Illustrations created on iPad Pro

On Hanging on to Wonder on the L Train

A primer for commuting from Bedford to 8th Ave

Ladies and gentlemen — the following, Manhattan-bound, L train, will depart in approximately…3, minutes. The following, Manhattan-bound, L train, will depart in approximately…5, minutes.

Her cadence is always the same. Authoritative but stilted, the system filling in the blanks of her statements. Reassuring and infuriating, the morning mad lib sets expectations as we mill like moles on the platform.

The stretch of concrete under 7th St. between Bedford and Driggs will vary depending on what time you swipe through the turnstile. At 7:45–8:15AM, the platform is blissfully sparse, dotted mostly with parents herding little ones with backpacks as big as their bodies. From 8:15–8:45AM, prepare to densely queue behind two trains worth of people, pirouetting between urgent pressing and resigned patience.

Results of a rushed morning race past. Dropped earbuds or keys. Exposed tags, an unzipped fly, and once, the liner from new unmentionables stuck in someone’s hair. You may consider yourself a good samaritan, but whether or not you notify the subject will depend on several factors: your mood, how fast they’re moving, how soon the train is arriving. Whatever you chose, just know that someday, a chivalrous man will chase you down to tell you that the back of your dress is caught in your underwear.

Ladies and gentlemen — the next, L train, is now arriving on the…Manhattan-bound…tracks. Please stand away from the platform edge.

The sway and jerk of the train as it crosses under the East River can be soothing. Even standing, held in place by the shoulders of others, can become a cradle you crave. The sooner you accept a proximity that brings you face-to-split ends, -to-personal scents, and -to-uncovered-sneezes, the easier it is to relax into the ride.

This is…1st Ave. Transfer is available to the M15 Select Bus Service.

A handful of people will get off at 1st, so if you’ve positioned yourself correctly, slide into a seat. Unless there’s an elderly, pregnant, injured, or bag-laden person nearby, in which case you’ll gesture politely for them to sit. If you’re having a shitty day, try vacating your seat for someone. Enjoy their silent gratitude for the subterranean selflessness.

This is…3rd Ave.

Here are some things you might see on the subway in the morning:

Break-ups over iMessage, and couples connected cheek to collarbone. The nodding sleep-deprived, and the coffee clutching early birds. Students bent over last night’s assignment, and teachers marking up stacks of tests. Small bags carrying even smaller dogs. Impossibly independent eleven-year-olds, and offspring whose lilting whine curdles in your ears. Night-shift nurses homeward bound, and those who call the second car home.

When you trace the same path daily, you’ll drown out the ride with Candy Crush, a podcast, or an engrossing book. Render yourself unconscious to the route and those along it, so that 30 minutes feels like 3. But now and then, take in the cross-section of New York — exquisite, hopeful and horrible — around you.

This is…14th St, Union Square. Transfer is available to the 4, 5, 6, N, Q, and R trains.

Most will spill out at 14th St, the aortal center of lower Manhattan. Their body language signals the shared intention to exit, an urgent affirmation that everyone will get where they need to go.

We mutually agree to an unspoken order. At its best, we flow effortlessly in and out, attune to the rhythm of the train’s doors. Those unfamiliar with the cotillion cause physical and facial snarls at the clash between chaos and common sense.

Here are three ways to be part of the dance:

  1. If you’re not exiting, move towards the middle of the car and away from the doors before the train pulls into the stop.
  2. If you’re stuck standing by the opening door, step out onto the platform to allow others to exit, then get back on the train. The train won’t leave without you, but if you need reassurance, keep a hand on the open door.
  3. If you’re waiting to board, wait to the side until everyone has exited before doing so.

In short: get out of the way. Your path will (almost) always be clear.

This is…6th Ave. Transfer is available to the 1, 2, 3, F and M trains. Connection is available to…PATH.

If you find yourself in the front-most car, press your nose against the small forward-facing window and watch the tunnel unfurl. Think about what the train’s conductor might be thinking about. Purell the tip of your nose.

This is…8th Ave. Transfer is available to the A, C and E trains.

Sometimes the subway gives you exactly what you need, be it the icy gulp of AC, the quickest way from A-to-B, or simply a place to sit for $2.75. The solitude to decompress after a long day, even when surrounded by others doing the same. Diversity that’s ubiquitous, presented in spades without fanfare or pretense.

Other times, it turns against you. The sticky sauna of the platform, an underground oven that slicks your upper lip. Being held momentarily by the train’s dispatcher with no service, en route to something you can’t be late for. “Showtime!” when you have a headache.

With you, against you, or empirically neutral, the subway caulks the space between of our New York moments. Tune yourself to its rhythms. Soon you’ll read the movement of air in anticipation of the train’s arrival, and know exactly which car will get you closest to your exit. You won’t be baited by empty cars, which most certainly smell terrible or lack AC on a hot day. You’ll sense when to make a run for the door and when to let it go.

We tend to push commutes into unconsciousness. The mind finds ways to escape the rote transportation of the body from one place to another. It’s natural, and sometimes productive, so this isn’t a plea for daily mindfulness on the train. But once in awhile, pull yourself to the present. Notice the paisley pattern of the city sitting around you, even if it’s just one small detail a month.

Hang on to the wonder of being moved through the city underground.

It’s certainly moved me.

This is the last stop on the train. Everyone please leave the train. Thank you for riding with MTA New York City Transit.

Natalie is a New Yorker who is leaving New York. Follow her farewell series, On New York, here on Medium and on Instagram.