Of all of New York's public buildings, the one I have spent the most time in by far is connected to bridges and tunnels to the north, from the Bronx all the way to the rural Harlem Valley in the east and Franklin Roosevelt's Dutchess County duchy to the west. The passenger railroad lines that end in Grand Central Terminal - that's terminal, not "station" for all you bumpkins - carry nearly 300,000 riders every weekday, spilling men in gray flannel still, and commuters of every shape and background into one of the world's finest public spaces.
Grand Central opened in 1913 replacing the smaller station on the same spot, built by the New York Central Railroad during the days when train travel in America still involved helping to build the fortunes of transportation barons. E.B. White's "unexpungeable odor of the long past" in New York certainly covers the vast spaces in Grand Central, competing perhaps with the simmering vats of chowder in the Oyster Bar, the fresh bakery counter at Zaro's, or the less savory smells of lost people sleeping on benches or floors in any given decade of my experience there.
Before we walk along the platform, through the sliding green doors to the great, open concourse of North American imagination and commercial energy - tracing in reverse the footsteps of Cary Grant in North By Northwest - let's take a moment to consider the start of the journey less than twenty miles away (about thirty minutes on a rush hour express) because that's where the story begins. I was born across the street from the commuter rail station in Bronxville, arriving in Lawrence Hospital during another February snowstorm in a month of February snowstorms that year, the day after John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. My grandfather bought a new camera for the occasion, launching a productive late life avocation that eventually earned him an international photography prize for his portrait of the Matterhorn.
In truth, I was born into what became a central hub for my life, a quintessential patch of inner ring suburbia that still attracts movie location scouts and investment bankers. I still see the hospital where I was born every time I take the train into Manhattan. I also see the former offices of William H. Watson Real Estate, which stood next to Bob's Cup and Saucer on the ground floor of the Station Park Building on Parkway Road, directly opposite the southbound platform. Just to the south is the block where the filling station once managed by my uncle Augustine J. Ryan stood, just around the corner from the little bowling alley where my brother and I rolled many a game on the earnings from a neighborhood snow shoveling business up the hill in Yonkers.
The Bronxville station house was opened in 1916 and its distinctive Spanish architecture matched the glamor of the Gramatan Hotel, which sat on the village's highest downtown hill, and opened in 1905 as the vision of real estate developer William Van Duzer Lawrence, whose planned suburban community created some of the sprawling Norman and Tudor mansions that aim to emulate the charm of Grand Tour Europe before the apocalypse of the first half of the 20th century. The most important event in the history of the grand Gramatan took place in 1958, when my parents celebrated their wedding in its ballroom. The hotel came down, sadly, in the 1970s and was replaced by condos now showing their age, but a lower row of storefronts along Sagamore Road survives and includes the barber shop that cares for my thinning pate and the Mexican restaurant that welcomes some of our largest birthday fiestas with a giant sombrero and a blast of the Beatles' Birthday. Down Kraft Avenue on the northbound side of the rail line is the movie theater, once a single screen where I remember feeling the terror of Kirk Douglas's performance in Jules Verne's bizarre pirate tale The Light at the End of the World, fronted by several Mr. Magoo shorts, somewhere around 1971. Some years later, I had the opportunity to inquire about that film to an older Kirk Douglas in the lobby of the Beverly Hilton; he nodded pleasantly and signed a book to my father, who attended Bronxville High School and hiked with its Scout troop.
Bronxville was and is a fairly wealthy place, perhaps the archetype of the tony Westchester villages that grew up around railroad stations and sent their mainly male white collar workforce into Grand Central on a daily basis. We were not wealthy, and aren't still, but the orientation of a Yonkers family toward the planned village of the Lawrence clan was partly a cultural nod to its leafy and less urban ways, as well as the product of family commerce and geography. When I was a child of school age - grammar school to young Catholics of that time - my mother drove the same route down Palmer Road, through Bronxville, up Tanglewylde Hill (where we'd almost always point out the pocket manse of Candid Camera announcer Durwood Kerby - now there's a star for you), along to White Plains Road and on to the Immaculate Conception School in Tuckahoe, where my mother taught and we collected catechisms, writing skills, and lifelong friends. The reverse commute back to Yonkers meant stops in Bronxville for important errands: the WPA-built post office with its distinctive mural by John French Sloan (The Arrival of the First Mail in Bronxville, looking more like a scene from a cinematic adaptation of Dickens, which fits Bronxville to a tee, if you know Bronxville), Woolworths, and the A&P, where the big thrill was pulling the level on the grinding machines churning Eight O'Clock coffee beans into aromatic grist for the percolator on my grandmother's stove.
For me, as well as being a hub of family activity - the funeral home has seen its share of related wakes, I said my first Hail Mary on my knees in St. Joseph's Church, and enjoyed my first book signing in Womrath's bookshop - Bronxville has long been the stepping off point for "the city." The train took adolescents to Madison Square Garden for The Who, the Allman Brothers, Springsteen marathons, and the No Nukes shows and to the clubs of the Lower East Side, and then later to college on Morningside Heights. Still later, a decade of daily commutation from the same platform, stomping out the cold on dawning winter mornings and fighting for a seat, while wearing a suit and tie.
And every single time, after each short sprint down the Harlem Line, Grand Central itself was a wonder. Yes, buildings can thrill and this one did and does through the sheer space it creates and the life that teems through that space and the light of its tall windows every day. With Pennsylvania Station demolished in my childhood, the 1970's citizens campaign to preserve Grand Central leveraged its most glamorous partner in the public interest Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (the Kennedys had once commuted from Bronxville, too) to successfully defeat a plan for more slab-sided towers above the concourse. The effort preserved a work of genius, and a keystone to what makes New York.
Built by the Vanderbilts, designed by the firms of Warren and Wetmore, and Reed and Stem in the Beaux Arts style, Grand Central is perhaps the most beautiful railway station in the world. Yet what makes Grand Central such a marvel isn't just its soaring stand-alone beauty, but how it connected and inspired the midtown Manhattan that grew up around it - from the creation of Park Avenue to the north, to its surrounding necklace of archictural gemstones with great diamond of the Chrysler Building at the center. They're all there because Grand Central is there, because of the path of millions of people through that hall and through those doors decade after decade.
When you stand on an Atlantic beach and look out at the ocean, its vastness and timelessness make you feel small and humble, but at the same time, part of something much greater than yourself, much longer than the confines of your life. In New York, only Grand Central Terminal can evoke those feelings - and it has for me as I walked the same paths as millions of others, through the many years, like never-ending waves on the shore of the city.
Where those doors lead, inside and outside the terminal, down the streets of New York, into the subway tunnels, and through those many years - we'll see where it goes.