Before heading to New York to visit Isabella, my travels had largely consisted of road trips to visit my grandparents. Save for that one trip to Disney World, I think trips to visit family were all I had done. I had traveled alone by plane several times, but always with my mother on one end, and my grandparents or family on the other. The individual road trips I had taken were driven from home to Karen’s college a few hours away. Otherwise, it was all family, all the time.
I had never flown into an airport not knowing who would be there to get me. I had never taken a taxi. I had never stayed at a hotel without my mother. I had never stayed in a city where there was no one related to me by blood or known friendship. The closest I had ever been to traveling alone was going to Austin with a volunteer group, and Austin is a little smaller than NYC.
As Isabella and I rode into Manhattan, I was realizing just what a neophyte I was. Could I tell a driver to take me to my hotel and trust that he was taking the direct route? Not according to her. She schooled me briefly in how to talk to cab drivers, gave me instructions on what not to do while walking down the street, and basically offered a primer in How Not To Get Mugged*.
And here I should stop to say that for as strange as Isabella turned out to be, she took very good care of her yokel friend. She might not have fit her own description outside of eye color, and she might have been a lot more self-medicated than I realized, but she did her best to make sure I didn’t get myself killed. Whether it was schooling me something as simple as not staring up at the buildings, or it was making sure I memorized the mysterious commandment of Go to Snow, Isabella was right there keeping me out of jail or the Hudson. Of course, she was also largely the reason I could have ended up in jail…
She was generous in paying for all or just her share of costs, and was very happy to squire me around to the sites I wanted to see. She was a wonderful human being, even if she turned out to be a nightmare of a penpal.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour of lurching and slamming on brakes through city traffic, the driver swerved and pulled up short at the curb in front of FIT. Isabella and I lumbered out, and I paid the driver, who then turned on me with spit flying.
I remember it in slow motion. I handed him a bill and as he took it, his face changed. Teeth were bared. His nose rippled back up into his face like a wolverine. It wouldn’t be the only time I watched that transformation, but it was the first. You never forget your first. “Moron!” He shouted, “That’s a great way to lose your luggage, right?!”
He cursed at me, then yelled that I should never pay a driver before he had given me my bags, or he might just drive off with them. Isabella was even stunned at the display of tough love.
He flung my bags out onto the curb with a, “F*cking tourist!” And then slammed himself shut inside the car to drive away. Isabella and I gawked at one another, then burst out laughing. The tension was broken and I was glad for an ally in the already strange city.
FIT was something altogether new, too. See, I was expecting design students to look like the people who might be wearing their designs. Instead, swarming and milling about the sidewalks of the campus were dreadlocked, poncho wearing art types, and the most common uniform appeared to be torn jeans and the flannel shirts ubiquitous to the early 90s. Oh, and horrible, horrible sandals.
I was in my Jackie-O sunglasses, with my shiny pre-Wintour bob, wearing a sleeveless, black catsuit under a cream colored, crocheted tunic, with fantastic bell sleeves, and black maryjanes by Sam & Libby. (LOVED those shoes. I bought spares of those shoes and wore them until every single pair wore out, sometime around 2000.)
Looking around, I was so disappointed. I could have been at the art building from my own university for all the fashion I was seeing. It was my first lesson in the economic importance of not smoking what you sell. “Are you kidding?” Isabella was incredulous. “Who wants to work that hard?” She asked in answer to my question of why people weren’t more dressed up.
“So listen,” she was ushering me up the sidewalk, carrying one of my bags while I wheeled the other behind me. “We’re going to drop your stuff off with a friend of mine, then we’ll go get something to eat. I’ve got a couple of apartments to look at and you can come with me, or you can hang out here. I’m sure my old roommates will let you hang out.”
I waited in front of a dormitory for an hour and a half while she was inside looking for her old roommates, or friends, or snorting lines, or dropping acid, or whatever it was she was doing. Admittedly, I was more than a little cranky when she finally reappeared to lead me inside and up to one of the tiny dorm rooms.
“This is Jenny,” she introduced one girl who was so baked she could barely coax her mouth into a smile. “Jenny wants to date a mobster. That’s the only reason she’s in NYC.”
“Nice?” I wondered aloud.
The other two friends were less relaxed and did not seem happy to have Isabella crowding their space. In no uncertain terms they told her that regardless of what Jenny had said, they weren’t keeping my luggage (refered to in unsavory terms), and that they were not letting one of her strange friends hang out in their room. It was becoming clearer that Isabella’s reasons for leaving dorm life might have been beyond her control.
She let their ire roll off her back, and after a few more minutes trying to communicate with Jenny, we headed back out onto the street. I lugged my things along into the bookstore, where Isabella wrote a check for the most expensive book she could find. On our way out of the store, she grinned. “My bank doesn’t have a branch up here, so what I do is I buy something at the bookstore, then I return it in a couple of hours. I get cash, and never have to leave campus. Ready to eat?”
I was. “But we can’t drag your stuff everywhere. Let’s find someone. Come on.”
Isabella asked a few different students, me straggling along behind her like the confused visitor I was. “She’s going here,” she assured the last matted-haired boy she approached. “But there’s a mix up with dorms and we’ve got to get her sorted out after registration. Can you just hold her stuff til tonight?
People, I hesitate to tell you that I left my luggage with a complete stranger, who walked away with both my bags, disappearing into a building without so much as a backward glance. To this day, I don’t know what adventures my things had, and probably don’t want to.
By the time we had made it to the corner diner Isabella suggested, I was angry-hungry, tired, a little sweaty from the August heat, and very sulky. I assured her that I would be back to my normal self after a little Coke.
“Oh,” her ears perked up. “I know where we can get some!”
I was confused, looking around. “Here, right?”
“No, not here,” she laughed at me. “But I’ve got a friend…”
I could feel my sheltered brow furrowing. “Coca-cola?”
As my eyes narrowed, hers widened, and she cackled, “Totally! Okay! Coke! Right! Yeah! You can get that here. I thought you meant coke.” She made a gesture involving her index finger and nostril. Then she waved at me, “But don’t worry. I won’t do it while you’re here if you’re not into it. You’re not into it, are you?”
At that point in my life, aside from having been raised by a Marine and a Marine’s Wife, I was a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans, worked full-time at a bank, worked part-time for the local Justice of the Peace, sat on the board of directors for an organization dedicated to keeping youth from criminal acts, and had paperdoll cutouts of the Reagans on my dresser. Even the drug dealer I dated (yes, I dated a drug dealer–what?) never offered me drugs.
“Uh, no,” I shook my head, distressed and fascinated, and aware that I needed this girl to be on my side if I wanted to get my clothes back. “But do your thing. I’ll make sure you don’t jump out a window.”
“Cool,” she agreed.
I ordered and drank my Coke, while waiting on my burger, and realized there was a pay phone in the back of the diner. God, I’m old. Cell phones weren’t as available to the public as they are now. In fact, though we did have a gigantic brick phone that my mother used for business purposes, it was something like $1 a minute. Maybe more.
I told Isabella that I needed to call and let my parents that I’d gotten into the city and was fine, and steeled myself for the conversation. At the sound of my mother accepting my collect call, I nearly burst into tears. You have no idea how close I came to begging her to call the airline and set up my flight home. But, I am as stubborn as I can be stupid, so I put on a smile and told her how awesome everything was. She was unconvinced, but I was determined. What’s more, I was there, and I was dedicated to having an adventure.
Little did I know what kind of an adventure apartment hunting could be. Or college registration.
*Not that it did much good. More on that later.