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Inside Penn at 2AM

The dinner concluded around 10PM in Bronxville, an hour or so north of Manhattan. Other friends of the host generously agreed to take me back with them, sparing me a redo of the several-hundred-dollar rush hour Uber that had delivered me there (entirely worthwhilely).

As I hopped from their SUV near Moynihan Train Hall, I considered how long I’d have to wait for the next train. It was 11:15 - perhaps I’d wait until midnight?

The emptiness inside was troubling; the train status screen even more so: The next departure to DC would leave at 2:53AM.

What to do.

First, I consulted all of the apps on my phone for hotels - the bargain last minute ones, Google’s map-based offerings, the full range my credit card would offer.

After seeing that even with an 11:30PM check-in I could hardly do better than a midrange, mid-review-scoring hotel for about $500, the decision was tempting, and I made it:

I would spend almost 3.5 hours in the bowels of Penn Station at night, witnessing live what I knew of only through lore.

Step one was a trip to the most secluded women’s restroom in Moynihan that I could find. Because it’s still fairly new, I reasoned that bathrooms here would be a better bet than traversing 8th avenue to the classic Penn Station horrors. I was right in some regards - it was bright, with newer fixtures. But I could tell someone was establishing semi-permanent residence in the ADA stall, and there was a drunken fight brewing between two women in the stalls on the other side of me.

I had brought along clothes for working out, ambitiously expecting that had I stayed over I would have wanted to cruise around Central Park before leaving town. Now these were the most incognito articles in my bag and the comfiest. Carefully balancing on one leg, grateful for the years of yoga in which I had been unknowingly training for this moment, I commenced a version of “the floor is lava” in which I tried to fully change everything on my body without letting any of the items or me directly touch the ground.

And I won the game.

Back in the hall, I spied a Walgreens and decided provisioning was next. I meandered around weary travelers and people who may not have been fully aware of their physical location, contemplating my strategy: should I go for caffeine and sugar, to stay alert until the train departed? Or comfort? Or healthy? Or …? In the end I settled on a giant water, a slightly more modestly sized Diet Mountain Dew, a Diet Coke, two varieties of trail mix, and, at the last moment, an extra travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer.

All set.

In my Lululemon armor with my Longchamp ruck sack of provisions, I was ready to enter the arena below 31st and 8th. And I would have to do so, a security guard loudly, assertively reminding all of us in the brightly-lit, charming Moynihan that the station would close soon. It wasn’t the advertised 1AM yet, but the woman’s tone suggested argument would be futile, and I am still a somewhat timid Midwestern girl at heart, not eager for confrontation.

As I approached the exit of Moynihan, the chaos was already leaking in from outside. A man screamed into a cell phone near the doors. A woman screamed at an imaginary foe while grasping several worn shopping bags to her chest. Outside, a bewildered, frantic trio consulted with a police officer while a man, who appeared to be their fourth companion, lay facedown moaning on the sidewalk. In New Yorker fashion, I shuffled past all.

As the escalator descended into Penn Station, I considered the many times I‘d been on it before - giggling with friends about shenanigans from a weekend away, tearfully departing from men with whom I was unsure of my status, gratefully surrendering to the trip home after a long day of meetings. None of which had happened around midnight.

Downstairs was reasonably-controlled chaos. As I scanned the board, I realized that my fellow early morning Amtrakers and I would be joined for at least the midnight to 2AM spell by various local commuters. At present many swelled around the station bar, parked at one end of the Amtrak waiting area. The waiting area is a swath of banks of chairs, arranged in a fashion that suggests order was the original plan, disrupted by the whims of travelers.

The waiting area has an entrance and a low metal railing around the perimeter, isolating it in the middle of a clearing in the station. I walked in prepared to show my ticket and found that the attendant had no interest, distracted by the frantic soliloquy of a distraught passenger. I steered towards the edges of the most populated part of the area, figuring strength in numbers should be my approach.

Miraculously, I spied a veritable oasis: a clean seat, next to a table, which was crammed against a column, in which was … an unused power outlet.

The bad news was that the seat was not on the perimeter of the area but rather near the middle, so the activity would swirl around me as I sat.

I’d take it.

Many times I’ve heard that I have no poker face, that my thoughts and emotions are written directly on my face. For this endeavor, I knew that could be a problem. So I conjured my best disgruntled face and planned to make no eye contact. Hunkering with my phone very slowly charging, I stacked my backpack and bag on the seat next to me, crafting a barrier between me and the remainder of the bank of seats.

I crammed in my earbuds to dampen the room tone and settled on the final three episodes of Project Runway for my personal white noise, the chill vibes of Christian Siriano dampening out the cacophony of humanity.

But still I could hear the drunken arguments, the bored sighs, the frequent requests to use the other outlet - which I appreciated as recognition of my current ‘guardian of the outlet‘ status.

Across from me was another bank of seats, a connect row staring directly back at me. Because the banks are not secured to the ground, the days‘ visitors create a Lego-esque arrangement of chairs as they craft bespoke seating situations during their waits. The bank sat at a nearly 45-degree angle from me.

When I sat, both my and the facing banks were empty, but not for long. Quickly they began to fill with other tired would-be passengers. A single woman with a bursting roller bag who flung herself dramatically across two seats, shifting the entire bank from 45 degrees to maybe 50.

Next was a an annoyed man who appeared to have recently finished work in a restaurant, his black shirt sporting an enthusiastically blazed logo, complete with exclamation mark, that did not match the mood on his face. He seemed very unhappy, and while he sat waiting for his phone to charge, I wondered why his mood was so dark and where he was heading. Was it home? Was he late? Was it just a bad day?

Behind him for most of my wait sat a man with an older couple. Were the his parents? The man had a dingy neck pillow which he wore for the entire three-hour wait for the train. As time passed, I would glance over to find the three in ever changing, pseudo-Renaissance poses of rest - sometimes he asleep with his head lolling to one side of his next pillow, other times his parents asleep hugging their backpacks, legs stretched dramatically. Travelers at rest.

The most active being in the waiting area, though, was The brown mouse who had clearly made a home somewhere in my outlet column. She darted in and out, and at first I feared her in the way that people unaccustomed to mice do not realize that a single mouse is not hell bent on human physical harm.

Once I snatched my Walgreens bag from the floor and secured my feet on the chair under me (“the floor is lava,” round two), I watched her work. She would dart out in between swells of humans passing by, grab whatever crumb or random larger food item she had spied while waiting for her moment, then dart back to the column. I began to quietly cheer every time she completed a mission. Sometimes, her trips would be discovered by a human, who would violently jerk away from her, clutching bags/clothes/other people as if this tiny creature were an immediate threat to life and limb.

By 2AM, all the local trains had departed, leaving only the sorry 2;53AM Amtrak lot to contend with the final hour of wait. By 2:30, the tension was palpable. Unwilling to leave the safety and comparative tranquility of the Amtrak waiting area for the heavily policed yet still vaguely unnerving, standing-only area of the departure gates, we glanced at one another, the board, our luggage. Shifting in our seats as we waited for the track announcement.

Suddenly, like a flock of birds embarking on flight, a flurry of travelers alighted and rushed out of the area. I was not fully prepared yet for this, and being in the middle of the area it took me a minute to get to the exit, putting me towards the back of this particular huddled mass.

The line for the train was forming under careful Amtrak and police monitoring. No less than five police officers, most with thumbs hooked into their bulletproof vests, meandered around the line, several hundred people long, that now snaked back and forth with no stations for regulation.

I was near the end. And very unhappy about it.

Almost immediately in front of me were two people who made the excruciating final ten minutes even worse: a pair of bikers.

Clearly well-rested, fully decked out in spandex, toting bike helmets, Croackied-sunglasses around necks, camel packs of water. Worst of all, though, were the cheerful smiles on their faces and their enormous bikes, which they used to block progress of the line as first one then two of their friends arrived at the station and joined them, cutting in front of the fifty-odd weary people at the end.

I have no pride in the ill I wished upon them in my mind.

Finally, finally, I was descending to the tracks. The mad rush onto the train was typical, but a last minute decision to try to the very front of the train yielded me the sweet nirvana of the quiet car and the luxury of two seats to myself. I remained awake until the train climbed back above ground, watching as the quiet world slipped past. Then I surveyed the sleeping styles of those around me - whose approach to physically balling themselves on two seats looked least pain-inducing? - eased myself into a modified fetal position, and fell asleep.

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