I have often stood for long stretches at the corner of East 42nd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue, letting my eyes roam over Grand Central Terminal.
It amazes me that before this structure existed, the classic facades and heroic sculptures that adorn the building’s exteriors, the cavernous interiors with its vast ceiling of mirrored constellations, and subterranean railway networks, were all germinated in someone’s mind.
Grand Central Station has a quality of eternity that stills time. New York’s traffic rushes past it from all directions. Commuters, pedestrians, and tourists, constantly stream through the streets, pouring into and around the structures, pausing, clicking photos, pointing at maps and at the building and back at their maps. This steady stream of humanity and automobiles, where each individual entity is replaced by another of its type constantly, a vehicle with another one, a human with the next human, all changing only in form but never in nature, lends the building an added aura of permanence amidst the constant unceasing and faceless buzz of New York City.
As I stand at the corner in front of one of the pillars supporting nearby 120 Park Avenue (to avoid being jostled by foot traffic), Grand Central Station reminds me of time.
How does it make me feel that when Grand Central Station was built in 1871 the first Sherlock Holmes novel had not yet been written – that for more than a hundred years, the building has stood there, bridging the amazement and emotions of various onlookers across time? How am I any different from anyone, who a hundred years ago, must have stood at the same spot and wondered at this architectural showpiece? I honestly do not know how I feel about it other than that it induces in me a sense of vertigo as if I was slowly being tipped headlong into a time hole, at the other end of which I can perceive hansom cabs, bowler hats, and cobblestones.
Whenever I encounter such landmarks, artifacts, or even striking landscapes, the kind that must have arrested human eyes and thoughts from time immemorial, no matter what the human’s state was, I cannot help sense time as a physical entity.
Does permanence add timelessness to these beacons, in turn begetting in me a sensation that I struggle to describe? Do I lose my ability to place myself in the swinging pendulum of time and so abandon meaning in the immediate?
The closest I get to a similar disconcerting feeling is when in the throes of a particular recurring nightmare of mine.
In the nightmare, there is a small black cave with a narrow opening through which a sliver of pale white light pierces downwards. The light, almost angelic in its hue and angle, fails to find the end of the cavern and dissipates halfway through, leaving the rest of the space pitch black. I blindly sense distance within this chamber, like how one would sense vastness when one hears waves breaking on unseen shores in the night. Through the narrow mouth of a cave, I see a dot floating down like a feather illuminated in the narrow sliver of light. Gradually, after watching the slow descent for a while, I make out the falling object to be a human figure, falling ever so slowly, tumbling midair, down towards the pitch darkness at the bottom of the cave. The cavern or cave, which at first seemed a tiny space, now reveals itself to be at least miles wide, the slow drop of the human form only serving to accentuate the enormity of space. The longer I watch the figure fall, the more I feel I am connected somehow to the predicament of the human figure. In that noiseless spectacle, in that slow fall of a human, I simultaneously sense fear and sense peace. The scale of the space calms me. The uncertainty of origin and end and the seemingly interminable distances comfort me. In inexplicably being able to view this as yet continuous incident from very far away, I am able to separate my self from my soul. And yet, the single ray of light that illuminates half of this involuntary journey, the undiscernable darkness all around that tiny cylinder of light with its hidden mysteries, the inevitable end of vision once the light runs out, all induces in me a sense of fleeting lightness, of inconsequentiality, as if this is how true it gets, of how much I will know of myself, and of my horizons and meanings.
I slip into a similar waking dream state when staring at the Grand Central Station, with the muted sounds of cars and humans, and the eddying blur of activities around the solid structure of Grand Central splitting around the deep-rooted structure before the Stygian stream merges back and bubbles down Park Avenue.
When I find myself inside Grand Central, the constant crisscrossing of New Yorkers is dramatized even more, like a Caravaggio painting, by the streaming lights from the windows.
It is strangely the most fleeting of phenomena that evoke similar emotions in humans. Literature and movies abound with these temporal motifs, with paeans to cherry blossoms, or to the seasonal reddening of trees in autumn, or to virginal powdery snow that piles up during a snowstorm.
In this constant erosion by the stream of time, only some incidences persist in the collective memories of the world. Few structures and institutions hold onto their grandeur. Grand Central embodies this lesson every day from the day it was built. It is a modern Pyramid, built in the exaltation of science and ambition, with a tinge of the royal decree that was present in the construction of those ancient Egyptian wonders.
When I first saw Posman books, within Grand Central, I was excited. The happy marriage of a bookstore within this landmark seemed to combine the permanence of space, through architecture, with the timelessness of ideas, through words. In this prime real estate, under an arch, overhung by chandeliers weighing a tonne each, Posman Books was a reminder of the status that bookshops, and by extension, books, commanded. So, the nameless, faceless stream of humanity sometimes flowed into these literary catchment areas, and within that mass of humanity who is to say there might not have been other brains where similar buildings, civilizations even, were conceived and destroyed?
When I later saw the sign that Posman books were closing down, there was a sense of inevitability. In some sense, in this space, brief hours were part of long eras. Posman books will not find mention in history books. It might have had but a cameo in Grand Central Station, but in the history of Grand Central Station, Posman can find itself. It can thumb a few pages, scroll a few sites and point at some section of history to insert itself into the more permanent history of its tenement.
“In the cicada’s cry
There’s no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.” – basho