Between and beneath Carroll and Bergen Streets, on the walls of the express tracks sandwiched between the F and G lines, someone wrote, using the preferred writing utensil of MTA workers — orange spray paint — “EXP,” seemingly denoting “express line.” Today those two tracks, which travel deep beneath two important Brooklyn routes, don’t see any trains. Standing at the Bergen stop, peering down at the well-lit and well-kept tracks, there is something wistful, almost magical about the pristine silence of empty tracks with so much unused potential. An express F train: imagine it.
I have spent several commutes using the stopwatch function on an iPhone to track the F line’s progressions and regressions in timeliness. Sometimes my journey has to finish with an A train, but then I stop the watch. Getting on the A is cheating. I am only interested in what the F can do. I am devoted to it, as if by studying it I, a powerless commuter, could somehow make it better. I’ve learned that the journey from Windsor Terrace to Jay Street Borough Hall takes almost exactly 15 minutes; the journey to Soho is another 10, but a long 10. But then there is the five-minute walk from front door to station entrance, and an average of five minutes waiting for the train to arrive. Any deviation — a faster walk, a freshly arrived train — is anomalous. Cynicism means survival.
At a dinner party to which I’d never normally be invited — my partner and I were stand-ins for two real adults who’d cancelled at the last minute — the neighbors at our table, also real adults, politely asked us where we lived in “the city.” We lived in Brooklyn, we said, for the first time not proudly. What ensued was a discussion of the hows of getting to work, or rather my singular how. The husband, a lawyer with two young children enrolled at a top Upper East Side girls’ school, wracked his brain for what the F train “did,” eventually recalling its meticulous and slow accommodation of seemingly every neighborhood in three boroughs after we’d jogged his memory. The 6 train, at this point in time the second part of my daily commute, was more familiar to him. So it seemed this lawyer was remembering subway lines the way you might recall each of the Seven Dwarves. He hadn’t been on the subway in decades, but he didn’t dare crush us by saying so.
There was a Greyhound-like quality to the ride today, on a newer F train that had a stench like developing gangrene. People appear less understanding of a wealth of human scenarios when confined in small spaces. One such scenario: a loud, sweaty child in a too-small stroller. I watched a woman near him try to look away at this spectacle: the boy had folded his mother’s ticket to citywide travel cleanly and irrevocably in half and the bent card was now lying under a distant seat, where he had thrown it. The mother hadn’t yet noticed, and nobody had helped her out yet. Shouts of “Ba!” pierced the humid, slightly conditioned air. The fresh air blew out of a vent and across the top of my head, nearly as effective as holding your face over a cooler at a Fourth of July picnic in Texas.
Two stops later and the entire picture had changed. The kid and his mother had gone, the train had emerged out of the tunnel and onto the bridge. There was a beautiful, blotchy pink sunset out one side of the train. A blaring, unintelligible announcement drowned out sighs of impatience and interfered with people’s daydreams about moving to Colorado. Many people who do leave New York must decide to do so while on the subway.
A woman across from me is flossing her teeth.
Get on the subway in running clothes: there are millions of avid runners in the city, and yet one feels special walking onto a train in running gear. Everyone stares. This has a lot to do with the uniform of the runner: the bright colors, the exposed, perhaps glowing, skin. The traveling for a purpose that is not work, but which still requires a particular kind of dress code, a uniform. The average commuter does not have a uniform. Anyone who is dressed in a uniform catches our attention, though it is supposed to make the person seem anonymous.
MTA workers, who usually pile onto local trains like the F during late-night hours, get a mixture of respect and curiosity from us. They work in darkness, they are usually dirty or carrying something dirty, and they seem either drunk or very tired. We’ve decided that they aren’t the ones to blame for delayed trains, so they never get any kind of grief from us. We don’t know what they’re doing. We see them waving flashlights inside tunnels sometimes, walking down tracks, or resting casually on the top of the fatal third rail. But we don’t know what they do that gets done, and we don’t have any discernible evidence that they’ve done anything. Still, we like them.
In 2007, the New York Times wrote an article about the death of an MTA worker. It was something like the second death of a worker in sixth months. The explanation given for this, by some suit at the MTA, was that the employees who work on the tracks are part of a “lax organizational culture.” Sometime after this I was assigned by my boss to read a book about writing, Words Fail Me by Patricia T. O’Conner. I particularly appreciated the chapter on jargon, remembering the phrase “lax organizational culture.” Not only is this trio of words ugly — the short “lax,” the second mouthful of an adjective, the formal use of the word “culture” — but the phrase suggested this person was far removed from the tracks, and probably never even rides the subway.
It is 7:04 in the evening and you don’t know where you are anymore. You’ve been evacuated from a 6 train because another 6 train a mile away isn’t working properly. Attendees of the 6 train at Union Square lean over to see if they can spot the next train first, even though the track is curved and visibility of the tunnel is very limited. Somehow, none of these people ever falls onto the track. Evidently, these commuters, with places to be and cocktails to be had, are not the type to cause “earlier incidents,” nor should they have to be inconvenienced by any. They seem particularly exasperated, as if they are new to this, as if this was the day they impulsively decided to take the subway instead of a cab, and what a mistake that was.
When trains are slow and people have forgotten or don’t like their books and their smartphones don’t have service, I imagine they can more readily convince themselves of their own capacity for evil. I have never seen this play out, but faces show deeper, darker crevices on commutes, particularly commutes home. Our disenchantment with commuting leaves a permafrown that can be adjusted slightly to accommodate related feelings, of being inconvenienced, insulted, stepped on, or watched too closely by a stranger.
Sometimes the expressions are less grave, perhaps when the train is spacious enough to honor us the requisite foot radius of personal space. Their look is detached but not forlorn, unhappy but not suicidal. These are people who are so bored, so tired of life, or life as it is depicted right now, by the subway, that Abilify “could be right for” them. But faces can look sad when all they are is relaxed. How does everyone feel once off the train? I would like to walk with these people to their front doors, to watch their faces lift from malaise to anticipation — and what of?