During my freshman year of high school, in 2002, just before spring semester concluded and summer vacation began, I ran away from home. I made the decision suddenly, at 74th Street, or maybe Junction Boulevard, or one of the stops in between on the local 7 line. My reasons were a combination of the usual suspects, generic enough to be drawn from a Lifetime made-for-TV movie — parents, friends, school, alcohol, drugs, punk rock. I ran away for the same reason all angsty teenagers run away: Because of everything and because of nothing at all.
I had, at the absolute most, maybe $10 in my wallet. But more importantly, I had a student Metrocard. From Monday to Friday, that white-and-green sliver of plastic awarded me three free rides daily. I had already spent one ride that morning to get to my high school in downtown Manhattan and another in the afternoon to bring me here, a few blocks away from my house in Jackson Heights. I hadn’t yet exited the subway station, so I still had a transfer and the third swipe remaining. I could go anywhere.
I got off of that homebound 7 local, walked down into the station and reemerged on the other side of the platform, where I caught another 7, this one heading the opposite direction and, I imagined, away from my home forever.
Because I had been riding the subway for less than two semesters and was therefore a woefully inexperienced straphanger, I took the 7 to the G to the F to the W (which no longer exists, replaced in 2010 by the Q and the D). That elaborate trip brought me to Bensonhurst and the apartment of a friend whose single mother was away at work. There, I announced my flight to an assembled group of friends. Many of them, despite having families and homes of their own, had spent nights on the street. They recommended the East Village or Central Park. When the host’s mother arrived and refused to let me spend the night there, I was forced to choose. I wasn’t excited about sleeping outdoors, so I got in touch with another friend who said I could crash at his place. His mother’s apartment in Park Slope had two floors, so I would be able to sneak in and out without her noticing.
From a payphone, I called my mother and told her I wasn’t coming home, at least not yet. I didn’t know how to explain myself, so I said, “I need time to think.” She chortled and said something like, “Yeah, right.” With my last allotted Metrocard swipe of the day, I got back on the subway, taking the W to the R to Union Street.
I was able to stay in Park Slope for only one night. The next day, my mother, who had somehow divined that I was with that particular friend and was also by some means able to obtain his phone number, gave him a ring. She managed to trick him into admitting I slept there the previous night by claiming I had told her that I was staying there. (My mother was both clever and tenacious; she would ultimately find me the following afternoon, walking to another friend’s house in Bensonhurst. She simply drove up beside me on Bay Parkway, slid open the back door to our forest green minivan and told me to get in, which I did because at that moment it became painfully obvious that the jig was up.)
But until then, I was on my own. After the sun had set, I decided that rather than eke out the night in the East Village or Central Park, I would take to the subway. It was early June, but that night was remarkably cold on the above-ground W train platform and even worse in the oppressively air-conditioned subway car. At times I was close to shivering, with only a hoodie that was annoyingly small. I took the W up to 34th Street-Herald Square and got off in that deep, subterranean station, where it was faintly warm. There, I sat on a wooden bench on the platform for an hour or two, trying to sleep until one of those ghostly yellow maintenance trains rolled in and planned work commenced.
I was one stop away from 42nd Street-Times Square and the crosstown course of the 7 line. Whether it was the desire for a familiar setting or a practical concern for the warmth offered by those older, poorly air-conditioned “redbird” subway cars, I spent the rest of the night riding the 7 line back and forth from Times Square to Flushing. I awoke as it climbed from the underground Main Street station to cross the Roosevelt Avenue Bridge, opening my eyes to the orange haze of morning sun streaming through the scratched windowpane I rested my head against. I felt warmer from the inside out as the 7 barreled on, through Flushing, Corona, Jackson Heights.
No matter how naive the notion, New York City’s magnitude then seemed to hold infinite unknown promise. Indeed, the city has never felt larger than it did during those few days, when it was span-able only by the number of subway lines and hours of time — when the route running away and the one coming home shared the same pair of tracks.