In a city so divided by class and time, our subway is the one idea of reality we all share. To understand how everyone’s lives connected in the grand scheme of my new term “realcity,” I had to start underground. At first I thought some interviews, perhaps an afternoon spent car-hopping, would be enough. Yet on the eve of Realcity’s launch, that felt too easy. To honestly run a publication that questioned the elements of our daily realities, I had to fully examine my own. The only way to do this was abandon everything I’d established in my year and a half here completely.
This would take more than a day. I’d need to be gone long enough for the subway to become my only concept of life in the city. Aside from voicemail check-ins via payphone to Katie, my girlfriend, I would have no contact with the outside world. The only distractions would be what I saw and what I thought — no phone, no book and no music. Equipped with a backpack full of provisions, a handful of business cards and two notebooks, I ventured into the MTA for an extended stay. Whether I discovered the meaning of life in a night or descended into madness within minutes, I vowed not to exit the turnstiles for 72 hours.
The complete experience produced pages of scribbled quotes and delirious ramblings — 41 typed single-spaced, once printed out. I carried these notes around for months, trying to make sense of it all. I worried that as time passed the meaning would slip away, but whenever I read it now, the ideas are just as vivid. More than any other substantial memory in my life, those days will never be forgotten. Though I don’t ride the train often anymore, it’s become both oddly comforting and subtly distressing. This may seem like a common feeling, but I promise what I encountered last year was different than the familiarity of frequent ridership. During those few days I lost touch with my own reality and the city’s nearly swallowed me whole.
The following timestamps and quotes are taken directly from my notes.
“18-20 people. 1/2 white. Ads: Rosetta Stone, Daffy’s, GrubHub, Ballet, Andrew Jackson Broadway show, Iceland, Dermatologist Jonathan Zizmor MD”
After days of anxious planning and intense denial, I finally leave my apartment. Freshly showered and fairly high, I walk my normal route up to 96th Street in near solitude. Because I think it’ll be safer to sleep during the day, I’ve chosen to begin in the evening. While I’ve ridden the subway at all hours, I’ve never willingly explored it through the night. Hopefully my current state of curiosity will help. I have the urge to turn back, but know that I may never have a chance to dive this deep into my own mind again. New York does not encourage such things. With a swipe of my MetroCard, I enter the system.
Faced with such a massive subject, quantifying it seems like the best option. Other than finding the Times Square bathrooms, I have no plans and begin recording every detail, down to the ads themselves. On my notebook’s inside front cover, I make the following columns: “Rats,” “Way Homeless” and “Train Performers.” As I pass over the old Esquire commute, I wonder how they’d bill it. Would it be a report on the state of our city’s subway system? More like a report on the state of one man’s delusions, but that doesn’t sound as serious.
The Times Square bathrooms are four stale closets with just enough room to stand. Entry must be granted by an attendant and they close at midnight. Clearly the MTA doesn’t want people lingering for long periods of time, but sometimes they have to. The distant sound of timpani music makes me wonder about the musicians who make their living down here. Where are they supposed to go? I soon see my first chance to ask one, but am preempted by some kid with a blond ponytail and a notepad. The opportunity feels tainted. Later a cheerful man in a leather jacket and chef pants strums his way down the car, but watching him press a yarmulke-clad boy for money is more interesting than interrupting. The boy awkwardly gives him a banana.
I should’ve jumped into these situations anyway, but it’s been over a year since I conducted the briefest of in-person interviews and my enthusiasm has been dulled by restaurant drudgery. While this adventure was supposed to force me back into the game, I’m currently more content with observing. Besides, the thick underground heat has already begun to slow me down, creating a film of grimy sweat on my forehead.
Upon seeing a homeless man sleeping sprawled out on the 1 train, I can understand why. Just because we’re getting places faster doesn’t mean we have anywhere to go. Even the puddle of orange soda leaking from his half-drunk bottle can’t quite make it over the bench’s edge.
“The progression never ends.”
With the MTA’s occasional clocks as my only guide, I’ve already lost track of time and become hopelessly bored. South Ferry’s tile mosaics of historic houses remind me of the numerous immigrants — my great-grandfather included — who made the long trip from Europe with much less to do. If the Rosengren name can come that far, it can certainly handle this; whatever “this” may be.
With nothing left to see down here, I catch the next uptown train. Coming around the corner at Times Square, I see a mime adjusting her black wig in the Record Mart window. Thin and pale, “Pearl the Mime” wears a white ruffled dress. I keep walking, but suddenly feel a tug on my arm. Pearl has fallen to her knees in mock infatuation to present me with a red foil heart. I thank her and consider trying for an interview, but decide it’s probably against mime code to break the silence after an act.
I eat my second granola bar and a handful of trail mix while waiting for the train, even though I had dinner before leaving the house. At this rate, I’ll be lucky to have any food left by sunrise. Currently my rations include: 18 granola bars, a bag of trail mix, a bag of banana chips, a water bottle and $80 in cash for emergency purposes. Barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll need to make this last 70 more hours. I could buy food at the newsstands, but the less I indulge the better. The S train’s promotional TVs and wall-to-wall advertising provide a much needed distraction, but after the quick trip to Grand Central I realize it’s time to get serious.
It’s been almost a year. I must return to Queens and confront my past.
“I haven’t been out here since the move. 9 months ago this was my destination, my stop. This was where I’d made my home. Or so I thought.”
I have absolutely no reason to be out here tonight, except that it’s familiar. From the elevated platform, I can see our old building across the street. Most of those five months were spent desperately trying to make things better, but I also enjoyed myself. The roof had an unobstructed view of Manhattan, the movies were cheap, the grocery store played my kind of music and I was even our building leader for a tenants’ union. Had circumstances been different, I could’ve lived here for years. The city doesn’t encourage this kind of domestic behavior, though. It keeps the trains running and the bars open so people will spend money instead of thinking about their lives.
Since leaving Queens, I’ve realized how vital the borough is to this whole charade. Day or night, the 7 train is full of people passing between home and work. The city is too expensive to be their playground; it’s their factory. While we complain about our one job, they’re working two or three. They clear the table when we’re done eating, empty the trash when we go home and staff the Dunkin Donuts in time for our morning hangovers. Our unfulfilled dreams and ambitions are what keep this place afloat. Where my current mission falls into this cycle, I’m not sure, but either way it’s time to continue.
Back on the outbound 7, a group of kids with large suitcases and unopened instruments sing “Hey Jude.” No payment is expected as the car laboriously empties workers into the depths of Queens. Out this far, we can’t even see the city. At Flushing, everyone gets off for train cleaning — which involves a surprising amount of mopping — and I catch the next one back across the platform. The crowd at this time of night is pleasantly quiet. Couples talk in low voices, a man fiddles with an eyebrow piercing using his phone camera as a mirror and an old lady falls asleep with her hand in a bag of snacks. No one is in a hurry, but they all have somewhere to be.
“I don’t care what the current thing is because city life is transient.”
Less than an hour later, I’m back. I can see my favorite taco truck below the rails, but it’s out of my reach. After successfully dodging a station employee, I take a leak while staring at the city. When I used to see it out my window every day, I thought of it as a machine that would consume you unless you conquered it. I figured by now the plans would be in motion to stake my claim, or I’d at least be done working at the Odeon. Now I’m writing this with a damn Odeon pen. It’s all part of learning to deal with the transience. The Odeon gave me Katie and now the two of them are my rocks. Not Barack, Bloomberg or the NYT. They certainly are important, but especially now, they have no bearing on my daily life.
Done reminiscing, I end up sleeping on the N train. A homeless guy in the next car has the same idea, his head continually thumping and slumping against the window. Back in Times Square, I hope to find Pearl, but she’s gone. Cops stand near Record Mart while two women watch a martial arts movie playing in the window. “Them’s the fightingest people I’ve ever seen,” one remarks. A guy with cuts on his arms slouches nearby. I hope to get an interview at the newsstand, but the man seems intimidated by my business card and tells me to look for his boss in the morning. Resigned, I buy a pack of Swedish Fish and head Uptown.
“First tense moment occurs when no stops from 59th to 125th. That’s 66 blocks.”
I rarely ride the D train, especially not in the middle of the night. Aside from a couple older gentlemen, it seems that no one else does either. I’ve staked out a seat at the end, across from a sleeping man with huge glasses and a bulging parka. Next to us, a young guy in jeans and a sweatshirt paces to his music. Over the next couple minutes, his moves escalate from violent hand gestures to whistling, yelling and sheep-like baaing. The already quiet car is palpably tense. This culminates in a vicious, wayward diatribe about honor, murder and “faggots.” Whoever he’s doing this for, the intentions aren’t pleasant. Thankfully he gets off at the next stop. We all stay on.
After finally reaching Yankee Stadium, I decide to turn around. Compared with that brightly lit pantheon to commercialism across the street, the mood here feels desperate. Those who aren’t sizing each other up watch a pigeon sidestep cans of bug spray on the track. Maybe this is one of the moments that I need to push through, a wall between my comfort and the city’s truths, but my instincts say otherwise. The subway may be better than it used to be, but it still has its rough patches late at night. My Uptown explorations will have to wait for daylight. Even after the train comes, I don’t let my guard down.
The downtown 6 crowd is quiet but volatile. We soon pick up two dirty guys in coats, the older of which is named “Pop,” sharing a can of orange soda.
“It’s your favorite soda, right?” the younger one asks.
Pop mumbles a sleepy response.
A guy wearing a Yankees cap and an arm cast responds, “For 20 years.”
“What?” asks Pop’s companion.
“He said it’s been for 20 years.”
“Oh,” he replies, promptly chugging the can and burping loudly.
Yankees cap starts walking down the car, carrying a brown bagged beer with his good arm, and runs into the guy sitting across from me. He drunkenly accuses the seated man and I get dragged into it.
“This guy’s a reporter. He’s writing down everything you say.”
With a jerk, Yankees cap turns around and sizes me up: “This kid? He’s going to school.”
Despite the impracticality of that at this time of night, I support it. Inspired by the Boardwalk Empire pilot I watched before leaving the house, I start scribbling random details. Due to historical laziness and growing fatigue, they make little sense:
“WWI Battle of Mareilles ‘doughboys’ 1916-1920”
“Very tempting to go home. Holy shit tempting!”
Inexplicably, I get off at my stop, but soon catch the next train. Every bench seems a little softer, every station a little warmer. I’ve come no closer to understanding the city, let alone myself. Maybe it’s not meant to be understood? Or maybe it just requires some actual fucking reporting to do so. If only my fellow subjects weren’t so damn rowdy.
Mostly sober but surprisingly tired, I board trains at whim now. Rather than analyze the city every step of the way, maybe I just need to give myself over to its rhythms. This goes on for longer than I realize, sending me into a blurry state. While riding an escalator up through one of Grand Central’s narrow white tunnels, the lights blend into kaleidoscopic patterns. The need to piss is so overpowering that I can’t focus on writing and go in search of conversation.
At a newsstand in Union Square, I finally find my man. His name is Sayed and he works seven days a week (unless he has a fever) from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. (sometimes 10 a.m.). I thank him for agreeing to talk, but the pleasure is his. “I want to talk to everyone, but no one they talk to me,” he says. He lives in Jersey but is from India, where he tries to visit twice a year. Newsstand life is temporary, he’d much prefer an “official” (office) job, perhaps involving computers. Upon hearing my plans, he smirks and wishes me luck.
Energized by positive human contact, I head down to the L train for a new mission. Rumor is Canarsie has bathrooms. After eight hours I’ve begun to feel nauseous and the surprisingly large crowd isn’t helping. The thought of Katie keeps me from devolving even further, but it’s still too early to call and hear her voice on the message. She’s on old world time. Whatever I’ve gotten myself into down here is something else entirely.
“…some Vietnam shit.”
Riding into Brooklyn with a car of people that are also half awake, the mood feels oddly communal. These are the moments that give me hope for the city — the times we can actually coexist in peace. Next to me, a young kid jokes with his lady friend about their job. Down the car, an old man in a white suit with a graying ponytail sits regally. A stocky guy in a tight-fitting T-shirt and jeans seems drunkenly amused. I see the dingy tiles move past as the train pulls out of the Graham station, when suddenly it stops with a boom.
The noise startles us from our dozing, but at first we stay calm. The subway does strange things all the time. Once we hear the conductor’s voice becomes increasingly distressed through the door, the stocky man jumps onto the platform from between cars and panic begins to stir. A random passenger comes back to report that someone has gotten stuck in the train.
“Some Vietnam shit,” jokes the young guy.
“I don’t need to see that,” the girl says with a frank laugh.
My bladder has taken on a dull ache, but my mind has been jump-started. Finally, something is happening. After a few more minutes of restlessness, we head up to see the action. With each car our procession grows larger, until we hit the scene. Outside, firefighters are already toting a stretcher around the corner. By the time they let us off, only a pair of shoes remain. As they force us out of the station, I linger at the turnstiles but it’s no use. My plan to stay in the system has been foiled. Katie’s house isn’t that far away, maybe I can just cut my losses.
Outside, the sky is just beginning to lighten. Fire trucks block the street in all directions, making the crowd even more anxious.
“Does anyone know how to get to Lavonia?” pleads a fat man in a yellow windbreaker.
“Can’t you call your boss?” I ask.
“A bus, I don’t want a bus!” he whines helplessly.
I ask a bodega employee if I can use his bathroom, but he declines. Thankfully White Castle is more welcoming and I blissfully relieve myself. On my way out I spot the man who jumped off earlier eating a burger and we have a bleary exchange. Back outside, the crowd is swirling aimlessly in the street, but I find a guy named James to talk with. He considers the windbreaker man “the Michael Moore of the group.” After a night of partying he just wants to get home and we decide to try the station again.
Surprisingly, the firefighters let us back in. The commuter migration has already begun and one of its main pathways must be reopened as soon as possible. As we slowly move forward, the frazzled driver is escorted away and the damage is clear. At least three feet of yellow platform edge has been shredded. Blood streaks the door and forms puddles on the ground. The two spattered, white checkered shoes still sit unclaimed. With little left to do, a stout, mustached fireman entertains the audience of construction workers and would-be passengers.
“Now I’m hungry,” he jokes.
“Me too,” replies a man in a denim suit.
“I wanna go get a pizza. Let’s go.”
James soon leaves for another drink, but I edge closer to discreetly take notes and snap pictures. After getting the camera developed at CVS, I find no record of these photos, not even the negatives. Before I can get a shot of the shoes, the fireman steps in.
“He can’t resell that one. Forget it, just leave it,” he says, kicking it onto the track. His cohorts look down and laugh.
Shortly after, an efficient tie-clad man comes over. “Resume normal service, but we require a crew to clean up the blood and shrapnel,” he says into a handheld radio. With his work finished, he tells the story of a recent accident involving old, drunk homeless men. Rumor has it that our victim was also drunk, though perhaps younger. As the blood train slowly inches out of the station, I’m writing so intensely that I don’t notice a guy with shaggy hair and a gap tooth watching. He wants to know if I’m a reporter. After a lapse in membership, the answer once again is “yes.”
He claims to have seen the whole thing, so I stick nearby as the new train pulls in. According to him a young kid with a mohawk stumbled off drunk, getting his leg stuck between the train and the platform. The doors closed behind him and no one noticed until he’d been dragged against the edge for a few feet. I ask about the other passengers’ reaction, but he claims, “they were more worried about their wait.” Sadly, he’s probably right. All the man will give me about himself is a hint at his whereabouts that evening: “One word. ‘Madonna,’ the singer…” I laugh at the tease. “I can’t say anything that might put me in a position…” he says before getting off at the next stop.
We soon pull above ground for the L’s final stretch and are greeted by a slowly rising sun. Nearly 10 hours in, the city and its subway are still a mystery, but I’ve survived my first night.