New Haven's Union Station's Lavish Display

New Haven's a wonderful place but it is pretty rinky-dink in a lot of ways. If it took itself more seriously, for example, matters relating to public transportation would be taken more seriously. Don't get me started on bus service here, for one thing. (I use the buses all the time, and I'm the first to try to defend them, but my point is, I shouldn't have to think about defending them. I should be able to just... use them, and boast about them.) One sign that New Haven used to be a bigger, more impressive place than it is now -- or a place that cared more about the public's view of public transportation -- is the train station, which is lovely, designed on a grand scale. When I was a kid, the New Haven train station wasn't the building it is now; that building, the original train station, was closed, first awaiting demolition and, then, eventually, renovation. In the meantime, we used this underground, scary, damp-feeling space which has somehow completely disappeared. If you took me there now I wouldn't know how to explain where it was. This is the trouble with memories from childhood; they get hazy. I'm sure many readers of this will be happy to tell me what happened to that piece of crap train station. (Please do.)

You walked in at street level and the whole entrance was this massive ramp down to the waiting area, where there were sad little benches, and then you went up to the tracks, as I recall. I may be mistaken but I remember the ramp having dreary, ill-advised industrial carpeting on it (after a while, the flooring was some kind of equally depressing linoleum). The best part of the whole place was the vending machines, which isn't saying much. Kids always like vending machines anyhow.

The old Union Station (which, Wikipedia tells me, was designed by Cass Gilbert -- woo woo) is a huge improvement over that disgusting place I remember from the 1970s. It's airy, sunny; when you walk on the floors, your snappy shoes make a wonderful, adult "click-click-click" sound. (If you're wearing Birkenstocks or sneakers or shoes that aren't snappy, you just trudge along and miss out on the joy of the clicking.) There's a shoeshine station, which I've always wanted to patronize but have never had a chance to; there's a newsstand. There are a few little sandwich stores, which aren't remarkable but do their jobs perfectly well. My main point is, you come into the train station from the street or from the tracks, and either way, you think, "Huh. New Haven. This is a real place." It's a miniaturized Grand Central Station, and that sounds like I'm being slighting, but I'm not trying to be. It's a marvelous space.

One of the things that continues to make the station so appealing is its arrivals/departures board, which is something of an anomaly in today's LED display world (so my husband, who pays attention to these things, tells me). The board is a huge black and white thing with little panels that flip, like the numbers on the alarm clock my brother had in 1978, changing the displayed information. The panels turn incredibly fast, and the sound they make -- kind of "whp-whp-whp-whp-whp" -- is just awesome. When you're waiting for a train that's running late -- as the Amtrak trains often are -- you can get absorbed in your reading and not worry about missing anything because you know you'll look up when you hear the whp-whp-whp sound: it digs into your head, signifiying "new information on the board, pay attention." Sometimes the information is useful to you, and sometimes not, but either way it's fun to watch the text change. You can see all the names of the cities on the Northeast Corridor whip by, which is cool. You can think, "Well, maybe I'll skip going to Boston and just hop onto the Montrealer instead." (You won't, though, because your girlfriend in Boston would be pissed, and, what's more, you wouldn't have a place to stay in Montreal anyhow.) There's something about that board that keeps one's sense of travel intact in a way that the LED displays of Grand Central Station -- a shame they installed that -- just.... don't.

People who know me will snort at this; I am a homebody and am known for not liking to travel And it is true, I like being at home. But every now and then I also like going somewhere, particularly if there is a snazzy hotel involved (I'm big on snazzy hotels), and so I have had some experience with train stations and, yes, even airports. I'm one of maybe three people you'll ever meet who's actually been at the Los Angeles train station, for example. And I can tell you: New Haven's train station is nicer.

But, of course, I am biased.