Let me start with second and third cities and back in from there. Utica has a grand structure of marble and limestone locked in a rather disturbing section of town. A patchwork of weed filled empty lots and abandoned houses that looks more like “a place to dump bodies” as the taxi driver told me than a fitting location for a temple built to transit. But there it is. A station so grand they moved a river for it. Yes… a river. Poughkeepsie, only slightly less crack headed than Newburgh, no Flakka there… Yet… This station has a grand ceiling, ramps, even a parking garage built to blend into the original structure. Even it this grand little building is set under a noisy highway. It is built to appear as an 11th-century Italian church. What a great way to travel from temple to temple.
Tampa, and there is nothing good about Tampa, has a station of some genteel design and while no longer a central hub, it is organized and spacious painstakingly restored by a non-profit preservation society to allow the Silver Star to come in to a proper station rather than an Amshack. If again the rail becomes an option or the downtown thrives, the space may come alive again but this time with trendy restaurants and bars.
Speaking of bars, the grand Richmond station huddles close next to a spidery freeway exchange, inches from having been demolished at the hands of some GM stool pigeon or fascist lackey armed with racism, a Yale Degree, and an Urban Renewal plan. The station has a fantastic bar and for the right price you can rent the entire spot for an event.
Tucson has a grand station with a fine bar and Dave will mix up anything to rival those mixologist creations back in Old New York. Chicago has a Union Station as does Washington D.C and even Boston has two workable stations of great note the venerable South Station a healthy hub of commerce and traffic and simple to get from there to anywhere else in that fare city – excepting North Station… that place is a POS. Let us not forget that Los Angeles (L.A.) has a Union Stationof vaulted ceilings and serious motifs. There yet exists some romantic settings to see a loved one off or to welcome one to a new city in this Great Nation. While diminished from the Golden Age, rail travel can still be rewarding.
Gotham boasts many a grand institution and sheer mountains of limestone and granite were moved and piled up, shaped like temples of Egypt, Central America, or ancient Greece, faces, flora, fauna, grotesque and angelic topped with chrome and radio antennas, blimp docking stations and beacons of light, flags and flames. Grand Central Terminal is in the center of this universe. It rises up now dwarfed by taller edifices and yet it holds its own against the modern city, outlasting the Pan Am building and so many other corporations of the Jet Set Age. Its famed concourse welcomes and connects millions of commuters for two out of the three tri-states. Renewed and restored, the passages are lined with shops offering fresh bread, pastries, fine dinning as well as the storied halls and the classy drinkery in the old station master’s chambers. Of all the stations this is indeed the iconic one that lovers meet.
Then there is Penn Toilet. One does not so much enter Penn Toilet as to become trapped there. Just swirling about not going down no matter how much you jiggle the handle. A series of mazes and corridors, passages and stair cases that lead nowhere – or to places angels fear to tread. The entire complex is A Cold War social experiment dreamed up by Oppenheimer, B. F. Skinner, or John Nash in some cocaine fueled orgy of hatred for neuro-typical people. The designers wanted to see if they could break the will of Man or wanted to create a living breathing machine, an object lesson as to how rail travel leads inexorably down the pathway to communism (many people actually believe train travel is somehow creates communists… I am sure the railroad barons were secretly communists).
At any hour and every hour there is a floor show. People on the floor, kids in from Joyzy left over from a club night, drunken construction workers who missed the last train to Mineola or points east in Lawn Guy Land, and then the homeless and wrenched of the earth. There’s screaming Joe, pacing the halls all tattered and rags, Floorman Micky who lays down and has carnal relations with the floor at all hours and in front of all ages, Ruthie (just don’t go near her cart or she’ll freak out), and Praying Lou who mutters and speaks and perhaps is talking to God or you or is God talking to you. If you’re a frequent visitor to Penn Toilet you know these people. They become landmarks as the other fixtures of the station.
The station is a complex of dimly lit passages, perhaps some I have yet to see. There are shops too. Strange and meaningless stores from the high end Tie Rack that sells Burberry ties and has an ascot collection to lowly article warehouses of insidious conception and horrific stock. There are but a few eateries. A hidden bar by the Vanderbilt Passage offers raw oysters, an inexplicable sushi spot called Penn Sushi, the delicate taste of raw fish made all the better by the yummy diliciousness of the thick toilet aroma of the station, and the Caboose bar provides “outside” seating – go to TGIF only if you require sugar with your alcohol as you are not satisfied with typical insulin spikes associated with drinking and long-term chromosome damage. Several low-end delis offer travelers and commuters and hockey fans and the lost of society junk food, sandwiches and all manner of tall boys – but don’t dare open one before boarding the train or cops will drop out of the ceiling tiles and write you an expensive summons.
It is a strange hub for a city as grand and pretentious and supposedly sophisticated as Gotham. There are me reminds of the old station. Hand rails of brass. Some passages have iron work of an older date. Some floors are still stone, traces of marble, and here and there bronze plaques were reinstalled as reminders to those workers who gave life and all for country and glory.
At some point in the early 1990s some renovations were made and post modern references were pasted to some walls in a semi-ironic attempt to lend some histrionic details to the rat mazes and hallways of various odors and percentages of humidity. There is no improving this structure than to demolish it and start again. For decades that has been under consideration, but currently there is no movement. No one seems to be packing their boxes quite yet and may not in the lifetime of yours, or mine.
It is then sad that we must continue to use Penn Toilet for so much of our travel. It is a reminder that the Urban Renewal of the past did not work, ironic 90s improvements just put lipstick on the pig, and we must look further into the past for inspiration and design help if we are to build a new American City for the future. In the meantime, I will stand on line, try not to make eye contact as Floorman Micky hump away, and attempt to get a signal on my phone as I… are those asbestos tiles up over my head?