Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Walking in Penn Station

Walking in Penn Station, the walls are human and shifting. No path is reliable, no surveillance complete. The cops with automatic rifles are the opposite of comforting; one pictures the aftermath of a bomb punctuated by their strafing. Here is the place people go who wish to be somewhere else; the building of clocks to measure one's progress toward departure (for even arrivals are departures, opportunities to escape Penn Station).

Penn Station is a place that creates desire. It so deadens that the heart erupts at even the slightest opportunity to prove that it is still beating. A bookstore! A Starbucks! Pizza! New Jersey poets engraved in the walls! My god, I am alive, barely. Umberto Eco once wrote (upon seeing the stadium show of a very bad band) of his initial amazement at the choreography of an audience at a concert – how the entire audience might erupt in a moment at some cue he could not discern. Eco theorized that the answer must lie in the music itself. It must normally be so boring that even the slightest variation is a signal: a pathetic doo-dittle-dee goes the guitar. And the crowd roars!

So with Penn Station. Departing, I count the seconds to my train, and race my fellow commuters (Why are we running? The trains are never full, yet we form a sonic boom of briefcases, strollers, and palm pilots. We are running to leave Penn Station). Arriving, I trace the paths of rats on the subway platform, waiting for another train to get me the fuck out of Penn Station. All the while I am unsettled, breathless, disturbed at the thought that my train might go and I would be stuck here. I feel like the angle in the Wim Wender's move Wings of Desire, who recorded the feelings of humans and only wanted to become one of them. I am full of this desire.

Desire drives me to commerce. A cup of coffee, a lousy buck fifty cup of coffee, staves off despair. It is the power chord that sends me cheering with the audience. I warm my hands on it even when I am already sweating. Its charcoal-and-syrup aroma revives me like smelling salts. If I have a doughnut as well (Krispy-Kreme is in Penn Station. To me, it is the Sistine Chapel. I pilgrimage there only on festival days), then my transformation is complete. I sip the coffee on the train and feel its glorious bitterness, then follow with Michelangelo doughnut. Which is the moment I return to any sense of self-control.

Today, like every Easter, I find myself longing for some sense of redemption in the ritual and the pageantry and the beauty of the day: the buds and cherry blossoms, the children waddling in their Sunday finery, the hats. I was mostly reminded of how much of my life is separated from those things. Products are easier to sell if they fulfill needs, and what better way to create need than to fill the world with intense and unbearable ugliness? Much as I might wish my church or my park was a microcosm of the cosmos, I fear Penn Station is the axis mundi, the place I am always going to get somewhere else and nowhere, all at the same time.

Posted by HERE.

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Walking in Penn Station can make you sick; but for anybody old enough to remember the old, majestic Penn Station it makes you weep. Its destruction actually lit a fire under the historic preservation movement in NYC and indirectly prevented them from doing it again with Grand Central. The current Penn is the most depressing architectural environment imaginable. An architectural authority, I think Vincent Scully. said of the new, dark, subterranean, low-ceilinged Penn Station that "We used to enter the city like gods; now we enter it like rats."

Posted by HERE.

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A slightly different perspective: Big railway stations and airports always give me a buzz. One reason is the sensory feel of humanity (as opposed to just people). They feel like a watering hole for the species. Thousands of members are milling around, none of them locally rooted (unlike jaded commuters on the subway). It's like a cacophonous congregation of migratory birds, ready to fly off to distant lands -- suited businessmen on cell phones, mothers with crying babies, Buddhist monks, Japanese tourists, pierced punks dragging huge rucksacks.

The other is a mental perception of great open spaces -- the world in my palm, as it were. There are winged or wheeled little cabins departing every moment for Washington, Chicago, Tokyo, Amsterdam, London. I feel the freedom of a soaring eagle: no restraints on where or how far I can go.

Yes, Penn Station is an architectural disaster -- claustrophobic, drab, overbearing. Yet, I find the highs transcend the depressingly grimy interiors. They made de Gaule or Schipol to heighten the ecstasy of travel, and JFK to suppress it, but for me personally, the dopamine always beats the conspiracy of design. That, plus one accumulates personal memories -- a departure throbbing with the promise of adventure, an eagerly anticipated arrival, painful farewells -- they all blend into one big cauldron of experience, which boils over whenever I happen to be in a place of coming and going.

Penn Station, in spite of its physical ugliness, is a temple to our foraging, migratory humanity. They should have built a better one, but I like it nonetheless.

Posted by HERE.

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