Re: Union

Re: Union

At times on a weekday afternoon, there are as many employees—security, maintenance, ticket sales—as there are passengers inside New Haven’s Union Station. It makes for a strangely intimate experience. “My friends and I started a band,” I overhear one woman telling the ticket seller at a Metro North window. Her voice echoes in the cavernous waiting room. “How is your day going today?” another customer asks at the window as if she really means it, then waits for the answer. A few travelers sit scattered along the station’s curving wooden benches, occupying themselves on phones and laptops, but it’s quiet enough to hear the constant mechanical hum that would normally be overpowered by the noise of people.

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Above the passengers’ heads, yellow light reflects off the ornate ceiling, and red, white and blue banners festoon the balconies. They’re reminders of the celebration of the station’s centennial last year, which quietly came and went. Lue Hemingway, facility manager for the New Haven Parking Authority, which manages the station, ushers me upstairs, where a broad, carpeted balcony that overlooks the waiting area is sometimes rented out for special events—fundraisers, concerts, birthdays—but not lately. He enumerates all the COVID protocols in place: hand sanitizing stations, stickers to help passengers keep their distance, increased cleaning and decontamination protocols. Masks are required inside the station and on the trains. It’s clear the pandemic isn’t over yet.

There are signs of life. On the lower level, Sbarro is open, and a few folks are grabbing a late lunch. Upstairs, Dunkin Donuts has coffee and sweets at the ready, and the magazine racks at Union News of New Haven are stocked, with plenty of gum and candy in tiers at the front counter. Longtime owner Gita Patel says things have picked up “a little bit.” Her husband, B. M. Patel, estimates traffic is up about 20 to 30 percent from its low point. The shop now opens at 7 a.m. instead of its pre-pandemic 5 a.m. start, and it often closes early. Gita orders 10 copies of The New York Times but sometimes sells only five of them. Progress is slower than everyone had hoped.

I claim a spot on a waiting room bench myself and take stock of my surroundings. A slide show is running on a big screen alongside the main Departures board. (There’s no longer an Arrivals board. One window clerk told me it was confusing too many people, who were waiting for trains on the wrong tracks.) The slides include historic photographs and text that tells the story of Union Station. In one, a team of horses heads toward the camera while in the background the city’s original rail station can be seen as it looked in 1888: a three-story brick building with several covered entrances. In another, a trolley stands in front of the current building, doubled by its reflection on the wet pavement. Barely in the frame, a man wearing a sailor’s cap and smoking a pipe squints at the photographer. Yet another slide notes that the station’s architect, Cass Gilbert, also designed the U.S. Supreme Court building, New York’s Woolworth Building and “several state capitols.” This station has seen a lot, I think, and the current moment shrinks into its place among the many challenging times New Haven has weathered.

That perspective lifts my spirits a bit, but what happens next really makes my day: Alison arrives. She’s my friend of 24 years who lives 2,000 miles away. We haven’t seen each other in four years. Normally, we wouldn’t go so long between visits, but nothing recently has been normal. She arrives on the 1:33 Amtrak train from Boston, where she’s been visiting relatives, and I first see her rising on the escalator from the tunnel that leads to the tracks. A moment later, we’re sharing a long, tight hug. The train wasn’t crowded, she tells me, and it ran on time. Like so many others have been and will be, our Union Station reunion is right on track.

Union Station
50 Union Ave, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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