My daughter’s recent travels (she lives and works in Bavaria and last week took a short break in Verona with side trips to Venice and Mantua) and my two trips to NYC this past summer have brought to mind my first real conscious trip to the city,
many, many years ago.
And as I was mentally retracing my steps on that trip just now, I was just so amazed that I survived I thought I’d tell you about it.
It was 1978 – the summer before my Freshman year at UT. I’d taken a couple of classes in my major (history) during the summer, my dad taught at UT and I lived in Knoxville, so I wasn’t a hardcore, never-been-there Freshman, though. I knew my way around and wasn’t hugely stressed about the fall.
My mother was a New Englander – born in New Hampshire and raised in southern Maine, and because of that we spent about a month every summer up in Maine, at the home of the uncle and aunt who had raised her after her father died in a car accident and her mother went off to live in a rest home.
That summer, I had gone with them up to Maine, but because I needed to move into the dorm earlier than they’d be returning (my dad had a visiting year at the other UT in Austin that year, so I guess they weren’t having to head out til later for that reason too), I decided I would do just that. I’d come back. On the bus. Yes, I’d ride the bus from Maine to Tennessee. And, since that route would naturally take me through New York City, I also decided that I wanted to see the place, so I arranged my itinerary so that I’d arrive (I guess) in the afternoon and then leave again late the following afternoon, taking a night bus down to Tennessee.
(First digression: How did we make these kinds of arrangements before the Internet? I’m at a loss. I guess I found a Greyhound or Trailways schedule and figured it out? Right? I have no idea.)
So far, my parents were totally on board, and didn’t seem to give the plan a second thought. In fact, they never did, to my knowledge. The questions then became – where would I stay or that night? My mother, being older – she was born in 1924 – and not having spent a great deal of time in New York City and still evidently having her vision of the place shaped by My Friend Irma and other tales of Smart Girls Alone in the City in 1952 said, “Well, of course you’ll stay at the Barbizon,” not understanding that the Barbizon was a residential, rather than tourist hotel and that, well, it wasn’t 1952. I am not sure how we figured it out – that it was a residential hotel, but we did. Scratch the Barbizon.
Next idea? Well, of course, the fallback would be the budget-friendly travelers’ rest that everyone knows -
Now, the Manhattan YMCAs – as well as others around the world - are indeed known for providing such hostel – like accomodations. I guess we knew they admitted women. I guess.
(Okay – I did have a guide to New York City Hotels I had picked up in a travel agency – remember those? For some reason I can even remember the layout of the silly thing, all these years later. I must have studied it so extensively – a premonition of
hours days spent in travel research to come. The YMCA must have been on the list.)
So, that was the plan, such as it was. The departure day came, I got on the bus (not sure where – Sanford? Portland? Portsmouth?), waved good-bye and off I headed back to the South, with a slight detour.
I disembarked at the Port Authority hours later – after witnessing a street brawl between two women through the window – and yes, this is Times Square in 1979, and yes I saw it all, right there. Grime, porn shops, prostitutes (very aggressive prostitutes almost accosting men, angrily), the works. A little bit of a culture shock, but I forged on, because I was going to the YMCA.
Without a reservation.
Not one of us had imagined that such a thing would be necessary. How crowded could a YMCA hostel in Manhattan be? I mean, isn’t that what the YMCA hostel experience is all about? Showing up and finding that Young Christian hospitality, just… there?
So, yes, I was turned away at the front desk. They didn’t laugh,but I do think they were incredulous.
And there I was, an 18-year old girl from the Midwest and the South without theatrical or artistic aspirations… in Manhattan….without a place to stay!
I don’t remember my state of mind at the time. I’m assuming I was upset and worried, but I also don’t remember it being overwhelming or throwing me into a panic. I whipped out my hotel guide, found the cheapest ones that were nearest (I’m sure I was operating on a cash basis), and started to search.
I have absolutely no idea the name of the place I found or where it was – since this YMCA was on the East Side – near the UN, as I recall, because I remember seeing it – perhaps the hotel was over there as well. But I did find one – with a room the size of a closet with a shared bathroom down the hall.
(Do you see why I’m such a patient, tolerant traveler? THIS was my first big trip alone!)
What did I do that night? What I remember doing is going to a deli down the street, getting a sandwich, being amazed at the size of it, and eating it in my room while reading a book.
Some things never change.
(Prelude: I’ve never worn a watch. For some reason, I feel naked without a hair tie around my wrist, but a watch has always bugged me.)
I was awakened by the sun, and indeed, felt wide awake. Get up! Get out! Experience the city! Pack up your backpack, go down to check out!
See by the clock behind the desk that it’s 6:30 AM!
Gee, if only I’d been more sophisticated, I could have wandered to the right places and met Andy Warhol or someone emerging from their night partying….
Well, of course I was not going to say, never mind and slink back up to the room. So I did what any good Catholic girl would do when faced with this situation at this hour: I went to Mass.
Again, I don’t know where I was, but it was not at a great distance from St. Patrick’s because that’s where I ended up for Mass. After which it was still about 7:30, I guess, with no place open except breakfast joints. So I started walking.. And for the rest of the day, up until my bus left from the Port Authority late in the afternoon…I walked.
I took my scruffy self into Saks and for the first time in my life, felt quite out of place. Looked at some price tags. Blanched.
I walked down, down, down, and around and around. At one point, seeing little but empty storefronts and the homeless, I looked up and saw a street sign. “THE BOWERY” it said, and once, again, having been formed in a milieu in which Tin Pan Alley and show tunes were the soundtrack, immediately thought:
The Bow’ry, the Bow’ry!
They say such things,
And they do strange things
On the Bow’ry! The Bow’ry!
I’ll never go there anymore!
…and turned west, knowing that I’d hit the financial district soon enough.
Which I did. I got there and went into the Stock Exchange – I had the leather souvenir key chain I bought there for years – then started walking back up north, hitting Macy’s, I think, and I don’t recall what else. You see where I was, so I never did any museums or saw Central Park. It was all central and lower Manhattan, me, the 18-year old with the backpack, making her way back to the Port Authority to catch the night bus to Knoxville.
As I said, I don’t remember every being panicked or scared. I tend to take things in stride, and I guess that was part of my psyche then, as well. What do I remember? I remember a contrast between scruffiness and sleekness, but I remember far more scruffiness. But nothing I saw that trip was a scruffy as what I saw a couple of years later when I returned with my father, who was attending a professional meeting – and as we walked down the street after dinner with some of his colleagues, a fellow standing in the street, needed to go, and yeah, whipped it out, and..went.
Years later, I asked my dad…”Why did you let me go to New York by myself that time?” He shrugged. “Everyone who doesn’t grow up in one need to do it – to go to the big city, deal with it, and discover that yes, you can handle it.”
Maybe with the slightest of plans, but definitely without a data plan.