This is a picture of Grand Central Terminal or as we railroaders call it GCT. It has been my home away from home for the past 20 years. When I first started on the railroad, GCT served not only as the hub of the tri-state area but also a makeshift homeless shelter. On any given day you would find homeless people sleeping, urinating and defecating in its corridors. The Terminal’s water fountains were used as communal showers where you would find many residents taking sponge baths. A Vietnam veteran would, “God bless you” for a little pocket change and a dollar could buy you a spine tingling version of, “Amazing Grace” from an armless black woman.
The 1990’s brought the Giuliani administration and the restoration of Grand Central. The Terminal’s homeless suddenly disappeared, and its hallowed halls began to sprout gourmet restaurants and tony shops and boutiques. It has gotten so high class that even the rats now wear tuxes. The only things that seem to have survived these changes are the roaches and Val.
Val is probably one of GCT’s most visible residents. I first met him as a rookie conductor when he followed me across the main concourse, pointed to the back of my head and shouted, “HEY YOU’RE LOSING YOUR HAIR.” My face turned four shades of red as passing commuters giggled into their palms. Since then, I’ve learned to keep my conductor’s cap on around Val.
Surprisingly, Val himself has had hair transplant surgery. I once complimented him on the hair plugs that dot his scalp. He rubbed his head, gave me a toothless grin, and said, “I do look good, don’t I?”
“Yes Val,” I said, “You look Marvelous.”
Rumor has it that Val was once one of Los Angeles’s hottest disc jockeys. They say that he got caught up in the Hollywood scene, took copious amounts of drugs and fried his brain. He seems bipolar to me though--when he’s up he’s really up and when he’s down he’s really down.
Val calls me Red. I assume it’s due to my ruddy Irish complexion.
Val: Hey Red, can you give me a buck so I can get a cup of coffee?
Me: If I give you any more money I’ll have to claim you as a dependent.
Val: Ha! Good one Red! . . . Hey, did I ever tell you about the time that I (Sodomized) Tony Curtis in the @#$?
Me: You mean Tony Curtis the actor?
Val: Yeah, of course Tony Curtis the actor…Oooh, he was tight!
The Tony Curtis story is one of Val’s favorites. He’ll tell anyone who will listen.
Regularly, someone will yell across the terminal, “HEY VAL… HOW’S TONY CURTIS.”
“TIGHT!” He yells back.
No matter how hard I try to avoid Val, he always seems to find me. He’s like a heat seeking missile. On Thanksgiving Day a few years back, he cornered me in a deli in GCT.
“Hey Red,” said Val, “Since it’s Thanksgiving, could you give me five bucks so I can have a Thanksgiving feast?”
In the back of my head I think back to my Catholic grammar school education. I hear Sister Adele telling the story of the Good Samaritan and then Sister Alice saying, “There but for the grace of God go you.”
I hand him the money.
Val then proceeds to pester the woman behind the deli counter. She has just brought out a fresh batch of barbecue chicken. He tells her to give him the big piece of chicken on top. When the woman grabs that piece of chicken, he complains that it’s too skimpy and then he points out another piece. The woman repeats this scenario about four times and finally screams, “MAKE UP YOUR MIND!”
“See,” Val says, “Beggars can be choosers!”