The Beach to the Bronx: Views From the A Train
Oyster shells. Assless chaps. Shen Yun Performing Arts. Please stand away from the platform edge.
By Ali Royals
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.
I have nightmares like this: chugging along a rickety bridge, suspended like magic mere inches from an infinite stretch of rippled water. I—much like Azealia Banks circa 2012—am in the 212 on the Uptown A. Despite this being the precise setting of my haunting recurring dreams, it’s actually quite lovely: seagulls land. Planes take off. Marsh green. Jet Blue. Tugboats and tumbleweeds, choppy little waves and tipped canoes.
Someone has scratched “we here now! 💘” onto the window of the traincar. And here we are: it’s the Summer Solstice but the Rockaways are a ghost town, the Manhattan skyline but an afterthought on the horizon. Blade helicopters buzz over cargo ships anchored on the horizon. If you take off your glasses and squint your eyes to half-mast, you could pretend you’re in the Hamptons, if only for a moment.
A group of boys dances along the crosswalk outside of Beach Breeze deli, their shaggy hair blowing in the barbecue air coming from a man smoking meats next to a row of postal trucks. The flags of America and Jamaica and Brazil fly high above the laundromat. Cabs park under clotheslines in tidy backyard gardens. People lug suitcases to and from the airport. Two girls with matching tie-dye rainbow crocs have eyelash extensions so long they could fly themselves from JFK to LaGuardia.
There are oyster shells outside the Straiton Ave station. Couples tandem-bike along the boardwalk past rows of beige houses all awash with monotony: same pergolas and patios, same drab shiplap and dreary shingles. A baby boy wearing a tiny gray don’t make me call my auntie t-shirt screams SHARKS!!! each time we cross over the water. He swings at the flab hanging off his mothers arm like a punching bag. “Yo,” she cautions, before returning to her scrolling.
The last thing we see as we return to the underground is a graffiti tag that reads you just lost the game. (Sorry.) The Grant Street station is tiled with minty little rectangles that look like teal chiclets, making the orange seats of the traincar look like mango tic-tacs in comparison.
A man takes a sip from a Bacardi shooter at Broadway Junction. The girl sitting next to me gets a text from her mom: enjoy the concert. Be careful. I watch her tap through Instagram stories: cystic acne confessional; thirst trap selfie with flawless skin; golden doodle; engagement; two girls posing with Barbie dolls. A man in a spandex unitard sits next to an RN, idly skating his massive rollerblades back and forth, his blades the size of sturdy cheese wheels.
If you wanna know where your vintage Carhartt earned its wear and tear before landing on a rack in some incense-filled old vintage shop, then all aboard the A train. Their selection is better than Stella Dallas: paint-smeared jackets. Ripped-hem hoodies. Structured utility pants still dusty from a day on the job.
“I can still wear the chaps,” says a muscular gay, his thighs popping out of his denim hot pants. He’s deep in conversation with a man he’s just spent a weekend on Fire Island with. They share photos of crushes. They giggle. They’re probably 40. “Oh, a huunnnndred,” the friend replies, presumably in response to a photo of the aforementioned chaps (assless, I’ve deduced.) “Never dispose of them.”
I make it to Midtown before my first celebrity sighting. I’m attempting to stand clear of the platform edge when Gaten Matarazzo of Stranger Things darts by, getting fist bumped and stopped for selfies as he wriggles his way into the rapidly closing car doors, his black unzipped backpack revealing only a notebook and a single pen.
The A Train needs a book club. Either that, or a McNally Jackson sponsorship. Everyone is reading—faces softly aglow in the cool white lights of kindles, fingers fluttering through delicate paperback pages. A boy in a henley reads Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. A man uses a popsicle stick as a bookmark. A girl reads Immorality across from a man reading The Kill Switch. Print is decidedly not dead: a twenty-something pulls a newspaper out of his bag and reads it, ankle resting gracefully on knee, all but sipping coffee over Sunday morning breakfast.
There’s a whole library of slogans printed on graphic tees, too: a girl sits, unbothered, in an iconic orange sweatshirt that reads “I roll blunts bigger than your dick.” Among her illustrious ranks are the woman in a biblical parody tee displaying the verse “Thou shall not try me” from the book of Mood 24:7 and the woman wearing her heart on her chest in a simple shirt that just says FETTUCCINE.
A boy dressed like a camo pirate skates down the center of the car, his gauzy shirt billowing out behind him. He rolls right past a grandpa in a visor and a patterned terry cloth button down wearing a singular latex glove to grasp the germy pole in the car’s center. His visor reads PAPI in a distinctively vacationy font. A dad does the crossword with an inky pen. (Clue for 38 down: big baddie.) Somebody has scrawled “FREE YOUNG THUG” in sharpie across the door’s window. They even added decorative little stars.
Can someone tell me if Shucked the musical is real? What feels like an entire field of billboards flicker past the windows as we zip underneath the sprawling lawns of Central Park and I just can’t conceptualize greenlighting a musical about corn at a time like this.
Two coworkers whisper to one another: “Was that his wife or his girlfriend?”
The car is chock full of commuter-wear and plastered with posters for SHEN YUN: China Before Communism. A blonde boy sits in a structured button down and faded blue suede RHUDE sneakers, crisp white linen pants and an Oyster Perpetual. Work badges dangle from belt loops or swing pendulum-style between black Tumi backpack straps on seemingly everyone’s shoulders. A man touts a bag of basmati rice like a satchel; a mom carries home a shoulder bag of loose carrots. I’m personally scanning everyone’s footwear for an alternative neutral lifestyle sneaker to the Samba but only seeing a barrage of Birkenstocks.
Much to my dismay, we don’t come above ground in the Bronx. It feels spooky to see the bowels of the subway lit up—it’s a bit like seeing a teacher in the grocery store: the reality of it is obvious, but I feel like I shouldn’t bear witness to it.
A fake text exchange on an ad for RentHop reads: babe, I’m overpaying rent by 7%! Babe, aren’t we all? A woman spills the entirety of her Arizona iced tea bottle down the center of the car. A man seated in the splash zone wipes sweet ginseng spray from the acronym tattoo down the side of his bicep:
R - ealize
The iced tea fans out into thin, refreshing little streams, a micro-Rockaway marshland trickling through the underground, Backwoods wrappers floating off to sea like papery little canoes.