I remember listening to “Reunion” (a very short story by John Cheever) on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast. That was actually the first time I ever heard the story. It might be the first time I was introduced to John Cheever. The reader was Richard Ford, and he noted that the story begins with 2 people meeting each other in Grand Central Station. Then he further noted that almost any type of story could plausibly begin with 2 people meeting each other in Grand Central Station.
One time, I was teaching “Reunion” in a creative writing class, and one of my students took inspiration from the story to craft a really creepy dystopian sci-fi thriller set in some indeterminately distant future… and my student’s story nonetheless still began with 2 people meeting in Grand Central Station. It was an excellent story, but, apart from the quality, it’s hard to imagine a more different outcome than Cheever’s “Reunion.” In fact I would counsel people to do this. If you’re having trouble thinking of something to write, pick a place where any two people could meet. A big train station like Grand Central is good. A barbershop or corner store or a park isn’t bad either.
Why I Open Every Writing Class with “Reunion” by John Cheever
“Reunion” is less than a thousand words long, and I’ll include a link to it here. But the upshot is this: A young man (unclear how old but probably 10-15) is changing trains in Grand Central Station. He takes the opportunity to visit his father, who works nearby, and whom the boy hasn’t seen in three years (since the divorce). The father makes an absolute drunken buffoon of himself. The two end up getting kicked out of three local restaurants before finally the boy must return to Grand Central, catch his train, and try to make sense of what has just happened.
“Reunion” has since become a staple of my writing classes. I use it as the first lesson because it is short, relatively simple, and very exciting to read. The only time I leave it off is if I am teaching someone too young or too new to the English language.
Even so, I run into trouble more often than not because the story contains a lot of unusual vocabulary. The father is a show-off, and he constantly slips into Italian or throws out random words in German or French. None of these outbursts is translated into English. They don’t have to be. It’s mostly clear from context what the character is talking about. And even if it weren’t, the plot (such as it is) is not dependent on knowing what these words mean. And that’s actually an interesting lesson for young people: what to do with words and phrases you don’t understand. Look up the meaning? Suss out the meaning from context? A bit of both? Dwell in the ambiguity?
But never mind that.
The main reason I use it is: it’s short and great. A class can read it out loud in about five minutes. A word here and there notwithstanding, the characters pop out of the page and the story is easy to understand for anyone over the age of twelve. Assuming a native or fluent grasp of English. Using the same story every time I begin a writing seminar means that I no longer suffer from first-day jitters like I used to.
How Cheever Uses Description
But all of that would be nonsense. What matters is that it’s just such a good story. Because ultimately the most important reason why I use that same story every time? I have a new conversation with my students whenever I teach it. The story is inexhaustible. Even now, writing about this phenomenon, I’ve had a thought occur to me about the story that has never occurred to me before. Which is that there is no description of the central location, Grand Central Station. And it’s not like the story is lacking in description. At the beginning of the story, a rather lengthy description is devoted to the father:
He was a stranger to me — my mother divorced him three years ago and I hadn’t been with him since — but as soon as I saw him I felt that he was my father, my flesh and blood, my future and my doom. I knew that when I was grown I would be something like him; I would have to plan my campaigns within his limitations. He was a big, good-looking man, and I was terribly happy to see him again. He struck me on the back and shook my hand. “Hi, Charlie,” he said, “Hi, boy. I’d like to take you up to my club, but it’s in the Sixties, and if you have to catch an early train I guess we’d better get something to eat around here.” He put his arm around me, and I smelled my father the way my mother sniffs a rose. It was a rich compound of whiskey and after shave lotion, shoe polish, woolens, and the rankness of a mature male. I hoped that someone would see us together. I wished that we could be photographed. I wanted some record of our having been together.
Then each time the boy and his father enter a new restaurant, a sentence or so is devoted to painting its character in the broadest possible strokes. For example:
I followed him out of that restaurant into another. Here the waiters wore pink jackets like hunting coats, and there was a lot of horse tack on the walls.
But no description of Grand Central Station. Not even the barest mention of the splendors to be found outside or inside.
Grand Central Station
Have you ever been to Grand Central Station? I mean. It’s built as this shrine to Cornelius Vanderbilt, a robber baron who was the author of untold human misery. His statue, or rather his idol, is right there, standing vigil on the facade.
But once you get inside, you immediately find yourself in a room of white marble, an atrium, so big that you cannot easily read the giant clock on the far wall. Every sound echoes off those walls. Grand staircases take you down to the floor where you can find ticket windows,the information desk, and corridors to the trains. Vaulting overhead, the ceiling is a greenish-blue color, and decorated with an image of the night sky, bright with constellations. I remember some twenty or thirty years ago the whole thing was covered in scaffolding for a massive restoration project. But the story we’re reading takes place some fifty years before that so it’s possible that the ceiling was still relatively clean back then.
I’m not here to glorify American railroads, whether at their height or in the shabby state they have since fallen to. But I am here to bear witness that the first time I ever went to Grand Central Station and beheld its newly restored ceilings… I remember that day. I remember looking up awestruck. And I remember how my breath caught in my chest. I can’t imagine narrating a story that takes place in Grand Central Station without taking a moment to describe, and express my admiration for, the ceilings. Yet here we are.
Description: How Much is too Much?
It bothers me that Cheever left that moment out of the story. I know that “Reunion” is only a thousand words long. But does it need to be only a thousand words long? Would it fall apart like yesterday’s cobwebs if it were fifty words longer? Especially if that meant communicating a child’s wonder at seeing one of the architectural and artistic wonders of New York?
I am not a Cheever scholar. I’m neither going to speculate nor investigate whether an earlier draft of the story might play with this angle. But I will say that if a writer slid this story across my desk, I might, in the course of editing, raise just that concern. Perhaps even persuade the writer in question to try adding a description of the station. Then, upon reading the new passage, I hope I would be perceptive enough to see that it needs to be removed, to the inevitable frustration of the writer.
Throw Some Wet Spaghetti
Because you can’t just look at a story and say “done” or “not done.” You have to try things. Add a passage and see if it works. Remove a passage and see if the story can do without it. And as loath as I am to admit it, I think it would do a disservice to the story to add in a description of Grand Central Station. Yes I know I said I couldn’t imagine writing a story that left it out. But I didn’t write the story, and writing is not editing.
So why leave it out? Firstly, the story isn’t about that. It would be a distraction. The descriptions of the father and the restaurants are thematically relevant to the plot of the story. The description of Grand Central would be beside the point. Secondly, a story like this has a definite perspective. It is the story of a young person, told through the eyes of his older self. Seeing Grand Central Station, whether for the first time or not, is definitely an experience. Something to remember. But not compared to being the child of divorced parents, caught in the middle of their drama.
There are stories in which it would be appropriate to include a brief–or a lengthy–description of that ceiling. But not including it here serves to focus the reader’s mind on how important (and how dismal and painful) the events are on the ground. A story that takes place in any major landmark–or at any landmark event–can be an opportunity to indulge in descriptions of the setting. But it can also be an opportunity to show how our own affairs can, from time to time, dwarf even the loftiest surroundings.