Jill Slaughter as teenager on street corner, standing in front of telephone booth in Brooklyn near train station

Jill standing on street corner near subway station.

Riding the train from Brooklyn to Manhattan took about an hour, and seemed to be the means to an end for the ridership at large. But I couldn’t get enough, for me the subway was theater. I didn’t carry a book to read, I was more that kid who mercilessly poked my mother’s side asking “do you see that?” After awhile she stopped paying attention and dosed off until we got to our destination.

I saw everything, and looked at anything. Sitting quietly I studied women’s outfits, men’s shoes, babies in hats and people who had fallen asleep. We took the train in to shop, or on rare occasions, to meet my dad, but we never took the train at rush hour. Because of that the cars were mostly unfilled. It didn’t take long for me to visually calculate every color, every style, every shape and every amorphous blob of whatever substance had stuck to the colorless vinyl floor. I was drenched in the eccentricity of every person in my immediate vicinity.

After evaluating everyone’s wardrobe, I made mental notes on how I would change their makeup, or restyle their hair, and began to look at the mostly uninspired advertisements. Ads for cigarettes, beer, local services for things like accountants and dentists plastered every inch of available space between the low ceiling and the windows. Positioned just at the height where the average straphangers would have no choice but to come face to face with a can of Rheingold, I studied the graphics and the images just because I liked the way they looked.

Subway black and white poster showing six possible contenders for the Miss Subway contest.

Miss Subway poster from the 1960's

Kids didn’t really buy anything when I was growing up, so it didn’t matter much to me what the ads were hawking, I just liked them. From 1941 – 1977 each New York subway line reserved prime space for Miss Subway posters. There were at least two or three of these black and white dreary cardboard representations of ordinary girls hung throughout every car. After one month Miss Subway’s reign would come to an end, and the current Miss would be replaced by the next young woman who had entered and won the contest. The titled miss may have been as young as fourteen, but she could also have been as old as thirty. The photograph was always a headshot of an innocent, yet somehow alluring young woman. The lacquered placement of a perfect page-boy or an elegant bouffant hairdo made each girl look older than she probably was. A solid colored tight-fitting sweater often worn with a simple piece of jewelry was the personification of and glamour and sophistication amid the five boroughs.

Essentially the only requirement to become a Miss Subway was that you had to ride the subway, and send in a biography of yourself. To the train-riding public this title may have seemed frivolous, or unimportant, maybe not even important enough to matter, but to the girl who got to see her picture in the cars of the IRT, BMT and other subway lines, it must have been thrilling.

The advertising executive who conceived the Miss Subway contest did it to entice ridership to look at adjoining advertising. A poster of a pretty girl would surely catch the attention of weary passengers. If you got them to look up at her, it was a shoe in that they wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer adjacent to her smiling face. The Miss Subway campaign was simply a ploy to “make you look”. Miss Subway couldn’t have cared that this was an engineered ploy to ramp up consumerism; she would forever remember her reign and keep a copy of her poster always.

I had already shut the lights and turned off my computer at work and was about to leave the building when my phone rang and an official sounding voice asked for me. The soft-spoken voice had the sort of intonation which makes you think you left your wallet at the DMV and someone was calling to tell you the good news that it had been found. Instead it was a woman representing the Faces of the Arts Broward County selection committee. She told me that I had been chosen as a one of the nine Faces of the Arts in Broward because of a piece I had written about how the arts affected my life.

I immediately flashed to the scene of Ann Margret in the movie Bye Bye Birdie when she gets a call from the Ed Sullivan Show, telling her she has been chosen to be the only girl in America to be kissed on live television by the teenage heart-throb Conrad Birdie. She politely thanks the caller and calmly calls for her mother. By the end of the call she is jumping up and down in her furry slippers, having lost all composure and screaming out Mommy.

There was no one left in the building when I got the call about being selected. I was sure I was alone and when the call ended I threw up my hands and let out a scream. I knew there wouldn’t be any poster, but I felt like a combination of Miss Subway and a teenage Ann Margret. I have been chosen for other awards. I am a Whitney Museum Scholarship recipient, and I have been awarded a painting scholarship at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but those seemed much more academic. The prompt from the committee for the contest about art in Broward was personal.  Being an artist is laden with uncertainty, often affirmation and reward is infrequent. Being chosen as one of the Faces of the Arts is an honor. Like the faded posters squirreled away in the attics of the Miss Subways; I will cherish and remember this always.

I wrote about me, but really it was an effort to make you look. To see all of the wonderful opportunities Broward County offers the arts community. Museums, ArtServe, Artist as Entrepreneur and studio spaces like Studio 18 and Sailboat Bend, together with dedicated people like Jim Shermer and Adriane Clarke of the Cultural Division, together with countless others who tirelessly support the arts in Broward make being an artist in this part of South Florida just that much easier. At a time when municipalities struggle to maintain basic services Broward County whole heartedly supports the arts and artists. They made us look at what we each have to offer for the greater good of making art thrive.

Jill Slaughter and here mother holding a bouquet of white flowers.

Jill and her mother

On Wednesday July 20th, I and eight other winners will be given an award at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts during an intermission of a performance by Symphony of the Americas. There will be a party after the concert. Tickets are available through the box office at the Broward Center for the 8:00pm performance. I won’t be wearing a tight-fitting sweater, or a simple piece of jewelry, but I will be smiling, and my mom will be in the audience. While I won’t be screaming Mommy she knows that she has been, and continues to be my greatest supporter regarding my interest, and my career in the arts.

Photograph of Jill as teenager taken by Julio Mitchell

Miss Subway www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/15548