I emerged from the Forest Hills stop on a sunny Saturday morning. I’d left my Manhattan apartment about half an hour before to make the unusual trip east to Queens. Walking around Queens Boulevard, I encountered a diverse group of folks: an old Italian couple, a yuppy Asian mother, a touristy looking white couple, a group of black women. The neighborhood was split between small mom and pop stores, like the T Bone Diner, and the bigger chains, like Staples. I headed back underground to begin my subterranean journey.
Stepping into the subway car at Forest Hills, I sat down in the pale yellow light directly in the middle of the car so I could see everyone who exited and entered. My main goal for the ride was to take note of the shifting demographics as we tunneled through neighborhoods on our way to Bay Ridge — an hour and a half trip on the local R.
Looking around I saw a small but diverse group. Two people in particular stuck out to me in the beginning. An American woman at the end of the car sat in the corner of the train, taking up three seats. One seat contained her large purse, one contained her and the third contained her bag of food that she would eat out of for the ride. I pictured her lounging while someone fanned her with a big palm leaf and fed her grapes; in her mind, she was the queen of the train and deserved those three seats. The other individual was a Latino man carrying just as much stuff as our queen. In contrast to her self-centeredness, this man was able to put his dry cleaning on one of the handrails and put his bag underneath his seat to reserve space for others.
The first big crowd we encountered waiting for us was only a few stops away at Grand Avenue. The mostly Asian group packed into the train, and at this point all of the comfortable seats were taken. A precocious three-year-old was among the crowd getting onto the train and quickly took a seat near me. I watched as she looked on with excitement at what the rest of the traingoers found mundane. She found the infrastructure around us — the wires, the pillars, the tunnel doorways and lights — utterly fascinating. Things that would never stick out to your average subway rider were brand new to this child and it made me notice these things a little more, too.
As the three-year-old continued to be fascinated by the tunnels we were driving through, Elmhurst had another large crowd waiting for us: A mix of Latinos and Asians piled into the train. As we pulled into Roosevelt, our car emptied, only to be repopulated with a largely Latino crowd. With this crowd, in strolled a cocky young kid who plopped his large Abercrombie & Fitch bag on the seat previously used by the conscientious Latino man. With his legs spread wide, no one took the seat next to him as he inspected the car’s population to see who was looking at him.
As we chugged past Northern Boulevard, I noticed the queen had relinquished one of her seats. No one was standing, but all of the other seats were occupied, including the dreaded middle ones. Instead of enjoying her greedy two, she wore a scowl at her loss of one. Her large purse still had its own seat.
As we headed toward 36th Avenue and Queens Plaza, the collective brown skin of the subway car began to get paler and was eventually invaded by Midwestern and European tourists as we hit the stops between 59th Street at Lexington and Times Square. As the tourists piled in, the train got much louder and seemingly more crowded, as they used the prime middle of the car as stroller parking.
At Penn Station, our Abercrombie-model-wannabe left the train and a mid-20s white guy got on, sitting stretched out on the two seats perpendicular to mine. He put his back against the wall of the train and put his feet up on the other seat, playing around with his smart phone. If the queen and Captain Abercrombie were treating the train like the back of a Town Car, this kid was treating it like a poolside lounger in the Caribbean.
As we hit the lower Manhattan stops, the majority of the tourists got off the train. The families with young kids were so loud and had so much stuff — the above-mentioned strollers restricted anyone from walking the length of the car without considerable difficulty, while the kids who they were for treated the subway as a playground — that when they left, the trains were actually empty.
The Brooklyn stops were uneventful as we had, at most, 12 people on the train in the borough. The queen — and her mass of belongings — got off at Atlantic Avenue. The crowd we crawled into 95th Street with looked very much like the one leaving Forest Hills, even though I was the only one who’d taken the train end-to-end.
Emerging from underground, the sunlight was bright, but my surroundings seemed quite similar to what I’d left an hour and a half before in Queens. If you’d blindfolded me, I would say I was back where I’d started. The T Bone Diner was replaced by the Fort Hamilton Diner. The pedestrians were similar, if not a little whiter and older. Off in the distance was a big red sign that read “Staples.”
I didn’t encounter any surprises on my subway journey, but I did come away with a few things. While the demographic shifts were expected (pockets of Asians and Latinos in Queens, tourists in Manhattan, back to ethnic riders in Brooklyn), what I found more interesting was the individuals on the train.
Too often we have a tendency to make judgments based on one’s perceived group — be it ethnic, racial, sexual what have you. Rather than focusing on a person’s group, which is already broken down statistically by government and private agencies for a wide variety of reasons, I found individuals’ behavior more telling of who they were. An obvious observation, to be sure, but one that we tend to lose sight of here the more jaded we become.
As an experiment, Eric rode the same route at the same time of day. His observations are below: