Some people think it’s ugly here. I used to agree. I would go on and on about how I would never live here by choice and how I would move away as soon as I got the chance. I did. At the age of 16, I moved from a kind of small town to Long Island, New York. I enrolled myself in William Floyd High School and found a part time job at Fashion Explosion, a clothing store.
Before the trip, I had never been on a plane or train. The extent of my world travels was limited to the passenger seat of a car and the Greyhound bus with my mom once. While Long Island is more than an hour away from the actual city– that’s what New Yorkers would call NYC. It was just “the city” to them. I would ask the kids at school if they went to the city and was surprised at how many had never ventured more than a few miles outside of their hometown. How could they live within a short distance from such an electric place and not ever been there? I wouldn’t be one of them.
I would call home and tell everyone about riding the subway without care of getting lost. I was too naive to be afraid. Most people kept their eyes fixed straight ahead, a few slept or chatted with someone they were travelling with. It was obvious I wasn’t from New York. I was fascinated with the views outside the subway windows that the other riders had long become tired of. I would walk to a bus stop, take the Long Island train to the subway and hop on with little more than just fare to get me somewhere and back. I never figured out the schedules and didn’t even try planning trips. With my poor sense of direction, it would have been pointless. There was no rhyme or reason to how I spent the days travelling about. I would listen to other passengers talk about where they were going or see something interesting up ahead and that’s where I would go. I ended up in Coney Island once, me and my little son. The only thing I knew about Coney Island is that they had rides there, a boardwalk and the hotdogs were supposed to be good.
I followed the sights, sounds and smells. Maps were of no use to me. This hasn’t improved with age. My brain learns a different way– I have to do something, really experience it and then I’ll never forget it. I memorized the path to many places I would visit every chance I got. One of those places was a huge swap meet in Jamaica, Queens. It was an underground market that you could enter from several different streets that sloped into another world. I was lost in youth and suffered from the immunity of reason.
I never made it to the Statue of Liberty and was conflicted about Ellis Island. How could a place that welcomed generations of immigrants be a celebrated and honored place here? Even the names so precious that glass cases protected the books the names were recorded on. My place, the place that marked my father’s crossing was dark and anonymous– the story only celebrated among close family. I was only beginning to explore how I felt about the great differences and still unaware of how much those unexamined feelings were shaping who I was becoming. No, I did not want to see Ellis Island and my jealousy would not allow me to visit Lady Liberty.
I walked in Times Square and on a crisp fall afternoon, I made my way to the Museum of Natural History. The story of the world before man spread out before us. My son pressed his nose against the glass, I did too until a man from the museum told us to stop it. Images from that day are some of the clearest of all the days I have lived so far. We hopped up the massive concrete stairs on the way up to the entrance like rabbits. When it was time to leave the rabbits hopped a little slower.
With dinosaurs still fresh in our minds, we found our way to a huge set of rocks in Central Park. We climbed around and I chased him. I don’t remember much about the people we saw, just that there were so many. I remember one man, an old man. I was 16 and anyone near 30 seemed old to me. Imagine my horror when I crossed into old age several years ago. The man told me I had a beautiful family. He said to enjoy it. He turned his head and went back to thinking. There he remains seared in my memories along with the dinosaurs and rabbit hopping stairs. His words were simple but carried a weight I couldn’t understand at the time.
I came back. I’ve left other times over the years but I always come back. When I would hear my daughter say she was getting as far away from this dry land, my heart would fall– only for a minute. Then I remembered she has to. She has to take the test and see if this place is really for her. I want her to travel and go to places she can speak all the languages she learned. I want all of my children to go farther and higher than I ever dared to dream.
My children know my story. Each year on their birthdays, as they entered their teen years, I would think how different their lives are from mine when I was that age. At 15 I was a mother. When Vanessa turned 17 my son asked me if it was true I had two children when I was her age. I told him yes, I had two kids at the time and I also had two jobs. These are facts. It is neither good or bad, it is the truth. My truth and my story.
Something pulled me back here. The same things that propelled me away, called me to return. This is my place. They will find their own in time. People that know me from those early days say I am a fighter. I don’t dispute that. I will fight. The difference now is that I stopped fighting for the wrong things.
Artwork by me inspired by the travels of a stubborn young girl.