Memoir

Living Off the 6

Sometimes a subway line is more than just a means of transportation. It's your identity.

Living Off the 6

In 1999, Jennifer Lopez named her first album “On the 6,” after the train that runs from the Bronx to Brooklyn Bridge, because it represented the artery that took her from her working class roots in the Bronx to beckoning stardom in “The City.” And it worked—I doubt JLo has seen the inside of a subway car in at least 20 years.

The next year, in 2000, I found my first apartment, a rent-stabilized one-bedroom in East Harlem, two long avenues from the 6 train. When I got the phone call from the management company accepting my lease application, I ran out of my Russian History class and jumped up and down in the hallway, howling and whooping, shocked and exhilarated that I had finally found a place in “The City” to call my own. I was moving to Manhattan from my parents’ apartment on the North Shore of Staten Island—quite the leap.

In the weeks leading up to the move I’d sit in classes I should have been paying attention to and whip out my notebook—the one emblazoned with the Manhattan portion of the MTA subway map—tracing the green line from my new apartment on 2nd Avenue and 103rd Street to Hunter College: four short stops on the 6 train. Seven minutes. My old commute had been an hour-and-a-half.

I was in heaven.

Suddenly, I was as cool as JLo, taking an iconic line every day. Even Mayor Bloomberg took the 6, making a big show of standing alongside his fellow commuters. (Of course, that image was tarnished when the Times revealed he cheated and drove partway.)

What I didn’t quite realize is that the green line is the sole artery shuttling thousands and thousands of people north and south along the East Side every day. Full-to-the-brim trains routinely skipped my local stop because service was backed up on account of the sheer mass of people. A few months later, when I graduated and entered the workforce, my seven-minute commute evaporated and I was left at the mercy of a train line that could either shuttle me to civilization or leave me stranded. Because when you live off the 6, you become a slave to it.

When the system is deluged by a sudden rainfall, the train shuts down, and then what? A West Sider could simply walk from the C to the 1, but what other options are there for us, save an expensive taxi—if we can find one?  No, to access the West Side I had to take a crosstown bus, and those are notoriously slow. When I attended Columbia for graduate school, the M96 routinely took 45 minutes to chug west through Central Park, packed as tightly as sardines, a mass of humanity fogging up the windows and turning my commute into a sauna, even in the winter.

Oh, how I’d gaze enviously at the other side of the subway map, with its orange and blue and red and yellow lines, and wonder what the East Side did to be cast aside so casually. We needed a reprieve.

Mid-decade, rumors bubbled up that the long-abandoned 2nd Avenue subway, first proposed in 1920, would finally be resurrected. One morning in 2007 I awoke and gazed across the street to see then-governor Eliot Spitzer posing for photos atop an old subway grate with a shovel in his hand. Suddenly, it was on.

And it was loud. Five years of bone-shattering construction followed at all hours of the night. Suddenly I didn’t care about the needs of the Straphangers Association—I wanted out. So when my management company called in October and told me they had “other ideas” for my building— read: demolition—I jumped on the chance to transfer to one on 124th and Madison.

So now I’m off the 6—kind of. I still have the option of walking two blocks east and taking the 4, 5 or 6, but I can also walk two blocks west and take the 2 or 3 line, which gets me to work in 17 minutes. After a decade of longing, I finally have West Side access. I’ll take it over sardines any day. But still…

There’s something about the 6. It was the first line to get the sleek new trains that replaced the old redbirds, a concession, perhaps, for being the sole East Side line. The stations along the 6 were the first testing grounds for the countdown clocks that cities like San Francisco and London had already enjoyed for a decade. The 6 was my foolproof excuse for being late to work; “I live off the 6” was enough to elicit a nod of understanding from every restaurant manager and newspaper editor I toiled under. The 6 was where I’d doze on my way home at 4 a.m., the dependable ride home I could always count on, even if I was on tipsy autopilot and counting the stops in my sleep. The 6 was where I hid behind big black sunglasses and wept after my father, then my mother, passed away, my only comfort being Dr. Zizmor’s gentle, ageless face offering me the smiling prospect of acne treatment. When it was empty in the middle of the night I’d swing on the poles like an exotic dancer, giggling and breathless. The 6 was my constant, just as much as my little apartment was. Because of its shortcomings, it was an underdog. Perhaps only a New Yorker could romanticize that.