12/22/16 9:26am
Illustration: Laura Davies

Illustration: Laura Davies

The Lobster Shift is a monthly column by Kenneth R. Rosen that explores the city at night.

There are roughly three different modes for subway cars, in my experience. There is, first and most familiar, the crowded commuter car in morning and early evening, where mere inches of personal space segregate straphangers into parcels of remorse or happiness or anger, based primarily on the day ahead, and its promise, or the day behind, and how those promises were either met or denied.

Second, there is the alarmingly vacant car, found in summer when the air conditioning succumbs to underground heat, or in winter when a homeless person claims a third of a car, cordoned off by garbage bags.


“It’s Saturday night,” he shouts, “get your head right.”


Third, there are subway cars that are sparsely populated, something dangerously close to pleasant in the early afternoon before school lets out, and downright sleepy at night, when passengers find themselves traveling underground, for any number of reasons, past the hour of midnight.

No matter which variety of car I find myself in, I am nearly always self-conscious.

My time underground is delegated to baseless fear and anxiety. It’s existential dread about being too close to someone, or unknowingly breaking one of the many unspoken subway laws–manspreading, pole hogging, staring. Sometimes I’m simply flustered about my appearance–the blemish on my face, the tear in my pants, the stain on my shirt, and I believe everyone is looking at me. This rarely happens above ground, outside of confined spaces. These fears surface most acutely in autumn for me. Call it subterranean affective disorder.

I once missed an express A train, the last one departs at about 11pm from Times Square, and found myself inside a later, local-bound car not quite like any of the ones I’ve described, or like any car I’d ridden in before. This was something different. It was not the first type of subway car, nor was it the second or third. It was not a distinct fourth type either—it was a car in transition. (more…)

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