August 10, 2003

I Was Early, the Train Was Late

Which meant I had to spend almost two hours waiting at New York's Penn Station. I couldn't actually leave the station: I didn't know when exactly the train might arrive, but I did know that my husband would be disembarking with a two-year old boy, a heavy suitcase, and an even heavier car seat (which car seat was rescued from our car, which car up and died this weekend, which is why they had to take the train...). Needless to say, I felt duty-bound to remain on hand to meet and greet the intrepid travellers.

So I browsed through 2 bookstores, 1 drugstore (here I focused on the dizzying array of hair care products -- my husband says I have a shampoo fetish, and he's absolutely right), 3 different (though identical) Hudson's News newsstands, and a couple of exceptionally tacky gift shops. I've always wondered: what is the point of these gift shops, located as they are in the grimy underground hell that is Penn Station? Does anyone ever actually enter these sad excuses for retail commerce? I now know the answer.

I bought a fruit salad from a deli. Half an hour later I bought a pretzel from a snackbar. And half an hour later still, I almost broke down and bought a Krispy Kreme donut. But those donuts don't look right to me: they're too round and puffy, they just don't meet my idea of what a donut should look like (later, much later, when we walked by that Krispy Kreme kiosk on our way out of the station, my son pointed to the donuts and said "Bagels!"). So I resisted the temptation to commit a breach of loyalty against Dunkin Donuts (actually, my first loyalty is to Tim Horton's, but I work with what's available).

I found an interesting title at one of the two bookstores that I browsed: Pam, a biography of Pamela Lee Anderson which purports to offer an "inside look" at the "sexy life" of "the hottest woman in the world." I like that "sexy life" bit: she's so sexy, her very life is sexy. But wasn't there talk of domestic violence? I thought I read something somewhere about a restraining order? Sexy. While the store has a "Biography" section, I found Pam in "Fiction:" I'm not willing to say that the book was misfiled.

The romance of the rails is long since over. (Well, you knew that, of course, and I guess I knew it too.)

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 10, 2003 10:56 PM

What the hell, you want to talk shampoo? If you haven't tried Bumble & Bumble's Alojoba Shampoo (& conditioner), you're really missing out. Perhaps a bit severe for everyday use, but great to have (this, I warn you, coming from a guy who cuts his own hair).

As for the Krispy Kreme, you must have one. But have it hot. Your first must be just off the line. If you just can't get it hot, stick it in a microwave for precisely 7 seconds.

Posted by: ogged at August 11, 2003 01:23 AM

Romance of the rails gone? It's a shame that Penn Station looks like an underground mall with some boarding gates. Boston's South Station is a much more pleasant environment to wait for a train, and it's still hard to beat the view of Long Island Sound near Rocky Neck, or if you go further west, to race along the Lake Erie shore or the Mississippi River bluffs in Minnesota.

Posted by: Stephen Karlson at August 11, 2003 12:53 PM

I am glad there are other Krispy Kreme dissenters out there. Doughnut implies dough, whereas the KK glazed is a toroid sculpture of spun sugar. For a cakey, mass-produced donut, Dunkin is still the outfit to beat.

Posted by: BAA at August 11, 2003 01:52 PM

Union Station in DC is actually a pretty nice place. The Indian place in the food court on the lower level is reliable.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 11, 2003 01:57 PM

Stephen, she was baiting you. ;)

Posted by: kb at August 11, 2003 03:22 PM

Do not buy a Krispy Kreme doughnut at the Penn Sta. purveyor; they are trucked in and never fresh. As ogged says, you must have it fresh and hot, which means going to one of the real shops (the one at 265 W. 23rd is the most convenient if you're in Midtown) and waiting till the HOT sign is lit. It's worth it. But don't just buy one; after you eat it, I guarantee you'll be jonesing for another. On the other hand, I wouldn't buy more than that, or you'll make yourself sick. At any rate, once you eat them as they should be et, you'll never settle for Dunkin' again. (BAA, look me in the eye and tell me you've had a fresh Krispy Kreme and still feel that way. Dunkin' Donuts is OK, but we're talking ecstasy here.)

Posted by: language hat at August 11, 2003 06:48 PM

But Penn Station has its own charms. among them Penn Books on the lower level, which to my surprise is actually an independent store, with a weird selection heavy on the contemporary poetry, chick lit, political biography, and softcore porn.

Not a great place to eat, though. Don Pepi's packaged Greek salad is OK, and one of the pizza places near the ACE is good. Anybody got any recommendations for other places to get train food?

(Off topic--if you're taking the train from _Baltimore_, on the other hand, the station is only a few blocks walk from the magnificent Afghan restaurant Helmand, which will happily make you take-out.)

Posted by: J. Ellenberg at August 11, 2003 08:45 PM

I like one of the pizza places by the LIRR concourse. Can't remember the name, but it starts with a "C"--Caruso's? The overs and pies are along the wall to your right as you enter. I always grab a slice there when arriving in Penn off Amtrak. DC's just not a pizza town.

Posted by: Matt K. at August 11, 2003 09:47 PM

You would think this crowd would know:
the train is why you should pack Serious Literature
along. Even the nastiest Amtrak train regains
a measure of romance if you have books along that
will last through a whole trip including the wait at the station. Try a long distance train trip along
with Proust some time.

Posted by: Oggie Ben Doggie at August 12, 2003 12:28 AM

Langauge hat:

Perhaps the KK/DD debate arises from definitional confusion. The krispy kreme glazed is less doughnut that glucose delivery device. So all actual baked goods will suffer in comparison as a fine cigar would in competition with IV nicotine.

Posted by: BAA at August 12, 2003 12:14 PM

What BAA said -- I was searching for the same point but could not express it as well. The KK donut hot out of the oven is delicious because it is fresh caramel; the KK donut a few hours later is not delicious because it is stale caramel. People interested in donuts should get themselves out to Sunnyside -- Alfa Donuts on Queens Blvd. and 46th (IIRC) St. defines the genre pretty well, at least in the context of New York City. Also of interest is The Donut Plant on Grand St -- mostly as a curiousity; but their chocolate donut is quite delicious if you have a spare fiver or whatever outrageous amount it costs.

Posted by: Jeremy Osner at August 12, 2003 01:53 PM

Fine, call it a glucose delivery device or call it Satan Incarnate -- I love it. I do want to try Alfa, though, since it's in my general neck of the woods (I live in Astoria).

Posted by: language hat at August 12, 2003 02:17 PM

Another dissent from the Krispy Kreme consensus, me—although I work right above Penn Station in Two Penn Plaza and my sample is limited to Penn Station's outlet. Alfa does sound good, and I have friends in that part of the world.

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at August 12, 2003 02:41 PM

I'm fond of that Indian place on the DC Penn Station lower level too -- they always make a good mango lassi, and they once served me a deliciously fiery eggplant dish when I was starving and craving spicy food on a trip to the Library of Congress.

Baltimore's Penn Station has no food on the premises worth consuming, but it does have a certain marble-floored, dome-ceilinged charm. The romance of the rails hasn't completely died out there.

Posted by: Amanda at August 12, 2003 03:51 PM

You Krispy Kreme dissenters are now the majority; square circles all. BAA is right that KK doesn't really serve donuts (and other than the original glazed, the rest of their donuts aren't worth even a nibble). But someone who's never had one still needs to try one, fresh and hot.

Posted by: ogged at August 12, 2003 05:56 PM

Okay, I think I was right to eschew the Krispy Kreme donuts on offer at the Penn Station kiosk. But I will go to a real KK shop and try a hot donut.

Stephen, I'll concede that I stated it too strongly when I said the romance of the rails was over. But I think much of the romance is now a kind of nostalgia: for the most part, people no longer experience train travel as an adventure (there are exceptions, of course, but I'm thinking about your basic trip from, say, DC to NYC: once upon a time, that was a journey, now it's just a way to get from A to B).

Ogged, Is Bumble and Bumble really worth it? I'm looking for salon quality at a drugstore price.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 13, 2003 09:22 AM

Bumble & Bumble is pricey, but if you go to a salon that carries it, they'll likely give you a free trial-sized packet. If you live in a major metropolitan area, you could probably wash in free splendor for a year just by bumming trial packets from various salons (not that I've done or would condone such a thing, but it's a thought).

Posted by: ogged at August 13, 2003 10:54 AM

Penn Station. Duh. Not Union Station. Sorry, I am an idiot.

But the Indian place is still good. My husband and I have a long history with that place, dating back to when we were a long-distance relationship and the train was the cheapest way to get from Raleigh to DC.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 13, 2003 12:21 PM

The romance of the rails isn't over.

When I left NY to attend graduate school in rural Appalachia, one of the things I missed most was the trains. Amtrak, Metro North, LIRR, PATH, the NYC Subway -- It never occured to me that in much of America, the nearest Amtrak station is hours away, and has one train that arrives at 3am.

Now I live in DC, and I never take it for granted. I love the fact that I can leave my apartment, buy a copy of The Economist or The New Republic (so hard to find in Appalachia), slide into a cushy seat, and be with my family in NYC in a few hours, while never getting behind the wheel of a car.

Posted by: Matilde at August 13, 2003 05:08 PM

For those who don't know, there's an amazing range of (mostly very good) ethnic food available on the lower level of Grand Central in NYC; I'm particularly partial to the Indian place (Cafe Spice). Not to mention the Grand Central Market on the upper level, which can be entered from the eastern end of the concourse or from Lexington Avenue; it has overpriced but excellent produce, cold cuts, baked goods, &c.

Posted by: language hat at August 14, 2003 12:39 PM

In terms of Penn Station, Don Pepi's isn't bad for pizza, though I must admit that I haven't tried any of the places on the LIRR concourse. Let me also second the endorsement of Penn Books (or whatever the bookstore on the LIRR level is called); I managed to find a Samuel Delany short story collection there, which is certainly better than I'd expect from a train station bookstore.

Posted by: Mark at August 17, 2003 11:57 AM