Monday, October 1, 2012

Essentially the Odyssey

I’ve lived in New York City for just about two years now. For the past year, I’ve been living in Brooklyn. I like it here. Just when I start to get sick of it, the season changes and it’s like I’m living in a brand new city.

04_01


04_02 04_03 04_04 

I truly love living here. I do. But it’s not all warm bread and puppy tongues. Put me in the greatest city in these United States and I’ll still find something to complain about. Watch me.

All things considered, the New York City Subway is pretty great. The cars are often clean, mostly air conditioned, and an affordable flat fee will take you from the northernmost part of the Bronx to the bowels of Brooklyn. My commute demands that I spend a minimum of eighty minutes each weekday underneath the city, cruising through tunnels and making a concerted effort to respect the personal space of strangers, in the hopes that they might respect mine. I am usually disappointed, and always too chickenshit to speak up.


04_05


The trains run frequently and consistently Monday through Friday. My daily commute is rarely interrupted by track changes or construction closures. It’s the weekend I need to worry about. I’ll learn on a Saturday evening that the closest train to my apartment, the R train, is not running - suddenly my plans are cancelled and I’m eating peanut butter straight from the jar in bed, gazing longingly out the window at the iconic Manhattan skyline in the distance.

04_06


That’s a lie. I don’t have a view of the Manhattan skyline. Only rich people have access to that sort of view.

04_07


Let’s for a moment assume that it’s late on a Saturday night, and thus far the trains have cooperated. I find myself on the upper west side of Manhattan. I’m wearing a Tina Fey lady blazer - partially because I’ve been told that it does well to hide my broad shoulders, but mostly because I know for a fact that Tina lives on the upper west side, and how’s that for a conversation piece? Matching lady blazers. I keep an eye out for Tina but am mostly focused on finishing the $9 well whiskey I just bought so that I can start to make the long journey home.

04_08 04_09 04_10 04_11


Leaving the bar, I note that I’m closest to the C train at 86th street. I make my way there while muscle memory pops the earbuds into my earholes and I resume my favorite podcast.

04_12 04_13 04_14 04_15


I realize that I can’t remember the last time I walked more than 40 feet by myself in silence. And this trip was going to take an hour, easy. I suddenly feel very alone, and very conscious of the fact that I’ve forgotten how to think without the aid of aural or visual stimulation. This is upsetting, so I kill some time by being upset.

I need to get from the upper west side of Manhattan to my neighborhood in South Park Slope, Brooklyn. As an unsettling silence fills my skull, I make a map in my mind and hope that the subway cooperates.


I'll take the C train from 86th Street to Jay Street MetroTech. I'll switch to the R, and take it to my stop, Prospect Ave.

Map_01


I hurry off towards the subway entrance, a quick three blocks. Foolishly hoping to get there without incident, an older gentleman approaches me with an astute observation.

04_16


Despite all its weirdos, I rarely feel unsafe in the city. I tell the man that he’s right, and he seems satisfied enough. A gust of urine air - the urine of a person who might want to think about incorporating water into their diet - greets me directly in my face as I take two steps at a time going down to meet the C train. No one is on the platform - a sure sign that I’ve just missed a train. It’s me and this other guy. He looks normal enough. Friendly, even. But he’s making eye contact, which is a big no-no.

04_17

I have the Whiskey Bravery and consider asking him why he thinks he’s above the rules of subway etiquette, when I hear the C train screaming into the station. I meet his gaze and tell him with my eyes that this isn’t over.

As soon as I get on the train, the announcer mumbles nonsense into the speaker, and what I gather through his marble-mouthed rant is that this particular train will not be making stops in Brooklyn.

Fantastic.

My brain-gps says “recalculating,” and I have a new plan.


I'll take the C from 86th to Columbus Circle. Switch to the 2. Take that to Times Square. From there I'll catch the R and take it home.

Map_02


It’s a quick ride to Columbus Circle, and I exit the train to make the transfer to the 2. I have to run to catch it, and when I do, I find myself in a cold, bright, and mostly empty car. It only takes a few seconds to realize why it’s so empty.

04_18

The smell is not of this earth.

04_19


I’ve never been glad to find myself in the Times Square area, but tonight it meant freedom from a smell that was beginning to melt my face. The switch from world’s smelliest chamber to Times Square subway platform turns out to be a lateral one in terms of desirability, and I’m beginning to think of my apartment door as one would a long lost lover.

Times Square is unbearable, even underground, because of the tourists. This is not a unique observation. I’m not saying it because it’s obligatory, or because this opinion is shared amongst all “real New Yorkers,” whatever that means. I’m saying it because it’s true. And listen - I’m a tourist. What’s the first thing I did when I arrived in Rome? Posed like a Gladiator in front of the Colosseum, threw a euro in the Trevi Fountain, and ate a bowl of pasta at the apparently ungodly hour of 6:30pm. They hated me there.

But there is something unique about the New York City tourist. They flock to Times Square, pay $17 for a roast beef sandwich, and forget how to walk with any sort of efficiency. They shuffle up Broadway with their eyes glued to the sky as if they’d never seen backlit advertisements before. Everything must be touched. Everything must be filmed. Everything is fascinating.

I make my way through the mass of confused people, looking for signs pointing to the R train. The R takes me directly to where I live, and I intend to welcome it like an old friend.


04_20 04_21 04_22 04_23


After what seems like hours, the R arrives. In the summer, subway platforms are saunas, and I’m not exaggerating. I’m standing still, and I’m sweating. Normally I have my kindle or my iPod to distract me, but right now, my full attention is focused on how miserable my life is in this moment. Upon entering the car I realize that it is un-airconditioned. I don’t sit in one of the many open seats, because I’m mad. As if the subway car will feel guilt and remorse for my being hot and tired. Whiskey Bravery has devolved into Whiskey Passive Aggression at Inanimate Objects. A fan favorite.

A girl sitting nearby is comforting her sobbing friend.


04_24 04_25


We get to Union Square, and when the doors open, they stay open.

04_26


Turns out someone has left an old duffel bag in one of the subway cars, and no trains will be moving from that station until the sweaty gym bag has been sniffed by every police dog in Manhattan. They shut down the 4, 5 and 6 lines for good measure. That’s when I realize - I have no choice but to take the L train.

It'll be the L from Union Square to Lorimer Street. There, I'll catch the G, take that to 4th Ave, then switch to the R.

Map_03


It has to be close to 4am at this point. It’s 4am on a Saturday night, and I’m being forced to take the L. The L is a unique train in that it cuts Manhattan in half from west to east, while most other trains, however loosely, stick to the “north to south” route. Another thing about the L is that it’s really the only train that makes sense to take if you’re trying to get to Williamsburg or Bushwick.

I’m not going to go into a hipster rant. Hipster rants have become so played out that hipsters are now re appropriating them by embroidering the rants onto lacey birdcage covers. They’re so played out that hipsters are making guitar effects from the rant audio and using them during gigs at the old slaughterhouse-turned-cafe. They’re played out to the point where Urban Outfitters is now selling an anthology of notable hipster rants. For $32.95.

So, like I said, I’m not going to rabble about hipsters and their mecca, Williamsburg. It’s not fair. But I will say this. For those who enjoy people-watching, get thee to the L train. It’s never boring. And at such a late hour, headed towards Brooklyn, there’s plenty to see as twenty-somethings make their way back to their unspeakably expensive apartments and unconventional pets.


04_27


My eyes are fixated on a girl’s shoes. They are somehow conch shells. As I try to work out the logistics of this, a man sits next to me. He looks to be about my age, and he looks almost as tired as I do.

“Do you know if this train goes to Morgan Avenue?” He asks me.

“No.”

“No you don’t know? Or no it doesn’t go to Morgan Ave.”

“I don’t know.” Whiskey Passive Aggression at Inanimate Objects has turned into Whiskey Indifference. It becomes clear after a few exchanges that this man intends to bed me, should I allow it. I imagine this as his last-ditch effort to make something of the night, and in the competition of “Least Unattractive Lonely Female on This Particular Subway Car,” I came out on top.


04_28


Needless to say, I decline his offer, to which his response is, "yeah, fair enough." My attention returns to the conch shoes and stays there until Lorimer Street. I get off and start walking in the direction of the G train. The G will take me to the R, which will take me home. The issue with the G is that, being the only train that does not go into Manhattan, it is unreliable and poorly maintained. Before I can even read the notice posted on a column at the G train platform, I know what it’s going to say.

04_29


In actuality, it’s an MTA notice stating that G trains will not run towards Church Avenue from 12:01am until 5:01am on weekends for the indeterminate future. Another dead end. The whiskey has worn off, and I’ve gone straight from Whiskey Indifference to garden-variety Rage. I have no choice but to take the L back the way I came, and by the sounds of it, I’ve just missed it.

I'll catch the L back into Manhattan - at 14th street I'll switch to the F, take that to 4th Ave, and take the R home from there.

Map_04


On the L platform, it’s just me and a woman who appears to live on the bench on which we’re both sitting. I'm now immune to strange smells. Even when she starts mumbling to herself about lizards ("Millions! Millions of them! Repent!"), I am unfazed. I leave the woman to her lizard fantasies as the L rolls into and out of the station. At this point, I’m mentally spent. I’ve run out of unique thoughts. I’m so desperate to keep my brain occupied that when a subway performer introduces himself and begins to play his weird piano-flute, my face lights up as if I’ve just found myself front row center at a Radiohead concert. To be clear, the only thing that this man has in common with Thom Yorke is a wonky eyeball and an implied eating disorder. Which, when I think about it, is a decent amount of common ground. What follows is an odd medley of Top 40 and generic classics. I’m visibly amused by his set list of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” followed by “Hava Nagila.” It should be mentioned that this man’s instrument of choice is a toy keyboard hooked up to what appears to be a hookah tube. He blows into the tube while simultaneously pressing the keys. A makeshift digital organ. The sound produced is neither unique or interesting - but my brain is starved for stimulation, and I’m captivated by the performance. The man takes notice and offers me his collection cup.

For me, this sort of moment ranks among the most detestable, as far as moments go. The look that a subway performer gives you when he silently asks for money in exchange for entertainment. The pregnant pause. The expectation. I didn’t ask for the entertainment. But for someone who spends a minimum of ten hours on the subway per week, it’s inevitable that I am inadvertently and genuinely entertained by a performer every once in a while. And I can’t shake the subconscious belief that I shouldn’t ever get anything of value for nothing.

The bottom line is - I don’t want to give anyone my money. Because it’s mine, and I need it. For things.


Since I don’t have my devices to distract me, I have no choice but to look into his eyes. I concede. There’s no other way. I reach towards the bottom of my shoulder bag to the gritty depths where all the small bits of my daily routine trickle down and settle. Weeks worth of receipts, change, and sand float around along with chapstick, pens, and post-it notes with weird reminders like “next time try beans” and “make purple.” I grab what I assume is a handful of change and repeat “pennies, pennies, pennies” in my skull only to find that I’ve come up with six quarters, two dimes and a tampon. Into the collection cup they go.

I’ve been underground for two hours, now. The journey home had thus far been so unbelievably disastrous that I’m not at all surprised when, at 14th street, I’m told by a grumpy MTA employee that F trains will not be running downtown. And, after numbly boarding the uptown F, I laugh to myself as I’m told that this particular F train is running on the C line, and that the next stop is 86th street. I’m back where I started.

Map_05

It’s 5:30am, and the platform is understandably empty. Except for one man, and I recognize him.

04_17


My Whiskey Bravery is long gone. I don’t have the strength to confront him, and the issue seems so trivial anyway, now that I know for sure that I’ll never see the light of day again. I default to staring at his feet. Nearby, a sick-looking rat is eating a potato chip. It’s common to see rats on the train tracks, but up until now I had never seen one on the platform. How did it get on the platform? Where did it get that potato chip? More importantly, why do I feel as though this rat gets me?

04_30


And with that, the B train crawled slowly to a stop - as if the only thing the subway gods required was for me to be willingly humbled by a filthy rodent, in the lord’s name Amen. I thought very few thoughts and ten miles later found myself on the Prospect Ave platform - just four blocks from my apartment. When I finally resurfaced - hours after a man told me that I had eyeballs in my face - it was light out. I had to shield my eyes, like a mole-person. People were jogging, people were walking around with cups of coffee, convenience stores were opening. It was the most pathetic walk of shame in the history of these United States.

04_31

I might be projecting, here.

86 comments:

  1. Hahah, love it! I'm sure anyone relying on public transport after a night on the town has been there one time or another. It somehow always happens when you just REALLY need to sleep..!

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  2. hahaha another awesome post! favorite part: The G train is a myth. truer words.

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  3. Hahaha, oh my gosh, I'm so glad I don't have to deal with subways... I would get so lost and confused.... @_@

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  4. "The G is a myth." Hahahaha! I can relate to every single thing about this post. When I discovered the M60 bus, I exchanged these obstacles for a different, yet related, set.

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  5. The Subway Gods must have been punishing you for your hubris.

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  6. I took at trip to NYC or the first time not too long ago and had never been on a subway before. This pretty much summed up what it was like for me my first time there haha. Great story and I'm glad it worked out in the end...ish

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  7. I would just like to say I have an overwhelming desire to move out of New York city, even though I don't live there. Your story sounds enormously frustrating. I was reading this and yelling at the screen, get a damn cab, just get a cab!

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    Replies
    1. cabs are hella expensive from 86th street to park slope, from williamsburg to park slope is 30 dollar cab ride. So it would be roughly 50 bucks to get there.

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    2. I've been seriously poor in NYC and it would have been worth $50. Of course, hindsight and all that.

      And to address someone else's comment, I've never had a cabdriver or livery cab driver give me a problem for going to Queens or Brooklyn. Maybe I look mean.

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  8. "Because it’s mine, and I need it. For things."
    Exactly.

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  9. I love your blog. I must have more...more of your delicious, delicious blog.

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  10. The instrument the guy was playing is called a melodica

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  11. Replies
    1. Much like the G trian, cabs that willingly go to Brooklyn are also a myth.

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  12. Hipsters and their damn melodicas! And that is EXACTLY what our view is like from the apartment. While you were away this weekend, however, someone got the genius idea to turn the old spanish evangelical church into an adult daycare facility. Brace yourself as there soon will be old folks in diapers bum rushing our block. woot woot! Well done gurlfraynd! You made me LOL so hard. So hard.

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  13. I echo the sentiments of everyone else. You toooootally should've paid $46.50 for a cab!!!!!!!!

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  14. I'm sobbing at how beautiful this is.

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  15. This was brilliant. I'd tell you to grab a cab next time and skip the Starbucks that week to make up for it, but that doesn't work as well for storytelling.

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  16. This pretty much sums up my commute for grad school. Bushwick to Harlem and back to Bushwick 7 days a week. The G train is what I call the unicorn train. This is my new favorite blog, absolutely hilarious!

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  17. I love this! Adore it! but the B doesn't run on weekends :/

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    1. same! totally love this but then i got to the part with the B train which only exists M-F...
      true or not, still a good NYC story

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    2. Same here...not only does the B not run on weekends, but the 2 doesn't stop at Columbus Circle AND she could have gotten the R at Union Square...her route wasn't all that complicated, but she made it pretty complicated because she doesn't know the subway very well. But, fact checking aside, she is a wonderful story teller.

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    3. The 2 does stop at Columbus Circle late at night. http://www.tendernuggets.com/2012/10/essentially-odyssey.html

      And there was no R train south of Union Station. She was on the R train already going downtown when it stopped at Union Square for good because of the suspicious duffle bag. That is why she got off at Union Square in the first place!

      And at the very end she may have meant the D train instead of the B train: they are the same color, run along the same route and rhyme and as at this point this was like 6am it is an understandable mixup!

      And to all of the "just take a cab people" it is very expensive and difficult late at night and when you invested so much in the subway and you really think it is just one more train and you'll be home it is understandable that you will stick with it. It is only in hindsight that a cab makes sense! (Although I don't know, once I found myself back at 86th St I'm not sure I would be able to not give up and just suck it up and pay for a cab. That one seemed like a sign from the gods)

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  18. Genius! I once had a trip like this in the late 80s and, after inadvertently going to Brooklyn and back again, emerged at 125th St. at some ungodly hour between 2 and 4 am. I definitely saw that same guy...Eye Contact Guy...and I'm pretty sure Potato Chip Rat was there as well. Good times.

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  19. Hilarious. I am a transplanted New Yorker in LA and it brought back fond/frustrating memories for me.

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  20. Replies
    1. Why don't you just suck all the funny out of the story?

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  21. This is SUCH the truth... I live in Astoria, and on weekend nights it's like hell trying to get back home. Half the time I just cut my losses and get as close as I can before taking a cab.

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  22. I know the piano-flute man. I've seen him play a number of times. The people in our car are always enthralled by his seamless integration of new school and old, and he always makes his way into the next car with at least $5 or $10. I saw an old woman once give him a twenty with the kind of star-struck eyes I'd never expected to see in an MTA car. If he gets a minimum of $5 per car and he switches at every stop, he's making close to $60 an hour (based on 5 minutes per stop). I'm sure he knows the most lucrative lines as well.

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  23. Just cried laughing, and I'm not even from NY. Are you familiar with hyperboleandahalf, by chance?

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  24. I used to live off the prospect ave stop, and have totally had this experience, flute man and all. Thanks for the laughs.

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  25. This resonated with me so much that I laughed and cried until I used up all of the energy stores I had remaining for the entire day. I rely on the R to take me even further--into Bay Ridge--and have so often dealt with the stopped train because someone jumped into the tracks AGAIN, or someone decided that their fight on a subway platform need to get violent, or, of course, that some idiot decided to leave their sketchy bag sitting around. I have dealt with the 300 service interruptions impacting my route, creating flustered attempts at synthesizing all of the service advisories I have seen PLUS the tangled web of routes on the map while inside a subway car hurtling towards some destination it doesn't usually go. I have so often dealt with the myth of the G train (it usually involves a great deal of anger and maybe some tears). I have dealt with coming downstairs onto a platform to discover that the train that's only running like once an hour has departed so recently that I can still see its lights down the tunnel, and so for the next 55 minutes it's just me and Mr. Backpack-Wielding Eye Contact-Maker at 3 am. I have endured a mostly empty, very smelly subway car until I looked around and located the origin of the stench, counting the seconds till the doors opened and I could run to the next car. I have been full of self-loathing over my decision to try to transfer at Times Square. And then I have had to wait and wait and wait for late-night R shuttle service to get me past the Lands South of Park Slope--all with a dead ipod and a clutch bag too small for reading material.
    You are not alone, intrepid subway rider. Relying on the R is comically horrible.
    You might be interested to know about rightrides.org, as I was. It provides free rides home to women who don't want to brave the subway late at night. I haven't used it yet, but I know some people who volunteer with them as drivers/escorts, and the service is a phenomenal idea. That is if, of course, you're not like me, and only remember its existence after you're two hours deep in your late-night MTA expedition, really far from any place you'd want to go above ground to wait for a ride.

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  26. If she'd "Just taken a cab" as many smarties have suggested then she wouldn't have this hilarious story! Dur. Hilarious story conflict trumps "just take a cab" any day. I hope you make this a book. I'm not the only one that would pay for this.

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  27. Now this, this should be an animated show. Your style and humor are fantastic. Love it.

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    Replies
    1. I THIRD THAT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    2. too late to fourth that shit?

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  28. Hilarious! Funny 'cause it's true. Beautifully told anecdotes. And the illustrations are terrific, too.

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  29. I probably would have broken down crying and just accepted my new life as a subway dweller.

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  30. this. is perfect. and this was also my saturday night. to the same stop. we probably crossed paths.
    you are my life twin

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  31. Excellent story, I laughed the entire time I read it! Sidenote, that funny instrument made from a toy keboard is actually a "melodica", or ("hooter" if you live in Jamaica)made famous by the band The Hooters in the '80s and '90s :)

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  32. I missed where you said the D wasn't running .....?

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  33. Oh yeah and I live in Bay Ridge. Nothing, absolutely nothing, goes there except the R.

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    Replies
    1. Hi-five to a fellow Bay Ridge dweller who likewise undoubtedly gets fucked on the regular by the MTA.

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  34. BRILLIANT.
    I laughed, cried, all of it.
    Sharing you with all my NYC friends now...

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  35. Dude I cannot believe you didn't take a cab at that point. I'm sure this is not a new response. But still, I hit 1 construction change I go... OK. I hit 2, it's eff it dude, I'm out, CAB! I consider the fee a fun tax. I've fallen asleep and missed my stop enough times to know when it gets to be that late, there's just too much awfulness. Glad you're alive though.

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  36. this is amazing. is it really that expensive to take a cab tho? :)

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  37. MELODICA GUY!!!!! The one bright spot on the ultra-late-night F! He is hands down our favorite, probably due to sheer delirium-induced whimsy. This story would not have been complete without him!

    (I admit, I would've gone looking for a cab once thwarted at Union Square...the first time. You are a strong strong woman to keep soldiering on!)

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  38. this is why i love living a block from the 1. Makes things really uncomplicated

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  39. glad to discover your blog :) this is great!

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  40. Hilarious. Great images, too. PS: got the link from HONY. (What can I say...i'm a transplanted NY-er to TX, and i get to visit from afar through artists like you two.) THANKS!

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  41. yes this is the best forever. more please

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  42. Excellent story, well told! Next time however, you could try walking, but only if you are wearing the proper shoes. I know it sounds silly to say "walk ten miles" but it takes less than 3 hours. Really. I used to stick to the underground the year I lived in London, until I discovered I could walk on the surface and it would only take me 2 hours. Good luck to you!

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  43. As a non-New Yorker, I found this very informative. And funny. Where do you get $17 roast beef sandwiches?

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  44. I went to college in New York, and this story was a hilarious walk down memory lane. Keep writing-your style is great!

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  45. God this story makes no sense: you should have just bought a new car, driven to connecticut, hopped on the metro north in stamford to new haven, caught a bus from new haven to DC, taken the amtrack up to Penn Station, and bought another car to take home, rookie--I mean get real, didn't you know the B isn't open on weekends?

    sheesh.

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  46. OMG!!! I haven't laughed so hard in a loooooong time! I lived in NYC for 7 years, and feel like I lived every one of those experiences. Thank you for the memories and the laughs!!

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  47. Not criticizing but you should've taken the D from columbus circle into brooklyn, and switch at Atlantic-Pacific for the R. Next time..

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  48. I love u! this is soooooo accurate!

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  49. This is the best thing on the internet

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  50. Wait, you managed to catch a B train on a weekend? Talk about NYC skills - that's like mythic-level abilities there. I've lost count of the number of hours I've spent waiting for a B train that was never going to come because it was the weekend...

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  51. I've just discovered you, and have already finished SoManyCakes and I simply love your sense of humour! Brilliant!

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  52. gee, public transportation is really great.

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  53. brand new fan here! love your blog. the sarcasm, wittyness, dry humor. all my favorite things in life pulled together into one blog. your pretty damn awesome. and just read the rest of ur blogs. love em. pleaseeeeee write more often, otherwise I would have to stop pretending to do work at my job and actually work !

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  54. Fantastic! Spent years commuting from Staten Island to Manhattan and I could smell the smells as you described them. You know you are not alone in that walk of shame.

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  55. This was fantastic! And I love that I know from comments alone that this story took place in NYC- because of all the woulda shoulda coulda comments from "real New Yorkers" who just had to get their word in! Do your thing girl. B/D/soul train- I don't care. This was hysterical! Thanks for the afternoon laughs!

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  56. That was great. Let me see if I have any loose change.

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  57. Ohhhh jesus christmas that was hilarious. I can totally see this as an animated short

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  58. This is amazing! I haven't seen an account of the NYC subway experience that was truly accurate until now!

    Keep up the great work!

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  59. This is extremely accurate coming from this ex-R train user.

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  60. Talent. You has it. Made it so far keeping a straight face (with the momentary hand over mouth) until I got to the frame with you and the rat. Had to close my office door to keep from scaring the serious gray folk out there. Bravo.

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  61. You could also, just, y'know, call a cab once you're in Brooklyn and they could have you at your apartment in about 10 minutes for 15 bucks, but whatever.

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  63. I spent literally 15 minutes laughing at the empty car. I know your pain very well.

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