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On Meeting Jay-Z on the Subway

Speaking with the artist Ellen Grossman about her chance encounter

Adam Chandler
December 05, 2012

A video that’s well on its way to becoming a viral phenomenon features a Brooklyn-born 67-year-old artist named Ellen Grossman and Jay-Z, the Brooklyn-born rapper who hardly needs any introduction (but you should you want one, here’s Tablet’s David Samuels on Jay-Z and Kanye West for the Atlantic).

The video shows Jay-Z was on his way to the last of his eight shows to open the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn (Jewcy reports that Hova actually lit a menorah for each of the eight nights). As Grossman explained to me, she was simply on her way to visit a friend in Brooklyn when a large crush of people unexpectedly entered her subway car at Canal Street. Grossman ended up having a chat with the rapper.

Adorable caveat:

“I hope this doesn’t sound canned,” she apologized. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people this morning.”

The scene:

“It was a fairly sparsely populated subway car and I was alone on three seats,” she explained. “There was a surge of people at Canal Street and my son was in the World Trade Center disaster…but he survived, it’s alright, but we didn’t know that for several hours so that’s kind of present in our consciousness. So, at first, I thought ‘Oh God, something terrible has happened up on the street.’ But everyone was laughing and smiling so I thought, ‘What a relief!’ And I thought perhaps it was a flash mob.”

When Jay-Z sat down:

“Jay-Z sat down next to me and I did not recognize him, but everyone was taking his picture. But I thought, because I didn’t recognize him, that it still could have been a flash mob. I know people do fake celebrity stuff. So I said what was on the video ‘Are you famous?’ and he said ‘Yes’ and I believed him. I asked what his name was and he said ‘Jay’ and I didn’t catch that it was Jay-Z and after we were talking for a while I thought ‘He’s pretty famous,’ I noticed his security people and we were in a little bubble because they were around us and then I asked ‘What’s your name again?’ and he said ‘Jay-Z.’ We had a really great conversation, it felt really genuine.”

Grossman told me about how she (like Jay-Z) was born in Brooklyn, but grew up in Queens. Her family moved out to Long Island, but “the feeling of living in the city” was something she missed.

“I was not real comfortable in the suburbs. I still have friends from there, but I just felt like I’d come back to New York City. I lived a few other places as a young adult, California and Poughkeepsie among them, but just felt I’d come home when I got back to New York City.”

Grossman went back to school at Cooper Union after having two children, which “was unusual at the time.” She spoke highly of her school and asked me if I had heard about the student strike against the introduction of a tuition at the historically free college. I said that I had.

Oh good, well I talked to some of the students yesterday, if you can add that in to get some more attention to it? I could not have gone to Cooper Union if they had charged tuition. There was no way a single parent with two kids could have managed that. So put in a plug for Cooper Union, okay?

Grossman says she’s worked several jobs since the art doesn’t support her well enough. She spoke about a little about her work.

I think it’s good. I’m really way behind it, but I’m not very good at marketing. It wasn’t about that. The work has its own integrity and meaning for me. But I want it to be out in the world. I want it to be in people’s hands.

Where it [the art] was coming from was sort of a contemplation about limitations and what you do with that and how it defines your life and how important that is–how it can feel constraining. But in fact, it’s expansive, it’s where you touch the world, where those limitations are. I don’t know if that comes through clearly, does it?

When I mentioned that those ideas were not uncommon themes in the work of the artist whom she had encountered on the subway, she seemed delighted.

“I admire his work. Having met him, I went to look back at the Life and Times website and was just blown over and then went to Wikipedia to read about him. He’s just a force and he kind of radiates empowerment. I experienced it just talking to him, the sense of empowerment. It’s fantastic.”

I asked if she had any favorite songs and she said not yet, but she loves how generous he is with his collaborations.

It’s very inclusive.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.