A giant chicken appears on the train tracks about a quarter of the way through Maira Kalman’s Next Stop Grand Central; we should expect nothing less. While this story is ostensibly a sampling of 316 unassuming professionals who labor where we would not think to look, it’s also a catalog of all the little things that can go wrong – but miraculously don’t – when half a million people go rushing and zipping and striving and dreaming under one gigantic roof.
Since back in the days when Max Stravinsky (dog, dreamer, poet) decided to follow his wildest ambitions to Paris and Hollywood; since Lulu, an older sister, succeeded in parting the darkness at bedtime with extravagant invocations like “Hey Willy, see the Pyramids!”; since probably the very first minute that Kalman set pencil and paintbrush and runaway imagination to paper, this oddball documentarian has always been particularly effusive on the wonders of travel – and in Grand Central Station she has found her perfect stage. There are magnificent staircases, to be sure, and vaulted, star-filled ceilings, but Kalman is much more interested in the actors here – twenty or so of the employees, a couple hundred people just passing through, and a few, like the opera singer Olga Shmedig (her high notes mistaken for train whistles) who are indispensably somewhere in between. Any partial cast list here would do a disservice to the character of this space, indeed the author herself seems briefly at a loss and resorts to even listing a few of the only things you will probably not see here:
“Einstein sailing. Boris Pasternak pouring a drink for his wife… A boy named Will dreaming on a red book.” Oh, and Willy’s pyramids. (“That’s another trip.”)
Still, everything else is an object of even heroic examination. Here are the wages of travel reduced to their smallest, most accessible elements. You don’t need to spend half a year’s income on airfare, it turns out, or plunk down that inheritance for a villa in Tuscany. As evidence, please meet:
“Edith and Selma… going to the Metropolitan to see a painting by Tintoretto.”
“The woman with the blue pancake hat… going to Chinatown to buy Poo Nik Tea.”
“The fezman in the fez… going skating in Central Park.”
“Mrs. Millicent Bluebird… bringing a rare lemon to the lemon man at the Botanical Gardens.
“The Oblensky twins… going to their tap dancing class in Carnegie Hall.”
All of this hustle and purpose feels contagious when you’re in it, and Kalman is at her egalitarian best making sure that you are. Is that you there – the girl with the head scarf, the princess costume, the martini glass? The line cook pondering mathematical conundrums? The lover, the shouter, the shepherd, the sheep? The actor on his way to an audition, the cello player, the night baker in hipster disguise? Or the quiet one, as Kalman describes you in her equally clamorous Chicken Soup, Boots: “too overwhelmed to speak up and say your name clearly.”?
Just like that earlier accounting of the things that people do – and dream – for a living, Next Stop has a way of sneaking up on you through its infinite warrens and detours and heroes. Kalman herself seems surprised: “Great googamoogas!” she exclaims at the size of a revelation, and I don’t think you could even make up a word like googomooga unless you were genuinely inspired. Anyone can plant their easel in a hubbub, but it’s hard to imagine many artists more gifted – at seeing, at saying, and delighting in the difference between the timeless and the commute:
“Trains are trips. And trips are adventures. And adventures are new ideas and romance and you can’t ever know what in the world will happen which is exactly why you are going. And kisses, kisses, kisses are always there….”