Last week I celebrated my birthday with a trip to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 42nd Street in New York. Not on purpose, mind you, but that's where I ended up. It turned out to be one of the more unique birthday experiences of my life. I had planned on seeing a movie with my friend Michelle across the street, at one of the newish giant movie theaters that was built as part of Times Square's insidious creep. We showed up for the 7 p.m. show at 6:45 or so, but the theater was full up. So we bought tickets for the next showing - almost two hours later - and discussed potential locations for eating the slices of birthday cake, which Michelle had thoughtfully purchased. She suggested a round of bowling at the Port Authority.
I had always known there was more going on in that giant parking garage-like structure than met the eye, so I was eager to see it happen first-hand. After all, there must be some reason that so many unsavory characters are always milling about on the sidewalks surrounding the terminal.
We found Leisure Time Bowling - in the back corner near 40th St. and 9th Ave., on the second floor. I expected to see a few worn-out lanes, populated by a couple of delayed travelers killing an hour. But the place was jumping. In fact, when we went to rent our shoes, they told us that we wouldn't get a lane any time before 8. Some kind of league or something. They have bowling leagues at the Port Authority? This did not fit in with my idea of the place at all.
So we retired to the Split 222 bar, with the mysterious name and even more mysterious shaking floor. I figured out that the floor shakes - a lot - because of the busses rumbling by, but I still have no idea what Split 222 means. The drinks were surprisingly inexpensive and stiff. There aren't too many bars left in the neighborhood that serve a cocktail in exchange for only four bucks. And I think it's safe to say that none of the other joints offer to give it to you in a cup to go.
The room was by no means posh, but it wasn't completely lacking in charm. The walls were decorated with photographs of sports stars, including a giant portrait of Rickey Henderson, grinning widely among a pile of bases he ostensibly stole. About six massive fish floated uncomfortably in a medium-sized aquarium. It appeared to have been years since they had been able to turn around inside their glass cage. But they're fish. They probably don't mind terribly.
Everyone in the place except for Michelle and me looked like they were waiting for a bus, yet many of the customers appeared to be regulars. I wondered if they made it a point to show up early for their bus so that they could stop in for a drink before heading home. Or perhaps everyone had just missed their bus by a few moments and had nothing better to do before the next one left. Nobody looked at us cock-eyed when we dug into our giant slices of chocolate cake, so I decided not to bug them about their motivation for hanging around the bus terminal.
After a couple drinks, it was time to head back to the theater and see the show, but I made up my mind to find out what other wonders the PABT (as it's called by those in the know) held in store for me.
I returned on another cold evening, with a tip to look for a bar called Savoy, which used to be a "hooker place" but now featured live jazz. I was greeted as I approached the door on 40th St. and 8th Ave. by a big bronze statue of Ralph Kramden, the bus driving (get it?) loudmouth from The Honeymooners. I thought the statue was a nice touch until the plaque underneath it revealed that it was donated to the Port Authority by TV Land, the cable network that shows old episodes of The Honeymooners. Shameless advertising or not, Jackie Gleason cuts a pretty amusing figure, and the statue was surprisingly free of graffiti.
Once inside, I stopped by Krispy Kreme donuts for a dose of their ultra-sweet fried dough. This particular branch of the Krispy Kreme empire has no glaze waterfall contraption, which is about the only thing that makes visiting one of their stores worthwhile, but I had a donut anyway. It was slightly stale, and the glaze made my teeth ache, like it always does. The cost for the experience was 85 cents, rather than the usual 50 or 60 cents. What do they think this is, an airport?
I returned to Leisure Time Bowling, to see if I could get a game in, or at least wander around the place, admiring trophies and smelling onion rings. On this particular evening, though, the place was throbbing with strobe lights and filled to capacity with people in identical white t-shirts. The bouncer (really, there's a bouncer keeping people out of this place) informed me that the lanes were closed for a private party. I'm 0-for-2 at Leisure Time. He also told me that in order to bowl on another occasion, I would have to fork over $5.95 per person, per game, in addition to paying $3.50 for shoe rental. Maybe it's been a long time since I've bowled, but this seemed outrageous. When I finally do get in there, those lanes better be smooth as silk, and the onion rings better be the best in the country.
Only with great strength did I resist the urge to end my exploration of the terminal, drown my disappointment with a gin and tonic and share my troubles with the fish inside the Split 222.
Instead, I pressed on. If the need be, I could always grab a drink at the Savoy when I eventually found it.
A quick consultation of the mall-like building directory revealed that while waiting for a bus, one could eat all kinds of mediocre food, browse books in a couple of bookstores, and even donate blood. Upon investigation, I found that the NY Blood Center was a legitimate donation center, not one of those places that pay destitute people ten bucks for a bag full of their plasma. Who says the PABT is a dump? They even have signs posted specifically prohibiting urination anywhere inside the terminal. As far as I could see, everyone seemed to be complying.
I wandered around, looking for kicks, and stumbled across a glass-encased contraption called a "kinetic sculpture," at the corner of 40th and 9th, on the main level. A motor hummed inside, lifting small steel balls up a bicycle-chain conveyor, and dropping them off onto a variety of twisting corridors where they rolled back down, stopping along the way to twirl around and bang into noisemaking devices. A couple of men stood mesmerized, as did I. The novelty wore off after a moment or two, and I moved on.
I came across another, much bigger kinetic sculpture in the "42nd St. Ballroom." I watched the billiard balls make their way along the metal pathways and tried to imagine people in formal wear waltzing along the floor in between the mass of harried travelers.
Outside again, on 41st Street, which passes through the middle of the terminal, I saw what could quite possibly be the most inappropriately-located Wyland painting in the country. As I stood watching the whales and dolphins frolic in the ocean, I felt my throat tighten just slightly, and the taste of exhaust on my tongue. I could not think of a place which reminded me less of the seashore.
I made one last trip around the area where the Savoy was purported to be and found nothing. I had been exploring for a little over an hour and had so far not been overwhelmed with joy. So maybe it was a mistake to think of the Port Authority as a bastion of good times. But I still maintain that it's a pretty cool place to sit around and eat chocolate cake on one's birthday.
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