Penn Station at Night

Penn Station at night is one of the most depressing places in New York. When I get off the train from Long Island and climb the steps I always walk into this palatable wall of all-is-lost, give-up-now. I remember how in my youth my friend Chris and I would invariably miss the last train back to Long Island and we’d have to spend the night there. Only the young and sturdy can withstand passing a night in such relentless bleakness. Bad light, perpetually dank, and filled with dead-eyed people who seem to be waiting for it all to just be over.

It’s such an incongruous portal to NYC, which is a multi-colored explosion of anything is possible. When I climb the steps at my subway stop in the West Village, the light glimmers warmly and I feel like I’ve made it to one of the most magical places on earth. Lucky me!

So the goal is to get out of Penn Station and home as fast as humanly possible. I’m always faced with the same gamble: go left and try one of the 8th Avenue subway lines, the A, E or C? They’re closer, and these days they are packed with kids in their party outfits talking loudly non-stop, because it’s Saturday night! They will get off at my stop, switch to the L, and head out to Brooklyn, which is the place right now, especially for the young. Also, the A train is fast and Heaven is only one subway stop away.

The 7th Avenue lines to the right, the 1, 2, or 3, are far, far, away, but for some reason those trains feel more like home to me. Maybe it’s because the first thing I see when I leave the subway is a pool hall I used to play at when I was in my twenties and still feel great affection for. Also, the corner of Christopher and West 4th, which is closer to my apartment, is residential and intimate vs the very commercial and brassy corner of 8th Avenue and 14th. I almost always go right.

But last night I rolled the dice and went for the A, E, C. The universe shined down upon me. The A rolled right in and within minutes I was climbing the steps to almost-home. Lucky me! The Village is quieter these days, but it still sparkles.

I have an on-going contest with myself whenever I go out to Long Island, to get a great shot—from a moving train—of the Prospect Cemetery in Queens. Here’s what I got yesterday afternoon. Okay, not so good. I got a better one in 2012. It’s sharper. But it doesn’t show as many graves.

Prospect Cemetery, Jamaica, Queens, New York

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

4 thoughts on “Penn Station at Night

  1. I don’t have any real expertise in the matter, but there are people who study why some places are terrible and why some places work. I searched for images of Penn Station and found this, which looked interesting:
    I’ve also read Jane Jacobs “Rise and Fall of Great Cities”. But the best book on what works in human creations like houses and cities is “A Pattern Language” by Christopher Alexander

    It’s interesting how we humans feel like we have to reinvent the wheel all the time. We know best what works for our generation! That’s why we end up with those terrible, ugly buildings on the outskirts of Paris, or those nasty post-war apartment buildings in London. I don’t know why we can’t see what works and do that!

  2. I started to watch that PBS documentary about Penn Station, but then I got interrupted.

    “A Pattern Language” sounds great though, I have to read that, thanks for the pointer!

    I posted something on Echo about Penn Station and it seems the dispiriting feeling it gives is universal.

  3. Look for “A Pattern Language” in the library! It might be a bit expensive to buy. I consider it a reference book. It is one of those books that I have been collecting over 30 years, just because they are works of genius. But now I see a pattern (no pun intended) as they all point to a philosophy of life of some sort and that’s where I am now – becoming a philosopher.

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