Screen Time

YouTube Subway Videos and the Search for the Sublime

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Thinkstock and Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Screen Time is Slate’s pop-up blog about children’s TV, everywhere kids see it.

The train is late again. One after another, waiting passengers wander up to the yellow line and lean out a bit to peer into the tunnel. The tunnel doesn’t answer back. Finally, the distant sound of clunking metal crescendos into a deafening rail squeal. The Q has arrived. The doors open (“bing bong!”), and a crowd pours out of the overstuffed car while other passengers push their way in.

Is this my mindless morning routine, every single weekday? Yes! But it’s also my kids’ favorite thing to watch on a screen.

My children are obsessed with watching amateur documentary footage of New York subway trains arriving at and leaving various stations. The lighting is mediocre, the announcements garbled, the people waiting on the platforms sullen. You can practically smell the vaguely farty atmosphere of underground NYC emanating from the screen. They watch the videos on YouTube, where there are close to a million to choose from. My kids spend entire lazy weekend mornings watching crowds of people joylessly waiting for the delayed and overcrowded subway on their way to and from shitty late stage–capitalism jobs.

What drives their fascination with visually repetitive and boring footage of one of the most frustrating, mundane aspects of city life? They are still too young for the trainspotter’s obsession with engine make and number. They just want to watch subways barrel into and out of stations. What to me, and maybe you, is merely a means to an end, is to them a wonder. There are tons of metal hurtling at high speeds underneath us at all times! Who could believe such a thing? And, if you just wait patiently, maybe you, too, will be allowed to partake of this miracle of human life and ingenuity, maybe a wondrous vehicle will come and take you someplace you can barely even imagine. Hoyt-Schermerhorn, perhaps.

The thrill they get from these vehicles is not cheap or shallow or even always benevolent. One time at an old-fashioned train depot museum, the bell started clanging and we all rushed out onto the platform, excited to see a real-life freight train pass by. It was huge, loud, and moving so incredibly fast that my then-2-year-old son went into full-body adrenaline shivers as I held him in my arms. He was experiencing the true sublime, the Burkean kind. My sense is that my kids watch the train videos because they find the real trains so confusingly both attractive and terrifying. Kind of like Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” watching subway train videos at home helps them process the intensity of their experiences out in the world in a structured and safe way. Well, semisafe, because there are dark terrors waiting for them inside their screens as well: Because my kids watch their train videos on YouTube, that land of the psychotic algorithm, for every 20 straightforward “A Train / 168th Street / C Transfer” videos, the algorithm threatens to deliver a “Bum Fight on the 7.”

But so goes our everyday life, in which we never know if we’ll be moved by human kindness and genius, frustrated by the never-arriving bus, worried over the uncountable varieties of human pain in the world, or amused by the rats down there on the track. My city kids have the opportunity to see and participate in a relatively gritty world, and, to be honest, having a set of well-worn grooves and tracks helps. Inside our house, we watch the same thing over and over again to learn about our world and ourselves. The train will come. The doors will open. The train will leave. When bad things happen, look for the helpers. Life is hard, we’re all here together, waiting on this damnable train, let’s be kind.

My children’s favorite videos offer a frank, mostly unartful view of life as so much of it is really lived: vaguely looking around at other people while you all wait together for something spectacular to happen. They are somewhat anonymously produced—some seem made by true trainspotters or others looking for a substantial audience, but many are shot by tourists or other people just looking to record their daily experience. These unnamed folks have launched this material into the virtual realm of pure information and my kids sort of just fish-gulp it in.

The true wonder of it to me—one of the joyless platform shufflers who is always late to work—is how much kids can make of so little. Distilled to their essence, these videos are about childhood itself: its strange mix of boredom and wonder. The banality of these videos, and the other transportation videos occupying the same mental space—buses caught in traffic, planes landing with a roar, bridges opening politely for boats to calmly float by—is the point. Which is not at all to say that what they see is dull. Rather, watching subway train videos through their eyes is an exercise in learning how to be transported.