HB GCT! (and did you know…?)

This week marked the 97th anniversary of the opening of Grand Central Terminal, one of the most

remarkable places on Earth. Herewith, a little story; and perhaps some trivia even you didn’t know…
Audrey Johnson arrives at Grand Central Terminal every morning at 7:00 and doesn’t leave.
Instead, she takes a seat in one of the most visible spots in New York, waiting for the next question.
600,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal every day, and nearly all of them, at one time or another, need an answer.
“When is the next train to Tarrytown?”
 (Answer: 5:11)
“Is there a stop called Rye Brook?”
 (Answer: No.)
“Where do I get the subway?”
(Answer: Turn around, go through the archway and down the stairs.”)


It’s a Friday night at rush-hour and she’s on overtime, directly under New York’s best-known clock, in the center of the Concourse, and separated from the rest of us by a Plexiglas window and a microphone.
“Can you tell me the track to Wakefield please?”
Wakefield? I’ve got a 4:54. If you hurry up you’ve got 2 minutes to get to 106. Right down those stairs.”
“What track?”
 Johnson whirls on a wheeled chair, arms flailing like an octopus, alternately taking questions, picking up a telephone when it rings with an ear-splitting jangle, adjusting a squawking walkie-talkie barking track changes from the station master’s office, and writing numbers in a ledger book.
“I have an off peak ticket to New Haven. I want to leave now. What should I do?”
“You can pay the difference on the train.”
“How much is it?”
“An additional $4.50.”
She never looks up.
 Then she wheels over to the public address system.
“Attention Customers. The 5:01 en route to Chappaqua. First stop Scarsdale. Now receiving passengers. Lower level gate 105. This is a track change.”
Moments later, her soft, deep Southern drawl echoes those same words through the 470 foot terminal, under the constellations in the barrel vaulted ceiling above, calmly assuring us the trains are still running in the biggest terminal in the world.
“This is fun!” Her laugh pierces the din of hurried voices, rushing footsteps. “You can’t possibly get bored.”
“I’m trying to get to Patchogue.”
“Oh you need to go to Penn Station,” she says.
“Where is that?”
She rattles off a rendition to the customer that’s more familiar than her own phone number.
Harrison? I’ve got a 5:11 right behind me, track 23.”
“Where do I buy a ticket?”
“Turn around, she says. “Right over there at the ticket booths.
She tells a visitor, “We wanted to get a flashing neon sign to answer that question, but they still wouldn’t see it!”
That hearty laugh again, boucing off the curved brass walls that enclose her.
Stuffed on the shelves of those walls inside Grand Central’s information booth are thousands of schedules (the station master recently found one from 1924), and several colorful computer monitors displaying arrivals and departures. A hardwood floor encircles the banister of an ornate spiral staircase. The steps wind directly down to the inside of another information booth on the lower level, near the food courts. Sometimes Metro-North workers take their breaks sitting on the landing between the two floors, on a couple of old chairs. Handwritten notices and drawings are taped to the curved wall.
But the best questions Audrey gets have nothing to do with the trains.
“Isn’t there a little stripe of dirt somewhere that shows how dirty this place used to be?”
“Yup. On the ceiling up over gate 30.” 
The stripe is actually a 3 foot patch of grime the renovation crew purposely left behind high above the gate where the ceiling meets the wall. It shows what decades of pollution, dirt and smoke did to the stone walls and the ceiling of the entire waiting room before the restoration that was completed in 1998.
“I love that question.”

 Johnson she came to work for Metro North in 1999 at the waiting area that is now occupied by Michael Jordan’s Steakhouse and Cipriani Restaurant. By 1989, she was sitting at the window in the booth.
Now, she says, “I love my job. I love people. I love helping them. I love getting ‘em from square a  to square b.”
But it isn’t always that simple.
There’s the time a man walked up to the window and said he needed an insulin shot before he passed out. She ran out and gave it to him. And he gave her a necklace she still wears.
Once, the protest group “Act Up” instantly wrapped the entire booth in white paper. Horrified, Johnson and her frightened colleagues fled down the stairs.
Then there’s the man who eleven years ago, started lining up each Friday evening, week after week, just to tell her to have a nice weekend. She’s now engaged to him.

“Yes sir?”
“I’m going to Greenwich, which train should I take?”
“I have a 5:11 track 23, I got a 5:09 on 123.”
“Which one is faster? Which one gets there sooner?
“The 5:09
“What’s the track number again?”
And just be sure not to call it “Grand Central Station,” for that refers not to this building, but to the subway station below or the Post office next door. This, Johnson will remind you, is a Terminal. The end of the line.
“Where’s the corner where you can hear someone whispering from the corner way across the hall?”

”That’s the area right outside of the Oyster Bar, on the lower level. You can stand in one corner and your friend can stand in the other and you can talk to each other in a whisper.”
“Where did you say it was?”
“May I help you?”
“Are there really tennis courts here?”
“Yup. On the third floor. They cost $130.00 for half an hour.
There are actually several full-sized tennis courts in Grand Central, stretching along the 42nd Street side, with cavernous ceilings and arched doorways. The club is owned by Donald Trump. And the courts occupy the site of the first CBS television studios It’s where shows like “What’s My Line?” were first broadcast.
Johnson even has regulars. People she sees every day. “Every day I am working they will come. You have regular commuters who just don’t feel comfortable looking on the big schedule board before going to the platform,” she says, “They gotta come to me every single day.”
When the rush is over, the woman who is paid to know everything starts packing up for her own train ride home. She has spent the last twelve hours in this grand public space without ever going outside. Naturally, she doesn’t need to ask anyone which way to go. As she makes her way to track 25 and the 6:59 to Stamford, she answers one more question:
What’s the most important thing she has learned about human beings after helping them at Grand Central Terminal for 17 years?
“They don’t listen.”

1 Comment

  1. There is no track # 123.
    editrix : right you are! call it poetic license…

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