There’s a depressing sort of magic to Penn Station.
The younger sibling of Grand Central, Penn is a lot less attractive but infinitely more relatable. If Grand Central is like your rich Aunt who enjoys equestrian and uses summer as a verb, Penn Station is the recently divorced Uncle who’s crashing in a suburban condo complex. Everyone’s talking behind his back, and Penn can feel the comparison with every waking move; Grand Central’s got the better job, lives in the better part of town, and clearly has the better life. Grand Central eats Oysters. Penn station eats $3.50 slices of pizza at a sauce-stained table that’s allegedly up to code.
You’re not at Penn Station because you want to be there. You’re at Penn Station because it’s the portal back to wherever you’re from. It works pretty well as a portal — if space travel ever becomes a thing, the terminals will probably look like Penn Station. There’ll be slightly worse versions of Starbucks next to a Moe’s, next to an Au Bon Pain that for some reason is always out of sandwiches. In fact, it’ll be exactly like Penn Station; glimpses of the DMV, shades of airport egg sandwiches, and a minor essence of abandoned vomit. Everyone will be wearing Rangers jerseys.
I pass through Penn Station to get to the main attraction that is the Long Island Railroad — a potpourri of aging businessmen still clinging onto print media, 22 year-olds named Diana just starting their media sales internship, and families with five year-olds who don’t shut up about Hotel Transylvania. They just had their first real NYC experience (Museum of Natural History + hot dogs from a cart), but it obviously didn’t compare to an animated movie voiced by Adam Sandler.
You begin to develop more of a backstory for the family. Maybe they moved out to the Island for the school districts, but now regret it because the budget failed and the commute is unexpectedly brutal. Both parents work long hours, and always have to leave those happy hours at Midtown Irish bars earlier than the rest of their co-workers. This is both a blessing and a curse — as is the fact that they’re now clearly looking at you; half angry for invading their privacy, half-understanding.
Just wait until you have a family, the husband’s look seems to playfully tease. You get the sense that he spends 4-7% of his time giving 24 year-olds this exact look. He’s definitely pretty good at it.
When you take the Long Island Rail Road out of Penn Station, you’re required to participate in the timeless tradition known as the collective gaze. For 5-15 minutes, you’ll join your fellow commuters in craning your neck upwards, waiting for the Gods of Ronkonkoma, Babylon, and New Hyde Park to deliver you from the purgatory that is Midtown West.
The Lords of LIRR communicate through an Orwellian device known as the Big Board — the Big Board probably knows what gate your train’s going to arrive at, but revels in keeping the secret for as long as possible. This is likely because it enjoys your company — given that it’s an inanimate, electric-powered board, it probably doesn’t have any close friends.
You begin to feel a bit sad for the Big Board, hoping that it’s at least got a good TV show to look forward to before bed. Perhaps Shameless, or Friday Night Lights. An inanimate device in one of the country’s busiest train stations would definitely enjoy the trials and tribulations of a Texas football town.
Just as you’re getting into a nice flow…just as you’re beginning to fully appreciate the carefully curated weirdness of the Penn Station and the Long Island Railroad…
7:23 HICKSVILLE 15
7:23 HICKSVILLE 15
7:23 HICKSVILLE 15
You crouch into a running stance, thirsty for blood. It’s go time. The train leaves at 7 23 — that’s 9 minutes from now — so clearly there’s no time to lose. Faster, faster you push yourself down the corridor.
You knock over an 8 year-old child. Unfortunate, but this is no time for empathy.
‘s okay slowed a lot of other people down.
Halfway to the platform, and you’re hitting a wall. They’re gaining on you. If you don’t arrive to this gate six minutes before the train leaves, you’ll probably lose everything — your significant other, your mortgage…
That framed picture of you and Mark Ruffalo.
Faster, faster, faster.
PUSH DOWN THOSE STAIRS!
PAIN IS TEMPORARY, GETTING ONE OF THOSE THREE PERSON SEATS FOR YOURSELF IS FOREVER!!!!!
Out of breath and barely able to stand after those near-deadly 200 meters, you’ve arrived. The master of ceremonies greets you with an unmatched fervor:
This is the train to…Hicksville.
The train doesn’t leave for 8 more minutes. Why everyone feels the need to sprint to the train, I will never understand.