Commuting

Yesterday, I was in the city. As always, when I come into Grand Central Terminal (GCT), I am overwhelmed with the grandeur and engineering of that terminal.

When you first experience the great hall, you may look up and marvel at the beautiful (now restored) vault. And, you may remark on the vastness of the hall, which is difficult to appreciate unless you go up onto the mezzanine and look out over it. The grilled windows for buying tickets the old-fashioned way, the central kiosk for information services, the big reader boards, all link to the past and are plainly in view. Off to the side, the roomful of ATMs and the roomful of ticket dispensers, where most tickets are purchased by travelers who know where they’re going, and how to navigate the somewhat Byzantine process of ticketing.

But, to my mind, even more remarkable is the subterranean engineering. The terminal has two levels of train tracks coming into it, one above the other. These commuter trains descend into tunnels a good ten minutes away from the terminal, in Harlem. Having arrived at the terminal, commuters exit the train onto the platform, and then choose to go into the terminal, or instead, exit the platform in the other direction, through subterranean walkways that can come out onto streets as much as two blocks away from the main terminal building. If you were just walking down the sidewalk, you probably would not even notice these entries into the terminal — unless a stream of commuters was being ejected into the street.

Rush hour trains arriving and leaving will have around 7 cars, with roughly 100 commuters per car. It’s a marvelous sight, to stand at the top of the platform walkway, and watch two trains disgorging passengers onto the platform, one on either side, all 1400 or so heading toward one of the exits with just one thought in mind — get out of here. It really is a river of humanity.

Often, these experiences of the GCT are accompanied by the reflection that Americans will never again build anything substantial, beautiful, and inspiring, as is this building. We just don’t have it in us, anymore.  The idea of public service is not dead, but the idea of creating lasting public monuments, is.

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