by Kathleen Widdoes
Yesterday, after visiting my family in my small hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, I took the train back to New York City, my chosen home. Though it was a weekday, the platform was congested with people. Some stood naively about and others, like myself, train-savvy, were waiting in the place where the train’s opening doors would stop, poised to board ahead of the crowd, assured of a seat among the masses of frazzled, anonymous businessmen coming from D.C., all submerged in their laptops, iPhones, and late-afternoon mini-cocktails. How different this journey was in 1956!
In the fifties, even though fewer trains stopped in Wilmington, one encountered, especially on a weekday, no more than four or five travelers waiting on the platform. Who were these brave wanderers daring to venture out of the nine to- five world? Where were they going? I, being one of them, dared to observe the others, to imagine their lives, invent their stories, their destinies, and fell in and out of love for the ten or fifteen minutes before the train pulled into the station. Did they, looking at me ( a frail, tensely lopsided, disheveled seventeen- year old), sense my excitement? Were they aware that I had never been on a train before? Could they begin to imagine that I saved money for weeks, called in sick to my job at the Bell Telephone Company, and was stealing away to New York?
Twice, while I was employed by the long ago defunct Bell Telephone, I secretly took the train to New York City. The first time I rode the empty train and got off in Manhattan, I was so overwhelmed with the then beauty and vastness of the old Penn. Station that I quickly gulped down a cup of coffee and, without stepping outside the station, breathlessly rushed to board the train back to Delaware. Luckily, I arrived back in time to take a local bus home so my mother, thinking I had been at work and not noticing how grown-up I imagined myself to be, was assured that the forty dollars I gave her from my salary of forty-eight was not in danger. It was more than my dream of becoming an actress–being rich enough to buy my mother a house and saving enough to educate all five of my younger siblings (all wishes from poverty’s bible) that gave me the courage to steal away the second time. It was the deep realization of how out of place I was at at the phone company and in the small, closed world of Wilmington in 1956.
My co-workers avoided me as I spouted Nietzsche, Jung, and Marx, and talked about ideas I had tentatively amassed on my lunch hour at the tall empty public library, tenderly pulling apart mildewed pages of fat, lonely books. And then there was Sidney. He was an older boyfriend who was a supervisor, a real company man at Bell. Sidney had gone to college but was not pleased about my self-education; I wanted to talk more and spend less time in the back seat of his car. This disappointed him and inspired eulogies about his ex-girlfriend, whom he said believed in free love. She lived in Greenwich Village, was a Bohemian, and dressed only in black. The second time that hot summer I ventured into the city, I wore my only black top, a turtleneck with long sleeves. Sweating profusely, I went in search of Greenwich Village.
Trying to appear sophisticated, a world traveler, I asked a stranger, in my best foreign accent how to get from Penn. Station to Greenwich Village. He told me in a foreign accent of his own — I was startled and did not linger long for fear we were from the same country– to take a subway and get off at Fourteenth St. With the fetid, musk smell of the subway clinging to my skin, I stepped out of the exit. I became a raindrop before the raging storm. My first glimpse of the city came through a summer thunderstorm. The smell of privet, hotdogs, boiled coffee, wet dog, wet synthetic fabric and Old Spice mingled with the suet-sweet tar scent that rose from the hot street as the rain hit. Where was privet in bloom on Fourteenth St.?
Finding shelter from the rain, I huddled under a storefront with others, pretending not to notice the intimacy of our wet bodies pressing against one another. Eventually the rain let up and the sun came out and I made my way along Fourteenth Street. And then I saw them! They stood alone glaring at me from a store window – a pair of bright red shoes unlike any I had ever seen, obviously some New York fashion that was foreign to me. The store was dense with unfamiliar objects – Underclothing with many straps and strange pockets, all of which I was too embarrassed to understand. I was certain these were objects that all New Yorkers, especially Sidney’s ex-girlfriend had and that, when I moved here I’d find out what they were and buy them for myself. But the shoes I understood. I bought them and held them devoutly in my arms for the duration of the trip back to Delaware.
In the months before I left Delaware permanently for New York, I proudly wore my red shoes at Bell Telephone, as if to let them know I would not be there long. I strutted (somewhat precariously since the shoes were quite high) in front of Sidney to show him his ex-girlfriend was no match for me. Later, after I moved to New York, to the Village, I realized that Fourteenth Street was not Greenwich Village. And the store where I bought my precious red shoes was not a fancy, unique boutique, but a simple Red Cross store filled with trusses and braces for deformed parts and, alas, orthopedic shoes to support and heal broken, misdirected feet.
As I look back, I wonder if Sidney and all my co-workers at Bell knew that my fancy New York shoes were a pair of orthopedics. I still blush when I think that perhaps I mistook their quiet, pitying glances for looks of admiration that I was about to leave their small town. No matter. Even before I arrived to what is now my home of many years, New York supported, comforted and wooed me, through a pair of red shoes, into its fickle embrace.