subway trains, subway platforms, posts, escalators, stairs, posters, security guards, business men and women, couples, groups of young people, tracks, litter, lights, graffiti’d walls, speakers, ticket turnstiles, patched seats, torn seats, grime, dirt, street people…
bells signalling the door is closing/train is arriving/leaving, station prompt on loudspeaker, people talking, coughing, laughing, music from ipods, static from security/police walkies, the whoosh of the train arriving or leaving, the whirr of the …
dirt, musty fabric, urine, cologne, perfume, sweat, bad breath, the smell of newsprint, ‘canned’ air conditioned air, hair products, BO, breath mints, people who smell like cigarette smoke or pot, coffee, hot dogs
Food or drinks from vending machines (pop, water, chips, chocolate bars, coffee, granola bars, etc), gum, breath mints, chewing tobacco
Cold metal handrails and turnstiles, too-hard plastic seats, worn plastic ceiling hand loops, dry newsprint, smooth paper ticket (people generally avoid touching/holding anything on the subway), holding a hot cup of coffee or cold drink, slathering on hand sanitizer…
–The words you choose can convey atmosphere and mood.
Example 1: The smeared plastic door shuddered open and the odor of urine washed over me. I took a peek inside and saw only one occupant–a man lying across the plastic bench, his layers of tattered clothing bulking up a sickly frame. An empty Jack Daniel’s bottle clutched in his grimy fist, explaining how he could sleep through the too-loud station prompt on the speakers. Grimacing, I stepped back. I’d wait for the next train…
–Similes and metaphors create strong imagery when used sparingly.
Example 1: (Metaphor) I clutched the handrail and prayed for my stop to come. The electricity was erratic in my shuddering car, buzzing on and off, reducing my unsavory fellow riders to infrequent flickers. As the dark took hold yet again, I thought of a carnival fun house moving at lightning speed, one where the knife wielding psycho might be real…
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
I watched some little boys break dance on the subway once…it was pretty amazing.
Becca, ewww. I’ve been wondering about the whole armpit deal, but I never imagine it was a she-pit. Poor Al!
Shana, thanks for giving us your experiences. Here in Calgary we have a train system, but it’s pretty tame compared to the NYC lines. Those rules for riding are very valuable to make the writing authentic.
I’ve had my share of stories similar to yours, Becca. It’s worse for me because even if I am standing, I am shorter than most passengers. I can’t even reach the highest handrail. And I’ve learned to hold my nose when walking through the platforms earlier in the morning to avoid the homeless stench I will inevitably find.
I have worse stories of crowded subways, one that had me crying and distraught by the time I got to work.
In defense of NYC though, not all subways or passengers are like that. The 6 train is usually clean and delightful. My path train from NJ into the city is always safe, even if you ride alone late at night. If you live here, you get to know which lines are worse than others and which to avoid. For example, I will avoid the E train at all costs, but the V which runs on the same line for some stops is awesome.
I do have rules to follow though.
-Never make eye contact
-Keep your headphones on so people know not to speak with you
-Don’t touch the railings with your bare hands, and if you do, wash them after riding. Seriously.
-Don’t stand too close to the platform edge, there are some crazy people out there and too many stories of innocents being pushed to ignore
-Don’t go into an empty car (if it’s not the first stop on the line). There’s usually a reason it’s empty, and you don’t want to be caught in there alone if someone less than desireable enters
If I think of more, I will post it.
How could we have forgotten the rats???
As for the story, we were in New York on our honeymoon. The train was really crowded, but we were able to cram together on the seat rather than standing. It seemed like a great arrangement until a rather large woman grabbed the nearest hand-rail, which happened to be just above Al’s head. His face was pretty much in her armpit, which hadn’t been shaved in quite some time. He was trying to figure out how to extricate himself from the situation without breathing and without getting us both killed–you know how it is in New York. I was no help, since I had already pretty much fallen off my seat laughing.
It was shocking, how many NYC subway stereotypes were proven true on that day…
Yes, NYC is full of many goodies that other cities don’t have. Don’t be too jealous of our rat population, now.
Good things do come of rats in subways. For example, KIKI STRIKE by Kristen Miller would have lacked some very cool showdowns if rats stayed away from underground tunnels.
Shana–Rats! Yikes, you’re right. Luckily, rats don’t live up here in my corner of Canada.
Thanks PJ–glad it helps!
PJ Hoover says
Great (and useful) location! I have a subway station in one of my WIPs!
You forgot the rats! Often while I’m waiting on the platform, a bit of movement on the track will catch my eye, and yep. Rat.
I have worse stories than this that I will refrain from sharing. Just don’t go in the subway at night, that’s all I’m saying.
Thanks Marian. I feel so bad for the homeless this time of year, especially with the freezing temperatures we’ve been having. I hope they’ve made it into a shelter…
Becca, no WAY are we letting you off the hook without spilling that story!
I have a really funny subway story that involves my husband, a really hairy armpit, and the worst b.o. EVER. Lol.
Husband didn’t think it was funny, but it totally was…
“crazy people talking to themselves or ranting at the crowds”
Or begging for money. I always feel guilty when they do that – especially this one homeless woman who wasn’t even wearing shoes.
And the #1 type of paper litter after newspapers seems to be religious pamphlets. I see those a lot on subways in Toronto.
Thanks for the post!