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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Third World Penn Station in New York

Albany, New York is a clean and precise city. I was last there years ago as a guest of Keith Block, a friend I met on the Penn campus. Keith showed me all the sites, especially the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza. I revisited the Plaza this time around. It is just as futuristic looking as it was in 1982. Albany somehow reminds me of Ottawa, Canada. It must be the government buildings. Since Keith is no longer alive, I couldn't visit him or his family.

I attempted to contact Keith years ago but kept running into dead ends until frustration led me to call his mother in Albany. When his mother pucked up the phone, I introduced myself and said that I was once a guest in her house, and that I had met her son when he was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. There was a brief silence, and then she hung up. It was disconcerting, because Mrs. Block, as far as I know, always liked me. I held onto this mystery for a couple of years, assuming that something bad had happened to Keith. I was tempted to call Mrs. Block again but refrained from doing so since I could not bear a repeat of the hang up experience.

A rather talented psychic informed me recently that Keith had committed suicide some years ago. That made sense. After the psychic told me this I remembered conversations I had with him in which he told me that he believed in suicide, and wouldn't hesitate to "take a number of pills" if he felt he had to. Keith had unspeakable health problems and he must have been in pain for most of his life. His mother probably couldn't bear talking to me about him.

So, Albany reminded me of Keith.

I toured a number of churches and the state capitol building. In the capitol building we walked through the Hall of Governors, an area not usually open to tourists. We got a glimpse of FDR's famous elevator (behind a moghany sliding partition), in which he'd arrive for press conferences
and then be placed behind his desk before the media arrived. Imagine the media waiting patiently for something like that today. Our tour guide had a number of state capitol ghost stories. One ghost: a man who threw himself off the central winding staircase balcony (economic troubles); another, a watchman, who was killed in a fire.

I toured the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a Catholic church that a zealous modernist pastor had ripped up shortly after Vatican II. This guy threw out the altar rail, hammered down the high altar and put in a thrust stage, removed the sanctuary lamp, etc. You know the story. Father Pape took me around and explained that he was helping to restore the cathedral's dignity by building a new high altar to replace the simple kitchen table placed in the church after the Council.

I will be writing a more detailed account of my Albany trip elsewhere, and I will post it on this blog.


I must mention the trip home via Amtrak, and the horrible condition of New York's Penn Station. Amtrak travelers waiting for trains must huddle in a small area so there is a profound sense of confinement. Although there is a special area where one can sit, many travelers opt to stand by the train bulletin board, while many others sit on the floor in groups, eating sandwiches and drinking soda so that the impression is of a Third World country. Everyone, it seemed, was sitting on the floor as police officers and military with German Sheppards made their sniffing rounds. The large numbers of people confined in that small space made the place very warm, and as trains were late or delayed I really felt as if I had slipped into Satre's NO EXIT. How I wanted to get out of New York. The whole city seemed doomed somehow, like a city perched on the edge of a dangerous precipice. I really felt afraid for New York. The train, of course, was very crowded, and those getting on in New York had to search for seats. Since Amtrak loves to economize, there were only a certain number of passenger cars available, hence more crowds in the train. I am surprised that some passengers didn't have to stand all the way to Philadelphia. This was quite a shock, considering that Amtrak tickets are in the $65-75 range.

Compared to Penn Station, Philadelphia's 30th Street was a marvel: open, high ceilings, plenty of benches, the direct opposite of a confined, warm space.

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