FEAR CITY by Penny Ross Burk

Fear City

The traffic going up Route 81 was a little heavy but pride kept me on the highway and passionately directed. I was scared to death, an introvert flying down the road trying to function in an extrovert’s world and heading towards a destination almost too frightening to talk about.

After a recent divorce and a very quiet spring, I decided to challenge my still winterized mind and body to an impromptu trip to New York City with my two kids. It represented some of my worst fears, ones that my ex-husband alleviated by taking complete control. For the past ten years he was the one to drive in the city, find parking, ward off strangers, negotiate the subway, and then pay for everything. This left me with the awesome responsibility of, well, tagging along.

Over the years I had become totally dependent on him and now that he was gone, I had spent the entire winter and spring immobilized by my fears. I had to get out of the house, cabin fever was setting in and I wanted to see my dear aunt and uncle. We lived a solid five hours from them and they lived in the heart of (tremble, shudder) mid-town Manhattan.

Monday night Uncle Milt called to announce his departure from the city to his retreat in Maine, where he and Aunt Molly have been spending summers for years. “But Milt,” I complained, “I really want to see you, it’s been ages.”

“So, come up,” was his answer.

“That’s it, come up? We would have to leave,” (first checking the calendar and then panicking), “Tomorrow.”

I heard Molly in the background snickering, “She won’t make it, she’s stuck in the country without a man – she couldn’t even make it to Maine last year without him!” That did it. “Milt, I’ll call you before I leave.” I slammed the phone down while I cursed Molly for knowing how to push all my buttons.

I searched frantically for reasons not to go, but couldn’t find a single illness, gas shortage, or flat tire. But, just because that’s the way the cookie crumbles (especially in the back seat of our car), we found ourselves hurtling down the highway into the unknown.

The children watched Mommy quietly from the back of the van while she strangled the steering wheel with pale white knuckles. “It’ll be fine,” I told myself over and over again while periodically looking over my shoulder at the kids. “Hey, guys, don’t look so scared, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine, it’ll be fine.”

Pennsylvania was okay and to my surprise New Jersey wasn’t too bad either. Even the dreaded New Jersey Turnpike offered no obstacles. There was hardly anyone on the road and my eight-year-old daughter noted the color coming back into my hands. We were three exits away from where we needed to be but for me, the tough part was just coming up.

The Holland Tunnel looked like any other tunnel, but being in a paranoid state of mind I imagined it turning into a giant spiraling sliding board going much deeper than the harbor and of course never ending. However, it was the other side that scared me even more.

What happens if I get a case of amnesia and forget which way to go, or no doubt I’d get cut off and miss my turn and be lost driving in circles forever and then get accosted by some psycho-killer just waiting for a mom with two kids from West Virginia to attack.

That thought got to me.

“Lock the doors, guys.”

“But Mom, we’re only four blocks away!”

“I don’t care lock ’em anyway!”

For some mysterious reason the garage was right where we left it one year earlier and hadn’t been replaced by a sky scraper or 12 new one-way streets. We had arrived, with nary a wrong turn and without the use of husbands, boyfriends, or any other adult.

Now if we could make it to Milt and Molly’s storefront apartment, shlepping pillows, clothes, stuffed animals, and five ears of corn, life would be perfect. To my amazement, one foot fell in front of the other and in no time I was a functioning independent person knocking on my aunt and uncle’s door.

After hugs of greeting and surprise at the great time we made driving up, we talked briefly about family, dinner, and then our plans for the next day. In order to get the kids to go along so easily I had to bribe them with a visit to the Statue of Liberty. My four-year-old son called it the Statue of Levity and couldn’t wait to go. As we sat around discussing plans, I cheerfully asked who was going to go with us. Molly said she would be at the dentist and had other appointments through the day. Milt immediately said no, not even waiting for Molly to finish listing her excuses.

“You mean no one will go with us?” I was beginning to panic (again). There was no way out of this one. I had promised the kids and of course they just had to go by subway, otherwise known (at least to me) as the underground-snake-maze from hell, which devours innocent country people like us. I was trapped.

Milt and Molly told us where to go and when to transfer. Transfer? Oh great, the snake pit maze was going to swallow us whole and we’d never come out again except as raving mad people, with torn clothes, matted hair, and drooling.

“Then what, Milt? I didn’t hear what you said, you’re not sure of the stop? Not sure of the stop?”

Could it get any worse?

“You mean I’ll have to look at a map, which I won’t understand because they’re all written in a foreign language, so then I’ll have to ask a New Yorker who will sneer at me and he’ll speak so fast that if I ask him to repeat the answer he’ll knife me?”

“Bowling Green, Molly? What’s that? You mean the subway doesn’t go right to the ferry and we’ll have to walk through Battery Park,” (major freak out), “with the kids?”

Swallowing became an audible event and my heart quickly sank into my stomach. “Is there any other way?” I asked hopefully.

“Sure the bus on Broadway goes right there.”

“You’re kidding,” (visible relief). “Did you hear that, kids? We’ll be able to see everything – above ground!”

“We want the train – we want the train!”

Milt and Molly were already discussing eggplant lasagna at Ray’s for dinner while I slid deeply into my chair wondering if I could feign some illness like irreversible brain damage. I ate lightly and decided this looked just like the kind of fear that needed to be faced head-on. Okay, I’ll do it, I thought, and if we wind up in Newark then I’ll never have to mow the lawn again. Sounds good to me, I told myself and made the deal.

The next morning I asked again – just to make sure. “No.” was the simultaneous answer. The directions were repeated for the emotionally handicapped, the front door opened, and there it was, the kind of concrete nightmares were made of. “Bus, right, guys?”

“We want the train, we want the train.”

“Okay, okay.”

I don’t know what happened, there must have been some happy gas sprayed in the tunnels the night before. The token man smiled and a lady showed us where to transfer and in Bowling Green, the sky was blue and the sun was still shining, as it had been when we started.

I was beginning to get the hang of this: adult; two legs; two eyes; most of a brain. Hey, no problem, I could do this in daylight. Did it matter that my daughter complained she had no more circulation in the hand I was holding?

The Statue of Levity was filled with people like myself, that really did speak a foreign language and I was ready to help if asked.

“Okay, guys, you’ve seen the statue, now let’s go explore!”

“Can’t we just go back to Uncle Milt and Aunt Molly’s?”

“Sure, let’s take a different uptown train.”

“We want to take a cab.”

“Forget it; it’s cheaper to take the subway.”

Did I just say that? I went through the bowels of the city and came through unscathed and, in fact, feeling more confident than I had in years.

Back at the apartment, the sun was setting on a beautiful summer day in the most exciting city in the world. I grew up around here you know. I know the city pretty well, I walked the length of it once, years ago and in the middle of the night…yeah, I used to hang out in Washington Square Park and St. Marks place, back in the late ’60s. We were up in Harlem once and…

It’s amazing how I’d finally grown up enough to be as independent as I had been 30 years ago.

Penny Ross BurkPenny Ross Burk is an artist/writer living in the Northern Virginia area. She has worked for many years in the film and TV industry which serves to keep her art alive.


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