Stand Clear And Suit Up: The Commuter Line Is Approaching
What people are actually wearing to work, as told from the Z Train (which we forgot existed).
By Ali Royals
Photos by Shindelverse
The Subway Surf Report is a monthly column that investigates New York’s most underground scene. Each installment captures subterranean snapshots of humanity at its realest and most randomized.
You never forget your first time. Mine was hot and sweaty, dimly lit, a few onlookers watching creepily from the corner. But out of the dreary darkness of the Stupin-JFK station, there it came: an iridescent Z. It’s taken me two days of fruitless searching to hunt down the mythical Z train, New York’s most elusive subway line.
I think the Z train has my dream job, which is operating for a mere 2 hours a day, Monday through Friday. It heads into Manhattan by morning and is Queens-bound by evening. Despite running as a rush-hour companion to the J train, the line is decidedly not named after Jay-Z—though the line itself is still a HOV: a high occupancy vehicle shuttling thousands of skip-stop commuters from Parsons Boulevard to Broad Street. It’s commuter carpool for schoolgirls and stockbrokers, creative directors and construction workers, cigarette smokers in cigarette pants.
Someone has actually just finished their morning smoke as I float between cars at the 104th street station. Outside, the morning light is still blue and the air is perfumed by new notebooks, library paperbacks and patent leather shoes. In the streets below, tiny back-to-schoolers sit on stoops and street corners waiting for early buses, rows of peter-pan blouses and navy jumpers lining the pavement.
The Dog Days of late summer have faded into the Denim Days of early fall. It is denim on denim the whole way down the line: dark-washed over shirts and structured jeans in Queens and pinstripe train conductor pants and chambray shirts on Chambers street. Long denim slit-skirts rule the skip-stop stations in creams and light wash blues, one paired particularly well with a denim overshirt and pearl bangles. Denim jumpsuits, studded denim purses, sporty denim jackets dotted with baseball patches. A boy in a houndstooth shirt and baggy black jeans reads what may or may not be Harry Potter Order of the Phoenix.
Before you walk a mile in a commuter’s shoes, you must first consider the CrocsTM—the Z train’s transit shoe of choice. There are Yeezy Crocs, weed Crocs, white Crocs with mismatched socks in lavender and dusky green; platform Crocs, mega-platform Crocs, moms and sons in matching black Crocs. There’s even Croc-ception: a pair of yellow Crocs with a yellow Croc jibbitz.
When you’re ready to walk the mile, though, the shoe selection is pretty spectacular. Bedazzled flats, green suede oxfords, gorpcore orange Nike hiking shoes that look like they’re made of cork (is gorpcork a thing?) A woman in black ballet flats sips carrots juice straight from her juice-machine cup. A man taps his toes in cherry red arcadia doc loafers, his cuffed pants revealing a pair of green weed socks.
We’re nowhere near Polo Bar, but the Z train’s polo bar is set high: A girl in a light green polo with a corduroy schoolgirl dress reads Bunny by Mona Awad. A skintight butter yellow hollister polo is stretched tight across a man’s bicep, his tribal tattoo sleeve still bleeding from its freshness. An already-mustachioed commuter wears a black polo dotted with 2008-era hipster mustaches.
What do you think of when you think workwear? The Z train has distilled it into three distinct—yet often overlapping—categories: construction, corporate, and creative.
Construction: a man walks down the platform in a hardhat with his flashlight headlamp still attached, chalk covering his hands like sheer gloves.
Corporate: a woman in a with a black satin bow tied around her slick bun wears a black vest and white pussybow blouse, speaking into her bluetooth earpiece.
Creative: a man with shaggy mullet still wet from his morning shower wears self-made black flair leather paneled pants and carries a rolled up poster.
And then there’s the overlap. Creative + Construction: a lanky man shoulder length hair and a chunky silver charm bracelet sports construction-inspired double-front Carhartt denim pants, paired with blundstones and a knotted pair of wired headphones. Creative + Corporate: someone struts down the center of the platform wearing a sleeveless black lace top tucked into sharp gray slacks. Corporate + Construction: a man with carabiner clip, black leather high tops, and chic brown beaten-up satchel plays the daily crossword on his phone.
I take turns theorizing which profession belongs to who. It’s hard to imagine the scrawny boy manspreading over in white Reeboks and nike elite socks, plain blue button down and khakis working as anything but an intern—and even harder to imagine the man in the ‘RAW MEAT’ Snapback commuting to anywhere but a butcher shop.
Men are milking the last ounces out of tank-top season. A man on the roof of his railroad apartment is mid sun-salutation in a white ribbed tank, face down in a wide-legged forward fold. A shaggy haired boy blaring music in his headphones leans against the window in a tank and faded green Dickies. It’s the Z train commuter’s effortlessly cool uniform: baseball hat, solid color top, green (or navy) straight-leg pants, sambas or casual sneakers.
We crawl past morning traffic over the Williamsburg bridge: food truck drivers and black SUVs and sweaty Citibikers in pressed white shirts all but participating in wet button down contests. A crisp navy polo inches along in the front seat of a convertible. A girl curls her eyelashes in a Lilo and Stitch compact mirror.
In terms of the commuter bag, the Z train keeps it chic and chill in equal measure. The girl sitting next to me sends a text while resting her phone on her black Telfar, messaging someone whose contact image is a photo of yassified Obama that she’ll be late to work today. A woman drifts by with an Alice in Wonderland tote bag that reads, “everyone has a dream in his heart.” A Macbook peeks out of an oversized brown suede hobo bag. A woman in head-to-toe Supreme carries her belongings in (surprise!) a canvas Supreme tote bag. A practical king slings his Nike lunch box over his shoulder.
The grind has already started by the time we reach Broad street. A woman types on her laptop on the bench of the platform—an artist updating her resume. An ad for The League insists that it’s okay to date someone just for their goals (be a goal digger!) A newborn infant wears red maroon socks and red graphic pants paired with a white onesie that says HUSTLE. Even the babies have their button noses to the grindstone. Don’t believe me? An ad for the Blue Man Group urges you to see for yourself.