You may not be able to afford a transcontinental journey, but I’m guessing you can afford a Metrocard. Luckily for you, riding the 7 train is not only the perfect way to alleviate midweek boredom—it’s akin to an international getaway. Always curious about different cultures, I decided to hop on the 7 one recent afternoon and to remain on board until I boomeranged back to my starting point.
The 7, which cuts through the borough of Queens, is known as the “International Express” for good reason. Stops seem to take you from Mexico to Ecuador and Peru, then to India, Thailand and China in an around-the-world expedition that lasts but an hour. And unlike an airplane’s cast of travelers, which remains oppressively constant, the 7 train’s population is a constantly changing mix of people from all over.
As soon as I embark at Grand Central Station, I can see that the 7 stands apart from its sibling subway lines. From my experience, the typical New York City metro train takes you on a predictable journey, and is occupied by a predictable group of passengers including students, professional commuters and nannies. The 7, on the other hand, carries an eclectic bunch. Within minutes, I discern at least five different accents, some Eastern European, some Latin American and some Middle Eastern—at least I think. I also detect the slight but distinct aromas of smoked meat and unfamiliar spices.
The Middle Eastern component of the ride intensifies at Sunnyside, which serves as the main portal in and out of a vibrant community. But before I have time to acclimate to this atmosphere, an intense session of exiting and entering leaves me surrounded by the sounds and faces of Korea. I spent a year in Korea after graduating, so I feel somewhat at home amongst my new companions. Elderly women carrying bags of groceries for the week scramble for available seats. Teenage boys entranced by various handheld gadgets barely notice the commotion. Young girls clog the central area with their bodies, and the wider airspace with their gaggles. I smile with nostalgia, feeling as if I’ve been transported to Seoul. But soon enough this sense of familiarity fades as the composition of my fellow passengers changes once again.
Like a hop-on, hop-off tour bus, the 7 train is a revolving door of cultures. Ecuadorian riders soon comprise the majority in my car, their collective demeanor noticeably lively and hospitable. When one gentleman sits down next to me and begins eating what looked like a tray of freshly griddled pupusas, the intoxicating smell of sizzling cheese, beans and meat nearly leads me to step off the train just so I can locate the nearest pupusa grill. In the name of fulfilling one mission at a time, I tell myself that I can return later to sample the authentic Ecuadorian fare.
Continuing along Roosevelt Ave and into Jackson Heights, we seem to travel across continents yet another time. The scents and sounds of Latin America come and go before we’re deep within India for a colorful stretch. Like a tourist, I gawk at the glimmers of gold vibrating off bright pink, blue and green ensembles.
After a quick stop somewhere in Italy, we finally reach China, appropriately situated at the 7 train’s final, far eastern stop. The whirlwind of Beijing overtakes the train as I imagine what daily life is like in Flushing. From young to old, everyone on board balances several bags filled with what must be at least a week’s worth of edible goods. In one satchel I spot a bunch of blistering hot Chinese chilies and pause to wonder which dish they’re destined to accent. Foreign fruits fill another bag and I swear I see something writhing within a black bag carried by a lady standing in the corner. At the far end of the subway car, a sign promoting the upcoming Lunar New Year is being affixed to the wall.
An hour later, I am back in the heart of Manhattan, in awe of the international tour I managed to take without stepping off a train.