An underground odyssey.
Written by Brenden Gallagher (@muddycreekU)
The New York City Subway doesn’t really feel like one system. And why should it? Each of the 21 interconnected lines (plus three shuttle lines) has its own distinct personality that crosses, merges, and mingles with other lines on the way to its final destination. Sure, the tracks connect in Midtown, in the Village, at the Barclay’s Center, but they soon diverge again into their own discrete worlds.
Like most subway riders, I have my own little transit bubble. On an average day, I take the N Train from semi-suburban Astoria to a coffee shop or a bar, sometimes for a meeting or just to hang out with friends, and then I slide back home on the N, a little buzzed one way or the other. Once in a while, I might get dragged down to Coney Island or a friend in Washington Heights will have a party, but my travels are usually limited to a line or two.
The same is probably true for most of the 5 million people who ride the NYC subway each weekday, whether they’re a bar-back catching the 7 from Manhattan to Flushing at 4 a.m., or a middle-manager riding the 1 from the Staten Island Ferry to work in the teeth of Manhattan’s four-hour rush hour. People tend to stay in their lane, giving each transit line its own particular character at any given time of day.
The New York City Subway is not the world’s biggest rapid transit system in terms of ridership (Tokyo, Seoul, Moscow, Shanghai, and Beijing all move more straphangers each day), but it’s the most expansive with over 400 different stations—and many more under construction. The crazy mix of letters, numbers, shapes and colors makes its map one of the most confusing ever devised. On the plus side, it’s one of the world’s few 24-hour subway lines, and one of the last where a single fare will take you anywhere. That’s right—just swipe your Metrocard and you’re off to the races. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to ride every one of the MTA colored lines in a single day—to see what they would feel like when taken in rapid succession. Is there something to learn from riding over 600 miles of track that I didn’t already know from riding my own little slice of the MTA all the time? Or would the whole thing just make me smell a little worse and add more shade to the already dark bags under my eyes? Only one way to find out.
So with the blessing of Complex and a sack of oranges that I threw in a backpack to sustain me (I really should have gone grocery shopping that week), I hit up the MTA with a mission.
I was going to ride to every color line the subway had to offer in 24 hours.
3:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. LINES: Q, D
Rush hour in Manhattan lasts for an eternity. Between 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. each weekday, people flood the trains, pouring out of all sorts of buildings where they do all sorts of jobs, and all of them want nothing more than to sit down. Yet even on a Friday, they aren’t as aggressive about it as you would expect New Yorkers to be. People generally act pretty cool; the only hints you get are occasional hungry glances toward the small slivers of seat peeking out between car railings and the folks already packed on the benches like sardines. When I first moved here, I remember trying to offer my seat to a middle-aged woman who stared me down and asked “What? Do I look that old?” I know this will be a long twenty-four hours, so I grab a seat and decide not to blow my stamina by trying to be a gentleman.
I spend most of the way through Manhattan holding my phone’s screen in front of me, trying to avoid getting a face full of another man’s nether regions. Once we cross into Brooklyn, the train empties out as quickly as it had filled up. The men wearing ties and the women in tasteful dresses shuffle out of the car in Park Slope, or at subsequent stops in neighborhoods billed by realtors as “The Next Park Slope.” Pretty soon almost everybody else in the car can take a seat. The dress code is noticably different now—a bit more chill, if not downright scruffy. Just as everybody is starting to relax into their subway time-killing routine, whether it be iPhone games or putting on make-up, the train jerks to a stop. The conductor makes an crackly p.a. announcement about 'train traffic ahead,' and the teenagers start dancing.
The conductor makes an crackly p.a. announcement about 'train traffic ahead,' and the teenagers start dancing.
Visitors to New York, from grandparents to younger siblings, delight when local teenagers whip out their old beat-up boom boxes and start breaking on the subway. Those of us who live here roll our eyes.
“What time is it?” one calls out.
“Showtime!” the others invariably responds.
Groans rise from the crowd as the enterprising kids put on their show and pass their snapback caps around, hustling passengers for money. The standard pop-lock moves that so impressed me when I first moved to New York have lost their appeal after the thousandth time. These days it’s not the dancers’ skill that I notice so much as their unmitigated gall. Mercifully, the train starts moving again soon enough. As soon as we hit the next stop, the kids pile off the car, counting their profits as they rush off to their next performance. A few more stops and we arrive in Flatbush, where dollar vans await just outside the station to whisk you to your final destination (you can’t do that in Park Slope). I’m getting a little bit hungry and wouldn’t mind hopping off to grab a patty. But I’ve got promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.