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)

18 Responses to I think I want to be a part of it: New York, New York…

  • My first trip to NYC was with a boyfriend, a basketball player who was jumping off from New York to Madrid where he would join his team. I found magic everywhere I looked, but we took limo’s and taxi’s, not the subway. We stayed at a very charming hotel and went to the theater a couple of times. We also checked out the touristy stuff. Three days left me longing for more. I adored the place and I’ve been back as often as I could manage it!

    • My introduction to it was less than spectacular but I too learned to adore NYC for all it was, is, and found magic everywhere. Thanks for sharing your story!

  • I grew up on the streets of NYC, so I’m not a good judge. That was life. That was all I knew until I went to college. Being pushing, moving fast without eye contact, you learn that early on. I’d go with my friend. We were two 13-year-olds, out for a good time in New York City. The world was our oyster.

    • I soon grew to understand that the world (aka Manhattan) was my oyster… I just had to get out of my shell. I recall once renting a row boat in Central Park and these 3 kids (maybe 10?) had been turned away in front of us because they were too young. My friend and I took them on our row boat and it was one of my fondest and richest memories of spring time in Central Park: there in the bow sat a little black boy with his two best friends in the whole wide world (as we were told) – a white and a hispanic girl, with their arms around each other, talking and laughing. My friend and I said we were blessed that day.

  • My only trip to NYC was for a conference. I got the gist of it. I figured I could live there and not go nuts if I could live in Manhattan ($$$ for something closet-sized, I know) and walk to everything I’d be ok. Otherwise, no. No long commutes from the boroughs.

    But I find it a fascinating place. I’ve wondered what it would be like to live in the Flatiron building, right at the point of it. I’ve seen pictures of the interior… envy!

    • O love that building too! I don’t know if you ever noticed but right on the very corner of that building it reads “Astra” … or at least it did in the last 80’s! I have a picture of myself in front of it. A publishing company at the time or something? Anyway … another neat NYC story of mine.
      I DO love New York… we just had a rough start!

  • Thanks for sharing with us! I think you very extremely courageous to enter this crazy environment willingly, it must have been – and still is a scary as well as an amazing place. The gamble obviously changed your entire life and left you with wonderful memories as well as a true education. What more can we ask than that?

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. Well, I knew my choices were to move to a scary place where I knew NO ONE or move to a scary place where I knew SOMEONE. It did change my life, and has inspired to me to write a little more about New York. Stay tuned.
      BTW, I’ve been loving your poems lately! Great work!

  • Astra, I have never been to New York City but it’s on my bucket list! I can understand how a city like this can overwhelm the strongest of people but still, I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame! I want to walk among the crowds, eat at swanky restaurants, buy cold cuts in a deli, see people wearing trendy clothes, buy anything from a street vendor. I want it all! I’m glad you got through your ordeal and may I say I’m still chuckling at the visual of you in “bigger than 80’s hair”! And the part of you waiting for the subway had me in stitches! 🙂

    • Yes Bella, it is an extraordinary city and I sincerely hope you get to experience it in all its glory someday soon. When I first moved there I had to be content with people watching as my entertainment – and NYC did not disappoint ! Your choice of words intrigued me though and I wonder now if it was not really an ‘ordeal’ but a necessary rite of passage! you must go!

      • Astra, methinks it was definitely a rite of passage! In addition, the experience added to your worldliness, cachet, and savvyness. Oh, and to your self-confidence, self-reliance, and independence! We must not forget those! 🙂

  • This reminded me of my first trip to the big apple. I was such a ‘virgin’. I was on a business trip being wined and dined by a vendor. It was my first business trip, first business dinner, first on so many levels. I was terrified. Thanks for the recalling those memories … I think! I was just there a couple of weeks ago with my daughter. It was fun to expereince it with her.. she was so much more fearless than I was. She took to the streets with more grace than I did. Great story..

    • I can certainly appreciate the terror you felt, Brenda, and hope there were other better memories recalled! I think we’ve bred a generation of kids that are a little more fearless, though keep in mind that you were there beside her. The grace with which she took to the streets might have been due to the fact that you were with her!! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • My aunt lived in Manhattan when I was young, so for a few summers there, my brother and I would travel alone to visit for a week. At first, I was so intimidated by the city. I was terrified to walk down the street, ride the subway, and wait in line with large crowds. I grew up on a farm in Michigan (as did my aunt, incidentally), so NYC couldn’t have been any different than what I was used to. Turns out, I now love it, and while the last time I was there was a couple years ago for my friend’s bachelorette party (she lives in Hoboken and works in the city), I still have a special place in my heart for it 🙂

    • I too have a special place in my heart for New York, Laura! It’s neat that you had an opportunity to visit you aunt in the city though – even if it did intimidate!! Thanks for stopping by!

  • I first went there for a professional conference as a graduate student. A bunch of us were doing it as cheaply as we could, which included cramming ourselves into the one spare bedroom of a rent-controlled apartment in Sheepshead Bay for one night. The next morning as all of us Midwesterners got on the subway with the single New Yorker in the bunch we were instructed not to look anyone in the eye on the train and when we got to the city to walk with speed and purpose even if we didn’t know where we were going.

    • Hi Julie! Yes, walking with “speed and purpose” is something that I had to learn (and then un-learn while in Central Park!). Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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About Astra
Ottawa mom of 3 poking fun at myself, motherhood, and minor hockey! I am steering through life dodging stinky hockey gear and empty wine bottles.
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