It’s not glamorous. It’s not welcoming. It’s one of New York City’s versions of purgatory, really. You’re not fully in the city, and you’re also a far cry from wherever you were. It’s the underground corridor that links Seventh and Eighth Avenues inside of Pennsylvania Station. (Not to be confused with the corridor that links them under Times Square.)
It’s the first place I ever stepped foot in New York when my mom brought me here from our home in Massachusetts for my twelfth birthday. She looked at a map of Manhattan before we left and figured we’d be able to walk no problem from Penn Station at 34th Street, up to our destination, the Metropolitan Museum of Art at 81st Street. It is possible. But it would’ve required fifty-five minutes of our seven-hour day trip. Instead, a NYPD officer directed us to the A train. My mom in that moment realized that this city (especially its underground bits) can be incredibly intimidating, and she proceeded to have a nervous breakdown.
Cut to twelve years later, I now live in the city. And that corridor in Penn Station is, perhaps for nostalgia’s sake, one of my favorite places. Walking through seems initially like chaos. It’s an unforgiving landscape for first time visitors. But once initiated, the sites, the sounds, the movement—they start to feel orchestrated, oddly harmonious. No matter the time of day you battle a storm of people. Some are getting on the Long Island Rail Road, some New Jersey Transit, some Amtrak. Still others are heading to or exiting one of the six MTA subway lines that run along both ends of the corridor. And then there are the people who aren’t heading anywhere—they’re begging for money and food, they’re sitting slumped on the tiled floor.
I pass through the corridor multiple times a week. I pass through it even when it’d easier to exit up to the street and walk from one avenue to the next that way. But I like the energy down below. I like the convergence of commuters and tourists and vagrants. I like how pedestrians become athletes—planning their steps way in advance, plotting the most efficient strategy through the throng. I like how police officers stand guard in pairs, as though they can somehow maintain their own ideas about order in this place that defies conventions and creates, by necessity, its own means of operating.
When passing through, my journey tends to begin on the Seventh Avenue end. I exit subway turnstiles, having just gotten off a downtown 1, 2 or 3 train, and it begins. I like to look at the faces. I catch snippets of conversations. I see terrified tourists, and I think of my mom, who since that trip steers clear of the city.
Pennsylvania Station is directly underneath Madison Square Garden, which makes the thirty minutes after a Rangers hockey game or a Celtic Thunder concert the prime time to walk through the corridor. Just after the Westminster Dog Show is also a great time to be in the area (though the handlers tend to stay in upscale hotels nearby and have no reason to venture into the underbelly of the Garden). But hockey fans—they take to the corridor like fleas to fur. They can continue drinking beer down there because every eatery, whether it’s selling bananas or bratwurst, offers it on tap. And they can emulate their favorite Ranger, body slamming strangers into walls if they so choose. A police officer will likely yell “Break it up!” from afar, but they won’t take serious action. This is the corridor. What can you do?
The thing I love the most about the corridor is the feeling that anything can happen. I love the extremes, the drama. One moment you’re stepping out of the way of a drunken sports fan, and the next, you round a corner and hear a man collecting tips as he belts out a song from Phantom of the Opera. He sings powerfully, full of feeling: “Say you’ll share with me one love, one lifetime. / Let me lead you from your solitude. / Say you need me with you here, beside you. /Anywhere you go, let me go, too…”
For a moment the tiles and the people are transformed and I remember that we’re all connected and the universe is this big, mysterious beautiful place. And then, just as quickly, his voice is out of range. I hum the rest of the song in my head and I make my ascent up an escalator, heading toward Eighth Avenue. It’s here that I encounter another powerful voice. It’s always the same one, recorded and running on a loop. It’s strong. It’s familiar. It may or may not be, but it sounds exactly like Oprah Winfrey. She welcomes me, the commuters, the tourists, the vagrants, all to Penn Station, New York. She tells us to always hold the handrails and be safe while riding the escalator. And to enjoy our day. I find myself looking forward to her voice each time I venture through the corridor. I know as I exit she’ll be welcoming me. And after hearing the opera singer, I half expect her to continue his song, joining in duet and ending the message, “That’s all I ask of you.”