My Damn Love Affair



Neighborhood: All Over, Uncategorized, Upper West Side

The New York of the 80’s was not a town that met you halfway. It stopped well short of that, just looking right through you. It really didn’t give a damn what happened to you, daring you to ride the subway late at night and then picking your pocket and laughing about it afterwards.

It was nothing like the New York of my childhood, an enchanted place that smelled of crisp winter sunshine and roasted chestnuts. In that New York, my sister and I tucked our hands into muffs and wore matching rabbit skin coats to the opera with our parents. That New York favored Circle in the Square and Gilbert and Sullivan and a little Italian restaurant on Carmine Street where a table in the window was always waiting for us. That New York that was safe and glittering and enjoyed window-shopping on Fifth Ave.

Then there was the sleazy New York of my teenage years, when I took the bus into the city to visit my camp friends. Walking from Port Authority through Times Square was to take your life in your hands, especially in the t-shirt from Hershey Park that I was wearing. Easier just to have put a sign on my back that read, “Take my wallet, please.” In that New York L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics was pressed into my hand and I paid a buck for it because I didn’t know how to say no to the creepy Scientologists who occupied the bus station.

In college, it was exciting to live off-campus near Columbia University, except that walking home from the library late at night was not something you did alone. Also, there were the unwanted guests in our apartment. One time I pulled the aluminum foil from a shelf in the kitchen and a roach the size of a bat skittered out… and then took flight. The image still makes me shiver.

In those days, you never wore anything of value on the subway or on the streets. You turned your rings inward, even if they were cheap imitations, just in case someone mistook your jewelry for the real thing. Back then, necklaces were being ripped from women’s necks. It had happened to a friend of mine. New York was standing way too close then, really violating your personal space.
I’m not saying what happened next wasn’t stupid, but it was a really cold night. I was wearing my authentic Russian sable hat, the one I had bartered in exchange for my Jansport knapsack on the streets of Moscow the year before. I descended into the sketchy realms of the 96th Street subway station on the Upper West Side, got on the 2 train and took a seat. The windows were propped open because the train was completely overheated. That’s so New York – frozen above ground but a steamy mess beneath the surface. I was sitting with my back to the windows, and a guy reached in and grabbed my one-of-a-kind-memory-of-a-wonderful-adventure-hat right off my head and made a run for it. I started to give chase, but really, what was I gonna do if I actually caught the guy? Throw him to the ground? I turned around and got back on the subway.

You can look up the crime statistics of the 80’s for yourself. I know that my wallet was stolen at least twice in the post-college years that I lived in New York. One time, incredibly, it was returned, courtesy of the US postal service. I had tucked a couple of those little slips of paper, those fortunes from the cookies in the Chinese restaurants, into that wallet. When I got it back, I looked inside. Of course all the money and my credit cards were gone, but the fortunes had been replaced with new ones. You can’t accuse New York of not having a sense of humor.

Remember those filthy, grafitti-ravaged phone booths on the street corners of New York? You’d hold the receiver as far away from your mouth as possible? Turns out those pay phones didn’t have to cost a dime. Once you had the phone number, you could arrange for a friend who lived in say, Ohio, or was on a semester abroad in Rome, to call collect and all you had to do was stand by and wait to accept the call. Of course that didn’t work if someone was using the phone. But when it did work, it was a thing of beauty, sticking it to Ma Bell. Kind of like when I used those Connecticut Turnpike tokens, which cost 25 cents a piece, in the subway turnstiles when the fare was a buck fifty. That was taking advantage of New York and I felt bad about it – sorry for that one, my friend. I only did it a few times…

People were still allowed to smoke in the workplace. My last job, before I absolutely left the city for good, I shared an office with a couple of smokers, and they puffed away all day long. That was when New York didn’t have a clue about second-hand smoke and everything I owned stunk of cigarettes. When the opportunity came to leave, we were already through. I had been working in that pall of smoke for 6 months when the company moved our whole division out west. It was a snap. The movers lifted my clothes right out of the closet into wardrobe boxes, sealed them up, and then started in on the drawers.

We parted ways in the summer of 1987. I said good bye and I meant it, but do you really mean what you say when you’re 25? All that was left was to wrap up loose ends with my on-again-off-again college boyfriend. There was a romantic boat ride circling Manhattan on the Circle Line; soft breezes, setting sun, you know the deal. I asked him to ask me to stay, but he refused to take charge of my destiny. Was New York really not going to serve up my Prince Charming to me? I was so out of there. LA would be a fine place spend the rest of my youth. It took me twenty years to look back.

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§ One Response to “My Damn Love Affair”

  • Very enjoyable and wonderful details of moments that I relate to my visits to NYC and 10 month stay across the Hudson up in the bluffs of NJ. Makes me wish I could read more of your stories, perhaps from LA days…

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