The galaxy with a waiting line

One of the activities that taxes the ingenuity of those of us fortunate enough to be in the midst of this city's wealth of cultural events -- but not rich enough to afford any of them -- is discovering what's inexpensive. While most people gladly fork over the modest three dollar fee that admits them to the nearby planetarium, I only pay 15 cents to see a smaller galaxy housed in a neighborhood annex: Planetarium Station.

Planetarium Station is, in fact, my local post office. Unlike most postal outlets scattered throughout Manhattan, the city Kurt Vonnegut ruefully refers to as "Skyscraper National Park," Planetarium Station is decidedly modest in scale. Nestled amid the rows of brownstones that line the face of the West Side , the building is, at best, an inconspicuous presence rescued from its own anonymity by the Federal flag hanging over one of the two front entrances.

On surface inspection, Planetarium Station's charms are not instantly evident. A fact confirmed by my mother, who, waiting in a taxi one rainy afternoon while I mailed a letter, took one look at the exterior and, as if engineering a getaway, whispered, wide-eyed: "I'll tell him to keep the taxi running."

Had she ventured inside, my mother would really have wondered what it is about Planetarium Station that exerts such fascination for me. Conceived in the days of promise, but now condemned to compromise, the interior supports that uneasy alliance between the ornate and the utilitarian, the fanciful and the practical. Gilded airducts, scalloped in delicate filagree, compete for attention with the heavy metallic heaters on whose spines the city's sweethearts have laced their leaden initials. Confusion has carved itself into every conceivable space.

With its walls painted and peeling a florid rainbow of grays and greens, reds and yellows, the atmosphere can only be described as hysterial fiesta. Indeed, Planetarium Station most resembles a one-room Banana Republic under siege. (Judging from the terminal bureaucracy, it must be a Soviet-backed siege.) An obsolete officiousness bristles everywhere. Walls gummed with posters announce Christmas delivery as late as March; zip code notices require the aid of a pocket calculator; the Manhattan telephone directory is missing, but, good news, Jackson, Wyoming's is still there.

This grating inefficiency is why I love Planetarium Station. It inspires wonderful human drama, a comedy of errors acted by an improbable cast of characters that could only be found in New York. Each postal window becomes a small stage; the lines snaking from the windows, the audience. Everyone has a walk-on part.

"So how long you've been waiting, maybe?" an old man with a gravelly Yiddish accent asks me as he joins the line. Ten minutes, I reply. He shrugs his shoulders. His face crumples into a dozen deep creases. "So Job you're not. For thatm you gotta stand in the box rental line. Two years, maybe. I'm telling you."

Just as he's telling me this, a man standing in line at the box rental counter starts shouting. The window has blinked shut. "You can't do this to me ," he yells at the curtained window, "I've been waiting a whole fifteen minutes." The old man behind me shrugs his shoulders till they touch his earlobes. "So big deal. Fifteen hours, maybe. Fifteen minutes, he should be so lucky."

"I'm sorry, sir," a disembodied voice filters through the partition. "For stamps you have to join thatm line." The man reddens. "But I've been in thism line for fifteen minutes." The stamp line heaves a sigh like an exhausted Greek chorus. "I'm sorry, sir, rules are rules," the voice says, ignoring the man who continues to bully, cajole, hector, flatter, pound, and, occasionally, reason.

While this is going on, in pads Isaac Bashevis Singer. Hunched like a question mark, he stares at the man as if he were seeing one of his possessed characters come to life. Turning his back, he slides three letters into the mail slot. His face, fixed with a childlike intensity, cracks into a smile at this simple pleasure: mailing letters. Casting a last look at the man in the box rental line, Singer stops for a second and then shuffles past.

Just as he is about to leave, a young girl in pin striped sweat pants, an "I Love NY" sweat shirt, and ancient Addidas, jogs over to the complaining man, swipes the letters from his hand, jogs to the open stamp window (it was her turn in line), plops down a dollar, licks the stamps she's been given, presses them onto the letters and passes them back to the man like an Olympic torch. The stamp line burst into spontaneous applause. The man, defeated by such decency, slithered out the foyer, but not before the old man behind me yelled after him, "So you're welcome." Everyone joined suit. "You're welcome, you're welcome, you're welcome," we echoed until he was far down the street.

Another day at Planetarium Station, another confirmation of the human kindness that can shoot through the crumbling intimacy of this city like certain grasses through concrete pavings.

The window's open. If I can just get this into the envelope, it may reach you before the short story that Isaac Bashevis Singer has been composing in his head all the way home.

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