August came, cooler than it might’ve been, and we were leaving New York City. After six years, my wife had accepted a job at the University of Vermont, and so, Literary Baby in tow, we had all but severed our permanent ties with the physical city. What better place than a point of embarkation, I thought, to execute the second Attempt at exhausting a finite space within New York City: Grand Central Station, at once calling to mind harried commuters, steamy railway catacombs, and celestial ceilings. At the time of our Attempt, Grand Central Station was celebrating its one hundredth anniversary. Opened in 1913, the same year that Marcel Proust published Du côté de chez Swann, Grand Central Station embodies the physical extremes of its city and has no doubt fared as well over time as that novel I carried with me at the time of our Attempt. All of these things are available within walking distance of each other within Grand Central: commuters, tourists, fresh oysters, bagels, coffee, pizza, newspapers, overpriced cocktails, homeless men sleeping next to garbage cans, machine-gun toting N.Y.P.D. officers, an opal Tiffany clock, an eighty-foot wide American flag, and maybe the cleanest marble floor anywhere in New York.
As with the First Attempt in Chinatown, we went in expecting to experience Grand Central in three disparate moments in time. We had initially discussed three Attempts on three consecutive days. After witnessing the morning rush, however, we desired a counterpoint of observation in the evening, and so, we started one morning in August, returned that same evening, and concluded our Attempt the next morning, totalling three Attempts in a twenty-four hour span. The text that follows is an account of the sights, sounds, smells, and, for a while, tastes, associated with experiencing Grand Central Station, and by extension, New York City, at a specific place, at a specific time.
Date: August 14, 2013
Time: Around 6:42 a.m.
Location: Grand Central Station, the basement, stairs, grand concourse.
Background: After taking the A Train south from 175th Street to Port Authority, I exited and walked east through the tunnel, passing advertisements for the Apple iPad, featuring digital versions of Moby-Dick, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and The Stranger. I also passed an ad for a television show called “Coppers,” whose tagline read: “New York City 1865: there are no city limits.” My co-attempor and I met under the massive American flag in the Grand Concourse, proceeded to get coffee and breakfast in the basement, and returned to the main floor to seek an optimal vantage point.
Dictation: Entering the station from the shuttle, lower concourse. (Sounds of sneakers). Station is quietly occupied. Pace is brisk, but unhurried. Cool fresh air in the grand hallway. Hushed sounds all over the floor.
Writer: [Greets Artist.] Sorry I’m late.
Artist: No apology needed. I think that’s part of Grand Central. I got here at like 6:23, 6:24, and it was empty. All of a sudden things started moving right at 6:30.
Writer: First rush of trains must be coming in from 5:45 from Connecticut or wherever. My A Train was pretty dead.
Artist: I think it’s partially because the local trains don’t run that often. You know, like usually I get the 7:15 train, and there are usually plenty of seats.
Dictation: [Sound of floor clearing.] Lower level concourse mostly abandoned as we seek coffee.
Writer: I had this peaceful feeling walking into the Grand Concourse because it’s cool, with air conditioning.
Artist: The ceiling space makes up for the craziness.
Writer: Yes, the heat would rise.
Artist: The C Train was mostly filled with construction workers. I was thinking about the kind of jobs you’d have to be at by 6:30.
Writer: Any chance they’re going to the Word Trade Center?
Artist: Yeah, they got off at Fulton Street, so maybe, yeah.
Writer: [Ordering breakfast.] Whole wheat bagel toasted with cream cheese, coffee with a shot of espresso in it. [In response to cashier.] Plain bagel is fine.
Artist: Nothing is undetected.
Writer: My memories of being here are when I was doing software sales and we had a client in Connecticut. [In response to cashier]. That size, skim milk, please. To get to a 9 a.m. meeting, I’d have to take a 6 a.m. End of Harlem River Line. Co-worker would pick me up and drive me the rest of the way. [To the cashier.] You have the bagel in here too? And so I don’t know if I’ve ever spent any time in here earlier than 7 a.m.
Dictation: [Background noises of people ordering coffee.]
Artist: I don’t think I’ve ever spent any time here. I’ve dropped off friends. I’ve never taken a train here.
Writer: First sip of coffee. Laced with a shot of espresso. Humanity restored.
Dictation: [Overheard: “Do y’all have any soy milk?”]
Writer: I’m going to ask that lady where she’s from. You wouldn’t ask for it like that, unless you were born and raised in Texas or some place.
Artist: I restrict myself from saying “hella.”
Dictation: [Leaving coffee stand without asking Texas woman about her accent.]
Writer: So I’ve made good progress with Proust since we last socialized. I’m past the halfway mark in Swann’s love. I’m finally hitting these little passages where other writers, critics—
Artist: You got to the music?
Writer: Yes! So you’re aware of that section?
Artist: I haven’t read it. I know it.
Dictation: [Climbing stairs to the Grand Concourse.]
Writer: Should we just camp out on the stairs? They might not let us sit on the stairs. [Stopping on the stairs]. There’s a composer that Swann is friendly with, and early on in the text when Swann is falling in love with Odette he’s at a party when this overture is played, and several years go by, and as he’s falling out of love with Odette through her own mischief, by cause of her mischief, he hears this overture played at a grand recital where almost everyone that Swann cares about is in attendance, and Proust dives into almost seven pages of the mind’s mechanism of associating the very specific— [Oh wait, we have to move over hear]— ingredients, in the only way to describe it, of how the mind works with music, he took it to the next level.
Artist: That’s like the main passage of the book.
Writer: This is being written in 1913, before anyone had done anything, before Joyce, Woolf, Maugham.
Artist: Joyce had started by then. Joyce would have been working on Ulysses at that time. Can we stand over the balcony?
Writer: Can we stand with the cops?
Dictation: Notice the police presence in all corners of the station. Overhead loudspeaker announcing train schedule.
Writer: I read it yesterday. I was very much affected by it.
Artist: I wonder if we could stand over on the side there. Probably just hang out here for a few minutes.
Dictation: Time is 6:50. We’re at the west balcony.
Artist: At the Morgan Library last year. We saw musicisions playing music that was either inspirational to Proust, or of that time. And then there was something being played that was supposed to represent the piece being played in the book.
Writer: The fictional piece.
Writer: The clock is smaller than I remember it. But it’s completely visible from any point in the Grand Concourse. So there’s a steady traffic pattern going north to the Met Life building, towards 45th street, almost as if it were downhill.
Artist: Should note the ridiculously invasive Apple sign.
Writer: Where is it?
Artist: Above the stairs over there.
Dictation: Noted. There’s a glowing Apple sign over the stairs and on the mezzaine, the east windows, under the 100 year anniversary sign for Grand Central, which reads: “Grand Central. Moving us for 100 years.”
Artist: Very big American flag.
Writer: Very big American flag, south entrance, probably sixty feet wide, by thirty feet. Lots of men wearing khakis stucked in shirts, leather shoes.
Artist: Places, references to Grand Central in literature, movies?
Writer: John Dos Passos in Manhattan Transfer must mention it. Gatsby, Carraway spends first night in Penn Station, not Grand Central, because he’s going to Long Island.
Artist: That would have been the old Penn Station.
Writer: Grand Central doesn’t go to Long Island, does it? Only Hudson River Valley and the New Haven line?
Artist: Right. Mostly friends coming in from New Haven.
Writer: By “mini” I mean less worthy of a heist [in reference to the clock].
Artist: [Wife] had to read something once for an interview, for I forget which publishing press, for a ridiculous terrible pulp writer, and there was a really ridiculous tory about an art student who finds a bag with five million dollars in it and is eventually chased down by these drug dealers guys and the final scene is this shoot out in Grand Central.
Writer: This would be a good place for a shoot out. Check out this gust of life.
Dictation: [Silencefor a few minutes.] Multiple trains arriving at the same time. virtually all passengers heading north to 45th street, almost no one exiting to 42nd street.
Artist: Lots of the office buildings are probably nine to fivers. Too early for them.
Writer: Pfizer’s global headquaters are just east of Grand Central.
Dictation: Some tourists wearing pink, coral pink backpack with matching pink luggage. [Overhead: watch the gap getting on the trains. Don’t fall for it once again! Watch the gap getting on the trains.]
Artist: Nice English. “Don’t fall for it once again.”
Dictation: Time is 6:58 am. Big train just got off at track 23, disgorged a bunch of passengers. Mostly tourists, young aged kids, non-businessy people.
Artist: Early for tourists.
Dictation: More business men now. Increased number of passengers exiting the west balcony, first few looks of curiousity and skepticism of our activities.
Artist: People are not allowed to stand still in Grand Central.
Writer: Unspoken violation of Grand Central etiquette whereby we stand still on the balcony as everyone moves around us.
Dictation: [Overhead: “Take the train to the game! Metro North service to East 161st Street.”] Visible from West Balcony: track 30, 29, 28, 27, and so forth to the north side. To south side, MTA Metro North tickets, old fashioned gates, Hudson Line departures, Harlem Line, New Haven Line, destinations include North White Plains, Poukeepsie. Connection at Wassaic, stops at Fordham. Harlem Line departures: Marble Hill, Croton Harmon, East 161 st. Current service status good. [More overhead announcements too chaotic to track.]
Artist: Flow of people definitely ebbs and flows.
Writer: flow of traffic rises / falls dramatically
Artist: Lots of trains all at once, then nothing.
Writer: A nun being photographed by a man.
Writer: Medical looking person with scrubs.
Artist: Very Mother Theresa looking nun.
Writer: More business men.
Artist: Who is walking up the stairs? Where are they going?
Dictation: West balcony exits to Vanderbilt Avenue and Midtown. More curious, skeptical stares from commuters wondering what in the hell we’re doing here on the balcony.
Artist: Check out the constellations. In preparing for this hundred year anniversary they’ve been advertising. The one that annoys me the most is the Billy Collins poem. It’s basically poetry made to introduce poetry to freshman in high school so they have something to dissect but not too much. So there’s imagery to dissect, but not really any deeper meaning.
Writer: Just got a text from [wife]. “Ready for my very first road trip!” Wife and baby headed to Alabama. It’s where we got married.
Artist: They’re leaving now? Tell them have a great trip!
Dictation: MTA railroad workers, general trend of dress coming in to station, as if coming to work at Grand Station, on the trains, on the maintenance yard, different than those leaving Grand Central to work in businesses and offices.
Artist: Lot of people coming in right now.
Dictation: Coming in under the Lexington Avenue sign. Lots of tracks coming in from the North, makes sense passengers enter from the north, whereas the evening commute would have passengers coming in from the south, from 42nd, or east and west balconies, but right now everyone’s coming from Connecticut and Hudson River Valley.
Writer: We should do one at night.
Dictaion: The nun and man are still taking pictures of each other. Man moves closer for picture of nun.
Artist: Amazing to think about all the tunnels and passageways that people are going through, within the station, yes, but through the city, too.
Writer: And never once seeing daylight.
Artist: Time is 7:08.
Writer: We are in no rush. We should take as much time as you want for this perspective.
Artist: Should we move perspectives?
Writer: Do you need more time?
Artist: No, I’m good.
Writer: Let’s try underneath the flag. Actually, wait. Let’s do one touch point over by that entrance that’s so busy. We can try to get a photograph of the burst of passengers.
Artist: And these amazing views of the trains. Look how far it’s shuttling out to. Understanding exactly where we are from a wider perspective.
Writer: Three escalators going out. [Overhead: “Security warning: any items left unattended will be removed by the MTA police.”] To one coming in.
Dictation: Metro North ticket stub. Total of 51 dollars. two 25 dollar tickets. To the right: northeast passage. Grand Central exits north at 46th and 48th streets. We’re now camped out between tracks 21 and 23. Waiting for train. More workers, variety of customers, passengers, all ages, mostly men, maybe a two to one male to female ratio.
Artist: Good amount of suits. Lots.
Writer: Agreed. More than you would see in a random cross section of Manhattan.
Artist: You ever worked in this area?
Writer: Yes. I worked at 30th and Park Ave South. The software job that took me to Connecticut.
Dictation: Man in golf shorts carrying his clubs and a putter.
Artist: Where you think he’s going?
Writer: He’s dressed for a game of golf.
Artist: Could be a cover.
Writer: Could be.
Dictation: Man running through the station. Metro North worker wearing camo pants. Traffic coming through. Man with an Uncle Sam t-shirt with “We want Hughes” in reference to Phil Hughes who has a record of 4-10 and an ERA too high to matter. Confident man with a pony tail carrying a camera. Time is 7:14. Clock visible at all times. Red glowing lightbulbs at the corner of each concourse. Man pushing a fake owl through the station.
Artist: That’s worth following.
Dictation: Moves to take picture. Leaving to follow the man with the fake owl. Wondering where he’s going. Man with fake owl doing a 180 and more hurried passengers headed west. Man with fake owl braving his way through traffic. Man with fake owl cruising along. [Sounds of foot traffic changes pitch in lower archway. Other passengers, customers noting man with fake owl. Man with fake owl proceeds to the Lexington passage.
Writer: I followed him pretty far in. He did a 180 and came through and cruised right around again with no apparent purpose.
Artist: I got a couple of the morning commuters.
Writer: I thought he was significant.
Dictation: We’re right in the way. Right in the outflow path of track 23. Annoyed looks of customers. Major flow of traffic. New York City policewoman directing traffic on the way out. Lots of people coming down the platform. [Voices: “I wonder if Pam can get us a good deal.” Respondent: “Just shut up.”] Family of four, little blonde boy, girl, mom carrying daughter’s doll, flow of traffic slowing in absence of trains, 7:24 am.
Artist: Notable that the last time we did this, [wife] was pregnant and it was the Sunday before the hurricane. Much has happened between now and then.
Writer: Agreed. Much life has transpired between first and second attempt.
Dictation: Man with blue pants, pink shirt. More women on this train. Totally coincidental. Probably. Zaro’s worker says “hey, ass worker,” to friendly coworker. Meaning unknowable.
Artist: He might have been referring to the Billy Collins poem.
Dictation: Man with full set of golf clubs.
Artist: Same guy?
Writer: No, different golfing man.
Artist: Suspicious. Two is not a concidence.
Writer: Two is a pattern.
Artist: Three is a pattern.
Dictation: Paper dropped on the ground. An artifact. Investor’s Daily. We’ve hit northwest corner, northeast corner. Family circling, children looking tired, boy carrying Velveteen Rabbit, looking tired. Proceeding south under decadent glowing chandelier. Dirty man sleeping, two other dirty men sleeping on the ground. Looking at the back of the American flag. Quiet southern foyer. Like an empty ballroom.
Artist: Look at that security camera, right above the map.
Writer: There’s one on each side. All directions. Great juxtaposition. Man having seizures of some kind, digging through the garbage can.
Dictation: Sounds of screaming man, hallucinating, with train warning in background. Man having visual hallucinations of some kind. Not wearing shoes. Keeps saying, “Get, get, get!” Time is 7:28 am.
Artist: Notice the intense directions on the trash can. Deposit trash here. Deposit only trash here.
Writer: Overzealous desire for only trash.
Artist: Due to customers like our friend depositing non-trash items in garbage. Or possibly not depositing but retrieving.
Writer: Sleeping man bears resemblance to the Big Lebowski.
Artist: Or the Unabomber.
Writer: Or Ted Kaczinksi. Whose name undoubtedly triggers some kind of alarm.
Artist: Although different for a train station conversation.
Dictation: Overhead: “Attention all customers, your attention please: all luggage must be attended at all times, any items left unattended will be seized and subject to search by the MTA.”
Writer: That’s got to be a subway. Large crowd coming from 42nd, probably from the 7 or the shuttle, mostly going north. European tourists. American tourists. Man scratching head like a baoobon looking for the right direction. Time is 7:31 am.
Dictation: Increased variety of traffic flow. Increased variety of commuters. Standing south of the clock in the center, in the middle of the Grand Central.
Artist: Not too many artifacts.
Writer: Very clean floor.
Artist: Which means we need to pick up the things we find.
Dictation: More people getting information at the bottom. Man with a yarmulke. Looks like he did not get the information he needed. Man with yarmulme has a security badge.
Artist: Apple store is open. They were blocking people off before.
Dictation: Hallucinating man has returned. Has finished his coffee. Is scratching himself under his shirt, while holding onto the wall.
Writer: Wonder if he’ll be here tomorrow. If anyone will be here tomorrow, it will be him.
Dictation: Steady stream of business men in suits. L.A. Dodgers hat. More New Yorkers entering from the south and proceeding to Northbound trains.
Artist: Not too much running. but this man is definitely running. At 7:34 he is late for something.
Dictation: minimal lines to buy tickets.
Artist: Man resembling Daddy Warbucks [bald, imposing] seeks information.
Writer: Daddy Warbucks looking patient.
Artist: Definitely stock quotes in that folder.
Writer: A massive investor document.
Artist: The report! Trading Places.
Writer: We just watched that the other night.
Artist: I’m going to send you a link to what actually happened, when Dan Akyord says sell sell.
Writer: The introduction of a gorilla and a fake gorilla cannot possibly be accounted for in that movie.
Artist: But without them obviously it would not be the same movie.
Dictation: Daddy Warbucks looking sternly across the Concourse. 7:35 am.
Artist: The Eddie Murphy law. I’m forwarding this to you right now.
Dictation: Couple holding hands, commuting together, taking a long kiss goodbye, little bit of tongue, and now they finish. One more kiss. And that’s a wrap.
To read the original book that inspired this experience by Georges Perec, click here. To read our First Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Chinatown, which took place six days before Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York City, come in and start your own Attempt.