When I picture what it must be like to have grown up in a more suburban or rural area, I get caught up on the whole transportation thing. Imagining my mom driving me to school is comical. Two things happen when my mom drives: 1) She starts singing along with the seat belt bell which is supposed to tell her that her seatbelt isn’t buckled. She will do this for minutes on end. 2) She drives at a snail’s pace and keeps about 5 car lengths of distance between her and the car ahead of her. She does this even if she’s going 30 mph. This is probably wise due to the fact that she wasn’t allowed to drive in New York City for many years or she would be arrested/fined.
Conversely, I’ve had people tell me they could never imagine riding the subway to school every day. I find the differences in peoples’ day-to-day lives and routines to be fascinating. What is normal and maybe even mundane for one person is completely novel to another. This is what my experience was like…
Elementary school was at a public school on the Upper West Side, across from the Museum of Natural History. We lived less than a mile from there so for the most part, we walked to school every day. In the early years, I would walk with my mom or Indra, my babysitter. We walked by Lincoln Center every day and my mom would always point out the murals hanging in the Met. She would try to help me remember who the artist was that painted them by saying “think of the city of Chicago, Chagall!” It’s a bit of a stretch, but it worked.
In the warmer months when I would walk home with Indra, I tried to convince her daily that I HAD to have an Icee from the Icee cart. One day I decided to go out of my comfort zone and get a coconut Icee. Indra warned me that I wouldn’t like it but I ignored her advice and followed my heart. My heart was wrong. On the walk back home after I had one taste I slowly and subtly (not subtly at all) turned the Icee upside down, spilling it all over the sidewalk and then whining that I needed another one. I went with tried-and-true Mango this time.
After elementary school, I went to a public middle school up on 107th street. This was when I really started moving up in the world because a) got a cell phone (a giant baby blue Nokia) and b) I started being allowed to ride the public bus on my own. My mom or Larry would walk me to the bus stop every morning. When I got on the bus I would find a seat and watch through the window as my mom danced and sang for me on the sidewalk. At the time I found it extremely embarrassing, but nowadays I would probably just join in with her. To combat my embarrassment I would put on my walkman headphones and listen to the soundtrack to “Rent” all the way to school, thinking I was super cool and grown up.
One of my most vivid and traumatizing memories was from a bus ride home from middle school. My friend and I got on the bus like we did every day and walked to the very back to get a seat. When we sat down we noticed a teenage couple huddling over something. It was one of those moments when I instinctively knew I should look away but couldn’t. My friend and I watched as the young man helped his woman friend inject something into her arm. After a few minutes, their eyes started to sag a bit and they both became very drowsy. They started “necking”, clearly having no awareness that there was a bus full of people around them. My friend and I could not believe our eyes and went to the front of the bus to tell the bus driver what we saw. He stopped the bus and made an announcement over the PA system that the couple had to get off the bus. When they didn’t seem to hear or comprehend his command he came to the back of the bus to physically remove them. My friend and I took this opportunity to run off the bus as quickly as we could, thinking they would surely find us and get some kind of revenge. This is my favorite part of this story: traumatized and extremely frightened, my friend and I sat in a park and cried. As we dialed our mothers on our giant Nokia cell phones my friend let out a blood-curdling scream followed by the words “somebody help us”. I’m not sure what either of us thought we needed help with. I think we were both so upset by what we had witnessed and really just wanted to erase the images from our heads. I get a good laugh when I think of this experience now, mainly because of how we handled it, but for a few years, it really haunted me.
After middle school, I switched to an all-girls Catholic school on the Upper East Side. This meant a subway uptown and then a bus across town. I often met other west sider friends at the crosstown bus and we would ride through the park together. I went through a brief phase where I would use the time between walking from my apartment to the subway to smoke a cigarette (sorry Mimi). This was really badass of me because 1) smoking is bad for you, duh and 2) you weren’t ever supposed to smoke in uniform because someone might recognize you as a Sacred Heart girl and it would ruin the school’s reputation (priorities!). The fact that I tried to be cool by smoking a cigarette on the way to school is comical because I couldn’t really smoke cigarettes successfully. I would have one cigarette and then feel nauseous for the rest of the day. Regardless, I was a trooper and did what I could for the sake of “cool”.
On one occasion, I went down to the subway platform at Columbus Circle to wait for my train. I noticed there was an express train stopped in the center track and there was a lot of commotion. An MTA employee made an announcement that all trains were being delayed due to an incident at Columbus Circle. I asked a woman standing on the platform if she knew what was going on and she pointed to something underneath the train and said a passenger had jumped into the tracks. I was able to force myself to avert my eyes long enough to make the decision to find another way to school that day.
One of my favorite forms of transportation to and from school was on the back of my step-dad Larry’s red Vespa. If it was warm enough we would get on the Vespa and ride through Central Park to the upper east side. On days when we rode the Vespa I didn’t need to have my one daily cigarette cause my cool factor was already through the roof.
I include both the positive and the negative stories beause I think it’s important to see both sides and learn from it all. I’ve heard people say “I could never live in New York City”. If that’s your opinion that’s totally fair and valid (and better for me, the rent is already too high). However, I think there are unfortunate events and experiences no matter where you go. You just have to choose what is important to you and what negative things you are willing to put up with. As for me, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to leave this glorious city.