I am not a native New Yorker. In fact, I have never even lived in “The City” for any extended amount of time, though I visit often.
I hear horror stories centering on confusion about what bus goes where, the need for exact change in quarters and the intricacy of figuring out bus schedules. So, I am always too intimidated to ride the city buses by myself. Instead, I learn how to hail a cab. And I downloaded LYFT. It’s somewhat off-putting to wait until five minutes before you want to go someplace to contact LYFT, but my son assures me that is how it is done.
Feeling a tad tech savvy, I meet a former co-worker who has recently located to “The City” for a new job. “Iris,” she exclaims loudly, “do you know how much money you could be spending elsewhere if you learned the subway system?”
“Gee,” I answer meekly, “I never thought of it that way.”
Visions of toting home a designer bag or a one-of-a-kind jade trinket or going on a mini spree at Barneys dances across my field of vision. My interest is piqued.
That night, I ask my son to give me the low down on how to ride the subway from Bowery on the Lower East Side to Mt. Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side.
He hands me his prepaid Metro Card as we walk to the station. “Mom,” he patiently instructs me, “walk down the stairs, swipe the card and look for the #6 train going Uptown. Get on. Take a seat. Get off at 96th and Lexington. Proceed to Madison Avenue. Turn right. The hospital will be on your left.”
“Okay,” I counter nervously and let go of his hand – like I am the kindergartener and he is the parent escorting me on my first day of school. I then descend the damp, hot and stale smelling stairwell leading under the street, peer cautiously around until I spot the swiping machine, swipe, maneuver the turn style and enter the subway platform.
Everyone looks normal. No knife wielding strangers debating on whose purse to snatch. No desperate looking character perched to jump onto the tracks. No terrorist planting a bomb. Just college kids laughing together in groups. A young mother holding onto two squealing toddlers. A business man toting a Tumi briefcase.
I enter the subway car. I scan the space above the window – nervously looking for the electronic map that shows passengers the progress of the train as it speeds along the route. Sitting rigidly in plain sight of the subway locator, I focus on the train’s progress lest I miss my stop. Twenty-five minutes of intense staring later, I reach the subway stop at 96th Street. I alight, walking proudly forward with the surging crowd to what appears to be the exit.
That was a week ago. Since then I have ridden the rails daily. I even bought myself my own Metro Card after the nice stationmaster instructed me on what I was doing wrong – after trying three times to buy one from a machine that my son had promised me an idiot could master. Judging by the impatient crowd behind me, I wasn’t a quick study.
I am learning which subway station entrance to use depending on which direction I am going. I confess – I still get my directions mixed up when climbing the stairs to the street. My son reassures me, in a slightly patronizing voice, that soon I will figure that out too.
Okay. I’m not Cheryl Strayed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Okay. I’m not Diana Nyad swimming from Havana to Key West. But I am riding the rails at age 68, for the very first time. By Myself.
I know others may regard my mini-adventure with disdain, but exhilaration fills me every time I descend into the deep underbelly of NYC and emerge 30 minutes later – oriented and intact. Enroute, I people-watch. I shamelessly eavesdrop on other riders’ conversations. I wonder what kind of life the person squeezed into the seat beside me has and what’s in that big shopping bag of hers.
As the famous French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, once said: Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely.