NEW YORK—Navigating narrow metal staircases and crawling though passageways by flashlight, Dan Brucker leads a group into the tiny attic perched behind Grand Central’s famous clock. He opens the glass pane behind the number V1; the people on the street below look like ants.
Brucker, manager of Grand Central tours, knows the secrets of Grand Central like the back of his hand. He holds the keys to the secret staircase and basement, the whispering gallery, and the express track to the Waldorf-Astoria.
To commemorate the terminal’s 100th birthday, Brucker gave a tour to it’s hidden gems, bringing the world’s largest train terminal to life. Grand Central is his passion, and has been for the last 25 years.
But seeing is only a fraction of the experience. Brucker is the voice of the terminal. His sentences boom with emphasis, filling the 22,000 feet of the main concourse with his excitement.
“I really see myself as if I’m a talent agent, a promoter for the world’s largest, greatest, most famous talent. The only problem is my talent, my client, this Grand Central Terminal, it doesn’t do anything.” Brucker said.
As the terminal draws near to its 100th anniversary, Brucker could not be more thrilled. For decades, the terminal was “horrible and black and ugly and filled with dirt,” he said. Close to a thousand homeless people lived in the terminal, the main concourse was littered with billboards, and the ceiling was covered with a layer of tar.
Major renovations to the entire terminal began in 1990, costing more than half a billion dollars. But glorious as it is, it is still just a train terminal.
“I am the one who has to make it come to life for the people I’m touring around. I have to give them a sense of the size, of the scope, of the history, of the magnificence of this building; to try and represent the 750,000 souls that come through here every single day,” Brucker said.
“And the only way I can do it is to try to be almost as large and as grand as the terminal itself. It is the only way to translate it.”
Standing at just over 5 feet tall Brucker can’t compete with the terminal in terms of size, but he makes up for it with excitement and passion. He is enthralled by the smallest details and in honest awe of the scale of the structure at large.
“I’m absolutely in love with Grand Central,” Brucker said. “The oddest thing is this—the best thing I like about Grand Central, believe it or not, isn’t any part of the building itself. What I like best and I get to see it every day are the faces of the people coming through here, for the first time seeing this, their expressions of amazement, of being astounded, aghast really, at the scope of this place. It is a joy to see it translated in their eyes. Because really nowhere is there a train terminal anything like this.”
(Courtesy of MTA/Metro-North Railroad)
It’s the people that Brucker really knows well. From the information booth clerks, to the lost and found personnel, from the electricians in the subbasement to the control room operators, everyone has something good to say about Brucker or just smile knowingly at the excitement of the tour group he brings around.
On the way to the subbasement, Brucker had some visitors buy pizza and cheesecake for the electricians downstairs. It seemed like a bribe, but the workers downstairs said that one day Brucker just started to do it. They joked with him as though he worked on the transformers with them every day.
On the way between the control room, which cannot be photographed or filmed, and the glass walkways that run across the Grand Central windows, an office worker came out of one of the offices and greeted Brucker.
“You guys are lucky,” he said. “Dan is the best tour guide we have.”
After more than four hours on tour, riding secret elevators, peeking at the main concourse from the highest indoor vantage point, scrambling up a thin ladder with nothing but a flashlight to tell the way, Brucker brought those that still remained, just 6 out of the initial 40, back to the clock tower. From the outside, it is magnificent: a 13-foot clock, the largest example of Tiffany glass in the world, framed by spectacular statuary. From the inside, it is a dim room with scaffolding and light from the outdoors shining through the colored windowpanes.
The number VI on the clock’s face opens inward, allowing the clock tower visitors a unique view of Park Avenue. As people took turns looking out the window, Brucker offered to take pictures for each.
It’s in the isolated clock tower, away from the crowded halls and bustling tracks, that Brucker recalls having a most memorable personal moment. He toured a documentary crew through the building late into the night. The clock tower was the last place Brucker wanted to be. With no sun shining through the glass panes, the place had limited appeal.
“It was the oddest feeling … late at night, to open up this number six and look out onto the city, to smell the fresh air of the night and see all the light and all the cars. Nobody knows I’m up here. Nobody has a sense that I’m around, to look up. Here I am in the world’s largest, busiest city, and I’ve disappeared, it’s as if I’m spying on it. It really was the strangest sensation.”
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