When I first moved to Manhattan, a long time ago, I was afraid to leave the apartment by myself, let alone go anywhere by subway.
I’d taken up residence with my aunt in a small apartment in a Columbia-owned building called Butler Hall. My Aunt Dot was a doctoral student at Columbia’s Teachers College, which made her eligible to live in this well-kept “doorman” building on West 119th Street.
We arrived at Butler Hall right after Labor Day so Dot could begin the fall semester at TC. She knew her way around quite well after spending several summers at Columbia working on her degree.
During the first few weeks of my life in Manhattan I wouldn’t go any place without her and could be seen trailing after her as she registered for courses, bought books and set up housekeeping. But when her classes started she had to put her foot down. The desks just weren’t built for two.
After all, I’d come to New York City to make my way in the theater, not to shadow Dot all day. After two weeks of sitting wimpishly by the telephone I picked up the receiver and called a man I’d met at a summer stock theater the previous July. He owned and operated a small off-off-off-...off-Broadway theater. In fact it was so far off Broadway it was on East 14th Street. And I was living a hundred blocks uptown. The fellow who owned the theater probably saw the chance of getting a free stagehand for his current production. He invited me down to the theater that very evening to see a rehearsal. When I got off the phone I felt great! Not only was I going to go out of the apartment by myself, I was going to a real theater. A real theater I didn’t have the slightest idea how to get to. At night. Alone. Oh God.
The euphoria had worn off. How could I have said yes? I had the whole rest of the day to worry about my trip downtown and by dinnertime I was a complete wreck.
When Dot came home from school that evening I told her where I was going. But to allay her fears for my safety I said, “…but don’t worry. I’ll be perfectly safe. I’m going to take a cab.”
To my astonishment Dot said “A cab? Do you have any idea how expensive it would be to take a cab from here all the way down to East 14th street? Don’t be silly! It’s easy to get there by subway.”
She sat down at the table, pulled a used envelope to her, and began drawing a map on the back of it.
When she was finished she looked up at me and said, “There, now tonight I’ll be a little voice sitting on your shoulder, whispering in your ear as you follow my directions: Just go down the street to 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Walk up the hill, underneath the Law School overpass, to 116th Street. Cross the Columbia Quad, past the Alma Mater statue until you get to Broadway. On Broadway you’ll see the IRT Subway entrance. Go down the stairs, go to the downtown side of the tracks, take the Number One Local train to 96th Street. Get off at 96th Street, cross the platform, wait for the Number Two or Three Express train to Times Square. Get off at Times Square, walk to the back of the platform, go up the stairs until you see the signs for the Grand Central Shuttle. Take the Grand Central Shuttle to Grand Central Station. Get off at Grand Central Station. Walk to the back of the platform, go up the stairs and down the hall until you see the signs for the East Side IRT. When you get to the East Side IRT, go down the stairs, go to the downtown side of the tracks. Take the Number Four Local to Union Square. Get off at Union Square, walk to the back of the platform, go up the stairs until you see the signs for the street. When you step out on the pavement there you’ll be — on East 14th Street. Simple!”
To me she might just as well have been saying “…and that’s how you perform brain surgery. Simple!”
However, I was awed by her belief in me. What the hell, I thought, I’ll give it a try! Feeling a new confidence in myself, I took up the envelope and began to study the map she’d drawn. I didn’t think the Paris sewer system could have any more twists and turns in it, but I was now determined to try to make it to East 14th Street by myself.
I waved goodbye to Dot, stepped into the elevator, and breezed through the marble lobby of Butler Hall.
I walked down the hill to the corner of 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue and paused to catch my breath. It was dusk. The street lights had come on and past them I could see the glowing, almost-night sky. A sliver of moon was discernible and a chill breeze had come up. I looked around me at the lighted windows in the nearby apartment buildings. They all looked so cozy. From where I stood I could see Butler Hall &8212; figures in lighted windows moving indistinctly behind curtains. I could imagine the dinner preparations of people who, only moments ago, had passed me in a rush on this very corner. I wished I was home, safely watching reruns of Star Trek with Dot.
At that point, I lost my nerve. I couldn’t go through with this long journey. I turned quickly to go back up the hill and Apartment 2B and Captain Kirk and the Starship Enterprise and...
I heard a little voice, sitting on my shoulder, whispering in my ear. Fortunately, it was my Aunt’s.
The voice was telling me how to get to East 14th Street by subway. I turned around, squared my shoulders, and followed that little voice exactly: I walked up hill under the Law School overpass to 116th Street. Crossed the Columbia Quad, past the Alma Mater statue until I got to Broadway. On Broadway I saw the subway entrance at 116th Street. I went down the stairs, I went to the downtown side of the tracks. I took the Number One Local train to 96th Street, I got off at 96th Street, crossed the platform, waited until the Number Two Express train came along and got on it. I took the Number Two Express train to Times Square. I got off the train at Times Square, I walked to the back of the platform, went up the stairs until I saw the signs for the Grand Central Shuttle. I took the Grand Central Shuttle to Grand Central Station. I got off at Grand Central Station, walked to the back of the platform, up the stairs and down the hall until I saw signs for the East Side IRT. When I got to the East Side IRT, I went down the stairs, to the downtown side of the tracks. I took the Number Four Local to Union Square, I got off at Union Square, walked to the back of the platform, up the stairs until I saw the signs for the street. I climbed the stairs to the street and there I was! I had made it. I was on East 14th Street all by myself.
As I stood there, a woman in a silver-and-gray fur coat walked up to me and started a conversation. My aunt had forgotten to warn me never to actually stand still on a street corner in Manhattan. The woman was carrying a small brown hairless dog under her right arm.
“My dog Roger reads The New York Times every morning,” she announced. Then, after looking over both shoulders to make sure we weren’t being overheard, or maybe to keep what she was saying from the dog, she whispered, “He doesn’t really read The New York Times — he only scans the headlines.”
She produced a chocolate chip cookie from her fur coat pocket for the dog, handed me one, and continued on down the street.
To this day I don’t know why, but my next move was to walk to the curb, hail the first cab to come along, and take it all the way back to West 119th Street still holding Roger’s treat in my hand. As I got on the elevator, I absent-mindedly took a bite out of the cookie. It was a dog biscuit. Somehow that didn’t surprise me.
A few weeks later, I was walking on the Columbia Quad. I’d just completed my first week at my new job as an office assistant in the University’s Public Information Office. I was also beginning to get around campus pretty well on my own. As I passed the Alma Mater statue on my way home, two young women stopped me. One of them told me they were supposed to meet her parents at Luchow’s restaurant downtown, and they had no idea how to get there. “What street’s it on?” I asked in a manner that would suggest I’d lived in the City for years. “My Mother said it was on 14th Street at the beginning of the East Village,” said the young woman. “We really just want to know where’s the best place to get a cab.” I stepped between the two, smiled at them both, and chided: “A cab? Do you two have any idea how expensive it would be to take a cab from here all the way down to East 14th Street? Don’t be silly! It’s easy to get there by subway....”