A LONG SHORT STORY
In 1961 my grandfather retired from being a Pennsylvania Railroad worker for over 30 years. He repaired box cars and did other maintenance jobs. He worked hard, doing manual labor. He came to this country at the age of 17 in 1911 from Italy. In those days he was a hated minority because of his Italian heritage. He worked in factories, he bootlegged booze in during prohibition, and did many other things to make a living. In 1929 he married my grandmother and soon after he purchased a house in Kearny NJ which he paid for, raised a family in, saw three of his four grandchildren grow up, and in 1986 he died.
When I was a little boy, my grandfather would take me fishing in Point Pleasant NJ. We would take the bus down Kearny Avenue into Newark, walk to Pennsylvania Station and wait for the train that would transport us to a land that smelled of sea salt, rail road ties, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. He would pack a few sandwiches, usually boiled ham on Thomas's Protein Bread, and he would add his own pickled eggplant that he made himself as a condiment.
We would each eat one on the way down and on the way back. He had a lifetime pass in his wallet that allowed him to ride free, and he would show it to the conductors as he gestured towards me, implying that we were together. They would nod and move on.
I remember the quiet rumble that would accompany the arrival of our train in Newark. The streamlined black General Electric GG1 locomotive had an immense presence to a small boy like myself. It sounded heavy and looked both old and modern at the same time.
In Long Branch the GG1 was removed for a diesel locomotive as the overhead catenary that carried the electricity ended there. I loved going up to the front passenger car and watching the uncoupling of the GG1 and the backing in of the smelly diesel engine. The clunk and clank of it was both terrifying and exhilarating as the entire train lurched backwards from the controlled collision. I viewed this through an open door a mere yard away from calamity.
From the Point Pleasant station we would walk to the ocean inlet that separated Point Pleasant and Manasquan. This narrow channel is where Barnegat Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. It was an area rich with mussels, crabs and many kinds of fish, all of which I refused to eat. My grandfather carried an old ceramic bucket in his bag with the sandwiches, along with a fishing rod, sinkers, hooks, knives, reels of lines, a net and worms for bait which he would have dug up in the yard earlier that morning.
He would catch fish, put them in the bucket which he kept water in, and I would watch. Sometimes he gave me the fishing pole, but I never caught one fish. I'd play with a toy or two, but mostly I just explored on the rocks and looked at the other people fishing along with the steady parade of boats of all sorts slipping in and out of the ocean from the bay. I kept myself occupied. The area was teeming with flies and seagulls feeding on fish guts. It was wonderful.
After a few hours we'd get a coke from a stand across the street and begin the walk back to the station where we'd await the stinky diesel as it made its way up from Bay Head. I always loved to see through the shimmering heat as the yellow cyclops eye of the train approached in the distance. I'd be lifted up to the very high step by my armpits and pushed into the car, after which my grandfather would hoist himself up.
We'd find a window seat on the shady side of the car and break out the remaining sandwiches and enjoy our snack. Meanwhile his freshly captured sea creatures would slosh away in the all too tiny bucket at his feet. The breeze of the moving train kept us cool in the non air conditioned cars. The sing-song sound of the conductors calling out the names of the stations along the way lulled me into a feeling of contentment as we approached home.
So, why tell you all this? It's why I feel such an affinity towards Penn Station in Newark. It looks much as it did when I was a young boy. I always felt a rush of excitement being there as it was my portal to and from another world with a man who I trusted more than anyone else in the world, but was also a mystery in that he was a man of few words. He did things, I watched.
It wasn't until I was a father myself that I realized how much he taught me by what he didn't say. When I go the Penn Station, I feel close to my grandfather. I go there to make photographs of all the people that I saw as a child. Of course they are different now, but in a way they are the same. People on their way to or from someplace else, neither here nor there, but stuck in the middle. I get to stare at strangers, to see them as perhaps the cannot see themselves. I like to think I understand what they express on their faces and bodies, but really, all I do is guess. Much as I did when I was with my grandfather. It's all still a mystery.