It Takes a Village (to Get Into the City)

Friday, July 20, 2012

I remember the first time I visited New York City. I was probably 11 years old, & I was visiting my penpal. As we walked down a busy city street with our mothers, my friend asked me, "Did you just smile at a stranger?" Her horrified expression immediately told me that I'd done something very wrong. How was a Midwestern kid to know?!

I think of that incident every time I smile at a stranger in the city - & yes, I still do it. I find that people are typically friendly to those who are friendly to them, as long as they're not in too much of a hurry. And when it comes to asking for directions, a friendly smile goes a long way.

On directions: I am a firm believer in asking for directions when necessary, & sometimes even when unnecessary, just to affirm that I'm on the right track. On Monday, when I commuted from Red Bank to NYC for the first time, I knew I'd never figure it out without a little help from my friends - in which "friends" are "total strangers," for the most part.

I'd like to thank the seven people - all strangers but one - who  made it possible for me to commute from my home to my office without having a mental breakdown or ending up under a bridge in the Bronx.
  • On Sunday, I emailed a few coworkers, all of whom are longtime N.J. residents, to ask how to get from Red Bank to our office. One of them, Victor, sent detailed instructions for getting from Penn Station (where the train pulls in) to Grand Central (where I needed to be), including such typically overlooked instructions as "go down two floors [to catch the next train]." Vital details! Armed with Victor's guidance saved as a note in my iPhone, I felt slightly more confident about braving the NYC subway, especially while carrying oversized luggage. Thanks, savvy coworker!

  • Upon arrival at the Red Bank Station, I 'fessed up: "This is my first time doing this," I told the woman behind the ticket counter. As there was no one in line behind me (clutch), she was more than happy to give me a rundown of how the transportation situation into the city was going to work. Thanks, friendly ticket gal!

  • As I waited on the platform, a middle-aged man asked me if the arriving train was going to [Name of Town I Forget]; when I couldn't answer, a young guy standing nearby stepped in to help. I seized the opportunity to ask him how to tell which trains would & wouldn't go to NYC, & he gave me a full rundown. Thanks, knowledgeable dude waiting on a train!

  • Once on the train, I got worried. How would I know when I got to Penn Station?! What if I missed my stop & rode the train forever? When the ticker-taker came around to, uh, take my ticket, I decided to ask. "It's the last stop," he assured me, "and everyone will be getting off. Can't miss it, honey." Thanks, kind NJ Transit worker! 

  • Somewhere around Secaucus, a woman sat down next to me & hung her monthly transit pass from the seat. I nervously engaged her in conversation about how that works - & learned that if it costs her $200+ for an unlimited pass for Secaucus, it'd likely cost me about a million for the same from the boonies of Red Bank. Thanks, amiable commuter!

  • At Penn Station, I navigated to the 3 train, which I'd been told would take me to Times Square, but standing on the platform, I began to question my directional capabilities. I honed in on a calm-looking dude sans headphones & double-checked that I was headed in the right direction; he confirmed that I was. Thanks, non-gruff New Yorker!

  • And finally, one last check as I boarded the 7 to Queens: "The next stop is Grand Central, right?" I said casually to a woman leaning on the door of the train. "Yep," she responded. Interaction complete, as I stepped off the train at my penultimate destination. Success. Thanks, moderately-more-gruff-but-still-helpful New Yorker! 
My iPhone did the rest of the work for me, directing me the two blocks from Grand Central to the office. Total door-to-door travel time was two hours. Total stress level? Surprisingly nonexistent. And for me, that's basically a miracle.

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