When I was twenty-one, I loaded up a suitcase with all my worldly possessions, two hundred dollars, and took a Greyhound bus from South Dakota to New York City. I was too naïve to realize the folly of what I was doing. I had no job and no place to stay. My parents opposed my decision, but I was twenty-one.
When I arrived, it was September. The colors in Central Park were warm with yellow, orange and reds.
I got lucky and immediately found a job at Scribner’s Book Store, a mecca of books housed in a glass, wood architectural dream.
A woman, with brilliantly dyed red hair, askew glasses, a thick New York accent, and whose hobby was betting on the ponies, was letting an apartment in a building on 181st street.
She decided I was a “very nice girl” and told me rent was $180 a month. I told her I couldn’t afford it, so she lined me up with a roommate, also a “very nice girl,” so we could share the rent. The apartment had a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen and two broken refrigerators in the entry hall—my new home.
Struggling financially to pay rent and pay for subway tokens to get to and from work, I had no money for luxuries. New clothes were not an option.
I continued to wear what I had packed in my suitcase, including my best polyester pants suit and my one pair of shoes. As the weather started to turn icy, I layered more clothes because I didn’t have a winter coat.
My parents begged me to come home, but like being involved with a man that you know is bad for you and you should break it off, instead I dived deeper into my love affair with New York City, and stayed.
I never asked my parents for money. I knew they wouldn’t send it. They had made it clear that when I came to my senses, they would pay for a ticket home.
In December, the city streets turned magical with lights, shoppers, the Rockefeller Center tree and skating rink and the artfully decorated Christmas department store windows along Fifth Avenue.
I took all the money I had managed to save and bought Christmas presents. I knew my family would think I was doing well if I sent gifts.
A warm, furry cap for my dad, a beautiful photo book of Wyeth’s paintings for my mom, a cookbook for my grandma, a giant gingerbread house that needed to be assembled from Macy’s for my little sister, and a croquet set for my other siblings. I had no money left, but my pride was intact.
In reality, my shoes were falling apart, rotten from the rain and slush of New York streets. I had a ragged pair of beige mittens that I had purchased in November on a street corner for a dollar.
Two weeks before Christmas, I was behind the cash register in the bookstore. There were so many customers, I rarely looked up to see the face.
As I waited for yet another long day to be over, the most marvelous gloves I had ever seen quietly rested on the counter. They were all the colors of the rainbow – red, blue, purple, yellow, green.
I looked up at the man, who had wonderful kind eyes and told him they were amazing. He looked at me and then asked, “Would you like them?”
At first, I was excited that I might own something so beautiful. Then I remembered, I only had ugly, dirty beige mittens to give him.
The store went very silent. Everyone seemed to be watching us.
He softly told me, “No, I’ll give these to you.” I wanted those gloves. But I couldn’t send the man out into the cold with bare hands. “Thank you,” I said, “but I can’t.”
He smiled and paid for his cards in cash. Then his wife, who barely was tall enough to peer over the counter, and his little boy, left.
The noise returned to the store. One of the clerks rushed up to me. “What were you talking about?!!”
“Mittens,” I said.
She asked me, “Did you know you were talking to John Lennon?”
On Christmas Eve, the store stayed open late for the last-minute shoppers. The cash registers wouldn’t balance, and we didn’t leave until late.
By the time the A train got me to my stop it was after eleven. I came out on the street, cold and tired and walked the stairs to my fifth-floor apartment.
The clerk had told me I was stupid, that I should’ve taken his gloves and that I could’ve sold them for a lot of money. I thought about it, but only briefly, because no one should have cold hands.
Years later as I looked back at my first Christmas away from home with no tree, no family, no presents, I think about loneliness I felt that day. Regrets? I have none.