At twenty-seven, I have very few firsts left. My first sexual experiences, first drinks, first jobs, first trips, first loves, and first losses all happened so long ago that I barely remember them as mine; rather, they seem like dreams, or half-remembered movies, that happened to a character for whom I care dearly, but who is not, in fact, me. Indeed, I was thinking the other day that unless I win my first Mega Millions or have my first threesome, the only firsts coming my way are the imminent bad ones: First car accident, first cancer, first husband, first will and testament.
(Sidebar: I wonder if this is why we have become so obsessed with the (commoditization) of specialty foods and artisanal cocktails. Since we know the only things to actually look forward to are debt, nuclear warfare, and our ultimate demise, we’ve created fake firsts like “first absinthe cocktails in Brooklyn” and “first “Kosher-Italian Bahn Mi”. Have I mentioned that I hate checklists?!)
Today, though, I had a first: My First Time At Penn Station.
How is this possible? You’re wondering. Well, here’s the thing. One goes to Penn Station to get to Long Island and New Jersey, two places are are culturally barren and full of people who are constantly overdosing on cheap makeup and overpriced mixed drinks. As an independent woman in charge of not just my destiny but my destinations, I make it a point to avoid these wastelands.
In life, though, we must sometimes take the bad with the good. My dear compatriots and I decided that, as writers, it would be interesting and beneficial to attend the AWP Conference in Seattle (more on this later). We also decided, as writers and students, that the cheapest flight would be the best flight. Such decisions generally involve Newark and mass transit.
I schlepped my bags to the subway on 145th, noting happily the the snow had faded into a flurry, and the sun was eking out from behind the clouds. The train was pulling into the station as I was going through the turnstile, and I thought about how easy it is to travel.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” blared the conductor, “due to an NYPD investigation, all one, two, and three trains will be bypassing 34th Street in both directions. For service to Penn Station please take the A, C, E, N, Q, R, or W trains.” This was the point in the journey at which I retrospectively decided that we should have split a cab.
I hustled myself down Seventh Avenue from 42nd Street, through the bitter cold and throngs of idiots, lost in the mounds of black ice, in a haze of sheer mystification regarding why in the hell anyone would come all the way to New York to loiter on one of the filthiest and most commercialized cross-sections of any area in the world. Sbarro, Citibank, H&M, McDonalds, Victoria’s Secret, and seventeen camera stores. While I don’t generally like many things about having grown up in Hastings on Hudson, I do appreciate the fact that I was geographically destined to be a Metro North Hudson Line rider. If you have to live in the suburbs, there’s something magical about watching the gradual progression of the thickening urban landscape to the left, and the mighty flowing river to the right, with the stoic, tree-capped Palisades crowning the rock formation and dusting the bottom of the sky.
Stepping into the majestic hall of Grand Central Terminal is truly standing in the center of New York, not just the city but the idea of it. The vaulted ceilings decorated with the constellations suggest the infinite potential; the clock in the center represents the passing of time and the fact that the city never stops, even when you do. The striking architecture of the marbled floors and walls demands reverence, not just to the building itself but to the innate history.
Penn Station, in opposition, is resemblant of how I imagine purgatory to be. There are multiple entrances, three levels, and at least two main Amtrak boards. Then again, there may only be two levels. I’m not sure if the LIRR lines and the MJ transit/Amtrak lines both leave from Penn Station. Ordinarily, I’d be a little ashamed at not knowing basic information about the city in which I live, but, based on the “information” I received from the eponymous booth, I don’t know that anyone who works at Penn knows these answers, either.
Let’s be honest: A large percentage of people riding the Metro North are, if not downright rich, then not doing badly for themselves. These are trains servicing towns on the Hudson, and even if you have to take a livery cab a few minutes inland, real estate in a river town is higher than in other places. In layman’s terms, people at Penn Station are, well, laymen. And there’s something inherently dismal about a bunch of regular people in poorly fitting jeans staring expectantly up at a board to find out what time they can get back to Bayonne.
Then we have the store fronts. If you were from 1972, and got in a time machine headed to Pennsylvania Station in the year 2014, you would think the Delorian hadn’t reached 80 mph. Cartoonish lettering on signs, weird coffee chains I’ve never seen in my entire life, stores filled with sad tchotchkes. Fluorescent lighting reigns supreme, except for the bright neon signs on the fast food restaurants that were clearly brought in from the boardwalk at Seaside to make the commuters feel more at home.
What bothers me above anything, though, is that anachronistic wasteland is the backdrop for millions of individuals first New York moments. European tourists will fly into Newark, take the AirTrain (which, after we figured it out, is super easy and relatively inexpensive) and end up on 34th Street, the least New York part of the city. Of course, the city is largely about excess and extremes, but it’s also a metropolis founded on innovation and creativity. Penn Station is the antithesis of all that.
After seven text messages, two talking machines, and one grunting NJ Transit employee, the four of us gallivanted into the rickety metal car of the Newark Airport-bound train. We rattled through Secaucus and the other Penn Station (one can only imagine!), marshy landscapes hugging the rails as we cut through the cold to the airport. The skyline got smaller and smaller; we were no longer in New York.