When I slept in subway stations for 3 months in New York City

Homeless for 3 Months in NYC: A Starry New York City Night

One memory, more so than any other, stands out for me of my time sleeping in the New York City subways; it’s a snapshot really, the moment after being woken up in the damp early morning, and by nothing in particular, not a sound, or a movement, or a dream, it was simply a sudden intermission of time demanding that I awake, and accede to that particular moment. On this particular New York morning, one of those mornings where you can see the moisture thick in the air, as if the air itself had crystalized in the reflections of the infinite burning candle of New York City. And although the memory was just a brief moment in the night, I’ll remember it forever.

     When I moved to New York my housing situation dissolved almost immediately—I often stood outside my would-be-building looking up at the window that should be mine while imagining myself looking back down from that window at myself—however, my landlords, as soon as I stepped off of the train at Penn Station, would remain faint and silentious, and so I would spend the next few weeks living in and rotating hostels throughout the boroughs in a constant daily search for the cheapest and safest one while my expenses, mostly food started to pile.

After a few weeks of having nowhere to keep food, dining out in NYC, and paying for a room at a hostel, every day, where many of my things would, on regular basis, go missing—I happen to remember fondly, a dark brown corduroy vest that I'm sure some mustached millennial in Germany now wears on special occasions when drinking craft beer out of a stein in some neon underground Berlin night club—I was resolved to the idea that sleeping on the streets was my best option, at least for the time being.

And so, I spent a small handful of sleepless nights (and days) performing reconnaissance hoping to learn what my best and safest options would be in the way of New York City homelessness. My first thought was to sleep on the train, it would be winter soon and the subways are heated and comfortable, and most are running continuously for 24 hours. I was the most familiar with the 4, 5, 6 trains on New York’s east side so I picked a car and sat there riding the train from end-to-end, I rode from Eastchester to Flatbush once and realized these—either of the ‘last’ stops, take your pick—were parts of the city that I wouldn’t want to be caught sleeping in, especially unvaryingly. I then considered the A and C, B and D lines, and no, there was clearly no line in the city that I would feel comfortable sleeping in from end-to-end, from dusk till dawn. It was then that I did, briefly, consider a few of the parks because after all, I’ve seen a large number of the homeless sleeping in Union Square and Central Parks so perhaps there was something to this but, then again, I’ve seen a large number of the homeless sleeping in Union Square and Central Parks, so that obviously wasn’t going to work out—I couldn’t trust travelling millennials* to keep their hands off my $hit! How am I supposed to trust homeless millennials?! (I’m just kidding, there is no such thing as a homeless millennial, they would never let their parents stand for it!)

          The obvious conclusion then was that I wouldn’t sleep, not until I absolutely could not stand it anymore. I wandered the city—when I wasn’t working, and writing, and playing—for hours and sleeping only when it was a battle to keep my eyes open. The next best thing to the subway trains were the stations themselves, it wouldn’t be easy, the stations were being watched, I would have to play it smartly and cautiously. Grand Central station, for example, is huge and it is layered there are numerous floors, corners, and dead ends. Sleeping wouldn’t always work. I would be kicked awake enough times even when I thought I was smartly hidden so you learn to power nap, fall asleep quickly and try to sleep as long as possible for being noticed. I showered at the 92Y, enough. Just in case you were wondering.

          On a side note, I’m glad that I was raised elsewhere and then moved to NYC. You know those procedural crime dramas that take place in the city? There is inevitably that dialogue when someone says, “They live on the upper west side what were they doing in Brooklyn?” that’s true, it is typical New York behavior, people don’t really spend time outside of their comfort zones. It’s not even that far between the west side and Brooklyn. Why don’t people explore? I didn’t even have to be homeless to want to explore and experience as much as the city as possible, and to realize that this city is as fluid and organic and new as a river at any given moment. What’s the point of going from home to work to the nearest bar and back home again in the city that never sleeps—except underground—and trying to hush the pounding operatic buzz from all around you?

          There is one station that I wouldn’t sleep in often, 86th and Lex, even though this one station is the station that I have been most comfortable with because it was, kind of, my “home” station. 86th and Lex was the station that I actually used the most often. I can still picture it very clearly in part, perhaps, because it was this station where a particular memory would imprint itself into my mind forever.

I was wearing a brown woolen jacket, there was some corduroy sown in—the jacket actually paired very well with the missing vest. That night was the first time that I really noticed that the subway benches had notches built or glued into the seat specifically to keep people such as myself from sleeping there. Nevertheless, I did attempt to sleep there, and it was remarkably uncomfortable.

I awoke fairly suddenly, and immediately looked up and over my shoulder at the ceiling of the station and there above me was an opening out into the street above, like a sewer drain, the air was warm and damp and a chill passed through my body, still I was fixated at the glimpse of the city above, and the sounds of cars passing—it was less the sound of the car engines that I recall and more the rush and swirl of their wake, and less irregular than you might expect passing almost consistently enough to remind me of ocean waves crashing on the beach in Port Aransas, Texas and between the damp reflection of the buildings I swear I could see the stars in the night sky. It was the first and the last time I recall ever seeing the stars in New York City. I looked up at the stars for a long time, I could feel my eyes fighting me to sleep again but I knew, even then, as exhausted and cold as I was that there was something spellbound about this moment, and then I allowed my eyes to close, just as the warm rush of a train slowed and passed, and before I knew it I was asleep. 

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