Time: Monday evening, 7 PM
Train: Downtown A
When the doors open at 168th Street, a pack of teenagers swarms into our car, and with them come recklessly low-slung backpacks, hoots and cackles, and the smells of recently unwrapped fast food. Most of the boys are wearing bright blue tracksuits, with names sewn in script above the left breast. There’s Dexter, there’s Shaq, there’s Jessie, and a boy wearing a white t-shirt that says “Champion” on the back. Champion is taller and already man-like, while the rest still look like boys. These ringleaders take to the center of the car while the other boys fade like wallflowers to the seats on either side of them.
The girls wear tight jeans tucked into boots, the curves of their thighs and behinds subtly accentuated by stretch denim. There are no late bloomers among them. Led by their Queen Bee, a girl with a round face wearing a snug black pea coat, they claim a block of seats in the second third of the car, separating themselves from the boys. Queen Bee lies down across a row of three seats like a lounging goddess, while her attendants flit around her. They are giggling and sneaking looks at the boys. Bee lies still, her lips drawn straight across her face.
Now we’re in the tunnel between 145th and 125th Streets. The guys are throwing food and fighting and pushing and having the time of their lives. They watch the girls, but the girls are not watching them. Shaq comes over, grabs one of Bee’s attendants, and brings her over to the boys’ side. Bee jumps up and starts hitting him. Dexter pulls her away by wrapping his arms around her middle from behind, while Shaq grabs the attendant’s wrists. She resists but is grinning as she does so, and then they are play-fighting the tango as the train bounces through the tunnel.
“Taco! Taco!” A foil-wrapped greaseball sails from one side of the car to the other. 96th Street is visible through the train windows. I wonder if people on the platform can see the action inside our car as the train slinks through the station toward the next tunnel.
“Yo, yo! Watch out for the lady!”
“Incoming, chicken sandwich!”
“OW OW OW OW OW!” The boys all follow the chorus.
We’re passing 72nd Street now, and the entire car smells of tacos and ketchup, sticky and sleazy like a high school dance. Champion ventures over to the girls’ side, where Bee has reclaimed her place on the three-seat bench. As he bends down to say something to her, the train swerves left, and he falls on top of her. She yells and beats his chest with her fists, but he’s too big for her to move. He stretches his left limbs into the aisle like a one-sided Superman, balancing on her chest. The train swerves again and he falls to the ground. She gets up and starts pounding him. Fists flailing, arms swinging, she takes hit after hit after hit. Champion doesn’t fight back, but he doesn’t look embarrassed either. He’s smiling. Then he stands up, reminding everyone of his height, reaches his long arms out for her waist, and pulls her towards him. She doesn’t smile, but she doesn’t push him away. They kiss, as her attendants look on.
At 59th Street, the train doors heave and close several times before they stay shut. I can just barely make out the sound of the conductor’s voice over the PA system, an angry backbeat against the “OW, OW OW”s coming from the boys. Food is still flying. Another boy has come over to the girls’ lair, and meanwhile, another girl has taken Bee’s place reclining on the three-seat bench. He straddles her and lip synchs with an imaginary mike while she giggles underneath. 42nd Street comes into view before I know it, and I have a connection to make. Breathless, I get up to leave.