A sign of the times: Coffee the Train Man helps commuters catch the subway

A sign of the times: Coffee the Train Man helps commuters catch the subway
Photo by Elizabeth Graham

The MTA is spending hundreds of millions installing countdown clocks at subway stations, but one Ditmas Park entrepreneur provides the same service for just a cup of coffee, a half-smoked cigarette, a few bucks, or nothing at all.

Coffee the Train Man, as he is known around the Cortelyou Road Q train station, makes his living as the human version of Penn Station’s big board, notifying hustling commuters when the next train is departing.

“Let’s go down there, let’s go!” Coffee yells from the sidewalk above the outdoor station, letting straphangers know when he sees the light of an approaching train on the tracks below. “Manhattan Q train coming!”

Commuters pick up their pace — many break into a full sprint — when they hear Coffee hollering.

Unless, of course, he’s letting them know they still have a couple of minutes to relax — maybe enough time to get him a cup of coffee.

Many subway riders stop to greet Coffee before they enter the station, where he holds court every day from 4:30 am to 8:30 am.

“It’s very nice and helpful — especially for my mother,” said Isabelle Lafosse on her way to work. “He lets you know how much time you have — in case you have anything you need to do before going into the station.”

Coffee says the free cirgarettes and the 14 cups of coffee he drinks on the job are its main perks.

There’s also the salary.

“People give the tips — I never ask,” said Coffee, who lives at the Park Slope YMCA. “I really hope everybody makes the train.”

The tips, which can add up to more than $100 over a ten-and-a-half hour day including jaunts at two Manhattan subway stations, are his main source of income.

Coffee became the train man after struggling with drug addiction four years ago.

That’s when some women in the neighborhood offered him $200 if he promised to get his act together. He says he used the money to outfit himself with some warm gear and heavy boots and set about learning the train schedules.

Since then, Coffee has won fans at the Cortelyou Road station — which does not have an official MTA countdown clock — by doing his job as well, or better, than any electronic sign could.

Every morning, he goes to the Coney Island Q stop to check the schedules and adjust appropriately for any service delays.

“I’m the first one to know of any changes,” he claimed, noting that he calls the MTA whenever anything is amiss to find out what’s going on. “They know me by now. They say, ‘Who is it,’ and I say, ‘It’s Coffee!’”

Coffee certainly provides a service to straphangers, but it’s unclear if he is in the good graces of the MTA

An agency spokeswoman said the MTA prohibits panhandling inside stations and on trains — but Coffee swears he never begs and mainly stays on the sidewalk.

One thing is for sure: he enjoys his role in the hallowed Brooklyn ritual that is the daily commute.

“I like this job,” said Coffee. “When the B was running local — it was really moving! It was beautiful.”

Reach reporter Eli Rosenberg at erosenberg@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260-2531. And follow him at twitter.com/emrosenberg.