapless cripple Smike.
The N train was just pulling out of Union Square when I got to the part where Nicholas orders Squeers to cease and desist.
“This must not go on!” he declares, and I gripped the strap handle. This loser's going down!
Squeers, of course, has not intention of stopping and he threatens Nicholas with a beating if he gets in the way.
Hit him, Nicholas, I roared inside my head, hit the son-of-a-bitch!
And that’s when Squeers cracks Nicholas across the face with the whip and our hero proceeds to beat the ever-loving shit out of the sadistic warthog.
I completely forgot that I was in the middle of a packed subway car because through the power of Dickens’s writing I had been transported through time and space to that 19th Century Yorkshire school.
Kill him! I silently shouted. Kill that one-eyed scumbag!
No one on that train could have guessed the emotions I was going through at that moment. From the outside, I was just another commuter. In my mind, though, I was the one clobbering Squeers into a coma.
And I think it's important to point out that I had enjoyed this rewarding experience without any of today's technology--no iPhone, no iPad; it was just my eyeballs.
Somehow, I managed to get home without missing my stop or scaring the other passengers. And thanks to Charles Dickens I had taken an incredible journey--without ever leaving the N train.