Other Matters: Grand Central Revisited

A friend traveling in New York tweets,

Waiting for a train in Grand Central, remembering when there were lovely benches in the ‘waiting room’.

It’s hard to believe that there is now standing room only for commuters and people watchers in Grand Central Station. But whether an observer is upright or seated, the magnificent old terminal is one of the world’s prime spots for studying members of the species, as noted in this Rifftides archive piece from three years ago.

June 19, 2009

At Grand Central Station, I plop into a chair in a semi-circle of what look like overstuffed maroon leather armchairs, a hard plop; the chair is molded plastic. One of New York’s great free shows is underway in the lower concourse, with a cast of thousands. It’s the evening commute to the northern suburbs. Many of the commuters are running. The picture here doesn’t do justice to the activity and energy of the place.

“Attention, please. The 5:36 express for Tarrytown, leaving on Track 6 in one minute.”

A young woman runs by in Dolce and Gabbana jeans. I can tell that they are Dolce and Gabbana because a shiny silver badge on the waist band announces the fact. Hey, if you’re going to wear 400-dollar pants, why keep it a secret? Her lower body is clad in high fashion and she looks great, but there’s discomfort in her expression. Those tight jeans were meant for striking poses, not running. If she could afford 400 bucks for pants, she could take a limo to Scarsdale. One in five people (ratio not scientifically confirmed) is on a cell phone. Many of them are running.

“I just called to tell you I can’t talk. I’m running for the train.”

“I missed the 5:10. I’ll be 20 minutes late. Pick me up. ‘Bye. Gotta run.”

An old woman in short grey hair, a boxy grey suit and mannish brown shoes walks by with a three-year-old boy by the hand. The boy’s other hand is in the hand of a girl of about six. Surrounded by the streaming crowd, the children look bewildered, fearful. The woman is forging ahead, determined and grim. Grandmother? Governess? Kidnapper?

A number of the young women are wearing shower shoes, as they used to be known. Later, they were called zoris. Now, the acceptable term is flip-flops. As the girls run, the footwear neither flips nor flops. The sound is flap, flap, flap, flap, flap. I wonder if they wore those things all day at work or shopping in Manhattan. Wouldn’t their feet get dirty? A drastically short woman in tight capri pants and four-inch heels speeds by. She has what my father used to call a hitch in her getalong, and her sound is clack, de-clack, clack, de-clack, echoing through the concourse.

Five people standing together at the top of the ramp in front of the Oyster Bar break into applause. I look for what inspired them. Nothing is evident, but they seem delighted. It probably wasn’t the extremely tall Hassidic gentleman strolling toward his track with dignity, a tall black hat and a briefcase the size of a small trunk. I wonder if he’s from the diamond district, carrying a load of samples to a wealthy client in Bronxville.

A sign of the times: I see elderly men in suits—more than a dozen in a few minutes—clutching briefcases, wearing their weariness on their faces, slumping toward their trains. Did they expect still to be working at their ages, still catching trains?

A young man slips into the big maroon chair next to mine. His afro is stuffed into an enormous knit cap puffed into the shape of turban. His gold ear ring is fashioned to look like a small horseshoe. He eats a half-pint of yogurt or cottage cheese, then promptly falls asleep. His head slowly leans until it is parallel to his right shoulder. The clack de-clacking, flap-flapping, departure announcements and general hubbub do not interrupt his nap. As I leave, I hope he doesn’t miss his train.

The woman to my left gets up at the same moment I do. I say to her, “It was a great show, wasn’t it?” She looks startled, then laughs and says, “Yeah…if that’s what you want to call it.”

I do.

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