This week, New York’s storied Grand Central Terminal turns 100 years-old. Having lived in upstate New York for several years, Grand Central was the point from which I launched almost all of my “big city” adventures.
My journey from Albany down to “the City” always began with an unremarkable car ride to Poughkeepsie. The Metro Rail-North starts at the Poughkeepsie Station. It’s a commuter line that runs through the valley, parallel to the Hudson River.
This leg of the excursion is anything, but unremarkable. The scenery is magnificent, especially in the fall when it looks as though the trees must surely be electrified in their deep autumnal colors. Along the way, riders pass West Point, positioned on shear gray cliffs. At the Peekskill stop, a few cadets in their civvies usually move on or off. During the rest of the two hour trip, a parade of coffee-holding, newspaper-reading commuters trundle on board. At each stop a conductor passes through the car, punching tickets of new passengers.
Just north of Cold Spring, riders catch a fast glimpse of Bannerman Castle, the crumbling ruins of a military surplus depot. Now just a burned-out hulk, the teetering brown façade hints at the glory that once was.
As we come into the city, we stop at 125th Street in Harlem. Many of the commuters disembark. A number of younger passengers, each one with iPhones and puffy coats, loudly enter the car and sprawl across the seats.
Just a few minutes later, the whole journey is transformed as the train goes underground around 97th Street. We continue in this vast subterranean cavern for another 50 blocks, slowing, moving through switches, nearing the great station.
It’s often called “Grand Central Station,” but railroad purists note that it is a “terminal” for trains (a place where they start and stop) as opposed to a “station” (a place through which trains pass). Most just call it “Grand Central.”
Grand Central is the perfect place to begin a Gotham trek. As the train rolls to a stop, commuters gather themselves in preparation to rush the doors. In seconds, the platform becomes a bustling hive of coffee cups and newspapers hitting the edge of trash cans. The air is filled with the clatter of rollerboard handles being extended and conversations increasing in volume.
The few steps from the platform to the Grand Central hallways is more like a birth than a footpath. The crush of 750,000 daily visitors is immediately apparent. Every conceivable configuration of humanity is present. You instantly hasten your pace, even if you have nowhere to be.
A few more steps and you emerge into the main concourse. Superlatives fail to capture the resplendent Beaux Arts grandeur of the enormous space. Massive staircases, marble floors and the expansive cerulean blue ceiling… the ceiling… so much could be said of it. Against the blue field, the constellations of the zodiac are painted in gold leaf — tiny lights twinkling throughout.
In the center is a brass information kiosk with its iconic clock reminding us of our train schedule. Tourists pose with it in the background, while others unfold maps and make headcounts of their party.
A level beneath there’s a food court. Two words: Junior’s cheesecake. Two more words: last meal. It’s that good. It somehow transcends cheesecake. It’s like a sweet buttery kiss from an angel.
As with most passages through the terminal, the food court is an exercise in logistics: where to eat; where to sit… is that homeless guy ever going to move from that table with three empty seats?
Then there’s the shopping. Some is haute couture. Some is pure kitsch. There’s Pylones, a store where plastic novelties meet high-concept European and Japanese design. Perhaps you’d rather buy weird socks. There’s a store for that — Little Miss Matched — a place where they sell socks in “pairs” of three — albeit three coordinating, but mismatched socks. Maybe you’ve always wanted a $1,200 fountain pen. There’s a store for that.
In short, Grand Central is as accurate a microcosm of New York City as you can find. It is stately, yet absurd. It’s chaotic, yet scheduled. It is where all humanity passes underneath the stars.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org