Most of my stories so far have been about the drunken and/or mentally ill misfits who approach me on public transport. Well, this story is a bit different. In this one, I’m the crazy person, thrusting my unwelcome presence upon passers-by.
It’s 2005 and I’m in New York City. I’m nineteen years old and I’m all alone. It’s the fifth month of my first solo around-the-world backpacking extravaganza, and by this point I would describe my mental state as “shaky”. I am very, very tired. I miss Australia, where I knew the names of the streets and people thanked the bus drivers. On top of all this, plus the usual teenage angst, I miss my boyfriend horribly. I met him earlier in my travels, but we had to part ways for a couple of weeks while I went on my scheduled trip to Canada and he went to Niagara Falls to visit relatives. I know if I can just be reunited with the boyf, this trip will start to be fun again instead of very, very lonely. On this day, in New York City, I am about to board a train that will take me to Buffalo and subsequently to my boyfriend.
There is just one problem.
I have no freaking idea where the train is.
This is in the days before iPhones; Google Maps was only invented a few months ago. All I have is an old ‘analog’ street map that I’m too scared to take out of my backpack lest I get stabbed. (You might think this is an overreaction to New York’s reputation for ‘mean streets’. I might have agreed with you, if I didn’t know that just a few days earlier a baby was stabbed in broad daylight not three blocks from where I was staying. A baby. Think what they would do to a tourist.) The sidewalk is streaming with surly New Yorkers who push past me and buffet me around. It’s as if there’s some kind of angry salmon migration going on and I’m the lone tuna everyone wishes would just leave.
According to the address I have for the train station, I should be looking at the entrance right now. But all I can see is a solid stone wall. There isn’t anything resembling a door. I walk carefully around the corner, checking for any possible signs of an entrance. Nothing. Maybe this is like Platform Nine and Three Quarters, and I need to take a running start at the wall? (This is before iPhones but after Harry Potter.) I don’t know what to do. My watch says I’ve only got 15 minutes before my train leaves. It’ll take me ages to walk there while juggling my backpack and 25-kilo duffel bag. And I haven’t even found the train station yet! This is too much.
Desperate, I attempt to make contact with the angry salmon.
“Excuse me? Please? Um, help?” I try to ask passing New Yorkers for help, but they move too fast. I only get half a sentence out before they’re already disappearing into the crowd.
“Do you know where–” ZRROOOOM and they’re gone.
In Australia you might, at worst, be delicately ignored. (Excluding central Sydney, where they hate life and everyone who takes part in it.) If people don’t want to help you, they will just pretend that you don’t exist. But New Yorkers are vocal. They do not have the time to give you directions, but they will take the time to tell you to fuck right off. This level of rudeness is still new to me, and I can’t help tearing up a little. Great. Now I’m lost in New York, wearing a backpack with an Anne of Green Gables souvenir patch on it, and starting to cry. Then I spot a policeman standing at a nearby intersection. His dark blue NYPD uniform is a signal of hope. I stumble up to him.
“Excuse me, I — sniff — can’t find the train station — blubber.” I talk to his feet, trying to make out shapes through the tears. The policeman listens stoically, then begins to rattle off a list of directions. I look up in shock. Someone is speaking to me. He must notice that my mouth is hanging open, because he starts to repeat the directions. I stare at his mouth, watching his jaw go up and down. Something about turning left, and a corridor, or something. At some point I notice that he’s stopped talking. The cop is frowning, and looking over his shoulder. Then, something amazing happens.
The cop picks up my heavy duffel bag and says “Follow me”. It takes me a minute to register, and by that point he’s nearly out of sight. I sprint to catch up. He leads me to a previously invisible stairwell set in the side of an alley. It feels like I’m being led into the magical land of Narnia. Push aside some coats and there it is! The secret world of the train station. Mr Cop strides through the labyrinth of underground corridors with ease, and pretty soon we’re approaching a bank of turnstiles. I panic, searching for my subway ticket. The cop, however, simply nods to the woman running the security booth next to the turnstiles, and a giant metal gate swings open for us. The cop strides through, still carrying my bag, and I skitter after him. No tickets validated, no words exchanged. Just a nod, and doors open. I marvel at his power.
We’re booking it down a busy corridor when the policeman suddenly halts in his tracks. I nearly run into the back of him. He puts my bag at my feet and points to a doorway.
“Your train is through there. I can’t take you any further.” He slides a look over the crowd, and I notice a few policemen further down the corridor. Mr Cop looks back at me and gives me the corner of a smile. “I’m not supposed to be helping young women find their train platforms.”
I squeak something that sounds like “Thanks”. I’m unspeakably grateful, and feel like I should take a moment to acknowledge what a kind thing he has done for me. But Mr Cop is already turning on his heel and marching away. I stand there for a moment, dazed. Then my mind jumps into action. THE TRAIN! I pelt down the corridor and through the doorway. I race onto the train platform, where my train is just about to pull away. After flicking a ticket at someone, I fling my bag into the carriage and vault across the gap.
I made it!
Ah, the sweet sounds of wheels clicking on the tracks, carrying me closer to Buffalo and my boyfriend. I settle back in my seat and rest my cheek on the cold window, thinking the hardest part of the journey is done.
Little do I know …