There was a time in New York, not so long ago, when the very notion of a "subway train" was absurd. The subway was a subway -- generally filthy, mostly underground, always alienating -- a necessary evil in the city. The train was a train -- usually clean, scenic, a machine engineered for producing chance encounters with new lands and new people -- sexy in the best Freudian sense. The subway was hell; a train could, whatever its inconveniences, at least hint at bliss.
Paul Bowles discovered as much in 1946, when translating Jean-Paul Sartres play "Huis Clos" ("Behind Closed Doors") for its first Broadway production. After weeks of searching for a title to pack the same existential punch as the French, he found his answer in the depths of the New York subway system. Leaving the Independent Subway, he saw the sign "No Exit," finding at once his title and the American version of hell.
When I first rode the subway, as a student at Columbia College in the '80s, hell was my word for it too. My most memorable ride was heading back to campus after an afternoon of shopping. My best friend and I, and our latest finds from Kenneth Cole and French Connection, rode the No. 3 uptown. Our talking stalled when we noticed a small, balding man seated across from us pointing a camcorder our way.
OK, we thought, whatever, its a free country. Then we heard the rustle of his down jacket and saw a flash of foreskin as the man finished jerking off, still holding the camera to catch our reactions. He got just what he wanted: I dropped my shopping bags, we dropped our guards and we were both visibly hot and bothered by the cum shot.
Now Im 30, back in New York for a second run, and the subway has become a vehicle for another kind of friction, something much more romantic. With much of its crime and grime wiped clean, or at least swept into the corners, the subway has become a blank slate for our sexual fantasies. It has become a place for flirtation, self-invention, play.
The subway has, at long last, become a train. Forget New York hot spots like Pastis. Above and beyond -- and below -- the latest Chelsea bistros and East Village bars, the subway promises warmth in the winter and sex in the city. As soon as the crush of rush-hour commuting passes, the subway becomes one of the citys hottest singles scenes.
The subways sexual awakening already is being played back to us on the WB and Fox, where Keri Russell and Jennifer Love Hewitt dramatically improve the complexion of mass transit. The trains also thunder through MTV and VH1, where Jennifer Lopezs "Feelin' So Good" is getting heavy play. In the video she and her girlfriends prep for a night on the town, then dash past the turnstiles of reality to enter -- what else? -- a subway headed for Manhattan. The song comes from a CD called "On the 6," named after the subway line that I take to and from work every day and that Lopez took, growing up in the Bronx, to reach Manhattan dance auditions and clubs.
The subway also has the starring role in Savage Gardens titanic hit, "I Knew I Loved You." In the video, a swooning Darren Hayes stands in a subway car, singing to the pretty, blond wisp of his imagination sitting across from him: "I knew I loved you before I met you. I think I dreamed you into life." The camera cuts back and forth between the lovers as they share this soulful, or hallucinatory, moment. When the ride ends, they go their separate ways, never having said a word.
Ive met a few subway Romeos. The latest was tall and good-looking in a jovial, lets-play-tennis-together kind of way. We were standing at opposite ends of a subway car (the 6, again) around 10 on a Friday morning, when I noticed him noticing me. He walked across the car.
"You must get this a lot, but you look just like that girl from Sex in the City.
"Oh, you know, the young one."
"You mean Charlotte?"
"Yeah, Charlotte. Maybe its your hair, but you look a lot like her."
"I might have her look today," I said, wondering for the first time if my red sweater was too tight, or bright, for the office. "But I dont look like her."
He moved on to other subjects, like work. Im an editor at an art magazine. He works in the art department at Time. We discovered something in common: We both show up for work around 10 a.m. I found a way to mention my boyfriends odd work hours. He gave me his number "in case."
Red sweater aside, the citys economic health and the mayors militaristic crackdown on crime help explain why my friends and I are collecting so many phone numbers on the subway these days. Except in the tunnels beneath Times Square and a few other unnaturally resistant holdouts, the smell of urine on subway platforms has faded. Rates for robbery and murder in metropolitan New York have dropped.
You can go an entire day, including commuting, without once being hit up for money. And the long lines at subway token booths are being replaced by long, but faster-moving, lines at MetroCard dispensers. Whether Giuliani, with his hammering attack on panhandling, deserves credit for this trend (or will just take credit for it regardless), the New York subway system has cleaned up its act and cleared the way for romance.
Sure, the next time I take the train, I could witness a fight or another bald man jerking off in my face. And, yes, the subway is still at base a matter of transit -- transport in the mechanical sense. I dont take the 6 from East 77th to Grand Central every morning just for fun. Nor is it entirely a joy ride when I take the 1 or 9 uptown to Zabars for a quick fix of smoked salmon or to my boyfriends, on Riverside Drive, for a quick fix of everything else.
We still use the subway for the same pedestrian purpose of getting from Point A to Point B. That said, the emotional thrust of the ride is changing. The subway is blossoming beneath our feet -- coming into its full sexual powers.
Last week, a painter friend of mine received a business card from a man on the subway she didnt even notice. He had to say "excuse me" as they were leaving the station to hand her a card identifying himself as the CFO of some computer software firm. The back of the card had a handwritten note: "Meet me for lunch tomorrow?" She didn't take him up on his offer and apologized to me for having no more stories. But she suggests that the Bedford Avenue station, the first stop on the L in Brooklyn coming from Manhattan, is "where the real action is."
And Kate, an editorial assistant where I work, is dating a graphic-designer type she met on the N/R line. Shes a smart, sexy woman who has her choice of men, but she chose one from the fine gene pool of subway riders. She was leaving our offices for Black Book, a terribly dense culture magazine on Prince Street, to drop off some freelance editing. She had her work with her.
"Are you a teacher?" asked the man next to her, who was heading to SoHo for shoe shopping during New Yorks first tax-free week this year. He was wearing good shoes.
"No. But sometimes I wish I were."
"Oh. I just saw you correcting those papers."
"Im fact-checking a story on the woolly mammoth. Did you know that scientists use hair dryers to defrost them?"
A rich dialogue about woolly mammoths followed; the tension was incredible. "Have you ever had a conversation where youre on the verge of laughing the entire time?" Kate asked me later. "It was like that."
The Friday night after their first encounter, he took her to the Museum of Natural History, to see the woolly mammoths no doubt. Now, two weeks later, theyre still on the verge of laughing. He calls her at work in the afternoons. She returns his calls. And, whats more, he just came clean and admitted that his roommate is now engaged thanks to a chance encounter on a train. She was carrying an antique table. He offered a hand. The rest is the stuff of wedding toasts. Kate insists, however, that her date is not merely matching or one-upping the roommate. This was his first time -- and hers -- meeting someone on the subway.
As for my boyfriend, I met him last year the old-fashioned way, at a dinner party. Our introduction, over cold sesame noodles, was completely rigged by friends. But now, when asked how we met, Im likely to lie. I'm likely to say we met each other on the 6.