Tag Archives: l train

F train, 7:20 am

I used to see him every morning waiting for the F train. I’d climb the stairs from the L to the F platform and there he’d be, as if he wouldn’t appear until I arrived. He wore black frame glasses and had a mop of carefully messed-up sandy brown hair with sideburns, and was always dressed with assured but subdued style. He favored striped shirts and dark pants and I got the idea in my head that he used to be in a power pop band, or still was.

He’d never be alone. A little girl clutched his hand, adorably and impossibly blond. She appeared to be around my own daughter’s age at the time, three or four years old. The dad also had a Snugli strapped to his chest cocooning an infant girl, who barely stirred except to occasionally nuzzle her tiny head into her father’s chest.

They went the same way as me, boarding the F at the very front of the train. The little girl would perch on her seat and look out the window at the nothing of the subway tunnel yet still see enough to ask an endless series of questions: What’s that? What’s that? What’s that? The dad would answer to the best of his ability while reminding her they would be on the train for just one stop and then they had to get off, okay?

They would position themselves to disembark at the very first door, a few feet in front of me as I steeled myself to do the same. I would wait to move until the dad got his cargo off the train, the little girl toddling onto the platform with harsh but unsure little girl steps,

Sometimes I would dash past them, not wanting to get caught behind them on the stairs leading back to the street because I was running late or had work waiting on my desk. But sometimes I wouldn’t care and I’d walk behind them, watching the little girl scale the steps, lifting one foot as high as she could, then the other.

Seeing him with his little girls reminded me of my own little girl I’d just dropped off at day care. He reminded me that my work day was just one long countdown until I could see her again. I envied him, but I wasn’t jealous. I was happy for him, happy that he could do this, happy that somebody could, happy that he was happy, and he looked happier than anyone should that early in the morning.

I saw this dad and his girls most mornings for a year or two, maybe more. Then one day I didn’t seem them, and it made me sad. I didn’t see them the next day, or the day after that, and I was still sad. But then I didn’t see them for a while, and soon I forgot that I hadn’t seen them in a while, and they were lost in some hazy place in my mind.

On Monday morning, I took my usual route to work at my usual time, my ears plugged up with headphones and my mind swirling with a legion of slights I hadn’t even suffered yet, and as I ascended the stairs from L train to the F, there he was. He had only one little girl with him now, and not the same one as before. The blonde girl had been replaced by a tiny redhead, the former Snugli occupant. The Snugli was gone, and so was the blonde chatterbox who used to clutch his hand. Older and off to school, just like my own girl.

They weren’t waiting around for the F train like they used to. The dad and the tiny redhead climbed the stairs to street level. The girl hoisted one leg with defiance, then the other, just like her sister used to, while the dad beamed, and so did everyone on the platform who saw them climb.

I stared at them as they went, until the F train arrived to take me away. I used to see that every day, I remembered. I was glad to know that I missed them.

Canarsie, 1997

When I was in college, I’d take myself on trips to random neighborhoods. Pick a spot on the subway map, ride the train there, and wander around. I wanted to see the entire city, not just a tiny patch between 14th and Houston. When I went on these trips, I invariably went by myself.

This may have been a genetic affliction. My grandfather told me he used to work as a messenger, and when he’d be given a nickel for the subway, he’d pocket it so he could walk the distance. He preferred to take the messages above ground, where he could wander, explore, people-watch.

So this is why I’ve taken the L train to its end, to wander around Canarsie. A few years from now, I’ll spend a few Christmas Eves in the neighborhood, but at the moment there is no particular reason for me to be here, no landmark or great restaurant I must see in person. The idea to come here was first planted in my head by a sociology book about the neighborhood, which studied the flight of the white working class from places like Williamsburg and Brownsville out to Canarsie and points east. But more than anything, I want to check off this plot of the city in the mental ledger of places I’ve been. The sooner I check one off, the sooner I can travel to another one.

I stroll down Rockaway Parkway. It’s a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in the early fall, the sun low and orange. Every little glimpse I get of the neighborhood seems important to me because I’m here to witness it. A little old lady shuffles out of an ancient Italian pasticceria with flamingo-colored lettering. At the local high school, a football coach chews out his players for a lack of hustle. A strip mall appears charmless except for the large Burger King at its northern extremity, which never received a rebranding and still looks like the Burger Kings of my youth.

I keep wandering down Rockaway, under the Belt Parkway, and into Canarsie Pier. It has an arched welcoming sign that suggests amusement, but there are no rides or attractions here. Just a pier, really, where a few lone fisherman have cast out lines. There are also a few running paths carved out of the grass. I follow one.

Fifty feet down the path, the grass becomes wild, uncontrollable, taller than me. Then weeds emerge among the blades, huge cattails and snarling jagged things, and soon there are more of these monsters than the grass. The path seems to narrow with each step. The noise of the highway recedes into nothingness. I feel the vague unease that only surfaces in October, just when the leaves begin to change and the chill in the air first stings you. But I don’t dare turn back. I want to see all of New York.

The weeds give way, and I find myself on a dune tumbling away from me into Paedergat Basin, which separates Canarsie from Bergen Beach and Mill Basin. Across the basin, another dune, and more weeds beyond that. There are no waves here. The water tugs weakly at the sand, recedes, and tries again. The Belt Parkway is visible in the distance but only as an outline against the sun.

I am alone. But the array of trash in the sand—beer cans, Coke bottles—suggests this is a destination for somebody. So do the remnants of a badly constructed campfire, planks of mealy wood laid across each other and burnt to char, still smoldering, maybe. At times I swear I can hear music, faintly, as if it were trailing from a radio on someone’s windowsill a block away.

It suddenly occurred to me that I told no one where I was going before I left for Canarsie. I could be killed right at this moment by these campfire setters, who were surely lying in wait for saps like me to wander along, and I might never be found again. No one would know what became of me.

This is the most basic fear humans have. Not the fear of dying, but the fear of leaving no trace. We can deal, abstractly, with the thought of not existing. What terrifies us is the thought of a day when no one knows we ever existed.

I was not dressed for jogging, but I ran back on that path, past the weeds, past the grass, back onto the pier. I slowed myself down once I hit Rockaway again just so I wouldn’t look like a maniac, but I still wanted to run, past the high school and the old timey Burger King and the pasticceria, back to the L train, back to my school where I had to show my ID to enter every building and there was no doubt people were recording my existence.


As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.

When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.

“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.

The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.

Continue reading Seizures