I always loved Manhattan. I loved the excitement of it, the different neighborhoods, and the energy. While I was in college, at SUNY-Binghamton where I felt exiled in a gray, isolated city that barely deserved that designation, I dreamed of coming to Manhattan to live and work. I got my chance to live the dream when I went to graduate school at Columbia University.
I finished the first of a two year Master’s program at Columbia in May of 1981. I lived in a Columbia-owned apartment building on 80th and Columbus Avenue and I had an internship in New York City’s Mayor’s Office (Ed Koch was the mayor at the time) for the summer.
Each day that summer I descended into the subway station at 79th and Central Park West. The same panhandler that I saw on a daily basis was at the bottom of the stairs. I knew him by his tattered denim jacket and black knit cap. His long legs extended, back propped against the wall, his hand outstretched, jiggling a dirty Styrofoam cup, begging for spare change. Judging by the sound of it, the cup wasn’t very full. I made my way around him. I looked at him briefly, didn’t make eye contact, and continued through the turnstile.
I stood on the platform waiting for the C train. The stagnant, humid air was already warm, despite the early hour. Perspiration started to roll down my back. I hated starting my day with my clothes already damp. I had a desk in a small office that I shared with a full-time staff person and I didn’t want to come in smelling of sweat and the subway. The one window in the office, which contained an air conditioner, looked out at a brick wall inches away. It wasn’t optimal for fresh air, but at least it was cool.
Work was interesting. I was in the Community Assistance Unit (CAU). New York City was divided into community boards. Those boards met with representatives of city agencies (Police, Fire, Sanitation, etc.) to discuss local issues. CAU was the liaison between those boards and the mayor’s office. Staff from CAU attended those meetings and filled out a report. They had files filled with these reports, but nothing had been done with them. That’s where my internship came in. I was to review the reports and look for commonalities or systemic problems and present what I found to the director of the unit.
After finishing my day, if I didn’t have plans after work, I got back on the subway to go uptown. Again, I’d wait for the train to roll into the station. It was always a bad sign if a subway car was empty – that meant one of two things: either the air conditioning wasn’t working or a homeless person was living there and the smell was too overpowering (or both). Sometimes I stepped on to the empty car anyway.
One particular day that summer I got back to my apartment and started dinner. I put a pot of water up to boil. When it came time to add the pasta, I opened the box of spaghetti and a roach fell into the pot along with the dry noodles. I shrieked. I was done. I already had an exterminator on retainer. The building, and many around it, were in the midst of being rehabbed. It didn’t matter how many times the exterminator came, more roaches infiltrated. I lost the war and retreated.
My dream of Manhattan was over. I called my parents and said I was coming home to Canarsie. I knew the commute to Columbia would be a bear, but I would save a lot of money and I just couldn’t deal anymore with life in Manhattan. Between the homeless, the drug addicts, the need for constant vigilance about my personal safety and, finally, the roaches, I gave up. The reality in 1980-81 was a rude awakening.
All these years later, it might surprise you to know that Gary and I agreed that our plan would be to retire to Manhattan. Despite that awful year, I still loved going to the city for shows, ballets, museums and restaurants. Over time, as the 1980s progressed and the city recovered from the fiscal crisis of the late ‘70s, things changed. By the time my children were old enough to take to the city, in the 1990s, I felt comfortable there. I still had to be watchful, keeping my purse wedged between my arm and my body, and be aware of my surroundings, but I felt free to show my children all the city had to offer. My dream of Manhattan reawakened.