11:30 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. LINE: L
On nights like this, the L is its own party. A two-man band that goes by the name Mountain Animation pumps out indie-bluegrass jams as I descend the stairs from the far less exciting Q,N,R platform. The fiddle player practically saws through that thing, his mop of wild hair flinging back and forth. The banjo-playing front man howls as onlookers nod along or toss coins in their banjo case.
To describe the riders of the L train by the blanket term “hipster” is to miss the point. Sure, there are some couples with skinny jeans, androgynous haircuts, and horn-rimmed glasses. There are also women in tight sequin dresses and elaborately coiffed hair. There’a group of guys in ripped jeans, torn tank tops, and leather jackets as well. There are even (gasp) a few “normal” looking guys trying to go out to the bar and have good time. We all ride the L Train.
The L is a young train for young people, especially on Friday evening. The line has seen $500 million worth of renovations since 2000 and is the only line with Communication-Based Train Control, which means that when the next train is supposed to arrive in five minutes, it actually does arrive in five minutes. While Times Square may still be the hub for tourists and working stiffs, the people waiting for the precision arrival of L tonight are twenty-somethings blowing off steam.
Rising rents have sent young folk to find low-rent enclaves in Astoria, Washington Heights, Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, or Greenpoint. There’s no longer a central location for cool people to gather and do cool things. While an actor who lives in a Bushwick warehouse might be going to an improv show in Chelsea, a hip Manhattanite might be headed to a warehouse party right next to that guy’s place, while a Greenpointer might be putting on her most expensive dress so she can pass for a regular in the Meatpacking district. All of them take the L on Friday night.
“You know that’s how those things get stolen?” he says with a laugh. “People not watching themselves, holding their phone out like a fool, kind of like you’re doing right now.” He spends the next four stops telling colorful stories of iPhone theft before asking for a dollar to get some food. After being denied, he shrugs, and wheels himself out of the car and over to the next train.Even the panhandlers down here are cool. They drop the “pity me” act and talk shit, telling jokes and busting the balls of the interns and freelancers on the train, hoping to make a few bucks in spare change. A bearded guy in a wheel chair edges onto our crowded car, eye-balling a young man who’s fiddling with his iPhone.
2:30 a.m. – 4:00 a.m. LINE: 7
The riders on the 7 Train late at night are the most exhausted people I’ve ever seen. On some cars, all the passengers are asleep. Those who aren’t snoozing respectfully whisper complaints to their friends about how long it took the train to come. While the drunken revelers in the City usually catch a cab a few blocks up to their apartment, the riders of the 7 at this time of night—the barbacks and delivery guys who just served those cab passengers—are on hour-plus trips back home. This largely Asian ridership is the reason that some locals refer to the train as “The Orient Express.”
I’m not sure how, but not one passenger misses their stop. Some of these guys are out cold, snoring, their bodies bobbing up and down to the rhythms of the train, but as soon as they hit their home platform, they pop up and get out just like clockwork. Knowing that it’s only a matter of time until I fall asleep myself, I take this opportunity to watch them, hoping to learn their secrets. I want to step my nap game up and control my destiny as well. When these guys catch me looking at them, I look away quickly. As soon as their eyes drift closed, I look at them again—only to be caught peeking all over again. After a few rounds of this cat-and-mouse game I give up. I don’t want to seem like a creep.
I take this opportunity to watch them, hoping to learn their secrets. I want to control my destiny as well.
4:00 a.m. – 5:30 a.m. Alone in Times Square
When I pass through Times Square this late at night, I am usually moving as fast as my wobbling, drunken legs can carry me, thinking only of heading home and going to sleep. By tonight is far from a usual night. At this point in my subway adventure, I’m thinking of every distraction possible to keep myself awake. I only have a couple of lines left to ride, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be much more interesting once the sun comes up. I’ve already had so much coffee that any more would have had roughly the same effect as drinking bitter, dark water. I considered buying some 5-Hour Energy shots before the newsstands shut down, but I’ve gone this many years of my life without ever drinking one, why start now?
It’s pretty cool exploring the vacant Times Square Station late at night. There are no Jehovah’s Witnesses hawking Bibles, no dance crews breaking for cash, and no tourists politely asking you for directions (the nerve!). There are still few drifters making the rounds through the station, mumbling to themselves—myself included, actually—but we keep our distance from each other. I'm so exhausted that talking to themselves would be much better conversation than talking to me.
In the emptiness of the pre-dawn hours, I focus on the layout of the space. So much of the terminal I never appreciated before: the labyrinth of stairwells that criss-cross each other, the little shops selling everything from bootleg DVDs to celebrity portraits, the public art that so often goes un-noticed in the daily mad rush. Though the futuristic Roy Lichtenstein mural and the Jacob Lawrence mosaic are impressive, my favorite piece is "The Commuter’s Lament," a poem inspired by a 1960s shaving cream ad campaign, that hangs as a series of signs attached to the roof of a long passageway between 7th Avenue and Broadway. The poem makes me think about this assignment, and why I accepted it in the first place. I try not to think about it as I read:
Overslept, So tired. If late, Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again.
Overslept, So tired. If late, Get fired. Why bother? Why the pain? Just go home. Do it again.
5:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. LINE: G
It’s time for a nap. I always knew that this time would come, when I could no longer keep my eyes open. And I knew exactly where I would go when I hit that point of no return: the G Train. The G Train’s nickname, “The Ghost Train” is well deserved. Between 1997 and 2010, the line grew and shrank with each passing year. At its longest, the train extended from Forest Hills down to the current Church Street terminal. During that twelve-year span, every section of the line was closed for construction at one point or another, until the MTA decided to chop the train’s Queens-bound service so that it terminated in Long Island City.
The G Train is every bit as spectral today, making it the perfect destination for a weary traveller trying to catch some shuteye. I never did figure out how those 7 train commuters woke themselves up, and I don’t want to pass out on the train and end up in New Jersey, so the truncated Queens to Brooklyn line makes perfect sense. Sure enough, the train I get on is terminating at Bedford-Nostrand Avenue for no apparent reason, cutting the route in half, rendering it useless for most passengers and ideal for me.
I tuck in near the wall and close my eyes. Every half-hour, I get jolted awake as the empty G hits the end of the line. Then I settle back to sleep again as the conductor breaks the news to the few disappointed passengers over the intercom. “This is the last stop on this train.” Nice.
9:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m. LINES: J, E
Saturday mornings in New York are the worst. That’s the unspoken downside to living in the City that Never Sleeps. Everyone who has to be up at this hour on this day is really pissed off. When New Yorkers have to be up this early, we treat ourselves to ridiculously expensive coffee-based drinks and mountains of grub. I’m down to the last two lines on my itinerary, and riding this train is giving me some real food envy. Everyone on the train has their own breakfast tower: a donut stacked on top of a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, perched on a coffee or some similar culinary sculpture.
12:30 p.m. – 3:30 p.m. LINE: Q (Again)
I dig into my bag to see what I had left to eat: two oranges and half a bag of dried banana chips purchased at a newsstand. Next, I ask myself what I had in my bag that I could trade for a donut? Nothing. I have a book about the subway, but my editor would be pissed if I traded the book he leant me for a donut. And no one wants actual books anyway. I probably couldn’t even get a whole donut for the book. Not at this time of morning. Pass the banana chips.
I don’t remember much from the last three hours of my trip. I actually take notes, but my normally awful penmanship is becoming all but illegible. Plus my attention is wandering so I’m not even sure what I’m trying to write. Looking at these scribbles will do about as much good as trying to decipher hieroglyphics.
That’s how it is with the secrets of the universe. Some things are not meant for mere mortals to comprehend.
When I awaken the next day, I call my friend who’s come to take pictures of me in my dazed state and ask him if I spouted any words of wisdom in those final hazy moments. He assured me that I hadn’t. Mostly I leaned on the walls and poles of the cars, and drooled a little bit.
That’s pretty much how I remember it too.
Maybe I had some great epiphany at the end of riding the subway for twenty-four straight hours, but if I did, I don’t remember it. That’s how it is with the secrets of the universe. Some things are not meant for mere mortals to comprehend. Anyway, I survived. Mission accomplished.