A Big Deal
Last Saturday night, Josh Botwinick became a big man on YU campus, and not only because he was standing six feet above the ground on a ladder with Margot Reinstein.
Last week, Josh and Margot were featured in both The New York Daily News and The New York Times City Room Blog. The couple was featured for climbing up their ladder to paper over a poem posted on the ceiling beams in the Times Square subway tunnels.
The poem Josh and Margot tinkered with, “A Commuter’s Lament,” by Norman B. Colp, was printed on eight panels of porcelain and nailed to the ceiling beams of the hallway between the 7th and 8th avenue subways in 1991, when MTA Arts for Transit sponsored the $5,000 project.
Though a philosophy major, Josh performed optimistic surgery on the depressing poem Saturday night. The original poem read:
“Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.”
That poem, which ends with a picture of a rumpled bed, apparently to remind NYC travelers how much they want to crawl back into bed, became a lighthearted and cheery welcome to subway commuters:
Overexcited / Energized / All smiles / Time flies / Come, brother / Much to gain / Just be proud / Do it again!
Just a tad different than the original. Botwinick explained that the extreme shift in tone was precisely the goal of his revision.
“We just wanted to make people happier. It was a very sad poem and I learned in psych about subliminal messaging and priming…Just looking at sad words can make you sad and [I] just thought that it’s so sad—hundreds of people pass it every hour all the time and just see all these depressing words. It was really just done with the pure intention to make people happier.”
But Josh and Margot’s makeover did not tear the old poem apart to make space for an entirely original piece. In fact, the new poem used many of the letters from the old one. Josh admits the tactic was “partially for the challenge; I thought it would be more clever.”
He also noted that he wanted to “fix the poem” but not deface public property.
Josh added a third, more profound reasoning for keeping the author’s letters. “I wanted to show that it’s all about perspective; that the new poem could be so similar to the old one, and that just some slight differences in the letters here and there could change it around.”
And the press did not ignore it.
The New York Daily News was the first to pick up the story, beating the Post and the Times to the punch with its full-page story. By Wednesday, the story made it to the Times, but only after Botwinick and Reinstein’s poetic adjustments had been torn down by the MTA.
The articles in the Daily News and the Times both seemed to appreciate the poetic revision, noting the poem’s extremely depressing tone and the encouraging responses the edits received from commuters.
Josh was very excited about the positive press his project received.
“The point of the project was to make people smile and, from what I hear, the article did make people smile, just when they heard what we did. I’m happy it got published because more people heard about the project and more people could be happy.”
In truth, he was happy just to see his name in the paper. Like many YU students, The New York Times hadn’t paid Botwinick much attention until this past week. “Other than for playing well on my little league team in the local Riverdale paper, yeah, this was my first time in the news.”
But not everyone was happy with the YU students’ meddling. The New York Daily News reported a negative reaction from Sandra Bloodworth, Director of MTA Arts for Transit, who remarked, “What a disrespectful thing to do to the artist.”
Josh professes a mature outlook on the MTA’s comments.
“I definitely understand that the MTA has to say that and from their perspective they can’t have people covering other people’s things and putting up whatever they want.”
But the MTA wasn’t the only source of negative feedback. Internet commenters on the Daily News and Times websites also took shots at Josh’s and Margot’s attempted good deed. Some claimed they “defaced public property,” while others considered their behavior “childish” and even “fascist.”
At first, Josh expressed confidence, and defiantly defended the project.
“I think that, in general, covering other people’s artwork in public settings is not a good idea. I was just able to justify it to myself because, in this particular context, it was so obvious that this poem was so depressing and horrible and that our poem was just…better. And I couldn’t fathom how anyone would be upset to see our poem up there instead of the other one.”
But after some harsh words about the professional poet’s work, Botwinick did admit that he and Reinstein might have been in the wrong.
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure if the way we went about it outdid the good of our intentions. Perhaps our ends did not justify our means, and to that extent, some of the commenters may have been right.”
What Josh was not ready to condone, though, were the anti-Semitic comments posted on (and subsequently removed from) the Daily News and New York Times websites.
“Some of the responses were totally off topic like, ‘Jews are horrible. I had one in my class once and he was annoying and ugly.’ And I’m like, ‘Okay…did I make you smile?’”
Josh says that anti-Semitism in America, and even in New York, does not surprise him.
“I get it here and there; I’ve been accused of killing Jesus on the subway. I wasn’t surprised because, like I said, I’ve experienced it.”
Overall, though, Josh believes he accomplished a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that Saturday night.
“I understand the sentiment that ‘these Jews think they can get away with whatever they want,’ and I understand that, and that’s maybe not so great. But I think overall we gave off the impression that Jews are good people and want good things.”
The New York Daily News spoke to Colp’s widow, who added to the criticism of Botwinick and Reinstein. Marsha Stern-Colp defended her late husband’s work: “Be realistic—life sucks. You get through it the best you can.”
Josh did not hesitate to respond to the widow’s grim worldview.
“I think those might be true things that go through typical New Yorkers’ minds on their way home from work. But I’d much rather empathize with the positives than the negatives. Why remind people how horrible their days are, even if they are?”
Josh says he doesn’t regret what he did but that “doing it again is probably a bad idea.” He says he doesn’t have any other projects planned, but did point out that “it would be really nice if someone sponsored 5,000 dollars to put my poem going in the opposite direction.” Josh also lifted his eyebrows about the possibility of hanging his cheery poetry in the Wilf Campus Heights Lounge.
But one question remains: how did The New York Daily News know that Josh and Margot were responsible for the project?
Josh cleared the dust on the issue. He explained that the day after the impressively-creative-date, he called up The New York Daily News.
“I just looked for their number on the website and just called them. I said, ‘I was in the Times Square station last night, and the poem was papered over.’ They were all over it.”
The next day, though, Josh finished the deal.
“I called back the Daily News and said, ‘I spoke to you yesterday about the poem in Times Square, remember? I’m the guy who did it.’”
The paper asked him if he had spoken to the Post or the Times yet and, when he said “no,” they jumped on him. They told him if he didn’t talk to the other news outlets, they would give him a full-page story. Obviously, Josh agreed.
Josh says his talks with the Daily News were not part of some egotistical self-promotion. It’s only “tooting your own horn” when what you did doesn’t really deserve publicity. He explained that college students sometimes think their actions aren’t a “big deal” and don’t deserve the attention of anyone outside their small circle of friends.
But characteristically, Josh rejects such self-defeating philosophies.
“Anything can be a big deal; all you have to do is make it a big deal.”