24 Hours on the New York Subway

24 Hours on the New York SubwayImages by KL Thomas, Ian Stroud, and Stiv Brown
Soon enough, we pull into Coney Island—the end of the line—and the few remaining passengers rush out of the station and head for their apartments. Me, I round the stairwell and head for the D platform. Unfortunately, it’s only 5:30—time to catch the train back uptown and experience rush hour again from the other direction.

7:00 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. Line: 5

By the time I make it all the way back to Columbus Circle in Manhattan, I switch to the 5 Train and head for the Bronx. I’ve only been to the BX two or three times since I’ve lived in the city. It’s not that I’m scared or snobby—it just takes so damn long to get anywhere up there. Looking at the map, it seems like you should be able to get halfway through the Bronx in the time it takes to travel from Penn Station to the Barclays Center. Not so fast. Zachary Nichol’s Data Garden blog recently did a “distance Cartogram” of the MTA. The basic idea was to reconfigure a subway map to reflect the average length of a commute on any given route. This clever infographic confirmed what my fellow riders already know (it’s written all over their faces as the 5 train clanks along the tracks). This trip is long as hell.

After much twiddling of thumbs and staring at subway maps, I arrive at the end of the line. The Dyre Ave. stop is surreal. It’s as though you’ve been delivered into a commuter paradise. MTA workers swarm the stop, sweeping out cars, exchanging gossip, and taking quick breather before heading back to the grind. I seem to be the only passenger who’s here on purpose, waiting with the few others who have fallen asleep and missed their stop. Once the train cars are swept, the doors close and we head back to the City.

8:30 p.m. – 10:00 p.m. Line: 2

 

Rebecca Black was right. You can feel the excitement in the stale air of the train when you travel to the City on a Friday night.

 

Rebecca Black was right. You can feel the excitement in the stale air of the train when you travel to the City from Staten Island, the Bronx, or Jersey on a Friday night. Everyone’s dressed to impress—well, everyone except for me and the homeless guy who has a whole car to himself up toward the front of the train.

My car coming in from the Bronx is brimming with teenagers. They’ve got Axe in their armpits and scented gum in their mouths as they nervously hum along with their headphones. There’s no telling where they are going. The only thing I do in the City at night is hit the bar, but there is no way any of them—except maybe the cutest girls—are getting in underage. Maybe they’re going to the movies or something.

Our car is especially packed because it’s one away from the homeless guy’s. At each stop, the riders in our car peek curiously at the next car as hopeful passengers file into the all-but-empty car. At first, they think they’ve hit the MTA lottery, finding so many empty seats. But they quickly realize the odorous reason for their good fortune: the gentleman with the trash bags has the car all to himself. As soon as they figure out what’s going on, they turn to flee, but soon the doors close and they’re stuck in the smelly car for one stop—until they get a chance to cram into our car and become spectators for the next round of this predictable pattern.

When I first moved to New York, I was struck by the cruelty of this sort of scenario. Of course, no one offered the man any help or solace, and a few openly laughed at his misfortune. But that’s just the way it is on the subway.

10 p.m. – 11:30 p.m. Bathroom Break

Times Square is the hub for my journey. It’s the hub for pretty much everyone else's too, as the station serves over 60 million passengers a year. While most people choose it for its convenient location and easy transfer to eight different subway lines, I’m here because the Times Square station is home to the only MTA bathroom I trust.

The Times Square restroom consists of a row of four stalls behind heavy doors in front of a wall of glass. Although they look like an original fixture of the station, they’ve only been there since 2004. The glass wall keeps things orderly. Would-be urinaters must line up at the end of the wall, where an aging attendant wearing a tie under his sweater and a furry hat with earflaps controls the doors to the stalls. He makes sure no one makes off with the toilet paper and he notifies the proper authorities if someone smears shit on the seats. Trust and believe that if you spend more than the allotted five minutes in there, he’s knocking. 

 

Trust and believe that if you spend more than the allotted five minutes in there, he’s knocking.

 

There’s no sign of a woman who has entered about fifteen minutes earlier. He eases himself out of his comfy chair, putters over to her stall, and knocks forcefully. She sheepishly leaves the stall. On his way back, he mutters under his breath, “What the hell do you do in there so long anyway?” loud enough for the entire line to hear.

There used to be 932 subway bathrooms through the subway system. That number has now dipped below 100. Before embarking on my underground odyssey I conducted careful research, determined to honor the spirit of my quest by only using MTA lavatories. Predictably, some of the bathrooms listed as operational were locked or in a state of disrepair. Some of them I just couldn’t locate, as they aren’t exactly searchable on Google Maps. Of the bathrooms that are in good shape, most are closed from midnight to 5 a.m.—and probably with good reason. Still, this unfortunate fact would later force me to make a mad dash from the subway platform to the twenty-four hour Neptune Diner in Astoria at 2:30 a.m., where I’d use the facilities and house a grilled-cheese sandwich. This marked the first and last time the patented New York City $7.00 grilled-cheese was worth it.

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