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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

TOUCH: Buying tickets at Grand Central Terminal

There’s no doubt that Grand Central Terminal offers a host of sensory experiences. There are slippery, salty oysters on ice and crunchy, buttery cinnamon babka, the smell of tar and heat on the tracks, the echo of heels clicking on marble and muffled voices beneath a vaulted green ceiling of stars.

But despite these, probably my favorite thing about visiting Grand Central is the process of buying a train ticket. These days, there are two options: the ticket counter, or the MetroNorth ticket vending machines, relatives of the MetroCard machines in subway stations. Both offer tactile experiences worth noting here.

Each time you press a button on the vending machine screens--to enter your destination, number of tickets, etc.--the machine emits a puck sound that is perhaps even more satisfying than the pop of Bubble Wrap. The buttons are just the right size to fit a fingertip, and after pressing one button the next screen appears instantaneously, ushering you through the ticket-buying process with the efficiency of a Manhattan sidewalk during rush hour. The MetroCard machines, while just as attractive and easy to use, do not make this sound. While I do like the way MetroCards shoot confidently out of a slot at the end of a transaction, there’s something wonderful about how the MetroNorth tickets flutter down into a plastic bin beneath the machine, still warm from being printed.



If you choose to buy your tickets the old-fashioned way, you can wait on line at one of the ticket windows along one side of Grand Central’s main hall. In return for your patience you have the pleasure of sliding your hand along the smooth, cool marble counter into the pool of light on the other side of the grille. There’s no bulletproof glass here: just elegant brass filigree and numbered triangular lamps hanging from brass tusks above each window, and a rack to rest your purse on beneath the counter. As you complete your transaction and let your fingertips linger over the veins in the marble, it’s possible to imagine the thousands of fingertips that have worn away this surface over the years, sliding bills (or credit cards) through and receiving a paper ticket (still paper!) in exchange.

It’s the simplest of transactions—a few buttons pushed, a few slips of paper exchanged--but in this setting the wonder comes alive in the stories behind each gesture, and behind each gesture the limitless destinations.