My First Year in New York, 1969

My Martz Trailways bus rolled into Manhattan from Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1969, landing me in Port Authority. I dragged my big, ivory-colored, plastic suitcase up the escalator, stepped onto Eighth Avenue and a cab screeched to a halt at my feet—a lucky break, since I hadn’t the vaguest idea how to hail one.

I had been discovered by an affable, elfin, grey-haired man named Mr. Nork from the Personnel Department of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. He had come to my alma mater Wilkes College, situated on the banks of the Susquehanna River, to find recruits for positions in the Training Bureau.

I’d been to Manhattan once, in my senior year, with the Sociology Club. We stayed at the musty-smelling Piccadilly Hotel off Times Square, which had a mirrored lobby and a dizzying, wall-to-wall, red, black and green Oriental rug. The other girls and I ran back and forth to each other’s rooms, sharing curlers and hair dryers and scarfs and sweaters. I walked for nearly 48 hours straight, mouth agape, neck craned skyward, dazzled. What I loved most was that nobody knew me, nobody watched, and nobody cared.

I was an easy sell. According to Mr. Nork, the Training Bureau teemed with kids just out of college and I’d fit right in. Contrary to his original expectations, he said, it was the girls from my backward locale who were willing to strike out on their own, and the boys who wouldn’t budge. That didn’t surprise me, since the boys, around whom our local world revolved, had everything to lose by leaving, while the girls, who did the revolving, had at least a slim hope of something better. Within a week, I was biting my nails in a room on the 19th floor of the Americana Hotel, now one of Midtown’s grand ghosts, in anxious anticipation of my interview the next morning at Met Life with director of human resources, Jim T.

I began my job as a Training Associate in the Manpower Recruiting and Development Division. It was the heyday of federal funding for remedial education and training programs for “underprivileged” workers. Young women and men were brought into the company, with federal subsidies, to work half a day and attend remedial classes half a day. In my classroom were Black and Hispanic young men and women—the first I had ever met, and all my age. My charge was teaching basic math and grammar, despite having had zero teacher training myself. I was so nervous that I recall one day lighting a cigarette (you could smoke anywhere back then), only to have an elegant young man named Charles (who firmly discouraged me from calling him by the popular Scranton moniker, “Charlie”) remind me that I had another already burning in a nearby ashtray. I was truly pathetic and if I could, I’d send each of those trainees a thank you note for their forbearance.

I did adjust to work, as well as to a drastic change in the women’s dress code. The new rules expanded permissible clothing from micro-miniskirts, which were beloved by management, to pantsuits, which were not. No one had ever said a word to me when my skirts ended somewhere between the fold in my buttocks and my upper thighs. But on the day I wore my first pantsuit, which was yellow and featured a loose wrap-around jacket with a sash (pictured), Mr. T. called me into his office to reprimand me. Unlike a pullover top, which would have covered my entire torso with only my panted legs dangling down, my jacket did not completely close in the front in the pelvic region and in fact flared out a little. This, apparently, provided an unacceptable view of the female crotch. Unlike Sister Elaine, who in the eighth grade chastised me for wearing a too tight, also yellow, corduroy suit and giving the boys “impure thoughts,” Mr. T. did not send me home.

My first apartment was a furnished one on 35 West 64th street, just off Lincoln Center, a few doors up from the Ginger Man and above the former Monks’ Inn. But I lasted only three months in apartment 6F, early on developing a habit of bringing home stray people and, to my roommate’s dismay, staying up all night giggling and cavorting with them. I lived with a very old young woman, who’d worked in the business office at Wilkes College. All I knew was her first name, Sharon, and that she was moving to New York City. So, for purely pragmatic reasons, we had teamed up.

Taking a truly cowardly tack, I stole away from that apartment while Sharon was at work, to a new one on 71st Street, just west of Columbus. Cash-starved, I moved myself, in the rain, on foot. I walked, tilted to one side by the weight of my crammed suitcase, from 64th to 46 West 71st Street, apartment 2A, and then back again in a more upright position to refill. Sharon badgered me with calls at work for some time after, but I refused to come to the phone. Eventually, she gave up and apparently went on with her life. In my defense, I was fully paid up on the rent.

On West 71st Street, I shared a one-bedroom, fourth-floor walk-up with three other girls. There was Cathy with a “C”—sleek, blonde, tall, thin, and gorgeous, who fancied herself the first and best female bank examiner in America. Patty spoke as if she’d just woken up, in a low, gravelly, muffled voice. She had thick dark hair, short legs, and a jealous streak, relentlessly coveting other women’s bodies, jobs and boyfriends, especially those belonging to her best friend, who was Cathy. Mary Jane, my colleague at Met Life who had invited me into the menagerie, wore sensible shoes, knee length skirts, and kept her food marked and neatly cordoned off in the refrigerator. Sleeping arrangements went like this: In the bedroom, I camped out on the bottom bunk, Patty on the top, and Mary Jane on the adjacent twin bed. Cathy crashed on one of the sofa beds in the living room.

1969 was also the year I followed a parade of young women to the office of handsome, young Dr. Grossman on 34th and Park for my first prescription for birth control pills. Where I grew up, we expected the boy to take care of such matters; how seriously he took that responsibility was a measure of how much he cared. Most times, my boyfriend D brought condoms. Yet, I always worried that I might be pregnant. Once, when D was off at Army Reserve boot camp, I missed my period. I prayed. I waited. I prayed some more. Nothing.

Abortions were then the province of knife-wielding charlatans, so desperation set in. I called D’s best friend, a Marlon Brando-clone named Will, who, when he was sober, was reputed to be expert in these matters. He recommended that I put boiling water and mustard into a pail and sit on it. When I raised questions about the type of pail to use, he suggested, in exasperation, that I could use the bathtub. Alternatively, he recommended that I sit in (or was it drink?) turpentine or, if all else failed, throw myself down a flight of stairs. Fortunately, my period came. Unfortunately, half a century later, none of that is a source of even dark humor anymore.

The first time I went to Dr. Grossman’s office, I wore my best wool suit, a deep plum color, with a gold sweater that I’d bought with mom at Robert Hall, and sat very tall in the quiet, softly lit, fully carpeted waiting room. There were many other young women, but I saw no wedding rings and no one was visibly pregnant. It was just us, young, unaccompanied, mostly single women, prying our bodies out of the hands of our mothers and fathers, boyfriends and lovers, brothers and confessors, and turning them over to Dr. Grossman. We loved him. He spoke to us respectfully, called us “women” and was completely nonjudgmental about our plans to fornicate without benefit of marriage. In return, we endured listening to his endless and irritating litany of the side effects of the Pill, which no one took seriously, and which quickly slipped out of our consciousness. I’m sure I never heard that breast cancer was a risk.

Weekends were a blur of beer and pizza and bodies strewn about, men and women creating illusions of privacy where none existed, struggling through first sex and no sex and premature ejaculation. It was the year I brought home a mounted policeman from Central Park in green riding pants and a green helmet, who warned me, while ensconced on my couch having a beer, that I really shouldn’t bring home strange men. I still can’t recall where he left his horse.

1969 was the year I encountered Sam, the first romantic love of my life, and politics. The city streets rumbled with anti-Vietnam war protests and rallies. While I became an active participant, I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t out of any deep political conviction at first, but to impress Sam. I cultivated a serious expression to wear on my face, bought a stash of white candles to bring to the demonstrations, and wore a somber navy-blue woolen poncho. I remember a sea of shimmering lights rising out of the darkness at a rally at U.N. Plaza, and during one particularly vociferous march through Times Square, the raindrops sliding down my face, the pavement flying by beneath my feet, and the exhilaration of being with so many people who believed they had the power to change the world.

1969 turned into 1970. There came Iron Butterfly in Central Park, Jimi Hendrix on Sam’s stereo, and Joe Cocker at the dilapidated Filmore East on Easter Eve, singing in the glow of our flickering cigarette lighters, until 4 a.m., when his chronically fractured voice finally broke completely. There was Victors on Columbus Avenue, where I gagged at the thought of eating oxtails, and a saccharine album I adored by a woman named Melanie called “Candles in the Rain.”

I fell madly in love with Sam, who for at least a few moments seemed madly in love with me. Besides orchestrating my political inauguration, he sent cards, bought flowers, introduced me to the theatre, and took me to my first extravagant birthday dinner at the Village’s operatically inspired Asti Restaurant. He was genteel and a gentleman, in sharp contrast to many of the men I’d grown up around who hung out in corner bars, drank shots and beers, called their wives balls and chains and spent as little time as possible at home.

But Sam and I didn’t last. He didn’t like my Scranton accent, my ignorance about art and politics, or my clothes. The scanty, sleeveless, silky, wrap-around, v-neck, lime green garment that I wore to a wedding at Sam’s synagogue put him over the edge. Refusing to be my Pygmalion, he left me, and soon after, I left New York.

I went to my last Judy Collins concert in Central Park; packed my navy poncho, candles and a six-month supply of birth control pills; and bounced my motley mattress down four flights of stairs. I grabbed a cab to Port Authority, settled into the Martz bus and, confused and exhausted, headed home.

Or what I thought was home. Actually, without my knowing it, home had shifted locale. New York haunted me like a restless ghost. In less than two years, I would return. During the next half century, I amassed tales aplenty. But no year, even in its richest moment, could compare to my Manhattan in 1969.

***

Angela Bonavoglia’s work has appeared in many venues, including Ms., the Chicago Tribune, The Nation, Women’s Media Center and HuffPost, as well as in many collections, most recently, “50 Years of Ms.: The Best of the Pathfinding Magazine That Ignited a Revolution.” She is the author of “Good Catholic Girls: How Women Are Leading the Fight to Change the Church,” and “The Choices We Made: 25 Women and Men Speak Out About Abortion (foreword by Gloria Steinem).” Visit her at www.angelabonavoglia.com
 

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§ 3 Responses to “My First Year in New York, 1969”

  • Sharon says:

    You beat me out of PA by two years. I left Harrisburg at eighteen, September 1971, to go to art school. (I can imagine Scranton was an equally appropriate propellant.) I am envious that you got to celebrate your birthday at Asti’s, and proud that you (and I) broke free of our hometown orbits. New York in that era that we were immersed was a full baptism, “Do Not Back Up – Severe Tire Damage”. Wonderful story!

  • TSB says:

    What a great prose style. What a great sense of texture, fabric, cut. I wanted to hear more. That return home, the home that no longer was, for example. It is like a novel in absence.

    Best line: “It was just us, young, unaccompanied, mostly single women, prying our bodies out of the hands of our mothers and fathers, boyfriends and lovers, brothers and confessors, and turning them over to Dr. Grossman.”

  • Jack Szwergold says:

    “What I loved most was that nobody knew me, nobody watched, and nobody cared.”

    Excellent memory.

    “He recommended that I put boiling water and mustard into a pail and sit on it. When I raised questions about the type of pail to use, he suggested, in exasperation, that I could use the bathtub. Alternatively, he recommended that I sit in (or was it drink?) turpentine or, if all else failed, throw myself down a flight of stairs.”

    Seems like a swell guy who gave out rock solid advice!

§ Leave a Reply

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