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Finding love underground

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A couple embraces as they walk through New York City's 42nd Street subway station. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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A woman dressed in black waits for New York City's downtown 1 train in the 79th Street subway station. Go talk to her! She could be the one. (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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A couple embraces while waiting for the N/Q/R line in New York City's 42nd Street subway station. They happen to be out-of-towners. Might the act of being below ground in the subway system make them more romantic? (Justin Nobel/CNS)

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Eremi Amabebe, 22, and Jan Burmeister, 23, standing beside the Rhein River in Dusseldorf, Germany. They met on a New York City downtown 6 subway during the summer of 2004. Amabebe was attending college in New York and Burmeister was visiting from Germany. This August, Amabebe moved to Germany, mostly to be closer to her subway sweetheart. (Courtesy of Eremi Amabebe)

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Eremi Amabebe, 22, and Jan Burmeister, 23, in Munster, Germany, where Burmeister goes to school for medicine. They met on a New York City downtown 6 subway during the summer of 2004. Amabebe was attending college in New York and Burmeister was visiting from Germany. This August, Amabebe moved to Germany, mostly to be closer to her subway sweetheart. (Courtesy of Eremi Amabebe)

Sarah Fleming took a different subway than usual for an early work meeting and there he was: a muscular, unshaven man with dark hair and large brown eyes. For the next two weeks she varied her departure times, trying to find him again.

It worked. If she left her apartment at 6:44 a.m. and sat in the first car on Boston’s Green Line, he was always there. For three months they exchanged only glances until one day she thought she heard him ask her name.

“I’m Sarah,” she mumbled nervously.

“I don’t understand English,” he stammered back.

The next day, Mario Nunes handed Fleming a card and a red rose. Several months later, after a dizzying first kiss in the Park Street subway station, he asked her to the movies. “How are we going to go to the movies if you can’t speak English,” Fleming asked. “I have eyes,” said Nunes, who had recently moved to Boston from Brazil. The two 25-year-olds now live together.

Millions of people pay money to find love online, and countless others spend hours cruising singles bars or enduring blind dates. Yet they're overlooking a valuable and far less expensive dating pool--subway riders.

Finding love on the subway goes against intuition and research. For most people, a subway ride is an uncomfortable trip spent crammed beside strangers who are liable to stink, sneeze or spill their coffee.

“People not only avoid each other,” said Harold Takooshian, an urban psychologist at Fordham University with an interest in how people behave on subways, “the ones who interact are exceptional.”

Indeed, the academic literature on subway behavior suggests that it’s easier to find a suicide than true love underground. Of the 20 or so academic papers researching subway behavior--with titles like “Frozen World of the Familiar Stranger” and “Tactile Relationships in the Subway as Affected by Racial, Sexual and Crowded Seating Situations”--not one suggests that subways spark romance.

Try telling that to the hundreds of lonely hearts who post advertisements every day in newspapers or on Web sites like Craigslist trying to find people with whom they’ve had brief encounters underground. A recent post on the Craigslist's “Missed Connections” page reads, “I got on to the 2 train this morning at Borough Hall and we locked eyes immediately. You had this cute warm-lookin' hat on. You stared at me. I stared at you. I wish we could've talked, but you got off at 14th Street. Wanna grab coffee sometime?”

When Helen Starkweather and Joe Dalaker met on Washington’s Metro 10 years ago, their relationship was confined to the seven minutes between when they boarded at Metro Center and when Dalaker got off three stops later. But once they started dating, the subway often served as a rendezvous point--a station manager once admonished them to stop kissing, they said--and in May 2001 they married.

“The person of your dreams can be five minutes in the future or five minutes in the past and you’ll never meet them,” said Starkweather, who at 36 still marvels at the serendipity of her marriage’s beginnings. “You need to lift your head up and look around, because you never know.”

When Eremi Amabebe, 22, lifted her head up outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York almost three years ago, she spotted “a hottie.” Several hours later she saw him again on a nearby subway platform. Although she’s “not a subway scouter for men,” she said, she felt compelled to ask him if he had just been at the museum. “Yas,” he said, in a thick German accent.

Amabebe and Jan Burmeister, 23, who was visiting New York with a friend, spent a passionate month together before he flew back to Europe. For months they corresponded via e-mail until Amabebe decided to visit him in Germany. “I was very scared,” she said. “You have this nice romantic event, and you don’t want to ruin it by making it end horribly.”

Now, two years later, Amabebe has a fellowship at Berlin’s Humboldt University, five hours from where Burmeister is studying medicine. “It doesn’t feel like long distance anymore,” she said.

Elizabeth, a 43-year-old Columbia University instructor who declined to reveal her full name out of embarrassment, recently spied a very tall man who caught her eye on the No. 6 train in New York. Intrigued, she posted an online “Missed Connection” hoping to find him. It was “the same thrill you get when you buy lottery tickets, even though you know the chances are only like one in 25 billion,” she said.

The really tall man never responded. Elizabeth did, however, hear from a dozen others who she says couldn’t have been the man she was after. She plans to meet at least two for coffee. Love could still happen.

E-mail: jdn2108@columbia.edu