Book: “Grand Central”

April 19, 2013

Grand - 1 Yes, I’ve been around long enough to remember when televisions were not yet a consumer item and radio was the principle source of home entertainment. One of the programs my mother listened to was Grand Central Station, a popular show that ran from 1937 to 1954. This wasn’t a soap opera like Our Gal Sunday, The Romance of Helen Trent, or The Edge of Night, which mom also listened to.

Grand Central Station was a series of disconnected stories — drama, romance, comedy — all of which, of course, played out at least in part in the railroad station of the title. The announcer who introduced each show described Grand Central as “the crossroads of a million private lives, a gigantic stage on which are played a thousand dramas daily.”

But, as Sam Roberts points out in his book, Grand Central, there was no such thing as Grand Central Station when that show was on the air. By then, the original structure, which was called by that name for a time, had been displaced by Grand Central Terminal, the one that now stands at East 42nd Street and Park Avenue.

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The difference is that trains originate and end at a terminal; they don’t pass through. When the first rail facility was built in that location in 1871, it was known as Grand Central Depot. That place wasn’t up to the job to begin with, and after a clumsy expansion project at the turn of the 20th century, it was known for a couple of years as Grand Central Station. But a fatal train accident in 1902 prompted railroad officials to tear down the station and start over again, and the result was the monumental terminal that is now the centerpiece of midtown Manhattan. The complex took ten years to build; it occupies 17 acres.

By the 1970s, both midtown and the terminal had substantially deteriorated, Grand Central reduced to a sanctuary for homeless New Yorkers and a pest hole for commuters to get in and out of as quickly as possible. The terminal wasn’t paying for itself, and there was talk of demolition. Enter some folks with a little more vision — including, not insignificantly, Jacqueline Onassis — and Grand Central was in for restoration instead.

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This book, which was published to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Grand Central Terminal, is an elegant volume loaded with photographs to embellish Roberts’ witty and vivid writing. Through the story of Grand Central, we learn about the evolution of rail travel in and out of, and within, the New York metropolis, and about the development of midtown — development, and re-development, for which Roberts writes, Grand Central has been the principal catalyst. It’s also a story of people: robber barons, politicians, engineers, and presidents, but most importantly it’s about the millions and millions of people who have  passed through the terminal in haste, in sorrow, in joy, in confusion, and in fear. New York likes to call Times Square “the crossroads of the world,” but in a more literal sense, that title might belong to Grand Central.

You can hear an episode of Grand Central Station at this link.

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MORGAN FREEMAN

MORGAN FREEMAN

Sometimes it’s better to accept the plot of a movie and move on. The Magic of Belle Isle is a case in point.

This feel-good film, released in 2012, was written by Guy Thomas and directed by Rob Reiner. The story concerns Monte Wildhorn  (Morgan Freeman), who was once a successful author of novels about a cowboy named Jubal McLaws. Disappointments in his life have dried up his creativity, and he is spending a summer at a borrowed house in fictional Belle Isle (actually Greenwood Lake, N.Y.), where he plans to drink and be disagreeable.

Partly due to his Victorian manners, he grudgingly develops relationships with people in the neighborhood, including Charlotte O’Neil (Virginia Madsen) the attractive divorcee next door, and her three daughters.

VIRGINIA MADSEN

VIRGINIA MADSEN

Monte especially becomes engaged with Charlotte’s middle daughter, Finnegan (Emma Fuhrmann), for whom the concept of imagination is elusive. There is also an undisguised chemistry between Monte and Charlotte — an improbable couple by reason of their widely different ages.

In a side plot not wholly irrelevant to the main story, the O’Neil children are going through the pain of separation from their father — an issue that creates a great deal of tension between Charlotte and her oldest girl, Willow (Madeline Carroll).

There is also a sidebar concerning Monte’s positive influence on a mentally or emotionally challenged young man (Ash Christian) who likes to hop around town like a bunny.

MORGAN FREEMAN and EMMA FUHRMANN

MORGAN FREEMAN and EMMA FUHRMANN

If one wonders too hard about how Monte, who has no use of his left arm and leg, can manage to do all the things that go along with living alone, or how he can drink as much as he does and sober up enough to be a good neighbor … well, if wonders too hard about a lot of things in this story, one may miss the benefits of good acting by a talented cast, a visually pleasing presentation, and a little optimism about human nature.

The Nazis' cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: "Work will make you free"

The Nazis’ cynical message at the Terezin concentration camp: “Work will make you free”

The dimensions of the Holocaust are brought home by the fact that the stories of individual victims are still emerging 67 years after the end of World War II. One example is Helga’s Diary: A Young Girl’s Account of Life in a Concentration Camp. The author is Helga Weiss, whose family were prisoners at Terezin, a concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia. Helga never heard of her father, Otto, or a boyfriend she met in camp, after they were dispatched from Terezin on one of the Nazi “transport” trains, but she and her mother, Irena, survived, despite being sent to the Auschwitz death camp at one point shortly before Germany was defeated.

Helga first day school

Helga kept the diary during the years at Terezin (1941-1944), beginning when she was 11 years old. When she knew that she and her mother had been selected for one of the dreaded transports, she gave the diary and drawings and paintings she had done to her uncle, who was assigned to work in the finance office at Terezin. He hid the materials by bricking them up in a wall, and he recovered them after the war. When Helga and Irena had  returned to their native Prague, Helga recorded, writing in the present tense, her recollections of their experiences after they left Terezin.

Some of the illustrations Helga did during her ordeal are included in this book. She became a professional artist after the war.

Terezin was a unique enterprise for the Nazis. It was not a camp as such but a Czech town purloined for use as a ghetto. The Nazis incarcerated a lot of writers and musicians there because Terezin was used as a showplace to hoodwink international authorities such as the Red Cross into thinking that Jewish culture was thriving in the Third Reich. My longtime colleague in newspaper journalism, Mirko Tuma, was one of the young Czech intellectuals who were sent to Terezin.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

An orchestra of prisoners gives one of the concerts that on the one hand were encouraged by the Nazis and on the other hand helped the victims maintain their sanity.

Mirko told me that reciting poetry, writing and performing plays, and performing musical works helped the prisoners at Terezin maintain their sanity.

But although the Nazis went to a lot of trouble to create a faux town with shops and other amenities — including a school with neither teachers nor students — as a veneer for outside visitors, Helga vividly describes the hunger, thirst, illness, cold, heat, vermin, and human brutality that characterized life in the camp and at the other stops on her odyssey.

Helga 1 mirror

She also describes the fear, the uncertainty, the desperation that daily beset the prisoners. They worried constantly about being included in the frequent transports that carried people to God knows what fate.

And Helga, of course writes about the longing for the life that was abruptly taken away from her, of the simple comforts of her home and of Prague itself.

We learn in this diary, which has been translated from the original Czech text, that a young girl had to learn not only to survive but to connive and barter in the camp. She became adept at grabbing scraps of food, even though she knew the possible consequences. Indeed, she saw a boy beaten for taking a single cucumber peel.

We also learn that although she despaired at times, Helga had a strong spirit that wouldn’t let her capitulate to the Nazis.

“(T)here’s no reason for crying,” she writes. “Maybe because we’re imprisoned, because we can’t go to the cinema, the theater, or even on walks like other children? Quite the opposite. That’s exactly why we have to be cheerful. No one ever died for lack of a cinema or theater. You can live in overcrowded hostels . . . on bunks with fleas and bedbugs. It’s rather worse without food, but even a bit of hunger can be tolerated. … only you mustn’t take everything so seriously and start sobbing. They want to destroy us, that’s obvious, but we won’t give in. . . .”