New York City subway riders wearing makeshift COVID-19 face masks
There's no shortage of face masks on @subwaycreatures.
Images via @subwaycreatures on Instagram
By Alex Lauer / July 23, 2020 7:47 am

The New York City subway may not be the best, cleanest or most punctual system in the world, but it is still the number-one name in public transportation. Naturally, as cities, workers and riders across the world question what mass transit will look like after coronavirus, people look to the subway for answers.

For the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, things are looking grim. The agency is announcing huge budget cuts this week as forecasts predict a $16.2 billion shortfall through 2024, The New York Times reported. As for straphangers themselves, many haven’t stood clear of the closing doors since the COVID-19 pandemic locked down the city in March, with daily ridership currently sitting around 20 percent of the usual numbers. 

That doesn’t mean the other 80 percent of riders haven’t been to the subway in the last four months. Many have, but instead of swiping through a turnstile, they’re entering on their phones — through subway social-media documentarians like Instagram’s @subwaycreatures.

For the uninitiated, Subway Creatures is a submission-based catalog of the eccentric people you’ll find on the train, as well as the general insanity that results from carrying millions of people under and around a 13-mile island; recurring themes include inexplicable costumes, rat antics and subway-platform waterfalls. Harlem resident Rick McGuire started the account back in 2011 and has built it (as well as his aboveground offshoot @whatisnewyork) into one of the most popular NYC-based Instagram pages, touting 2.1 million followers as of this publication.

To get a better sense of how the subway will change as a result of the coronavirus as well as how it already has changed, we decided to give McGuire a call. Sure, the MTA, Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo and their teams of health experts are already entrenched in plans to reconfigure transit for the COVID era, but if people are going to feel safe in the subway again, we need to prepare for the worst-case scenario — and what else is Subway Creatures but an encyclopedia of worst-case-scenario moments on the train? 

In normal circumstances, Subway Creatures posts eminently shareable but ultimately inconsequential content, but during the pandemic, McGuire’s followers have been turning to his platform as a source of vital information. In turn, the 35-year-old has a better sense than most about when it’ll actually be safe to brave your local line again.

InsideHook: When did you realize the coronavirus was going to be serious?

Rick McGuire: New York was the first U.S. city to get hit really hard. You saw people getting sick very quickly and taking a turn very quickly, and you started realizing the severity of and the reality of what this was turning into. But to your point, my social media accounts work on a submission-based policy. So prior to COVID, I would get anywhere from 200 to 300 submissions a day, not just New York, but primarily from New York, but I saw that drastically drop off. It went down to almost five to 10 a day after that, if at all. And that was really during the meat of quarantine.

When you saw that drop off in submissions, do you remember some of the photos or videos that did come through?

There was one video someone sent me, I think it was a Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was prime rush hour, and they were panning around at 42nd Street, which is also one of the most crowded subway stations, and there was no one. I think there were maybe one or two people on the platform, if that, and that was really eye opening.

What kind of questions were you dealing with going forward with the account? Did you ever think, “Should I even be posting or not?”

Absolutely. So the thing with not only Subway Creatures, but I also run an account called What Is New York, and … people were using my accounts as a way to find out what was going on. They wanted to see, were the subways crowded? Are the streets crowded? Are people wearing masks? I think the mask situation was a big point during all of this, because if you remember in the beginning of quarantine, they said, “Masks don’t make a difference,” and then it was almost overnight that they said, “Oh, wait a second, we’re just kidding. Everyone needs to wear a mask at all times.” And then overnight it was the complete opposite. If someone wasn’t wearing a mask, it was really weird. 

If I posted a video or a photo, people always wanted to know what time period it was taken from because they wanted to know why no one was wearing masks. It made them very nervous that it seemed like no one was following the guidelines that were set. Because of the fact that I wasn’t getting submissions, I was going back into my archives. So I actually started using a hashtag, #BC, before corona, for posts. 

How do you see Subway Creatures changing because of the pandemic?

Prior to corona, I was doing pop-up concerts with musicians. I did one with Hozier. I did one with Andy Grammer. I’ve done a whole bunch with some smaller names as well. I’m not going to be able to do that anymore as far as right now goes, just because you can’t risk it, and there’s also no one down in the subways for the most part. I mean, they’re coming to life a little bit, but there’s still no one down there. [But] I think it’s important from my perspective to keep posting during this time because, again, people are using the page as a gauge of what’s going on.

Have you been down to the subway at all yourself?

A number of times, yeah.

What have you noticed that feels different? Is there anything you didn’t expect?

From a visual standpoint, they do have the six-foot circles now that they’ve put on the platform. Just seeing that puts things in perspective. But I would also say there’s this feeling when you’re on the train, because there are people who are still revolting against wearing masks, even in the subway, you do notice people walk away from those types. Also, if someone sneezes or coughs, there’s this stigma attached to it now, that when that happens you also see people clear away from that area. No one wants to take any chances right now, and there are those people who have to take the train, that’s their primary way of getting around. They may not have a choice, whether it’s an essential worker, or whether it’s just someone who finally was able to go back to work. 

What sticks out to you from the submissions you’ve been getting as New York opens back up a little?

One of the best things about the page is it almost seems like nothing has changed. The videos, the content, is the same that keeps coming in. The difference is now everyone’s wearing masks, for the most part, in the videos. To me, that’s just so funny because it makes you realize that nothing has actually changed with the people themselves, it’s just the situation that’s changed. It’s still people dancing or playing guitar or bringing strange exotic animals on the train. That’s still happening. It’s just now there are people who are doing it and they’re all wearing masks. I would say if there’s a post that came in that was a favorite of mine, that actually really fits the theme of all of this, there was a photo of a guy wearing a mask and he was holding his dog on the train and the dog had a mask on as well. 

How do you see the subway moving forward from this?

What’s really interesting is that the MTA had just prior to COVID been talking about making the single-car trains. They were going to make one long train car. I think that’s going to be on hold now. I think that would be a pretty bad idea to make one train car, the whole length, with what’s going on. Also, I just think the numbers are going to drastically drop off, not only because of the commuters, but because people don’t want to go underground into a confined space with what’s going on. 

As far as me, I’m trying to adapt with the times. There’s a project that I am trying to work on at the moment — I’m trying to create a fake subway station in a studio so that way we can try and get musicians and performers [to play]. There are people who were making a living by going down and singing and performing and playing music, and they would have an open guitar case and people would tip them. I mean, that was their 9 to 5, if you want to call it that. They’re obviously very affected by this. So what I want to do is I want to get them a place where they can [perform], and maybe we can virtually tip them, whether it’s Venmo or PayPal, and post their videos on the account. That’s something I’m trying to adapt to right now because we don’t know how long it’s going to be like this, if it ever goes back to normal, which is always a scary thought — at least for what I do.

Answers have been condensed for length and clarity.