You Are What You Read

October 06, 1990|By Nicholas King

NEW YORK. — NEW YORK is a newspaper-reading city. The famous subway folding of broadsheet papers, to read a half-slice of a page at a time to save space, is a hallmark of the New York commuter.

The tabloid Daily News, the biggest metropolitan daily in the country, the New York Post and, increasingly, Newsday are the fare of most subway and bus riders, at least in the Bronx and Brooklyn. When the passengers from the fashionable districts of Manhattan crowd through the doors and into the aisles, the newspaper look changes.

The New York Times then becomes, below the great divide of 96th Street in Manhattan, the sail to unfurl to the acrid subway breezes. In a crowded car the sheer bulk and size of the paper becomes a protection for the traveler as well as a badge of middle-class consent. This last is especially true of those who look as though there was little of that sort of consent in them.

The Times is very acceptable to the subway commuter, yuppie or Wall Streeter, but the Wall Street Journal is even better, as smart women executives have found out. They tend to be seen reading it while they wait, whereas their male rivals carry on in false security with the Times. A visit to any East Side subway platform on weekday mornings will confirm this observation.

It reminds one of the days when the Herald Tribune reigned on the suburban trains, and some of the newer settlers, longing furtively for inner-city atmosphere, hid the Daily News within the Tribune's ample folds.

But the prevalence of crime has added a new twist. The other day a man who works in Wall Street and lives in the Bronx, was dutifully reading his Wall Street Journal when he was attacked and robbed by a group of youths.

He said afterward that it had happened because of the paper he was reading -- that people who read the Journal were perceived as rich and readily robbable and unlikely to fight back.

The conclusion is obvious. But there is of course no tabloid big enough to hide the Wall Street Journal convincingly. Well, let the pieces fall where they may: By their newspapers ye shall know them.

I myself walk about the subway with a copy of Le Monde in my hand making sure it shows fairly conspicuously. I was about to add that although Le Monde is far more expensive in New York, one copy of the paper could serve many days in succession since it was unlikely a fellow passenger would attempt to verify the date or the headline. But that would spoil the effect.

Mr. King is a New York writer.

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