Penn Station in New York had been cleared down to the business end. The grand edifice, grander some said than its uptown rival Grand Central Terminal, had been leveled. Actually, it was like something beautiful had been scraped off the earth, leaving the functional under bits. What was leveled was non functional, it was just towering architecture; in other words, beautiful and soulful. It’s not just that it was torn down, it’s that it was a travesty rushed through by soulless bureaucrats. It’s what replaced it, the type of vanilla-ugly structure that only could have been designed in the 1960’s: a mediocre structure to house the city’s mediocre sports teams.
What was left? It was all below grade level, and the ticketing hall and huge departure lounge had been remodeled into something that looked more modern. But it was all facade. Down every ramp, behind every store front, in every urine soaked bathroom, here was the old Penn Station. The grimy guts to be sure, but it was beautiful.
Once you got off the main concourse, it was ALL old Penn Station. Ramps going every which way, connecting a labyrinth of tracks, waiting rooms, shops and subway stations to the world of hotels and streets above. In other words, a perfect world for a little boy to explore.
My first trip through alone was in 6th grade. That may sound young but not for a city kid. I’d been riding the subways alone since I was 8. Welcome to New York. It’s what we did.
It had a smell to it. Ozone from brake shoes, oil, pizza, steaks, sweat and urine. The place had its own round the clock population. The railway ticket agents, the train crews, the station masters and of course all the retail and restaurant workers. And the rats. You never saw the rats, but they were there. This was Midtown Manhattan; anything underground had rats, and this was acres and acres of rat paradise. I am sure the track crews and maintenance crews had plenty of rat encounters. It wouldn’t have fazed them at all.
Then there were the passengers. Central of New Jersey, Penn Central, Long Island Railroad all originated from here. If that wasn’t enough, go another level down and you will find the Subway lines…A, E, 1 and 2 lines. And, if you were a wandering kid with nothing else to do you might discover the underground passageway to Herald Square where you could enter directly into Macy’s or catch the D, F, N and Q lines. Oh…and one more level: you could catch “The Tubes” over to New Jersey or less imaginatively, the PATH trains. Now imagine, during rush hour, all of these crowded trains, coming together on their own schedules and dumping their passengers into these catacombs…it was nuts. It was fun.
New Yorkers get a rap, not unjustifiably, for being brusque and impatient. But if you’re a hungry commuter, rushing from a Subway line to catch a train home, you don’t need a lot of pleasantries. You want your pizza like yesterday, and the food vendors don’t have a lot of time for small talk. “One slice sausage? Any drink? No? Two dollars please, thanks. Safe travels. Next!” Most people could pick out a newspaper or magazine, pay for it with cash, and get their change while hardly breaking stride.
So what was my business there besides wandering?
When I was in 6th grade, I was sent to Military School in New Jersey. Being used to Subways, the train was not a huge deal for me, but it was still an adventure. At first I had an escort, usually an uncle, to put me on the train but soon I was on my own. There were not enough uncles to always meet me when I came home for breaks, for weddings and other visits.
This was before the governments created Amtrak and New Jersey Transit, so the train was a joint operation between the old Penn Central Railroad and the Central Railroad of New Jersey. We’d wait in the cavernous waiting area for the west bound trains, not knowing what track we’d be leaving on. You could see the station master in a glass booth high above the crowd. Right when it was time to board, the old arrival and departure sign, the size of a stadium scoreboard, would start flipping track numbers and train names, creating an electromechanical cacophany. At the same time, the station master would announce “Now boarding, North Jersey Coast Train, stopping in Newark, Elizabeth, Linden, Rahway, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Matawan, Bayhead…Track 17 ALL ABOARD!”
The eager ones would head for the gates while the weary commuters would slowly fold their newspapers. Then we’d all descend the stairs into the lower depths of a chaotic underworld, filled with the smell of diesel fuel and the sounds of idling engines, warning bells and hissing air brakes. A sleek GG1 electric locomotive, a still virile remnant of the Art Deco era, would take us clattering slowly through the complex maze of interlocking tracks. Soon we would be racing through the Hudson tunnels, and onto the North East Corridor Mainline as far as South Amboy. There the CNJ would take over, replacing the GG1 with one of their own diesels. Today, New Jersey Transit runs the entire route, and they have made the whole line electric. The trip takes about an hour and 15 minutes. However, back then the with the engine change, it would have been at least 2 hours.
The cars were always tired heavyweight cars, solid things that had served through the Second World War. Ever since, traffic had been on a decline, and so rather than fix broken cars, ever older ones were pulled from storage and pressed into service. A couple of decades earlier troops would have packed these cars somewhere in the country on their way to the other side of the world. Many would never come back. There were ghosts in those coaches. You could still feel their presence; playing poker, lying about their girlfriends back home and trying desperately to act like they weren’t scared.
Outbound, it was always dark out. We’d sit there in the old upholstered seats, the intricate ironwork of the luggage racks and the warm glow of the incandescent lighting lending an introspective mood. There would typically be other cadets on the train and we’d usually clump together in the same car, sometimes directed there by the conductor, making it easier to disembark us at our destination.
We would talk, and sometimes get a little rowdy along the way. Someone always had a radio, and we would listen to whatever they were playing. More often than not the song wasn’t up tempo, rather it was something lilting, longing for something that would be no more. In a way it was fitting, as we witnessed the death spiral of private passenger service. Like many commuter routes this one soldiered through the hard times, became a ward of the government and flourishes today.
In Matawan, we’d leave the train and load into taxi’s, waiting to take arriving cadets back to school.
I’d do this six or seven times a year, on breaks, holidays, and for family events. Looking back, that’s a little over twenty times, maybe twenty-five. It left an imprint. I can still hear the calls of the conductor, the screech of the brakes, the clack of the old worn out rails under the old warn out coaches along with the smell of the marshlands and bays as we passed over them. The memories are dim from fifty years past, but the senses, sight, smell and sound still linger. And the feeling never goes away.
© Glenn R Keller 2023, All Rights Reserved