It was 5PM on a Friday evening and somehow I was the only person on the train. I may have put the “new” in “New Yorker,” but I was no stranger to the stuffy sardine cans that subway trains turn into during rush hour. I craned my neck to get a look into the adjoining cars and realized that they too were empty. Something wasn’t right.
I replayed the last few moments in my head. When I arrived at the City Hall station the place was buzzing with bodies: focused business suits seamlessly weaving through crowds of lollygagging tourists, who stopped to watch street performers dance for a large group of children wearing matching summer camp t-shirts. I was running late for dinner with a friend uptown, so upon hearing an idling 6 train at the track, I quickly swiped my card at the turnstile, flew down the stairs and leapt in just as the doors were closing.
At first I silently congratulated myself for catching the train. Then I noticed that I was the only one on board. As the train started moving, I heard the muffled, crackly sound of the car’s speakers.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a deep, male voice announced. “This is a train with no destination. If you are on this train - you should not be.”
I almost peed. This is not what one typically hears upon boarding a New York City subway car.
“Hello?” I called out, and then quickly realized that the speaker is a speaker, and not a microphone.
Feeling lightheaded, I sat down on the shiny blue bench.
“A train with no destination,” I whispered, hoping that saying it aloud would somehow make the vague declaration more understandable. How could an object have no destination when it’s presumably moving away from one thing and toward another? I thought of the school buses I rode in junior high school. Upon dropping off the last group of kids, the drivers would park each bus in an abandoned lot on the edge of town and take their own vehicles home for the night. Had this train just clocked out for the day? If so, was it going to park deep underground until its next shift? Would the conductor take a secret, password-protected freight elevator back to civilization and leave me behind? Would the Mole people discover me? Would ashen men named Rascal and Cooter take me under their wing and teach me to spit-roast sewer rats over trash can fires?
I decided to go in search of the conductor. I’d apologize for somehow boarding his weird train to nowhere and ask that he please take me back to the station. I made my way toward the end of the car and opened the heavy steel door. I looked down at the point where my car ended and the next began. The two cars were gently swaying in opposite directions, held together by giant coils on either side. I tightened my body’s core and took a long, swift stride from one car to the next. I was Indiana Jones, but with breasts. I had just made my way into the second car when the conductor’s voice returned.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he said once again. His cadence was precise and emotionless. Like a serial killer, I thought. “I want to remind you again that this is a train with no destination. But since I know that no one is on this train right now…”
“I’m on the train!” I shouted.
There was a long, pregnant pause. I held my breath. A moment later the conductor returned. But the deep, calculated voice had been replaced with a high-pitched falsetto.
“I love you,” he sang. “I honestly love you.”
This, I was not expecting.
In an instant I was taken back to 1988. It was summer, and I was riding in the backseat of my mom’s station wagon. We were listening to Magic 106.7 when a slow, country ballad came on the radio. My mother turned up the volume so that she could sing along. The song was Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You,” and I hadn’t heard it since that day.
“You don’t have to answer,” he continued. “I see it in your eyes. Maybe it was better left unsaid. But this is pure and simple, and you must realize that it’s coming from my heart and not myyyyyy heaaaaaaadddddd…”
Though some of his notes were off-key and he sang with a shaky, forced vibrato, I could feel a real sense of longing in the invisible man’s voice. The conductor was singing from somewhere deep within. He loved someone. He honestly loved someone. Was that someone me?
I don’t know why what happened next happened. In retrospect, I should have continued on with my search of the conductor. I still had no idea where the train was headed, but there was something so strange and fascinating about the events unfolding. Maybe I stayed because the song ignited a sense of nostalgia. Maybe it was because I’d just moved to the city from the quiet south and was anxious to experience my very first “Only in New York” moment, even if the consequences were disastrous. Maybe it was because my parents taught me to always be polite during someone else’s performance. Whatever the reason, I wanted to savor the moment.
So I danced.
As the conductor continued crooning, I glided through the car with my arms raised, like a ballerina. I grabbed a pole, swung around it and used the momentum to propel my body from one to the next. I flipped through my Rolodex of dance moves and, in no particular order, performed every single one. I raised and locked my arms in a way that created an invisible dance partner, something I learned from watching Dirty Dancing. I waltzed from one end of the car to the other. I resurrected a few of the zombified “Thriller” dance moves that my mom made me learn and teach the rest of the bridal party at my sister’s wedding. I salsaed, sashayed and pas-de-bourréed. I spun in circles, letting my arms flail, carefree and wildly, in every direction.
“I love you,” the conductor sang, and though I know he couldn’t hear me, I sang back, loudly, “I honestly love you!”
Light suddenly filled the car. The subway platform appeared through the windows, and standing atop it were the same business suits and lollygagging tourists I’d rushed past in the subway station. I halted in mid-spin and peered out a window. I was back on the uptown side of the track at the City Hall station, which is where I’d boarded less than ten minutes earlier. The train stopped and opened its doors, inviting a sea of people into my personal dance space. Flabbergasted, I sat down on the bench as the car filled to capacity. The crackly speaker turned on once again, but this time the voice assumed the frumpy, almost inaudible characterless, monotone I was accustomed to hearing.
“This is an uptown 6 train,” the conductor mumbled. The emotion had completely drained from his voice. “Next stop is Canal Street. Stand clear of the closing doors.”
Bing bong. The doors closed, and the train started moving. The people in the car carried on conversations, read books and fiddled with their smartphones. They were completely unaware of what had just transpired. The moment was a lingering ghost, and they the new occupants of the house it had died in.
A man sat down beside me. He had long hair and, despite the July heat, was wearing a thick, tweed jacket. He reminded me of Lindsay Weir’s math teacher on Freaks & Geeks. We locked eyes and he leaned in close. “I saw you on the train when it came up,” he said. “Did you just ride the loop?”
I furrowed my eyebrows. “The what?”
“The loop,” he repeated. “When the downtown 6 train reaches City Hall they kick everyone off the train and it makes a giant loop underground and comes around on the uptown side of the track. But it’s illegal for anyone other than the conductor to ride it.”
And just like that, most of the puzzle was pieced together. In my ninja-like feat of agility, I must have accidentally jumped into the train after they’d already checked to make sure no one was on board. The conductor thought he was alone. While the excitement of the unknown began to fade, there was something so thrilling about being an illegal, voyeuristic fly on the wall during someone else’s private moment. Here is a man who gets five-minute windows of solitude between schlepping thousands of New Yorkers up and down the east side of Manhattan, and he uses the time to sing his heart out.
When the train stopped at Union Square I got off and stood on the platform. Commuters angrily brushed past but I didn’t care. I needed to see the conductor. I had to catch his eye and perhaps nod, as if to say, “I get it,” because I’ve loved someone that much, too.
As the cars moved past I tried best to focus my eyes on the moving cars, but I couldn’t find him. The train sped up and soon everyone inside melded together to create one giant, colorful New Yorker. Then, whoosh, the train was gone. To this day, the singing conductor’s identity has remained a mystery.
I watched the red taillights of the train get smaller, until they disappeared around a corner. With that, I climbed the stairs to the busy street above and made my way toward the restaurant.
Kerri Doherty is a Brooklyn-based humor writer and storyteller. She’s been a featured performer at storytelling shows all around New York City, and once came clean about her chapstick addiction on Kevin Allison’s popular Risk! podcast. She currently hosts a monthly storySLAM in Park Slope called I Like You, Maude and is working on her first book of humor essays. You can read way more about her at kerridoherty.com.