Twenty five years ago, I headed out at night into the streets of New York with a total stranger I had just met at a YMCA where I was booked in for three nights.
This is one of my life’s ‘sliding door’ moments.
At that time, I was an excitable and naïve 21 year old, a country girl, who had been living and working in America for four months, while lodging safely with a friend in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The trip to New York was the first time I had travelled solo in America, and I was full of excitement and ready for adventure. While checking out the noticeboards at the Y, one of the friendly young men also hanging out in the foyer, introduced himself as a local, and offered to take me on a tour of the city at night.
So off we headed. A young me, in shorts, t-shirt and runners , with all my worldly possessions secured around my neck in a hidden pouch. We walked, and talked. I don’t recall what about.
I just remember feeling an increasing sense of unease and anxiety with every step we took, as the young man seemed to walk me deeper into shadows, and into streets that seemed to throb with menace.
By now, I wasn’t feeling as brazen and self-assured as when I’d left the hostel. There were no reassuring mobile phones then. No phone boxes in sight. No police cars. I felt completely vulnerable and alone.
I was, I realised, the only white person on the streets.
Suddenly a car pulled up alongside us, and an older man wound down his car window.
“Hey,” he called out. “What are you doing here?”
He was talking to me. I must have looked like a fish out of water.
“I don’t know,” I managed to stammer.
“Get in,” he commanded.
It took me a few short seconds to make what I would now describe as a ‘risk assessment’, and nodded my assent. Into the car I jumped – as fast as I could scrambling away from my companion, yet still thinking to thank him politely for the tour he’d given me. “I’m tired,” I stammered, to his protests.
“A girl like you shouldn’t be out on the streets here,” the car driver admonished me. “This is a very dangerous part of town”.
He seemed fatherly. Safe. Around thirty, I estimated.
He offered to drive me back to my hostel. I was so relieved I could have cried.
It was only when he pulled up outside the YMCA that he seemed to have second thoughts about saying goodbye.
“Got a smoke on you?” he asked. “How about a drink with me?”
I politely declined and got out of the car as quickly as I could, running into the foyer at the Y, half expecting to find my former companion back in the foyer waiting for me.
But that was the end of my night’s adventure, but not my imagining of different endings.
I saw how the outcomes could have been different. I realised that I was a too naïve, too trusting, in a situation where it was unwise to be so.
I also had a small taste of what it felt like to be “the other” in a place where I clearly didn’t fit in. And how when given the choice between two strangers I chose a stranger who looked more ‘like me’. Meaning white. And I felt a little ashamed to know that about myself.
I’ll never know if either man had any ill intentions toward me. I only had my instincts to rely upon, and largely, they’ve served me well.
If I was honest, both men scared me a little. Not at first, but soon after.
After that first night in New York, I was more cautious in decisions I made about my travel companions. Mostly, from thereon, I only travelled with fellow travellers, or friends.
What’s one of your sliding door moments?