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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Notes from the New York Underground

A man plays the accordion at 59th St. Station.

I enter from the West 86th Street station on Saturday, Feb. 18. I scan through the turnstile using Apple Pay, thinking about how taking the subway felt much more romantic when the only option was a MetroCard, and I make a mental note to buy one for the way back. On the platform, a girl pulls her boyfriend away from the tracks as the train pulls into the station. I push myself into the car. The downtown bound 1-train is packed.

Usually when I take the subway, I keep my eyes glued to my phone (typically playing the New York Times’ game Spelling Bee), or my head tucked safely behind a book, avoiding all eye contact and conversation. I customarily remind myself that it’s vital to keep aware of my surroundings while seeming engrossed in something else. I try to build a world that's impenetrable. Exposure feels unsafe. I never take the first train car, that’s usually pretty empty. There’s nowhere else to run if there's a problem. The first car is a trap. Those are the types of things ingrained in New York teenage girls.

Two people are reading books, a two-year-old is on an iPad with the music blasting out loud her mother’s on the phone and a man in a brown fur coat and a black and white patterned silk bandana with wire headphones and gold framed sunglasses covering his eyes nonchalantly leans against the doors.

“Stay clear of the closing doors.”

One of the people reading, a girl, talks to her friend, or possibly her sister, about her book. “Her parents are mathematicians … they be flirting with math,” she says. She shows the photographs in the book to her companion as she describes the different characters and their names. A child next to them looks on, and the three look at the book together.

There’s an ad for “Degrees Without Debt,” a “Rolling Bike Party,” “Tap Your Free Fares Away” and “Thierry Mugler at the Brooklyn Museum.”

I leave the 1-train to switch to the D-train at 59th Street.

On the platform, there is a woman selling candy bars: Twix, Milky Ways and Snickers. Her daughter runs around her in circles and swings on the stair railing. Her sparkly pink backpack bounces up and down with her movements.

There’s a man playing the accordion with a brown cowboy hat on. At first, he is encircled by a crowd. When a C-train arrives, the crowd disperses, and only one listener places money (a few dollars) in his trunk.

By the track, there is a woman in bright pink pants and beige stilettos talking to a French family who is visiting. She says, “Je m’appelle Rachel.” These are the only words she offers up in French. She gives the family directions and goes on to tell them she’s an actor. Taking their phone, she types in her TikTok handle. “I’m kind of big on TikTok,” Rachel tells them. The family takes a picture with her.

She has a white headband on, with curly hair poking out of a high bun, like a bunny’s tail sitting on her head. Her tote bag says, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return — Moulin Rouge.”

I decide she feels approachable. I tell her I’m a college student writing an article about the subway. She looks down at me from her high-heeled perch with a look of warmth and a hint of condescension.

“Why are you taking the subway today, and where are you from?” I ask.

She tells me she’s from Chicago and in town to see plays; she has already seen “Hadestown” and “Moulin Rouge” (hence the merch) this week and been to a few auditions. She tells me excitedly she had an audition this morning that went really well. She’s taking the subway today to get to the Wolf play at the MCC theater.

I thank her for her time. She is the only person I talk to on my trip to the underground. She is the only one who I felt was approachable. I find it ironic that she is not even from New York.

“A downtown D-train is approaching the platform.”

The D-train smells overwhelmingly like weed and is just as crowded as the 1-train. There’s an entire family of five fast asleep. The baby is asleep in her stroller, with a beaded bracelet over her coat sleeve.

Three girls board the train speaking Japanese. Their enthusiastic conversation is interrupted with English phrases like, “you never know.” One has blue hair.

“Excuse me, stroller coming through.”

A man dressed in all blue — blue vintage cap, puffy blue coat, black sunglasses and Balenciaga sneakers — holds a sleeping child. Impressively, he begins speaking in Japanese to the girl with blue hair. “I travel a lot,” he explains.

I try to sneak a photo of the blue man and the child, but something about taking their picture makes me feel guilty.

There’s a lot of love on the subway. We whizz by a couple kissing on the tracks, and I’ve seen a dozen parents holding their children tight. Between the love there are also many blank stares and eyes glued to screens. At moments, it feels like the underground world could exist outside of time — with people in all sorts of clothing and styles, from all over the world, speaking different languages. Alas, the portable phones bring us back to the present.

And in some cases, there is a little too much ‘love.’ “Adore me, kiss me, surprise me, tease me,” half-naked women with candy covering their nipples exclaim from a lingerie ad plastered on the train wall. After doing some research into the Adore Me lingerie brand I learned that this Valentine’s Day promotion is not their first advertisement faux pas. In 2019, Adore Me released an MLK Day sale with the slogan, “We have a dream … about new lingerie!” Needless to say, people found the ad to be incredibly offensive and some suggested boycotting the brand. According to the article, none of their board members were people of color or women.

Later, on a less populated train, on my way back uptown, I’m tired and keeping my attention on my surroundings is getting harder. A girl in all red with her nails each painted a different color bobs her head to her music while pursing her lips. When she realizes she’s dancing, she stops.

A man yells across the car, “This train is not going uptown!” My heart drops for a moment, Shoot, have I been going the wrong direction this whole time? I think to myself. “My phone says it’s Motown!” the same man exclaims and presses play on his phone. It was all a joke. My nerves settle. He begins to sing “My Girl” and he’s pretty good. The music moves more clearly into my line of vision, and I realize there are two men singing. They hold out hats for money. A man in the back swings to the music, though his face remains serious. A woman sings along at the end.

The train gets crowded again at 34th Street.

“Stay clear of the closing doors.”

A woman on the verge of tears walks through the aisle asking for change. She says, “I’m suffering, and I have no one in my corner.” Most people, who are not already fixated on their phone screens, bring their gaze to the speckled floor. One girl gives her a quarter; the woman is very grateful.

The couple next to me holds hands and talks in Spanish. He stands, and she looks up at him. He kisses her on the head and gets off at the next stop while she stays sitting.

I’m tired and I don’t want to be on the subway anymore. Thirty blocks to go.

A man says, “Oh, I hate the subway.”

Yeah, me too, I think. But only sometimes. I hate that it can be dirty, smelly, delayed and claustrophobically crowded. I hate when someone walks by asking for money, and I feel conflicted about what I can do. And I hate that the city hasn’t done an effective job either.

Even so, I love that I can travel from my quiet apartment to the bustling Lower East Side in under an hour for $2.75. I love that a microcosm of the city exists just a few feet below all the skyscrapers, and while there is a lot of loneliness and hardship, there is also a lot of love. In the words of Dostoevsky’s actual Underground Man, “To love is to suffer and there can be no love otherwise.”