Underneath the streets, avenues, Central Park, and even parts of the rivers stands a subway system with more stations than any other in the world; 469, to be exact. This number, however, does not account for the handful of platforms and entire stations that have been abandoned and have become playgrounds for urban explorers, street artists, and obviously subway rats. Everyday, this sprawling ant farm below New York City’s concrete soil fills with 4.3 million citizens. Each rider has his/her own story, as cliché as that sounds. To some, the Subway is home. To others, it’s a vital mode of transportation. To a vast majority, it’s the only reasonable way to work from home. And to a select few, specifically one man on the train platform who was yelling to himself, it is a metallic monster that engulfs its victims.
From the outside, every station appears to be the same. Each is adorned with jarring elevated spheres that light up at night and catch the eye from two blocks away. And, every station has its uniform white lettering with colored circles holding either a letter or a number to indicate which line the station houses. However, what often goes unnoticed is the personality each Subway line or even a specific station embodies. Over the past few years of actively riding the trains daily, I’ve noticed some patterns.
My most unusual experiences seem to revolve around the infamous L train. I’ve seen everything between 8th Avenue and Lorimer Street: dogs, couples breaking up, couples making up, a backpack larger than its owner, more dogs, hipsters, hipsters with hair artificially colored brighter than the sun, hipsters with coffee, hipsters draped in five layered sweaters in August, hipsters wearing intricate hats, and some more generic hipsters (thanks to Williamsburg for being on the line!). I’ve even been asked by a stranger to make sure I “told Jerry that [this random man] had to get off the train to mail a letter to the MTA to say he’s sorry” and could not ride eternally, as “Jerry” supposedly demanded he do. My friend and I felt badly for this 40-something-year-old man, since he was acting almost childish, so we were compelled to reassure him that we would “let Jerry know.” We still don’t know what “Jerry” is. I still wonder if he’s even real.
A close runner-up to the L train’s personality and individuality has to be the Union Square station as a whole. Where else in the city can you get converted to three religions within a 200 foot radius, hear one group’s bongos combined with another’s trumpets, witness multiple protests, and be invited to two cult-like yoga troupes within seconds? Nowhere. Not even Times Square, which has now been unfortunately overthrown by topless women and hordes of Elmos and Cookie Monsters desperately seeking and scavenging to scam naive tourists. Union Square, however, has retained its soul despite radical commercialization — causing it to have the same retail stores as a shopping mall in the middle of Anytown, USA. Union Square is still where the protests happen. Union Square is still where the middle-aged men bask in the sun and play chess on makeshift tables. Union Square is where the Hare Krishna group will give you a “free book” and pester you to pay for it the minute you get into the Subway station. With all of this going on, and a seasonal man who asks everyone to be his Valentine, the Union Square station is the personification of the eclectic character New York City has slowly lost over the years.
Whether it’s on the B, D, or Q zooming across the Manhattan Bridge at sunrise, the 2 or 3 going local (causing you to be an hour late to your final destination), watching three E trains pass as you wait for the C, or learning the hard way that many trains do not run on the weekends, the New York City Subway system is its own world. Each station, its own nation. Each tunnel, a border to be crossed. Each car, a different town. Each train, its own being. Together, it makes up the underworld: New York’s Subway system.