“Only Tourists Look Up.”

About a month ago I posted my idea for a stage play and promised to talk about my own New York experiences. Well, that promise kicked off a cascade of memories of visits to the city, adventures within, and so forth. So many popped up I have hesitated to write a single post about them. I have decided to write more than one. How many? Well, we will see how it goes.

One of my first memories of visiting New York City is from my student days at Bryn Mawr College. If I recall correctly, back then a ticket to travel from Philadelphia to NYC via NJ Transit was $7. That seems like a fantastically low number, so perhaps it was as much as $17 one way. I know it could not have been much more as I had no money in college and so could not have afforded anything expensive.

It is difficult for me to believe all these decades and so many trips here and there later, but I traveled around NYC and Boston during my student days with often no more money in my pocket than the subway fare back to where I was staying. And by “staying” I did not mean a hotel. In those days I stayed with friends and slept on couches or floors.

The purpose of my trip, which had to have been my sophomore year at BMC, was to visit with C. during Spring Break. C is a woman I had met at BMC who graduated two years ahead of me. We were pals at school, and she was feeling, as many recent college grads do, a bit at odds being on her own. She was then living and working in NYC in a nice and new, but small, apartment on the Upper West Side near the Kennedy Center. This meant she had a small couch available for overnight guests. She invited me, and I said yes! We spend most of our time visiting museums, including, of course, the gracious Mother of all NYC museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I followed her travel instructions to the letter, which had come, of course, literally in a letter. I was a little fearful of traveling to the Big City on my own. I had traveled with small groups of fellow students while at college, but this was one of my first trips on my own. Really, it was nothing to be worried about: walk the few blocks to the local train station, go to Philadelphia, and change trains to get to NYC. C. was waiting for me at the gate in NYC, and I dutifully heeded her admonition to “stay close” as she threaded our way through the crowds in the station and out to the street.

I recall this next moment very clearly, the moment I saw daylight in NYC for the first time. I stopped on the sidewalk, looked around, and then I looked up, and up, and up. I did not stop. I had never seen such a dense forest of concrete and glass. It was everywhere and in order to see the sky I had to tilt my head way back.

My friend C., who was (as a new resident of the city) nervous about the possibility of being mugged (it was the late 70s, early 80s and so she had good reason to be concerned), gave me but a few seconds of time to gape before she cautioned me with another admonition, “Don’t look up! Only tourists look up!”

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And C.? Well, she lived in NYC for a few more years and eventually got over her concerns about being mugged. Her parents, who had been underwriting the costs of her housing in Manhattan, also got tired of paying NYC rental rates, and she moved to an apartment in the Bronx.

Where, I am happy to report, a few years later she proved how well accustomed she had become to life in the Big City. One evening, as she was returning from a few hours out and was letting herself into the lobby of her apartment building, a man walked up behind her and demanded her money. C. turned, observed the man’s hand was in his pocket and surmised he had no gun, stepped over the threshold and declared, “You leave me alone!” and shut the door firmly in his face.

Today C. teaches English at a large university, having decided to trade the Big City for the Big State of Texas.

Such was my introduction to NYC. I still look up when I visit, by the way. Being a tourist in such an amazing place is fine by me.