There are many grimy, dirty places in Penn Station, but there is none more obscure in its dirt and grime than the Hilton Passageway.
In a station full of bustle and crowds, it is often almost completely, eerily empty. I discovered it only after about six months of commuting. I take New Jersey Transit to Penn, but when I get out I have to get to the 123 subway train, which is on the other side of the station, about two short New York blocks. The obvious way is to walk down the main concourse, flanked by cheap eateries and curious retail establishments, from the shoeshine place that sells umbrellas on rainy days to the subterranean Kmart. (More on the main concourse in a later installment of the Penn Station Project.)
One day I figured out that there was a shortcut through a dirty, almost deserted hallway with exposed pipe. It’s usually full of wheeled carts carrying piles of trash bags, which had me initially assuming that it was a service entrance for the custodial staff. I soon discovered that it was a perfectly legitimate path to cross the station, but one so hidden and dirty that people easily overlook it. Some of the wiser homeless people in the station seem to have discovered this.
I love this space for many reasons, not least of which is that there are multiple signs alerting passers by that they are in the “Hilton Passageway.” Did Hilton Hotels actually pay for this? Is it an homage to Conrad Hilton? Does it have nothing whatsoever to do with him? I haven’t the slightest idea. I love it too because of its quiet in a place where the crowds are maddening. It is my morning contemplation chamber, that little space between the train and the subway where I can think a little about the day stretched out before me. At the end of the day its quiet squalor is a sign that I am about to go home and be delivered from the working world.
It is not a space for the faint of heart, though. The pipes are exposed, and giant formations of lint and dirt sometimes sway in the wake of the blown in air that feels drained of oxygen and tastes like iron filings. I feel terrible for the people who work on this level of the station, as they are deprived of oxygen and sunlight, and would not be surprised if decades of prolonged exposure didn’t turn them into Morlocks. It is the ultimate rebuke to the decision to tear down the original Penn’s marbled glory. Even though I have learned to love it, it’s really more a case of Stockholm Syndrome than anything else.