Sunday, February 22, 2009

Hey, Jim Dwyer -- "Somewhere" There's A Column That Hasn't Been Done Before, Dude.

Jim Dwyer's "About New York" column yesterday had a familiar ring to it -- and we're not talking about the melody from Leonard Bernstein's "Somewhere," either.

The columnist made a rare front-page appearance with his account of the famous Bernstein melody -- the opening notes to "Somewhere," from "West Side Story" -- that happens to hum from the undercarriage of certain New York City subway trains.

News to you? Maybe, if you started reading the NYT for the first time this past Monday.

In last Sunday's NYT City section, in the F.Y.I. column by Michael Pollak, this exact topic was covered and explained in detail -- not for the first time, and apparently not for the last:

"Why do many subways, when leaving the station, make noises that sound like the opening notes of “Somewhere,” one of Leonard Bernstein’s songs for the show?" a questioner wrote.

"F.Y.I. gets this question a lot," Pollak replied. No kidding! His explanation:

The similarity is both unintentional and unromantic, explained Deirdre Parker, a spokeswoman for New York City Transit. The sounds, she said, are made by the electrical equipment in something called the R142 Alstom propulsion inverters, which take the direct current from the third rail and converts it to alternating current in the cars. “There was no design to make them sound like musical notes,” she said.

Pollak's answer also mentioned the fact that Randy Kennedy, the NYT's estimable transit reporter/columnist for several years, had already written a column on the the topic. Had Dwyer missed that, too? Apparently.

Called "Three-Note Mystery Haunts Riders On No. 2 Line," Kennedy's January 29, 2002 column pioneered the path taken yesterday by Dwyer -- interviewing subway riders, MTA officials and the train's manufacturers in search of pithy quotes. Kennedy got them first; a messenger described the melody as "some kind of a plot by the Japanese to brainwash us all.'"

By contrast, here's Dwyer's best quote: “We didn’t know it was there until one day a Times reporter called in 2002,” said Gene Sansone, the chief mechanical officer for the subways.

The NYT's website currently runs a feature called "One in 8 Million" -- an oblique reference to the famous television-show opening that declared, "There are 8 million stories in the naked city...and this is one of them."

It might be nice if Dwyer, the writer entrusted with the NYT's beloved "About New York" column -- a bastion of originality that has been held by such great NYT alumni as William Geist and Anna Quindlen -- took that mantra to heart, and looked a little harder for stories that haven't been told so many times before, especially within the previous week.

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