All aboard

I like taking trains to get places. I like the train ride in general -- sometimes a few hours of hopefully quiet sitting-still time is just what I need -- and I also vastly prefer it to all of the other available options for travel (car, bus, and most of all plane). I will not be visiting an airport this holiday season, thank heaven, but part of me wonders whether the TSA's new screening procedures are a government plot to drum up public support for high-speed rail. If so, please count me in.

I live in Manhattan, which means, when I take a train anywhere else, I have to start out from either the lovely Grand Central or the dingy and depressing Penn Station. Each time I set out with my rolling suitcase, I have to stop and recall which station I'm bound for, and when I realize it's not Grand Central my heart sinks a bit. Grand Central is not as easy for me to get to, but I simply hate going to Penn Station. It's dark, dirty, crowded, confusing. Whenever I'm there I can only think about getting out. And even that can be uniquely difficult, because of the way the express and local subways are split onto separate platforms there. (New Yorkers, can I get an amen?) A few weeks ago I took the train home from Boston, and the last leg of my trip -- which involved waiting far too long for the erratic C train on a narrow platform filled with sports fans coming from Madison Square Garden -- felt at least as long as the four-hour ride that preceded it.

It was not ever thus, of course. My office wall is decorated with an old-timey photo of the original Penn Station, reputed to have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. The closest I've ever gotten to really seeing it in all its three-dimensional glory is the studio-stage replica in Vincente Minelli's wartime romance The Clock. If you are among those nostalgic for "the old Penn Station" -- whether or not you ever saw it for yourself -- or if you want to feel good about not having to visit the present incarnation, check out Choire Sicha and Tom Scocca's wonderful essay in today's New York Times, Miracle on 33rd Street. It's a tongue-in-cheek paean to the current (and soon-to-be-former) Penn Station. I most appreciated this paragraph, which exactly captures my impression of the New York landmark I so hate to visit:

Because everyone agrees that Penn Station is a failure, nobody has ever tried to make it anything other than baffling to the outsider. That's the famous welcoming spirit of New York! The Long Island Rail Road has no interest in telling anyone how to get to New Jersey Transit, and vice versa. No one is in charge of knitting it all together, or no one bothers to. It's bad bureaucracy and bad faith, not bad design -- though at least our bureaucracies reflect our metro-area standoffishness.

The subway stations in NYC are designed with a similar "welcoming spirit": once you know where you're going, you can get there, but if you don't know, God help you, because the signs probably won't. I will admit that the signs and information systems are getting better -- which is good, because the weekend construction-related changes seem to be getting worse. But enough complaining. As Sicha and Scocca point out, the best thing about Penn Station is that it has many exits, and if you can find one you'll be standing in the middle of New York City, very likely with a splendid view of the Empire State Building or ready-for-Christmas Macy's, or perhaps the Post Office building (soon to house the new Penn Station). It's enough to make you forget just how you got there.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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