Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Men Like Local Train Station

In praise of Penn Station: "The city beneath our city is a delightfully ill-lighted, incomprehensibly organized, low-ceilinged, viewless labyrinth. Harried people surge through its concourses and tunnels in perpendicular lines, mean salmon in puffy coats going always upstream. Soldiers with combat weapons lurk outside the city’s most unhygienic group lavatories. There is nowhere to sit. The 'talking kiosk' that serves the visually impaired has been heckling Long Island Rail Road customers with chirping for so long that we have begun to associate birdsong with the most terrible things."

71 Comments / Post A Comment

Miles Klee (#3,657)

Going home to New Jersey for Thanksgiving is so much better when you have to scurry through a rat-maze to get on your overcrowded train.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

I'd still contend that nothing beats Port Authority Bus Terminal for holiday travel soul-crushery. It's got all the labyrinthine shabbiness of Penn Station, but without even the vague hint of upscale delusion that comes from riding a train.

MaryPS (#5,688)

I second this. Emphatically. (And both of your comments below.)

Miles Klee (#3,657)

I should clarify that my original comment was totally sincere. I feel an acute rush of Darwinian energies in that place. I enjoy threading the mobs of tourists and homeless at top speed like some urban ninja. I derive great pleasure from tracking conductors' movements and knowing what track my train will be on before the board declares it.

MaryHaines (#3,666)

@boyofdestiny: YES. Because: you have to line up at your gate, but there's only room for, like, five people to stand, so the line gets so long that it passes other gates and other lines, and people start standing in lines at random, hoping they're in the right one but not really caring, so much, because even if you do pick the right line, the prize is getting on a bus.

metoometoo (#230)

On Sunday morning, my boyfriend called me in a panic to say, "I'm at Penn Station, I don't know how to do this, it's full of Jets fans, I can't find the track, do I have to take an elevator? I don't think I'm going to make this train and I'm all sweaty!!!" And I said, "Oh, shit, I've never showed you how to get on a train from Penn before? It's kind of an art, I'll teach you next time."

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@metoo: So did he make it out alive?!

metoometoo (#230)

Just barely!

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

What an insightful, delightful, well-written piece.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Although, in retrospect, three words that would have made it better: Shadow Architecture Critics.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Yes yes and yes. EB White uber alles!

I particularly like seeing the Choire Sicha byline, because it always evokes an imaginary bellhop trilling "Message for Mr. Sicha! Mr. Sicha of The Times!"

Sorry, Tom Scocca, but it's the hindbrain and inexplicable.

dado (#102)

The bunkers of Penn Station exists to remind those arriving from the unwashed suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey of their social standing, in contrast to the vaulted glory of Grand Central welcoming the well-heeled patricians from Westchester and Connecticut.

sailor (#396)

If they were that "well-heeled" they wouldn't be on Metro North.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

The bunkerization of Penn Station did reinforce that class myth, but have you been to New Jersey and Long Island lately? It turns out a bunker provides more-than-adequate cover for class mobility.

Meanwhile, in Beacon and Bridgeport…

Bittersweet (#765)

I'm with sailor. I never feel well-heeled or patrician getting on Metro North in New Haven.

@Bittersweet: Once, riding the Metro North, the other riders in my car included two people who, completely separately and about a half-hour apart, vomited copiously onto the floor beneath their respective seats. The first was a very drunk woman who got out at South Norwalk with her vomit-spattered date. The second was a younger man who had the routine down : vomit, look up and down the aisle, and, 60 seconds later, get out at the next stop. The next stop, unfortunately, was Bridgeport, but he had a certain devil-may-care attitude that I felt would serve him well. And perhaps he was from Bridgeport, and just had a nearly superhuman sense of timing.

Why do I relate this story? Oh, just in sympathy.

metoometoo (#230)

I literally just said this to my mom yesterday as we escorted my BF from Penn to Grand Central.

Ed gets to spend time in Grand Central because he's FANCY and his parents live in WESTCHESTER, while we're stuck in this hellhole with the other Jersey trash. But at least we don't have to go down into the lower level of hell with the even trashier LIRR trash.

mkrotov (#1,740)

This is a wonderful, wonderful piece. Down with our regressive urban impulses!

Dickdogfood (#650)

This seems to be the New Contrarianism I've heard so many people talk about lately.

Multiphasic (#411)

No it doesn't.

Dickdogfood (#650)

I think the op-ed is arguably a little misleading: eventually there is going to be a "majestic hall." Theoretically. Very theoretically. That's Phase Two. I mean, I guess if you make reference to Phase One you are silently hoping that the reader can put two and two together and think, oh OK, all those fancy-schmancy renderings I've been seeing for years must be Phase Two. But I still had to go back to the Friends of Moynihan Station website and do more searches than you'd think to confirm this.

Frankly though, the renderings of the atrium are completely uninteresting, so that's why I'm not jazzed about the project for any reason other than it might give our company work. Plus, yeah, there's no point in going back to Old Penn Station. Though when people praise the "grit" of the city, they are engaging in something perilously close to aestheticizing the misery of others. And fuck that shit, really.

garge (#736)

I have this urge–as unmistakable as it is novel–to purchase an actual offset printed broadsheet (the type made from that non-archival newsprint whose ink rubs off on your fingers and warm-out-of-the-oven homemade chocolate chip cookies), to clip this piece out of and fix it on my refrigerator with a magnet. And maybe be the first of my friends to recommend this, thumbs up.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

I enjoyed this. I like making people go to TRACKS for oysters.

I have slept in Penn Station many times, including once when I woke up to find a bouquet of flowers in my hand. (When I told my friends about this they reacted with horror, although I thought it was kind of nice?) Perhaps I will route my trip to the Island on Thursday through there for old times' sake — lately I've been routing my treks to Hicksville through Woodside.

(Also the newly installed ladies' room on the LIRR concourse is much improved from the old one. And the guy who runs Penn Books is a charming crank! And the wine store closer to the 8th Avenue side is actually pretty decent.)

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Penn Books, last I looked, was so much like the old school B&Ns that I regressed to the point of looking for baseball stats books and Doonesbury collections.

Dickdogfood (#650)

I'm surprised you were ever able to sleep in Penn Station: there were times during the Giuliani administration and well before (I'm old) where if I so much as sat down anywhere other than the approved seating area, a cop would chase me off.

I can sleep pretty much anywhere, LAW ENFORCEMENT BE DAMNED.

John Ore (#7,170)

Didn't one of you gentlemen — in a previous life, for a previous blog — pen the headline "Lead Us Not Into Penn Station" for a post about the beach-bound in the summer?

I still quote that headline.

Same here.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

::rubs eyes:: Huh?

KarenUhOh (#19)

We're cutting you off at three commenter #s.

Leon (#6,596)

You know…I read this piece earlier this AM thinking, I always used to hate taking NJ Transit home for the holidays…but now that I don't have that anymore, and end up drinking in Brooklyn with immigrant bar-staff and yeah…I kind of miss it, and really enjoyed this piece.

I didn't realize who wrote it until I saw the link here! I would totally read a weblog (do they still say that?) written by the fellas who wrote that op-ed. And thanks for the unexpected nostalgia before stupid client meetings the rest of the day.

Br. Seamus (#217)

"ageless metalheads" – that's just the Summer of Megadeth guys looking for the train of consequences.

Matt (#26)

The only way I will support a reboot of Penn Station is if they employ the Architecture of Aggression.

Matt (#26)

I'd like to add to Maura's point further up this thread that one time I Woke Up Dead at Penn Station.

Matt (#26)

Every once in a while before I board a train at Penn Station I like to go down to St. Francis of Assisi on 31st so I can be Looking Down The Cross.

Matt (#26)

Sounds like if you spend too much time at Penn Station it feels as though you're paying The Punishment Due.

oh, my waking up dead wouldn't happen until ronkonkoma. (aka a $60 cab ride home.)

Matt (#26)

You need to employ all Five Magics in order to get your train to arrive on time at Penn Station.

Matt (#26)

Sometimes when I'm waiting for my train at Penn Station I just want to Set The World Afire.

You're featured "above the fold" right now!

I agree. It's functional and horrible. Riding the train as a teenager was a confusing, frightening experience, what a modern city should be. Plenty of other towns in the U.S. have pretty, useless relics, and they mean nothing.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Good point. That link reminds me of Union Station in Worcester. Gorgeous place! Gorgeous enough, in fact, to host local proms. Which it does! I defy you to even imagine a prom at Penn Station. It'd be like something out of The Warriors.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

but… but there are restaurants! a science museum! a gift shop with dinosaurs! and a post office!


Art Yucko (#1,321)

Segway Tours!!!11

HonoriaGlossop (#1,247)

This reminded me of "Typing on trains," the recent (and, as always, delightful) AL Kennedy piece for the Guardian:

"You may be aware that many US rail stations are grand expressions of generous respect to their users, full of stately perpendiculars, handy benches and lots of gold leaf – high-ceilinged temples to mass transit and the communal hopes of a bygone age. Penn Station is there for balance: to remind you that this Depression will not produce a New Deal, and that many members of the general public are surplus to requirements; and to hint that your train will travel at the speed of lazy treacle on a cold day, will shudder along rails that even Railtrack would call poorly-maintained, and will give priority to freight, cars, pedestrians and any animal above the size of a healthy adult woodchuck."

LondonLee (#922)

My "favourite" part about Penn is where they don't announce what platform the train is leaving from until the very last minute so there's a mad crush of people trying to get down those tiny escalators all at once.

Leon (#6,596)

There is a super-secret trick to NJ transit i will only share with my Awl friends.

You know how the NJ transit area is a lower valley between two mountains? There is the wide, spacious, quiet mountain – don't go there. In the crowded, ticket window mountain, walk towards the back – The Track 1 side. There is a glass door to go into an office where the lost & found is.

If you walk into the lost & found, there is a glass window. Behind that, is a worker who will ask what you want. Make something up, say you lost it. For behind him/her, there is a computer, easily visible, which lists the tracks on which all of the trains will depart for the next 30-45 minutes. They will not find your "lost" item, and you will know exactly what track to wait by.

metoometoo (#230)

WHAT!!!??? This sounds even better than my method, which is based on a combination of intuition, strategic placement, a preemptive runners' stance, and sideways speed walking.

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

I would not recommend actually requiring the lost & found for retrieval, though. I lose something every time I travel through there. I suppose I can consider it a sacrifice to whatever paranormal creature is summoned by that teeming mass of what can loosely be termed humanity.

The only thing I've ever recovered was the time I lost a poster presentation (in a cardboard tube with my name & number on the outside) on the way to a conference in Philadelphia. Literally two months later, I get a call from them: "Mary Cooter," (definitively NOT my name!) "we have your blueprints."

Once the track is announced, avoid the funnel by descending the middle stairway to mezzanine level and choosing from a buffet of staircase options down to track level. You totally beat the system in a non-cheaty way. You've, in fact, lessened the crowding for others. You are a good person!

LondonLee (#922)

This has been a very, very useful morning.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

re: tips – the bathroom on the 2nd floor of the Borders upstairs is much cleaner.

6h057 (#1,914)

The real circus at Penn Station isn't the rat race to the suburbs but the club purge on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Holy Decline of Western Civilization, Batman!

Very true. That period between about 3:15 and 4:45 when there are no eastbound trains being the, uh, "high point."

Matt (#26)

Anybody got a read on whether or not the T.G.I.FRiDAY'S at Penn Station hates the troops or not? Can someone get back to me on that thanks.

DandyKoufax (#6,590)

Whenever I was wandering Penn Station, I always thought: "How could be that this ad hoc sanatorium is not, in fact, owned and managed by the Port Authority?"

Matt (#26)


Art Yucko (#1,321)

I can feel the spittle through the filed teeth hitting me from here.

Art Yucko (#1,321)

(it's all those white tiles.)

What I want to know is, will the moat at the post office finally be put to good use, ie keeping the hoardes at bay?

zidaane (#373)

Huh, I have a codpeice made of narwhal tusk and lined with baby eagle feathers.

hockeymom (#143)

"Mean salmon in puffy coats."


brent_cox (#40)

The only thing that rivals the excellence of the piece is the enthusiasm of the response.

metoometoo (#230)

Yes! I've been chatting about it with everyone this week!

grammar (#2,400)

I really enjoyed reading this, but the argument is fueled by the same retrograde romanticism that brought back trucker hats. Sorry.

David (#192)

I can't wait until next summer: "The Long Island Rail Road concourse is a dungeon-land of troll people and Irish workers in plaster dust and union T-shirts. In the summers, they are joined incongruously by chatty gays on the Montauk line. Together, passengers lurk in the dark, folded pizza in one hand, lunch mini-cooler in the other."

tracybluth (#1,973)

I say this with love: it was great fun to read the piece, but I didn't really follow the structure. Please don't throw your turkey at me.

metoometoo (#230)

Structure is so pedestrian.

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