Night at the station

This story was first published in City Paper, March 2017. You can also read it here.

Penn Station offers three oases: newsstand, Dunkin Donuts, and Java Moon Café. All closed. The station itself shuts down from 11:59 p.m. to 3 a.m., but when our train pulled into Baltimore's heaviest snowfall, near midnight last Saturday, the Amtrak officer said he wouldn't kick us out.

Good to know. Still, it took me a while to grasp that I'd be spending the night in the station. In fact, it took me all night. Uber, Yellow Cab, husband—none available. It wasn't lack of will; the streets were closed. Emergency vehicles only.

There were four of us: me, a Morgan State student, a guy in dark curls, and a woman rocking a Burberry capelet, mini, and knee-high boots. Curls and I talked about walking the four miles to Roland Park. Nowhere to leave our bags. Two feet of snow. And the officer who said: "Don't." My walking partner looked up a nearby friend and left; I folded.

Penn Station has two parts: the original four-story granite structure, and the waiting area tacked to the back. I've always liked the original—all massive pillars, symmetrical layout, stained-glass ceiling. It's beautiful and noble and neglected. Over the hours, I replaced the newsstand with a Ivy Bookshop outpost and added a florist and swapped out the doughnuts for Dovecote. I kept worrying over the empty square north of the doors and the matching square south, its windows blocked by blinds and a sign that reads "Police."

Two wooden benches stretch half the length of the hall, each double-sided, and the three of us—me, Morgan and Burberry—took the one facing the street. Not that we agreed, nor even spoke. I and my embroidery needle perched at one end, Burberry and her poise leaned into the far corner, Morgan and her teddy bear hunched in the middle.

The other three sides were covered in sleepy sprawl. Most of the bodies, snapped into Hi-Viz green vests, seemed to belong to workers asleep on the job.

I kept gnawing over my escape plan—Motel 6? Airbnb?—while Morgan and Burberry swiped at their phones. A man with a gray beard shuffled in and slumped next to Burberry. His hands twitched, his boots twitched, he grunted.

After a time, Officer Overnight passed around hand warmers and emergency blankets, the sort that look like huge sheets of tin foil. One guy tied his Superman-style and paced the floor. Another folded his into a picnic blanket. After a few laps, Superman spread out his cape, laid down, and rolled. Several people slept this way: like burritos.

Gray leaned over and in a terrible syncopation of grunts and "fucks" shuddered off his boots. Then he peeled away his socks. His feet were swollen and red on top, swollen and white on the bottom. They looked frozen. Or rotted. Or both. He slept.

Overnight came back and shook Gray. You can stay, he said, very kindly, but you have to wear shoes. He suggested drying the socks in the men's room. Gray struggled back into his soggy socks, soggy boots, soggy sleep.

With a great rustling, all the High-Viz men and women (many barely men, barely women) got up, pulled on gloves, and stomped outside. Later, the second-shift officer told me that they worked for the snowplow outfit. They'd shovel for an hour or two, sleep for an hour or two. Three days, so far. Overnight came back. He shook Gray and handed him a pair of socks. "Clean and dry," he said. Gray slumped back to sleep.

About 3, Morgan and I chatted. She was studying hospitality. She wanted to open a restaurant called Day and Night. I leased her the empty corner.

At 4, a sculptor wandered in looking for coffee. He offered to roll me a cigarette. At 5, I prowled the station for an outlet. The only one I could find was nursing the ATM. I knocked on the blindered door and charged my phone beneath the posters detailing calf and hamstring and shoulder stretches. I tried them all.

At 6:30, a man banged on the station door and waved at Burberry, who grabbed her leopard-print suitcase and fled. At 8, a cab appeared. A tall guy was hunching in. He said he'd spent the night making bad decisions. I shook Morgan and we flung ourselves into the low-slung sedan. We slid down the highway on-ramp, hit a mogul, and rocked to a stop. The driver pulled out a plastic shovel. Bad Decision sighed: "Bad decision." I walked up the ramp and back to my bench. By then my husband had dug out the car. By 9, he'd inched to the rescue.

At home I took a shower. I took a nap. I wondered how long the shovelers would sleep like burritos. I wondered whether Gray got his feet into the dry socks. And even if he didn't, where he'd go.