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Lipstick in hand, women stand propped beside the counter. Every mirror is taken as mascara, eyeliner and the occasional curling iron are pulled from bags. “How you doing, my ladies?” a singsong voice asks.
Sephora? A makeup counter at Macy’s or Bergdorf Goodman?
Not even close.
It’s the second-floor women’s bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, and it is one of New York’s favorite places to primp.
The salonlike atmosphere stands in stark contrast to Port Authority’s well-earned reputation as a hulking symbol of some of New York’s most intractable problems: homelessness, opioid addiction and chronic transit delays.
But, as in life, beauty is often only skin-deep.
Every day, scores of women on the run stop by to groom, gloss, powder and polish amid the cheerful hum of attendants responsible for keeping the hidden gem spick-and-span.
“I call it the beauty bar,” said Peninisular Rice, 53, who has been cleaning this Port Authority restroom for four years. Ms. Rice, who is better known as Miss Penny, acts as a cruise director, ushering the frequently long line of commuters and tourists into open toilet stalls. “Come on sugar,” she motioned to a woman on a recent morning. “Come on in, honey.”
The attendants — employees of TUCS, a New Jersey-based company that has won the last two competitive bids for the terminal’s cleaning contract — estimate that several hundred women stop in each day just to freshen up at the well-lit mirrors.
“We try to give them the V.I.P. treatment,” said Roxanne Allen, 59, who has worked as a cleaning attendant at Port Authority for 30 years.
During the busy morning commute, nearly every mirror is occupied. Residue of face powder coats the black granite countertops before an attendant swoops in with a cleaning rag. Women of all ethnicities, ages and styles stand heel to toe, snaking along what may be the ultimate democratic experience: the bathroom line.
Many are regulars.
Tatiana Zamis, 26, said she works as a producer at Sirius XM and stops in each day to put on makeup after taking a bus in from Rockland County, N.Y.
“Sometimes I try on the bus, but this is obviously better,” Ms. Zamis said. “The lighting is good. There’s open space.”
Zainab Khan, 27, who treks in from Carteret, N.J., said the bathroom had become a key component of her morning routine.
“I get coffee. I come here. I sip on it while I do my makeup. Then I’m ready for work,” said Ms. Khan, a product manager at Stash, a mobile investment app. “Every now and again, someone will come over and ask me how I did my eyeliner, so we’ll share beauty tips and techniques and commiserate over New Jersey Transit — that’s always fun.”
The bathrooms had a makeover of their own in the last five years as part of a larger effort across all Port Authority facilities to improve customer experience after surveys showed that restrooms ranked at the “absolute top of the list” of priorities for travelers, said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey.
The agency added lighting and mirrors and assigned attendants to each of the terminals’ 14 bathrooms as part of a $110 million quality-of-commute program.
“The quality of the bathrooms and the quality of the maintenance of the bathrooms simply becomes one of the dominant influences in terms of peoples’ travel experiences,” Mr. Cotton said in an interview.
In early 2018, the Port Authority installed “Happy or Not” wall-mounted feedback devices that invite customers to rate their visits by pressing one of four large buttons.
In the year and a half since then, the smiley-face meters have notched about 1.8 million responses in the bus terminal that draws 260,000 weekday commuters, agency officials said.
The second-floor “beauty bar” bathroom — the terminal’s busiest — had an 81 percent approval rating, according to the Port Authority. (Visitors gave the highest marks, 90 percent, to a first-floor women’s room with much less foot traffic; the building’s lowest rating, 65 percent, went to a small women’s restroom on the third floor.)
Many women said the benefit of the beauty bar goes beyond bright lights and clean toilets.
One mother who works as a train conductor the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said that applying makeup at the Port Authority, instead of at home, gave her a taste of peace and quiet, without interruptions from her young son and daughter.
Taylor Burton, a self-employed hair and makeup artist and a frequent visitor to the bathroom, said she always tries for a spot near an electrical outlet, where she can plug in her curling iron.
“It’s definitely the cleanest public bathroom,” Ms. Burton, 29, said as she twirled a lock of blond hair around the hot iron.
Ms. Allen, the attendant, said she sometimes sees bathroom regulars near her home in Weehawken, N.J., and they greet one another with sisterly camaraderie.
“I’ll be at the supermarket shopping and they’ll look at me and say, ‘I’ve seen you somewhere,’” she said. “And I’ll say, ‘Port Authority?’ And they’ll say, ‘That’s it!’”
On a recent morning, a stranger noticed Ms. Allen’s name sewn on her uniform and spontaneously began to belt out the chorus from a song from the Police. “Roooxxxanne,” sang Terry Wright, who had traveled from Bergenfield, N.J., for a hair appointment.
Before retiring from a job in the financial services industry, Ms. Wright, 66, said she had commuted through the Port Authority for 30 years.
“It’s a tremendous improvement,” she said of the bathroom. “It’s cleaner, and people aren’t living in it anymore.”
The terminal’s main bathrooms are open to the public from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily and continuously staffed by TUCS employees.
The attendants said that they have occasionally had to alert Port Authority agents or police officers when a customer was rowdy or refused to leave a stall, but that it is not a common occurrence.
Cindy Young, a defense lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice cases and commutes from Parsippany, N.J., called the bathroom “a very equalizing place.”
“We all have the same goal, which is to prepare ourselves for the next thing, the next destination, the next goal,” Ms. Young, 31, said. “It’s one point where everybody meets up, then we all go our separate ways.
“It’s like a snapshot in time,” she added. “It happens in the blink of an eye. And it’s just another day.”
Read more about the Port Authority Bus Terminal