The Man Behind the Post-Its
Sixteen yellow sticky notes have been placed side by side on a white tiled wall underground in the New York subway system. Matthew “Levee” Chavez counts them aloud; there should be one for each letter: SubwayTherapy.Com.
Five days a week from 2:00 to 8:00 p.m., Matthew, a 28-year-old Brooklyn resident, lugs two wooden chairs, a plastic silver fold-up table and a backpack full of personal belongings to the 14th street tunnel between the 1–2–3 and the L-train. In his recognizable brown suit, white shirt and varying shades of tan striped ties, he lays out a handful of pens and a myriad of sticky notes: blue, yellow, green, pink, orange; no color left behind. He hangs a framed “Honorary PhB” (professional human being) diploma on the wall.
“So, 3M told me they were going to send me some post-its,” he says, “They haven’t.”
Seven months ago, Matthew Chavez started a personal project that eventually evolved into Subway Therapy. Just hours after the Election Day results were announced, the popularization of his positivity-promoting post-it wall skyrocketed. Matthew found instant fame, his name mentioned in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and more. He was even asked to speak to students at Manhattan’s Urban Academy Laboratory High School about Subway Therapy and the message he is sending to the people of NYC. While Matthew’s main source of income is working two days a week at a bar in Brooklyn, he hopes that with his newfound fame he will be able to turn his street artist hobby into a moneymaking career.
As habitually oblivious New Yorkers hurry to their trains, Matthew gives them the opportunity to relay a positive message of their choosing on a 3” x 3” piece of paper.
Stephen Gordon, a 23-year-old aspiring actor, was walking by when he saw the wall and decided he “could spare five minutes to do some good.”
Stephen pointed to a note that read, “If not her, then why not you?” and declared it his favorite, just after crumpling up a separate post-it with the message, “Trump is better than Hillary.”
“Subway therapy’s about feeling less stressed, expressing yourself, hopefully in a place that’s inclusive and peaceful and nonpartisan,” Matthew explains. “It’s about you feeling better about you every day.”
Matthew, a man of many metaphors, coined his own artistic name, Levee. “The Purpose of a levee,” he explains, “is when it rains to keep the water from flooding the town. I like to be a levee of people’s fire, to keep it from burning other people and channel it into something that’s really good.”
Although Matthew is not a licensed therapist (a disclaimer that is given on his website and during in-person conversations), he describes having a strong interest in helping others at a very young age in his hometown of Gilroy, California.
In the sixth grade, Matthew recalls being teased in school for being “wordy” and having a big vocabulary. “I’ll never forget it. I was in this class discussion and I said, ‘The other day I was pondering’ and everyone started laughing at me… I felt so embarrassed, and I decided that I was going to stop reading books because if I kept reading and I kept getting smarter than my peers then I wasn’t going to be able to access them as part of my community.” Matthew then decided to focus on building relationships and socializing and being “really, really good at it.”
When Matthew was in middle school, he took a weekend-long peer-counseling course in his hometown. The course instructed him on how to mediate a potential conflict between friends or classmates. In high school, he participated in another program called Students Against Destructive Decisions. “We went to junior high schools and gave presentations on the things you might experience when you get into high school and how to be prepared for them.”
Along with his passion for service, he also expressed a passion for art. Matthew remembers a time in his high school Spanish class where he accidentally forgot about an assigned presentation until an hour before it was due. “It was supposed to be a week-long project about what our vacation was that summer. All the other kids had prepared a poster with pictures and illustrations, and I didn’t have that. So I actually used the dry erase marker, and I drew all of the pictures while I talked about how I went to British Colombia on a fishing trip with my dad and my grandpa; I just did this kind of on-the-fly interactive drawing presentation.”
Matthew began relating his artwork to interpersonal relationships. While taking a Small Metals class at Gilroy High School, he learned about the process of annealing (heating and then slowly cooling a metal in order to make it stronger). Through this process, he began to see an unlikely comparison between metal and people. “Metal, when you manipulate it and you work with it, bend it, it hardens… and then, it’ll snap,” he explains. “People are like that…you can take people’s fire; when people are arguing with each other, when people are fearful, when people are isolated, they’re being bent. And if they’re not using that fire to heal, but they’re using it to hurt, then they are bending and they’re bending and they’re bending and they get more and more brittle until eventually, they break.”
At San Jose State University, he switched his major from Psychology to Graphic Design, with the ultimate goal of teaching in his field. As a freshmen orientation leader for two years, he guided incoming students through campus, making them feel comfortable and included. He also started the largest student organization on campus (excluding Greek life): Locomotion Longboarding. “We got about sixty people out and would ride all around San Jose at night. It was awesome. It was great.”
After college, Matthew began substitute teaching and narrating audio books in the San Jose area. A few years later, his best friend Adam Shorr was planning to study abroad in South Korea through his law school program and convinced Matthew to apply for teaching positions there. He got a job teaching English and moved to Seoul.
Matthew describes the majority of his time in Korea as lonely. “Adam was there for the first three months of it, which is why I went there in the first place. And then after he left I felt kind of isolated.” Matthew believes that this is when his idea of Subway Therapy began to draft in his mind. “I think this is really when I started thinking about how people get help and feel good when they feel bad about things.”
As his one-year contract was coming to an end, Matthew decided to travel through Asia before returning to the U.S. While in Bali, he ventured to the Aling-Aling waterfalls on a motorbike. In an attempt at passing the car in front of him, he lost control of the bike and crashed into another vehicle. Matthew was seriously injured and did not have health insurance at the time “because I was very irresponsible.” He was able to return to Korea, where he had multiple surgeries to repair damage to the nerves and muscle in his right foot. Prior to his third surgery, a skin graft, Matthew’s mother, “bless her heart,” purchased him a plane ticket to California so that he could have the procedure at home.
Matthew spent two months at his parents’ home recuperating from surgery and then left on Dec. 26, 2015 to move to New York, bringing with him only a backpack, a suitcase and a small guitar. Matthew slept on Adam’s couch and gave himself two weeks to find a job and a place to live.
He moved in to a “notoriously crappy artist loft” in Brooklyn and began teaching fifth and sixth grade art at a school in Canarsie. Matthew describes his time as a teacher as “challenging” and says he realized that he is not suited for education. “I’m not really good at keeping structure. I’m much better at breaking it.”
While teaching art, Matthew also began walking dogs, bar-backing at The Topaz (a Brooklyn bar near where he lives) and spending his afternoons in the subway.
Subway Therapy evolved from Matthew’s initial project: New York Secret Keeper. “I figured a lot of people were walking around New York and had a lot of weight on their shoulders or stress in their minds,” Matthew said. “So I’d tell them that whatever they told me would end up being my responsibility. I’d help them hold the weight, because it’s not so heavy for me, but maybe whatever they have to say is really heavy for them.”
In May 2016, Matthew began to lug the same wooden chairs and plastic silver fold-up table to a subway station randomly chosen for that day. Matthew laughs when describing the “pretty amateur” sign he used, featuring the words “Secret Keeper” written with a black sharpie onto a piece of torn cardboard. In a flannel, rolled jeans and white Sambas, he waited with a notebook for New Yorkers to approach him with their frustrations.
Matthew found people to be very receptive. “More often than not,” he explains, “people would come up and they would say, ‘You know, can I actually just talk to you about something?’ and I would say, ‘Yeah, sure, sit down.’”
People would utilize their time with Matthew as a third-party venting session. “They would walk away as the train was coming, and they’d be like ‘Wow, I kind of feel better. It’s like therapy.’”
On Wednesday, November 9, the day after the election, Matthew arrived at the 1–2–3 and L tunnel at 2 p.m., expecting to make it out in time to attend the opera with his friends. By 5 p.m., he was cancelling his plans. By 8 p.m., his neighbor had to take over briefly so that he could finally use the bathroom, and by 2 p.m., he was, at last, leaving the subway.
The next day he did approximately eight interviews, and each day since, he has had around three or four press inquiries.
Adam Shorr, now Matthew’s roommate, says he joined him at the subway for the next few days. “I was helping him arrange all the press,” Adam explains, “and it was predictable at that point. It just kind of snowballed.”
Following the extensive media exposure, sticky note walls have begun to pop up in places around New York and in various other locations, such as Seattle, Boston and Canada.
A wall at the 14th Street Union Square station was almost entirely covered in brightly colored post-its until December 18, when Matthew helped to take it down, due to city regulations. The messages, which were more election-based, included, “This too shall pass…” and “Wake the fuck up, America.” Matthew theorizes that people who could not find his particular wall near Union Square started their own with privately purchased materials.
Juliana Sheehan, a NYC artist, claims that she was providing the pop-up wall with pens and paper. “I just came here the other day, and it [the wall] was like this. I wanted to help out, so I went to the Duane Reade across the street and got ten sticky note pads and a bunch of sharpies.”
There were distinguishable aesthetic differences between the Union Square wall and Matthew’s. Matthew’s wall is different each day. “Every night, I take all the notes down, and I put new ones up the next day with some from the day before,” he explains. “I don’t necessarily want to forget each day; I just want each day to reflect what people are feeling on that specific day.”
Because no one was necessarily monitoring the Union Square wall, post-its were layering on top of one another since its creation, in somewhat of an organized-chaos pattern.
While the Union Square wall tended to focus more on the results of the election, Matthew has been attempting to sway his wall-goers in a more non-partisan direction. A few examples of post-its from Matthew’s wall include, “Listen to hear, not listen to respond,” “Keep your head up and your heart strong,” and “The goddamn train too crowded, rent too high.”
Matthew not only encourages people to write their own messages, he allows them to help choose which messages from the day before will appear on the wall again.
“If anybody is looking at this right now and is feeling inspired and wants to help out but doesn’t necessarily know what to say, I have a stack of notes from yesterday you can go through to hang instead,” Matthew instructs the crowd.
While Matthew has just recently been attracting the attention of the world, he has been attracting the attention of fellow subway dwellers for months.
Jesus Guadalupe, a 24-year-old New Yorker with Phocomelia, a physical deformity that caused his arms to be abnormally short, says that he has known Matthew for almost six months. Jesus, who busks by drumming on two overturned plastic buckets in Union Square, respects Matthew and his mission with Subway Therapy. “It’s a good thing to do,” he said. “People always want to be heard.”
Zack Heru, a solo Beatles cover artist, has been busking in the subway for almost 20 years and working alongside Subway Therapy in the more recent months. “People love coming to talk to him [Matthew],” Zack said. “They come all the way here to express how they feel and write about it on those papers, and it help[s] me too, when they come see him. People come see him, and they come see me.”
Matthew plans to experiment with the different possibilities of Subway Therapy in the future. “Personally, I want to go to more schools,” he explains. “And I want to go to communities that feel like they’re not connecting to each other, not just in this nation but around the world.”
Matthew wants to continue allowing people to express themselves and relieve whatever stress they may be experiencing.
“Can I make a recommendation?” Matthew, holding out a stack of paper and a pen, says to a distressed post-it protestor, “Write about it.”