A play, like any building, starts with a moment of inspiration.
I liken this moment to three shots of scotch on an empty stomach. It hits you hard and stays with you far longer than you expect it to. For The Eternal Space it involved a quick glance at a photograph.
The tale in brief...
Winter. 1998. My second semester, freshmen year at Fordham University saw old high school friends trekking up to the Bronx for visits (the bars up there didn't card). On one occasion I decided to pick-up a guest coming in on NJ Transit. It would be my first trip to the infamous Penn Station and I was not prepared for the sad travesty that awaited me.
I quickly discovered that nothing about the station worked. It was counter intuitive to common sense, packed with hundreds of ornery people trying to negotiate its labyrinthine corridors, and it smelled like a mall tossed under a landfill.
Coming from the 1 train, I mistook the LIRR terminal for the entire station three times. THREE TIMES! Fool me a third time and I'll be forced to stop at a subterranean McDonald's for a diet coke to drown my despondency and reevaluate my need to be such a nice friend. Which happened.
Finally, I discovered the antiseptic Amtrak concourse but found no friend. I was in the wrong place. She was waiting in the New Jersey Transit terminal down the hall... When I realized this mistake my brain was already hurting: "Another terminal? What genius buries three major transit hubs under Madison Square Garden?"
But I recognize now that Providence had another plan. After trying to decipher the awful Arrival/Departure board to track down said friend, I turned around (looking for a restroom) and saw a black and white photo trapped inside a plexiglass frame.
The picture showed a massive train station waiting room that could have doubled for an ancient cathedral. It was ethereal; gray yet smeared over with a foggy washed-out white. It hung like a ghost (forgive the cliche) in its surroundings. For a moment, I thought I was the only one to see it. No one else noticed it and it seemed so out of place amid the busted ceilings and garish fluorescent lighting.
I was lost in it... and the continuous narrative in my brain was forced to turn to a fresh page. The writing stopped and, for the first time in years, my thoughts stood still.
When the record started again the first line read: "That must be in Europe." The line that followed: "Christ I wish I was there and not here." By then I had my nose pressed up against the plexiglass. Imagine the shock when I spied: "New York Pennsylvania Station, 1910" typed out on a yellowing slip of paper near the frame's left-hand corner.
"BULLSHIT!" I shouted out loud. That earned me a look or two from some folks who deserved a few looks themselves.
I went back to the safer volume of thinking: "That must be a New York in some other dimension. What idiot would replace THAT with this dump?" Outright anger followed: "Why in bloody hell would the entire nation be forced to enter the greatest city in the world through this New Jersey-Turnpike-rest-area of a "train station?"
Further investigation turned up two other photos corroborating the crime I would soon uncover: A far superior train station stood in place of the hellhole I found myself lost in and I wasn't going to rest until I figured out where it went.
You may think: that doesn't sound like an inspirational moment. You sound angry and also a little dumb with directions. Yes, that may be so, but in the moment I saw that photo I knew something bigger had barged into my life.
If that had happened today, I would've taken a picture with my trusty iPhone and tweeted it out with the message: "Does anyone know anything about an old Penn Station?" Or I would've Googled "Old Penn Station" read the Wikipedia page and promptly found further reading. But when something hit the 1998 Justin upside the head, the 1998 Justin wrote a play about it.
The idea wouldn't crystallize for another three years and I'll save that tale for next week.