Six months ago, the subway was just a way to get from one place to another. Hot and sticky in the summer, germy in the winter, and packed no matter the season. I’ve spent countless afternoons shoving myself into a subway car overflowing with grumbling New Yorkers wearing suits and hard hats, only to spend 20 excruciating minutes with my head lodged in someone’s armpit.
In the five months since the pandemic began, my bad memories of the subway have almost slipped my mind. Now, I long for the days when I could sit on the shiny yellow seats with a book clutched in my hand, giddy in anticipation for what the day would bring. Being on the subway meant that I had a place to be, someone to see, something to do.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was little, I hated the subway: I never wanted to sit next to a stranger, grasp onto the weirdly warm, sweaty pole, or smell the musty scent of the humid stations in the summer. I didn’t like the stress the subway presented either. To get to preschool on time, my dad would have to drag me down the slippery steps, whisk me past the grimy turnstile, and slide us into the car just before the doors slammed shut. Sometimes I would accidentally leave my lunchbox or backpack on the crowded platform. That was never fun.
Then elementary school came and I found that the subway actually had a redeeming quality: the ghost station between 86th and 96th street. A subway ride meant kneeling on the seat with my hands pressed against the foggy window, squinting my eyes to see the graffiti-covered walls and heavy iron gate of the abandoned station.
Once I reached middle school, I could no longer be captivated by a vandalized subway station. So I did what any self-respecting New Yorker would do and turned to people-watching for entertainment. I’d ride the subway with my eyes flickering between the weirdos that constantly cycled through the sliding doors—off-duty Times Square mascots, eclectically dressed old ladies, punk rock couples, individuals performing gymnastics routines on the metal poles.
The subway has watched me grow up; I’d go so far as to say that it’s responsible for my coming of age. The first time I really felt grown up was during my first subway ride without parents, when my sister and I rode from Chambers Street to Cathedral Parkway and spent the entire trip worrying that we’d be murdered by the Brooks Brothers-clad man sitting next to us. And then I rode the subway again and again and again, until my friends started taking the subway by themselves as well, and suddenly the entire city was at our fingertips.
The subway is one of the simple luxuries I lost during the pandemic—one of many privileges I had as a New Yorker that I didn’t even know was a privilege until it was taken away (by my extremely cautious parents) in early March.
I don’t miss waiting eighteen minutes for the subway and then panicking that I’d be late to my Saturday job, and I don’t miss standing for ages with aching legs and heavy eyelids, the train swaying left and right. But I do miss the endless opportunities presented by the subway; the ability to go anywhere I want, the thrill of running into an old friend and riding downtown together, the possibility of getting a performance from a mariachi band or a breakdancer.
Missing the subway has forced me to realize how much I appreciate the mundane. Things as uneventful as sitting in a cafe and strolling through the Met have somehow become luxuries. Back when school was still in session, my best friend and I would sometimes write essays at a nearby café in order to escape the suffocating walls of the library and get jacked up on caffeine. I’d get a regular old iced coffee, and she would always ask the waiter for a steamed milk-—an embarrassing order that just doesn’t exist on the menu of any self-respecting café. I’d cringe as the waiter cocked his head in confusion, and she’d just beam and laugh at my discomfort. It’s moments like these that aren’t replicable. The thrill of embarrassing yourself in public isn’t nearly as great in a pandemic, when human interaction is scarce and masks make you virtually unrecognizable.
Loss in a pandemic is relative. Some people have lost family members or jobs, while a lucky few of us have remained mostly unscathed, with only the remnants of a pre-2020 life to mourn. And while so many things lost are irreplaceable, I’m grateful for the reliability of the subway. Unlike museum trips and steamed milks and long, maskless days, three pleasures that we’ve learned can be fleeting, the subway will always be waiting for me.
By Sophia Peyser
Illustration by Gabriella Shery