I stood there on the sidewalk for a moment, gripping the metal of the signpost tightly in my fists, shrinking from the fear of what others might be thinking of me as they witnessed the scene. My ass was probably bruised, but not as badly as my ego was. I was sweating a little, likely from the stress as opposed to the physical activity. Choking down the lump forming in my throat, I tried to make myself small enough to fade away.
A mere eight blocks from salvation, I considered bailing out, putting my sneakers on and carrying my skates for the remainder of the journey.
You fell down, so what? Suck it up and finish this!
My mind flashed to Mom, crying on that upper east side kitchen floor. I wished I had someone to cry with, but I was on my own. I had gotten myself up off the cold ground, now I just needed to walk myself out the “door” and not let the city or the damn skates get the better of me.
I let go of the signpost and rolled slowly forward, remaining on the sidewalk until I reached the intersection of 18th and Broadway. I stood still on the corner until the light changed and then I stepped down off of the curb, slightly battered, but intent on completing my mission. For the next block, I was cautious as I stuck close to the east side of the street.
The north end of Union Square Park was teeming with activity. From hacky-sackers bouncing their footie bean-bags and skateboarders wiping out on most of their tricks, to basket toting greenmarket browsers and acoustic guitar-thumping street performers, there were obstacles galore ahead of me. But that was the most direct route home, I decided I would take it slow.
I rolled into the park, inching ahead and leaning back into my brake the entire time. Occasionally, I actually felt it make contact with the pavers beneath me. Slowly and deliberately, I skated past the greenmarket vendors’ booths and around a ragtag little band of acoustic guitar, harmonica and bucket. They were playing something familiar, was it a Grateful Dead tune? Bob Dylan? It was nothing I had ever played, but it rang a bell.
At fifteen I officially became a part of Mom’s rehearsals. She had been playing with a local Long Island cover band that wanted to add another female singer. Mom suggested they give me a shot. “My daughter sings. We sing together all the time”, she told them.
The band loved the idea of the mother/daughter act gimmick. My mom loved the idea of not having to compete with a new singer that she didn’t know. I was instantly accepted into the fold. I didn’t even have to audition.
The band added me onto a gig they had in May of my Sophomore year of High School. I sang two songs, “I Will Survive” and “The Rose”. The rest of the time I stood on the stage, sang some background vocals, and mimicked my mother’s movements. At the end of the night the bandleader handed me eighty dollars. I knew then that show business was for me.
Weekends became filled with gigs in lounges and bars that I wouldn’t have been allowed into had I not been in the band. I wore fancy sequined dresses and uncomfortable shoes and strapless bras. Mom and I always matched. We rehearsed once a week with the band and I learned an extensive repertoire. Eventually, my stepdad joined us on bass.
Towards the end of senior year, I was hired by a band that played big events and expensive weddings in the city. I still played with my parents on Long Island through my early years at NYU, but I preferred my Manhattan gigs. I got to meet up with my friends at our local college bar, The Jolly Roger, after them. It was so much easier (and cooler) than commuting to Long Island. Sometimes I would show up at the bar still wearing my cocktail dress and heels, wielding my mic stand and small bag of gear. I was showing off and I don’t think anyone was fooled.
Skating past that little band in Union Square, I thought about how much better I was than those kids in the park, because I had real, paying gigs. That’s how professionalism had been defined to me, a paycheck. That determined one’s worth. I didn’t consider that the bucket band might be enjoying making music together without thinking about the reward. I had no respect for the hobbyist musician.
As I made my way downtown towards the park’s southern border at 14th street (one of the largest subway hubs and most popular meeting spots in New York) the crowd began, again, to thicken. I looked ahead. Not just a foot or two, but all the way, scanning the bustling section of Union Square for the perfect route. I charted my course. I calculated. It was like I plugged myself into the city in that moment.
I took a deep breath and mustered my courage. I started slowly, but gained a bit of momentum when I realized I was successfully anticipating the movements of my fellow New Yorkers. The crowd seemed to be with me. They seemed to sense my every move, just as I was trying to divine theirs. It was like they wanted to see me get home unscathed.
The walk signal at fourteenth clicked on at just the right time and I was out of the park and back on Broadway. I had four blocks to go and then I could take these godforsaken skates off. I could tell everyone I’d done it and I never had to do it again. But if I was going to be a success in this town I was going to have to deal with people. A lot of people. And they were probably going to be in my way.
The signals and the traffic seemed to be timed just for me. The city seemed to see me coming and opened for me like the automated door at the grocery. So I pressed forward and gained more speed. Hopping back up onto the sidewalk, I maneuvered around garbage bags and cut perfect curves passing antique-seeking shoppers. The iconic spires on Grace Church came into view on my left. The same spires I could see from my suite-mates’ window in our 10th floor rooms. I had made it!
I turned right onto 10th street and rolled through the smoke cloud from the cigarette-sneaking freshmen outside my dorm. I leaned back into my squat and applied gentle pressure to my right skate’s braking mechanism. I slowed and rolled into the foyer. Digging in deeper to the brake, I slowed down even more. This time to a perfect, controlled stop. I didn’t even grab onto the front desk to do it.
Hector was on the door. It was shortly after shift change and he was just starting his day. Hector had been the overnight guard first semester, so he’d seen us at our worst. And by worst, I mean drunkest.
My friend Liz, who I had met on the first day of classes, was fluent in Spanish and Italian from her time spent living overseas. (Her parents worked for the government, it was all very cloak and dagger). She was used to having a doorman, I was not. She made a point of befriending Hector early on.
Whenever Liz ran to the deli she would ask Hector if he needed anything. The two of them used to carry on long conversations in Spanish when we were coming in from the bar. I would stand and smile and try to follow the conversation with only my eighth grade Spanish knowledge and the relaxed looseness of a good buzz to help. I was happy for Hector when they moved him to the earlier shift, but I’d miss our late night pow wows.
I paused in front of him to let my victory sink in. I was dying to share it. “I did it, Hector! I made it”, my exclamation a celebration of life. He wasn’t sure what to make of my revelry, so he offered me a resounding “Muy bien chica, you rock”! He had no idea what I was talking about, but Hector was a very positive guy, so whatever I did he was going to tell me I rocked. “Check you later”, I said with a smile as he buzzed me in.
I was mentally patting myself on the back as I rolled through the unlocked door to the lobby and over to the elevator which was just opening to let some of my fellow students out.
After rolling through the sliding door behind them, I immediately removed my skates. My feet instinctively relaxed into the floor of the elevator. Curling my toes into the industrial carpet lining the Otis-built box felt like returning to earth after an intergalactic exploration. I was back to whisper-singing by the time the door slid open again on my floor. Still in just my socks, I shuffled down the hall to the corner suite that housed my four roommates and me.
The place was empty when I entered, a rare occasion in a five person suite, one that I usually relished. But today it meant that no one was there to receive the conquering hero. I was disappointed. On the elevator ride I’d already begun replaying my adventure in my mind, attempting to craft the perfect tale of my triumph over the mean streets of the inner city. It wouldn’t be the same after I’d had time to recover, to catch my breath.
I put my rollerblades in the closet and stared at them for a long moment. They had not become the instant symbol of my independence I’d wanted them to. (I wouldn’t be ditching my Metrocard any time soon). They didn’t look as cool anymore or as promising as they had uptown and with no one in house to “ooh and ahh”, my own feeling of accomplishment receded just a bit.
Sweat was still sticking to my skin, so I grabbed my towels and robe and headed to our suite’s shared bathroom, a place that had become my sanctuary. Besides my oversized closet, it was the only sliver of privacy I had.
As I waited for the water to heat up and the bathroom to fill with steam, I peeled off my sweaty clothes. Contorting my naked body, I tried to get a view of the bruise that might be forming, but the angle of the mirror wouldn’t allow me visual confirmation.
I got into the shower and stood in the quiet safety of the hot water for a little too long reliving my odyssey. The pressure was steady and strong. I let it flow over my shoulders, down my back and over my sore right cheek. I arched my back and tilted my head into the shower’s stream to allow it to soak through my hair to my scalp. I let it run onto my face.
I thought about the old man I’d hit and how I’d reacted to his verbal attack with a counter attack. Without fear. Shouldn’t I have been afraid? Should I have been more sorry? He was in my way, standing in the street, too slow to avoid my onslaught. How is that my fault?
Still unsure of what my freedom ride had accomplished, I turned off the water and stepped out through the plastic curtain. I was never going to tell anyone, but I did feel guilty about screaming at an old man, so I pushed the guilt way down deep inside and told myself that exchanges like that were par for the course.
I’m a New Yorker now and New York waits for no man. This city pushes aside what’s old to make room for what’s new.
Even the building I was standing in had once been a grand hotel. Now it was a dorm that packed five students in a room. There were stories of the ghosts of those that used to frequent the penthouse speakeasy floating down the halls, but I never witnessed any apparitions. Maybe they were just quick enough to get out of my way, to make room for the future.
After toweling down and donning my robe, I flipped on the stereo and selected disc three in the five disc changer, Green Day’s “Dookie”. I skipped ahead to track 10.
I heard you crying loud. All the way across town.
I turned up the volume on our suite’s “get psyched” song, a must-play before any night out, usually on repeat.
You’ve been searching for that someone and it’s me out on the prowl as you sit around feeling sorry for yourself.
Singing along to the words I knew and mumbling over the ones I couldn’t decipher, I slid into my favorite pair of jeans and donned a simple white v-neck t-shirt. As a 90’s-era finishing touch, I tied an oversized and colorful cotton Aeropostal sweater around my waist.
I squished a handful of gel into my hair, and went straight for my rich roommate’s closet where several pairs of Gucci sandals (in my size) resided. I slipped my feet into a hot pink pair. They felt divine!
No time to search the world around, ‘cause you know where I’ll be found. When I come around!
Coming back to life, I danced my way over to the mirror, swiped on just enough makeup to make me look like I wasn’t wearing any makeup and topped off my look with a dark lip color.
As the song’s opening lick kicked in for the third time, I called Liz and suggested we meet in the lobby so I could relay the tale of my harrowing journey over whiskeys at the Jolly Roger. I swapped the Gucci’s for my own Doc Marten’s before heading out and letting the door slam shut behind me.