Travel

I Didn’t Get an Amtrak Residency, So I Tried an MTA Residency Instead

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Coney Island letters

Last Saturday was the first day of summer, the longest day of the year. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, but I made a conscious decision to spend three hours underground.

Out of more than 16,100 applications, 115 semi-finalists were chosen last week for the much buzzedabout Amtrak Residency (or, yuck, #AmtrakResidency), a program that will send 24 writers on free long-distance, round-trip train journeys to foster creativity and productivity. I numbered among the 16,100, but not among the 115.

I am a resourceful person, as well as a stubborn one, so I resolved to make my own transportation-based writing residency, thank you very much. I settled for New York City’s own Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I decided to take the F train from terminal to terminal, Jamaica-179 Street in Queens to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue in Brooklyn, a total of 44 stops. Not only that — I would first ride the F train from Delancey Street (I live on the Lower East Side) to Jamaica, and then to Coney Island.

All this, of course, while doing my best to get some writing done.

My boyfriend lives in Flushing, and I’ve taken the 7 from Times Square to Main Street more times than I can count. This is no big deal: if you can catch the express, you can knock that out in 30 minutes. I chose the F because it covers a lot more ground, with tracks in three boroughs. It’s also my train, a short walk from my apartment, though I’m relatively poorly traveled on it. Every day I take the F two stops to work at York Street, but I’ve ridden it only as far east into Queens as Jackson Heights, not counting the time I stayed on until Kew Gardens because I wasn’t paying attention.

So, this past Saturday, I get on the F at Delancey at 1:50 p.m. The train is roughly as crowded as it is on weekday mornings, but there are lot more families with kids, some sheepishly dragging strollers into the human crush. Also well represented are rolling suitcases, maxi dresses, neon running shoes, and nurses in colorful scrubs. I find a seat within two stops, and immediately I’m sleepy, which is admittedly counterproductive. But the train noise is lulling: the familiar door-closing beeps, the dull screech of the brakes, even the human chatter.

At West 4th Street, a large crowd of excited preteens on a field trip is shepherded onto the train by a man and woman who clearly aren’t being paid enough for this. The preteens are getting off at Herald Square — at least, that’s what the male chaperone confidently announces, only to be brattily corrected by one of the kids.

I’m taking notes in a pristine, bright white legal pad, and the joy I take in deflowering a pristine, bright white legal pad is tempered by how conspicuous it makes me feel. It looks dorky and performative (to be fair, this whole endeavor is dorky and performative).

In the distance, through a forest of legs, I see a woman’s disembodied butt in zebra-print leggings. I lose a few seconds gazing at it. My interest isn’t sexual — the mystery butt just happens to be an extraordinary butt, perfectly round and appealing. It occurs to me that, oblivious though the butt’s owner may be, staring is still kind of a gross and shitty thing to do, and I may very well be gross and shitty for doing it. Later, when the preteens finally do disembark at Rockefeller Center, I learn that the butt belongs to their female chaperone. Great butt, lady. Well done.

“Please do not push,” her male counterpart says as the kids stream onto the platform, with noticeably less authority in his voice this time. I don’t get a good look at his butt.

The sunshine seems to have put everyone in a happy mood. A man a few seats away has his music turned up loud enough for everyone to hear, but rather than looking annoyed, his seatmate absentmindedly bops his head up and down to the beat. A put-together 40-ish woman is holding a tall piece of dirty PVC pipe straight up and down like a scepter. She’s smiling. At Roosevelt Island, I catch her eye, and she smiles bigger, and rests her chin on the pipe. Not longer after that, a girl in a fringe top spends an uninterrupted 10 minutes intensely studying the MTA map. I know it was 10 minutes, because I pulled out my phone and timed her.

By the long stretch between Queensbridge and Jackson Heights, the noise level has quieted down considerably, possibly because the train has become kid-free. I spot two people sleeping. At 71st Avenue, things get loud once more when a criminally adorable little girl makes her presence known by repeatedly shouting “Hi!” to no one in particular.

A few days earlier, when I explained my plan for an MTA residency to one of my friends, he visibly recoiled, like I’d farted from my mouth. “Why?” he asked, “Why would you do that to yourself?”

Why would I do this? I’ve done this. At my core, I’m a commuter, bridge and tunnel born and bred. Until two months ago, I lived in New Jersey and worked in DUMBO. Every morning and night I faced a suburban version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I’d drive to the bus stop, hop on a jitney that would take me down Route 4 and across the George Washington Bridge, then ride the A train from 175th to High Street, the first stop in Brooklyn. On a good day, that trip takes about an hour and 45 minutes.

Before that, I tutored the SAT for a small company that catered almost exclusively to the underachieving youth and overpaid parents of Nassau and Suffolk Counties. I’d take a bus into Manhattan, then pick up a Zipcar and drive it to Roslyn, Great Neck, Merrick, or Plainview. The money was good, but the commute (and explaining why Tiffany’s math score hadn’t risen 500 points, by some kind of divine miracle, since the previous week) was exhausting. What I appreciate about my journey on the F train is the lack of moving parts. There can be no missed connections when there aren’t any connections to make.

I climb out into the sunlight at 179th and Hillside Avenue at 2:55.

179 Street

I take pictures of the station’s signage while the people waiting in line for the bus a few feet to my right eye me scornfully. I don’t blame them; I look like an idiot.

Originally, my plan had been to promptly return to the F, but now I’m hungry. More importantly, I have to pee.

Jamaica street

I walk a block to a Burger King and order a Double Stacker (if you order things other than Double Stackers at Burger King, you need to think critically about how you’ve been living your life). I shove the burger into my purse and beeline for the bathroom. Five people are already waiting on line. Fuck this noise.

Across the street, there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts, but I discover that they don’t have a public restroom at all. Once, I sweet-talked my full bladder into the employees-only bathroom at the Subway on Houston — clearly, this is a recurring issue in my life — but then, I was the only customer in the store (this Dunkin’ is beyond crowded), and the Subway bathroom ended up smelling like a horrible, choking cocktail of ammonia and body odor anyway.

Customers only

A few doors down, there’s a bar. A sign in the window informs me that the bathroom’s for customers only, but I consider popping in for a beer and 10 minutes of whatever World Cup game is on. I think better of this plan when the bar’s sole patron grabs his crotch and vocalizes in my direction.

I zigzag back across Hillside to KFC, bypassing the long line for food altogether for the nonexistent line at the bathroom. I knock, then try the knob. It’s locked. Less than a minute later, an employee appears to tape this sign to the door.

Out of Order

Next door is White Castle, where I buy a bottle of water (I already have one in my bag, mind you) and the cashier buzzes me in to the surprisingly high security ladies’ room. I’m so relieved to have peed that I forget about my burger for the next half hour.

White Castle

I’m back underground at 3:17, with the beginnings of a sunburn glowing pink on my arms and face. About 20 passengers are in my car when the train pulls out of Jamaica, plenty of room for everyone to sit with a wide berth all to themselves. I wish it were wider. Next to me, a man picks his nose with his left hand and plays Candy Crush with his right.

The opposite side of the car is plastered with Con Ed ads, which are uniformly terrible. (“Quarters don’t make your washing machine work. Electricity does.” Thanks, Professor Science.) I see multiple posters advertising SexyPop, popcorn that is somehow sexy, on the walls of the stations we pass through.

As we speed toward Jackson Heights, I notice that another woman at the other end of the car is scribbling away in a plush-looking Moleskine. I suddenly feel defensive about my legal pad, surreptitiously lifted from my office’s supply cabinet, and cling to my long-held belief that there is an inverse relationship between the quality of the writing and the price of the paper you’re doing it on. That’s a thing, right? Right.

On a related note, I realize only now that it’s impossible to scrawl all over the page, like I have been, without the product looking the slightest bit manifesto-y.

At Queensboro Plaza, a woman with two small children in tow boards the train carrying a birdcage with a towel draped over it. A teenage couple playfully argues about whether the PATH and the Port Authority are the same thing (for the record, uh, they aren’t).

Train stops

The couple, it turns out, aren’t actually a couple, though it soon becomes painfully obvious that they’d both very much like to be. She scolds him for drinking. He reminds her that he recently invited her to a Mets game, but she points out that he asked her at the very last minute. “Guess you need a good boyfriend,” the teen boy tells the teen girl. She, grinning, tells him to shut up.

I hear a chirp. I look down the car and catch a glimpse of the bird, a blue parakeet. I’m genuinely thrilled. As I watch it shuffle dopily along its perch, a man slightly to the left of my direct sightline, who has been rapping along to the music playing in his headphones, misinterprets my gaze as a plea for his attention. Oh, god. I have become his audience. I watch my reflection in the window opposite until he loses interest.

Nearby, a mom in polka dot Toms gently lectures her middle-school-age daughter about making a good first impression at camp.

So far, I’ve found myself writing about women’s shoes more than I would’ve expected — maybe because they’re safe places to look without inviting harassment and one-man freestyle exhibitions meant just for me. This, I guess, is my bullshit bloggy version of the centuries-old problem of the flâneuse, of daring to be an active spectator in public while female (I’m not helping much, given that I’m staring at disembodied butts). Today I’ve seen plenty of instep tattoos, mainly stars and hearts, none of which I particularly like. I’ve also seen lots of sandals that isolate the big toe with a horizontal strap, like it’s done something wrong and needs to be punished. Dozens of pedicures, mostly in shades of blue. Another pair of Toms on another mom. Another pair of Toms on me.

Growing bored with all these feet, I look back up at the Con Ed posters to distract myself. This was a mistake. “Simply put, it’s an app that’s worth its weight in kilowatts.” What the fuck are you even saying? This means nothing, to no one.

At Broadway-Lafayette, the car is officially crowded again, though still not as crowded as my ride uptown earlier this afternoon. The bro seated across from me is wearing black Coach loafers and they’re awful. He reminds his girlfriend four times that they’re getting off at Delancey over the course of the two stops it takes them to get there.

To Coney Island

At Jay Street, Polka Dot Toms Mom recommends an Airbnb property in Mexico to the man traveling with them, who I’d wrongly assumed was her husband. “This is Mexico City,” she explains. “Real Mexico, not tourist Mexico.”

“Let’s go to Egypt,” her daughter shrieks. “Iran! How about Iraq?”

By Bergen Street, she has also suggested Afghanistan, Switzerland, Haiti, and Hawaii. “I can name a bunch of places too,” her dad (at least, I think it’s her dad?) says. Also by Bergen Street, I have consumed both my bottles of water and I have to pee again.

When we go above ground at Smith-9th Street, it feels so, so good. Everything seems beachier. A woman even pulls a shopping cart full of lush green houseplants onto the train. I start to feel antsy at 7th Ave, for the first time today, when we descend back underground.

Avenue P

I haven’t been to Coney Island for years, not since I went to the now defunct Siren Musical Festival with my friends in high school. On the long subway ride out, an attractive college-aged man very nicely asked if he could take my used Jamba Juice cup (they’d just opened at the Port Authority) and pee in it. I know how that sounds, but it’s actually a pleasant memory.

I’d completely forgotten about the panorama view of Washington Cemetery at Bay Parkway; it’s stunning. Next to the cemetery, there’s a football field, where half a dozen kids are playing soccer.

Doors
I’m tired. By this point, my car’s human contents have turned over many, many times, except for two men who’ve ridden almost the entire length of the line with me, from Jamaica to Avenue X. After they get off, there are only four of us left. After Neptune Ave, three. It isn’t long before I can make out the flags at the top of the Cyclone.

Coney Island window

I step off the train just a few minutes after 5:00, and I’m excited.

Coney Island sign

The breeze smells like sunscreen, weed, and hot dogs.

Nathans

But here’s the thing: it’s crowded. Of course Coney Island is crowded, but this is overwhelming. The annual Mermaid Parade took place earlier today, with the de Blasios themselves on hand for this year’s festivities.

Crowded

Surprise, surprise — if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably already figured out that I desperately need to use the bathroom. The lines for the beachside restrooms are each dozens of sweaty sunbathers long. After wandering along the boardwalk for 15 minutes, I’m extorted into buying yet another water (the same bottle in Queens cost me $1.50, but here it’s a cool $2.75) at Luna Park in order to earn passage to the ladies’ room. Worth every penny.

Beach

How does my makeshift MTA residency stack up to the experience (I’d imagine) you’d have writing on an Amtrak train? My transportation was free, or at least included in the price of my monthly unlimited Metrocard. If you aren’t fortunate enough to win an Amtrak residency, you can expect to pay hundreds of dollars for even the relatively short trip from Washington, D.C. to New York City. Then again, on Amtrak, that money would buy you ample opportunity to use the bathroom, not to mention a bed, desk, and electrical outlets.

It all depends on what you’re looking for in a work environment: productivity or inspiration. Amtrak wins for peace and quiet, but nothing is as stimulating nor as fascinating as the constantly shifting sights, sounds, and company you’ll encounter on a long subway ride. It’s also a great way to get to know your city — and of course, there’s no reason you need to masochistically commit to traveling the length of an entire line, as I did. (But then again, why not?)

In general, creativity thrives amid constraints, and for me, forcing myself into a large metal tube deep below the sidewalk certainly did the trick. I highly recommend it.