24 Hours on the New York Subway

What happens when you spend an entire day underground? One writer finds out the hard way.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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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.

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.


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.

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