After writing recently about surrogate mothers of the emotional not biological kind, I was inspired to write about my life in New York City. I am a Canadian but I lived there for a little while during my university days which is now some 26 years ago. It actually sucks that I had to use a calculator to figure that out just now. I can’t explain how some of my memories and images of New York are still so very vivid, when I forget why I’ve grounded my kids just 2 minutes after doing so!
It was 1985. I was a second year student at an American university and running out of money real fast. Several of my housemates were taking off their first semester junior year to do internships and I quickly signed up to do the same. An internship would allow me to earn some desperately needed cash and earn credits at the same time. My alternatives at this point were pretty dismal: ask my parents for more money or transfer to a cheaper university. The former was unthinkable, the latter was looking more likely, so I really wanted to make a go of this internship thing. The counsellor in the career services office suggested a placement with large privately-owned restaurant company in New York City called The Riese Organization. I had never heard of them, but I wasn’t deterred. The list of chain restaurants and independents that they owned and operated was impressive. They did not have much of a human resources department so I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting myself into but tell me, what college kid does?
I can’t remember now why my parents didn’t accompany me to New York to drop me off for this huge step in my life but I probably fed them some convincing lie about my confidence and capability to do this on my own. My boyfriend at the time helped me move into my swell new Upper East Side digs at the The 92nd Street Y: a 12’ x’16’ dorm room for which I would paying almost half my monthly income for the privilege and sharing it with my university friend, Anne, also doing an internship in New York City. My scholarship and student loan money had been scaled back as a result of taking this internship but would be enough to cover my tuition fees. In my pocket I had a Canadian cheque from my parents for the first month’s rent and about $50 in US cash. To say that I was looking forward to my first paycheque would be a considerable understatement.
“Home” to this point had been various small pulp and paper towns in Northern Ontario or along the St Lawrence Seaway. Now, “home” was to be Manhattan. A Domtar* brat in Manhattan: perhaps you are now picturing a Canadian female version of Mick Dundee exploding on to the Manhattan scene with impressive knife moves and an equally impressive accent? Er, maybe just a red flannel shirt, eh? I think I’m about to disappoint you.
I know the communal bathroom facilities of the 92nd Street Y shouldn’t have phased me, given my dorm days, but waiting for a shower to be free on my first day of work only added to my nervousness. Though I had already scouted out my commuter route, I had never done so during a Monday morning rush hour. Walking down Lexington Av to the 86th street subway stop I looked not quite like a fish out of water but – God help me – more like a pinball machine on acid. Clearly new Yorkers walk with purpose and Canadians just walk like dorks. Thanks to years of apologetic Canadian training, I spent the first 5 minutes on the sidewalk pardoning myself and saying “sorry!” to the shoulder of every YUPpie ** that slammed into me in its determined effort to get to the subway without making eye contact.
I exhaled with great relief upon arriving in one piece to the station, only to inhale next the wonderful aroma that is the New York City subway system … a strange mixture of je ne sais quoi that I describe to non-Manhattanites as fried-onion urine. Breathe through your mouth. Naturally, I didn’t time my subway token insertion perfectly as most New Yorkers would and I had to endure the awkward forward thrusts of a few disgruntled commuters into my backside as I paused to allow the token to be acknowledged by the turnstile.
Having mapped out my route I knew to take the green circle 5 express to 59th Street, transfer to the orange circle N or R train to Herald Square and walk a block over to my new “classroom” at West 34th Street and 7th. Easy, peesy, piece of Lindy’s cheesecake, right?
The Express wasn’t working or was delayed – who knows as I had yet to acquire that uniquely New York ability to understand the person that is the voice of the subway loud speaker and who got that job after a very successful stint as the teacher’s voice in every Charlie Brown movie. It was only after I’d been standing alone, minding my own business and quietly humming Aretha’s Freeway of Love that I finally noticed the mad exodus behind me back upstairs to the 4 and 6 Local trains.
So I followed the masses without question and arrived to the local platform and a sea of human bodies. I suddenly had a vague appreciation for what the Halifax piers must have looked like when my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles arrived from post-war Europe. Trains arrived and bodies heaved themselves into already packed subway cars. Slowly but surely I inched forward until the subways doors practically pinched my nose as they closed, inviting me to “stand clear of the closing doors” as if I had a choice. The next train would certainly have room for me. A rush of wind passed as the train moved on and I realized I was standing well inside the yellow marker indicating the safe waiting distance for the trains. I was one aerobic shoelace away from the track and I thought I would die right then and there. I looked left and right trying to determine which of these psychos was going to throw me in front of the subway and was suddenly envious of the rats on the track that had more freedom of movement that I did. I closed my eyes instead prayed for mercy – or a quick death.
God answered (the mercy part, not the quick death) as I was quickly pressed into the next subway car wedged between an attractive businessman and someone whom I’m certain was pleasing himself on my hip. So much for my tutorial on the famous subway New York Times newspaper four-fold.
Mercifully, the rest of my very first New York City commute occurred without incident otherwise I might just have gone to Grand Central and taken the first
northbound Amtrak home. I sputtered into the office on the 6th floor with even BIGGER ‘80’s hair than I started with that day if you can possibly imagine, and announced my arrival to the receptionist. Though my first inclination was to ask my new boss, “When can I go home?” I managed instead to say, “I’m so very glad to be here” and she had no idea how much I really, really meant it!
What was your first impression of New York City?
* Domtar – a large pulp and paper company with operations in many small Canadian towns and for whom my father worked for about 20 years; the fine paper division of Weyerhaeuser merged with Domtar in 2007 making it a US company.
** YUPpy – Young Urban Professional (’80’s lingo, you tads)