A cab driver in Muslim garb and skull cap came to pick me up from Harvard Club as I left for Penn Station at 5:30 AM. His accent and countenance pointed to a South Asian origin. “I thought you said you were going to JFK,” he said. Then I realized it was no chance that he had pulled over, even if I had not hailed. Somebody else must have ordered it.
For some strange reason, he wanted me to get off in the farthest corner from the station, across the street in diagonal. I had to insist a couple of times – the second time louder – to please drop me by the entrance, on the other side of 31st Street and across Seventh Avenue. He backed up his prematurely battered Prius like a maniac. He then swerved to the right and sprinted forth at the green light.
New York cab drivers are known to become aggressive if not tipped. Much to my chagrin I tipped him with 20 per cent, the lowest possible in the credit card payment choice. Yet he did not deserve it. The tip entitlement is one of the most annoying features of American life. It has become such an undisputed right among certain professions that even lousy service is rewarded with a tip. Nobody ignores it is employers simply passing on employees’ wage demands onto customers. Unlike most of the world, where the standard is 10 percent, in the States the minimum acceptable is 15 percent of the service value. And that’s for stingy tippers.
Penn Station is perhaps the biggest eyesore still standing in New York – courtesy of Robert Moses, in his long and destructive tenure as city planner from the early 1920s to the early 1970s. He threatened to do the same with Grand Central Station, unrivaled in beauty among train stations in the world. But Jackie Kennedy Onassis – with her charm and pair of grand surnames – stayed his hand.
The station looked uglier and grayer at that desolate hour. A disheveled man with a long beard was screaming, “All my power belongs to God” as he ambled around the hall. Then he fell silent and leaned over the garbage bin to scavenge. Five minutes prior to departure the electronic board showed the platform the Cardinal – the train for Chicago – would be leaving from. Seats were unassigned. The driver only told me to sit on any row on the right side of the corridor. At 6:45 sharp, the train slowly crawled out of its underground nest at hideous Penn Station.
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This is the third part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below: