In that same time span, Mr. Perry, who has adopted the name Orin, will rough out a sketch of that rider, hand it to his subject and move on to draw someone else. His work is at once a solicitation and an act of altruism: a note at the bottom of the drawing suggests that tips are welcome but that in any case, the sketch is the rider’s to keep.
Soliciting tips for services may fly in the face of the Rules Governing the Conduct and Safety of the Public on the city’s subways and buses, Part 1050.6, to be specific. But so, it often seems, does smiling at and talking to strangers on the subway, which often happens among riders watching Mr. Perry work. They usually start out smiling at each other’s sketches, work up the nerve to comment on each other’s features and then share laments that they gave up their own tendencies to draw years ago.
On average, Mr. Perry said, he uses a pack of 500 sheets of laser-printer paper in a week. He said that about half the people whom he sketches reward him with a tip, usually $1 or $2. ”I set how much I want to make for the day,” he said, generally $50. He rarely collects that much, but as long as he brings in enough to pay his share of the rent, he says, he is satisfied.
His day on the subway can last two to four hours but he will work considerably longer if he is motivated by a particular theme. ”Some days I’ll just draw large women,” he said. ”Some days I’ll just draw kids. Most days I draw everyone.”
”I’ve been doing this full time for about a year, but I was always doing this between jobs,” he said. ”For 20 years I lived differently. I was a nine-to-fiver. I worked sales, I worked all these kinds of jobs and I would get up early in the morning, go to work and do what everyone else was doing.”
His former life, Mr. Perry said, has allowed him to ”totally understand when people are not receptive to what I’m doing.”
”This person’s had either a hard day; they don’t want to be bothered,” he said. ”It’s their option; it’s their privacy.”
He favors the R and the N trains in Manhattan, and in Queens, because he likes the view of Long Island City from the elevated track. He used to ride the E line, which runs from Queens to the World Trade Center, but has not returned since September 2001.
The R train is also one of Mr. Perry’s favorites because the cars have colored, individually molded seats rather than lines of bench seating. ”The way things are lined up in the R, people can be in their own space, be doing their thing and not so superconscious of you looking straight at them,” he said.
The setup also makes his stealth approach easier. While even the hint of objection from his subject will send him moving, he can often finish a sketch before his model is even aware of his presence, leaving the person to decide how to respond to his or her new likeness as Mr. Perry searches for another face. ”I try to be discreet about it, but I also have an aim,” he said. ”I try not to make it too much of a hustle for them. Like I try not to set a price for them because I think to myself: ‘People should have a right to decide. They don’t need art; it’s not like bread.”’
Sometimes, Mr. Perry is unable to finish a sketch before his subject gets up and walks away. When that happens, he flips the unfinished drawing down to the bottom of his stack of paper and moves on. He keeps all the partial works, as well as those drawings that are left behind. ”I’ll file them away,” he said, ”thinking to myself that if I’m ever doing commercial work, I would use these faces to make the illustrations a bit more realistic.”
Mr. Perry has been sketching riders for so long that some recognize him, and either move away or signal that they would like a paper portrait.
On an uptown R train in Manhattan one recent afternoon, a young girl giggled and blushed a bright red as she watched Mr. Perry sketch another rider. Then she moved into a seat across from him, cajoled her severe, matronly companion into sitting beside her, and asked Mr. Perry to sketch them. After asking where they were getting off, he took what is for him an unusual amount of time– five stops, from Herald Square to Lexington Avenue and 59th Street. Clearly pleased, they handed him a few folded dollar bills as they got off the train. Mr. Perry got off too, then boarded a downtown R train and continued sketching.
”During the day, I stay in Manhattan,” he said. ”Not because I feel it’s better money, but I feel, sometimes, people’s attitudes change when they’re in Manhattan. We have the assumption that Manhattan is a special city where the kind of thing that I do is allowed.”
Reza A. Ebrahimi, 12, was visiting Manhattan from Long Island for a day of fun when he, his mother and two siblings encountered Mr. Perry on an R train. Reza was paying no attention as Mr. Perry began wielding a marker that looks like charcoal but is not as messy. Reza’s older sister clued him in, but the boy did not acknowledge what was going on until the artist presented him with his likeness. ”I just thought it was his job and I didn’t want to be rude, so I just let him finish,” Reza said. ”It came out good so I’m going to put it up in my room and show it off to people.”
His mother, Liliana I. Ebrahimi, 42, who calls New York ”a place to come and enjoy,” was not at all perturbed by a stranger’s attention to her son. ”In the city, nobody has privacy,” she said matter-of-factly.
Photos: Rodrick A. Perry quickly sketches subway riders, like Daisy Rodriguez, who became an art subject aboard an R train in Manhattan last week. (Photographs by Nancy Siesel/The New York Times)