Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up close with the George Washington Bridge Bus Station

Every workday I ride the A train four stops to 175th Street, where I transfer to a New Jersey Transit bus located in the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. As New York City commutes go, it's about as painless as it gets. While thousands - millions - of angry, perturbed, tired, confused, beaten-down worker bees spend an hour or much more on the subways or buses, transferring several times, I ride the subway for less than 10 minutes. From the bus station, the good old 186 New Jersey bus takes about 10 minutes to get to work. Still, I give myself 45 minutes to an hour for the trip, as traffic and a late subway or bus can crush any well-intended schedule. By car, the trip takes about 20 minutes if traffic cooperates, though that knowledge only frustrates me when my commute home via public transportation does last an hour.

So I actually spend little time on the subway during the week. Instead, the majority of my commuting time is spent in the confines of the GWB Bridge Bus Station, a terminal located in Washington Heights between 178th and 179th Streets.

And what a terminal.

The higher you are, the easier it is to appreciate the terminal, sort of like a Pink Floyd album or 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this case, it's about elevation, as from above the terminal's unique design captures the eye. From this angle the building looks sleek, almost futuristic.

Pier Luigi Nervi, a famed Italian engineer who also created Rome's 1960 Olympic Stadium, designed the terminal, which opened in 1963. That same year, the building received the Concrete Industry Board's Award, though I didn't see any mention of other contenders for the plainly named honor. Here's an extensive story about the history of the terminal.

That's the history and the architecture. Inside...inside life's a little different, starting with the 175th Street subway stop. Seemingly burrowed even deeper underground than other subway stops, the platform areas attract a decent number of unhinged people.

One night after work, I walked down the steps with a friend. Behind us a lady ranted nonsensically, stringing together unrelated words and thoughts that were impossible to follow. It's a standard sight. But her mannerisms perfectly communicated the idea that she was a person to avoid. As we waited for the train, we heard a gasp and louder yelling. Finally two girls in their early 20s walked past and up the steps, with one of the women holding her cheek, attempting to cover up a growing red spot. The screamer had stopped yelling long enough to slug the poor woman. After hitting her victim, the lady continued walking and talking, as everyone else avoided eye contact. Livened up the commute home.

To get to the waiting area for the buses, you walk up a lengthy tunnel, where performers of varying skill and panhandlers greet you. It's a fairly regular cast of characters, from the kindly guy who simply tells everyone who walks by how good-looking they are - "Hello, there, My Princess... Hello there my good-looking brother" - to the middle-aged man who rests against a wall and softly, politely asks, "Excuse me, sir. Can you help me?" Performers include a saxophone player who sounds like he could play with nearly any band in the country, and an elderly, tough-looking crooner who sings but one song day after day, and sings it poorly. Of the many people at work who have heard him, no one knows the song. The only words anyone understands are, "It's all riiiight. Oh yeaaaah," which he repeats on an endless loop. The saxophonist deserves money and applause. But I've seen the warbler bring in just as much money, perhaps misguided attempts to bribe him quitting for a new career.

Inside the main waiting area, a pair of newsstands share space with a handful of other businesses, including an optometrist's office, donut and coffee shops, and a barber. The biggest crowd each day gathers in the off-track betting parlor. No matter when I walk by, it sounds like someone just hit a Pick 6. The 70,000 people at the 1973 Belmont who stood and wildly cheered as Secretariat blew away the field and completed the Triple Crown didn't show the type of excitement displayed daily at the off-track site at the GWB Bus Station. I don't know if any fortunes are won and lost, but bragging rights surely are.

Waiting passengers fill the metal chairs, watching on black-and-white video screens for their bus to roll in. At their feet, dozens of pigeons wander around, searching for scraps of food and taking off in flight on a moment's notice, often directly at someone's head. Kids love the pigeons. Fools feed them. Everyone else just avoids the crap and carnage.

A cop from an in-house station lightly nudges anyone who nods off in a chair, like a parent jolting a sleeping kid awake during a church sermon. Sometimes the person's homeless. The cop ushers them out. Other times it's simply someone who had to wake up at 5 a.m. and is waiting for a 6:30 bus. At the GWB Bus station, fatigue, apparently, isn't allowed. A week ago, as I sat reading the paper a few minutes before noon, I looked up just in time to see a young guy fall to his face, inches from my feet, the ever-present cop hovering nearby. He fell all on his own, but didn't leave under his own willpower. The cop escorted the intoxicated man out of the terminal and onto the street. No one raised an eyebrow.

The floor is home to more than a half-dozen pay phones, relics that fit in perfectly in 1963, but always seem weirdly out of place in modern-day New York. But as a person who remains cell phone-less, I can say I have actually used the pay phones, braving germs, outdated technology and the looks of cell phone snobs.

Have to use the bathroom? Hold it. I don't care if the bus won't arrive for another 20 minutes and your destination's 45 minutes away. Don't use these bathrooms. All of your senses, and inner belief in the basic goodness of humanity, will thank you later.

I've become a regular at one of the delis, so well-known and predictable with my order that the owner and other workers now pull out a white-frosted donut if they spot me from 10 feet away. Even if I wanted to order something different now - and there have been times I've desired just that - I don't know if they'd allow it.

That type of service almost makes me feel at home in the terminal. Of course, the station is not the type of place you want to get too comfortable in. The station leads to the George Washington Bridge, one of the wonders of the city. But in this case, the beauty really is on the outside, not on the inside.

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