Monday, November 9, 2015
Penn Station Project (Tracks Bar and Grill)
For my first entry in my Penn Station Project, I thought I would highlight one of the few places in Penn Station that are bright beacons in an otherwise dark and awful place.
During my first few months of commuting through Penn Station I would walk from the New Jersey Transit terminal to the 123 subway line via the main hall past all of the stores and restaurants. I soon discovered an alternate route through an exceptionally dingy, empty corridor that dead ends at a side entrance to the subway line. Right at that dead end sits one of the great curiosities of New York and perhaps the world, Tracks Bar and Grill.
Although it is embedded in the least attractive corner of Penn Station, the outside is all shiny diner chrome and neon beer signs. In the dank corridor one is greeted by the sign I've posted a picture of below:
In this cave of despair there is indeed a raw bar, good food, and some very tasty pints of beer. ("Gold Medal Guinness" another sign exclaims, and I have no reason to doubt it.)For awhile I avoided it, thinking there was no way that Penn Station could possibly contain such a safe harbor. Then one Friday I was meeting my spouse after work, who was coming in from Jersey. I got to the station too soon and found myself with some time to kill. I figured what the hell, and went into the bar. I was pleasantly surprised.
Like all good bars do, it exudes warmth, the kind of human warmth that pushes drunks to pay extra to get loaded at a bar, rather than more cheaply at home. The barkeeps are almost invariably middle-aged Irishwomen, quick on their feet and friendly. Since I only go to Tracks every once in a blue moon I am pretty anonymous, but the bartenders seem to know practically everyone else on a first name basis. While Tracks is always crowded, the bar is incredibly long (105 feet, supposedly), and I have never failed to secure a seat at the rail. Almost no one sits at the small cluster of tables by the door. People aren't there for the much-lauded raw bar, any food consumed is in the interests of soaking up alcohol.
Tracks is full of a kind of special energy one only feels in the presence of people getting off of work and taking a slight detour on their way home. Guys in paint-stained Carharts lugging lunch boxes rub shoulders with men in navy suits and loosened ties. The talk is fast and lively, the smiles plenty, and vibes are good. Most of Penn Station is a kind of dehumanizing nightmare, the kind of place you are just hoping to rush through on the way to someplace else. Tracks actually invites you to linger, and in the low light amid the joy of a Friday happy hour with some very high quality Guinness in your belly, it's easy to forget that you are in the bowels of Penn Station. This last Friday I sipped a wonderfully creamy pint of Guinness in that glorious moment that is as far away from work on Monday as you're gonna get. Tracks is not the best bar in the world, but it is pretty damn high on the list when it comes to the best place to have a pint with strangers on a Friday afternoon. As I ambled over to my train that warmth stayed with me, and I could look out of my train window at the desolate marshes between the tunnel and Newark with a smile of bemused contentment.