Port Authority and the Bus to Pittsburgh,

published at 1:10am on 10/06/06

New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal at 11pm on a Thursday night is a dead, depressing place. The only people there are passing through or never leaving, all the restaurants are closed, and the information booths are empty shells of anything even remotely useful. My friend was one of the ones passing through on her way from Boston to Pittsburgh and by the time she is done, she will have traveled for something close to 15 hours on two buses with an hour layover in the Big Apple.

She never actually leaves the bus terminal, but at least she got her taste of the eccentricities of New York City.

Port Authority is home to one of a handful of bowling alleys on the island of Manhattan. The only other one I know of us down in the Village where the NYU students pay a cover to listen to loud music and drink while they throw their balls down the lanes. The Port Authority bowling alley, though updated, is an almost serene place with a bar to the side and empty lane after empty lane, punctuated at times by the local bowling league.

There really is nothing happy about the entire building.

The bowling alley is also closed by 11pm on a Thursday night. The arcade adjacent was open, but our attempts to get a beer at the bowling alley bar were thwarted by the city that, apparently, finds time to sleep. The other bar on the second level of the building, MiLady’s (“meet me at MiLady’s,” the sign out front proclaims) was open, but was filled with bad karaoke, set up inconveniently directly in front of the front door to the establishment, leaving us only to watch momentarily and actually consider going in, until we realized that it was occupied by those who never leave.

We ended up at a pizza/pasta/other food establishment on the ground floor of the terminal eating $2.50 slices of pizza and watching European tourists in matching white hooded sweaters. By the time we left a little past 11:30, the chairs were going up on the tables.

I pity the person who gets stuck in Port Authority over night.

For anyone who’s never actually been in Port Authority at all, I can only describe it as an example of how not to arrange a building for optimal navigation. Where one might describe the flow of people through Grand Central Terminal as a dance, Port Authority is something more akin to a tumble down a flight of stairs. We we reached the bottom of the stairs to where my friend had arrived, a man called out to us.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

He was older, unbathed, carrying a small black nylon workout bag that was tearing at the seams. His black winter coat was tattered, and he was definitely one of the people who called the building home.

“Bus to Pittsburgh,” we responded.

“This way, follow me,” he called back, “this is arrivals, you need departures.”

And we followed him through the terminal, under 41st Street, to the departure terminals. “Don’t be scared. You’re scared. Don’t be.”

“Gate 69,” he said, which was definitely not right as we looked over towards it and found it completely empty. I went to the information booth and asked where the bus to Pittsburgh was departing from.

“Gate 69 or 70,” said the only information booth worker in the entire building.

We walked over to gate 70. On our way, our new friend was standing by the escalator.

“Hey, can you help a guy out?”

My friend gave him a dollar, justified with the notion that “this was a legitimately useful service.”

We wandered over to the gate where my friend was told that the bus was about to leave. Did she have her ticket? (Yes.) Then come this way. (We hugged, and she was led through a closed door to the waiting bus.)

I looked up at the sign above the door.

Gate 69.

The maze of Port Authority is a curse to any traveller, but in the confusion has developed an ad hoc service economy, both out of necessity and opportunity. Like good businessmen, they stand near the entrance to the building, beside the empty information booth, and inquire, ever so gently, “looking for a bus?”

And in that moment those who are just passing through can get a little taste of what New York is all about.

Filed under: Observations

At 2:48 am on 10.06.06, aleja said,

You forgot the Harlem Lanes; a very different scene.

At 2:59 pm on 10.12.06, lucy said,

i like this.

At 5:14 pm on 11.02.06, Lex said,

It is indeed a tumble down a flight or two of stairs.. and I avoid it everyday. I look forward to my commute home via Grand Central via the 43rd st entrance though. It’s so serene at 1 am.

Great story.

At 12:06 am on 06.08.08, lore said,

dont know if you’ll read this but i’m travelling next month and i cannot find a single data on the web to go from ny to pittsburgh by bus! at least you warned me… good story

At 7:15 pm on 06.08.08, jcn said,

I think Greyhound will take you there…

At 11:31 am on 09.08.08, Fred said,

The Grayhound station in New York City is a colorful and bleack third world experience. The passengers stand huddled in endlessly long unmoving lines and tempers flair easily. The staff is mostly slow or indifferent in controlling the mass confusion. You could be waiting for hours at the right gate to go to Pittsburgh only to find out when you reached the gate door that the line had been split into two gates and you are in the wrong one. And of course the ususal shameless line crashers are legendal.

At 12:14 am on 01.13.09, yakov hadash said,

hey you can get easy chinatown service from nyc to pittsburgh at gotobus.com . just helping out a brotha

At 11:55 am on 05.18.09, Shane said,

A couple years ago in NYC, the last time that I passed through Port Authority, I helped a fellow traveler find her way out of the building. I can only do that because I have passed through that building easily a couple hundred times. I far prefer Grand Central, or 54 Canal St. The Chinatown busses never pass through that mess.

New York, however, easily has a more user-friendly subway system than Boston’s. Firstly the maps show the terrain around them. Secondly, the stations are mostly (if not entirely) named after streets, whereas Boston names it’s stops after anything but.

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