The International Writers Magazine
:New York

Penn Station
Ari Kaufman

Why would it be worthwhile to spend multiple hours at a train station in New York City?

Picture it: You are relaxing on the Long Island Railroad train - really a pseudo-Amtrak mode of transportation – sipping the Poland Spring water you purchased at the station where you boarded about half-an-hour ago, reading the New York Daily News, and then, all of sudden the bright sunshine that had been piercing through your window (enabling you to read) turns pitch black. Are you scared? No, not in the least; you are excited, for you realize from experience that as soon as you pass the modern, out of place Citibank Tower in West Queens, within ten seconds, you’ll go under the tunnel, beneath the depths of the sordid East River, and eventually into Manhattan, the most famous borough of New York City. As the last three minutes seem to take forever before you can de-train and step onto the musky platform, you ponder how it is that the architects of New York City were able to construct multiple amphibious tunnels over a century ago, when Los Angeles still can’t deduce how to build a public transportation line between downtown and the coast. Nevertheless, you shake your head, listen to the cacophonous muffle of the engineer’s voice, knowing full well that you have arrived at venerable Pennsylvania Station, on the lower west side of Manhattan. The train ride has ended but your day has just begun.

Where should you go? Madison Square Garden? Times Square? How about the Empire State Building, Central park or Macy’s? Nope, none of that for you. You just paid your off-peak $13.50 round trip to spend three hours inside, underground at Penn Station. But why? Well, if you haven’t done it, thought about it, or have never been to Penn Station, let’s take you on the proper three hour tour. It’s not going to last as long as Gilligan’s version, but it may prove more memorable and eye-opening.

As soon as you exit the train, no matter what rusty staircase you ascend, you’ll be in the heart of the Long Island Railroad portion of the grandiose station. More often than not, your arrival will be perked up by a guitarist, classical jazz, and if not that, then some panhandlers or interesting looking folks. Do not let this deter you, as the intrigue and hullabaloo are just around any corner.
Food, books, clothing, even K-Mart are all at your footsteps.

While you initial instinct may be to hop the escalators or stairs and head out into what many call "the greatest city in the world," it’s cold, damp and miserable outside, so you wisely eschew the elements for the warmth and endless charm of Penn Station. You have always fancied yourself a "off the beaten path" kind of fellow, but you have nothing in your portfolio to display evidence to back this claim. This is your opportunity, and what a story it will make.

Enchanted by the olfactory emanations of the surprisingly extensive food court, you meander your way through the gruff and graceless bodies of businessmen and tourists until you reach your chosen destination. The prices are moderate, the service personnel clearly lacking any semblance of congeniality, but still you press on, order up your Dunkin Donuts, New York Pizza or whatever your eager palate desires. Since the tables are usually full, a seat on the floor beckons, and as you sip your Snapple (a Seinfeld-induced New York favorite), it is now incumbent upon your mind to make the most of this opportunity, seldom seen nor realized by most of the populace.

Although there are abundant off peak (i.e. cheaper) trains heading back toward your point of origin, you decide to wait the extra two hours to be "one with the people" and partake in one of the many rush hour train departures. It’s mid-afternoon, and Penn Station is only moderately filled now, so your intrepidness is the prudent decision in your capricious mind. As you go up to the massive counter to pay the extra fee for your slight change in plans, you can’t help but gawk at the size of that antiquated looking schedule board above your head. The board is like the LIRR’s version of the hand-operated scoreboard at Fenway Park. It’s classic, and so retro you could sell it in a trendy clothing store down in The Village.

The big board seems to have every town on Long Island listed, and then some. As a slut for geography and schedules, you ponder what G-d put together all of these times and locales; he is the man to which you bow five times daily. Forget Mecca. Then you look to your right and see dozens of people staring at another, slightly smaller board, with listing of soon-to-depart trains. This is where it gets fun.
I have always surmised that one of the ten rituals each person should participate in before they die is to watch the schedule board at the Penn Station for five or ten minutes, and then see people get set to take off when the numbers start flipping, and then of course, actually take off as the tracks are decided upon. It could be 2pm or 2am and you still will see a "running of the bulls in Pamplona-esque" mad-dash to each train. I’ve been involved in this ritual and you’ve seen it on Seinfeld. But more on that later; you’ve got a ticket to exchange over in the middle.

The convenient things about the grandiose middle board is that it lists all the cities that the LIRR "platforms" in, from Woodside to Montauk Point (more than 100 miles out on the tip of the Island). So, if you’re not sure if you need to ride the Babylon line or the Northport line, as long as you know your point of destination, you’ll surely locate the train to meet your needs.

The lines are failry short since it is pre-rush hour, and more so since there are about two dozen employees manning the booths. You tell the man on the opposite side of the glass that you'd like to "upgrade" to a peak-time ticket. Your money is in hand, but he says, in a quasi-incoherent New York accent, "pay for it on train." You walk away, satisfied with his response, but wondering what all those operators are there for if such is the case, and since 99% of people buy their tickets in quicker fashion at the automated kiosks right in the station, anyway. Oh well, not your problem in the least.

As you day progresses, you nibble on other snacks, read the seven local New York papers, listen attentively as the PA announcer rattles off the cities for each distinct train line: "Stopping at Woodside, Bayisde, Kew Gardens, Forest Hills, Jamaica, Rockville Centre, Baldwin, Lindenhurst, Merrick, Bellmore, Massapequa, Massapequa Park, Copiague, Amityville, Wantagh and Babylon. Change at Jamaica for the train to Brooklyn and West Hempstead. Only the first four cars platform at Woodside, Bayside, Kew Gardens and Forest Hills..." You gotta love that! You also wonder if that is a tape of that guy's confident, veteran voice. Maybe he does radio for the Knicks, who happen to be playing that evening, right above you in "The World's Most Famous Arena."

After touring the Amtrak pavilion area, the NYC subway tunnels way in the depths of the building with their turn styles and people moving even faster than the people at the train station, you are content to find a couch, a potato knish or some hot nuts, and read the book you just purchased at the bookstore. But there are no couches, so you conveniently locate your floor spot which eagerly awaits reconnecting with you.

About ten pages into the David Brooks novel, you nod off to the melancholy - and now familiar - sounds of Penn Station. You are finally awakened by the announcer's voice, not to mention the fact that it's 4:45pm and the station is about 20 times more crowded that before. People look at you like you are a homeless man with your coffee, trash wrapper and drool hanging gingerly from your salty lips. You decide that you might as well catch your train.

The big board says that your train to Rockville Centre is at 5:06pm. Thus, you saunter through the masses to the infamous medium-sized board to look for the track from which your train leaves. You do not see "Rockville Centre." It is now you realize they list the trains by the terminating point, so you turn right and eye the kiosk with the multiple, multi-colored train schedule maps. Thankfully, your geography skills are strong and you deduce that "RVC" is on the train line to Babylon (or Freeport?) and thus that is your train to board. The lights of the board that everyone else is eyeing begin flashing, and the letters and numbers are flipping like some old-fashioned pinball machine on acid. The track is announced for the train to Douglaston and half the people run as though they are searching for the last crumb of cake along the Ivory Coast of Western Africa.

Now, your train is next. You look around at the hundreds of others, silently surmising they are headed for the same train. You figure out where the tracks are, from 15-20, in order. Then, in about two minutes (roughly 11 minutes before your train departs), the numbers start flipping again and everyone's attention turns toward the board. You feel like you are filming a movie, but this is the comeliness of New York life.

Track 16! You locate that number but it is too late as the seasoned droves of quick-moving folks have nearly knocked you over to get through the doors and down the broken escalators to the waiting train. As you come down the stairs, you are somewhat surprised to see that, despite the hundreds of rushing folks, the train is huge and there is ample seating since its origin is here in Manhattan.

You slow down. There is a beer man, ala the ones you see at sporting events, selling cans of Bud and Bud Light at less than ballpark prices. You purchase one and wonder if you need to drink it down before boarding. After concise deliberation, you realize this is New York, and so that won't be the case. That is the cherry on top of the whole appeal and allure of this memorable day for you.

You park your butt on a seat next to some odd-looking fellow and the conductor reassures you that this is the train to Rockville Centre. He begins rattling off the locales we will go through and you relax, crack open the cold one and reminisce of your "off the beaten path'" day. And what a story it should make.
© Ari Kaufman December 2005 (Politics) (Sports, Travel)
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