I never lived in a big city when I lived in New York State so any trip to the City brought me a sense of excitement, anticipation, adventure and a dash of wonder. Some of the memories are of class trips to museums and planetariums and once to the Opera. When I was 14 and a freshman in high school, a class trip took us to the NY World’s Fair. I remember the Ford exhibit, Disney’s Small World, some other exhibits and Jessie and I began hanging out because we had found a compelling reason to become good friends — we both smoked. Just when we found a cigarette machine, another couple of girls came over to us. I said to Jessica something to the effect of ‘oh, no’ and she whispered to me that one of the girls also smoked. This third person heard her name spoken and inched over closer.
“I do what?”,
“Oh. So does she,” referring to the other girl.
And so began our friendship, a happily puffing foursome, though I do remember we did our happy puffing in semi-protected spots always on watch for someone from our school, especially a teacher. My neck was achy later that night from playing a guilty turtle on her way into her shell. We hung out together for quite a while, and then something happened that rather weakened the friendship. We met a couple of boys. I think they were a year or so older than we were and pretty cute. The six of us wandered for a bit and the guys moved in on the ones they had chosen. A while later the two unpicked girls peeled off leaving the boys with Jess and me. We found Bourbon Street, every snack bar in our paths, and sweaty hand-holding. Jessie and I had a deadline for getting back to our schoolbus and we ended up running, still holding the hands of our one-day boyfriends, reaching the bus with just enough time to have a kiss and a hug in full view of our classmates. The long trip home was the time for feeling exhilarated and a little triumphant. Bad me. I did gloat a little. We neither saw nor spoke to them again, but we had our memories.
I have previously written about going to the city once with Jessica and her mother and sister. After that Jessie and I went several times on our own. A lot of things happened on our various trips, but what happened on which day gets pretty muddled in my mind. We met some really sweet guys and some really nasty ones. We were hit on frequently. If it was convenient we went with the flow just to see what would happen. We frequently had decided on our plans ahead of time, and if the guys were not going our way then we nicely but firmly bid them farewell. There is one day, though. that remains fairly intact in my memory.
We said good-bye to whichever parent had driven us to the train station in Katonah. bought our round-trip ticket, boarded our train, and headed to Grand Central Station. This day we went to the library (huge!) and found some material copy-worthy for whatever report we had to do, made our copies, crammed them into our respective purses, and headed for the nearest subway station. Jessie could read the maps. I am so directionally challenged I could never figure out which way to go or even where we were. Once I was underground, I was absolutely, entirely and utterly lost. But with my best friend by my side I knew we’d reach our goal. This day we were going to Coney Island.
Ah, Coney Island! I’d heard about it so much about it, and never been there before. The sun was shining, the sky was as blue as it could be on the east coast – smog, don’t you know – and we were young. I even remember what I was wearing! It was a dress my mother had made for me, an A-line mini-dress with a paramecium print, predominantly yellow and green with black and white adding definition and accents. I can’t quite visualize the shoes, but I remember my earrings. They were from a set of different colors of half-balls that popped onto the dangling part of the earrings (clip-ons). I did one side green and one side yellow to match my dress and felt all fashionable and stuff. We began to stroll through the amusement park trying to see everyone and everything at once. We made our way up to a stand to get something to drink, and turning away from there we came face to face with a group of boys around our age. There were four of them and two of us. Perfect! At the time we didn’t refer to them as boys, as we felt ourselves to be too sophisticated to be hanging out with “kids.” Nor did we think of them as men, not even young men. Men were those older ones who were probably married with children. Young men were people’s little brothers dressed up in a suit and tie for the first time. No, we called them “guys.”
Guys were the males of our age or maybe a few years older. Guys rode motorcycles (loved them), sometimes wore leather (loved it), sometimes wore English Leather (LOVED it), drove or had a friend who did, and could keep up with us on the dance floor (not all that easy!). We never did learn if these guys did any of those things, but it really didn’t matter. They were gorgeous! We made our introductions and made an interesting discovery. One spoke English fairly well. One spoke some English hesitantly. They all spoke Italian. They were first generation Italians who lived in an Italian neighborhood and didn’t have much need for English. As we headed to the roller-coaster, the famous Cyclone, we naturally paired off. Jessie got the English speaker, I was claimed by the one who spoke some of my language, and the other two just followed along looking for girls of their own. Makes us sound like puppies.
The first thing I saw after being seated was the sign above us directing us to remove all items from our top pockets, and warning about some items of jewelry if memory serves. I removed my dangling spheres, stashed them firmly in the bottom of my purse, and wrapped both arms around the safety bar in front of me. The cars started with a rattle and a couple of jerks (not us), and I spent the rest of the ride alternating between terror and exhilaration, between feeling sick and feeling wonderfully alive! When the ride ended it was hard to unwrap my arms from the bar and once I had let go and disembarked I found my legs were a touch wobbly. My friend asked if I was okay. I answered, “Let’s do it again!”
We spent the next couple of hours on the beach being athletic show-offs. I, in my mini-dress and bare feet, won the long jump. Mostly we admired each other with a gentle wrestling match thrown in now and then. Communication was slow, a matter of guessing what was being said and trying to simplify until we reached an understanding. My guy wrote my phone number down and we parted ways. He called me from a pay phone a few times after that day to ask when I was coming back, but when he told me he had to see me again, I asked him why. He responded with emotion, “It’s about love!” I don’t remember what I said then but I never saw nor heard from him again.
Jessie and I left the beautiful guys and headed back to Grand Central. We had a car to ourselves initially. Most of the seats are in rows perpendicular to the sides but we chose one with the back against the side of the train. With the seat at a forty-five degree angle to ours being empty, Jessica placed her coat on it, stashing her purse under the coat.. A few stops later, a nicely dressed man somewhere in the vicinity of sixty boarded the subway. With all the empty seats in the car, only one would do – the one by us. He seated himself, bowed his head in our direction and struck up a conversation with Jessie. He avoided my eye to keep both of his on my friend. After an introduction was made in which Jess included me and he did not, he invited her to dinner. Just her.
“Denise and I are here together. I don’t want to leave her alone.”
“She’s a big girl. She can take care of herself,” he replied gruffly.
“Then I have to decline your invitation, sir!”
In retrospect I am entertained by his desire for the exploitation of Jessie running head on into our desire for a free meal. Users all.
Jessica suddenly noticed his hand creeping slowly under the edge of her coat. She, appearing calm and unhurried, reached under her coat from our side and slid her purse out, casually looking in it for anything that would explain her looking in it, finally locating her chapstick. She ran the tube over her lips a few times, and put it back in her purse which she then closed up and set in the small space between us. Standing up for a few seconds, she put on her coat. Old Guy, a.k.a. Older Man, again began talking to Jess about the nice restaurants he could take her but before he could once again attempt to lure her into his lair, another person boarded the subway car. The new guy looked around at the nearly empty car and made a beeline for the empty seat next to Old Guy. Guy had to maneuver over Old Guy’s leg to get into the inner seat. Leaning forward a little, and nearly touching Jessie with his knees, he acknowledged both of us. The good thing about this was the derailing of Old Guy’s plans. The look on Old Guy’s face was priceless, causing us to clamp down on the giggles wanting to escape. The downside was, well, everything else.
Guy was somewhere around twenty, maybe. His hair was greasy, his clothes were shabby, his teeth were blackened or missing, his lips were crusted and brown, and he stank, stinked, stunk, and smelled bad besides! He began to try to engage us in conversation and the first whiff of his alcohol-soaked and rotting breath woke up my gag reflex. We couldn’t help it. A few giggles and a snort got loose. Jessica bit down a little on her index finger to try to get control.
Guy: Why do you have your finger in your mouth. Did you hurt it?
Jessie: (removes finger from mouth) No. I just like to do it. (replaces finger, bites harder)
Guy: Why do you like it?
Jessie: (around finger) Cuzsh it tashtsh good.
Guy: Let me taste it!
Okay, we let out some strangled noises despite our intentions. I spent the duration of the conversation trying to do the turtle thing, keeping the guffaws completely internal. The outward signs of them were shaking shoulders and tears running down my face
Guy: What are you laughing at?
Jessie: We just remembered something funny that happened this morning.
Guy (looking suspicious): Are you girls laughing at me?
Jessie: Um-mmm. ( grabs her purse and starts looking through it desperately)
Guy: I hope your not laughing at me. I have a knife you know. Yeah, I just got out of jail for stabbing someone who laughed at me!
That did it for us. The train had just stopped at a station. The doors next to us opened. We waited, and without any apparent communication we together jumped up and out the doors just a nanosecond before they closed. We didn’t wait to see what was happening back in the car. We just started running, laughing and running. When finally out of breath and feeling secure, we slowed down and came to a stop to light up, of course. While we stood there a vertically challenged bag lady approached us, walking bent over to one side with a slow gait that reminded me of a crab’s walk.
Bag Lady: Girls, do you have a cigarette you can spare?
Me: Sure. Do you want a Marlboro or a Salem?
BL: Marlboro, please.
I pulled one out of my purse and held it out to her,
BL: Throw it on the floor.
BL: Throw it on the floor, please, miss.
I tossed it on the sidewalk between us. Bag Lady slowly bent down while walking about halfway around the coffin nail, thereby screwing herself down close enough to the “floor” to pick up her cigarette. She straightened herself up to her normal bend.
BL: Do you have a match?
Me: (pulling a book from my purse) Sure!
Bag Lady: Throw it on the floor please, miss.
I tossed, we ran, and eventually stopped and laughed and laughed. We had left the subway long before our stop and were in heretofore unknown territory. The street had four lanes and, to our astonishment, almost no traffic. A large black man wearing what to us was flamboyant clothing was standing across the street. There was barely a breeze in this concrete canyon so when he called across the street to us we could hear him well.
Big Man: (bright smile) Hello, ladies. How might you be on this fine day?
One of us: (sounding for all the world like a foreign language dialogue) Fine, thank you. How are you?
Big Man: (huge smile) Are you girls looking for work? Need a place to stay? I can help you out with anything you need.
Us: No, we’re just visiting here today.
Bid Man: (Big Hungry Smile). But if you need anything, I’ll help you out. Just ask for N***** Chris. Anyone can tell you where to find me.
He smiled some more and waved. We were already running. We were shocked, not only because he’d said the “n” word, but also because he called himself N-word Chris, like that was his given name! Being the smart (yes) and sophisticated (NO) baby women we were it took a while for it to sink in – I think it was over dinner – that Chris Big Man was a pimp! Oh my goodness! And he was inviting us to add to his profits. If we hadn’t been really hungry we might have jumped up from the food and started running again.
Later, back on the train heading for home sweet home, Jessie and I were exhausted and all those unused giggles kept rising up and drowning us in hilarity, the hilarity of the young, the invincible, the unbelievably lucky. Ah, Jessica. I miss you so.