A city on wheels
This Q is packed to the gunwales. I can’t breathe. I feel strange lumps in the bodies pressed against mine. I need a distraction, but I can’t move my arms, much less look at my phone. A question comes to mind: How many people are in this damn train car anyway?
I try look around but all I can see is a guy’s arm about three inches from my face. I try to suss it out anyway. I make a mental measurement of the size of the subway car in square feet, and guesstimate how many people might fit in that space. My math tells me there are around 200 people in this car, a figure that astounds me so much I make a mental note to research it later.
Later that night, I hit Wikipedia. The Q train uses two nearly identical train cars, the R160A and the R160B. They are fascinating in many ways, but I’m interested in passenger capacity. I learn that the R160A holds 240 people (42 seated, 198 standing) while the R160B holds 246 people (44 seated, 202 standing). My guesstimate was low. Each train car holds almost ten NYC public school classrooms worth of students. No wonder it’s cramped.
The next night, I count the cars coming into the Canal Street station: ten. With nearly 250 people in each car, there are about 2,500 people on each Q. This number astounds me more than the first. For days, I’m obsessed. I keep creating these little comparisons in my mind.
For example, there are 108 units in my seven-story, half-block long Brooklyn apartment building. Assuming an average of two occupants per apartment, 11.6 apartment buildings like mine would fit in a single Q train.
Another: a 747 jumbojet carries up to 600 people. Each Q train, therefore, carries the same number of passengers as four 747s.
I recently saw a show at Brooklyn Steel, a concert venue with a capacity of 1,800 people. That’s only 72% of one full Q train.
Or this: a friend lives in a small but robust town in South Dakota. The local chamber of commerce touts a 9-hole golf course, public swimming pool…a progressive school district, modern health care campus, vibrant agriculture and business community, plus a variety of dining and shopping options. Population:950. Each Q train could carry almost three of his towns at once!
The entire audience in Salt Lake City’s Eccles Theater, capacity 2,500, could fit in one Q train.
One Q train could carry everyone killed in the World Trade Towers on 9/11. Sorry, that went dark.
During rush hour, up to 25,000 people will pass through a Q train station in each direction. Maybe that’s not so surprising when you consider that, in 2016, the MTA reported 5,655,755 subway riders per weekday. The numbers, though, stagger me.
The (nearly) invisible crowd
Now when a Q rolls into the station, my mind is jumping. I’m thinking of all the people whooshing past. I’m wondering where they’re each going, what they’re up to. I wonder how many just had sex, how many are on their way to have sex. With 2,500 people on each train, some must be high, a couple may be suicidal, maybe one is a genius. (I wonder if any are murderers on board.)
Does your mind also work like this? When I’m in an airplane, I look down and try to imagine how many people I’m seeing at once—if they were each distinguishable—and what their lives are like. How many people down there are about to die, how many are newly born? I want a sky microscope.
I often look at buildings and imagine opening up the walls, x-ray style, peeling them away like a Richard Scarry book, to see all the occupants at once. What tableaus would unfold before my eyes? These lifeless facades house human hives just as the shiny shell of a single Q train carries so many lives at once. Visible but invisible, innumerable but numerable.
William Carlos Williams wrote that “so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.” Even more depends on a single Q train.