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Chapter Two - Step by Step

    The packet from my mother also contained photos. The square faded snap shot lay stuck between two letters Mom sent me. On the back of the picture in my mother’s writing, I read “New York City on eve of Jennifers’ departure for England 1968.”

Without this written reference, there was no way to identify where the image came from. The nondescript street scene, with the two tiny figures standing by an opening in the cement structure, gave little to no information. No landmarks, no vista, just my mother and me beside the awning-covered opening. If we were smiling, it was impossible to tell. I recognized my plaid pleated skirt. I made it my last year in school, but the white button-up shirt made me look more like a reject from a boarding school.

     As I stared at the image, I noticed writing on the awning; it said 7 Gracie Square. So I googled the address. 7 Gracie Square is a seven-story high-rise apartment or condo building built in the twenties and faces the East River. I vaguely remember Mom wanting me to meet someone who lived there, but like much of my New York adventurer, I remember little of who, what, or why we were there.

      I do have a vivid recall of some things. They begin with the suitcases. I can still see my mom’s dismissive wave when I voiced my concern. In total, I managed to pack six bags and a makeup case in anticipation of any and all weather events and unknown occasions.

     The Agency sent a suggested packing list. I am sure I had everything on that list packed in two bags. As for the others, I used the “you never know” method as I emptied my closet and dresser.

     The Agency made arrangements for my travel to Brussels. They required me to leave from New York City. Mom decided she would see me off from there. But the more I dive into the events surrounding my departure, the more I believe my mother saw my trip as a way to celebrate her empty nest. I base my evidence of this assumption on another letter from my Uncle Ben detailing an itinerary of Mom’s plans. Growing up, I never thought of my parents as people. And it never occurred to me then that my mother could have any other agenda for traveling to New York to see me off other than pure support of my endeavor.                Looking back with the benefit of an adult’s point of view, I reassessed everything. After reviewing the correspondence she forwarded to me, I realized my departure became a kick-start for her life. Besides seeing me off on my year-long journey, she planned to visit her cousin Anne at her farm in Pennsylvania. From there, she would hop over to Chicago, where our Illinois relatives planned on hosting her like visiting royalty. Not that it changed anything, but the realization my narcissistic youth had erased the memories made me even more thankful for the rich stack of material she sent me.

       Another vivid memory was arriving in New York City. Mom decided I should visit my brother Scott before I left the country. He joined the Marines in 1967, following in his dad’s footsteps, and was finishing his military training in Memphis. Looking back, I sometimes wonder how my mother dealt with the worry. Scott’s deployment to Vietnam was inevitable, and Mom knew it.

       Mom’s plan: she would travel to New York alone, taking all the luggage except for two bags I was to manage on my own. I would fly to Memphis the same day to see my brother, spend the night, and continue to New York the next morning alone. Mom told me her cousin Anne had an entire day planned for them on the day I was to arrive in New York. This required me to travel independently to the hotel when I arrived in New York.

      Until this moment, I gave no thought to navigation while traveling. I assumed travel decisions would remain constant and straightforward. In essence, adults had it all worked out, and all I needed to do was follow along. In my mother’s defense, not providing me a way from the airport in New York to the hotel was, oddly, a test of sorts. But the reality was more like the difference between a dust devil and a tornado. My travel experiences up to this point consisted of once flying alone from Los Angeles to San Francisco. My older brother Ed dropped me off at the gate in L.A., and Mom waiting when I stepped out of the plane.

      To the best of my recollection, this trip began on the morning of August 19, 1968. Mom and I packed up the old tan Plymouth and drove to the airport in San Francisco. Following the plan, we boarded separate flights. Except for the hotel clerk preventing brother Scott from accompanying me upstairs to my room,  and him telling me his G.I. buddies liked a photo of me, no other memories of Memphis remain. Perhaps because my arrival in New York erased all of them.                             

     Nothing, I mean nothing, can prepare you for New York. I thought I had this travel thing down. Flying alone to see my brother Scott posed no problems, but Kennedy Airport was like a carnival on steroids. Signs flashed destinations I had never heard of, long halls leading to god knows what, and the people. They were like roaches scrambling when the lights flicked on in the middle of the night.

       My first hurdle was to realize that I needed to take a bus from the airport to another terminal in the city. Mother failed to convey this concept to me before I left home. After navigating my first obstacle, I emerged into the raving chaos of the inner terminal, raising my distress level to new heights. I hugged my luggage and followed the crowds, hoping to see where they were going. Something changed as I neared what appeared to be an exit. People who had been orderly seemed to scramble. A group of travelers parted in front of me, revealing taxies lining the curb.

       Exhaust fumes heavy with the scent of burnt rubber mixed with food wrapped around me as I struggled to concentrate amid the swirling collage of brassy announcements, muffled by horn blasts and unidentified percussions. Stopping would risk bodily harm as people yelled, pointed, and waved arms. The objects of all this attention were the young men working near the cabs wearing red caps.

      I moved this way and then that, dodging rabid travelers racing to be first in line for the cabs waiting below me. Acid exhaust fumes filled my mouth, as I studied the horde of travelers. They kept jumping in taxies, but how did they get them? If I watched them hard enough, I hoped I could figure it out. I stopped and dropped my bags well away from the madness; my legs frozen, cemented to the pavement.

       As I stood there, a scary thought emerged from the permafrost of my brain. I was going to have to get a taxi BY MYSELF. I stood a dozen feet back and watched the travelers, hoping to figure out what they were doing and what steps they were taking. When I realized what I would have to do, I wanted to sink down into the pavement. I wanted to disappear. But there was nowhere to go. You see, one had to make a motion to the taxis, as seen on T.V. and in the movies. This would mandate interaction between a stranger and me. This, of course, would also require the stranger to, in fact, notice me. What if I did it wrong? What would they think? What if I tried to get their attention, and they ignored me? What then?

       Before I figured out the logistics, it got worse. After motioning to a taxi, each traveler would hand money to the Red Cap. Tips. Yes, tips were the problem here. How much was a tip? And what if I didn’t give the right tip? Then what would happen?

Buses only have a finite number of passengers. As I stood contemplating my dilemma, the number of patrons dwindled to one than none. Soon, I was the only person left. Taxis had continued to refresh themselves, and one stood ready for use, but I could not move.

       I sensed movement and snapped my gaze onto the uniformed man. His eyes bore straight at me. He is not be looking at me — I was invisible, I reasoned, and I turned my head around to find his target.

     But when I swiveled my head back front, a young man wearing a red cap stood a foot from me.

”Miss, do you need a cab?". Before I could nod, he had my bags in his hands, walking them toward the black and yellow taxi. I started running after him, then remembered the tip thing. My purse, I thought. I grabbed it but couldn’t open the clasp while jogging after my luggage.

      I panicked; my fingers felt fat, and the clasp remained closed. Money, I need money, I need money, NOW! When I arrived, my bags were already in the taxi; the cab door opened.

“Where to Miss,” he asked.

“Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan — it’s on Park, “I said, still trying to get into my purse.

“The Waldorf,” he told the driver, grabbing my right hand, “let me help you in, Miss.” I decided to let him, and he shut the door.

      I was shaking when the cab sped off, and I took a deep breath, but then realized my right hand clenched something. When I uncurled it, I was staring at a silver dollar.

      I stared at it like some kind of backwoods rustic. I was still holding onto it when the taxi pulled up to the hotel. A bellhop grabbed my luggage before I could get out of the cab. I had to run to catch up. The dollar still burning my hand. I handed it to the bellhop as a tip and watched it leave my life as fast as it had come.

****

      I had a short wait alone in the hotel apartment and jumped up when Mom flew into the room. “We only have a few minutes; your Aunt Anne is meeting us at Radio City. We are going to see the Johnny Carson Show”, Mom said, heading into the bathroom to freshen up.

    “Why don’t you put on that pretty dress you found?”

    “What? The Johnny Carson Show?” It was too late; I spoke to the closed bathroom door. Why would I even want to see this geriatric broadcast? Not only did it come on the way after my bedtime, but who in their right mind under 40 would watch it?

     “I thought it comes on late at night?” I hollered at the closed door.

     “It’s taped early in the day, that how they do it.” Came the muffled reply.

      My cousin or aunt, as my mother, decided I should refer to Anne, who was her cousin, not my aunt, who worked at Radio City doing something. Now, the something I did not know. Either my mother did not tell me, or I did not listen. For the life of me, I cannot remember. But it must have been “top drawer,” as Mother would call it. Because not only was the hotel room paid for by Anne, but tickets for the Johnny Carson Show and many other things.

       In anticipation of special outings, I bought a new summer dress, or what I thought of as a summer dress before I left California. The dress consisted of dark grey chiffon layers. It included a thick fabric lining, defeating the primary purpose of keeping the wearer cool. In fact, I could testify it made walking in eighty-degree humidity unbearable. And for reasons beyond my comprehension, my mother decided we would walk to Radio City in the mid-day heat.

      I knew walking was not a good idea because my mind swam with unlimited, unchecked, and untested knowledge of the world infused with copious and abundant unrelated facts. If only Mother bothered to ask, I could have told her walking left one open to exposure; in essence, there was nowhere to hide.

       Reassurance came as we proceeded up the sidewalk. I saw my reflection in every store window as we traipsed up the street. I decided that not only was I fat, but the dress was not me. I started feeling self-conscious. The walk took us past landmarks (pointed out by my mother, which made us even more visible to everyone we passed), pocket parks, and people with hundreds of gawking plebeians. I focused on the ground before me, thinking that no one would see me if I saw no one.

      “There it is.” Mother said. I looked up; the view put a stop to my self-loathing. As I looked, the traffic sounds became inaudible. I forgot the heat, forgot the staring masses, forgot I was fat.

      The buildings felt like canyons as they loomed overhead and around us. The marquee on the corner advertised the Rockettes at Radio City.

      Almost there, one more street to cross. New York. New York City. The Rockettes. New York! The city of dreams, the city of... Why was it so HOT? No one ever told me about the humidity in New York. California has no humidity, not like this; this was AWFUL. Why is it so hot?

     The light changed, and we crossed over to the entrance. We entered amidst a blast of welcome cold air. The lobby had no end, almost going on forever. I would not be the first or last newcomer to stand gawking, getting neck pain upon arrival.

     “Martha!” said a bouncy, well-dressed woman as she descended on us like she was ready to call in a search and rescue unit. Her chatter left no space for conversation. She marched us down long, marbled halls toward impressive-looking elevators.

Mother was beaming; Anne was one of her favorite people. She talked about her all the time. The two laughed and chatted as we ascended. Sneaking a quick sniff of my armpits behind their backs (thank god for roll on, I thought), I started thinking how bored I would be soon.

     You could hear the prattle through the closed elevator door right before it opened onto the sixth floor. It became full-blown chatter when the doors slid open. The hall appeared packed with waiting people all lined up. We hopped off the elevator, and I was sure all eyes were on us. Anne ignored everyone as she led us past the waiting public.

    We stopped at Studio 6B. A uniformed attendant checking tickets blocked the entrance.

“Is Larry here?” She asked. He nodded and motioned to an unformed usher behind him. “Please seat these two in the V.I.P. section,” she directed Larry. Anne hugged Mom, said, “Enjoy you two,” and disappeared down the hall.

       Larry led us down to a row of tiered balcony seats. They looked over a half circle of comfortable chairs near the front of the stage. An unapologetic neon sign that lit up on cue reading ‘Applause’ hung to the right off-stage. Thin red metal ashtrays lay on Johnny’s desk and dotted the room. Some visitors and crew were already using them, filling the space with clouds of white smoke.

     At last, the show began. Instead of Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis walked out. Delighted, I looked at my mom. “I love Jerry Lewis,” This was going to be OK after all. Jerry did the monologue; the applause light came on for Paul Newman, the first guest.

    “Cut!” a voice yelled from off-stage. I don’t know what I expected to happen. If we were watching T.V., a commercial would take over, but on this day, not only did I learn that in-person T.V. shows are commercial-free, but they are also filterless. You see, Jerry had a bit of a potty mouth. Off-air, he had no problem using it. I was somewhat sheltered growing up. Four-letter words had no place in my vocabulary. In fact, this was my first experience with these unnecessary colorful verbs. Let me put this into perspective. My mother told me a joke a few months back. The punch line included two four-letter words, ‘shit, and damn.’

Hearing those words from my mother was a shocker. I had no idea she could even utter such profanity, let alone know it. I still remember my incredulity upon hearing her recital.

       And as Jerry spoke, I looked sideways at her. She did not seem upset, which upset me even more. But then again, she did seem distracted by “the guest.” Oh my, the words that came out of Jerry’s mouth! But then, as with everything, I would realize years later what he said was not all THAT bad. Irregardless, my love affair with Jerry ended, and from that moment in time, I WOULD NEVER LIKE JERRY LEWIS AGAIN. In essence, I could never reconcile the actor to the man.

      My flight left at nine P.M. The last day I spent not with my mother but with a paid escort while Mom and Anne did ‘adult activities.’ I was alone when the woman arrived to pick me up at the hotel. Her first question was what did I want to see?

       Without hesitation, I said: “The Empire State Building, and can we ride on the subway?” And that is what we did. In the afternoon, I rejoined my mother. The rest became a blur, wiped away by the trauma of the next few days. All I have left is the odd photo of my mother and me in front of 7 Gracie Square. Mom said it was home to a friend of Aunt Anne’s who was to give me pointers about traveling abroad. Unfortunately, the friend was not there, and the photo is all that remains.

      Evening came, not soon enough, but too soon. At last, the clock ticked down for a day that would never end. Anne drove Mom and me to the airport so I would not have to retake the terminal bus. Kennedy airport was noisy and busy. I felt jittery, nervous, and excited at the same time.

     “I’ll meet you at the gate, Martha; I’m going to get some money exchanged for Jennifer.” I watched Anne’s back as she hurried away.

     As we navigated through the terminal, I stopped to stare at an odd-looking performance group

     “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare, hare” — the group chanted.

     “Come along, we need to find the departure gate” Mother’s voice jolted me from gawking.

     “Who are they? “

     “Some religious sect, I expect,”

     A clutch of bald white young men dressed in orange robes had set up an impromptu concert in the middle of the busy check-in concourse at Kennedy Airport. One shook a Tamborine, and another used an accordion as the group preformed, reciting the same words over and over.

      “Hare Kristna, Hare, hare,..

     ”We need to hurry. Your Aunt Ann is meeting us. Come on.” Mom said, pulling me away. “There’s your Aunt Anne now.”

 I gave the group one last look, filling my eyes and brain with questions.

      “Here, take this,” Anne said as she handed me Belgian money. I inspected the colorful pink and blue papers as she continued.       “This should be enough for train tickets and hostel fees while you are in Brussels, and be sure to register with the American consulate.” Anne told me.

     I nodded, half listening and half distracted. As I huddled with Aunt Anne and Mom waiting for the flight announcement, I stared at the dark tunnel leading to the plane, a tunnel I would walk down in minutes, knots in my stomach. My thoughts were a jumble tumbling like towels in a dryer.

     Why is the Belgian money pink? Why would anyone shave their head? Why is there air? A noted comic once did an entire set on this query. Beyond the scientific answer, except for blowing up basketballs, would anyone care, much like my last thought — Why am I here?

      I remember my classmates’ conversations contemplating the question, ‘Why are we here?’ While this question seems different from, Why is there air? Is it? Somewhere in our psyche and prepubescent minds, we decided that finding the answer to that one question would solve the turmoil of our youth and catapult us into adulthood. But I would soon find this so called ‘adulthood’, elusive, then familiar, then just plain annoying.

     So, how do you set about self-discovery without exhibiting immature traits like self-absorption and dependence on others? One way to find oneself would involve actively seeking information. By active, I mean one-on-one interaction with others from different cultures, beliefs, or life objectives without prejudice. Until that happens, our view of reality and our place in that reality will always be beyond our reach.

     I don’t know why I choose not to think about or daydream about my future trip. And as things worked, not daydreaming would make navigating the next few days and weeks easier.

    We stood together by the gate so they could be there for my departure. It felt like we had been there for hours when the loudspeaker cranked out the flight number. I moved to the boarding line, breathed, and paused as reality hit me. Turning, I looked at my mom.

    I hate these rituals, but this was different. I grabbed my mom, wanting to leave but realizing this was not a short goodbye. With her arms around me, familiar and comfortable, I took a deep breath. The scent of lavender and a tinge of cigarette smoke took me back to an earlier time when decisions were not mine, and others solved problems. For a moment, the feeling of safety, the kind only a mom can give, a feeling it’s going to be OK, warm and protected, loved—for a moment—then I felt her muscles tense. It was her signal; it was time to go. Smiling one more time. I relaxed, my arms released her, “Love you, Mom, I’ll write.”

    Still warm from Mom’s hug, a trace of her perfume lingering, I handed the stewardess my ticket and headed down the ramp onto the waiting Boeing 727. The ramp bounced a little as I stepped on the well-worn taupe carpet. As my nose filled with the smell of burnt jet fuel, my heart skipped a beat with heightened anticipation. I settled into the window seat, watching travelers load past. Warm air blew on my face from the nozzle over my head; I reached up to turn it off.

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