I’m 53 years old and today, I feel every second of those 53 years.

Physically, at least.

Emotionally, I feel as though I never left my 20’s. Without a doubt, that was the best decade of my life; warts, foibles, and everything else.

That unforgettable decade began in the summer of 1983, when I was 19. We had moved back to the US from Germany, and as soon as I’d learned my dad would be stationed in New Jersey, I knew I had to work and live in New York City.  My dream came true within a month of moving to New Jersey. Our entire family was staying with my grandparents in Edgewater until our rental house on the Jersey shore was ready to move in.

From the first time I saw an MTV video (mailed to me in Germany via a video tape), I’d wanted to work at the music station. Forget I had no experience.  I wrote them a letter, expressing my love of music and my ability to talk. To their credit, whoever handled hiring for MTV (or that person’s secretary), wrote back, thanking me for my interest and enthusiasm, but sadly, they had no openings at that time.

My older sister, who worked in midtown Manhattan,  stopped by one afternoon and asked whether I spoke Spanish. At the time, I could hold basic conversations, thanks to three years of high school Spanish.  She said she had a job for me if I wanted it. Without asking what the job entailed, I said yes. New York City was New York City, and I had to be there.

The job turned out to be at a Chinese fast food place owned by a Korean family and frequented by garment industry workers, many of whom spoke only Spanish. I spent the majority of my days speaking Korean and Spanish. By the time I got home to my grandparents’, I could barley remember how to speak English.

It was hard work, but fun, too. One Saturday, the owner asked me to accompany her son and daughter to sign the lease on an apartment in the Bronx. She wanted them to attend a special school there, but the family lived in Queens. I remember boarding a subway train with two teenagers, who didn’t speak English very well, and feeling a great sense of responsibility to keep them safe. I kept my eyes peeled for any gang members to climb aboard. From watching the movie, The Warriors, I knew the City was teeming with gangs, and I could recognize them by their specific “uniforms.” (Did I mention I was 19 and naive?) I did my best to not make eye contact with anyone as the train rumbled uptown. I didn’t spot any obvious gang members for a number of stops. Then, as we reached Harlem, two guys got on and sat at opposite ends of our car. Both wore red berets and white t-shirts bearing the outline of a pair of red wings. As the train continued uptown, more people got off, and by the time we reached our stop in the Bronx, the only ones left in our car were me, the two teens, three other guys, and those two gang members.

I ushered the teens ahead of me out the door and onto the elevated platform. The gang members also got off!  My heart was hammering in my chest, but I didn’t dare look to see whether the gang members were following.  I tried to act as though I always got off at this stop. I was sure we were going to be jumped, and I was carrying a signed, blank check in my pocket to pay the rent for the teens. As we reached the stairs, I glanced over my shoulder to see how close they were. They were standing on the platform, looking my way. When they caught my gaze, both guys smiled, waved, then boarded another train that had rumbled into the station.

Later, I learned the guys were members of an all-volunteer, anti-violence group called the Guardian Angels. They made it their mission to hang out in the subway and other areas where people could be mugged or attacked.  I still remember how panicked I felt, sharing the subway car with them.

 

 

 

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