"This is my office. Who wouldn't want to stand here and take the sights in?"
Harry Kelly had never set foot inside Grand Central Terminal until the day he dropped off his application on Oct. 2, 1973. He was just 19, tired of the insurance business, and he hoped the gig would be a nice sidebar before joining the police department alongside his brother. But an NYPD hiring freeze delayed his aspirations and Kelly just stayed on.
Four decades later he is a fixture, constant as the clocks framing every corner of the terminal.
"I'm going to have 40 years in October," he said. "I've always been here on this floor. It's going to be rough. But time moves on, what are you going to do?"
Kelly blends in with the crowd. He roams the concourse sporting a leather bomber jacket with the GCT insignia, and jeans, in case he needs to hop down on the track and retrieve a cell phone. As Kelly always says, "We're here to help."
I pried Kelly for some of his best party trivia. What is the significance of the acorns engraved in the marble? Are the iridescent faces of the info booth clock really made of opal? But Kelly didn't want to tick through a fact sheet. He wanted to tell tales of humanity, observations of the the people who drift through the terminal. After all, every day some 700,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal. That's the entire population of Alaska.
There was the homeless veteran who used to leave his leg at the parcel check and then go beg on 42nd Street. The old man who roller-skated through the terminal wearing a Zorro cape while cops chased after him. And then there was that time when Paul, aka "Tick Tock," almost clocked Kelly for accidentally setting the wrong time in the main clock one morning.
Kelly was here before the constellations lit the ceiling. It used to be a dingy black color because of smoke and grime built up over the years. He prefers the soothing rustle of the train placards changing to the automated LED boards. He believes strongly in live announcements and human interaction.
"You should hear a live person telling you that they're sorry for the inconvenience, not a computer. It's just totally different," he says.
Kelly checked the arrival board, then checked his BlackBerry. The 5:18 p.m. train was eight minutes behind schedule. "It can still make up time," he said.
In his years watching over the concourse, Kelly has watched people age. He has befriended strangers, sometimes without ever exchanging more than a few words. His laundry list of celebrity encounters ranges from Lucille Ball, to John Madden, to Andre the Giant.
But the people he talked most about, the people he cared most about, are his own.
"They work hard. I respect them," he said.
As the female announcer declared a track change in a strong, clear voice, Kelly beamed like a proud parent. "Beautiful. All my people sound good. It's not easy to do when you're in there yourself, and you think everyone's looking at you and they really aren't."
We scurried alongside Kelly for his rush-hour rounds. It was like a scene out of the "Godfather." We paid respects to a Tommy and a Terrell. A framed black-and-white print hanging in the hallway honored old timers "Nugee" and Manning.
"These were the two guys that broke me in," Kelly said.
On the concourse, we exchanged pleasantries with the likes of Frankie the Cat ("another bum from the Bronx") at the helm of a concession cart, and service agent Mike Ippolito ("call him 'Ippy'"), guarding track 29.
It doesn't take long to see why he's known as "the mayor" around here.
"You see me interact with all the departments. I know their business," he said. "There's always people who want to see me. I feel like Don Corleone... They can come in and know that I'll lend them an ear, I guess."
Beyond the handshakes, hellos, and hangouts, it is evident that Kelly takes his role as manager seriously. He is both confidante and caretaker -- everyone's family.
He paused to express his condolences and give a hug to an employee who had recently lost a loved one. He quietly shared the fact that a couple of guys that he played ball with in his old neighborhood wound up homeless in the terminal.
"One is still here, he's been here about 25 years," he said. "Every time I see him I give him some money. Can't get him out, so that's sad."
The electric feeling we had at rush hour was fading by 8:30 p.m. The terminal sounded hollow and airy once again. The hiccup on the New Haven line had corrected itself. Trains were back on time.
Not that Kelly was ever worried.
"You have 98 percent on time now. We run excellent service, we really do. It's sort of boring to me," he grinned. "It's too dull sometimes because we're so good, you know what I mean?"