New York Times
August 19, 2003


Rocking, Rolling, Screeching, and It's Not the Train


It was the day after the lights came back on, the day the trains started rolling again. The Great Blackout of 2003 had passed like a slow local with no air-conditioning, and there was great joy in the city of New York.

But just before 9 p.m. on Saturday, it seemed to many people standing on the platform at Pennsylvania Station that there was an altogether suspicious amount of joy coming from the last car of a No. 3 train as it pulled into the station.

The doors of the car opened, and inside, 50 or so riders were doing things that subway riders simply do not do, even if they have all just won the lottery. They were dancing; they were singing; some were hugging one another. They whooped and yelled and beckoned like sirens for people to join them in their subway Shangri-La.

People, looking confused and frightened, relied on their urban instincts and did not join them.

"What the hell is going on in there?" asked a man in a janitor's uniform, as the doors closed and the train went on its way.

What was going on was a subway party, a rolling, rollicking, screeching, screaming development in recreation that was bound to happen sooner or later in a city where just having a party is never enough. One must have a new kind of party, in a new kind of place, and even the most unconventional settings — a factory, a funeral home, the top of a double-decker tour bus in the rain — have been tried before.

So Gabriel Tolliver, a filmmaker from Fort Greene, Brooklyn, wondered one day as he sat in the subway: Why not here? It's a decent room, after all. It smells better than some bars. It costs just $2 to get in, with no drink minimum. There are plenty of seats, and handrails to steady the inebriated. And while it lacks something in the way of acoustics and subtle lighting, it more than compensates with the kind of hipster street credibility that is impossible to achieve outside of public transportation.

"I said to myself, `I think this can be done,' " Mr. Tolliver said with all the determination of Balboa setting out for the ocean. And back in June, to celebrate his 37th birthday, he did it, inviting as many friends as he could fit into the last car of a No. 3 train.

It was such a rousing good time that Mr. Tolliver quickly decided to try it again.

So last Saturday, with an extra reason to celebrate supplied by the return of electricity, he and his friends wheeled a heavy shopping cart full of party supplies onto the platform at the 148th Street terminal in Harlem.

There was a boombox, to play the songs of a hip-hop artist named C-Rayz Walz, whose new CD was the occasion for the party. There were 72 cupcakes, baked by Mr. Tolliver himself. There were crepe-paper party decorations to hang in the car. And there was also "punch," "lemonade" and "soda," which require quote marks because they were decidedly not the kind served at children's parties.

In case you are wondering, all of the improvements to a normal subway ride listed above — food, drink and amplified music — are illegal under city law. But Mr. Tolliver said he had an excuse ready if the car was raided.

"I'm going to tell them that we're coming back from a party and we just happened to bring all of our stuff back with us," he said. "Do you think it will work?"

Luckily, he did not have to find out. From Harlem to the other end of the line in East New York, Brooklyn, the party train — with fitting background music supplied by the Gap Band's "Party Train" — chugged along with no official interference. (Just before the Clark Street Station, where a police officer is always stationed, Reggie Osse, a lawyer and the appointed bartender for the night, yelled out: "Everybody look at your shoes! Everybody act like you're going to work!" The officer glanced over sleepily. The doors closed. A shout went up and the train pulled away.)

Within the first few stops, the party had already taken on extra guests, including Giovanna Henson, 27, who was on her way to Penn Station to go to a party in New Jersey. She stepped in, looked bewildered, then readily accepted a lollipop and a Styrofoam cup of punch spiked with Everclear, a grain alcohol.

"Basically, I'm taking a party to another party," she announced later. "How cool is that?"

Heather Emmanuel, headed to Utica Avenue in Brooklyn, also accidentally joined the party in Midtown. She said she was planning to finish a book she was reading about a biblical apocalypse but instead sat and watched the partyers form a soul train down the middle of the car. "They seem like nice young people," she said.

As the party reached its final destination in Downtown Brooklyn, the only evidence remaining that it had occurred, besides a slight, smoky aroma of a certain controlled substance, was the sticky residue of spilled trash-can punch, much of which Mr. Osse was also wearing.

"Next time," he said, "we've got to bring some baby wipes."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company