All aboard my other neighborhood

There is a secret community in my city.

Until a year ago, I spent little time there. Two or three times a week I would get off the train and stride through the towering confines of 30th Street Station with my book bag slung across my back, making right for the exit. I'd sidestep the pigeons and avoid the vendors' carts, and in 90 seconds I would be through the heavy brass doors and onto the street, the station forgotten.

Then my schedule changed, and I found myself a late-night resident, a wayfarer waiting an hour or two for my homebound train. Suddenly, I was a member of a club of which I had been completely ignorant.

There's a community here, a loose-knit but warm one, where people nod to each other as they go about their business, flirt and sleep, clean and sing. My business is homework, but sometimes I dream. It's a good place and time for dreaming.

At night, the daytime crowds are gone; most of the commuters have gone home on their local trains and all but a few vacationers have packed onto the long-distance ones. At night, the shadow city bobs to life like a cork in a dark ocean.

The biggest and brightest stores have closed: the music shop, with its racks of CDs; the bookstore, with its endless copies of the top-10 bestsellers and People magazine. The candy shop and bagel counter are still, darkened. The vendors have shut up their caravans: $10 watches and T-shirts with dubious slogans wait to be sold another day.

Pigeons bounce gently across the floor, pecking at shadows. The fountain is being emptied; the day's haul of coins is dredged up and hosed off by a bored young guy wading around in rubber boots.

At nearby tables, men play chess, pawns moving across a patterned board. They murmur, frowning in concentration. Occasionally a laugh breaks out.

The cassette-player behind the ice-cream counter is low but clear as it keeps company with the young immigrant scrubbing the countertops and wiping the sink. I asked, once, what the music was. "From home," he said. "I get it when I go home, to India."

Even the public-address system seems muted. A Silver Bullet train is always loading when I'm waiting. You can tell how long the attendant has been working the route by the length of the pauses as he reads the list of stops. "Savannah, Jessup ..." the names of southern New Jersey towns flow smoothly off the tongues of veterans, but new people slip and hiccup their way through the litany: "Absecon, Egg Harbor...."

As the last shopkeepers close up, and the all-night Amtrak staff guides sleepy passengers to the proper train, the third shift comes out: transit police with keys clinking and walkie-talkies sputtering muzzily, cleaners wearing rubber gloves and Walkmen.

The homeless people play an elusive game with transit police. Usually they lose. On especially cold nights, I think, the police let them win.

The long banks of phones are mostly empty, but here and there a business-suited traveler checks in, or a weary college student calls home. Some nights a teenager slouches against the wall at the end of a bank, hand cupped around the receiver as he chuckles and whispers. I imagine his girlfriend and wonder where she is and what she's doing.

IT GETS later, and at the tables near the fountain, the men are picking up their game boards, clustering around the one match still unfinished. I sit at the end of a long, empty wooden bench. I lift my feet as the cleaner's wide broom sweeps by.

When my eyes can't absorb any more homework, I switch to a newspaper and catch up on the world. There is a famine in Africa and unrest in the Middle East, domestic political problems, and an interesting book review. Some nights this seems too predictable, and I read my Spanish-language paper instead, puzzling over unfamiliar verb tenses and idioms.

After a time, I put away my reading and look up at the clock. Yes, it's time to head for the platform. I nod to the security guard, smile at a fellow traveler, and walk up the stairs to get on my train.

This is my other community, and these are my other neighbors. Some weeks I spend more waking time in 30th Street Station than I do in my own house. So I have grown to love this secret city, my city, and these people with their tired eyes and friendly faces.

For an hour or two on long evenings, I am one of them.

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