Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Walking in Penn Station

Walking in Penn Station, the walls are human and shifting. No path is reliable, no surveillance complete. The cops with automatic rifles are the opposite of comforting; one pictures the aftermath of a bomb punctuated by their strafing. Here is the place people go who wish to be somewhere else; the building of clocks to measure one's progress toward departure (for even arrivals are departures, opportunities to escape Penn Station).

Penn Station is a place that creates desire. It so deadens that the heart erupts at even the slightest opportunity to prove that it is still beating. A bookstore! A Starbucks! Pizza! New Jersey poets engraved in the walls! My god, I am alive, barely. Umberto Eco once wrote (upon seeing the stadium show of a very bad band) of his initial amazement at the choreography of an audience at a concert – how the entire audience might erupt in a moment at some cue he could not discern. Eco theorized that the answer must lie in the music itself. It must normally be so boring that even the slightest variation is a signal: a pathetic doo-dittle-dee goes the guitar. And the crowd roars!

So with Penn Station. Departing, I count the seconds to my train, and race my fellow commuters (Why are we running? The trains are never full, yet we form a sonic boom of briefcases, strollers, and palm pilots. We are running to leave Penn Station). Arriving, I trace the paths of rats on the subway platform, waiting for another train to get me the fuck out of Penn Station. All the while I am unsettled, breathless, disturbed at the thought that my train might go and I would be stuck here. I feel like the angle in the Wim Wender's move Wings of Desire, who recorded the feelings of humans and only wanted to become one of them. I am full of this desire.

Desire drives me to commerce. A cup of coffee, a lousy buck fifty cup of coffee, staves off despair. It is the power chord that sends me cheering with the audience. I warm my hands on it even when I am already sweating. Its charcoal-and-syrup aroma revives me like smelling salts. If I have a doughnut as well (Krispy-Kreme is in Penn Station. To me, it is the Sistine Chapel. I pilgrimage there only on festival days), then my transformation is complete. I sip the coffee on the train and feel its glorious bitterness, then follow with Michelangelo doughnut. Which is the moment I return to any sense of self-control.

Today I find myself longing for some sense of redemption in the ritual and the pageantry and the beauty of the day: the buds and cherry blossoms, the children waddling in their Sunday finery, the hats. I was mostly reminded of how much of my life is separated from those things. Products are easier to sell if they fulfill needs, and what better way to create need than to fill the world with intense and unbearable ugliness? Much as I might wish my church or my park was a microcosm of the cosmos, I fear Penn Station is the axis mundi, the place I am always going to get somewhere else and nowhere, all at the same time.

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