Front Row At The Freak Show: Views From the F Train
Ancient cowboys. Crowdsourced Breakups. Baby DJs. Don’t freak—The F Train is now arriving.
A man’s bald head is transformed into a luminescent orb, glowing red in the light of an ironic screen advertising a child’s ad-free radio. It reads I’m a dinnertime DJ in blocky black letters. It’s late November but this F train car is impossibly humid—borderline tropical—as we rattle from Forrest Hills toward Coney Island. There’s a new MTA campaign hung between each window of the car attempting to minimize Subway freakouts. Nailed to the flimsy plastic wall is a pristine white square with a single instruction floating in the center: Don’t be somebody’s Subway story. For all the people who did not heed this warning—you made your way into mine.
Every single person on the packed bench across from me is asleep except for the old man playing subway surfers. The F train gets great cell service: so many screenagers sit, scrolling their personalized digital infinities, backs slumped softly off the plastic seating. The very adult man on my left is watching compilation videos of cats hugging puppies, cats drinking from hoses, cats jumping into mixing bowls full of flour.
The girl on my right is toggling between videos of herself pole dancing and a Spotify mix titled “Now That’s What I Call a Sex Playlist.” A girl is watching a TikTok about getting off of birth control. A woman is livestreaming a real-time childbirth from her phone. There’s a redheaded lady scrolling through R/Gallbladders, a construction worker watching Wishbone Kitchen cooking videos, a woman reading an article on The Cut called “Get Me Out of the Groupchat.”
An American Airlines pilot sits with perfect posture in his spotless suit, luggage neatly stacked, hair coiffed, shoes shined. A little Russian Boy drops (and subsequently shatters) his chocolate medallion on the Subway floor. He picks up a shard and eats it anyway, his mom screaming “NYET!! NYET!!!” while trying to knock it out of his tiny grip. She takes out baby wipes and scrubs his hands, then his entire face.
A man whose sheer enormity consumes half of the subway bench is plucking his nose hairs as we screech into the station underneath Roosevelt Island. On the platform, a dad waits with a piñata dangling from a single finger—an enormous fringy rainbow horse saddled up with a paper mâché bridle. A grandma with crepey skin sits with her ankles crossed, counting coupons.
A friend-group is freaking out about their buddy Scott’s new girlfriend. They’re crowdsourcing opinions from other riders as to whether or not they should tell him to dump her. A guy in a baby pink polo pops open a can of red wine. A man sports the starkest mullet I’ve ever seen: a spiky black buzz cut shorn straight up to the edges of a ponytail that trails all the way down to his belt loops.
Black puffer season is upon us; people dot the platform dressed like charred marshmallows, lanky couples in brown trench coats like the sticks that skewer them whole. There’s cozy brown micro-plaid puffers, blazers, bombers the color of coffee with a splash of cream. Most riders serve insurrectionist chic in darkwash streaky denim and black running shoes. A boy leans against the center rail in a pair of custom dickies with an illustrated skeleton clawing its way out of his back pocket, its metatarsals wrapped over the denim edge. A lady in a studded suede duster jacket balances her copy of The Silent Patient on a neon orange tote bag.
The F train keeps a healthy reading list. A mom thumbs through Gene Machine Chapter 6: Emerging From the Primordial Mist. A tall boy in a suit stares with increasing intensity into a page of The Tao of Twitter. An Orthodox Jew sitting alone reads from a leatherbound Torah, one of its navy ribbon bookmarks trailing down to the sticky floor. A teenage boy is nearly finished with his dog-eared copy of Conversations with Friends.
Two grown men discuss Gilmore Girls. “Are you Team Jesse or Team Logan?” “I love a bad boy. Team Jesse.” And suddenly we’re outside, streetlights shimmering over reflective water, an enormous SIZE MATTERS law firm billboard taking up half the sky. A man in handicap seating hyperventilates into a plastic bag. A grandpa in tiny glasses with a purple buzzcut carries home a bag of sliced apples.
A grandpa is dressed like a cowboy in golden-toed crocodile cowboy boots, a cowboy hat, and a New Mexico toile jacket—white with green illustrated mountains and falcons and trout, a Dallas cowboys mask covering half of his wrinkled face, his gray hair pulled back into a short little braid. He even has spurs on. A baby boy in cartoon sheep jammies sips on strawberry milk while a man drifting from car to car preaches his sermon, assuring us the sun will rise tomorrow whether we’re alive or not.
A 20-something girl rushes into the traincar in loafers and scrunched socks, her hair bouncing in curled pigtails against the strap of her green L.L. Bean tote. “I won front row tickets to Kimberly Akimbo,” she texts her friend. “We’re going. Tonight.” She looks up directions to Lil’ Frankies as her friend responds with an appropriate “OMFG.”
As we hurtle around a curve at Neptune Avenue, highrises giving way to the horizon, the freak show is deserted: empty restaurants, empty roller coasters, empty hotel pools, the empty Wonder Wheel stripped of its all cars. Even the train car is empty— just me and a discarded box of takeout in a wilted THANK YOU bag, my reflection flashing onto the window underneath the flickering neon dark.