A pair of bold writers has taken it upon themselves to defend the indefensible in today’s NY Times Op-Ed. No, they’re not defending Duane Reade stores, or the musical ouevre of Wham! But close. They’re defending Penn Station in their clever essay “Miracle on 33rd Street.”
One hundred years ago, Penn Station was open for business. The NYT wrote up the historic event. What marvels the original Penn Station offered, write Tom Scocca and Choire Sicha with tongues planted in cheeks.
The interior? Apparently, actual stars, pulled from the heavens and set in crystal sockets, once twinkled in the unimaginable heights of the ceiling of its great hall; the seats below were made of polished chestnut wood and narwhal tusk. Their cushions? Stuffed with the down of baby eagles. Temple maidens with degrees in comparative literature would ring silver bells to inform each passenger that his train was ready for boarding.
Of course, that was torn down to make way for the grotesque commuter factory a block to the east.
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.
“Through it one entered the city like a god … one scuttles in now like a rat,” the architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote, in the most quoted aphorism about why it is our duty to adulate Old Penn Station and despise the current one.
Yet the Penn Station we all know and loathe is a fair representation of our beloved city–and country, postulate the writer pair.
The glory of Penn Station, then, is that it is composed of these self-involved city-states. Grand Central is a monoculture, all Mad Men in trench coats who are too snooty to live in Journal Square (Jersey City, dear, no) or the Five Towns (Queens-adjacent? Never.) but too exhausted for the city.
But here? Here we have the shiny floors of Amtrak, its waiting room as psychically comfy as any Midwestern hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit. The cheaper wonks from Washington and the lesser bankers from Boston wait here alongside real Americans (those are the ones with luggage).
Up at the other end, in the beige waiting area of New Jersey Transit, Frank’s Big and Tall clients from Ho-Ho-Kus stumble up and down little stairways and past the cheery yet ultimately funereal glassed-in public art installation showing New Jersey’s transportation history.
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.
Between these insane kingdoms, Rangers fans and ageless metalheads come inbound to the Garden. Mets, Jets and Giants fans stream outbound.