Love in a Time of Public Transportation

Valentine's Day at the New York City Transit Museum's missed connections party.

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Henry Grabar

On Friday, February 14th, guests to the New York City Transit Museum’s party had their pick of four subway-themed pins: "Coupled," "Local," "Express" and "Out of Service." It seemed the green "Out of Service" badges might be sending a signal worse than indifference, but with romantic anxiety in the air, a young woman nearby was having similar doubts about being on the Valentine’s Day Express. The metaphor was clear enough, as was a message scrawled on the box of "Express" pins: "Let’s find an empty train car."

In fact, lovers were doing just that. Because the Transit Museum is located in a re-purposed subway station in downtown Brooklyn, there were two-dozen obsolete train cars at the foot of the stairs. One couple canoodled in a D-Type Triplex. Across the platform, an elderly pair was sequestered on the straw seats of a BRT 1407. (With only two entrances per car, this 1907 model is better for trysting than for transportation.)

This was the Transit Museum’s fourth annual Valentine’s Day party celebrating Missed Connections, the sporadic moments of longing that spike city life with mystery and melancholy. Charles Baudelaire may have missed the quintessential connection, passing by a woman in a Paris street: "Fleeting beauty / Whose look was my rebirth / Will I never see you again?" But Craigslist, which started Missed Connections in 2000, has pushed the concept into the pop culture mainstream. The most popular place for Missed Connections in the United States is Wal-Mart.

In New York, it's the subway, and has been since long before Craigslist began tallying the experience. "Meeting someone on a subway is so hard to do," says Jason Dulberger, who with Rachel Serkin formed a third couple ensconced in a vintage train car. Serkin was a tour guide when the Transit Museum hosted its first Missed Connections party, four years ago. It was a small, focused event. New York Times reporter Alan Feuer read the anonymous posts like poetry. Sophie Blackall, an Australian-born illustrator whose whimsical watercolors of subway interactions grace hundreds of train cars, was another guest of honor. 

This year's fete had a more general air of romance. There was karaoke, and a poetry workshop. One partygoer, a municipal employee, had drafted a list of pick-up lines for the occasion: "I don’t need an indication board to know my heart is pointing straight to you." "You must be a late-night train because you’re making my heart skip stops." "Want to Fast Track this relationship?" Another quip made salacious reference to the varying characteristics of the G and F trains. (She declined to take public credit for her work.)

Dancing and crafting at the party. Photos by Henry Grabar.



Haoran Liu and Clare Yaghjian were perusing old bus maps, her clutching a bouquet of flowers. Yaghjian had read about the party in the Village Voice, and was planning to write a valentine for the A train once the scene at the arts and crafts table quieted down. It was their first time at the museum. "It's something you use every day and you don’t really think about it," Liu mused. "There’s a lot of history here."

At a table nearby, Lori Cheek was threatening to do away with the party's raison d'être. "I've got the solution," she claimed. Her company, Cheek’d, offers personalized pick-up cards with lines like, "This card could change your life," and simply, "You’re hot." Straphangers too shy to strike up a conversation can let Cheek’s one-liners speak for them. She saw the Missed Connection as an exercise in futility. "What are the chances someone will find you? There’s 32,000 in New York City!" (Including 200 written yesterday).

But not all connections are missed, and fortune favors the bold. Observe the impeccable romantic instincts of Jenny Illes, who followed her husband-to-be off a train at Columbus Circle to pass him her business card. This past September, like Jonny Sims in the 1928 film The Crowd, he proposed to her on a downtown 6 train. There was at least one couple at the party who had met on the subway, and a number of guests had a similar story at hand. If you see someone, say something! 

Bryce Gaillard, whose friends met on an Upper West Side subway platform, reckoned subway romance happened fairly often. "But I think it’s becoming less common," she adds, "because people are zoned out. Dating coaches teach their students to be heads up, take their headphones off." Indeed, the most celebrated Missed Connections, like "Grand Central - November 1973," tend to span decades, imbued with the sort of long-haul heartache that has become old-fashioned in a time of limitless digital links. ("I once knew a girl who lived on Gordon Street...") The Transit Museum enforces technological abstention: true to subway life, there’s no cell phone reception. It was just us down there.

Photo by Henry Grabar.

Nicholas Berg, a young man visiting from Australia, by way of Los Angeles, Mexico, Vancouver and Boston, had come alone. He was charmed by the crowd. "It's a mass of people you don't find anywhere else," he says. "There, events have a specific type who goes to them. Here, there’s diversity within diversity."

It all seemed to him, like the famous tongue-twister, "uniquely New York."

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.