May 26, 2010, 05:39AM

Shakin’ All Over

Train stations, especially in Manhattan, are great equalizers. Some occasions are more equal than others.

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Midtown Manhattan was jumpy last Sunday morning as the family and I prepared to check out of the Peninsula Hotel on 5th Ave. and take an Acela Express back to Baltimore. I took a walk down 56th St. at 6:30 to get coffee from a twitching counterman at an anonymous bodega and noticed, with trepidation, that all the side streets were cordoned off from traffic. This didn’t bode well for hailing a cab 90 minutes later to the increasingly dilapidated Penn Station, so I asked a beat cop what was going on. He was yawning, undoubtedly off-guard, so I was slightly taken aback when he replied, “Oh, there’s a fucking parade this morning. The Israelis marching down 5th and you know that means triple security. It’s going to be a long, long fucking day.” Mike Bloomberg would shuffle this character off to a sensitivity seminar immediately if he was apprised of the language, but I wasn’t about to squeal.

My wife and sons scampered about our rooms when I got back, stuffing clothes into a couple of suitcases, while I wrangled with a desk clerk over the bill, disputing several charges, a testy exchange that netted me $400—completely justifiable, I might add, and leave it at that—and we lucked out, flagging down a cabbie just before the revelers took over 5th Ave. Once inside Penn Station, we set off in different directions to make purchases for the short train ride—not that there’s much choice there anymore; Hudson News dominates the reading material on offer, and instead of the independent vendors I remember from my youth, the dirty halls are littered with chain outlets like KFC, Taco Bell and Nathan’s. I’ve seen Penn Station in many incarnations over the years and not once has it resembled the now-resplendent Union Station in Washington, D.C., although I doubt that the circus of humanity that rubs shoulders and sweats really cares all that much.

My younger son Booker was peeved after picking up a copy of The Sporting News and seeing, with amazement, that modern Yankees icon Derek Jeter was named the fourth best MLB player this season. He was really ticked off—a giant burr up his butt—and wasn’t mollified when I explained that the magazine was certainly printed in early April despite the late May cover date. I’ve made my peace with the Jeter hosannas that are mandatory on any broadcast in which the Yanks are playing, and not just on the franchise’s propaganda outlet YES, led by toady Michael Kay, and now rate Robinson Cano as my least favorite member of that team. A cheap shot, maybe, but I’m a Bosox fan, so go email your Congressman if you’ve got a beef with that.

As always, I ducked outside, up the back escalator to the back of the station on 8th Ave. to have a last smoke before the train ride, and once again wondered why, after all these years, I’ve never even entered Brother Jimmy’s Burger Shack across the street, a dumpy looking joint that might possibly turn out a decent cheeseburger to go. I paid quiet homage to the majestic James A. Farley Building—Manhattan’s main post office branch—a monument so sacred that it calls for placing hand over heart—and was then briefly captivated by a weird scene taking place by the four or five rummies selling copies of the Sunday tabloids.

Sitting on a milk crate, a homeless guy, sign with scrawled letters by his side, was entertaining a young barefoot woman with multi-colored painted toenails—oh, skip the euphemism: they were enthusiastically screwing, not at all worried that their grunts and shrieks might attract attention. Quite a maneuver, I thought, since it couldn’t have been easy to unzip and get comfortable, but then a middle-aged man who was walking by, humming “Bye Bye Blackbird,” obviously in a very jovial mood, distracted me.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t qualify as peculiar, but this guy, nattily attired in a brown suit, flower in his lapel and black glasses, was a dead ringer for the character Moe Greene in The Godfather. I was in awe, and felt obligated to engage him in small talk while I processed Hyman Roth’s brief testimony to cantankerous Moe in The Godfather, Part II. The man was exultant about the Mets’ victory the previous night over the Yanks, and while I nodded in sincere agreement—K-Rod wriggling out of a 9th inning jam was more than satisfying, especially after the Sox’s Dice K had finished one-hitting the Phillies—the lines came to me.

“Later on he had an idea to build a city out of a desert stop-over for GI’s on the way to the West Coast. That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas. This was a great man, a man of vision and guts. And there isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye.”

I suppressed a chuckle, hoped that this genial man I met on a filthy sidewalk outside Penn Station would have a happier fate than Moe, got on the train, and soon enough was back in my office at home in Baltimore, listening to Miles Davis’s rendition of “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

  • Love this story!

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  • Ah, there's no place like NYC...for all sorts of good and bad reasons. We miss visiting more often.

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  • Having just returned from New York myself, I too was dissappointed by the increasing number of chains and decreasing number of Mom/Pop stores

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  • Ah, Miles Davis. (The pianist was pretty good, too.) I was nuts about his album "Sketches of Spain." As for New Jork, it's the home of the Hateds, so all the other stuff is secondary. Well, I do like the helicopter hanging from the ceiling in MOMA. And yes, Union Station is impressive. Kind of an odd contrast, isn't it?

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  • NYC is town of characters, but its businesses and aesthetics are quickly losing any character they once had. Like Texan said, the increasing number of chains is frightening, and I wonder what the city will be like in 10/20 years when it looks little different than East Cupcake, Iowa, or any other bumfuck city in the middle of the country. I bet the Moe Greenes and horny bums will still be around but they'll be in short supply for sure.

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  • Russ, for those of us who know New York well your report of scenes and happenings over perhaps one running hour rings very true: from the plaintive cop bemoaning his lengthy parade assignment to the wrangle over the hotel bill, to the acknowledgement of the stately Farley Postal Building (in a once nice but now seedy part of town) to the milk crate cavorters, to the happy Blackbird hummer - stuff like this is all over New York, all the time. That's part of why it is THE CITY. Nice one hour photograph.

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  • mike bloomberg would only wonder why some fucking tourist was wasting his time over language. but if your cop was smoking or eating KFC, mikey would pay attention.

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  • Whoa - gritty city. Living here as long as I have, I don't see it. Time to go for a run through Central Park -- and straight back to California...

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