A Lifetime at Grand Central
JULIAN GREEN writes: "There is scarcely a corner of Paris that is not haunted with memories for me." And so it is for me with New York City.
When you have lived in a city a long time, its fabric becomes a part of your life: the bridges, avenues, buildings.
One of the great buildings of New York City is Grand Central Terminal. It was the starting point for my first childhood journey outside New York City - the beginning of all my travels. My mother, my sister, and I were in a taxicab proceeding south along Vanderbilt Avenue. At 43rd Street, the cab pulled into the driveway leading to the west entrance of the terminal. A porter took our bags, and we entered.
From the top of the landing I saw the magnificent interior of the terminal, sheathed in marble. We walked down the stairway to the information booth in the center of the main concourse. There we inquired as to the track number for the New York Central Railroad train for Chicago, and thus began our adventurous 3,000-mile train trip across the United States from New York to San Francisco.
In my late teens I worked as a counselor at a boys' camp in Maine. I was assigned the job of bringing a group of campers by night-sleeper from New York City.
One sweltering late afternoon in June, I arrived in Grand Central Terminal and posted myself by the information booth, wearing a camp shirt for identification, to await the arrival of the boys. One by one, they appeared with their parents, some of them already looking homesick. The group grew until we had 30 boys and a raccoon in a cage. Farewells were effusive.
I led my flock through the gate to the train and counted them as they entered the sleeping car to make certain none had strayed. Once the train pulled out of the terminal, all thoughts of homesickness seemed to vanish. The raccoon was uncaged, and with boys screaming, it raced up and down the aisle of the sleeper.
Massive pillow fights ensued. The Pullman conductor assigned to our car, looking aghast, fled the scene. I was a gentle disciplinarian, insisting only that no boy leave the car. I feared losing some of my charges at station stops along the way. Not much sleeping took place that night.
During college I passed through Grand Central Terminal frequently as I left for or arrived from Boston by train on the Merchants Limited, the Yankee Clipper, or the Mayflower.
In more recent years, my relationship with Grand Central Terminal has been, not as traveler, but as a volunteer in a project to provide food to homeless people. The program started over seven years ago, during a bitterly cold winter, just after two women died in the terminal. Members of the Coalition for the Homeless began handing out peanut-butter sandwiches in the evening. The program expanded to providing sandwiches, milk, and fruit to several hundred homeless adults on the corner across from the west
entrance to the terminal.
I JOINED the team of volunteers going into the terminal to serve frailer people who found it difficult to come out on the street. We came upon homeless elderly men and women standing by the ticket windows, in the waiting room, next to the train gates, and sitting in telephone booths trying to sleep. As we made our rounds, they would say to us, "Don't forget the ones on the lower level." Their concern for others in the same sad plight was deeply moving. Cicero speaks of old age being the crown of life. Fo r this group of people, it seemed more akin to a shipwreck.
The food program has now moved to the nearby church of St. Agnes on 44th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. Each Wednesday evening around 7 p.m., before I go to St. Agnes, I spend a few minutes in Grand Central Terminal looking at the familiar places which have formed a part of my life: the information booth in the middle of the main concourse, the large announcement board listing train departures and arrivals, the gates leading to trains. I gaze at the ceiling decorated with the constellations
of the zodiac. I marvel at the 75-foot-high windows. During the summer, when the days are long, through the western windows I can see the sky and the last rays of the setting sun.
I revel in the beauty of one of the world's great interior spaces and recall the role, tinged with joy and sadness, that Grand Central Terminal has played, and continues to play, in my life.