Lost New York

GARRY WILLS

April 18, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

Last week was a sad one for New York's sentimentalists. The last Automat closed, and Grand Central Station stopped sending out and receiving long-range trains. Progress is pricey.

When I first went to New York, in 1957, the Automats were everywhere. The fast food of their day, they had 30 times the range of choices one can find at fast-food places now. People who were careful of their pennies could take a dish out of one window, eat it and see if it sufficed, and if not, take another. Then one could get pie and coffee and linger over them, reading a book or the papers and magazines scattered around.

The Automats were at least as clean, fast and convenient as a McDonald's; and the food was better. I haven't been to one in years, and I'm sure the last one was a faded image of the Automats of the 1940s and 1950s. But, even so, goodbye.

I felt I knew Grand Central Station even while I was growing up in Michigan and not only because it was a setting or landmark in so many New York movies. There were also radio shows that made the listener an honorary citizen of New York for an hour or half-hour. One of these, for instance, took us with Mr. First Nighter to the ''little theater off Times Square'' for weekly playlets.

The same was true for the program, ''Grand Central Station.'' Stories began and ended at the terminal the calls for legendary trains, the bantering with porters, gave one a vicarious sense of the rhythmic pulse in that building. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard arrived there in the movie about the Twentieth Century Express. Star-struck dancers left from there for Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock used the great central room in ''North by Northwest.''

That room is one of the world's great internal spaces. What modern airport can compete? The busy flow of people never seems to clog or overwhelm it. For the first date I ever had with my wife (of now 32 years), I named as our meeting place the information kiosk in the center of that room. It was one of the few places I knew, even as a newly arrived visitor, for such a rendezvous.

Going past that spot hundreds of times over the subsequent years, I've never failed to think of that moment. Now, with no trains to Washington or Boston or Baltimore (much less to Hollywood) leaving or arriving there, I shall have no occasion to go past it without making a special trip just for that purpose.

Millions of people have memories of meetings and partings there. The same can be said of any large rail or air or bus terminal. But Grand Central Station dignified the occasion by its own majesty. (So did the old Penn Station, but it is long gone.)

It is easy to indulge a childish exaggeration of one's delight in a first Pullman trip or plane ride or ocean crossing. No doubt these things are important simply because they were the first. Young people now may feel as thrilled to be in an airport as I was to be in Grand Central Station. That, at least, is what my head tells me. But what does it know of such things?

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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