A Report From Below: Views From The L Train
A poetic investigation into New York’s most underground scene.
By Ali Royals
Photography by Eleanor Kaestner
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.
What is probably a peanut but looks like a human tooth rolls past the exposed bone of my ankle and into the center of my L Train car. We’re rattling around underground, somewhere between Gramercy and Grand Street.
If the Seven Wonders of the World are looking to add an eighth to their illustrious ranks, the New York Subway System makes a convincing case. There’s a bald guy with a birthmark in the shape of the Tesla logo imprinted on his skull. A girl in light–up sketchers folds a paper fortune teller, furling and unfurling the future of our universe between her tiny fingers. The hottest man you’ve ever seen is sporting a graphic t-shirt featuring a sloth and the slogan, “Not fast. Not furious.”
In the stations of the subway, no one talks about the weather. You take to the underground to spill your guts, to teleport from one street corner of the city to another, to warp the fabric of time and space for a mere two dollars and seventy-five cents.
So much of the subway is mystifying. It feels like destiny, these tiny oddities happening exclusively to you, for you, around you. This is a time capsule that captures the essential randomness of it all: the communal jolt as the train screeches into the station, the unspoken etiquette, the unexpected eavesdrop, the collision of scents, sights, sounds, stickers, stylistic choices as you slither from platform to platform, eventually emerging into the open air to find a city unchanged. Down here, clout is not a currency—only the Metrocard is. It’s incomparable, it’s alive, it’s hurtling along at 55 miles per hour—it is, in the truest sense, New York’s most underground scene. It’s the Subway Surf Report.
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I wonder how long it’ll take for the tread of our collective soles to wear down the social distance stickers at the 8th Avenue L Train platform. I’m as Manhattan-bound as I can possibly be, waiting for the train to run back towards Brooklyn, thinking about the person who had to drift from train to train, covering up the handicap station icon in every car with slices of black duct tape.
The station at the end of the line is clean, quiet, well lit, well kept. There’s a sculpture of a serpent wearing a top hat, shackled down with a tarnished chain. There’s men with mustaches, men with mesh shorts, men with well-manicured fingernails. Mullets mark a few mop-headed Manhattanites—less east coast lacrosse player, more chic and carefully sheared—a pair of Simon Miller clogs here, a copy of "Into the Wild" there, a bespoke skateboard with flaming dragons painted along the wheels stuck somewhere in the middle.
Slogans are paraded in on baseball caps like tiny embroidered picket signs: “SPORTS!” “IT’S CAMP!” “NO TALK, NO TOUCH, PLEASE IGNORE ME.”
At 6th Ave, a girl seated next to me scrolls through six straight Boygenius Instagram stories. She’s been staring at Phoebe Bridgers straddling the fishnet clad leg of MUNA’s Katie Gavin for 45 seconds straight. “Literally you’re obsessed with taking photos from the worst angle ever,” one girl says to another as she snaps a selfie from above, her iPhone camera shooting at the .5 angle.
Everyone is draped in denim or the illusion of denim: dark wash button downs, high cut mini skirts, chambray overcoats, Canadian tuxedos—blue on blue, black on blue, light wash on medium wash. Denim backpacks, denim dresses, denim shorts paired with cowboy boots and a skateboard slatted across two knobby knees.
In the of 1st Avenue station someone is muttering about kindness. A man wearing a BACK TO THE CULTURE ball-cap gives a homeless man two dollars. A stress ball sits popped on a blue plastic bench, exploding pink goo. HOE PHASE is scrawled across an overpainted green pillar.
A man in a pair of Salomon LAB sneakers and a short pearl necklace makes his move in iMessage chess. Salomons sweep the L train sneaker category, so perfect for hiking the labyrinthine concrete trails of New York’s underground. Adidas Sambas stomp out nearly every spectrum of the rainbow, the classic black leather pair like storm clouds parting to make way for sueded greens, velvet reds, muted yellows. Pink and red-striped Gazelles are crossed over a girl’s bare leg as she scrolls Instagram with the semblance of service she has, a bunny-eared Sonny Angel doll perched precariously over her screen.
In this age of never-ending nostalgia, old games earn new clicks: Candy Crush makes a sugary resurgence, a man plays 2048, swiping in perfect square formation. A couple hovers their hands, palms floating over palms, attempting to smack thee back each other's hands before they’re pulled away. Middle school boys play card tricks at the end of the car, just young enough where I’m not quite afraid of them, while their classmates sit in front of me, clapping out a game of Concentration 64.
During the mass migration at Union Square, two girls ponder the distinction between “gay” camo and “straight” camo, both of which bare ironic visibility on the L. (The former more frequently than the latter, though this is not to discount the fisherman clad in head-to-toe khaki with camo accents, asleep under the rim of his HUK hat.)
Some stops are all braids and bows and grosgrain ribbons, Sandy Liang silky ballet flats and pleated mini skirts. A grandmother with a neatly kept white bob sits next to a girl rifling through her neon yellow tulle tote bag, little embroidered daisies adorned in tidy garden rows. This color crops up at almost every stop, a creamy neon just muted enough not to blind you with its brightness.
“Is it her finsta?” one friend asks the other. “No, it’s, like, her cute burner account.” A woman hovers over them wearing an “I WON THE WICKED LOTTERY” pin. A girl with ribbons in her hair reads a 33 and ⅓ deep dive into Madvillain’s "Madvillainy" album.
The train comes up for air somewhere before the Wilson avenue stop, looking out over the rolling hills of some unknown cemetery; there are flowers in the stained glass windows at the Sutter Avenue station, flowers in closed fists, flowers in buckets, flowers in brown paper bags.
We overlook a parking lot full of school buses and a junkyard full of crushed cars, compacted and stacked like dominos. Someone has adhered their fake eyelash to the cartoon profile accompanying the button you can press to speak to the operator. Past the Arthur Center for Positive Change there’s a pit of soda can-filled bags stacked so high it obstructs a third floor bedroom window.
A sticker on the train crew’s cab boldly asks, “whose goo is in you?” A girl in crocs with shockingly serene Jibbitz (puka shells, glossy green beads, pink hearts) blasts Harry Styles’ "As it Was" out loud. Among these confetti strewn floors, we are scattered like stardust, ears collectively popping under the East River, following a vintage napster messenger bag up these urine-soaked stairs and straight on til morning.