Open mouth. Insert foot. Things happen. At least that’s what happens to me. At 85, my mother’s sister Loena suffers from heart trouble and Quilter’s Thumb, but she never complains. She uses a cane on good days, a walker or wheelchair the rest of the time. Aunt Loena lives in Detroit, but was always too busy taking care of everyone else to travel. A couple years ago, with my Michigan sister Lee, my aunt flew to Seattle to come see us.
She was frail and tired easily. Once, when we couldn’t hear her snoring, I tiptoed in to see if she was still breathing. But we laughed often and loudly; I felt my mother’s presence so strongly I wanted to pour Mom a cup of coffee too. The visit went so well I asked my aunt where she’d like to go next. I figured Holland, Michigan, perhaps, to see the tulips. But no. Aunt Loena said, “Your mother and I were planning a trip to New York, to see the Statue of Liberty and lots of Broadway musicals. That was before she got sick.”
“I’ll take you!” I blurted. Then I felt sick. I’ve always suffered from Foot in Mouth disease. My other chronic illness was Newyorkaphobia. In my mind NYC was big, bad, dangerous. AND expensive. I had the money, but it was tucked away for a trip to England, a place I really did want to see. But a promise is a promise.
I researched airfare, hotels, even how to hail a cab. We picked up travel companions right and left, like Dorothy on her way to Emerald City. I ordered show tickets, mailed maps and instructions to them all. My daughter Bea and I flew into JFK. My sister Con flew from Alaska to her daughter Jane’s, and they trained in from Boston. Lee and Aunt Loena flew into Newark from Detroit. We all arrived within twenty minutes of each other at the Casablanca Hotel, half a block from Times Square!
I chose the hotel for its proximity to theaters and its uniqueness–the breakfast room is called Rick’s, after Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca. Six women crammed themselves into a suite meant for four, but the staff didn’t seem to mind. Everyone was helpful; they even provided a wheelchair. At Casablanca’s Happy Hour, we had fruit, cookies, wine and cheese.
Jane, Constance, Bea, Lee, and Aunt Loena at a Very Happy Hour.
Then it was time to go to our first Broadway musical, Billy Elliot. Jane had made other plans, so five of us stood outside the hotel while I hailed a cab. It pulled over to the curb and we all crowded in.
“Only four, please.” The driver had an accent, and was clearly from somewhere in Africa.
“The theater is just a few blocks,” I said, “but my auntie can’t walk.”
“I cannot take more than four passengers.”
“We don’t mind Cozy.”
“No, no, no. I mean I get into big trouble for carrying more than four passengers.”
“Oh, we don’t want to get you in trouble. It’s not far. My sisters can walk, and we’ll meet them there.”
Lee and Con got out and started walking. He put his hand to his forehead and sighed. “Call them back.”
“Really?” I hollered for my sisters, and soon we were all back in the cab, with Bea ducked down out of sight.
Our driver was Daniel, a doctor from Togo, who was making better money driving a cab in NYC than in the medical profession in Togo. We asked about his family, and whether he missed his home. “It’s best for the children,” he said. He was curious about our lives too. As we talked, my fears dropped away.
Fool’s luck must have sent Mr. Adenje to us on our first evening in New York. I knew we were in good hands, even before he refused any money for the ride, even the twenty dollar tip I tried to give him. Where does THAT ever happen? Certainly not in Seattle! This couldn’t be the ugly city that so terrified me! At first I thought Mr Adenje was an angel in disguise; I have come to think of him as the spirit of New York.
The whole time we were there we never met an unkind person. Everyone had a story to tell, like Fergus, the driver who gave Aunt Loena her first buggy ride. He told us he gained fifteen pounds in one week when his mother came from Ireland to visit and meet her first grandchild.
Fergus, Bea, and Aunt Loena.
At a hot dog stand in Central Park, the elderly gent ahead of us insisted on treating. Aunt Loena was convinced he was Scottish, despite his yarmulke and Yiddish accent. “In any case,” I told her, “you’ve still got what it takes!” My aunt laughed and pshawed, but still she blushed like a young girl.
Central Park is an oasis in a concrete jungle.
The next night, by the time Aunt Loena could shuffle out of the theater, where we saw Phantom of the Opera, the cabs were all gone. But a man in a rickshaw pedaled up; another ‘first’ for my aunt. She and I sat with Bea on my lap, as Rene from El Salvador wove through late-night traffic, cutting off stretch limousines, jumping potholes like a Latin Evil Knievel, and cutting through dark alleys. He hadn’t been home for six years, and had a daughter he had never seen. He said he liked working the late night shift, because the days could be so very hot. While we talked with Rene, Aunt Loena smiled and waved to strangers on the street, and they all smiled and waved back.
Bea and Auntie Lee on our city bus tour.
Ghosts of New York’s past can still be seen.
And then there is the Natural History Museum. Very Educational.
Since then I have returned to the Big Apple of my own free will. I brought my husband, my kids, and an open heart.
I am learning to let go of my fears. There are so many places I still want to see, too many stories out in that wide world I have yet to hear. I hope I never get too old to enjoy them, or too afraid to try. After all, I’ve already seen how high an old lady can kick up her heels while keeping a sturdy grip on her walker.
All images and words copyright 2012 Naomi Baltuck
For more great photos of New York, check out “I Love New York” in writer Kourteny Heintz’s Journal!