It is almost midnight at Paddington Station in central London. Everybody is sitting in half-frozen metal chairs in front of the platform’s arrivals information board, ignoring each other.
Except, that is, for the man who is wearing a neon-bright yellow traffic cone as a hat.
He does not respond when I ask him about his hat, where he’s been, where he’s going. His eyes are bloodshot. Only when he drops his train ticket and I hand it back to him does he acknowledge me; a moment later, he promptly forgets I exist.
I’ve taken on the assignment of exploring the Night Tube until dawn. I have six hours to go.
London’s Night Tube is a relatively new phenomenon, despite years of strike-related delays and political promises — Boris Johnson first announced the programme in 2013. Evening service on the Victoria and Central lines began in late September; 50,000 people used the service during its inaugural Friday night. By the time all five planned lines are open, Transport for London expects the service to garner 200,000 nightly visitors. The Jubilee line opened on October 7; the Northern and Piccadilly lines, which run roughly north-south and east-west through Central London into its suburbs, are slated to open later this year.
For the first time, London — whose late-night-transport options have heretofore been limited to expensive cabs, surge-price Ubers, and the notoriously dodgy night buses — has the chance to be the city that never sleeps.
I’m more anxious than I expected at the prospect of spending my night talking to strangers on the Tube, despite the veneer of legitimacy afforded by my being technically ‘at work’. Only recently, a quixotic American National Heath Service worker distributed 500 chirpy “Tube Chat?” badges to passengers. The badges were designed to foster the same benevolent openness the worker remembered from his hometown in Colorado. But the effort resulted in a cynical counter-campaign of brusque and obscene badges (“No” was among the most polite) designed to remind locals and foreigners alike that London was emphatically not a place for human connection.
At least, not by day.
* * *
I’ve had strange and surreal encounters on other forms of late-night transport the world over: the middle-aged woman on a New York subway carriage who approached me to tell me excitedly that she’d just made the acquaintance of two male prostitutes, the maternal ministrations of elderly women who have tried to feed me crackers on Turkish intercities night buses, the strangely unguarded vodka-fuelled conversations I’ve had with strangers on Central Asian night trains.
There is something carnival-like about late-night transit, especially alcohol-fueled urban transit, that allows us to break the rules of social interaction. By day, trains and buses are purely functional: they get us to where we need to go. But by night, they’re a rare example of an enclosed public space, somewhere that allows for, even demands, social interaction, the breaking of barriers.
There is something carnival-like about late-night transit.
And in England, where even making eye contact with strangers involves a kind of shredding of the social contract, people seem to hunger more intensely than anywhere else than for a breaking of those barriers.
“Everyone’s happy on the Night Tube,” muses David, a young security guard at Victoria station. He, like everyone else I speak with for this story, identifies himself only by his first name. (Asking strangers for their full names on the Night Tube, I discover, has the effect of making them immediately revert to extreme English reserve). “It’s just young people, having fun.” He says this with a degree of shock. “Of course, we have to clear up all the vomit…”
But in a city where strangers famously ignore one another, the Night Tube is a carnival experience: a place where ordinary social codes don’t apply.
I decide to see for myself one Saturday night in October.
* * *
Ten minutes later on the Victoria line, I’m swigging a sip Jacob’s Creek Shiraz rosé straight from the bottle courtesy of my new friend, Charlie.
Charlie, whom I approached after noticing his rather public pre-gaming strategy, is on his way to Brixton to see the DJ Armin van Buuren. Charlie scribbles the DJ’s name into my notebook, along with the fact that he recently made #1 on DJ Magazine’s Top 1 DJs. Charlie works in music production, he says; he likes going to dance at trance events like this one. Tube-drinking, he hints, is far cheaper than paying for drinks at the club.
As I take the Victoria line back and forth between Brixton and Seven Sisters stations, the Night Tube gets more and more raucous, its characters more and more colourful. (The Victoria line is, I quickly discover, the liveliest line, although the Oxford Circus stop is closed due to a fire alert.) I notice more and more empty bottles of alcohol on the station platforms: a Bells at Walthamstow, cans of cheap cider on the Tube floors. I see strikingly-attired riders — a woman with pagan rings and two-toned platinum-black hair; a man in full-face clown make-up — who get off the Tube and vanish before I can approach them.
Around midnight, things settle into patterns. Two men loudly argue about Trump. A bald man in tweed and a purple scarf reading a copy of Wired takes one look at them before putting on the largest pair of headphones I have ever seen. He gets off at the genteel, politically liberal neighborhood of Highbury & Islington.
People don’t talk to each other in London" — But they grant that the Night Tube is an exception.
Three men — Ayo, in a bright yellow shirt, Samuel, with a bushy beard, and Damir, with a bandana and piercings — Snapchat their way north from Brixton. They came all the way from North Finchley (thirty away) to go to a party at the Brixton nightclub Eckovision, only to realise it’s closed for renovations.
“Now we have to go all the way across London,” one says, before they begin to argue about whether or not Brixton to Finchley technically constitutes ‘all the way.’ The consensus: if you don’t change Tube lines, it’s not that bad.
They admit that talking to me is somewhat bizarre. “People don’t talk to each other in London,” Ayo says. But they grant that the Night Tube is an exception.
I ask if they too have been drinking.
They shrug. “I don’t drink,” they all tell me. Somehow, though, the Night Tube makes everybody seem a little bit drunk.
* * *
Almost nobody, though, is as drunk as Zeyna, the pink-haired, leather-clad girl I rescue from a “Not in Service” train from Victoria station. Her friends have deposited her in the carriage — they have somewhere else to go.
She still wants to go out, she says; the night is young.
“Shut the hell up,” she tells me (her language is cruder) when I try to explain the train isn’t going anywhere. Finally, I convince her to come back to the platform.
“I just wanted to shake a leg,” she sighs. She and her friends had gone to Konnect nightclub, hoping for a good time. But the cover charge was unaffordable, the queues too long. “I just wanted to shake a leg, to dab, you know.”
This, she explains, is a dance move. She corrals Tasha, a young man in a “Normal People Scare Me” T-shirt, to play music off his iPhone so she can show me what she means. She and Tasha don’t know each other; he says he’s on his way to a secret warehouse party in an undisclosed location in North London.
As we board the next train, Zeyna starts asking him chipper questions: whether or not he has children, how old he is. When she discovers that he, like me, is 26, she gleefully pronounces us “twins”.
“I’m 23,” she informs me, teetering in her too-tall ankle boots. “I’m an adult. I can walk in my shoes and everything!” She tells me about the wreckage of her night. She ran into an old acquaintance in Victoria: “He just got out of jail for selling white and brown” — cocaine and heroin, she translates for clarification — “his cousin’s in jail, and I was annoyed, you know, because when we were kids I told him like ten times don’t go to jail.” She ran into another girl who just got out of rehab (“I’m friends with a lot of drug dealers,” she reflects, “but I don’t do any drugs”), drank vodka and juice in the street to avoid paying at the club (“It’s expensive to buy drinks; I don’t spend money when I go out”), got too drunk too early.
She still wants to go out, she says; the night is young. But her friends have gone and she has nowhere left to go.
She decides to go home at King’s Cross at one-thirty in the morning.
“Goodbye!” She gives me a big hug before she leaves. “I love you!”
* * *
By 2am, the Victoria line becomes more raucous still. A man called Nigel gets on at Brixton with a boom box hooked up to an iPhone, on which he plays increasingly loud 80’s hits. An Eastern European woman sitting near him gets up, sniffs, and walks off the carriage.
“I’m glad Brexit happened!” Nigel shouts after her. He turns to me in a rage. “I mean — if you come to somebody’s house, you don’t complain about their music, right?” He says that playing music on the Night Tube is his hobby. “I mean, I’m not smoking, I’m not drinking, right?”
Three boys in their 20s find Nigel and his 80’s hits hilarious. As Soft Cell’s Tainted Love blares, they begin to sing along, to encourage the rest of the carriage to do so, to start shaking a leg, to pole dance against the subway poles. One grinning boy is covered in lipstick kisses. (“My fault!” a girl announces.)
One person starts dancing, then another.
We sing along, in unison, to Don’t You Want Me, Baby. Everybody in the carriage films it.
By the time Nigel gets to the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), the entire carriage is dancing.
Nigel gets off at King’s Cross. Everybody applauds.
We sing along, in unison, to Don’t You Want Me, Baby. Everybody in the carriage films it.
Things get quieter after 3am. The Jubilee line, running west into Mayfair, is largely silent; a boy in a tailored purple blazer tries very hard not to vomit while his companion, wearing seersucker trousers, props him up. Eastbound, there are the remnants of a birthday party: a group of men hugging each other while one of their mothers looks on. One accidentally jostles the other; this starts a mild argument until one of the older women pretends to call the police. “Hello, is this 999? Somebody’s stepped on my son’s toe — can you help?”
There are empty Tube carriages, too, and empty platforms; Stratford, at 3:30am, has only a pair of boys mock-fighting. Things liven up on the Central line between Liverpool Street and Oxford Circus. A young man with a Cockney accent goes around the carriage asking sport trivia questions: “Other than West Ham, what is the main East London team?”
When an elegantly-dressed man in a blazer and button-down shirt answers “Leyton Orient,” he is rewarded with a handshake.
The Tube’s passengers begin arguing about the respective merits of the football teams. A solitary middle-aged man, standing against the pole, takes a few steps closer, trying to make eye contact, to join the conversation. But nobody looks up to see him, and he is too shy to speak out loud.
At the corner of the carriage, two bald and bearded men — one with a chain necklace and a black leather jacket, one with curiously mismatched clothes evocative of a Gilbert and Sullivan pirate — smile at each other.
They communicate in sign language while mouthing their words.
I like your hair, one jokes.
I like your hair, too.
* * *
On the London night bus, the seats do not face each other. People curl up against the windows: they doze, or vomit, or avoid one another.
But on a subway, it is difficult not to make eye contact. Drunk or sober, hyped up on Red Bull or downing Jacob’s Creek from the bottle, it becomes easy, even natural, to smile at strangers, to strike up a conversation, to let the rollicking atmosphere of drunkenness take over, to let London be less lonely. A Night Tube isn’t just a functional addition to a city, it’s a psychological one. If urban planners in other famously anonymous big cities — Tokyo, say, or Seoul were to build 24/7 trains there, one wonders if those famously quiet carriages would devolve into dance parties of their own.
By morning, at the end of my Night Tube marathon, people are silent once more. The revellers are gone; the commuters are up. They do not shake hands. They do not make eye contact. They doze, or read the free papers that litter the train, or stare at their phones.
Outside King’s Cross, on the Hammersmith and City line, a middle-aged man with a suitcase, just off the Eurostar and with a Northern English accent, looks up at the carriage.
“I guess we’re all supposed to talk on the Tube now, eh?” he says.
He laughs, increasingly awkwardly, into the silence, as everybody tenses up.
Nobody answers him.
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