To my family in New England, New York City is the very antithesis of civilization. My living there is a fact that never ceases to amaze them, for they imagine me each day struggling through a jungle of traffic and garbage, threatened at every corner by speeding taxis and pickpockets, not to mention potential killers.
On their rare forays into the city I have tried to show them that a normal life is quite possible here. I take them to my usual shops, introduce them to my neighbors, point out the nice views down Fifth Avenue to the World Trade Center or up to the Empire State Building. But they only notice the extra locks on the doors; they cringe in the taxis; and when I take them up to Penn Station for the train back to Boston, they are enormously relieved.
However, my brother's adventure may finally have changed their views.
On a warm, damp night last August my parents, my other brothers and I (up from the city for the weekend) all waited in the Boston station with Ben, who was heading back to Santa Cruz, California, his home for the past year. Because of complicated travel arrangements, he had decided to take the late train, arriving in New York at 3 a.m., spend the early hours with a friend, and then proceed out to the airport for a noon flight.
I was actually the one who gave the first warnings about New York. Ben was carrying a large backpack; he wore shorts and sneakers; and I could see him, with his ready, unsuspecting smile, as the target for all sorts of unpleasantness. Besides, having always avoided cities, he was not exactly what you would call "streetwise."
"Take a taxi straight to conrad's apartment. Don't take the subway," I advised him, fearing he would otherwise stick to his usual principles of frugality and public transportation.
"Don't leave your pack anywhere," cautioned my father.
"Count your change. Don't let the cabdriver cheat you. And be sure you have Conrad's address ready so he doesn't take you all over the place," my mother added.
"OK, OK. I've got it here. I'll be fine." Ben patted his shirt pocket and checked his watch. When the train's departure was announced, he made the last rounds of farewells, hugs, and kisses; and then he stepped up past the conductor and was gone.
We heard from him sooner than we expected.
AT 8 o'clock the next morning he telephoned.
"Can someone go up to my room and look on my bureau or on the floor for a little piece of yellow paper that has Conrad's address on it. It must have fallen out of my pocket."
"But where are you?" my mother exclaimed.
"Oh, the taxi driver took me home with him."
We all gathered around our end of the telephone, not quite believing.
"Well, I discovered I had lost the address, and I couldn't remember whether it was Fifth Street or Fifth Avenue. We cruised around for a while, but nothing looked like what Conrad had described and it was getting pretty late, so the driver offered to take me home. He's a nice guy. He's got a wife and two kids. His brother lives in Santa Cruz and he used to work in a boatyard, which is how we got talking." (Ben's work and chief passion is boat building.)
"But where does he live?"
"I don't know," he admitted. There was a consultation at the other end and then his voice returned. "Queens. Wherever that is. I've got to go now. He's giving me a ride back in to the city."
Goodbyes were said again and more exclamations delivered from our end.
"Wait!" shouted my brother Ned from the stairs. "I've found the piece of paper."
"Oh, yeah, the address," Ben said.
We all laughed and groaned.
"It's a good thing you're on your way to California," my father said. "Out there you can be absent-minded and no one will notice."
I did not bother to point out to him the prejudice of this statement. I was too grateful to some anonymous taxi driver (for of course we had forgotten to ask his name), who had proven that civility, generosity even, does exist in New York.