Memories of New York

Ron Karpinski  1999


My wife, Irmi, is quite taken with New York City.  She would move there in a heartbeat, for the right job.  For the life of her, she cannot understand why I am not also infatuated with the place.

Our situation reminds me of Aunt Virginia and Uncle Charley.  Back in the 1960's, Aunt Virginia attended several real estate conventions in New York.  She begged Charley to go with her; but he always declined, saying, "I saw New York in the 1930's, when it was great, and I don't want to ruin those memories."

I have memories of New York, too, and I also want them to remain just as they are. Like Charley, I wouldn't change a thing.  In fact, Charley caused my trip to New York, in the first place.  Since he refused to go, Aunt Virginia collared me.

In July 1968, the army posted me to Fort Dix, New Jersey, a short distance from New York.  One Saturday morning, Aunt Virginia phoned and asked me to meet her downtown for dinner.  I agreed and caught the next bus for the big city.

Her instructions were clear: we would meet at five o'clock on the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street; but, two blocks from the bus station, I became lost.

It's easy to lose your way in New York City.  One wrong turn, and I found myself wandering through a maze of tenement buildings each ten stories high.  In the sweltering heat, many occupants had escaped out onto small iron balconies.

Someone from above threw a pretzel at me, a large and hard two-day-old brick.  My freshly starched army khaki's must have offended them.  The five-inch missile whizzed past my ear and put a good-sized dent in a car parked at the curb.

Those pretzels are hawked on every street corner in New York, so there was no telling how many more my unseen attacker might have had up there.  He also commanded the high ground, so I had only one real option: run like a gazelle.

Soon, I stumbled back onto Broadway and turned north.  After several blocks, 42nd Street loomed ahead.  Traffic sped past, while a horde of pedestrians waited at the curb.  Then, the lights changed, and a curious thing happened.

In most cities, when people cross the street, they use the marked crosswalk, but not in New York.  Oh, New Yorkers walk within the stripes, all right; but they also traverse diagonally, spilling onto the pavement like water over a dam.

The result is a surging sea of humanity struggling in all directions at the same time.  I scanned the intersection, looking for Aunt Virginia, but the prospect of picking her out of this mob seemed hopeless.  Then something caught my eye.

On the opposite corner, a lone head bobbed a foot above the undulating wave.  A hand rose in the air and beckoned.  It was Aunt Virginia!

Off we walked, arm-in-arm.  That night, we ate at the Hotel Americana, in the Royal Box.  Sandler and Young performed, and we got tipsy on grasshoppers.

Around ten o'clock, I escorted Aunt Virginia home.  She was staying with her daughter and son-in-law who lived in a brownstone up on 96th Street.

That part of town is a long way from 42nd Street, so we took the subway.  Although crowded, the ride passed pleasantly enough, in a family-like atmosphere.

After bidding Aunt Virginia good night, I returned to the subway, the same stop we had left ten minutes before.  Strange, on the trip uptown, a jovial policeman rode in every car.  Now, not a single officer of the law could be seen.

In fact, the station was deserted; and there I stood, in my army uniform, a billboard for every mugger in the area.  Then it happened.  Two young thugs arrived on the scene.

They took up positions at the far end of the platform, opposite of where I stood.  For ten long minutes, they shadowboxed and joked between themselves, stealing glances down at me.  I just knew they had knives.

The newspaper headline for the following day had already formed in my mind: "Mangled Body of Unknown Soldier Discovered on Lonely Stretch of Subway Tracks."  A loud screech broke my reverie, as the train pulled in.

I hopped aboard the nearest car.  In through the other door bounced the two thugs.  A second later, the doors slammed shut, and the train pulled out.  Now that they had me alone, they would probably make their move.

Deep underground, the train passed within inches of the tunnel wall.  At each successive stop, the car halted, the doors flew open for a few seconds, then closed, and the train pulled out again.  No one got off, and no one else got on.  I thought about jumping off, but each station looked just as deserted as the last.

The two thugs shucked and jibed at the far end of the car, while I stared anxiously.  Could my fears have been unfounded?  Were these guys really vicious hoodlums or just ordinary young men like me?  Maybe they were scared, too.

We will never know.  The train slowed around a bend, and the main station came into view.  The crisis passed, and I lived to see another day.

Years ago, Uncle Charley seemed to be just an old fuddy-duddy; but I understand him a lot better now.  There comes a time in every man's life when he has seen enough of this world and yearns for nothing more than to stay in one place for a while.

Irmi can beg all she wants, but I will never return to New York City.  I was there in the 1960's, when it was great, and I don't want to ruin those memories.

I escaped with my life back then, and I don't want to push my luck.


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