Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fearless by Necessity

I’ve suddenly realized that in order to accomplish all that I’ve accomplished in the past year, I’ve had no time for fear. When I first moved to NYC, some of my friends told me, “I think that’s really amazing,” but looking back, I realize now that what they really meant was, “I think that’s really brave.” Not to sound conceited, but it takes a lot of guts to move to NYC alone. I didn’t think this at the time, because I assumed it was what I was supposed to do. If you don’t go to grad school, isn’t that what you should be doing: finding a job and moving to the appropriate city to work that job? Following this route didn’t seem particularly special or courageous to me until I got here and began to realize how many people receive outside support in order to live in this city. What surprised me most was the number of people who still live with their parents. Practically speaking, staying at home is a smart move. NYC is an expensive place to live, and what better roommates to have than ones who will feed you and pay your rent? Nevertheless, it made me reconsider my own sudden leap from living under my parents’ roof to living in an entirely new city—and one of the most expensive cities in the United States, at that—on my own dollar.

So perhaps moving here—and particularly moving here unemployed, on the faith that I’d be able to find myself a job after signing a year-long lease—was brave. Or maybe it was stupid and risky, but it worked out, so now I can call it brave. The next concern is living “on my own.” I am, a single, young, white female living in NYC. If I want to go out at night, how do I get around? I walk; I take the subway; I ride the bus. Who waits up to make sure I get to and from my destination? No one but me.

This realization also did not occur to me until one night, when I left from a get-together at a friend’s apartment on the Upper West side at about 2 a.m. Between the E train running local and the 7 not running at all, I got home at about 3:15 a.m. At 3:30, my phone rang. It was M___, who had left at the same time, making sure I had gotten home safely. My first reaction was, Of course; why wouldn’t I have? Right after that was when I realized that this is actually a normal, considerate thing to do: checking up on a girl who heads home (home being Queens, which is not exactly the Upper East Side) at 2a.m. by herself. This was not something I had considered before, because thinking of potential “dangers” of travelling alone on public transportation late at night would hamper my lifestyle. It would limit what I allow myself to do or, at the very least, drain my bank account very quickly (because cabs are expensive, never mind cabs to Queens!).

These first two instances are situational in the “fear domain,” but there is a second realm that I have somehow managed to bypass (at least until I look back upon each individual circumstance), which I will label the “Oh dear, I might get hurt” realm. Case in point: if someone had told me at this time last year that I’d not only be using a bicycle as a means of practical transportation, but that I’d voluntarily ride on the streets of NYC, with cars and trucks and all manner of big scary vehicles, I’d have suggested to him or her that they lay off the brown liquor for a while. I’ve never felt too stable on a bicycle, even though I’ve “known how” since I was eight. Most likely this is because I never practiced, seeing as I couldn’t walk five feet from my house without encountering a mountain-sized hill. (My community was called Forest Hills. The school district was called Woodland Hills. My family attended a nearby church in a community called—irony of ironies—Churchill. The pattern was not accidental.) Hills were simply more easily walked up than biked up, so I always left the impeding apparatus at home.

Here in substantially flatter NYC, however, when my entire means of transportation is dependent on others (subway conductors, bus drivers, pedestrian and vehicular traffic in general), a bicycle is quite practical. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, my options for getting to the grocery store are to wait in a smelly underground subway station for the R train to arrive and then sit in gloom for another ten minutes, or else I can strap on my backpack, clip on my helmet, and make the two-mile trip on bicycle. (Hint as to my decision: I signed my lease in part because of the amount of sunlight I’d receive from having three windows in my room. Subway stations depress me.)

Yes, this is two miles split between pedestrian-infested sidewalks and vehicle-crowded roadways. Yes, every time I nearly crash into a dog (and its owner) on the sidewalk or a truck blows past me and honks its horn, I experience a slight shudder of panic. However, the whole “gee, this could really injure me” concept did not arise in my mind until very recently. This past weekend, when I was riding my bicycle from Woodside to the Union Square Green Market there, I had made it across the Queensborough Bridge and was maybe twenty-five blocks from my destination in Manhattan when it happened: I fell off my bike. Stupidly, I tried to ride up over a curb “sideways” rather than head-on, and down went the bike, with me attached. There I was, five miles from home, skinned and bleeding and still sans-vegetables. I had no choice but to get back on my bike and carry on to the market (although I could have gone home, but what would have been the point in that? I was nearly there!). Yet, as I received more and more strange looks from the people I passed (“What happened to that girl’s leg?”), I realized that I had actually been very lucky. I could have been riding in the street, hit a pothole wrong, and gone down right in front of an impatient taxi. I could have been careening downhill and flown over my handlebars face first. As it was, I just had a bruised knee and some other superficial scrapes, all of which were bleeding more than their fair share. The potential for bodily harm, however, finally registered. I could die doing this, or alt least break an appendage. Still, I biked home.

My final my final anecdote also concerns transportation, only this time I was inside one of those vehicles that could turn a bicyclist into pigeon food. First off, consider the fact that I moved to NYC in part because I wanted to live somewhere that I could rely on public transportation. I have no desire to own a car and all the stresses that come with it (I’ll have enough stress as it is). So since I’ve moved here last June, the only times I have driven a car have been the occasions in which I have gone back to Pittsburgh. I have never driven in this city. Never being limited to, however, the 23 years and four months leading up to this past weekend.

One of the annoying things about relying on public transportation is that you are relegated to its timetables. If your particular metro line is under construction, you’re out of luck. If a train breaks down, you have no choice but to wait for the repair to finish, because you are literally trapped underground. And if you need to get home anytime around midnight, be sure to take a book, because you will be waiting a long time for your train (although at least the system doesn’t close, like in most other cities). Consequently, this past weekend, when I had to get back to Woodside from Jersey City, my options were considerably limited. I could wait half an hour for the PATH train and then another half hour at the World Trade Center for the E train and pray not to fall asleep on either of these rides for fear of missing my stop. Or I could drive back.

No, a fairy godmother did not arrive and perform a reverse Cinderella (Bippity boppity boo! This pumpkin has now become a Volkswagon Jetta!). Rather, D___ offered me his car to drive home. “It’s easy,” he insisted, “and you’ll be home in twenty minutes. Otherwise it’s going to take you, like, two hours.” The next thing I knew we had looked up directions, had determined how I would find the Holland Tunnel, and away I drove.

I’m a very good driver. I’ve never been in an accident (knock on wood), I am not reckless, and I can even drive a standard transmission. D__’s car was a Jeep with automatic transmission, so technically speaking it was a cinch to drive. Fear didn’t set in at all until I realized what I was doing. Wow, it’s 11:30p.m. And I haven’t driven in four months. Is this really like riding a bicycle? You learn to ride a bike when you’re eight. You don’t learn do drive until you’re twice that old. They say things stick better when you’re young…. And Jesus, I’m driving in New York City. I’ve never driven here in my life. I don’t know where these roads go. I’m navigating off of a piece of paper I can barely read and road signs with cryptic labels like “Queens-Brooklyn Expressway.” Queens and Brooklyn are not in the same place. If I end up in Brooklyn, I’ll have to find myself a pair of ruby slippers, because I’ll never get home! Plus, as if these factors weren’t enough, I was being entrusted with someone else’s car. Truly, fear for my own life was secondary. If I so much as scratched the bumper on this Jeep, I would never be able to face D___ again. Talk about pressure.

The bottom line is, I did it. I did all of these things. Fear or no fear (or risk, or stupidity….), I made it through every experience, and I continue to live more freely and spontaneously than I ever have in my life. I am on my own. I am on the go. I go where I want, when I want. If no person is going to tell me otherwise, I am certainly not letting fear step in and start dictating.

On that note, anyone want to try skydiving?

1 comment:

Neen said...

Yes! Let's go skydiving. Joe and I have always wanted to do that.

Beantown was pretty expensive too. I spent a lot of time anxiously balancing my finances when we lived there, but I did love it. Like you, I just assumed that after college I needed to get a job and start living on my own. Fear never really entered the picture for me. I'm not saying that because I'm macho/fearless. During my undergrad. studies I went through some big changes that I think put a lot in perspective. Particularly after my RNY surgery, I felt less afraid because I'd look at situations and think, "Jeez, if I can go through that, this will be okay too."

Oh, and as an amusing side note, I recall my brother and I making the attempt to ride our bikes to the FH pool in the summer. We never could make it up Sherwood Rd. in the 90 degree Ah, memories.