I expect a heated discussion on this, seeing as how anyone who lives in New York City, urban North Jersey, or who is affiliated with WFMU will have an opinion on the topic at hand. For those of you who reside on faraway shores, "PATH" is short for Port Authority Trans-Hudson, and is a highly-trafficked means of rail transport between Manhattan and some of New Jersey's primary population centers. (Newark, Hoboken, and WFMU's home in Jersey City). Basically, it's like a cheaper, slower subway that smells like urine, coffee, and heat all at the same time. There's a lot of negative mythology associated with the PATH system, mostly promulgated by Brooklyn transplants who somehow think their accursed L and F trains are better than the PATH. (I have met others who actually think that the PATH is just that -- an underground dirt path that connects New York with suburban Jersey. Others claim that it is actually a long stagecoach, pulled by a mule who is chasing a carrot tied to a stick and dangled in front of its face. All lies, I tell you.)
The fact is that the PATH is pretty much a way of life for everyone at WFMU from DJs to office staffers to volunteers. I find myself defending it frequently to the misinformed haters who spread ridiculous falsehoods such as "the turnstiles only take dollar bills" (they take your Metrocard, dummy), "it stops running after 11 PM" (it runs all night -- on a schedule, I might add), or "that guy Teddy always hassles me" (he isn't hassling you, he just wants to collect money to supply the local homeless shelter with juice, milk, and bread.) When riding the PATH train, I always recommend that you sit in the frontmost car, as close to the window as possible, and looking straight ahead. Careening through the old tunnels and observing the architecture necessary to bore a passage underneath a river is pretty amazing, and it feels like a demented version of one of those Disneyworld rides where animatronic pirates or dead presidents light the way ahead.
For those of you not fortunate enough to regularly participate in this modern marvel of urban transportation, here is a rough breakdown of all thirteen PATH stations and what you might expect to find at each of them.
Journal Square -- This PATH stop serves a modern transportation hub that anchors one of Jersey City's
primary shopping districts. Journal Square is somewhat
reminiscent of a gigantic, sprawling 14th Street; dollar stores and
fast food chains (and their accordant knockoffs a la "Dunky Donuts" and "Kennedy Fried Chicken") are the most obvious features of the local landscape. But it's also home to some great nearby attractions
like the Loew's Theater, Boulevard Drinks, and the many
wonderful Indian restaurants of Newark Ave. The PATH station itself is
housed within a cave (of sorts) with openings on either side, which means that waiting around for
your train in sub-Arctic temperatures is a lousy experience
that you'll not soon want to repeat. But Journal Square has a lot of character
and history associated with it, and these are the details I choose to
focus on when considering it. Interestingly, it is also the only place in
the world I've ever witnessed a grown man defecate on the sidewalk
(five years ago) and an attractive but clearly deranged woman take all
of her clothes off in the middle of a busy intersection (last summer).
Grove St. -- The PATH station at Grove St. used to be painted a sickly blue with dirt-colored highlights, but the Port Authority recently made the bold decision to go 100% with the dirt color. Odds are good that you will find tired-looking business people here, as well as skinny-jeaned urban hipster types, rowdy teenagers, and Teddy.
Exchange Place -- A primary stop for well-paid investment bankers, many of whom live in New York, but commute to Jersey's "gold coast" and its many shining office towers. In recent years, an explosion of condos and "experiential lofts" have shot up in this neighborhood like a fungus on growth hormones, but this is WFMU's home and we work with the changes to the best of our ability. The Exchange Place PATH station involves a bizarre descent on an escalator that seems to be a mile long, and which is adorned by strange, neon sculptures suspended from the ceiling. I used to have a picture of Nikki Sudden riding this escalator on the night he performed on my radio show, but I can't find it right now. Fortunately, WFMU's presence in the neighborhood seems to have left another indelible mark on Exchange Place, as you can see here.
Pavonia/Newport -- My vote for the crappiest PATH station. It's painted a horrible, pukey tan color, smells
like pee, and it gets hot as a docker's armpit in the summertime. There is no air conditioning in any of the PATH stations, just gigantic fans that blow hurricane-like winds at you in a lame effort to convince you that it's not quite so hot. Let me tell you, when you're sweating it out in 98 degree August humidity, having urine-scented air blown at you is like being trapped in some demonic blast furnace. Also, unless you have friends who live in one of the high rise apartment buildings found on the surface (unlikely), or feel like going to the mall (inconceivable), the best reason to come here is to marvel at the bizarre sedimentary deposits that hang from the ceiling and pool on the floor in primordial-looking puddles.
Hoboken -- Here you can witness the cocksure pragmatism of marketing executives through the elaborate ads geared towards Hoboken's wealthier set. In addition to the customary billboards (mostly for Broadway shows), there are humongous ads for Johnnie Walker Black that are custom built for placement on the ground one stands on while waiting for the train. These ads are especially poignant when complemented by some bananahead who came to town for a night of carousing at Bahama Mama's, and who is now passed out cold on the floor of the station. I guess that's what one too many Jaeger shots will do to you.
But I digress. Picking on Hoboken's large percentage of smarmy post-grads isn't fair to the many great things that have come from the Mile Square City, like Yo La Tengo, Maxwell's, Pier Platters (R.I.P.), and that Operation Ivy song. [Real Audio]
Harrison -- There is no practical reason to visit the Harrison PATH station. I can't even think of a whimsical reason to visit the Harrison PATH station.
Newark -- I almost didn't include this one because the PATH system terminates at this stop, where passengers disembark to change over to Amtrak and Jersey Transit trains, or board shuttle buses to the nearby airport. The official name of this transportation hub is Newark Penn Station, which you'll notice is very similar to New York Penn Station, found across the river at 33rd Street. You'll also notice that the "Penn" is short for "Pennsylvania", as in "Pennsylvania Railroad", yet neither of these Penn Stations are located in Pennsylvania. I assume this is all part of some elaborate scheme intended to confuse recent immigrants and foreign tourists who are trying to find their way around the eastern United States. Anyway, with so many connections available here, it feels less like a PATH station than it does a depressing, underground mall. If you're up for a gastrointestinal adventure, throw caution to the wind and sample the delights available on the food court, or get in line at the magazine stand to stock up on Dasani, lottery tickets, and porno mags. There is also a sports bar (where the most visibly encouraged "sport" is drinking heavily at 8 o'clock in the morning) and an auxiliary police precinct located in the men's bathroom. Now that is a mess.
New York Side:
The stations on the NYC side of the river demand a different kind of discussion because for the most part, there's very little to distinguish them from one another. Hewn at intervals along Manhattan's 6th Avenue, and then downtown at Christopher Street and the World Trade Center, they provide a great means of hopping from Jersey to the city's various shopping and nightlife areas. I also have a loosely developed theory that the neighborhoods which correspond with the 9th, 14th, 23rd, and 33rd Street PATH stations can be directly likened to how cheap a date you are, and how your spending arc (hopefully) goes up as you get older and more serious.
9th Street -- Its location serves as the gateway to both the East and West Villages, neither of which I've willingly hung around in years. However, there are a ton of restaurants and bars there, and the young people seem to like it. As Manhattan ceases to be a viable community for anyone but the very rich, there still remains an inexplicable need for everyone to treat it as their social playground. Maybe it's changing now, with generations of young hipsters who had their idea of New York sculpted by Sex & the City (instead of Kurtis Blow, Woody Allen movies, the '86 Mets, David Dinkens, WBLS, and the Cro Mags), but even though everyone knows the better restaurants and bars are in Brooklyn, there is something undeniably fancy about New York City, and what it means to Go On A Date There.
That said, the 9th Street PATH station has got to be among the most hated, since it's the only place I've ever witnessed passengers purposely board a train going in the opposite direction they want to go in, just to have a seat on that same train's voyage back downtown and on to Jersey. (The sensation of forward momentum apparently being preferable to jacking around the platform with the serfs.) Alcohol has clearly clouded the judgment of these people. Or maybe they're just trying to get away from Teddy.
14th Street and 23rd Street -- Gateways to the WFMU Record Fair! And... Chelsea. And lots of well dressed gay people and crowded restaurants. It's also a popular hangout of Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, whom I used to see around there so frequently, I briefly worried they might think I was following them. What these PATH stations lack in interesting details they make up for in amusingly good-natured drunk people at all hours of the day and night. On the downside, they also seem to also be popular destinations for the dreaded "sick passengers", many of whom journey tens of blocks for the explicit purpose of surrendering the contents of their stomachs on the platform.
33rd Street Penn Station -- Like Newark, this is a terminal station that connects with multiple subway lines, Amtrak, and Metro North rail services. Unless you're there for a WNBA game or the Rush concert (upstairs at Madison Square Garden), are looking to engage in questionable bathroom activities, or just love the cheese fries at Houlihan's, this is a place to be gotten in and out of quickly, and thereafter only spoken of in hushed tones.
Christopher Street -- The skinniest of all PATH platforms, and one of the most frustrating to navigate if you're in a hurry. Gateway to Film Forum, expensive brunch places to go when your friends from San Francisco are visiting, and one of my favorite local landmarks -- a pizza parlor built on a corner, with neon signs on both sides that when observed from a particular angle appear to spell out: "ASS PIZZA".
World Trade Center -- The only PATH station that has become an actual, bona fide tourist destination, as it is located smack dab in the middle of Ground Zero (which is funny to consider, being that most New Yorkers had been referring to the World Trade Center as "ground zero" since well before 9/11.) Indeed, every voyage through this station at any time of day or night will yield an army of camera-wielding tourists from around the world, all of whom have made this pilgrimage in order to take a picture of... those two big things that aren't there anymore. If you want to observe 9/11 conspiracy demonstrations or stock up on World Trade Center commemoratives (my favorite is the Spanish language version of a popular tourist book which explains the events of 9/11. It's called La Tragedia!), this is definitely the place to come. Last year, Brian Turner found this leaflet (left) taped to the wall of the station, and brought it back to WFMU where it adorned our lobby for many weeks. The station itself, as is constantly reminded to anyone who travels through it, is a "temporary" point of departure which will eventually be replaced with something else whenever the Freedom Tower gets built on top of it, I suppose.
If you were to back me into a corner and demand that I choose a favorite PATH station, I think I would have to pick the World Trade Center. It's a weird pick, I know, especially since in one way, it's got the most obvious historical relevance. But I'm a big fan of lower Manhattan in general. J&R Music World has an old-New York vibe that just can't be felt anywhere else. And as far as I'm concerned, dinner and drinks in Chinatown, or a weekend bike ride through the ghostly financial district easily trumps most of the allegedly superior activities staged north of Canal Street. Then again, I'm (often) accused of being antisocial.
Further PATH-related infotainment:
And finally, here's a video of the approach to the World Trade Center as seen from the first car in the PATH train, made by YouTube user Tribecatom.
Next time: Subtleties and nuances of Inwood. (Or: "Is it true that I have to change money north of the Cloisters?")