Grand Central vs. Penn Station

As Grand Central Terminal celebrates its 100th birthday this year, its magnificence is more meaningful when measured against its cross-town competitor, Penn Station.

As someone who has at one time commuted daily for a span of two years in and out of each station, I’m in a good position to compare the two. The New York Times said it well from the architectural side in February 2012. “To pass through Grand Central Terminal, one of New York’s exalted public spaces, is an ennobling experience, a gift. To commute via the bowels of Penn Station, just a few blocks away, is a humiliation.”

I never appreciated Grand Central until a two-year purgatory in Penn Station reminded me that you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry. New York is a different city viewed through the grandeur of Grand Central.

The two stations carry commuters to the contrasts of the New York metro area. From Grand Central, Metro North serves Connecticut, Westchester County, and the Hudson Valley; from Penn Station, New Jersey Transit and the Long Island Rail Road serve their respective suburbs. 

I grew up in Mount Kisco, a stop on the Harlem Line 36.5 miles north from Grand Central according to the old sign affixed to the ticket office across from the platform. To this day when people ask where I am from I tell them Mount Kisco, a little town about 35 miles north of the City. These days I live in Brooklyn; I take the train back to Mount Kisco once a month or so to visit my country home (otherwise known as my parent’s place).

Grand Central, as a figure of speech, indicates a place of great comings and goings (at least to this New Yorker) like the hallways of a high school at the bell, a hospital emergency room, or a busy office reception area.

Penn Station doesn’t stand for much of anything, so I propose a coinage. For stranded travelers, the captives at an airport subjected to never-ending flight delays, that place is like Penn Station.

Grand Central is one of the grandest public buildings in the United States; Penn Station is one step above a subway station.

Grand Central, The Oyster Bar; Penn Station, TGI Fridays.

The two stations are also defined by the company they keep. Grand Central sits in the heart of Midtown, white shoe law firms and posh private clubs speckle the surrounding blocks. Have a drink at the Yale Club or hop a train to Yale.

Penn Station’s home in the mid-thirties is a no-man’s land of the Lincoln Tunnel, the Port Authority Bus Station, and a massive mail sorting facility. 

At Grand Central trains are ready for boarding precisely 20 minutes before departure. At Penn Station, the lack of track space forces passengers to stand around the departure board in the main concourse waiting for a track to be announced, often three minutes before the train is scheduled to leave. A mad dash ensues.

Nothing defines life in the rat race like the presence of alternatives offering a way out. The departure board at Penn Station is a catalog of escape routes courtesy of Amtrak with enchanting names like the Lakeshore Limited to Chicago (Amtrak’s gateway to the west), the Crescent to New Orleans, and the Palmetto to Miami. You, however, are going to West Babylon…just as soon as your track is announced.

At Grand Central, everyone is united in the same purpose, commuting in and out of the suburbs. 

Penn Station transports passengers through the industrial expanses of the Northeast, barren swampland segues to factories and refineries. Halfway houses on a smoke break out back; billboards remind the reader of the penalty for buying a gun for those who can’t. The train stops at newfangled neighborhoods like Metropark that don’t designate an actual city, but a place to park your car between a budding of office buildings that would make a good location for a satellite office of Dundler Mifflin.

In comparison, Metro North on the Harlem Line is like a stroll through the woods. The Hudson Line hugs the river heading north.

Metro north trains operate with Swiss efficiency. They are rarely late. NJ Transit and LIRR are on island time. Of the 20 lines in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system, the route I took, the Northeast corridor ranked dead last in a New York Times survey of on-time performance. My train to New Brunswick was once delayed every day for a month, so I adjusted my time back ten minutes. Then one day it came on time and I missed it. 

In the intervening 100 years since Grand Central’s inception, design theories on the most efficient patterns of people movement have come and gone, but one simple solution endures. Make the space big enough.

An example. The ramps leading to the train platforms at Grand Central are wide enough for an elephant to waddle down, sideways. Thousands of people can use the ramp at once, the lack of stairs ensures a fluid pace.

At Penn Station you descend to the tracks on narrow stairwells or escalators. On a bad day an entire train uses one exit, funneling passengers when they’re supposed to be dispersed. 

Often both an incoming and outgoing train will share the same platform and stairwell. Commuting through this chaos makes you want to take that Palmetto to Miami.

I once tried to remedy the situation and ended up in court.

Rush hour. The train pulled into Penn and a charge of people got off. Our herd was forced to walk to the other end of the platform to shuffle up a single stairwell. Meanwhile, an escalator spit stairs at our feet, headed down in defiance when we wanted to go up.

The escalators have emergency stop buttons at waist level. I mashed the little red button to kill it, and lead the charge out of the dungeon to the daylight. 

This is standard operating procedure at Penn Station; it happens every day. This time though, an Amtrak employee stationed at the top screeched after me like I had just snatched her purse. A cop stopped me and issued me a ticket for disorderly conduct with a court appearance in two months.

My court date was a cold January morning. I waited in line outside the court building in Midtown with a group of guys who were mostly cabdrivers. Upon entering, I took my seat in the courtroom to await my fate. My plan was to explain to the judge that while I received a ticket for disorderly conduct, I was actually making Penn Station more orderly.  A lawyer friend wisely advised me against this tactic. 

A court appointed lawyer spoke with me for a few minutes before I approached the judge.  He asked me what happened. After I explained the situation, he wanted to know if I was drunk at the time. Clearly he was not a Penn Station commuter.

I stood in front of the judge for less than 30 seconds; she never looked up at me. I received a stay-out-of-trouble-for-six-months dismissal, and left. I didn’t even pay a fine.

After that experience I never pressed the emergency stop switch again. I let other people do it for me (and let them go first).

Most landmark buildings are best admired as works of architecture rather than as experiences. The New York Public Library, two blocks down 42nd Street from Grand Central is a good example. I remember working in the Great Hall seated at a table beside a dictionary opened on a pedestal. I watched as a European tourist, hands clasped behind his back, stood over the dictionary and admired its definitions for a few minutes like it was an exhibit of early Etruscan artifacts.

100 years on, Grand Central is an experience in itself, people watching, eating, shopping, and the light show of stars twinkling on the ceiling high above.

Grand Central Market stocks all the specialties, from fresh caviar to chocolate covered Oreos. Hudson News has entire sections devoted to Italian, Spanish, French, and German magazines. (It carries Philadelphia Magazine, Boston Magazine, and the Washingtonian.  Although Penn Station trains depart daily for these cities, you can’t buy their namesake magazines.)

The Apple Store occupies the space at the top of one staircase overlooking the main hall; Cipriani Dolce with $39.95 entrees, the other. In a display of contemporary capitalism the world's most profitable company hawks planned obsolescence in aluminum canisters up the stairs, while at ground level arch rival Samsung heckles the competition with movie poster-sized advertisements strategically situated throughout the main hall.

The information booth at the center of everything is Grand Central’s most famous landmark. Though it’s where everybody meets, I think it’s overrated as an option. The information booth is the size of an old growth redwood, if hollowed out you could drive a car through it. Your friend could be waiting for you on one curve, you on another, and never the twain shall meet. 

The best place to meet in my opinion is the Ticketed Waiting Area. It’s the size of a storefront church, pew-like seats line the walls, and two oak benches sit back to back in the middle of the room. It was originally the women’s waiting room and over the last few years has reclaimed this distinction in spirit; the renovated bathrooms now serve women only. 

The information booth on this day is manned by a guy with dreadlocks who feeds directions to tourists to Times Square in a voice his microphone renders like a robot with emphysema. I have a 10-pass that I buy just before the recent fare increase. I ask information if I will need to pay the difference onboard. It’s a lightweight question.  I'm good to go. 

I hear two friends successfully making the meet. They greet each other. “How are you big boy?” “What did you do to your lip?”

Penn Station doesn't have people like Ben Rey. I have seen him in print a few times over the years, and have encountered him at Grand Central in as many instances. Sure enough, he is hanging by the information booth on my last visit.  I want a picture of the 100-year sign; he is standing right below it, so I get both. Believe-it-or-not, he lives in Greenwich.

I’m not the only one with a camera. A tourist is taking a picture of her friend whose arms are outstretched in a mid-flight jumping jack pose; the starscape ceiling provides the backdrop.  These two from Tokyo are here to take pictures, not trains. They have come to Grand Central as a destination in itself, not as a portal to another place. 

Grand Central is an experience. No ticket needed. At Penn Station, you wouldn’t think of visiting without one.


Love your stuff.
You got the gift, dude...
Write early, write often.

It's almost like these places are real.

Popular posts from this blog

The Farthermost Seas of the South Pacific

Almost Famous

Five Years After the Storm: A Celebration of the Crescent City