Dec. 24, 2017
Savannah Morning News
Talk about feeling like a country bumpkin, a hayseed, a yokel. I was taking Amtrak’s Palmetto (train No. 90) from Savannah to New York City with reservations at Hotel Pennsylvania, a handsome, stately, mysterious building I’d always passed but never entered. It sits directly across Penn Station on 7th Avenue, maybe 100 steps away, and was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad back when trains were all the rage. When I realized the Palmetto was pulling in an hour later than our expected time of arrival I tried calling and texting not knowing if they closed the desk or would consider giving my room away. At 1 a.m., I didn’t want to be locked out.
I detrained, rode the up escalator (several stories down from Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks, the Rangers and in the next week concerts by Billy Joel and Phish), squeezed between the line of cabs outside the station, looked up at a giant screen advertising “The Crown,” navigated the heavy front doors of the hotel and entered the massive lobby. Under 20-foot ceilings and an open space that could fit six lanes of traffic, I felt dwarfed. I was Eloise at the Plaza without a nanny. I was six years old.
Then I remembered I was an adult. I took my place in line behind 25 other travelers also snaking their way toward the front desk. At that moment, it felt as if there were more people in the lobby and the sidewalk than live in Denmark or Yemassee, two South Carolina towns I passed through hours earlier, speaking more languages than I had names for.
And that was before I asked a sleepy-eyed bellman the number of rooms in this 17-story hotel: 1,770. Toto, we are not in the Lowcountry anymore. Or the Pee Dee either. If riding the train can sometimes feel like living in a dormitory, this was feeling like another country. Later I would learn the hotel, which opened in 1919, still carried the same phone number – the familiar Pennsylvania-six-five-thousand – a phrase most people know as a lyric from the Glenn Miller band – and, some say, the New York phone number in the longest continuous use. Oh, to have been at the old Café Rouge in the back of the lobby where Glenn Miller played – or Count Basie, Duke Ellington and The Andrews Sisters, where Doris Day first sang “Sentimental Journey.”
Part of me wanted to spend my whole three days in New York sitting on the walnut banquette in the humongous lobby, especially after I met Gladys the Gladiator, a terrier type from Boston. She was wrapped from head to toe in a onesie, a ruck sack and a thermal blanket. Her owner had taken the train and was checking out the city craft fairs.
But this was New York City. Even if you arrive with an empty dance card – and mine was empty – it’s not hard to find ways to fill it up and I’m not just talking about Korean spicy udon soup, potato knishes or anything from the Halal trucks. I agree with the man I sat next to at a Wednesday afternoon matinee (“20th Century Blues”). He’s a venture capitalist, he told me. Whatever that is, I replied. “Every Wednesday I sneak out to a matinee. I just pick one at random. What’s the point of living in New York if you don’t do this? I had a good day today, too.”
My excuse for a visit was to surprise June Millington, a killer guitarist (one of the first women to rock it), songwriter, producer and member of Fanny, a ground-breaking all-women band I helped on an early tour around the country. (It wasn’t my best gig – I’m not mechanical, I have a terrible sense of direction, but I was trustworthy and a fan of the music). Now June and partner Ann Hackler run Institute for the Musical Arts, an all-girls rock and roll camp outside Amherst, Mass. The gig at The Cutting Room on East 32nd Street was a fundraiser for the camp. It was a romp and a half.
The next day, walking south to a film at the IFC Center in Greenwich Village, still thinking of June, I saw a large van with a muffled sound system and a giant Menorah on top. What pray tell is this? I said to someone in line. “You’ve never seen that before?” she said. “It’s some kind of Jewish thing. They’re passing out Chanukah candles.” Alas, I was too slow to get any.
After leaving New York on Amtrak’s Carolinian for a stop in Durham before heading back to Savannah, I sat next to a lanky young man who was taking his first long distance train ride. Under the weak December light, we started talking. His mother is a white supremacist in Arkansas who he hasn’t seen in years, his father an accountant. He has one more semester left of college and just finished applying to five graduate programs. He has a double major – physics and applied mathematics.
“Are you worried about getting a job?” I asked as he brought out his computer and settled in (with headphones) to watch, “The Seventies Show,” something he hasn’t had a lot of time to do. “I mean, in physics or math? Anything?”
“No,” he said. “I’ll just see where life takes me.”
You could say the same thing about New York City.