remnants: on grand central terminal.

this is no time to get cute.

remnants: on grand central terminal.
Photo by Robert Bye / Unsplash

hi. this is remnants, the off-week version of jukeboxgraduate, in which I pull out old half-finished pieces & cast them into the universe to see if they float. I am literally pulling these things out of old dusty notepad or google drive files and they may not be linear or have endings or logic and they may very well have typos and need editing and i am not going to promote them (but you are free to if they move you in any way). these versions will always come in with remnants at the top so you can filter them out of your mailbox if you are uninterested in receiving them. thank you for your support!

For this week's newsletter, a piece I could never quite land about Grand Central Terminal. If you are not from New York City this will probably not be of that much interest, but then again the last one probably wasn't either! Sorry.

from february 2013

Sometimes--no, always--I can't believe we still have Grand Central Terminal, that this absolute palace of a building wasn't destroyed or taken over by a bank or a hotel, that it not only still exists but still exists for its original purpose. Even when I commuted through there every day during one of the lowest parts of my life, I was always entranced, at least for a few seconds, as I walked through it. I have never been so jaded that I could not see it, like the Twin Towers or the Empire State Building, the things that are there every day and you take for granted, the things that the rubes from out of town come to see, standing in the middle of the sidewalk gaping up at them.

No matter how bad things might have been, Grand Central could make me feel different, could take me out of myself for a few fleeting moments. I was always wearing an impeccably tailored A-line skirted suit with a short jacket, carrying a hat box, walking calmly and with perfect posture. Or I was Nora Charles' younger sister (from the Nick and Nora movies, which my mom got me hooked on), accompanying her on the overnight train to Chicago.

I remain amazed that the city never fucked it up and let it become Penn Station. Even with retaining the shell of the building, they could have let it become an urban strip mall, full of plastic signage and Subway sandwich bread smells. Even in its darkest days in the 70's and the 80's, it was always better than that. I remember my mother every time I walk through Grand Central these days, the years of coming into the city from Connecticut, the years when it was dirty and grimy like the rest of the city. We would emerge from the track into the main concourse, racing to see what photos were in the gigantic Kodak Colorama display on the east side of the terminal, where the Apple Store is now. We always met friends and relatives or my father "under the clock," which didn't mean the clock on the information booth, but the huge "Big Ben" clock face between the two main columns on the south side of the main concourse. (Even someone who had never been to Grand Central before could figure out what "underneath the clock" meant.)

Grand Central was the starting point for my initiation into the secrets of surviving New York. We would never use the Ladies room in Grand Central; we would always take the escalators up into what was then the PanAm building, cutting through the building to Park Avenue, and then walking up Park to the Waldorf-Astoria. I was sure we would get stopped or get in trouble but Mom always walked through the lobby like she belonged there. (But my mother was like that.) This is when I learned: there is a bathroom in the lobby of every hotel and if you walk in like you own the place, no one will say anything. The shortcut through the Pan Am building will save you 5 blocks. 20 blocks equals a mile. I learned how to tell the difference between the New Jersey horizon and the Long Island one to orient myself east or west, coming out of the subway; or barring that, spotting the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building, getting my bearings that way. (Even with iPhone in hand now, I still force myself to get my initial bearings the old-fashioned way.) My parents taught me the survival skills, how the city was laid out, how to ride the subway and not look like a mark, how to walk down the street and look like I belonged there, how to walk, period. The art of moving through a crowded sidewalk, being aware of what is behind you, to your left, to your right, in front of you, in front of you a few paces. There were six of us, and you better believe we would never even think to mall walk down Fifth Avenue at Christmas, down Rivington Street on a Sunday, or down 34th Street on our way to the circus at Madison Square Garden. We were all incredibly fast walkers, even at very young ages, because my Brooklyn-born father was a fast walker. He walked and expected that we would keep up. To this day, I walk fast, even when I'm sick, navigate my way through a crowded sidewalk, taking to the curb if I have to. At the corner, I am always at the curb, in the street if I can, because it will bother me if I cannot get at least as far as the car line. The walk/don't walk signs are suggestions.

Before Grand Central opened up the northern passageway, which will take you out to Madison and 47th, intrepid commuters would sneak out the back way, climb access staircases, claiming their own unofficial shortcuts. And the best shortcut for me was that magic of cutting through the PanAm building and out to Park Avenue, which always made me feel like an insider with a secret key to the city. I would walk up to 57th Street and cut over to Central Park and concerts at the Wollman Rink, I would walk over to Lexington Avenue and up to Korvette's for cheap records. The secrets, the tricks, the unwritten rules, knowing them made me feel like I could manage this city. So of course I started sneaking in and finding my way around as soon as I could, venturing beyond the places my parents had taken me, studying the maps of the East Village and working out the subway routes in my head. If I could master uptown, I could master downtown (except for the West Village and those wagon wheel spoke angles; I still get turned around to this day over there). I know I went places I shouldn't have gone to and took chances I didn't deserve to get away with. I was brave and stupid and lucky and fearless, or rather terrified but refused to show it, which is sometimes more than enough to get by.

The bane of my existence was the last train out of GCT on a weekend, 1:52 a.m., which sometimes meant I was sitting on the terminal floor with a book, waiting for the train (because the waiting rooms were either not open or were creep central) or running across the main concourse like an Olympic sprinter, either coming out of the subway or fleeing out of a cab I couldn't afford, terrified I would miss the last train and have to sit in a diner all night with whomever I could convince to sit with me, lying to my parents and telling them that no, I didn't miss the train, I was just staying overnight at Rachel's or Suzanne's or Andrea's, yes, I was fine. Then there was the memorable faceplant as I ran to track 26 at 1:51 a.m., tripping over an invisible obstacle or a shoelace, sure that I not only had just humiliated myself in front of whoever was watching, but I had missed the train home as well. I looked up from my collapse to see the conductor at the track gate opening, waving at me, yelling, "Hurry up, we can't wait forever." (Mr. Conductor, I still owe you one for that.)

I will always think of my mother as I walk through Grand Central, whether I was thinking of her before I came out of the subway or in from the street, she is there, walking next to me or waiting for me under the clock or coming towards me with coffee and a bag from Zaro's. I whisper to her under my breath, nothing of monumental importance, mostly "hi" and "i remember" and "i won't forget." Someone dies and you get to miss them forever, and all the tourists and the Apple Store and whatever else they do to the place will not ever change any of that.