The Subway Parties

The MTA: 1, F, Q, A, 7

Carnival in the Underground: THE SUBWAY ACTION PARTIES

A Recap 

by agent mT

This Subway Action Party Trilogy took place between February 1999 and April 2000. 
(The A & 7 Lines are not recounted here)


Dizzy, voluptuous, heartsmiling blurs. Even the most cynical, serious, self-conscious, the most punk rock and heavy-hearted, the most flamboyant and over-partied among us had their faces painted with glee like children honking a clown’s nose.  


The people aboard before we stampeded on felt it too. A few held to their masterful New York stoic already-been-to-the-second-coming faces—though clearly it took a bit more effort holding it against the tide. But most swam into the current of release, skipping stops to flow wherever the night led.


I am the scribe of these ventures, here to capture a whiff of what was in the air and heart those nights. I’ve included some of the voices of those who were there. All names have been changed to protect the innocent. Please forgive all errors, omissions and dearth of eloquence. All faults are mine. And, most importantly, please remember: This never happened.




The end of the Millennium. New York City, aka “the disaster contraption,” “Clown Town.” Few people have it easy in New York and few people are there to have it easy. Roaches, rumbling trucks, asbestos abatement, temperature and rent extremes, in short, the struggle. It crushes and inspires. It necessitates and demands the next creative surge, whether you be a billionaire or a sculptor moonlighting as a hotel bellhop. 


For Kass and Schaeffer, guerrilla marketers, Fringe Festival luminaries, handyman brothers from Michigan with multiple aliases, the whole town had long been a theater set. Playing Fussball in The Noodle Factory on the Brooklyn side of the Williamsburg Bridge, Schaeffer (or was it Kass), gets an idea. Kass (or was it Schaeffer) says, “That’d be fun.” They script it like screenwriters. They see it like film directors calling into being a set for their thespian circle to shine in a few hours of city life–all while Kass again spins the soccer rods to victory. Score! 


But nothing comes of it. Minds like these are constantly seeding the world with their imaginings. In real time, only a few will be tended enough to sprout. 


It’s Moustache who finally waters this one. The tall, lean Texan, a banjo-playing man with wispy goatee and hint of blond fuzz above his lip, had been sitting on the couch smoking a rolled spindle of tobacco during that Fussball round.


A few weeks later, polishing off a box of cornflakes with rounds of banana and Vitamin D Milk, Moustache reveals his plan: “Hey, remember that red party idea? Let’s do it on Valentine’s Day.” Kass and Schaeffer: “Sounds good to me.” Moustache calls the Whig and the Whig calls the Horns. The ring of accomplices grows and, just like that, the Red Line Action Party is on for the end of the week.




Moustache: “There is an absence of statutes dealing directly with tunnel gatherings and a good amount of folks to deal with at a party like the Red Line, crazy folks mocking their straight lives all around whomever is in charge anyway. Critical mass was imported from home. The band, decorators and security were our people. Photographers did record a biased sort of propaganda slant, barring the shots of the more disgruntled commuters. Goals were set at the get go. We wanted to span Manhattan, longways, and rock out at least one car. We did make it all the way up and then back down, after a glorious track switch uptown, hogging not one but two cars, and had several platform celebrations. Understandably, camaraderie was high. All aboard discovered a tendency in themselves toward the kind of participation that the red required, timed it out and found the last two cars of the 1/9 at Christopher Street filled with freaks drinking red wine and dancing jig time to ragtime. One walks away from the scene, or rather runs down to the Staten Island Ferry, having risked much more than was probably realized, yet without repercussion. A flawless politically poetic acquiescence.”




Sheena Bizarre*: “I remember the days of NYC. The NYC that wasn’t run by a swarm of trust funded thrill seekers, and dot coms. The city was run by energy alone, you never knew what the change in wind could blow in. A wild carefree concrete jungle. The place that let me loose and served as a mecca of escapism for a suburban girl. There was just one openly gay guy in my town. He told me outlandish stories of McDonald’s’ parties. I showed up to witness the end of one of these parties when I was a mere 17 years old. Someone would bring a giant boom box, and 20-30 people would show up, party for all of 7 minutes, and then break into a run to the club of the moment. The selfish New Yorker inside of my memory box makes me crave this spontaneity.


“Amid the reign of Herr Giuliani, a time of cabaret law enforcement, and serious gentrification, the boom of Reclaim The Streets movements and save the gardens parties–I got the call. Summonsed by “the people” to show up and herald in an old NYC vigilante style party on the subway line. We were told to meet at the Christopher street station. “Be there on point, at said time. Wear red! It’s the red line, bring red treats? Its Valentines Day! If you see confused people wearing red, encourage them to come with you!”


“I did the NYC beat minute, running out of time, so typical for this seconds-skimming town. I ran. Half the fun was getting there. People decked in red were pouring into the subway station, holding red balloons, lollipops. Then the train rolled in. We stepped in to find that the train was already decorated. The harsh white lights that show your every pore and smile lines were covered with red gels, bathing the subway car in an eerie dream-state light. 


“A brass band blew on one end of the car, a boy with a boom box pumped techno from the other. We immediately started to dance. I was given cups full of red wine. Some smoked pot and all smiled at each other. The City that has trained us to avoid eye contact and clutch our personals was now hosting the exact opposite. A blessing. Candy was offered and I wasn’t afraid to accept it. Then the party reached its first stop, ushering in New Yorkers who had no idea about this red line ride. The first passenger caught the vibe immediately. He turned to me and said, “This is why I love New York. I’ve been  in L.A. for few years now, and this is why I came back! I love NY.” I could only imagine this being a tourism commercial for the city. In my ideal world, it would be! I played MC with a tipsy beatboxer. The whole car sang in unison, “The ROOF/ THE ROOF/ THE ROOF IS ON FIRE/ WE DON’T NEED NO WATER, LET IT BURN, LET IT BURN!” The beatboxer opened his bag to reveal wine bottle and passed them around. “This is the best day of my life!” he said.


“A few stops later, we were led off the train and had a mini-parade in the underground–brass band followed men and women like happy kids. All of us in red, skipping, laughing and wondering where to next. We ended up at the Staten Island Ferry. There was a game of twister, a missed ferry and the end of the party as we knew it. 


“Word got around quickly. People told me mixed up stories of the way it all went down. I was happy to set them straight. I was happy to have been there. It may have been a giant turning point in the way I was looking at the city I loved. It may be one of those things that keeps me here.”




With his black fedora and red silk shirt, Adonnis the Trumpeter attracts with his lusty appetite a like- minded, dark-haired, red sequined, red-lipped soul to share the adventure of a subway kiss.


That was a good one, everyone says. That was a good one.


The Red Line Action Party, a sweet pleasure. It had an intimacy and spontaneity usually reserved for gatherings of close friends on a summer day or a house party far out in the woods. There were no reporters. No political or cultural resistance rhetoric. No agenda besides activating a wholehearted theater of the moment. 


The two that followed expanded the circle of adventurous spirits and involved more elements in the production. Those aboard seemed as energized by the celebration of the moment as the temporary respite from the charged authoritarian political climate and intensifying gentrification of New York.  Beyond hosting a brilliant spontaneous party, the rides symbolized to many a reclamation of public space and community. The irony is that it was at least in small part due to the improvements in the appearance and safety of the subway system that the trilogy happened. Another irony: Far from a fear that criminal activity would endanger us, our main concern was the reaction of the police! Many of us had been arrested at peaceful protests. Amadou Diallo had been shot 46 times in a dark alleyway. The police were using aggressive tactics on petty crime including random searches of “high risk people” as well as fingerprinting and holding subway fare evaders overnight. Undercover policemen had been identified attending political group meetings.


As it turned out, however, the police responded at every turn to these boisterous avalanches of spirit with unanticipated calm and even enjoyment. The temporary overthrow of conventions and boundaries in the spirit of human revelry seemed outside the bounds of political concern, to not pose a threat to the establishment. Even the most hardened cops seemed able to relate–to a point. 




The Whig: “The F Train is being halted at York Street!”

The Ballerina, The Dancers, The Decorators, The Advertisers, The Concoctors: “WHAT!!!???”


Encrypted invites passed hand to hand, a vast list of things orange, an hour till time. The decoration crew, 12 of us, are giggling. We’re applying makeup, stretching orange net stocking over our legs, prepping Tang cocktails in orange space canisters, slicing mandarins, and drawing the Orange Ad Campaign posters to cover the Subway Corporate Ads. It’s in this hubbub that the Whig announces what he’s just heard on the MTA hotline. Everyone talks at once. Do we switch trains? Do we call it off? NO! Do we dare go UPTOWN?


A swig of orange space cocktail for all and we unanimously decide to trust the Orange Line Gods and Goddesses and play it by ear. And so… out the door we flow in full regalia into the amber swishing New York night. Everyone finds their fix in the glow. We head up Delancey and turn west onto Houston, reaching the 2nd Avenue F Line at the corner of 1st.  The orange line. It lumbers from Queens then hooks down through the guts of Manhattan Island to homefree Brooklyn. 


We gather around The Whig listening to the MTA hotline on the upstairs payphone. “York is clear,” he says. “We’re on! We’re on!”  Euphoria ripples through us–the first of many to come.  I stay above ground, one of two glowing greeters delegated to point the way. All the others plunge into the underground. 


How many are coming? Where are they coming from? Over the next 15 minutes, I welcome hundreds of orange-attired revelers who drop in down the steps till I too take the dive. $1.50 in the till, a turn of the crank and my ears begin to fill with the thumping pulse of the band. An orange swarm extends from the farthest end of the platform, circling and dancing about each other. The beat rises as a train approaches, blasts into the station and slows in metallic screeching sparks. 


“NOT THIS ONE! NOT THIS ONE!” The Whig and core crew call out.


Everyone steps back, the last cars are too full for us to fit on. Bleary-eyed people stare out saying “what the hell is going on?” with their eyes. Then they are gone. Moments later, a second near-empty train barrels in past us coming to stop that feels like a pause. We burst on and pack three cars. Amid the blaring horns and drums of the last two cars and the mobile techno unit powered by marine battery in the third, we go to work. Within three stops, the cars are orange, dancers are tangled in overhead nets and voters are asked in large ads to consider ORANGE on election day. 


Will they stop the train?  There’s exhilaration in the wondering, in the transgression of norms, the potential reactions, the open space. Two stops in, No! Not yet at least. We ride on. The cheers are deafening as we break into Brooklyn, orange clad latecomers waiting to join us in small groups on platforms at every stop.




As months passed after the Red Line, with the new millennium approaching and the Y2 craze mounting daily, we continued to stage a series of happenings designed, slightly tongue-in-cheek, as training events for the coming apocalypse (i.e. a new world order or the very end, whichever came first). Months of working together had created trust, inter-reliability and a network. Suddenly, it seemed, a community of artists, activists, adventurers, and curiosity-seekers had coalesced–supporting, encouraging, inspiring and sharing with each other. Audiences were starting to welcome the experience of being participants, of being part of the theater. Meanwhile, the ad hoc brass band of the Red Line had evolved into a 20-piece marching band sporting a set list from samba to Dixieland, ready for action.


As if on cue, The Good Reverend Billy, avatar Preacher for the Church of Stop Shopping, asked us to take part in the End of the Millennium Festival, a weeklong symbiosis of in-house performances at Judson Church and site-specific street action. The Whig and the Ballerina made the call. It was time for the Orange Line. 




The Whig:


“My feeling was that it was a psychological training event to be done in a series to cultivate an audience receptive to the transformational powers collective will could have, to teach people to take risks and trust each other, to step outside of convention. In this sense, the red line action party and orange were mere exercises. Collective experience brings people closer together, like when a catastrophe creates bonds between people to a depth that ‘normal life’ would not. These events gave people a definitively collective experience that could bind them. People who did not know each other were able to embrace and connect because they had a common extreme experience linking them. They had trust in one another because they were both HERE. The train was no more crowded than it is every Friday afternoon, but, unless that train is delayed or stuck in a tunnel, there is no consciousness raised to recognize a collective HERENESS amongst the passengers. In fact, though always present on some level, it is avoided and we exist as if separate entities in this world. By bringing creativity and joy to the stale convention of riding the subway, people felt free to open to a collective HERENESS, sharing and being responsive to each other. Subway rides for months afterward, whenever the event is remembered really, reverberate with this sense of possibility of openness. 




Iridescent space on the move over barren Brooklyn. A glutinous, sensuous mass of fellow passengers. In half-disbelief, I watched the light in the faces, awake and amazed.  It was not a catastrophe that woke us. It was a bright ripe mango at midnight, a shared leap onto a joybound piece of metal. And someone somehow had a key to unlock the doors between cars.  


“NEPTUNE–we’re getting off at Neptune!” whipped from ear to mouth to ear.  Just as it reached me, I watched Neptune signs ineluctably roll past my eyes and felt the tug and lunge of brakes gripping the track. Door open, a tuba blast. We shuffled through the debris onto the high dark platform of the sea god. 


Originally, this stop was chosen because we could turn around to get the train back without going to the end of the line where MTA headquarters waited. That decision, however, was made before we knew how warm a night it’d be in December. 


Blasts of fire shoot up from the lungs of someone at the other end of the platform…. 


“Are we going to the beach?”someone asks the fire breather. 


The masked Whig yells, “We can go home….?”  Everyone boos. “Or, we can go to the beach?!”  

Cheers and screams rise into the sleeping night. And so a parade begins down the staircase and  marches onto the empty Coney Island streets that lead to the beach. “TO THE BEACH. TO THE BEACH.” 


Past a police station, smiling officers peer out then step out, asking us what’s going on…”Just a little celebration, Officer.” “Of what?” “Of orange.” They fall in behind us at a distance, a break from a mundane night, a walk in the night air. A reporter locks steps with me. “What’s going on here?” she asks. Where did she come from? I’m wondering. Did she get caught up in it on the train or was she tipped off? 


“Who put this together?” she asks.


“It’s all about you,” I say, so little in my head but the pulse of the beat, and rush ahead into the drum choir. 


TO THE BEACH. And can you believe the moon? A naked contingent–dedicated and unclothed before I even arrive– rushes into the waters as the tubas chant away. Fire spinners soak and soon light their kevlar wicks. We stay and sway till the coppers ask us good-naturedly to be on our way. After all, the beach is closed. And we agree. We are ready. We’ve had our ocean fill. And so, the parade resumes and the party takes us home. Next day, the Ballerina, unnamed and fire dancing, is in the Times, with the caption, “Midnight at Coney Island.”




Carnival. A celebration of embodied life, a release of energy within society from the strictures of society, a restoring of the balance of the daily, mundane demands and social contract with the possibilities of sensually-charged community. There are those who live for these moments–night after night seeking them, traveling across the world, creating their entire lives in order to immerse in them. 


There are some who felt ONCE was the mythic number. Others wanted a subway party every week, every night. Others just wanted one more so they could experience for themselves what they’d heard about. 




It took four months. This time, Legs made the call. The Whig and Ballerina were on African journeys. Why Legs made the call, not even she could say. She just knew it. Two days later, on a rain-soaked, grim March afternoon, a small crew went scouting the R-train to Coney Island. It looked good. Yellow felt right– the doorstep to Spring.


A week later, a dozen of us–some new, some seasoned subway decoration vets–crowded in a one bedroom, east village flat to prepare the elements for the alchemy of the night ahead. 


In many ways, the Yellow was the grandest, not the best, who can say that, just the grandest. Those previously involved, many of whom were curiosity-seekers the first time, sought full flamboyant participation. At the same time, those not THERE who had HEARD came free of skepticism, already open-hearted, costumed and ready with gifts. The web had grown, catching more happy flies in it. 




“Why are we stopped?” I could see cop cars underneath the raised platform deep in Brooklyn. I imagined a crusading brigade of the NYPD’s finest under orders to fill 50 paddy wagons with yellow carnivalistas. I’d been arrested, tackled from behind as I walked to the sidewalk at a demonstration a few months prior and could still feel the creepiness of the Center Street Tombs in my bones. All my trust of police intentions was gone.


“Why are we stopped?”

“Everyone has to get off the train,” the cop says to the yellow jump-suited, yellow-wigged girl.

“What’s gonna happen?”

“This train’s gotta go out of service and another will come.”

It was like the Grinch speaking to little Cindy Loo Who about why he was stuffing the Christmas tree up the chimney.


A train passed by on the middle express rails. I could see yellow brethren who’d probably missed our train trying to catch us, now passing us by. No one would get off the train. We all felt that if we got off the trains we’d be in the paddywagons. The bands kept playing. The party continued. This was our resistance. Oh no, I thought, as I stood between cars looking at Norse, who held his magic briefcase in one hand and his yellow cocktail in the other. Oh no, he, wide-eyed smiling looked at me and laughed his most seditious laugh. “Good thing no one’s in charge.” 


Eventually, the facts came in. Our dancing and rocking had tripped the rail safety and legally required the train to go out of service. With a police promise secured by the yellow-wigged girl that we would not be arrested, all 500 of us got off the train and watched it shuttle away. The band played on, channeling our fears and furthering the revelry. Moments later, another train arrived. The band played on. As we got on and doors closed and the train picked up speed, the party elevated and radiated. We were now on an express ride to Coney Island. 


There was no question about the beach this time. Those who skipped by us on another train saw us arrive in a cinematic swarm. We stayed at that legendary beach for hours dancing and drifting, swimming and singing, till the sleepy-eyed cops bargained with us to go home. And so we did, riding, courtesy of the MTA, back to our nests or some other journey into deeper morning.




The inevitable question came faster than before: “When is the next one?” 


This was one day after the Yellow Line. Still exhilarated and amazed, we stoked our fires over breakfast with the thought of blue. The Blue Line. A smoky, sexy blues line, blue-or-nothing-on-at-all-in-hot-August line. A whole train of 1000s of bluesmongers headed to Far Rockaway at 4 a.m. then to stay the day basking in warm sunrays. 


One event pushed the ante higher for the next. Inspiring and alluring, this nonetheless threatened to change the intention from transforming a mundane experience and sharing a collective joy to hosting an ever more elaborate and daring party for an expectant mass. 


As it turned out, it took over a year for the Blue line to happen and I wasn’t there. Neither was the Whig or the Ballerina though the marching band again carried the beat. Someone else, in another circle, had made the call and gathered a crew. 


I was, however, in Denver a year later visiting the birds at the zoo when a new friend asked me where I was from. When I said New York, she asked: “Have you heard of the subway parties?” Surprised, I said I had. She told me she heard that thousands of people had taken over entire trains. Was it true? I said, well, I heard it was a little more modest … but, even so, no less amazing.




Like Siamese angels connected at the wing 
or jellyfish on the griddle,
clowns searching for lost cities,
or poets wearing out their hands
testing their cages.
We have been given the necessary supplies
and are nudged into the light
and told to function.
to proceed with the process 
of becoming amazed.

from “Like Angels” in Jim Gustafson’s Tales of Virtue & Annihilation

*Sheena Bizarre’s recap on the Red Line later appeared in Cultural Resistance Reader, edited by Stephen Duncombe.

agent mT is the former nom de guerre of Geoff Kuffner, artist, writer, teacher, co-founder of The Ransom Corp. He can be reached at