Last December, I had met with an official from the mission board of my denomination. It seems that my pastor had told him that I might be interested in serving as a missionary in Japan, so he called and asked to meet me for breakfast.
The truth was, I had never thought of being a missionary, in Japan or anywhere else. I had some friends in college who were "missionary kids," and I thought they were very interesting people. The first time I met one young woman, she was, I kid you not, peeling a grapefruit. It took all I had not to say, "that's not how you eat it." Another of my friends talked about taking an extended trip to Japan in the summer, and wanted to know if I would go with her. I was considering quitting my exciting secretarial job and going to graduate school, so I said "yes." I was ready for an adventure. More than ready. And I told my pastor, "I'm thinking of going to Japan, but I don't want to be a tourist." That's why he called the official from the mission board.
I had a great conversation with the official. No one had ever taken me out for breakfast before. He seemed to think I had some promise, because he asked me, "How would you like to come to New York and interview for a three year position as a teacher?"
Well, that could be an adventure, couldn't it?
It would be my second trip on an airplane. The first was when I was 21, and I spent January in Phoenix, Arizona. This time I was flying into LaGuardia, a place I had sent my bosses on occasion. I had several interviews, one with a psychologist in Brooklyn, with the mission board in midtown Manhattan, and a full physical somewhere or other. I had extensive directions, including subway maps, in a large manila envelope that I kept with me. And I would be staying at a place called the Seafarer's and International House.
I was most worried about getting from the airport to my hotel. I had heard stories, you see, about New York, and how cab drivers might take people like me to New Jersey and back on the way to their hotel. Friends delighted in telling me scary stories. Then I had directions to the psychologist in Brooklyn that involved getting up at 6:30 in the morning and taking two subways, to get to an 8:00 appointment. Ok, I was a little worried about that, too. I had never taken a subway before.
At Laguardia, I discovered a thing called "cab sharing." You took a little longer, but the cab fare was a set rate. One of the people I rode with was, I remember, a professor at Columbia (one of the graduate schools I had applied to).
The Seafarer's House was an unusual place because, for one thing, there were seafarers there. I was so nervous about missing my 8:00 appointment that I kept waking up every hour or so during the night. At 6:30 I was ready to board a subway for the first time.
Someone (maybe a seafarer, I don't remember) followed me to the train station to make sure I got on the right train going in the right direction. They kept telling me, don't worry, it's easy, you can't get lost.
And they were right. I didn't get lost.
On the train, a nice woman sitting next to me touched my arm and said, "You're from the Midwest, aren't you?" Then I felt really conspicuous. "Be careful of your purse," she advised.
The psychologist and I got along great. They don't want to send crazy people overseas, I guess. I don't know what I expected, but it was a very laid-back conversation, after which he gave me a relatively clean bill of mental health. Then he directed me back to the subway, and to midtown Manhattan, where the mission offices were.
I had a lot of time before my next appointment, and said I might like to have breakfast. He said he thought I could find someplace to eat. And he said, again, it's very easy to get to midtown from here. It's very easy. You can't get lost.
So I got back on the subway, for the second time in my entire life, and carefully noted each stop, to make sure I would get off at the right one.
And he was right, it didn't take any time at all, in that great big city, to get from his office to midtown Manhattan. I remember getting off the train, and going through the turnstile, and up the stairs.
Suddenly I discovered, I was in the Empire State Building.
It was magic.
I'm from the Midwest, you know. My mother grew up on a farm. My father's parents were immigrants from Sweden. They probably came through Ellis Island, although we never asked them about it.
New York was a movie set to me. It was Miracle on 34th Street, with the Macys Santa. It was King Kong and the Empire State Building.
And New York was a song. It was Easter Parade, with Judy Garland and Fred Astaire singing: "On the Avenue/5th Avenue/the photographers will snap us/and you'll find that you're/in the rotogravure"
And I was there.