“Good morning, passengers.” The voice came over the subway car’s loudspeaker. “This is your conductor. The lights should come on shortly. There are pickpockets on board, so please be aware of your purses and wallets. Have a nice day.”
When the lights did come on three wallets were on the floor of our car, artfully stripped of their contents. Monday morning in New York City.
From Labor Day until late December, 1990, I was an intern at Wigwag Magazine located on the legendary Spring Street. My daily commute began on the Metro in Rye, NY where I’d rented a furnished apartment. It was a lovely ride that ended, literally and figuratively, in Grand Central Station where I changed to the subway.
On the walk to work I remembered a quote I’d heard: “New York is too large for an insane asylum and too small for a republic.” I saw New York as more like there are no two snowflakes or fingerprints alike and couldn’t believe the infinite variety of people filling the sidewalk as I moved around the city on foot.
At the magazine, I had two jobs. One was reading the “slush” pile of unsolicited manuscripts and the other was basically as an errand girl. On my travels, I witnessed every form of human frailty and strength imaginable on a daily basis. Add to this impatient drivers, speeding taxis, and hordes of pedestrians. And the noise, the smells—many pleasant like roasting chestnuts or falafel stands and sometimes the choking stench of garbage. It was human life packed into an amazing city of twenty-four square miles. And I was a gob-smacked guest.
But at the end of the day, I often felt far away from what had nourished me at the farm—the peace and a life closer to nature. There, my tiny speck on the planet seemed to have a purpose and where things just made more sense.
I always felt safe in New York after being advised at the magazine to take certain precautions: don’t carry a shoulder bag and don’t keep important documents and a lot of cash in your wallet. I wore the money belt I’d worn in Africa on the weekends when I became a devoted tourist.
When we went back to standard time in late September, I didn’t linger in the city at night and tried to be home shortly after dark. I missed the evening-only venues I’d attended when the city was just beginning to sparkle.
I saved my last sightseeing weekend for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and their memorial gardens I’d heard so much about. The cathedral was immense, breathtakingly beautiful, and a century later, still under construction. I arrived in between services and missed the choir, deciding to sit in a pew off to the side. I closed my eyes and gave thanks for my time in New York and for being plucky enough to have signed on for the adventure.
Heading back to mid-town Manhattan, it was hard to believe I was actually alone at a bus stop, usually packed with workers. Still in the gratitude mode, I started to smile at a young man who was walking toward me, but stopped. A chill went through me and for the first time in three months I felt unsafe. The closer he came the more I knew my gut was right. I quickly crossed the street and stepped into a neighborhood market. A woman just inside the doorway took my arm, pulled me further in, and closed the door.
“Instincts don’t lie,” she said, noting she’d seen my uneasiness. “He was up to no good. Let’s wait for the bus together.”
In our ten minutes before the bus arrived, she told me about her job as an office cleaner. I thought about writing her story of poor wages, exposure to harsh chemicals, and the boss’s groping hands for the magazine. She had plans to leave New York before Christmas, move with her son, and join her sister in the Midwest.
Once we were on the bus, I shared my bagel from Barney Greengrass and she carefully poured half of her coffee into one of the doubled-up paper cups. She was on her way to pick up her son who was visiting his father at a halfway house.
I was headed to Carnegie Hall for a concert of the “German Requiem” by Brahms. How different the day could have been. The thin thread of life’s events, from foreboding to heartening, filled me as the concert started. I had an SRO ticket and while I only lasted two hours, it was enough to carry me into appreciating the music, gut instinct, the woman, and my life. On the way to the Metro, I lingered with the crowds in front of the department stores that were spectacularly decorated for the Christmas holidays.
When Einstein was asked about the source of his genius, he said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right,” he told the Saturday Evening Post in 1929. “Better to trust those instincts and test them later than to dismiss them out of hand.”
Photo credits: Intuition tiles – edz-norton, bus stop – dele-oke, Alfred Einstein – national archives. All others by the author.