1. A TRAIN/C TRAIN.
The A train, like any train, is reliable up to a point. Should you decide to go north of 125th Street, the A train will exhibit passionate disinterest, like a high schooler suffering from senioritis. Should you decide to head back through Midtown, rest assured it will run like a dream. The second it passes Fulton Street, however, and begins to make its way through Brooklyn, the struggle will begin.
The A train will take great pleasure basking in the worship of the mole people. These sermons will usually be held between Nostrand and Utica Avenues. Utica Avenue will be bearable because many people will exit the train. Broadway Junction will provide more of the same and is a very lucrative time to grab a seat, unless you have to exit at Broadway Junction, which would mean you’ll have to deal with Broadway Junction. It was Renata Adler who described it best in her moody masterpiece, Speedboat:
“I don’t know how many people have ever seen or passed through Broadway Junction. It seems to me one of the world’s true wonders: nine crisscrossing, overlapping elevated tracks, high in the air, with subway cars screeching, despite uncanny slowness, over thick rusted girders, to distant, sordid places. It might have been created by an architect with an Erector Set and recurrent amnesia, and city ordinances and graft, this senseless ruined monster of all subways, in the air.”
Enjoy being accosted by subway breakdancers. You will hear “It’s SHOWTIME!” more times than you can count. Solitude will not exist. You will want to murder these people, and it’s okay.
Know that the A train runs in two sections once you arrive in Queens. You can either go to Lefferts Boulevard in Ozone Park or the Rockaways, past JFK Airport. Anything past JFK is a dead zone because politicians and MTA bigwigs have rendered it an afterthought. If you live along the shore, prepare yourself for a dreadfully long commute. Be sure to bring camping gear and extra food for the A train’s extended smoke breaks on the bridge between JFK and Broad Channel and on the bridge between Broad Channel and Beach 67th.
If you live along the shore, the A train doesn’t care about you. You will cry many tears of frustration on the shuttle bus.
The C train doesn’t care about you either, but it’s harmless and unremarkable. Most everyone who lives along this line is merely working their way to any junction where they can catch an express train.
2. B TRAIN/D TRAIN.
The B train seems an innocuous creature until it takes you on a hellish joyride of predominantly local stops between Bedford Park in the Bronx and Brighton Beach, which is approximately the distance between the Earth and the Moon. Its sister train, the D, begins its route at Norwood and 205th, one stop north of Bedford Park, because the devisors of the subway system thought it’d be hilarious to leave the B train unfinished, I guess. If you decide to take either of these to Yankee Stadium, you have a bright future to look forward to as a sardine. No one who lives along this train line knows when subway repair will be happening until it’s too late. Try waiting for either train at 145th Street after one in the morning. You’ll have a more exciting time watching grass grow.
3. E TRAIN.
Reliable, until it’s rerouted via the F line on late nights. Quick until 7:30 PM sharp, when it will proceed to go local after Forest Hills. Jamaica Center still wears the same signs of construction it wore a decade ago when I was just another high school student trying to get to class on time. Easy access to Sutphin Boulevard, the Air Train to JFK. Easy vantage point for people watching, such as the kid I saw drop Skittles on the floor of the train car and proceed to get down on his hands and knees anyway much to my horror. Yes, I still remember that. How can I not?
The E train once topped a list of the dirtiest subway lines. This was the first train which taught me the golden rule of riding the subway: Never, ever, under ANY circumstances, get into the only empty car in a stream of packed subway cars. It’s a trap.
4. F TRAIN.
One of the longest and most interesting rides of any train. It can take you from 179th in Jamaica, Queens, all the way to Coney Island. It will take you through Midtown, the Lower East Side and along Kings Highway. You can stop in Carroll Gardens and take a walk into Red Hook and take a sample of the underground warehouse parties happening at any time. You can find yourself in Prospect Park before you know it. The train will vacillate between underground wonder and elevated line beauty in a heartbeat.
I was fifteen years old that autumn on the F train when I discovered what it was like to be a subway performer. I was on my way to a poetry slam in Queens Village (which required a trip to 179th and a subsequent bus ride) when I discovered I’d been the victim of a pickpocket. Not having any money, let alone a cell phone, I walked through a few cars and sang some standard pop and Broadway ballads. I guess my young age impressed some people, but I’m sure others wanted to kill me. I made a whopping $13.
I was twenty-three when I found myself drunk at Clockwork Bar on Essex and sort-of-but-not-really attempting to make out with an acquaintance and sort-of-but-not-really-sober a couple of hours afterwards when an F train carrying a sick passenger was forced to abort its mission to carry all healthy passengers. This turned a thirty-five minute commute into a two hour ordeal.
The F train is not kind to drunken fools.
5. G TRAIN.
Waiting for the G train is the equivalent of waiting for a mythical creature, probably a unicorn, to stroll up to you on the platform and hand you a bag full of money. When it finally appears, a few cars short of a procession, it will sit perfectly still for a moment or two, as if to tell you, “Yes, my son, I am real. What is your command?”
It will then proceed to not listen to any command you give it.
You cannot use “The G train was late!” as an excuse at your workplace because even the MTA is unsure if it actually exists.
6. J TRAIN/Z TRAIN.
The J train is your best friend if you live in Woodhaven, as I once did, and need to get into Lower Manhattan. It’s a scenic ride, elevated most of the way. You can get a peek at another level of Broadway Junction (see A/C TRAIN). You can gaze upon the sullen faces of commuters who despise this train the very second the city experiences its first snowfall. You will hear “STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS!” more times than you can count. You will sit at Van Siclen, amble your way to Alabama Avenue, finally make it to Essex and the Bowery at a snail’s pace and never be able to get the cold out of your bones.
The J train sounds like a sad excuse for a friend, but trust me, it’s a lifeline.
The Z train is the J train’s long lost relative, sort of like a black sheep who returns to fuck shit up and collect inheritance money. It runs along the same line, pops up periodically like Captain Howdy in The Exorcist and runs express much of the time, which is fantastic if you’re fortunate to catch it at 7:30 in the morning on your way to work and not so great if you forget it exists, hop on and need to disembark at any of the stops it just plain doesn’t care about.
7. L TRAIN.
Hot chiseled dudes with tattoos and beards. Not bad.
According to a friend of mine, she can always snatch a seat on the L by standing in front of a seated dude wearing a fedora and betting that he’ll exit at Bedford Avenue. Works like a charm every single time, apparently.
The L train runs beautifully until there’s construction, obviously. This is a given for any train. But the L train is not the type to let sleeping dogs lie. It will attempt to Rambo its way through the line, running in sections between Broadway Junction and 8th Avenue, divvying up the remainder of the population which does not live between here and there among a cattle drive of depressing shuttle buses to and from Canarsie. The L train will sputter along on these days, wheezing like an elderly patient on an oxygen tank, stopping for a minute too long at Myrtle-Wyckoff before stopping for an extended chat with the subway walls at Jefferson Street, then once again at Montrose. It will sometimes stop at Bedford entirely, giving my aforementioned friend a seat, but then nowhere to go.
The L train is angry and requires a human sacrifice.
About a month ago, there was a track failure which resulted in the L train making it past Bedford, but promptly coming to a halt at 1st Avenue. There was no announcement until well after the fact. Good moods wilted. When the doors opened, I realized I was already late to work, so chose to walk the rest of the way. When I finally got there, I discovered that much of the staff in my department hadn’t arrived yet.
Most of them lived off the L line.
8. M TRAIN.
There’s a story out there. I think it’s titled “The Little Engine That Could.” The little Engine thinks that he can, so he does. He does and does and does some more until his superiors decide to slash the budget to the V and W department (check it out, the V and W were once a thing; I have fond memories of the V train, myself) and tell him that he’ll have to take on the work of the V and W department with no extra pay. The Little Engine loses confidence and writes a bestselling memoir titled “The Little Engine That Just Couldn’t Anymore, Man.”
The Little Engine is then sued by his former employer for “defamation,” and is later publically shamed in testimony before a grand jury on allegations that he may have been responsible for more than a few delays, accidents and scores of other fuck-ups during its many years of dedicated service.
This is later made into a movie directed by Robert Zemeckis.
9. N/Q/R TRAIN.
The N and the Q are, for the most part, interchangeable. They’re like Siamese twins who experience the same highs and lows. Their attempts to deviate from their destined paths were, I believe, made into a film named Dead Ringers. (Good stuff.) The Q eventually runs off and settles for the B, though it really wants the D. Both will suffer the same delays, both will be packed beyond all human comprehension come rush hour, both will inch their way through Astoria with all the determination of a paper clip. They will both eventuallly find each other in toxic synergy at Coney Island.
The R is a different beast altogether. If you live in Queens, as I have for much of my life, it runs well, for the most part. You don’t believe it has an insidious bone in its body until you get to Manhattan (because when it’s rush hour in Manhattan, all bets are off). If you happen to live in Bay Ridge, another place the MTA doesn’t care about, you will never be able to get out of Brooklyn.
I used to take the Staten Island Ferry on a regular basis. The Staten Island Ferry is worthy of its own article. But if you are coming from Brooklyn, or from Manhattan any time after 10 PM, the R train will make sure you miss that ferry. The R train likes to sulk in the tunnel between Court Street and Whitehall Street like a child who’s been told he doesn’t deserve ice cream.
10. S TRAIN.
There are several of these. There’s a shuttle to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. There’s a shuttle in Times Square which goes to Grand Central (the walk to that shuttle in that maze of a station, among the hordes of people, is not worth the time you’d save just walking downstairs to the 7 and taking it two stops). There’s also a shuttle from Broad Channel to the other end of the Rockaways. I think I’ve said enough there (see A TRAIN).
11. 1/2/3 TRAIN.
These are the trains which overextend themselves.
The 1 train will take its sweet time heading up to 242nd and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx at any point along the line; simply expecting to head up there from South Ferry and the Staten Island Ferry (see N/Q/R TRAIN), as the crow flies, is not worth mentioning because I’m sure the crow has already tired itself out just thinking about it. The 1 train during rush hour is a demonstration in hermetically sealing every man, woman and child in New York City (along with their ancestors) into tight spaces with no breathing room. The Dark Ages would approve. (Speaking of South Ferry: You need to be in the first five cars to exit and make your way to the ferry you’ll likely miss.)
The 2 train likes to switch places with the 5 line when it hits the Bronx. I think it’s safe to say that the MTA hates the Bronx, but that’s just me. Sometimes, you’ll be kicked off at 96th Street due to track work and have to take shuttle buses as far north as 149th and the Grand Concourse. You can pass time counting sun particles in the time it takes the 2 to get to Wakefield. Have you ever tried simply taking the 2 from Brooklyn College to Wall Street? It was nice knowing you.
The 3 train is the lesser of the aforementioned two, it would seem. It doesn’t feature much in discussion, considered more of an afterthought in Manhattan than the very necessary breath of life it is to commuters making their way from homes as far as New Lots. But that’s the MTA for you, is it not?
You can work your way through much of War and Peace in the time it takes the 4 train to get from Woodlawn and Norwood in the Bronx to its final stop in Utica Avenue. If you’ve never taken a trip up there to experience the sheer beauty of Van Cortlandt Park, then you should probably stop reading this article and get to it. Walk along Gunhill Road and see the mix of different cultures and food. See how could get everything you could ever want from a 99 cent store. Find out what the word “congestion” means on the obstacle course that is Jerome Avenue. Take the train to the tony Upper East Side. Go to 59th Street and look at all the pretty people. You’ll be there before you know it, actually. Once the train passes Yankee Stadium and the Grand Concourse, it zooms into Manhattan rather unapologetically, as if to say, “That was the Bronx and we’re rather ashamed of it, so enjoy our return back to our regularly scheduled programming, courtesy of New York City Transit.”
The 5 has a similar modus operandi.
The 6 is the local cousin to the aforementioned two. It takes you to every awesome place you’d like to go to that the 4 and 5 are too good to go to. Just don’t take it all the way from the Bronx to City Hall or from City Hall all the way to the Bronx, unless you have your heart set on finishing War and Peace.
13. 7 TRAIN.
I’m pretty sure Dante wrote about nine circles of hell, not ten. The 7 train has carried everyone and their mother from Times Square to Main Street in Flushing. Let me tell you something about Main Street: It is the most crowded, hodgepode collection of humanity this side of the Mason Dixon line. You will eat fantastic food and shop until you drop and drink bubble tea until you’re downright sick of it and you’ll run unabashedly across the street, unafraid of the cacophony of noise and the rumble of cars because you’re a New Yorker, damn it, and this is your city. But you remember that you’re walking through what is, at its core, one giant shopping center and bus depot.
I repeat: Everyone and their mother will be on this train. It will make the crowded 1 train seem like Valhalla in comparison. In the winter, everyone will be miserable. And no matter what, you will never catch a break, not even when much of the population disembarks at 74th in Jackson Heights—you’ll see ten times the amount that just left just scrambling to get in.
I love seeing happy-go-lucky tourists experiencing the subway for the first and (maybe) the only time. They will never know the struggle. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go people watch at Broadway Junction.