The Girl on the B Train With the Notepad and the Headphones

Every single person you’ve ever seen has a whole life, and a whole story, where they’re the main character. 


Acadia Bost

The B train rolls into Prospect Park, the first above-ground station in Brooklyn, every ten minutes on weekdays.

I was working on options for a new article this month, and I wrote down a bunch of half-thought-out ideas. One of them was this personal piece about trains, subway crushes, and the experience of fully realizing, for the first time, that every single person you’ve ever seen has a whole life, and a whole story where they’re the main character. 

The first time I ever thought about this was on the B train. 

The B train began operating in December of 1940, but it changed drastically three times before 1980. In the mid-eighties, the B started to look how it does now; it was steadily expanding uptown, and daily riders were increasing. Now, the B train goes from Coney Island in Brooklyn all the way through Manhattan and up to Kingsbridge in the Bronx. It’s usually not too crowded, but in Downtown/Midtown Manhattan and near Park Slope, Brooklyn, it becomes more difficult to find an available seat. 

I’ve taken the B train off and on since I was in first grade, and numerous Bronx Science students take it to get to and from school, since it’s one of the three trains nearest to Bronx Science’s campus. I’ve had some really weird experiences on the B train, and I’ve had some really awesome ones. 

I decided to spend a few days on the B and share the stories of people I met. I brought my friend Preston along, and that morning we met up to decide on our interview strategy. Soon, we boarded the train and looked for people in compliance with the mask mandate who also weren’t wearing headphones. Our first subway-goer waved me off, which would have been disheartening if another man hadn’t enthusiastically waved me over.

Robert took the train in the days after 9/11, and he said it was an odd experience. “People would get on the B and crowd next to the windows going over the [Manhattan] Bridge to look at the smoke. I remember seeing [the fallen towers] in person for the first time with my face pressed against the glass inside the train. It was a really emotional experience.” (Acadia Bost)

He looked between fifty and sixty years old and told me he’d answer whatever questions I had. Robert (as he told us his name was) had been taking the B train for almost forty years. When he was younger, he took it to school, and now he takes it to work at 47th Street in Manhattan. I asked him if he had any interesting stories from his time on the train, and his face lit up. 

ROBERT: “A few years ago, I was taking the train to work, and around Avenue H, this cat just walked on the train. I know! He walked on, and paced around a bit, he didn’t even look that confused, and at the next stop, he got off. I think about that cat a lot.” 

We met Ariel in the second car. She’s a college student in Park Slope who works part-time at a nearby H&M outlet and takes the B train every day. Ariel told us about her scariest memory on the B. 

ARIEL: “I was heading to school at about 10 am, and a man pulled the emergency brake and started talking loudly at me and the other passengers on the train.” 

Ariel has been taking the B train since September, and already has both fond and troubling memories. As she heard someone say a few seats down, “It’s always something on the B train.” (Acadia Bost)

It ended up being okay, and the conductor got on the car and restarted the train. Surprisingly, the guy just sat down when the train re-started as if his aggression was limited to this isolated circumstance. He went back to being the guy zoned out on his phone, not the guy threatening Ariel’s safety.

ARIEL: “The only thing about this that wasn’t awful was the woman sitting next to me. She turned to me, shook her head, and said ‘Always something on the B train.’ She’s not wrong.”

We asked Ariel a few more questions, like what she does on the train (listens to a podcast or YouTube video) and her favorite B train memory (deep, late-night conversations with her friends, all piled on top of each other in the angled seats), and then we parted ways. 

The next person we approached threw her hands up in front of her and shouted “NO!” as soon as I introduced myself (that one was hilarious. Preston and I were laughing so hard that we didn’t get to the next car in time and had to wait for another train). 

Mary took the B to her city hall wedding, wearing a pink mask and thrifted fur coat. (Acadia Bost)

In our new car, we met Mary. Mary was reading a book, but she dog-eared the page as soon as I started talking to her. Her eyes crinkled when I told her I was a Staff Reporter on my high school newspaper, and her face split into this huge smile. It turns out she used to work on her high school newspaper, too. We had a long conversation. Mary told me she took the B every day from 2012 to 2016 to get to Laguardia High School, and she hated the long commute. The mid-2010s were one of the worst times for train delays, and she was regularly more than 20 minutes late to school. She didn’t have many happy memories on the train, but still said she enjoyed taking it. 

MARY: “I like the feel of it, even though it’s kind of awful. I don’t know, I like the colors of the seats, and going over the [Manhattan] bridge.” 

I was just about to leave when Preston asked her where she was headed. She laughed.

MARY: “Oh! I’m actually going to my wedding. Yeah! I mean it’s really not that big of a thing, we did the party a week-ish ago and now we’re doing city hall. It’s going to be nice.”

After probably too many squeals and giggles, she gave us a run-through of her outfit, and we took some pictures. 

Mary wasn’t our last B train lovebird, though. The next person we talked to, Natalie, told us about the B train’s role in her relationship with her girlfriend.

Natalie says she isn’t surprised by most of her odd experiences on the B. “New York is full of characters, so of course they end up on the train.” (Acadia Bost)

NATALIE: “My girlfriend and I have been together for three years, so we’ve taken the B together for three years. I actually — this was before Covid, not during — I actually kissed her for the first time on the platform at West 4th Street, and we decided to get together a few weeks later going over the Manhattan Bridge.” 

Natalie had another human connection story to tell us.

NATALIE: “I was taking the train alone, and this guy was being loud. He wasn’t in my space or anything, but he was on the phone talking to someone and he was being a real [jerk]. Anyway, when he got off, there was this moment when the guy next to him caught my eye, and we rolled our eyes and grinned at each other. It was such a small moment, and I don’t know why it stuck with me, but it was nice.” 

Natalie works in publishing, so her hour-long commute is usually filled with reading manuscripts, or listening to podcasts. She likes This American Life, and You’re Wrong About, which is also my favorite podcast (both of us agreed You’re Wrong About was better before Michael left). 

NATALIE: “I think of the train as this fluid place outside of space and time.”

Natalie said that everyone is more open down there, and everyone is filled with this surreal feeling, especially when the sun is setting and the honey yellow lights are flickering, and you’re listening to music and watching the city go by. She was our last interview for the day, and I went home thinking about her.

I didn’t get a contact for Natalie, or for any of these people. We won’t ever see each other again, and really, that’s another one of the great things about the train. It’s this isolated experience, and it can be great, or not so great, and then it’s over, and you never see any of those people again. But maybe you think about them. Maybe one of the people I interviewed will sit down to dinner tonight and think, ‘Huh, I wonder what happened to the girl on the B train with the notepad and the headphones?’

“I think of the train as this fluid place outside of space and time,” said Natalie, a rider on the B train.