Grand Central by Night

The truth is I haven’t been able to write much lately. The last thing I wrote was an angry, nonsensical poem last Tuesday. I sat in my bed among a cocoon of blankets, one my own and one provided my dorm, staring at the pile of books – Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Monique Wittig’s Le Corps Lesbien, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I tapped my fingers on the keyboard and wrote long lines about the humiliation of living with a chronic illness, but it felt like writing about nothing at all. It felt like trying to put musical tempo to arrhythmic crying. I saved the document with a title of two random letters and closed it, not even bothering to change the font from Cambria to Times New Roman.

It’s actually a lie that I haven’t been able to write much lately. I’ve been writing all the time. As a literature student, there’s very little I do that’s not writing. But the well that the desire to write springs from felt empty this past week, my body was drained and my energy flatlined. My pelvic floor dysfunction, a chronic muscle condition I’m coming up on the anniversary of developing, had begun to make me feel inhuman. Like my body didn’t belong to me. Like it didn’t matter what I did, because I would still be carrying constant sharp pain with me everywhere I went. Writing felt pointless. Getting out of bed felt pointless. I could write – and had written – fifty-thousand words of a manuscript and I would still be chronically ill. I could sit in class for hours and I would still be chronically ill. The sense that there would never be any change was what bogged me down. But then I was standing in Grand Central Station on a Saturday night. What had gotten me there was an idiosyncrasy of mine; I had been in Murray Hill at a twenty-four hour South Asian deli getting chai. I couldn’t tell you exactly how chai became a part of my routine, but it did, and late nights when I figured I would be doing nothing other than sitting in front of my computer I would swipe my unlimited MetroCard and go out for chai. This particular deli was on twenty-eighth and Lexington, and I took the 6 down from where I lived on the border of East Harlem to pay a dollar for a tiny cup of spiced milk tea. Then I walked up to Grand Central to take the express 4 or 5 instead of the local 6, just because it was warm out and it was something to do.

My own image of Grand Central, taken 5/4/2019. 

There was something about seeing the monolith of Grand Central Station, its brick glowing in the dark surrounded by buildings that were shrouded in fog. The very building was a monument of another time, of old-world glamour. It dipped its head down in the forest of black glass condos around it. I walked inside and sat on the steps below the Apple Store. The main concourse stretched out in front of me. For those unfamiliar, Grand Central Station has an enormous concourse with a turquoise ceiling adorned with illustrations of stars. I remember when I was younger hearing about the “ceiling of stars” and being kind of disappointed when I actually saw it. But the ceiling wasn’t what my eyes landed on. I had read a disgruntled Gothamist article about the Grand Central timetable boards being replaced with screens, and lo and behold, it was happening in front of me. A gaggle of men in neon construction uniforms stood atop a ladder, prying wires out of the space where one of the timetables had once been.

There are a lot of stories like this in New York: Something changes, people get angry to watch a remnant of what they think makes New York great go. While Gothamist wrote that they “expected this kind of modernization from Penn Station, who brought in LED displays in 2017, but not a classic gem like Grand Central,” I felt relieved and at peace watching the boards dismantled. It was a reminder for me to stay in the present. The misery I had felt the past few weeks was fundamentally feeling like I was stuck in a present that wasn’t worth being in. That the symptoms of my illness would never go away in ways that would be big enough to notice. But staring at those taken-down timetables, I thought to myself that things change in small ways. It was strange to me when I started physical therapy after my diagnosis pelvic floor dysfunction that I started experiencing more pain instead of less, and that I felt as if I almost mourned the time when I was complacent in what my illness was. It makes sense, though. Sometimes you wish you could know less. Sometimes you wish the picture you had in your head of Grand Central was what it was in real life. But I saw it change in front of me. It was different now. It could be different. And that was what made it beautiful.

The old Grand Central timetables and the new edition. Image from Gothamist.

Those timetables were something I took for granted. That night they read 12:31 AM. 1:05 AM. 1:21 AM. 1:57 AM. As a kid growing up in New York, I fantasized about suburbia the way kids from suburbia fantasize about the big city. Though New York is often associated with freedom, there’s a sort of congestion to a life built there. New York is full of beginnings and endings. Subway lines have stark ends, and there is only so far you can go on them. Manhattan itself is an island, and without a footbridge you can’t cross the Hudson or the East River. I remember the thrill of walking to New Jersey across the George Washington Bridge from my neighborhood, Washington Heights, as a teen. The fact that the highways just kept going was fascinating to me. The gouaches of Westchester townships and hamlets into larger towns was beautiful – who could tell you where Edgemont ended and Scarsdale began? Even that White Plains Road in the Bronx turned into Mount Vernon’s 1st street was romantic to me. What Grand Central represented to me was a kind of transience, a sense that the everyday of commuting can be beautiful and worth a pause, but also that you are never truly trapped, not in your body, not in your life, and that making peace with your everyday is better than escaping it. The reality of life is that we are all underneath different kinds of ceilings. But if you look at it the right way, a ceiling can be the stars.