Abandon all hope, ye who enter the Greyhound station. Albany, New York: a veritable homeless shelter surrounded by acres of windswept parking lot. Washington, D.C.: packed all hours with cigarette-bumming zombies. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: every surface greasy, the floors dotted with trash. Everywhere, bearded men pushing shopping carts full of rags. Indigestible food. The slow-motion stampede toward the departure gate. Everybody's got a story: drugs offered, bomb-threats screamed, hysterical patrons dragged away by security.
For decades, the Pittsburgh Greyhound station was a long, featureless bomb-shelter of a building, with smeared floors and terrifying bathrooms. The featureless gray exterior was so plain that a photograph of the station graced the pages of Boring Postcards, by Martin Parr. Apparently, even Greyhound grew embarrassed by the station's downscale image, and decided to replace it.
For the past three years, patrons have been using a temporary station on Second Avenue. This squatter, modular Purgatorio was comparatively clean and pleasant despite being located, somewhat ominously, in the shadow of the Allegheny County Jail. Then, Paradiso: The $50 million Grant Street Transportation Center -- which combines the station with new parking facilities -- opened for business Sept. 9, on the same lot as the old Greyhound station.
The new Center is the kind of sleek, shimmering palace that graces architecture magazines. It sports a crystalline spire jutting into the air and a mostly glass façade that welcomes visitors. The station's long corridor, once dungeon-like, is now cast in bright blues and whites. Hanging signs point helpfully to the station's accoutrements, in both English and Spanish. There's a large customer-service station (Servicio al Cliente), a long ticket and information counter (Boletos/Información), and a Traveler's Aid office (Ayuda de los Viajeros) the size of a studio apartment.
Travelers can lounge in the restaurant or browse the modest gift shop, or, to pass the time, indulge an assortment of video games, from Big Buck Safari to Target: Terror. Had a rider from 2005 been told of this future station, he would have dismissed it as science fiction.
Greyhound is a first-come, first-served operation: No ticket ever guarantees riders their seats. To control the mobs of customers -- usually tired and desperate for showers -- the new station boasts prim nylon dividers, which organize customers into civilized lines. One small step for a civil engineering, one great leap for mass transit.
Last Sunday evening, as fearsome winds blustered outside, a handful of Greyhound riders waited for their departures inside the new station. No jitneys idled outside, only an unoccupied Yellow Cab. The requisite lunatics were absent -- only a toothy old man announcing, "I'm gonna get me some mushrooms!" Travelers sat in brand-new metal benches, whispering to each other like patrons in a museum. The only thing missing was an ATM, although a placard indicating the coming presence of one had already been installed.
"We've only been open for a couple of days," said a ticketing agent, by way of apology.
One visitor, Mohammed Sadiqi, had reached the Transit Center by mere happenstance. Sadiqi, a middle-aged chef from Gary, Ind., had just competed in a watermelon competition in Akron, Ohio, followed by a family visit to Morgantown, W.Va. When his van broke down, he and his son had to resort to Greyhound.
"It's been an adventure," Sadiqi said, laughing. He added: "One time I was in Bogotá, Colombia, going to Miami. I went to the jet-way, and the right side led to a flight to Rio de Janeiro, and the left side went to Miami. It took me a half-hour to realize I was going to Rio de Janeiro."
What did such a well-traveled man think of the new Transit Center?
"It's beautiful!" Sadiqi exclaimed. "The whole city is beautiful! I've never been here before -- the downtown! The buildings! Just beautiful!"
"It's like California!" his son added. "So clean!"