Subway Surf Report

Toddlers And Titans Of Industry: Views From The 4 Train

Cigarettes. Cemeteries. CTOs. Stand clear of the closing doors.

By Ali Royals

Photography by Eleanor Kaestner, Styling by Kelly Russell


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.


Someone has just put out a cigarette in the train car when I board the Utica-bound 4 train in the Bronx’s Woodlawn station. The trains always linger a little longer at the end of the line, and I’ve arrived in the precise liminal period not between arrival and departure, but between extinguishing nicotine and igniting cannabis. A man in a silky du rag funnels Doritos crumbs into his mouth then lights a joint with one hand, (the other busy buzzing a pink and purple Barbie walkie-talkie) his lighter shaped like a tiny gun.

A mom brown-bags a Corona Light and bounces her toddler on one knee as we start our scenic slither through these smoggy streets. A couple in his-and-hers masks (hers, a rainbow rasta Bob Marley-inspired look—his, a perfect replica of the tan RAW rolling papers logo) hold hands as we zip past baseball diamonds and tennis courts, collegiate running tracks and vacant skateparks. Families gather on sprawling grass: aunties and uncles at cookouts, baby birthday parties, pastel quinceaneras replete with balloon arches. Across from the Woodlawn Cemetery rests a graveyard of old subway trains and a field set up for graduation, empty chairs littering the open field like tombstones.

The Bronx lives in primary colors: Yankees blue, auto-repair-shop red, McDonald’s yellow. (The Golden Arches graze the horizon of the Mt. Eden station platform.) Blue-paint-spattered workwear, yellow parachute pants, red lips and matching box braids. Then, of course, there’s the holy trinity: a redheaded girl wearing blue overalls over a yellow t-shirt, living out her Minion truth.

“The trains always linger a little longer at the end of the line, and I’ve arrived in the precise liminal period not between arrival and departure, but between extinguishing nicotine and igniting cannabis.”

Orthodox Jews sit across from an old dude with an Avatar arrow shaved into his scalp. Flags flutter in the wind atop Yankees stadium while a girl bemoans the modern horrors of being forced to dine in a COVID-shanty in the rain. The train cars are lively, filled with the sounds of Spanish and the scents of cousins carrying flimsy tins of rice.

The train car is awash in a fluorescent glow from the rainbow ads for pride month. Rainbow, too, is the procession of scrubs that filters in and out at every stop: ruby red, emerald green, amethyst purple. One doctor leans over to another doctor to ask whether or not she knows what a twink is.

There’s something…sexy about express trains. As we skip past Spring, past Canal, it almost feels like traipsing past the line of pretty girls in Playboy necklaces to the front of your favorite club—where you are, of course, a regular. Vignettes burst forth as we flash past other trains—an old lady doing her lipstick in the reflection of the attendant's cabin, a man icing a toothache—before our trains careen onto other tracks.

“There’s something…sexy about express trains.”

The Bowling Green station is crawling with titans of industry and toddlers in teen titan backpacks. A man in a hospital gown—admittance bracelets on his wrists flapping like ribbons in the wind—weaves in between them: these sweet little American psychos strutting with leather satchels slung over shoulders or clenched in closed fists; them: the babies bossing their parents around from their tiny mobile thrones, popping balloon animals, biting their ways to the centers of tootsie pops.

Ah, the duality of the finance bro. In terms of watches, it’s Apples to Audemars—and each type of man falls under one of these distinct categories.

The Apple Watchers are all Lululemon joggers and polyester polos, clunky corporate backpacks and shoes that look not unlike the lovechild of a loafer and a lace-up old-school skater shoe—something that screams “Vans: Off the Wall Street.” The Audemars: more tailored, more refined. They walk among us in crisp whites, sharp navys, gingham blues, green checks. Polished oxfords and warm leather briefcases. They simultaneously scroll two phones with hands the size of baseball mitts. They brush the seasons’ penultimate spring showers off the structured shoulders of their summer suiting.

Then, of course, there are the interns. They come in every adolescent form: baby faced, acne prone, furry-upper-lipped. “They can go fuck themselves,” says one in a boxy blazer. “...our CTO?” asks one in the striped polo.

They discuss this next to a woman with pacifiers braided into her hair and a lady eating a chocolate glazed donut in a corporate pride T-shirt. A middle school girl scooches by us wearing Oakleys and a Support Our Troops tee.

After being nonconsensually serenaded by a chorus line of Mennonites four bonnets deep, I watch a dad in a South Hampton ball cap rock a Rolex Submariner and a pint-sized pink scooter. (His presumable daughter was nowhere in sight.) New parents play rock paper scissors—dad with his arm over mom’s shoulder—as their newborn sleeps in her stroller. Above us, smoke casts Manhattan in a filterless sepia-toned glow. Down below, girls rip Elf Bars and tuck dab pens into front pockets of t-shirts. Someone puffs out a cloud of sweet acrid vape smoke as the tiny TV screen flickers between ads for LegolandTM and Kim Petras SLUT POP merch.

“ Above us, smoke casts Manhattan in a filterless sepia-toned glow.”

As we rattle away from Manhattan, it’s all practical shoes and impractically dressed tourists bumbling in from the Brooklyn Bridge. Flocks of Golden Geese fly past on finance girlies’ feet, their slingback pumps tossed into L.L. Bean Tote bags over their blue pinstriped shoulders. Vejas and clogs, oversized structured button downs and wide-legged trousers.

An old man in a cap embroidered with the words Jesus is my boss rests his head against the window. A dad looks at a monthly schedule called “keto fasting for beginners.” A grandfather in a Rangers yamaka edits a Google doc on his phone. The 4 Train favors brain games: a teenage boy plays knockoff Wordle (the word: eight.) The man next to me plays Spelling Bee (the pangram: abomination.)

There are names looped around necks, names tattooed onto bodies. Emmanuel fades in Roman script on a woman’s wrist. Emma flourishes on a forearm, surrounded by flowers. Angela swings from a man’s neck in swirly script.

“As we rattle away from Manhattan, it’s all practical shoes and impractically dressed tourists bumbling in from the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Teens flutter five dollar bills in the face of the cashier at the Borough Hall bodegita. A woman with close-cropped hair reads Cesar Miller’s Short Guide To a Happy Dog. A girl wears a star patch over a nonexistent pimple. Two men push carts of Monster Energy and Kool-Aid Jammers, a singular pint of Ben and Jerry’s placed precariously on top.

Through our train car’s open doors, an MTA employee sweeps up a fallen teddy bear from the filthy floor. A girl in a pink Slug Life T-shirt practices breath work from a guided video on her phone, while the woman next to her in a sheer hijab makes a miswak, twisting a solid little sapling twig between her teeth. Abruptly, the man prepping his mise en place for a PB&J drops his PB jar, causing it to roll underneath someone’s sparkly roller blades.

At the end of the line in Brooklyn, yellow celestial scenes of frogs splashing beneath full moons tile the walls of the station. On the uptown express—that hyperloop teleporting me home—the stations we won't stop at flicker past like sketches in a flipbook, beams of light so solitary against this dingy darkness.

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