We were actually riding the R when Loes first told me about her idea for a big adventure. She wondered what it would be like to ride one subway line from beginning to end, getting off at every stop to see what there was to see above ground. I loved it imediatly: It was a challenge, a grand adventure, a way to grab this massive city and put your arms around it. I was in. Right there on the R, we decided that the F would be the best choice for a maiden voyage, not only because it runs thorough three of the five boroughs, but because it is one of our two neighborhood trains. We were having this conversation in a subway car, so Loes’s husband, Eli, immediately went to the wall map to help us grasp the logistics. He reported that the F has 45 stations. We did some quick math, allowing for travel time to our starting point in Queens and allowing for about 12 minutes between trains as well as some downtime for lunch.
By the time we were all ascending the escalators at Jay Street-MetroTech, I had reached this conclusion: In the time it would take us to ride the F from Queens to Coney Island, we could drive all the way to Indiana. I was still in.
Let me be clear: We weren’t just riding the F. Riding the F from one end point to another would only take about one hour and 45 minutes, plus travel time to and from home. But staying underground is what we do all the time; we wanted to know what was above ground. Does Avenue X have an air of mystery? Is Forrest Hills a verdant oasis? (Spoiler alert: no and no.) To be efficient, we would have to get off the train, get above ground, take a photo, and get back to the platform in time to catch the very next train. As it turns out, efficiency is hard.
After a few weeks of discussion and two postponements, Loes and I left our building (she is my upstairs neighbor) at about 8:30 last Wednesday morning and headed for the F. We returned just before 11 p.m., victorious, with sand from Coney Island clinging to our calves. A few notes and takeaways:
- We thought about coming up with rules about how and where we took the photos, but we decided that might be too limiting, so the only consistent factors are Loes and/or I and our little station signs, which really helped us remember where we were when we reviewed the pictures later.
- Our main goal was to make sure that every photo said something about the area around the station. Most of the photos were taken within about 30 feet of the station entrance, but a few times we ventured further to include a landmark or get a better feel for the block.
- Wednesday was the hottest day of the year so far.
- The hardest part (which I didn’t anticipate) was the temptation to linger in the really neat and inviting places, like Roosevelt Island, Bryant Park and Carroll Gardens. The photo above was taken from the Roosevelt Island Tramway.
- The most surprisingly easy part was the train itself: Almost all of the trains arrived at 4-8 minute intervals. In fact, we missed a number of them because we couldn’t get back to the platform in time.
- Rats: ZERO!
- Like any quest, we had our ups and downs. We stayed on Roosevelt Island for two hours and seriously considered staying all day. It was 2 p.m., and we were only a quarter of the way through our journey. And it was so nice there. But we pressed on. By lower Manhattan our energy was way low, and we did the math and estimated that we were unlikely to reach Coney Island before 9 p.m. We almost threw in the towel but decided to go at least as far as our “home” station at 15th St.-Prospect Park. Then we hit the above-ground stations, and it was much easier to get a photo of the streetscape below without missing trains, so we made up time and kept going.
- We also took photos inside most of the stations, but I think that deserves another post.
- Almost every New Yorker I’ve told about this project reacted with some level of revulsion. Apparently this is the last thing most people ever want to do.
- Favorite stations: Parson’s Blvd., in part because of a nice pizza vendor; Jackson Heights; Roosevelt Island; 42nd St. (Bryant Park); West 4th (we found a little farm stand!); Carroll St.; and 18th Ave.
- Biggest letdown: Neptune Ave. Don’t you want it to be fantastic? It isn’t.
- Only time we felt unsafe: Walking barefoot on the beach at Coney Island. I was doing the math on my last tetanus shot.
- We did reach the beach just in time to see the last light of sunset. We spread out a blanket and watched the stars come out.
Life in New York City has a way of making me feel a bit caged – I spend most of my time within a 15-block radius of my apartment, and when I do venture out, I usually disappear into a tunnel and emerge on the other side while the points in-between remain deeply other, shrouded. Putting a place with a name made everything from Kew Gardens to King’s Highway feel just a little bit more my own. My city, the whole F-ing thing.
You can check out all of our photos below. Click on any of them to open a slideshow. I only labeled the ones in which the sign was hard to read. In a few of them, like West 8th St., “you can see the train coming in our eyes,” as Loes put it. We became increasingly focused on not missing trains as the day wore on.