Erika Christensen approached a stranger, put her hand out in greeting and uttered the words that are music to many a man's ears.
"Are you single?"
It's a question that Christensen fears is rarely asked in these days of online dating as face-to-face introductions take a back seat to digital photographs and flirtations.
So she started a dating service aimed at getting old-fashioned romance back on track — literally. Her Train Spottings business scours New York's subway system for singles to pair with clients, taking advantage of the feast of humanity swarming the underground transportation hubs.
"If you want to meet someone, you have to go where people are, and we know where they are. They're on the subway," said Christensen, who was 31 and an aspiring entrepreneur when she launched Train Spottings two years ago.
Christensen dismisses those who view the subways as loveless hellholes plagued by rats, lost tourists and impatient commuters. Quite the opposite, she says, rattling off statistics that make her sound more like a Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokeswoman than a mass transit matchmaker. With 24 subway lines, 468 stations and daily ridership in the millions, the city's favored mode of movement provides an endless supply of potential romantic material, she said.
"And it's constantly being refreshed," Christensen said, noting the turnover on platforms as trains pass every few minutes, spilling new human specimens out the sliding doors and carrying away the stale ones.
There are men, women, men dressed as women, and women dressed for whatever the day or night might hold. Last month, a couple who did not meet through Train Spottings but whose relationship warmed over long, late-night subway rides chose to wed on an N train heading from Brooklyn to Manhattan. "Stand clear of the closing doors, please," a voice warned riders as the bride, Tatyana Sandler, walked up the center of the car to her groom, Hector Irakliotis.
Train Spottings recently claimed its first marriage, though, of Kelly Aronowitz Katz and Andrew Swartz. Aronowitz Katz had paid Train Spottings to find her a match. Kady Grant, who works for Christensen as a "cupid," spotted Swartz waiting for the A train.
Eight months after Train Spottings arranged their first date, the couple married in October.
Train Spottings' system is simple, and computers come into play only when someone who has been spotted follows up by sending an email to the spotter. If Christensen thinks the person would appeal to one of her paying clients, she sends the pair on a blind date — but not before she conducts in-person interviews and background checks to verify that they are indeed single and not lying about their identities.
Neither client knows the other's name in advance, because Christensen does not want daters to scour online profiles before meeting.
"We have zero in common with online dating," said Christensen, who demonstrated her technique one afternoon in Rockefeller Center outside a coffee kiosk near a major subway hub. She walked up to the handsome stranger and asked whether he was single.
The man, who gave his name as Wayne, flashed a wide smile. Alas, Wayne said, he was not single. But he took Christensen's card and promised to share it with eligible friends.
Grant, 25, an art industry employee by day and a spotter by night, is familiar with the travails of dating in New York City.
"People don't come to New York to date," she said. "They come here for their careers."
Grant picks her stations carefully, avoiding those that are heavy with tourists and suburbanites dashing for trains out of the city. Her favorites are ones with wide platforms, which ensure broad viewing angles, space to loiter and relative privacy when she approaches someone.
"You want it to be, like, not embarrassing," Grant said.
Her huge green eyes are in constant movement as she slowly turns round and round on a platform to check the human stock pouring off trains.
On a platform buzzing with activity one evening, Grant's first target was a cleanshaven blond man in his 20s in corduroy trousers. She walked up to him with her hand held out, a Train Spottings business card clasped in her fingers.
"Hi, I'm a matchmaker," Grant always says at the outset. That ensures that the person Grant approaches knows she is looking for a date for someone else, not herself.
The man in the corduroy took the card and chatted for a few seconds before jumping onto his train and disappearing.
"I like this one with the instrument," Grant said, scurrying over to a dark-haired man with a guitar case waiting for an F train.
"Everyone is married today," she said in mock exasperation after a brief conversation with the man, who, like several others that evening, was married. Grant also approaches women for male clients.
Sometimes, no words are exchanged. As one train's doors opened, Grant spotted a potential candidate standing in the car. She rushed over and slipped a card into his pocket before the doors closed. Grant estimates that about 60% of the people she gives cards to contact Train Spottings.
Ronald Pierre, a 27-year-old in a gray double-breasted coat, said he would be part of the 60%.
"Honestly, I am looking for someone who can match my personality," Pierre said after Grant handed him a card. "Here in New York, that's hard to find," he said before excusing himself to jump on a train.