I’m a Grown-Ass Man and I’m Scared to Death of NYC Subways, and I Don’t Give a Shit How You Feel About That

Get Out via YouTube screenshot
Get Out via YouTube screenshot

It wasn’t until my fifth or sixth time in New York City as an adult that I realized why it always felt 10 degrees hotter than the actual temperature in the summer and 10 degrees colder than the actual temperature in the winter. (A New York City 80 degrees feels like 90, and 20 degrees feels like FUCK THIS FUCKING ABSOLUTE-ZERO DARK-SIDE-OF-SATURN-ASS SHIT.)


Initially I would attribute that discrepancy to a wind tunnel effect from the high-rise buildings—which might actually have some truth to it—but I think I just enjoyed believing that because it made me feel all smart and shit, like I hadn’t spent the bulk of 11th-grade physics writing haikus about Ananda Lewis.

Instead, the answer dawned on me a couple of years ago, when I walked from this hotel where I was staying to a recommended breakfast spot a half-mile away, which 1) taught me never to trust a New Yorker’s opinion on pancakes (or geography, pet grooming, politics or anything, really, other than sales at Zara) and 2) made me realize the reason it’s so damn hot and so damn cold here is that I’m actually walking places and experiencing the elements.

In Pittsburgh, I drive everywhere. I’d fucking drive from the shower to the sink if I could fit my whip through the front door. Aside from the fan in my car’s air conditioning surprising me with a hint of brisk, my bitch ass has chosen to opt out of the elements-experiencing experience, choosing to believe that elements are for white people. So really, the New York 80 degrees doesn’t feel like 90. The 80 just feels exactly how 80 is supposed to feel.

Anyway, I’m writing this from a hotel lobby in New York City. I’m surrounded by people who I assume are New Yorkers because they’re doing New York City things like reading the Times with their legs crossed and wearing hats. And while I’m currently hatless, someone could glance at me and maybe assume I’m a New Yorker, too.

I don’t think I look like a New Yorker. But I also don’t think I don’t look like a New Yorker. But despite this not-at-all-convincing-or-even-real-New Yorker veneer, any notion of my possibly being from this city dissipates whenever I have to travel somewhere. Because if it is not within walking distance, I’ll catch a cab or an Uber. Shit, I’ll catch a fucking SuperShuttle.

What I will not do is walk three blocks to some random descending underground staircase and wait inside a chamber of carbon monoxide and rat farts for a train that’ll take me six blocks from where I actually need to go. Because this city is too fucking big and does dumbass shit like having West Broadway and Broadway be two completely separate streets two blocks away from each other, and catching something that doesn’t actually take me exactly where I’m trying to go just adds another layer to the Kafkaesque fuck shit permeating this place. And mostly because the subway gives me anxiety, because I always believe I’m going to want to go to Brooklyn and miss two stops and end up in Burma.


I say this as someone who’s a recovering New York City hater. I’ve spent enough time here now to appreciate it. I’ve gotten used to the paradox of being somewhere with heat and no sunlight. And as someone whose primary state of being is “perpetually unmoved,” I do enjoy watching New Yorkers react to legitimately crazy shit happening around them. And by “react” I mean “have literally no reaction at all.” To wit, yesterday I witnessed a man take his shirt off in the rain, stand in the middle of the sidewalk and sing “Don’t Stop Believing,” and the people walking past him just walked around him like he was a pothole.

The subway, though, remains a jabberwocky of nerves I just won’t tackle. The entire process of traveling by subway feels like it was directed by David Lynch. You walk to the place where you’re supposed to head downstairs, and you’re greeted by some unnecessarily complex signage about something called an “A” train or a “B” train, which makes you mad and sad because there’s no borough called “Borough A” or “Borough B,” so why not just name the fucking trains after the places where the trains are going?


And then you go downstairs, sidestepping dried pigeon blood and cigarillo wrappers while wondering how many Dominicans died on those steps. And then you get a MetroCard that’s worth $3.27 when your trip requires $3.29. And then you squeeze through the booger- and marrow-covered turnstiles, praying to God that you don’t beep and have Rudy Giuliani hop out of a troll cage and shoot you. And then you get to the platform and wonder which one of these Black Swan motherfuckers is going to push you in front of the Z train.

And then you get on the train, which compresses Every Shitty Thing About New York into a 6-by-8-foot space, like a portable turd smoothie with seats. Crowds! Random smells! Roach carcasses! Mixtape vendors! Counterintuitive directions! Fights about Popeyes chicken boxes! Eye contact with people who might be Lance Stephenson, but you’re not sure! And then you do all of this just to end up on some street that’s still 17 blocks away from where you’re trying to go. Fuck that.


I used to be ashamed of my subway aversion. Mainly because the New Yorkers I know would shame me about it. If kids and Kappas could ride the subway, why couldn’t I? Thing is, all of the people I know who moved to New York felt the same way I do. And just, over time, got used to the subway, the way inmates get used to jack mack, and hip-hop got used to Big Sean. And I just refuse to let this horror be normalized.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)



It’s because I grew up in Chicago that I seek out other city’s subway systems to see what they’re like. I welcome seeing how people act on the subway in different cities, what they cars looks like, what kind of trash they have there, whatever. If there’s a choice between taking an Uber or riding some city’s subway, depending on the destination, I choose the subway. I plot out the stops and routes before we even get there. Most smell like piss and are slow and dirty, etc. But fuck it, I’m a subway guy.

Besides, you’re a Pittsburgh guy, not from Bugtussle, Arkansas. Walk in like you own the joint. But avoid eye contact. That’s my subway rule for EVERY city.