Written on the Subway Walls: An Interview with Margot Reinstein and Josh Botwinick

On Saturday night, November 26, two YU students, Margot Reinstein and Josh Botwinick, went to a Times Square subway station to “revise” a depressing poem that has, for 20 years, occupied the ceiling of a corridor in the station. Josh and Margot papered over the poem, replacing its negative words with more optimistic, upbeat lyrics. Margot and Josh’s activities were picked up by the NY Daily News, and a New York Times article reported, four days after the incident, that the papers containing the revised poem had been taken down. Margot and Josh agreed to do an interview with the Beacon about their activities on that news-making Saturday night.

When did you have the idea to revise the poem in the subway station? Why did you feel it was important to change, and what gave you the nerve to actually change it?

Every time I would pass that poem I would think about how cynical and sad it is to see that people pass that every day on your way to work (even if it’s a bit humorous the first time, to see it every day has to be pretty depressing). One time when I was with Josh I jokingly suggested that we rewrite a optimistic and happy poem and replace it. But the more we joked about it, the more we realized how great it would be if we actually changed it.

We imagined that incredible moment for the thousands of people who pass it every day when they realize the change. We assumed someone from the MTA might take it down but if even a few people would see it and it would bring a little more optimism, hope or happiness to their day, it was worth it.

One day Josh decided to surprise me and actually make it happen. He is the one who actually wrote the revised version.

How did you came up with the revised version? What did it say?

The old poem read:
Overslept, so tired, if late, get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home, do it again.

The new one said, Overexcited, energized, all smiles, time flies. Come, brother. Much to gain. Just be proud, do it again!

I wanted it to be clear that we were fixing the old poem not writing a new one, so I tried to keep as many letters as possible from the old one. “Just go home” became “Just be proud.” I was particularly proud of the line “Why bother?” which we turned into “Come, brother” by sticking a little “R” between the b and the o. By the time we got to the last line, “do it again,” all we did was add a line above the period to turn it into an exclamation point.

Margot: What a big difference one little line makes!

How did you manage to paper over the poem–isn’t it written on beams on the ceiling of a subway station corridor? How did you get up there? Were you afraid people would try to stop you?

Margot: My friend, Zahava Rothschild lent us her step ladder which was just tall enough for Josh to be able to reach the ceiling beams. We used regular packaging tape to put it up.

Josh: We figured someone would probably get upset at us for doing it, and the plan was to fix as much of the poem as we could until someone stopped us. We spoke beforehand about how to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. But while tons of people walked by while were were doing it, no one stopped us. We were honestly really pleasantly surprised.

How did you react when your editorial activities were picked up by the New York Daily News? Did you expect it to become such a big deal?

Margot: We had no idea it would get so big. It was just a cute thing we wanted to do together to make the world a little bit of a happier place in our own way.

The fact that it got so big is pretty funny and to be honest, quite ridiculous! I encourage anyone that does something that they think might be news-worthy to give a call to the Times and see if they’re interested!

Josh: It is unfortunate that the articles incited the anti-Semitic comments that they did, but I think that overall the articles themselves were written very positively in our favor, and I hope the kiddush Hashem that this led to was more powerful than the negatives.

How did you react to the negative comments cited in the articles? What about the ones posted by readers on the websites that reported the story? Did any of the comments make you rethink what you did?

Margot: The day the article came out, I was at YUPAC lobbying to strengthen American-Israeli relations. It is so scary and mind-boggling that we need to lobby for something so important in the first place. Later that day, I had heard about the horrible anti-Semitic acts of vandalism that destroyed 5 Jewish stores in Highland Park. And that night when I got back, I read anti-Semitic, hate-filled comments on the article (many of which have been removed).
It was very poignant that all of this happened on the same day and it was yet another reminder for me that anti-Semitism is still rampant no matter what country you live in.

Josh: I also found it scary how quickly the comments became so severely anti-Semitic. It was a shock how something so obviously benign and cheerful led to such evil remarks. It was a nice reminder that often the facts don’t matter as much as how people want to perceive things.

Margot: Would I go back and change what I did? NO! Ha, we didn’t do anything wrong- it was paper and tape. It was fun!