An unsettling look at the diversity of life and suffering in New York’s Grand Central Station
Stoy by Anchalee Vivathanachai
Never would I have come up with this story had it not snowed that day.
The weather had turned biting cold at rush hour. Cheerful snow flurries hours before had grown into numerous tiny pellets of sleet hitting my face like a thousand sharp needles.
A flow of people rushed past us, hurried along by the freezing wind. Their feet crushed snow on the pavement into a filthy slippery slush. Each huddled in a bundle of warm coat, collar upturned while scrambling against the snow and wind to cross the traffic-jammed street, amid the car horns and wail of sirens.
The evening weather turned the city’s kaleidoscope of colours into the hushed grey tones of an old black-andwhite film.
Where were those people scurrying? No, their panic didn’t signify the end of the world. They were headed in a direction that would save them from the treacherous weather, towards a towering building on the other side of the street.
We too became part of that human flow.
After a long walk along some 10 street blocks in Midtown Manhattan, we approached the corner of 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue. The majestic Grand Central Terminal Building in its neoclassical grandeur loomed against the evening sky.
We drifted along the hurrying pedestrians into Grand Central Station’s main entrance, only to find more swarms of people lining up to buy commuter train tickets at the row of booths along the right wall of the main concourse.
At the centre of this vast hall where the marble information booth stood, what caught my eye was a huge four-sided clock made of polished brass atop the booth pagoda. I recognized that famous clock right away, for it had appeared in several contemporary movies.
This place, called the “Crossroads of America” for being one of the world’s busiest railway terminals, was known by most New Yorkers as the best landmark for a rendezvous, whether with a bosom friend or new acquaintance, or some stranger set eyes on for the first time.
They knew that regardless of the million anonymous faces floating up and down the hall like a human stream, they would have no problem finding each other where the iconic clock stood, like a beacon beckoning lonely souls into the warmth and bond of companionship.
Rom suggested that before catching a local train home, we should wait for the crowd to thin out. He said the last thing I needed after a long day’s walk was to get into a train loaded with passengers as though its destination were some cattle slaughterhouse. And since I was new, he was eager to introduce me to what he called “a field trip” that covered the entire massive space within the terminal, where all walks of life, all kinds of souls from all sorts of places, came and went around the clock.
“Imagine the whole world reduced into a miniature scale of some square feet of this place,” said Rom. “That would be the best description of Grand Central.”
“Really?” My eyes dashed around weighing the truth of his words.
“It’s a shortcut to digging vertically into the soul of New York,” he said persuasively. “Let’s call what I’m going to do to open to your eyes ... a field trip on Humanity 101. Does that sound cool to you?”
To me, Humanity 101 sounded weird and yet intriguing. I accepted his offer after a moment’s thought, and we set off.
The din of the bustling crowd almost drowned out Rom’s voice. But he continued with a mischievous smile.
“The weatherman warned people of the snowstorm earlier today. But, well, they are New Yorkers. Rain or shine they have to go to work. And now, everyone wants badly to get home, to their family if they’re lucky, at least to a waiting dog. Or if there is no living soul to welcome them home, they at least have their own shadow to comfort a lonely life. It’s not that bad, isn’t it?”
I couldn’t help but shudder. I doubted there was much truth in it. He was only telling a tall tale on “the city that never sleeps” to get my attention. And yet as a new foreign student here it was wise not to disagree with a four-year resident of New York.
“This trip is very simple. No books, no equipment and no brain needed. All you need is your eyes. The old saying ‘seeing is believing’ works. And oh, maybe you need one extra thing.”
His smile widened. “…You need a heart to feel.” We needed to fill our empty stomachs first, so Rom brought me to have hot dogs and hot coffee at the counter of one of the food stands along the left passageway to the local subway transit area.
While gobbling up food, I didn’t waste time. I followed Rom’s instructions. The counter faced outside; I observed. I looked for faces that stood out among the thousands of passers-by; businessmen with briefcases, working women in high heels, students in trainers and backpacks, mothers with their wailing children in strollers and so on.
The sea of faces, so diverse in gender, age, race, way of living, and yet uniform in one sense…
They had one thing in common that made them resemble one another. That thing they all indiscriminately shared was an acute hope to get home. It could be seen in their urgent, steadfast movements and in their tired yet unwavering eyes that looked ahead. Unfortunately, that resemblance sucked their individual uniqueness into a single mass of uninteresting people.
Yet a few faces stood out. One individual floated freely above the conformed mass – one whose entire being was not synchronous with the rest.
A free soul.
My eyes were drawn to an elderly woman in an incongruous combination of clothes. Even the pair of shabby old boots she wore were different colours, one
muddy yellow and the other faded black. She was pushing a shopping cart loaded with belongings. The firm grasp on the handle screamed out that the cart and its contents meant the world to her.
Oh, she must have time for the world. That’s why she was spending it on a dreamlike, lingering walk with a nonchalant gaze at the busy world around her. Calm composure reaching almost to tranquillity, she let impatient, time-starved people push their way past her. Everyone, everything, goodwill and reasonableness of life had left her. Only her stark existence would stay with her as her sole companion until she drew her last breath.
Rom followed my gaze as I asked him, my voice a near whisper, “Why? What happened to her?” “Oh, she is a bag lady,” he said in a casual tone, expecting me to grasp its meaning.
He added that the woman was homeless, part of the everyday fabric of the city, who, unlike everyone else, had no chance to share in the universal wish to get home.
According to Rom, some had applied dark humour to nickname homeless females “bag ladies” for the way they carried their trivial possessions in bags and carts. Usually what they carried was of no earthly use to anyone except to them.
“If you’re fond of that bag lady, you’ll feast your eyes on the likes of her every five minutes as they hobble their way past. Don’t sneer at them. They deserve more respect from us outsiders. Why, we are now trespassing on their private property. Some of them are literally living here. Come, I’ll show you their domain.
I followed him spellbound to the far end of the main concourse and walked down the stairs, descending into the lower level.
As we followed the sloping ramp to one of the commuter train platforms, the voices on the main concourse level receded, as well as some warmth, giving way to distant hollow roars and rumbles of echoing trains. It was cold and clammy and bleak down here. The light was dim. No waiting passengers on the deserted platform and no train on the empty track.
All that existed on this level combined to create an eerie atmosphere of another world.
“The subway trains operate on one side of Grand Central. But down here, it’s different. This is where the commuter trains run to the outskirts and suburbs. While the busier subway runs non-stop day and night, the commuter trains arrive and depart on fixed schedules. During that time, passengers take up the whole platform. At other times this place just looks like what we see now a graveyard.”
He pointed to the cave-like darkness at the far end of the platform. “There are networks of underground railway tunnels connected to one another like blood vessels within the colossal body of some organism. You can’t imagine how many modern-day cavemen cocoon inside the dark tunnel labyrinth and underground spaces. It’s the best hiding place you could find: safe and sound from the threatening civilization above your head. Let’s call it the world’s biggest underground colony. There’s no survey or record of their actual numbers. Maybe hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. Or more.” He shrugged.
“How do they survive?” I asked incredulously.
“They get by all right. The elderly receive meager money from the government. The harmless panhandlers live on charity. And the deadly feed on cash in your pocket. Don’t underestimate them. I’m talking about professional pickpockets. Do you want to listen to this?”
“I am all ears,” I gulped.
So he began a story in which he took the role of protagonist.
“After I moved to the city, I lost my wallet to pickpockets a couple of times. Both happened during my subway ride home from here. The first time, I put my wallet in my rear trouser pocket, unaware it would be an easy target. But the next time I had learned my lesson. I hid it in the inner side pocket of my jacket. It would require a lot of nerve to dig deep past my chest without alerting me…
“But when I got off the train I found my wallet missing once again, as if taken by the invisible hand of God. The only opportunity could have been at the moment I shifted my attention to push my way through passengers onto the train. How would you feel if your wallet was taken right from under your nose? You’d feel like a big fool. So I planned to get even with any future thief.
“I went to a thrift shop and bought a bunch of imitation banknotes with a printed picture in the middle. It wasn’t the godlike face of any US president. It was the face of a devilish NYPD policeman wearing a cap, pointing a finger at you with the words I’m warning you to watch your ass. I walked out of the store, dreaming of having the last laugh.
“When I boarded the same subway line the next day, I put my new wallet stuffed with those fake notes in the most vulnerable spot, the rear pocket, and waited for it to disappear. I even tried to draw attention by bending over on the hanging bar. Most passengers ignored me. Only one guy suspiciously moved past me a couple of times. Bingo!
“I imagined how shocked the thief would be by the cop’s menacing face. That would break his pride into pieces. I dreamed of that until the train stopped and I got off, grinning to myself.
“Then I was dumbstruck. I checked my pocket to find the wallet was still with me. Yet I didn’t give up. I gave those thieves more chances. I kept on baiting them with the same wallet and the same fake banknotes a few more times but the result never changed. I’m surrounded by a whole army of thieves day and night. They roam the subway with the world at their feet. Yet no thief ever touched that wallet. I can’t fool any of them.
“I came to the conclusion that those Grand Central pickpockets are so skilful they develop a sixth sense, some supernatural instinct that lets them thrive over ordinary, decent people. Like predators on the prowl, they are adept at using this extra sense to detect prey and dodge danger. When one cruises past a potential victim his eyes must be capable of scanning the victim inside and out as though with a radar that can bounce a signal back to him. They are survivors.”
His voice grew more solemn. “You’d better take my warning seriously. Do not make eye contact with anyone you don’t know. Out there, one out of 20 people walking past you is a psychopath, one out of 10 a pervert, and one out of five is … what?”
He was giving me an aptitude test. So with a wan smile, I replied, “Surely a thief.”
Although his story ended at this point, its starkness still lurked around me. I felt the chill creeping in. I dug my hands into my coat pockets for warmth.
“But not all homeless can get by.” I looked at him.
“That’s right. There’s another choice for them, probably a better choice.”
Rom inched to the edge of the platform and bent his head towards the train track lying dark and sinister a few feet below.
“This place gives you what you need, whatever that primal need might be. A landmarks for tourists. A station for travellers. A home for the homeless. An office for criminals. Or a grave for the losers,” said Rom grimly. “May their souls rest in peace while their bodies rest forever down there.”
Loud footsteps brought me back from that creepy image. People were hurrying down the ramp towards us. Their presence meant the next train was about to arrive.
I stood as if in a trance, giving a silent prayer for those who had thrown themselves on to the tracks and met a grisly death. I listened to the faint hum and throb and screech and groan of the pumps and air shafts and vents behind the dungeon-like walls surrounding us. Could they be the heartbeat of some diabolical monster whose enormous jaws were about to open and swallow two small humans into the depths of it bowels?
Soon the graveyard would again teem with life.
“Let’s go. I’ve seen enough,” I said curtly. “I’m dead tired.”
“Are you all right?” He looked at me. “You should take a seat and rest up.”
His concern did not help me much. He led me up the ramp and we headed for a waiting area where I could find a seat.
A wave of fear and panic overwhelmed me. My eyes blurred. My body was shaking uncontrollably. I just could not carry the crushing weight of human agony and the wreckage left behind.
At last we found empty seats in the waiting area. Rom left to buy some hot coffee to lift me up. My spirits were so low even the new faces glancing up from the rows of seats seemed hostile and menacing, as if all had discarded their masks of decency and exposed their true selves to scare me away.
On the opposite seat, separated from me by a narrow aisle, sat a gaunt-faced, middle-aged man. At first I didn’t pay much attention. But soon his presence worried me. Two things made me uneasy – his eyes and his grin. His face was turned to where I had dropped into my seat and his eyes never left my face. Those eyes, like the bulging eyeballs of a goldfish, fixed on me as if the entire room were vacant and I was the only living being there. And though I pretended to close my eyes to observe him through my eyelids, I still found his intense stare piercing me openly and unabashedly. And his grin, his hideous non-stop grin frightened me more and more…
Something was not right about this man. Rom’s warning of coming face to face with psychopaths and all kinds of mad people crossed my mind. I should look for help from some security guard if Rom didn’t come back in time. My panic was mounting.
The man slowly rose to his feet. I watched his every move. Crazy people could be spontaneous and unstable. One minute they were meek and quiet, the next they screamed and attacked you out of the blue. I saw him bend down, his hand groping feverishly for something under his seat. While doing this he knocked over a tin cup precariously perched on his seat, and heard the clank of coins scattering across the floor. A boy on a seat behind me ran there eagerly.
No, don’t go near that man. It’s not safe to give him a hand. No!
The boy grabbed the coins as fast as his little hands allowed. Then I gasped. He was frantically stuffing the coins into his own pockets, nonchalant to the man’s presence. The man simply stood by helplessly. He couldn’t even defend his small treasure from the greedy boy. Before I could make sense of the scene in front of me, the boy had run out of the room, taunting the man with a burst of laughter.
No one paid much attention to this small incident, while the man clumsily picked up his empty cup and a few coins still left on the floor.
What he pulled out from under his seat was a walking cane. That kept me frozen in my seat. Why under his seat and not on his lap? He knew he had to hide it from people like that boy. When he turned around, sweeping around with his cane to find his way out, I caught a glimpse of a square bit of cardboard hung loosely on his back. The sign stood out boldly.
My eyes can’t see but my heart can.
Someone must have helped this blind panhandler scribble those heart-wrenching words in bright red marker pen, maybe out of kindness or maybe just to poke fun at this poor creature.
I wanted to say something before he disappeared but no words formed. It was I who had sat where his face was already turned. Let alone eyeing and coming to harm me, he was never aware of my existence. The heartbeat of this place throbbed and rambled. Its sounds echoed over every corner. Day and night it never stopped. But I wondered where one could ever find its heart…