The Story Behind the Peculiar Poem in NYC's Port Authority Tunnel

Flickr user NK Eide
Flickr user NK Eide / Flickr user NK Eide

Actually, the poem is posted in the corridor between the Port Authority subway station and the Times Square subway station. Each line of the poem occupies its own six-inch tall panel affixed to the support beams in the ceiling of the underground, tiled tunnel. As swarms of city-dwellers make their morning and evening trek between the high-traffic subway stations, they need only to glance up to see a sympathetic message.

Overslept. So tired. If late, Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again.

A final panel shows a black and white photo of an empty, rumpled bed.

The poem, by Norman B. Colp, is aptly titled "The Commuter's Lament" or, perhaps more cryptically, "A Close Shave." The alternate title is a reference to the Burma-Shave ads of the mid-20th century, which employed a similar style of a series of one-line signs drivers would read as they sped past. Colp told the New York Times he was inspired by the highways out west that he and a girlfriend used to drive along in the '60s where the Burma-Shave billboards were prevalent.

Colp, a native New Yorker who passed away in 2007, was known as an artist and photographer for his witty installations. He was commissioned to create a piece in 1991 as part of the MTA's Arts for Transit, a program started in 1986 which dedicated 0.5 to 1 percent of a station’s rehabilitation budget to bring museum-worthy artwork into the otherwise-utilitarian public transportation system. Colp was paid $5000 for the sardonic piece.

The poem was originally intended as a one-year display, but the MTA chose to leave it up ever since, allowing it to join the ranks of permanent art installations throughout the subway system. The final panel with the slept-in bed went missing after a 2005 station renovation but was reinstalled two years later.

In 2011, two optimistic young college students in the area set out to change the tone of the poem. Feeling that Colp's original work was too pessimistic, the pair of 20-year-olds took it upon themselves to brighten some of the lines—“Overslept” became “Overexcited,” “So Tired” became “Energized.”

The artist's widow, Marsha Stern-Colp, did not appreciate the amendments, saying at the time, “Why be optimistic in these times? Be realistic—life sucks. You get through it the best you can.”

Whether or not that's true, she conceded that what Colp had originally intended to project was not quite as bleak. “His empathy for the overtired, overworked populace trudging to get to work was what it was all about."

Original photo by Flickr user NK Eide.