Each morning, as the first trace of dawn kisses an inkblot sky, a crush of humanity begins its course through South Station: corporate suits hurrying to work, college students racing to class, weary commuters, lost-looking tourists, addicts searching for a bathroom stall in which to shoot up, homeless people seeking respite after a fitful night outdoors.
A thoroughfare for most, a refuge for others. Tens of thousands of lives, brushing past one another in the chaos of the crowded station, thrust closely together, yet apart in their own worlds.
Many bury their heads in their phones, private symphonies thrumming in their ears, their eyes looking straight ahead, or at nothing at all.
But on the periphery are strangers with their own private dramas, of serendipitous rendezvous, of unexpected intimacy, of defeat or resignation.
Before the bedlam is the quiet. South Station stirs to life shortly before 5 a.m., hushed and calm. Soft footsteps and low voices echo across the sparsely crowded terminal. The day is about to begin.
A smattering of bleary-eyed passengers cradle paper coffee cups as they scan the glowing departure board hanging from the ceiling. The 4:55 a.m. Acela to New York has cleared the track, and for the next group of weary travelers, now is their turn to wait.
“This is the final boarding call for the 5:30 a.m. train to Framingham, now boarding on Track 2,” a digitized female voice wafts over the intercom. A puffed-up pigeon scuttles across the cracked terrazzo floor.
Sherry Markwell, a 49-year-old aspiring lifeguard from Quebec, is bound for Hollywood, Fla., a 35-hour train ride from Boston, to see about a man named Rick.
She remains rooted below the departure board, but her two pets, a dachshund rescue named Dixie Doodle and a tabby cat named SaChat, make themselves comfortable on top of a nearby quilted duffle bag owned by Caitlin Hayes. The animals curl into one another, a cuddly yin and yang, and Hayes lets them lie until she has to board her 6 a.m. train to New York for a business trip.
Outside the station, Jonathan Raulino emerges from beneath a waterproof tarp on the sidewalk and rubs his eyes, bewildered at the start of a new day. Gaunt and weather-beaten, the 32-year-old Raulino is hankering for a cigarette, coffee, and a meal.
For the past six days, Raulino has made camp at South Station, a magnet for the homeless and itinerant. On this morning, his sleeping bag and backpack abut the entrance to the MBTA Red and Silver lines on Atlantic Avenue. His 2-year-old beagle, Miss Elle, barely stirs beside him.
Yesterday was a bad day for Raulino. St. Francis House, a day shelter on Boylston Street, confiscated his multitool and sewing needle at breakfast. He and Miss Elle shivered under the doorway to South Station’s food court while the sky poured rain. He made only $8 panhandling, but needs $30 for a train ticket to Portland, Maine, to meet his girlfriend, who has a court appointment the next day.
Today, he hopes, will be better.
At 6:30 a.m., a gust of commuters blows in from the platforms, lugging backpacks and tugging roller bags, Airpods in their ears and coffee tumblers in hand. The morning rush begins. The din inside the station swells.
A woman in a blazer eats a bagel with cream cheese from Au Bon Pain while checking her makeup with her iPhone camera. A police officer from New Bedford, handgun jutting from his holster, reads an Instant Pot cookbook.
The lines at Dunkin’ grow. An espresso machines whirls and whooshes, coins clatter in a cash register, bags scrape along the floor. An errant fire alarm crows over the shuffling of hundreds of footsteps dutifully marching to work.
South Station was once the city’s crown jewel, an icon the instant it opened on New Year’s Day in 1899. Bostonians marveled at its elegant Neoclassical facade, buttressed by Ionic columns and topped by a giant hand-wound clock modeled after London’s Big Ben.
“Walk in and feast your eyes on the largest passenger station in the world,” the Boston Daily Globe trumpeted on Dec. 30, 1898, two days before the station’s grand opening. “Go from top to bottom. Nobody will stop you. And when you have done this you will be tired, very tired, but ever so much wiser, and prouder that you are a Bostonian.”
During the Golden Age of rail travel, South Station was the busiest train terminal in the Western world, “outdistancing Grand Central and Penn stations in New York, Waterloo in London, or the Gare St. Lazare in Paris, the other giants of the time,” geographer James E. Vance wrote in “The North American Railroad: Its Origin, Evolution, and Geography.” A century ago, nearly 40 million travelers a year, by some counts, passed through the station’s gleaming doors. Key to South Station’s success, according to Vance, was its location — “very close to the cove on which the colonial city focused.”
But the story of South Station is also the story of all passenger railway stations in the United States: decline and disrepair post-World War II as travelers defected for automobiles and sprawling suburbs. Long gone are the days when South Station housed a movie theater in the southeast corner, on Dorchester Avenue — where tickets for newsreels and featurettes went for 20 cents a pop — and an underground bowling alley in the abandoned “ghost terminal” beneath the main concourse.
Today, South Station is less of a social hub than it was a century ago. But, as the city’s busiest transit hub after Logan International Airport, it remains a major artery for business and tourism, a gateway through which some 128,000 boardings and alightings pass every weekday, on trains, subway cars, and buses.
At 7:09 a.m., another wave of harried passengers rushes the station. Kevin Greene is ready for them.
“Free maps over here, folks,” Greene shouts above the racket from behind the glass counter of his souvenir stand. “How are you, sir? Can I help you?”
Greene, a Quincy native, is the longtime owner of Teddy Ball Games, purveyor of baseball caps, beanies, T-shirts, sweat shirts, hoodies, umbrellas, keychains, lanyards, and tote bags of every color, every size, every local professional and local college sports teams.
The business spikes in the summer, when tourists want Boston T-shirts and hoodies, and luggage storage, but wanes in the winter as locals prefer cold-weather hats, gloves, and scarves. Red Sox caps are always popular. Rainy days are big for Greene — umbrellas.
But sports merchandise doesn’t sell the way it used to when Boston teams first started their recent run of championships. “I wouldn’t say people are jaded, but it’s not our first rodeo,” he says.
One of Greene’s most popular items is a T-shirt he never imagined selling. On April 15, 2013, Greene was vacationing in Florida when he heard the news in a phone call from a friend: There had been bombings at the Boston Marathon. When he returned, his regulars wanted to know: Do you have the shirts? The ones that say “Boston Strong”?
So Greene ordered them, and customers thronged to his counter, strangers talking to each other as they waited, about the bombing, where they were when it happened, how they felt, their shock and their sadness.
“It kind of brought everybody together,” Greene says.
Frank Keenan, an Amtrak porter, hauls a pair of full luggage carts, pushing the one in front and pulling the one behind, toward Track 8 and the 9:30 a.m. to Norfolk, Va.
“It’s show time,” he says, as he readies the carts. To the passengers waiting to board, he asks, “Ready to rock and roll?”
It’s impossible to miss Keenan in his cherry-red polo and iconic red cap, a massive ring of keys and carabiners attached to his belt, thick, white mustache above his upper lip. A veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, Keenan likes to tell folks he’s serving a “43-years-to-life” sentence at Amtrak. (His son, also a combat veteran, works at South Station, too, as a train car cleaner.)
In truth, Keenan loves his job helping people. “I don’t consider them passengers; they’re guests,” he says. In his four decades at Amtrak at South Station, he says, he has held every job. He’s seen precisely one wedding here and a few caskets on their “last ride.”
You wouldn’t believe how many people lose their luggage. And you never know who you might meet.
He thumbs through photos on his smartphone until he lands on a snapshot of him and his most recent “VIP:”
“That’s Sarah Jessica Parker,” he says. “Of course, she has my card, you know.”
On Jan. 10, the actress posted her own photo on Instagram, pushing a luggage cart and wearing a pair of gold booties and Keenan’s red Amtrak cap over her tousled, blond locks. In her caption, she thanks Frank for letting her borrow his “old school, the real deal hat,” and “for the quality time with that gorgeous luggage cart.”
As a good-natured gag, he bought Parker and her husband, Matthew Broderick, hats bearing the Red Sox slogan, “Damage Done.”
“They’re Yankee fans,” Keenan says. “They had a good laugh.”
Julian Collingwood likes to people-watch from the mezzanine above the food court. Sitting at a table, he cleans out his wallet of old Post-it Notes and receipts while taking in the late-lunch crowd. A few sparrows flit between chairs. One woman sleeps on a nearby bench.
Collingwood is 54 and originally from Trinidad. A tattoo of Tupac Shakur embellishes his right forearm. He rides up on the commuter rail from Providence to spend the afternoon here, seeing what others don’t, or prefer not to. Does anyone else notice what I see, he wonders, “or is it just me?”
“I thought it was just a simple place,” he says, “but it’s not as simple as it seems.”
Collingwood has watched men and women, young and old, digging through the garbage for food, some too proud to accept meals from kind strangers. He has observed sprinkles of blood around the toilets in the men’s room, blood he suspects had burst from the barrel of a syringe.
He nods toward a woman with white-blond hair and a vacant look. She’s a regular, he says, like so many people who use South Station as a haven from the outside world.
Collingwood can’t forget the man who walked into South Station one day, filthy and lugging three large bags. He gazed at the departure board, and when a train was announced, ran toward the platform, like he had a train to catch.
But he did not get on the train. “He’s from here,” Collingwood says, with tears in his eyes. “He wasn’t going anywhere.”
Collingwood understands why they come here, those struggling to survive. He knows the feeling well. Collingwood lives day to day with a friend at a hotel in Providence. He’s searching for refuge, too.
For the homeless, South Station offers at least a simulacrum of protection. The droves of people bring a swarm of police. And that means it’s less likely someone like Raulino will be robbed or beaten
“I don’t like to wander off too far. I don’t want to end up on Mass. Ave., where all the drug addicts are,” he says of the area near Boston Medical Center known as Methadone Mile. “ ’Cause I’m homeless, people will come up and try to rob me, punch me, kick me, try to steal my dog. It’s safer [here].”
It was good day so far. The weather was beautiful. Raulino pocketed $3 and change, his cardboard sign — “TRAVELIN’ BROKE & UGLY” — drew lots of smiles. A commuter bought him a train ticket to Portland. Raulino will leave from North Station at 10:30 p.m.
Suddenly, his luck turns. At 5:15 p.m., the height of rush hour, three brawny transit officers surround Raulino.
One officer rifles his gloved hands through the dirty laundry in Raulino’s backpack. Another bends over and scratches Miss Elle.
Raulino looks small in the shadow of these officers, flimsier and frailer than usual. He sways back and forth on the balls of his feet, hands tucked behind him. Inside, he’s scared.
Raulino has an outstanding warrant for missing a court date two years ago on a misdemeanor drug possession charge.
He thinks he won’t make it to Portland tonight. His mother is going to kill him, he thinks, when he calls her from jail to ask her to pick up his dog.
Still, he tells the officers about the warrant. He shows them the ounce of marijuana in his belt bag. He readies for the cold clasp of handcuffs around his wrists.
The officers don’t arrest him.
“We’re not taking your dog,” one says. “We’re not taking your pot.”
A second officer says, “Sorry about pulling all your stuff out.”
But they tell him he has to leave South Station. Shaken, Raulino packs his things, and he and Miss Elle retreat to the opposite side of the street.
“Every time I leave this area, I get robbed,” Raulino says, dejected.
One day, well into the future, Raulino tells himself, he will enroll in truck-driving school. One day, he will spend his life on the road without worrying about where his next meal will come from or the number of coins in his pocket. And one day, days like today will fade into memory.
Raulino won’t come back to South Station. Not tonight, at least.