New York City—my plane just touched down. LaGuardia Airport is a nightmare.
I am here for the BookExpo America, the largest book fair in the U.S. Think: Disneyland for people with big vocabularies.
I have only visited this city once before. I was a teenager, traveling with the church choir.
I was such a nervous wreck I had a panic attack downtown. Dizziness, heart racing, the works. The choir director took me to a walk-in clinic and they gave me a sedative that made me drool on the subway ride back.
I come from simple people. My mother often told horror stories about such big cities. These urban legends were almost never true, but they freaked me out.
“Did you hear about my friend’s sister, Jeanne?” Mother might say. “Her brother’s cousin’s neighbor’s nephew was in New York for a wedding, someone shot him in the kneecaps when he was leaving church, then threw him into the Hudson River.”
Welcome to New York.
I hail a Yellow Cab. I am in the backseat. My driver is from Indonesia. He drives like he’s clinically insane.
He is telling me about himself, but I can’t focus on a word he says because—it’s important that you understand this—there is a lizard is in his backseat.
“Where are you from?” the driver asks.
“Why is there a lizard in my seat?” I say.
“You aren’t from New York, are you? Wanna know how I know that?”
“Can we please slow down?”
“Because you are not wearing all-black Ha!”
“I think your lizard is carsick.”
The cab spits me out onto 76,397th Street, and charges me six hundred dollars. Soon, I am wandering sidewalks, looking for my hotel.
I am lost. I can’t seem to find my way. My mother’s horror stories are coming back to me.
Like the one about the man in the public restroom, murdered by a serial killer who dressed as a priest.
Or the time my uncle got mugged in D.C. And after the robber discovered my uncle only had five bucks on him, he whooped my uncle again and told him to carry more cash next time.
On the street, I pass thousands of people in all-black clothing, everyone is in a hurry, almost nobody is looking ahead. They look downward at phones, texting, Snapchatting, Instagraming, Tweeting, filing income taxes, etc.
I ask a police officer for directions. He smiles at me. He says, “Hey, where’s that accent from?”
“Do they all talk like you down in Florida?”
“Just the ones who live in trailers.”
He guides me to my hotel with a series of hand gestures. But I can’t understand anything he says because he talks too fast.
“Be careful,” he finally tells me. “This is a crazy place.”
He’s right, I see a lot of crazy. On the way to the hotel, I pass a man painted green, riding a unicycle. And four hundred grade schoolers mob me at a crosswalk.
I nearly get run over by a pizza-delivery motorcycle. And I am approached by an old man who asks for quarters. I give him two bucks. Then he says, “Thanks brother, can you break a hundred?”
Finally, I arrive at my room, and my nerves are shot. Below me, are ambulances, police cars, and a million taxis. I see billboards, lights, and road construction. Sounds of jackhammers, foghorns, sirens. Is that gunfire?
I was not designed for a big city. I’m embarrassed to say that I have always wished I could be a world traveler, but I’m too chicken. And you can’t make yourself into something you aren’t.
Even so, I am older now, and I am not as afraid as when I was a teenager. And that’s progress. Sort of.
The truth is, I can’t believe that I am in this city at all. I almost don’t believe this is happening.
If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be here in the Big Apple as a bona fide author, I would have laughed at you and asked you to leave my trailer.
Before bed, I call my mother on the hotel phone.
“Guess where I am,” I say to her.
“New York City.”
She loses it. “Oh, honey! Really? I’m so proud of you. Are you nervous?”
And for a moment I am no longer anxious. I realize that I am a not the same kid who was afraid of the whole world, once upon a time. All of a sudden, I have forgotten the horror stories, and I feel easy again.
“I’m not nervous,” I tell my mother. “For once in my life, I think I’m okay.”
“Well, be careful,” my mother says, “my cousin Ginger’s neighbor knew a kid who got his throat cut by a cab driver that sold his organs on the black market.”
Wish me luck in New York.