On a Saturday morning in early September, 68-year-old Richard McLachlan stands at the center of a Brooklyn-bound Q train, looking up and down the subway car. A couple of dozen riders stare at their phones or lean their heads back against the windows, their eyes closed. McLachlan clears his throat and starts shouting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I do not want any money from you, but I would really appreciate a few minutes of your time and attention,” he says.
McLachlan is meticulously shaven. The New Zealand native wears a clean collared shirt and fine leather shoes. He hardly fits the bill for New York City desperate, yet his message is one of heartfelt urgency.
“This is not about me,” he continues. “It’s about all of us here in this climate emergency that we are in. I’m an elderly man now, with five grandchildren, and their lives are going to be so much more difficult and painful than mine or many of yours ever were.”
Almost no one on this train even looks McLachlan’s way.
McLachlan is part of Extinction Rebellion, the climate group best known for shutting down main arteries in London last April. Here in New York City, steeped in the subway din, McLachlan delivers a crushing litany on food shortages, forest fires, more and bigger storms. He wants to scare his listeners, wake them up. Mostly, he says, he wants them to connect with one another.
“Talk to your family and friends, your lovers, your workmates. Talk to complete strangers in the subway car,” he urges.
The riders stare at the floor or at their phones. It’s almost as if they’re waiting, making sure McLachlan will hold up his end of the bargain and not ask them for money or anything else. Then — at least by New York City subway standards — something astonishing occurs: A dozen riders break into applause. Others nod in affirmation. “Thank you!” a woman shouts.
McLachlan is clearly moved by these responses.
“That means a lot to me,” he says. “Just to know you listened.”
Leaning against the train car doors and smiling, Metropolitan Transportation Authority employee Stacey Johnson says that of all the things she has seen on the train, “this is one of the best things, one of the good forms of communication and information being passed around.”
But even while some riders applaud, a man raises his voice in response. His name is Kape Deville, and — just as McLachlan implored — Deville is now talking about climate change on the subway to strangers, but his message might not be exactly what McLachlan was after.
“Brace yourself!” Deville shouts. “It’s too late!” A moment later, Deville explains his outburst.
“Everything he’s saying, it sounds good, but it’s too late now. The environment is already too far gone. The things we were supposed to do to fix it, we were supposed to do in the ’80s. God is the only one that’s gonna save us.”
A couple of weeks later, on a Tuesday night in Bushwick, Brooklyn, McLachlan teaches members of Extinction Rebellion how to give their own subway talks. His workshop is part writing craft, part encouragement and part reflection from a man who has a genuine knack for preaching the apocalypse.
“At some point I thought, ‘There’s no Richard. There’s just an old white guy standing up in the subway car yelling,’ ” he says. “And I sort of have this technique. I sit there and I dispense with Richard. And then I stand up and start talking.”
Aubrey Reeves Aldritch, an actor, is one of nine people in attendance. She says she’s aware of the associations people might have about someone who speaks out on the subway.
“I’m not afraid to be the crazy person, because it’s not crazy,” she says. “It’s happening.”
Later that night, on the L train crossing into Manhattan, Aldritch and others give their subway talks for the first time.
“The polar ice caps are melting,” Aldritch shouts, her voice clenching up. “The oceans are rising and rising and rising.”
Later, on a different train car, another of McLachlan’s students offers his one-minute speech.
“We’re losing untold thousands of species to extinction,” Arthur Boyle bellows.
John Spies gives his speech its first run on the uptown 4 train.
“It’s not our fault we inherited a broken system,” he yells, “but we do have a choice.”
The performances are awkward. These newbies don’t yet connect with their audiences, at least not as effectively as their mentor does. But McLachlan is all praise. He knows from experience what it takes to stand up and start hollering that first time.
“That was great, man,” he tells Boyle. “You’ve got a really good voice. You could have gone up quite a lot more.”
McLachlan and his students plan to speak on the subway throughout October, while their peers in Extinction Rebellion block traffic and risk arrest in cities around the globe.