Beth Kephart

is the author of 18 books, including "Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir"

On sunny days, the boxed-in air of 30th Street Station is bronzed and the trapped birds fly at rushing angles toward the vertical glass. When it rains, when it snows, when it fogs, the interior mood is old cinema - the scenes playing on a black-and-white reel except for the flower shop in the southeast corner, where sunflowers, tulips, calla lilies, roses, freesia, orchids, and begonias bloom beneath halo lights.

The snaking of lines. The impatient pacers. The phones to the ears, the cheekbones on duffel bags, the bodies curved toward the novels just bought at Faber, and the heads thrown back against the benches. The chandeliers are creamy missiles. The voices echo off the travertine walls - the Silver Star and the Silver Meteor are coming, the Cardinal and the Carolinian, the trains to Chicago and to Florida, to Boston, New York, and D.C.

Tickets out.

Line forms here.

All aboard.

And then, a rumble on the tracks below, a slight vibration in the waiting room above, a split-flap of the departure board, and it begins again.

Sometimes someone on the shoeshine throne. Sometimes spontaneous opera or ballroom dance or a job fair or a party. Sometimes a roving artist from the Porch at 30th - a BalletX boy or a Tangles acrobat or a master of cuisine carrying an extra slice of Di Bruno cheese. Sometimes a man on the Forbes "Richest People in America" list waits to exchange his ticket at the counter. He sees that he has been seen. He knows he won't be swarmed.

At the foot of the Pennsylvania Railroad World War II Memorial on the east end of the waiting room, the bronze archangel Michael lifts a dying soldier from the consuming flames of war and hovers over the 1,307 names of those he could not save. In the north waiting room, where no one really waits, horses gallop out of Karl Bitter's stone and a child hurries ahead with the future in his hands. The Spirit of Transportation. Then.

If you are 5 feet tall, there are 90 feet of air between the top of your head and the coffered ceiling of the main waiting room. If you are among the pacers, you are polishing Tennessee marble with the soles of your shoes. If you are wondering about the past, you are wondering all the way back to the heart of the Depression, when Alfred Shaw of the Chicago firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White persevered with his art deco obsession.

Shaw was to design a replacement for the old Broad Street Station as part of the city's beautification movement. He was to work through desperate years. He allowed himself to be inspired by the newish science of electricity, which enabled a separation of the trains and tracks from the waiting passengers. (No more soot on the suits, not in Philly.) He had ideas about the possibilities and responsibilities of train travel and incorporated into an already monumental plan pneumatic-tube communications, a mortuary, a chapel, and more than 3,000 square feet of hospital architecture.

The Chicagoan did what great architects do. Philadelphians did the rest.

At 30th Street Station, it is the past, the present, and the future. Today it is December. The big, lighted tree is standing tall - no gimmick to it, a gentle appeal. The lines of people are skeins of yarn, the books at Faber are selling, the flowers at the stand are being coned into fat bouquets, the bags and the boxes and people go by, the suitcases on rollers, the hats and gloves. The steps go down and the escalators ride up, and in all this traffic of travel, in all the rumpus and pell-mell and fuss, all the yearning and pacing and dreaming, there is a private theater.

Our friends, our family, our people are coming home.

Indeed, there is a boy - a young man - out there on the rails. He smells (I know this already) of winter and the promise of snow. He carries with him gifts and stories - the gift, mostly, of story. He will surprise me, as he always does, with his height, with the quantity of light in the deep dark of his eyes, with his tenacity and sense of purpose.

He will surprise me, and then he will find me; he will hurry through the crowds. "I'm home," he'll say, and I'll be whole.