The Third Level
AskNYPL recently received a question that I've paraphrased here:
I have been searching for years for a short story (fairly well known) about a man coming from work and taking a train in Grand Central Station. He mistakenly goes down a wrong stairway and boards a train that takes him to another time and place. Sometime like the mid-1800's and a quiet, rural place. The man was amazed by the simplicity of everything around him and how content he felt there. He reboards the train, promising to return. The story ends with him unsuccessfully searching again for that stairway in the chaos of Grand Central Station.
I myself had never read such a story, but after a brief, but intense search, I found a tale titled "The Third Level" written by Jack Finney and first published in the October 7, 1950 edition of Collier's.
A copy of this can be found online thanks to R. Ivan Linderman's website, "...dedicated to the preservation, study, and popularization of the life and works of Jack Finney (Walter Braden Finney), 1911 - 1995," as well as in a short story collection here.
Here's a small taste just to whet your time-travel-fantasy/nostalgia appetite:
"The presidents of the New York Central and the New York, New Haven and Hartford railroads will swear on a stack of timetables that there are only two. But I say there are three, because I've been on the third level at Grand Central Station. Yes, I've taken the obvious step: I talked to a psychiatrist friend of mine, among others. I told him about the third level at Grand Central Station, and he said it was a waking-dream wish fulfillment. He said I was unhappy. That made my wife kind of mad, but he explained that he meant the modern world is full of insecurity, fear, war, worry and all the rest of it, and that I just want to escape. Well, hell, who doesn't? Everybody I know wants to escape, but they don't wander down into any third level at Grand Central Station.
But that's the reason, he said, and my friends all agreed. Everything points to it, they claimed. My stamp collecting, for example; that's a 'temporary refuge from reality.' Well, maybe, but my grandfather didn't need any refuge from reality; things were pretty nice and peaceful in his day, from all I hear, and he started my collection. It's a nice collection, too, blocks of four of practically every U.S. issue, first-day covers, and so on. President Roosevelt collected stamps, too, you know.
Anyway, here's what happened at Grand Central. One night last summer I worked late at the office. I was in a hurry to get uptown to my apartment so I decided to take the subway from Grand Central because it's faster than the bus.
Now, I don't know why this should have happened to me. I'm just an ordinary guy named Charley, thirty-one years old, and I was wearing a tan gabardine suit and a straw hat with a fancy band; I passed a dozen men who looked just like me. And I wasn't trying to escape from anything; I just wanted to get home to Louisa, my wife.
I turned into Grand Central from Vanderbilt Avenue, and went down the steps to the first level, where you take trains like the Twentieth Century. Then I walked down another flight to the second level, where the suburban trains leave from, ducked into an arched doorway heading for the subway — and got lost. ..."
How many of us have visited the library, either for the purposes of a search or just to browse and then found ourselves lost in the stacks with a book we just happened to run across. A book we never knew existed, A book that we didn't seek, but that instead seems to have found us. A book that speaks to us in a language we never knew existed, but a language that we understand perfectly. And at the end of the book, or when we have to leave the library, we are left back in our mundane world, where words are so much noise, and we must speak in a voice that is but a "cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing bears". It's wonderful how a library can make these sort of happy accidents possible, as described in Professor Michael H. Hoeflich's essay "Serendipity in the Stacks, Fortuity in the Archives."
The Library is a Grand Central but bigger, with not just a third level, but with levels going down to the fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. Levels going down as deep as we may dare let our willfully lost selves delve.