Gail Walter

Shall I say what I mean?
Editor’s Pick
AUGUST 16, 2010 4:09PM

Lost in NYC

Rate: 20 Flag

Something small and wet (Washington Square).

I’ve done it before, mastered them. I’ve traveled beneath the earth’s surface in Hong Kong, Paris, Rome, other places. Just have to make that clear, you know. Mitigating circumstances for finding myself in NYC for a day and needing to remaster the subway because of my annoying habit of forgetting basic things.

So here I am looking at the hole in the bustling sidewalk like it’s the one Alice fell down. Dare I? I mean, once you step into it can you change your mind, turn around, resurface?

My legs are going there it seems, despite my irrational fears. The three of us, my legs and I, descend into the Middle Earth of Manhattan me telling myself I can always reverse, no matter how silly it looks. I need to cover a lot of ground in one day and this is the only way I can do it.

I manage to get down the stairs and sidle up to the ticket window.
I’d like one ticket to 59th street, please. The man behind the window snickers insolently. Yes, I realize the tickets cost the same for everywhere. There’s something a little pathetic about my insistence on sharing my destination with him. But there is method in my madness.

“And I’d like to know which one of these”, I mouth at the opaque glass gesturing over my shoulder at the three turnstiles that all seem to say the same thing but in different ways.
“which one of these I need to take to 59th?”

The man behind the window speaks indistinctly, in a surly West African accent. I in barely disguised, slightly panicked, South African. He is saying something in West African that I can’t understand, something that borders on confrontational, or so it seems. We repeat this a few times. The only thing that becomes bleakly obvious is that he is not going to sell me a ticket. There is a reason why, but my South African brain can’t decipher his West African reason.

I won’t go away, though. I notice this. So does he. I mean where am I going to go? There is no way I can follow his directions, they’re as opaque as the window.
There are absolutely no subway maps on the walls, the way there are supposed to be. A small, slight, dark haired woman wafts by and I fall upon her. She opens her mouth to reply and my worst fears are confirmed. We can’t understand each other either. Melting pot becomes Tower of Babel.

I turn back to the window filled with a subterranean desperation: “So you’re not going to sell me a ticket then!” I shout at the sullen shadow, attempting to somehow bully it into saying something I can comprehend.
He lilts something at me defiantly. It sounds final. I glare at the window. We‘re having some sort of face off, I gather. It feels oddly intimate.

Nonplussed I turn to the machines against the wall, they seem almost sympathetic by comparison. Standing there in front of them, no shadow of an irascible fellow foreigner lurking, I manage to figure it out, the purchasing part.

Next are the three turnstiles. I pick one. Randomly. I drop further into the bowels of the earth, find a platform, wait on it. My method is not yet foolproof. Lets just say that I overshoot my destination once or twice on this particular day. I sail nonchalantly past my goal more than a couple of times. When I emerge into the sunlight, here and then there, I wonder around brand new in various surprising locations and in various versions of lost. It’s a spontaneous way to see the city.

And, somewhere along the way, I begin to enjoy myself.
Something larger and dry, but sleeping (Madison Ave).
Some white things looking for trouble (Columbus Circle).

 Something shocking pink with wheels, center of french restaurant.

Lost family of five, every one of them, using Smart Phones to locate themselves .


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I'm here, too. And despite the problems it is the best and fastest way around, still. Enjoy your adventures.
I grew up just outside the city and I would get lost. It's in the letting go that you get to see the city instead of the route.
"And, somewhere along the way, I begin to enjoy myself." I'm of a mind that anywhere you are enjoying yourself you're not truly lost. Thanks for a great read!
Amen, I'm up for adventure as long as I'm not dragging luggage or carrying that spoils! I can't tell you how many times uptown and downtown have reversed their direction while I've been holed up in the tube. I arrive at my exact address, except for one little thing...
I love that last sentence! I wanted to take your hand and commiserate and "Grrrrr..." with you, because I no longer can navigate the system either. And I lived there 30 years! The people in the booths no longer sell tkts, forcing you to deal with the machines. So, it might not be an African thing. Anyhow, so glad you began to enjoy yourself once outside. Lost + Spontaneous = NYC Adventure. (r)
Gail, this is one of my favorite of yours.
"Melting pot becomes Tower of Babel." Perfect._r
I've always loved taking taxis in NYC to speak to the cab drivers, but this sounds like a whole another adventure. Once again, your way with words make me feel as if I was standing there, right beside you. R
As an old hand at the NYC subways, I wish I'd been there to handle the surly clerk. But then you wouldn't have had an EP, would you?
I really liked how you describe the confrontation as feeling "intimate" -- I understood what you meant. Glad you (finally) enjoyed your trip down the rabbit hole!
Welcome to my wonderful city. I wish I could show you around. Don't worry about which turnstile you use. Just make sure you're on the "Uptown" platform if you want to go to a higher numbered street (say, from 23rd Street to 59th Street) and "downtown" platform ifyou want to go to a lower street (say, West 4th). It gets more comlicated if you want to go to a named street (Canal; Prince). For those, you really do need to discern the subway map. Most regular folk are more helpful than the subway station workers, though. Just ask some person who is, clearly, not a tourist.
This is great. My dad and I moved to NYC in the early '80's form Montanna. I know we got lost a couple times. Going back and visiting, I've taken the wrong train, been the one, looking at the map on the wall, hoping I didn't look too touristy while keeping an eye on both sisters as they try to rap or play bongos with some street kid.
I miss the city, I miss Washington Square park, and the smells (some of them). I even miss those white things looking for trouble :).
This piece really brought me back. Now I need to make a trip. Thank you Gail.
Your story does make me laugh. My first day I was trying to find my way to Battery Park. I somehow ended up on the weekend train to Brooklyn and then had to catch a crosstown train to the one I wanted. As I was sitting there a woman asked me if this was the train to City Hall. I didn't say "lady, I'm not sure where I am going let alone where this train stops."
I've been to New York a thousand times and I always get lost. My daughter says I have something lacking...she never does, never has. Enjoy your stay.
Don't be afraid to get your feet a little wet can be a good thing.
Lea~Yes, you are, aren't you. And a lot happening there from what I gather on the FB grapevine.
Oroyoki~I love what getting lost shows me. And you're right, it's allin the letting go.
Kit~Not TRULY lost. So true.
Gabby~I have it on good authority, the Port Authority actually, that NY does in fact use tax payers money to rearrange itself while we are disoriented underground.
Dirndl~ Actually I adore the meltingpottishness of NY. There's a part of me that was delighted and amused. So they don't sell tickets anymore...hmmm. My tale was foolish enough without that insight!
Fusun~ Maybe my most favorite city in the world!
JOan~ Thank you. I was thoroughly enjoying it at the time.
Mary~ We share this, the cab drivers. I have had jaw dropping encounters in cabs. Always a wonder isn't it.
Cranky~ That is true but perhaps I would have preferred the sight of you swooping to save me.
Bellwether~So glad you understood what I meant by this strange kind of intimacy. It's almost a kind of love -- the same sort of intensity.
Sheila~ NYC asks you to get lost in it.
Eva~ Thanks for the advice. I don't find it easy to spot the non-tourists in NY. So many of us look like we're from elsewhere. It's part of the charm of the place, at least it is for me.
Molly~ You're so close. The train ride in from New Paltz was a trip indeed.
Ocular~I love that about the place. I can just see that happening.
Fay~ I love it that you're humble enough to get repeatedly lost. Takes a big ego, no wait, a big, generous spirit. Tell that to your daughter.
haiti~ my feet are sopping wet!
tomreedtoon~ I know lots of people who feel the same as you do about the place. I cannot resist it, myself.
As someone who grew up in NYC and used to ride the grimy tunnels of the IRT, the BMT, and the IND I really appreciate the fast silent service of the Helsinki Metro where you can speak in a normal voice and use a cell phone and bring in bicycles, dogs and cats and perhaps pet gorilla or giraffe (although I have yet to see that) and each station is equipped with elevators and escalators. And there are no turnstiles. Just spot checks for tickets. Of course the system is still very miniature compared to my old home town but it's growing.
As a native New Yorker...take it from me...sometimes it's better to travel by Town Car.
Fun read!
...the picture of the family busy on individual cell phones is Classic!!!
Wonderful story and adventure. Life happens while your trying to figure out where/who you are and where you're going. I love the photos!
I've lived here since 1989 and NYC is like a small child -- it can utterly delight you (if you are willing to be surprised) or projectile vomit when you least expect it. Glad you found a way to enjoy it!

The trains are nightmares -- they go express when you don't want it and local when you do....Gotta gets/stay mellow or you'll lose it for good.