The subway doors opened at 110th Street, and a young man walked on carrying a speaker. The 2 train was busy, and it felt like everyone knew what was about to happen. We shifted our bodies in unison, leaning back and moving away from the aisle, a sort of New York City muscle memory.
It was Showtime.
The young man, Marty Martinez, turned the music on, and as he danced, he began to float through the car — gliding across the ceiling and whirling around the poles. There was a collective joy in this moment that recalled prepandemic normalcy. Mr. Martinez flew back and forth over his masked audience, his hands slicked with sweat.
It was the first time he had danced like that since the pandemic began, Mr. Martinez, 19, said: “It feels like it’s getting back to normal.”
I’ve been riding the subway for the past six months, documenting how New Yorkers’ relationship with the system has changed. I’ve observed the shift in mood, from anxious to hopeful, as ridership increases despite concerns over safety.
I’ve chatted with Metropolitan Transportation Authority station managers, conductors and cleaners. I’ve met medical assistants, art students, electricians, college professors, tourists from Seattle, single dads and skaters. I’ve seen loneliness and young love blooming.
At the West 4th Street station, I met Moezell Jackson, 19, a nursing student from the Bronx, and her boyfriend, Benji Edwards, 20, a model from Queens. The couple met on Instagram during the pandemic, and this was their first time riding the subway together. They were on their way to Central Park for their first big date day.
“We don’t really get to see each other that much,” Ms. Jackson said. “So that day was really important.”
The subway is a great microcosm. It’s New York City’s off-off-under Broadway where life is played out in a small contained space, and we get the privilege of glimpsing realities other than our own.
I also met Sully Ibrahim, 22, an incoming Fashion Institute of Technology student, and his brother Moey Ibrahim, 21, at West 4th Street.
“Covid really made me realize how important people are to the idea of New York City being this exciting place,” Sully Ibrahim said. “People in New York City bring this crazy energy to the city and subway, and you really noticed it when it was gone during Covid.”
The subway opened back up for 24/7 service this week, and for many New Yorkers it was a sign that the city was coming back to life.
“Of all the things that have changed amidst the pandemic, the subway feels most like it has returned to some sort of familiar normalcy to me — except for the masks, of course,” Andrew Morgan, 41, said. He was riding the 1 train with his boyfriend, Brian Fitzsimmons, 67. “It’s like water — a necessity that gets taken for granted, even though it’s pretty impressive, if you stop to think about it.”
As the subway cars gradually fill back up, New Yorkers will once again find themselves living out their stories underground.
Teenagers are wrapping up Zoom classes and getting out of their bedrooms, people are bringing balloons to parties, lovers are embracing on station platforms and Showtime is back: all those moments of joy and resilience that make New York, New York.