A friend reminded me last night (and you know who you are, Wendy) that it is, after all, only April. She was asking me about my vegetable garden, and how it was faring. I said, “Well, they’re not dead, but they’re not exactly growing like crazy, either. I’m so anxious, I want something to happen, I need a vegetable to arrive.” She laughed. “Remember, it’s only April,” she said gently. “We’ve got a lot of sunshine coming, a long way to go.”
Huh. It had not occurred to me until just then that we had such a long way to go before a vegetable arrives. In typical impatient person’s fashion, I had awakened every morning since beginning the garden in late February thinking that today was the day, the Day Something Would Happen. Yet nothing ever did. And just like that, standing in a swarm of mosquitoes at my son’s soccer game last night, it hit me: it is only April. We have a long way to go before anything arrives.
I arrived in New York City September 9, 1995, a little more than a month before my twenty-third birthday. I vividly remember turning to see my family’s outline at the large windows of the two-gate airport in Evansville, Indiana as I walked out to the tarmac, standing like statues in their wholesome summer clothes, their hands waving wildly. Inside, they had wished me luck, and given me hugs; my mom had mentioned “going for it,” forcing a smile. I had said I would be back soon to visit, and I meant it. I turned away from the windows to board, and carefully climbed the stairs to the tiny plane. I crouched down low and scooted down the aisle, finding my seat. The door slammed shut behind me, and in an instant, a metal barrier separated me from the cornfields, the fresh faces, the smorgasbords - I was alone. The Midwestern air, warm and billowing under me like a pillow, cradled the airplane into the sky and I floated upward, onward: headed East.
When I landed at LaGuardia many hours later, it was a humid, dark purple twilight full of strangers. I unloaded my large, awkward, single duffle bag off the carousel, and wandered out through tired-looking automatic doors to the outside of the terminal, which looked like it had been dipped in rotting food containers and grit. I was not sure where I was going.
To the right, I saw a long line of cabs that swirled around the corner of the terminal and into infinity, yellow after yellow after yellow. I walked toward them. Inside the pocket of my pink gingham sundress was a slip of college-ruled notebook paper with my new address on it: 5-24 49th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens. I had spoken to my future roommate, Leslie, the afternoon before, and she’d given me the address. “Tell them Long Island City, take Vernon Avenue.” She had sounded so confident, having taken many cabs, so many cabs, in the three months since she’d been in the city. “No problem,” she said, and I believed her.
I waited for forty-five minutes in the line for a taxi, and when it was finally my turn I was relieved. The driver hopped out when he saw my giant bag and threw it – literally threw it like a baseball – into the trunk of the car. The inside of the cab smelled like incense and onions.
“Allo. Where you go?” I pulled out the paper and carefully unfolded it.
“5-24 49th Avenue.”
“Long Island City.”
“You going to Long Island tonight? I do not go to Long Island.”
“No, it’s in Queens.”
“Oh, Queens. Okay.”
And with that, with the word ‘Queens’, which seemed to make everything okay, the driver, with his aubergine skin and a missing front tooth, slammed his foot onto the gas pedal and we were off, Formula One-style, into the night. Smoke poured out the tailpipe into my first night in New York.
The windows were down as we boarded the crumbling highway, and the wind whipped around my head like strong ropes. Without turning around, the cabbie screamed at me, “How do you want me to go?”
“How do you want me to go?”
Was he playing with me? What did he mean?
“Excuse me.” I leaned forward, the wind blowing so hard around my head that I thought I couldn’t hear him. I leaned into the front seat, next to his right ear. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He laughed nervously, and turned his head away from the highway to look at me. “Which highway to take?”
“I don't know.” I don’t know. All I could think were those three words, I don’t know. I have no idea. Leslie had said he would know how to get there, I’d told him all the information I knew. “I don’t know. I just got here, I’m not from here, and this was all the information I was given.”
He said, “Uh-oh.” My heart started doing little rabbit-jumps. We pulled off the highway at the first exit and pulled onto a crusty street overflowing with people and businesses, McDonald’s and a 7-11. As soon as we were stopped, he turned around to look at me. “I am a new cabbie. I do not know where 5-24 49th Avenue is. I will call my friend.” He got out of the car and put a quarter into a payphone. He left the meter on.
I watched him from the backseat of the taxi, this stranger who’d only said about 15 words to me, the most forceful of which had been “uh-oh,” talk on the payphone to whoever he was talking to, laughing and nodding his head vigorously. This was the first time I’d noticed how large he was, how strong and wide. My knees began to shake a little. I had no idea what to do.
After a ten-minute phone conversation, he got back into the cab. “I know your address,” he said confidently. He pulled a toothpick out of the ashtray and stuck it in his missing front tooth.
We drove around what I believe to be Queens for another 45 minutes. It was completely dark by now, and the streets we circled over and over were 36th, 37th, and 38th Avenues. But after 38th, the streets changed from numbers to names, and there were no forties at all. I was in full-blown panic, I didn’t know where I was or how to get there. I could imagine this man easily lifting me out of the car for some unutterable horror, tossing me over a bridge into a river when he was through with me. Stealing my money, taking my bag, rape, murder. The list of things to worry about, being a fresh-off-the-plane Midwestern girl driving around in a taxi in Queens with a stranger who doesn’t speak English or know where he’s going, is endless.
“Stop the car!” I yelled to him when I saw a payphone on an unknown corner. He turned the wheel hard and threw the car over to the curb as if it were a toy. “Let’s call my friend, she’ll tell you how to get there!”
It seemed like my last hope. Please Leslie, please know how to get me home. “Les? This is Holly, the cabbie doesn’t know how to get me there…” Always in charge, Leslie asked to speak to him. He put the phone up to his ear and listened and listened. He handed the phone back to me.
“Holly, he’s lying. He’s taking you for a ride. How much is the fare?”
“Sixty-nine dollars,” I whispered.
“Drop him. Find another cab and get in.”
“Did you tell him how to get me home?”
“Holly, I don’t know where you are.” She paused. “I don’t know anything about Queens, I just know Vernon Avenue and 49th Ave. That’s all that I know. If you find another cabbie, a good one, he’ll know how to get there.”
I stood there.
“It will be okay. I’m so sorry this happened. Find another taxi. We’re all waiting for you.”
I looked around the blighted corner and the pitch-black street. It was ten o’clock at night in the middle of Queens – there were no people, much less taxis. My only choice was to get back in and pray for my life.
Driving around the industrial area of Long Island City, lined with bleak warehouses near the East River, in the middle of the night with a strange man who did not know where he was – or who was trying to trick me – sent the kind of powerful fear into my bones that I was terrified would happen when I left my cozy, comfy nest in Indiana, surrounded by people who loved and admired me. It occurred to me then that this was the reason I left, for this kind of feeling. The reason I left was for a rush of unknown, the reason I left was to experience life. And now I felt like my life was about to be over just as the rush had begun.
In the very next second, the cabbie, who could maybe sense my tension as I clawed his headrest and kept repeating please take me home, took a strong left over a low bridge. For the first time, I saw Vernon Avenue.
“There! Vernon Avenue! Right THERE!”
Standing on the corner, waving their hands wildly just like my family back in Indiana, were the Midwestern arrivals: my friends. I had never been so happy to see people I knew in my entire life. My breath bled with relief in hot gasps, and for the first time all day, tears leapt to my eyes. My friends, ten of them, just arrived in the city themselves, separated from me by only a few weeks or a couple of months. Yet there they stood, so worried about me, jumping up and down at the sight of my taxi, so happy to see me, and to see me alive. I leaned my head against the back seat of the cab, exhausted.
I had made it, and I knew then that this was New York: although I was here, I knew there was a long, long way to go until I had arrived.
I want to hear your stories! Go to the comments below and tell us your New York stories while we're waiting for the veggies to arrive.