People are running in every direction. Law enforcement line the corridors, eyes darting back and forth as hordes of people race by. One NYPD officer paces back and forth with a menacing German Shepherd, the leash wrapped tightly around his hand as the dog prowls the premises, sniffing for suspicious substances. A man in a U.S. Army uniform stands attentively in camouflage, watching the crowds vigilantly, one hand resting on the gun strapped to his thigh, ready to make a move if necessary.
This is Penn Station, “the busiest train station in the Western Hemisphere,” according to the Municipal Art Society of New York, where half a million passengers pass through every day. It’s late afternoon on a Thursday in early September; the air is hot and thick and it smells of hot dogs, popcorn, coffee, beer, and musky cologne that’s starting to spoil after being warmed with body heat all day. It’s rush hour and there are people everywhere. Big time tables hang up in the air with the ever-changing train schedules of the Long Island Rail Road, listing the times, track numbers, destinations, and connections in vivid colors, changing every few minutes as trains come and go.
Crowds of people pack together, all standing in front of the time table with their necks craned up towards the ceiling and their eyes focused on the colored slabs that list their destination of choice. They stand there in a cluster, staring intently. As soon as the next track number goes up onto the display board, the race has begun and a massive throng of people break into a run of various speeds to get to their proper track so they can be among the first to board their train home. The loud speaker cackles with announcements: “All aboard track 19 to Ronkonkoma,” setting the passengers in motion. Some are ahead of the game, flying down the steps and onto their trains with plenty of time to spare. Others are crafty, zig zagging and speed-walking through the masses and hopping over those who are in their way to get down to their platforms. The slow get left behind, caught in the mobs and are forced to shuffle their feet one step at a time, no way to get past the wall of people that has built up in front of them.
As soon as one crowd disappears to the platforms below, a new one has already formed in its place, everyone staring up once again, their eyes glued to the board above. A middle-aged man in a crumpled suit loosens his tie and shifts his weight from one foot to the other as he impatiently waits. He rests his briefcase on his feet for a few seconds, then picks it up again. Finally, his track goes up on the board and he rushes towards the stairs. A young woman struggles with her Macy’s shopping bags in one hand and her Starbucks iced coffee in the other as she pauses in front of the stairs to readjust her sundress. The man almost collides right into her and lets out an audible grumble of disapproval as he is forced to stop and maneuver his way around her to continue his path to the train.
Occasionally, a section of the hall will clear out for a minute before it again swells with commuters. “There was almost a brawl on the train yesterday,” one young man in jeans and a blazer tells his friend as he takes a sip of a beer wrapped artfully in a crumpled brown paper bag. There is a buzz of voices in the air, getting louder at first and then more distant as people are constantly coming and going. Waves of people crash by – suitcases rolling, shopping bags rustling, pocketbooks swinging, briefcases swaying. It is hectic. It is chaotic. This is the rush hour rat race of Penn Station.
Published in NYU Magazine 11/19/15