Notes from the Underground
When I first moved to New York, in the summer of 2013, I imagined the subway as a cocktail party in a space the size of a long, narrow living room, where people sat and made eye contact until the time came to leave the room for another room. The guest list was weird and took shape by necessity—who needs to go where, when?—and any guest’s attendance was brief, lasting only the duration of their trip from the Bergen Street F-train stop to West 4th Street, say, or from Houston to Chambers.
It’s a vision that has little to do with the reality of the subway—the place where we slump exhausted at the beginning or end of the day—but I still think of it that way sometimes. The subway is our buzzing subterranean world, the guts of the city’s vast body. When I walk along Sixth Avenue or past the beige highrises of Lexington Ave, I think of the people tearing along below me, oblivious to the people above. The world of the subway anchors New York in its murky, deep layer—the foundation from which the city makes its silvery ascendance toward the sky.
In the foreword to the 1949 edition of Here Is New York, E.B. White writes, “To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light…I feel that it is the reader’s, not the author’s, duty to bring New York down to date, and I trust it will prove less a duty than a pleasure.” What follows are one rider’s impressions of the subway—an attempt to bring New York “down to date,” to tell of what it’s like to be a regular guest at the underground cocktail party.
The most shocking thing I’ve ever seen underground was not on the New York subway, but on the Paris Métro. I was standing on the platform, waiting to go a few stops north to the St-Michel stop to meet my parents for dinner. The train pulled into the station, the doors opened, and resting on one of the bluish grey speckled fold-down seats was a rotting foot.
The train was crowded, so that the surrounding passengers obscured the leg and body to which the foot belonged. Framed by the subway door windows, the foot appeared alone—pink and fleshy against the textile of the seat. Years later, I would think of the foot as being like the severed head of Saint Catherine, which sits in an ornate glass box in the Basicila San Domenico in Siena. Tourists can insert small change, as if into a vending machine, and a small light illuminates Catherine’s head. If you, like me, are a person for whom Saint Catherine’s head has no innate significance perhaps you will understand that Catherine’s head and the rotting foot both do have meaning, but exactly what kind is hard to say. Both abide by the rule of meaningful things: they appear as if a shock, as if suddenly illuminated. As the metro doors snapped shut and the train left the station, the light was extinguished. The glowing foot-relic of St-Michel slipped into the tunnel and sped away.
A few months ago, I was on the 2 train in Manhattan and the doors at the end of the subway car opened. A man emerged, and my stomach dropped. The skin on his face was scarred, and he carried a laminated cardboard sign that showed what he looked like before. A note attached to the sign read that someone threw acid on the man’s face; it included the word “melted.” He asked for prayers, and I wondered if anyone on the subway prays for other people. Under the fluorescent overhead lights of the train, he was fully illuminated, and as he passed through the train the crowd moved to make room. With the exception of passengers’ hands reaching to offer change, the man was isolated in space as he walked to the opposite end of the car. He opened the sliding door and passed on to the next car.
Sunday Morning F Train
Of course, there are plenty of sunny weekend mornings on the subway.
On the Sunday morning F train into Manhattan I watched as a dad and his son stood in the middle of the car holding hands, stances wide, swaying back and forth as the car jerked along. They looked like they were dancing at a wedding or bar mitzvah—that slightly over-exaggerated, sweet parent-child dance. The boy’s skinny-wobbly legs emerged from bright white tube socks. The dad wore tube socks too, and the round amber-y tortoiseshell glasses of young Brooklyn dads.
“How many steps are we going to take today?” The boy asked.
“A lot,” the dad answered. “We’re going to walk from East Broadway to Grand and then get donuts.”
What a Sunday! To take the train to East Broadway for doughnuts and then go for a walk with Dad on the Lower East Side. They talked about how close or far any destination was from the East Broadway stop, all in step-count estimates, and about how Mom—somewhere back in Brooklyn, around the York Street stop, where they got on the train—was baking cookies that they would have with dinner later, when some guests came over. As we rolled into East Broadway they waited by the door.
The A Train from the Rockaways
On the train home from a rained-out trip to the Rockaways, M and I sat back to back in the old orange plastic seats of the A train, I’m turned to the side, and our knees make a forty-five degree angle. A group of tall, thin guys in gym shorts and tank tops fill the center of the train, and turn up a good reggae song that I would Shazam if only there was service. We are expecting Showtime.
They start dancing, but soon the dancing turns to something else—their shoulders and elbows seemed to push smoothly out of their sockets to the beat, and each motion is highlighted by the sheen of sweat under subway lights. The boys are contortionists, and they are incredible.
M and I agree that this is something new.
Everyone on the subway watches the contortionists; people take out their phones to film. We are collectively enchanted by them, collectively marveling at their newness, and I wonder if we are also collectively joyful.
How many new things happen on the subway in any given year? Surely these are not the first contortionists to dance to dancehall music on the subway—when did those dancers board?
The subway itself was new on October 27, 1904—the first day of service in Manhattan. Can you imagine?
Surprisingly few people have heard of the 42nd Street Shuttle, the most self-contained of subways. The shortest trip, the S covers just 3,000 feet in less than two minutes, back and forth between 42-St Times Square and 42-St Grand Central. Its tunnel opened the day that the subway opened in 1904.
Like a word repeated out loud to the point of absurdity, the 42nd Street Shuttle repeats its 112-year back-and-forth sprint between Grand Central and Times Square. It is the most surreal and practical train—a train is for tourists in capris, businessmen who could walk its route in their sleep, late-night teens catching the last train home to Westchester, and me, approximately every six months, when I take the subway from my office in the west village to Times Square and then across town to have my teeth cleaned on the 69th floor of the Chrysler Building.
The last time I made this trip, the S strain pulled into Grand Central decked entirely in a Brooks Brothers ad. The ad featured a striking brunette WASP in a sharp navy suit, looking off into the distance—really just into the gritty tunnel that he would traverse for the thousandth or hundred-thousandth time that day or week. What coolness and constancy in the face of a man so often in Grand Central and Times Square!
The inside of the car was coated in light blue and white stripes, so that all passengers appeared to be gathered together in the sleeve of a seersucker suit. I was wearing a light blue and white striped shirt that day, too, and when I sat down in the striped seat blended in completely.
Absurd and complicit we jolted east for our two-minute trip.
The clear plastic cup with solidified red liquid maintained a precise radius of about six inches as it rolled back and forth along the subway car floor. Surely it obeyed some law of physics, but I never was any good at physics and watching the cup roll back and forth I felt something like awe.
We were on the M Train to Bushwick, it was the Golden Hour made better yet by the sun’s reflection on the water under the Manhattan Bridge. The red liquid—What was it? Red gelatin? Congealed Gatorade? Fruit punch?—caught the light. The three of us were in the mood to laugh at repetitive things. Monitoring the cup became the subway version of a road trip car game, except there was no scheme or rules, just a gorgeous rolling cup of mysterious solid-liquid that mesmerized us and made us laugh.
The doors opened at the Hewes Street stop and a man wearing a polo and khaki pants entered. He was remarkably calm—poised and elegant. He walked the length of the train asking for food or money. We were traveling with a bag of Goldfish and gave it to him. He stood by the car door, facing toward the window, waiting for his stop.
The cup of solidified red liquid rolled back and forth, lapping just short of his feet. I was sure he didn’t notice, until we pulled into Myrtle Ave and without looking down he slid the cup off the train and onto the platform.
I saw the cup on the Myrtle Ave platform briefly, just in the time before the doors snapped shut. It glowed there, like the woman in Bruce Davidson’s 1980s subway photo, standing on an elevated subway platform in a red dress illuminated by Golden Hour city light, poised and waiting for the next train. Both the woman and the cup of unidentified red liquid were like red stained glass.
“To the Reader: Twilight”
There are plenty of ways to measure time on the subway—number of stops, number of transfers, number of tracks from The Life of Pablo that it takes to travel from Bergen Street to West 4th. The subway ads are a good measure of time for small spans—how much work have I done in the time that Venmo’s Lucas—fan of yoga, dancing, magic, and dutiful payer of rent—has looked down amicably upon us? How much money have I spent at restaurants since Seamless identified that I no longer cook? Of course, these kinds of questions are about as interesting as the ads.
But Chase Twichell’s “To the Reader: Twilight”—part of Poetry in Motion’s subway campaign—measures time in questions that linger. The poem reads:
Whenever I look
out at the snowy
mountains at this hour
and speak directly into the ear of the sky,
it’s you I’m thinking of.
You’re like the spirits
the children invent
to inhabit the stuffed horse
and the doll.
I don’t know who hears me.
I don’t know who speaks
when the horse speaks.
According to Poetry in Motion’s website, “To the Reader: Twilight” has only been in the subway for two years, and yet this can’t be possible. It feels as if I’ve been measuring time against this subway poem since I first moved here and somehow even before that. Read by thousands of people daily, the poem still feels cold and magical—this poem for the masses affects me more than anything obscure. Every time I find myself in a subway car where it’s posted, I run through this list:
Who is the horse?
Who has been the ear of the sky?
Who is like the spirits that the children invent?
Who is the stuffed horse and the doll?
I read it like a ritual, tracking the past and present “yous,” the thought of the snowy mountain, and, while shooting through the deep tunnels beneath the New York streets, imagine the shifting ears of the sky above.
A landfill, the Gowanus Canal, Lowes, maybe a trace of Wholefoods in the distance—nothing too thrilling, and yet the moment the F train emerges from its underground tunnel in Gowanus and ascends toward Smith-9th Street, the tallest above ground station in the world, is incredible.
First, there are quick glints of light against the tunnel’s concrete walls, the earliest sign that the train will soon be above ground. Then, the grey concrete walls become square reddish brownstones, where for a second we imagine how the silvery exterior of our train might appear to those looking out from their homes. Then, the expanse of Carroll Gardens and Gowanus revealed as the train rounds curved tracks. The train reveals the city below to us as if it were a character in a film who with a sweeping arm presents a circus or a feast.
What’s most striking are the pale white warehouse rooftops, all so flat, cubed together into their own layer of city. In certain sunlight, the expanse looks more like an aerial photo of Israel—all blue and bleached beige—than of Brooklyn. In other light it looks like the American west. In the cerulean hour of early night the expanse is like a swimming quarry, and first thing in the morning it’s a deep bowl being slowly filled with light.
It is a scene only rivaled by the first glimpse of sky when leaving the subway—the revelation of weather and air as you ascend the concrete stairs and go back into the world.