How to Handle Penn Station Without Popping a Xanax


There’s an advertisement on the subways that you might have seen. It describes a project in the works – the largest public works extravaganza in the country – known as East Side Access: a portal from Grand Central Terminal that will outsource time and trains from Penn Station. As the sign says, “Commuting will be 40 minutes shorter. For 80,000 commuters. That’s a lot of minutes.”

Unfortunately, that architectural endeavor will not be done for some time and, if the 2nd Avenue Subway is any indication (shout-out to the Sandhogs!), that some time could mean years. So we’re stuck with Penn Station for the time being.

Crammed in between Madison Square Garden and an underlining subway hub, the intersection of the LIRR, Path, Amtrak and Acela is a transportation nightmare for anyone trying to get somewhere fast, especially around peak hours, when tolls almost double for whatever the reason. Tourists gawk at the food options; commuters stare faceless at the Big Board; and the stampede that follows a train track appearance is something out of Jumanji.

Ever since I jumped ship from Long Island to Manhattan, I have become a master commuter and Penn Station aficionado. Babylon, Hempstead, Port Washington, parts of Jersey, the 1, 2, 3, A, C and E lines – you name it, I’ve ridden it out of Penn. Nonetheless, my experiences are still filled with fear, anxiety and a pace that would make Jesse Jackson look like your grandma. We all have that friend in Jersey or Long Island that insists we come visit them. With that being said, that means you have to suck it up and deal with it.

But don’t be scared. We here at the Voice have compiled a list of tips to get you in and out of Penn Station safe, sound and emotionally stable.

1. Stick to the Walls

Whether you’re arriving by subway or on foot, the crowds that swarm Penn will limit any attempt you make at gunning it for the train doors. In other words, you cannot run. But that doesn’t mean you’re limited to a snail speed behind the newest New Yorker. Most people in Penn gravitate in the center of the wide halls so your main highway will be blocked. Here’s a tip to avoid the center: cling to the sides like Spiderman. Keep your head down and move quickly in a horizontal line up the left and right sides of the big crowd.

2. Know Where You’re Going

This point cannot be expressed enough. Before you take the escalator or stairs down into Penn, have a mental game plan. For example, say you’re taking a trip out to Ronkonkoma. Check online beforehand to know the line you’re taking (luckily, it’s called the Ronkonkoma line, in this case) and dart towards the ticket machine. Enter your destination in fast and grab your ticket. Making the phone call to a friend will be the bane of your commuting existence. If you came to Penn with a pre-paid ticket, show up 5 minutes before your train takes off. You shouldn’t spend any more time than you need to there.

3. Listen to Extreme Sides of Music

Now, this is important: you may need an iPod with noise-canceling headphones or whatever mp3 device they’re selling these days. It will help you tune out sounds and force concentration on your end goal: surviving the rush. Before you head in, put on either a lullaby or an adrenaline-pumper. I prefer Sigur Ros for necessary numbness and Rage Against the Machine for a commute of action scene proportions. Warning: the latter will make you have offsetting facial gestures. But who cares; you’ll never see these people ever again.

4. Don’t Come Hungry

There is a smorgasbord of eatery options available at your fingertips. For that reason, stay away from stopping at any of them. Stop yourself from scarfing down a Moe’s burrito or chugging a large coffee from Au Bon Pain (You’ll never catch your train if you’re ordering a cappuccino during rush hour); you’ll need both of your hands free for this adventure. If you’re hungry, grab some street peanuts or something beforehand. And don’t forget that the New York minute rule still applies underground: if you don’t order in five seconds flat, you’ll be tossed off the line by a Soup-Nazi-esque figure.

5. When All Else Fails, People-Watch

Luckily, there is a wonderful abundance of the most interesting characters in Penn Station – a plethora, if you will, of Americana caricatures. If you have time to kill or missed your train, have no fear. Sit back and stare. My favorite landscapes to view from a distance is the Big Board crowd, the dumb-founded tourists who are so confused that this place actually exists, the musical acts looking to get their big breaks and, if there’s a Yankees, Rangers or Mets game, the drunks will be numerous. Enjoy the human race.