My actual point of departure for New York City turned out to be less than romantic: a forlorn platform in the freight yards outside the grand old Union Terminal. One of Cincinnati’s architectural treasures, with murals by German artist Winold Reiss, thirty five years ago Union Terminal was functioning – fitfully — as an upscale shopping mall. Just a few stores huddled beneath the sprawling paintings, and customers were scarce, or at least they had been on my aimless exploratory visit the previous week.
The Amtrak Cardinal pulled through Cincinnati on its way to Washington D.C. from Chicago. It must’ve been about 6:00 pm, because I remember saying goodbye to my apprehensive mom and dad in something approaching daylight, après an early dinner at home. It was a frigid Tuesday in February 1981.
Rural West Virginia passed by my window most of the night: a sea of pitch-black nothing, occasionally interrupted by random islands of illumination: the pointless blinking of a traffic signal over a deserted intersection, a beacon spot-light shining forth from the side of a windowless corrugated shed.
Changing trains in D.C. passed by as a blur. Somehow I managed to get aboard the Metroliner. The window view looked decidedly different from the day before: disused factories, decayed warehouses. A sign hanging on a huge smokestack in Wilmington, Delaware grabbed my attention: Documents Shredded. The gory details of Watergate, Nixon’s secrecy and paranoia, were fresh enough memories to render this service both wildly funny and slightly ominous. I was entering the part of the country – the east coast — where information mattered. Documents, words, data, ideas and writing: it was all taken quite seriously. Or so I presumed.
Pulling out of Philadelphia, the north side of the city stunned me, a vision out of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. North Philadelphia really did resemble a bombsite: crumbling row houses, junked autos, cracked concrete walls further pockmarked with cartoon-letter graffiti, bumper crops of broken bottles harvested in vacant lots.
The concluding hour or so of the journey consisted of a very leisurely crawl through a tunnel deep below New Jersey. This delay lent a starkly claustrophobic air to the already uncomfortable (cold, crowded) train car. I survived by fantasizing about the way my friends and I used to cruise to downtown Cincinnati via automobile, watching identical acres of ranch houses with lawns gradually shrink and give way to row houses, apartment complexes and office buildings. No, the east coast was different. Dive right in the muck.
Talk about being fresh off the boat, wet behind the ears you name it: I got played for a sucker not half a dozen steps into Penn Station. The entry-level exam in urban savvy is easy to flunk.
“Hey my man you need a cab?”
I sure did. However, this helpful stranger – a thirty-ish African-American with mustache and what I interpreted as a jaunty taxi driver’s cap – grabbed my battered Samsonites just as I nodded in the affirmative, lugging my suitcases toward a distant exit sign. About a minute later the truth sunk into the pit of my stomach. This guy was no cab driver. His “help” would consist entirely of steering the unwitting customer – me — toward the clearly marked cabstand where other potential passengers waited in an orderly line and the real drivers remained snugly behind the wheels of their cars. My guy demanded $10 and accepted $5, while I silently thanked him for a quick education in the potential hazards of public transportation and by extension, the city itself. People looking to take advantage waited around every corner.