Just The Times
©1997 by Jay Braiman
". . . we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build, but by those we have destroyed."
- The New York Times, October 1963, on the demolition of Pennsylvania Station.
"Just the Times," the man in the long, beige trenchcoat said to the dark-skinned fellow behind the counter, adjusting the brown fedora that covered his thin, white hair. He reached into his pocket and found a pair of quarters, reaching over the broad assortment of periodicals and candy bars to drop them beside the cash register. "Here's four bits."
The younger man in the smart business suit who stood behind him cast a skeptical look. "`Four bits?'" he inquired quizzically, "Come on, dad, nobody talks like that anymore."
"So what?" the father said, "in my day, when I lived in this city, fifty cents was four bits." Picking up the day's edition of The New York Times, he glanced at the vendor and quipped, "The paper was two bits!" The vendor, not fully understanding, smiled good-naturedly in response as the younger man thrust his hands into the pockets of his brown woolen topcoat. "Come on, dad, let's go, it's cold out here."
"Boy, I can't wait to see the old place again," the old man said excitedly. "It's been fifty-five years, I can't believe it."
"How do you know it's still there after all this time?"
"Of course it's still there!" the man snapped. "It was built to last for centuries! I'll prove it to you." He turned once again to the vendor. "Say, buddy, where's Penn Station?"
"Penn Station?" the man replied in a thick, Middle-Eastern accent, turning and pointing to his left, "Is that way, Seventh Avenue."
"Thanks," the old man replied, starting down the Thirty-Third Street sidewalk with his son close behind him. "See? I told you it was still there."
The son checked his watch as the two men reached the corner at Lexington Avenue. "Is this going to take long?" he asked. "My meeting's at three o'clock."
"Don't worry, we've got plenty of time. I just want to get a look at it. And I really want you to see it. It's so beautiful. Did I ever tell you I met your mother there?"
"Yes, dad," he replied, only the slightest hint of resigned impatience in his voice; his father would likely tell the story again anyway.
"It was the first day of March in 1942, I was nineteen. I was waiting on the concourse, right in the middle of the room, right by Track Twelve. You could hear the rain pattering on that huge glass ceiling. God, that was something else. It was designed to look like the great steel-and-glass train sheds of Europe. There must have been close to a thousand panes of glass."
"Yeah. What a sight. I hope they've kept it clean. Anyway, I was waiting on the concourse for the train to Fort Dix, you know, I was drafted. I was leaning on one of those wrought-iron gates, when I see this girl standing over me. She says her name is Celia and asks where I'm going, so I said Fort Dix. Well, she's not going to Fort Dix but she's on the same train, so we get to talking. We took a walk into the main waiting room. . . Oh, I've never seen anything like it." The old man's voice took on a dreamlike quality as he recalled what he had seen, his eyes gazing reverently into the past. "It looked like a Roman palazzo. The ceiling must have been a hundred and fifty feet high, vaulted, with these big arched windows. All marble walls, marble columns, and a huge marble staircase, must have been about fifty feet wide. There were these gigantic clocks hanging from the entrances on either side; they were all over the station, on the concourse, too; and they had them on the outside, one on each side above the entrance."
"Wow," said the son, interested but not quite so enthusiastic. "It must be beautiful."
"I wonder what it looks like now."
"We'll see. Only two more blocks to go."
"Yeah. Anyway, Celia, your mother and I, we go up to the lunchroom for coffee, and talk some more. . . we almost missed our train! And we talked on the train, and she saw me off at Fort Dix. We wrote back and forth while I was in Europe, then we got married after I came back. I never even went back to New York." He looked around for a moment, taking in the sights of the worn urban streets and speeding yellow taxicabs, the modern-looking edifices with dirty delivery trucks double-parked alongside; the sounds of car horns and bus engines, the hustle and bustle of people passing by. "This city sure has changed," he remarked.
"That happens, dad," the younger man replied, "time marches on."
"Aww, what do you know about it?" the old man kidded, slapping his son lightly on the arm with the rolled-up newspaper. "I just wish your mother was still here. I think she would have loved to see Penn Station again."
"How come you two never came back?"
"I don't know. I guess we always meant to. She even suggested we get married at Penn Station, since that's where we met. But, you know, after the war, we lived with her family in Dayton for a while, and then you came along. . . I guess we just never got around to it."
The two men walked along the flank of the Hotel Pennsylvania; the elder gazed toward Seventh Avenue and expected to see the colonnade of Penn Station's Thirty-Third Street carriageway, but it wasn't there. Somewhat uneasily, he turned to his son and asked, "are you sure we're on the right street?"
The son looked to the corner and craned his neck to read the street sign. "That's what it says," he replied, "Thirty-Third and Seventh."
"But. . ." They stepped to the corner and stared across the avenue. What they saw was not a rakish Doric colonnade fashioned from pink Milford granite; there were no atticked hexastyle porticoes, with giant clocks flanked by sculpted figures representing day and night; no clerestory rising three stories above the roof. A banal, rectangular, glass-sided building some thirty stories high dominated the block; behind it, there appeared to be a shorter, circular structure.
The old man stood silently, wide-eyed, certain they were in the wrong place. Taxicabs whizzed by; seemingly dozens of them at once, some stopping before the nondescript, irregular structure in front of the office building, on top of which stood a huge, multicolored message board. Incredulous, the old man read aloud the words that surmounted the dizzying advertisements: "Madison Square Garden!!" He turned to his son, "Madison Square Garden? I thought that was up on Fiftieth Street! Tex Rickard's place, at Fiftieth and Eighth!" He looked up at the signs above the street corner and confirmed to himself that they were indeed at Thirty-Third and Seventh. The old man's heart sank as he slowly lowered his gaze to the pavement. "Oh, no," he lamented out loud, shaking his head, "they tore it down. My God, they tore it down. I can't believe it."
His son, sensing the old man's disappointment, reassuringly placed his hand on his shoulder. "Come on," he said, "let's go take a look."
The light changed and they crossed the street, turning to the left toward the center of the block. "Look!" the old man exclaimed, pointing toward the adjacent courtyard, where a carved stone eagle stood perched atop a concrete pedestal. "There's one of the eagles! There were a whole bunch of them, six above each entrance, and one on each corner of the building. Maybe it's not all gone after all."
At the center of the block, they gazed down the stairs and escalators that formed the Seventh Avenue entrance of the modern Pennsylvania Station; the old man took a step backward, an apprehensive look about his face. "No. . ." he said to his son, "I don't want to go down there. . ." The conspicuous advertisements on either side of the entrance did little to brighten the dank, grimy expanse of linoleum that appeared at the base of the stairs.
"Come on, dad," the younger man prodded, "let's see what's down there."
Hesitantly, the old man stepped onto the escalator and descended into Penn Station, stepping into a wide hallway flanked by numerous retail stores. Slowly, he walked along the passageway, trying to figure out where he was. "My God. . ." he remarked, "this is. . . This is where the arcade was. . . no, the arcade was at street level, upstairs. This must have been the baggage area. . ." As they proceeded, they passed a descending entranceway on their right, topped by a sign that read "Long Island Rail Road." Above the steps, they could see a line-drawn mural of a long, grand colonnade building, underneath which, stenciled in small block letters, read the legend:
YOU ARE HERE.
"Is that it?" the younger man asked his father, gesturing toward the elevation drawing. "Is that what it looked like?"
The father nodded solemnly. "That's it."
The space widened as they pressed onward and found themselves within a split-level, elliptical foyer with heavy, round support columns and an enormous illuminated billboard for something called Bloomberg Television. Ahead of them they could see the waiting area for AMTRAK, the plexiglassed gates and ticketing area; all around them were newsstands, restaurants, fast-food franchises and various retail kiosks, seemingly crammed into every available niche of space.
"My God," the father uttered, crestfallen, "what a horrible place this is."
Taking in the scene, the younger man could not help but shake his head in perplexity. No, he thought, we must be in the wrong place. This could not possibly have once been the magnificent Beaux Arts structure of which his father had spoken so glowingly.
They wandered onto the concourse, between the gates; the father looked up at the low Celotex ceiling and imagined the great glazed-iron latticework that had once hovered above. He didn't realize it, nor would he have believed it if he did, but he was standing only a few feet from the very spot where he'd met his beloved Celia so many years before. A few squares of thick crystal glass peeked up from the past through the foot-worn floor, like the eyes of a stubborn ghost.
"Dad, look," his son said, standing before a pillar bearing a large, framed photograph of the original Penn Station's main waiting room. "Wow," he muttered, awestruck, "Is that what it looked like? I had no idea…" His father stepped to his side and the two of them gazed at the old, black-and-white image of McKim, Mead and White's grand marble tepidarium, its six-story-high clerestory and coffered ceiling supported by massive Corinthian columns. "There's another one," the younger man said, walking toward a photo of the old steel-latticed concourse. His father followed slowly behind.
"I don't understand," the son said, looking around at the grim, cluttered underground terminus, then back at the photograph. "Look at this, I've never seen anything like it. . . and they tore it down? Why? Look at this place, it's disgusting! Why? Why would they. . . Dad?" He noticed his father beside him, his head angled downward toward the terrazzo floor, eyes shut tightly. "Dad, are you OK?"
The old man dropped the newspaper and lifted his hand to his face, wiping the tears from his eyes. His face drawn in grief, he looked up at his son, then at the photograph, then back to the floor. "Oh, Celia," he muttered, sobbing and shaking his head. "Celia. . ."
The younger man stepped close to his father, embracing him gently. Above their heads, one of the lines on the AMTRAK departures board changed again, letter by letter, and the track lights began to flash. Another train was leaving Penn Station.
* * *