In a previous story, The Phone Call That Changed My Life, I described my kicking-and-screaming circuitous route to becoming an engineering student at the NYU University Heights Campus in the Bronx borough of New York City. I hadn’t even known that campus existed, and yet in the fall of 1960 there I was, starting as a freshman. But first I had to get there.
Dreaming of the Happiest Place On Earth
My first semester was the commute from hell. New York City had a screwy summer-fall-winter in 1960–summer’s scorching 90 degree heat with humidity close to 100%, winter’s frigid, bone-freezing temps with humidity close to 100%, and a mere one and a half days of glorious fall weather sandwiched in between.
But whether it was sweltering heat or bone-chilling cold, I started my day by waking at 6 a.m. and leaving the house by 7. My commute started with the mile walk from our apartment in the Whitestone neighborhood in the New York City borough of Queens, to catch the first (of two) busses on my journey to school.
The commute made me yearn for California where it was rumored that people didn’t die of heatstroke or frostbite just trying to get to work or school. But the ultimate pot at the end of the rainbow was the Happiest Place On Earth aka Disneyland in Anaheim California. Since 1955, Uncle Walt had drilled into us that heaven was just a pit stop on the way to Disneyland.
But for the foreseeable future I was destined to make the seemingly endless trip between Queens and the Bronx and then back at the end of the day, not unlike Charlie on the Boston MTA.
Buses, Buses, Buses
That first bus ride was about an hour +/- depending on commuter traffic on the parkway and the Whitestone Bridge. It was not a fun ride, and made less so by Mr. Aurichio. Mr. A was the father of June who lived across the street, my first serious girl friend who had dumped me that summer. Somehow Mr. A was always sitting directly across from me and glaring at me with slits for eyes and the Gort (the killer robot from The Day The Earth Stood Still) laser death ray stare.
I spent the hour bus ride feeling like I should plead for me life saying, “But, but SHE dumped me, I’m innocent, please don’t kill me.” But I had no courage so I suffered in fearful silence.
Finally, the bus arrived at the other end—the other end of nowhere—in the Bronx. Then I had to wait for a second bus to continue on my daily odyssey. The bus would eventually come, always late, and I settled in for another half-hour ride to NYU, and then a 15-minute walk to get to my first class.
I got to repeat the whole megillah for the return trip home at the end of each day. (Megillah: Yiddish slang for an elaborate, complicated production or sequence of events.). After a quick dinner, I did a couple hours of homework and then poured myself into bed to recharge for the next day.
A couple of weeks before Christmas break, mom and dad somehow hooked me up with Crazy Robert (and you didn’t call him Bob if you valued your teeth). They had noticed that I spent the weekend curled up in a ball wimpering like a wounded weasel from the daily commute grind. So they took pity on me and talked to people who knew people and voila, Robert.
Robert was an Electrical Engineering major in his Junior year. But his main claim to fame was that he drove a car to school. His second claim to fame was that he lived next door to Buffalo Bob Smith of Howdy Doody fame, in a nearby ritzy neighborhood.
(I have a deep, lifelong affection for Howdy and the gang since Howdy Doody’s first broadcast in 1947 when I was four. It was the #1 show in its time slot—of course the fact that it was the only show in its time slot may have had something to do with that. When I was six, my well-connected Uncle Charley actually got me on the show in the fourth row of the Peanut Gallery. When I was in my 60s, my kids gave me a signed Howdy Doody and Buffalo Bob Smith photo— personally dedicated to me—that I treasure.)
It was such a relief to have a ride versus the bus odyssey, but it turned out to be a death-defying ride every time. Robert would race along the parkway and the Cross Bronx Expressway at breakneck speed, dodging and weaving in traffic when he could until traffic came to a standstill at some point on the Expressway.
But that didn’t phase Robert. He’d impatiently waited for the nearest exit or on ramp, whichever came first. If it was an on ramp he would drive backwards up the ramp at 20 mph dodging and weaving between the entering cars.
After that, the route usually took us to driving on the street below the elevated subway, weaving between the metal track supports like a scene from The French Connection movie. Eventually, after a long, harrowing drive, we’d arrive at school.
Was this method of transport better than the bus? I suppose it was. At least his car was heated.
I commuted with Robert for a few weeks after Christmas break. Somehow by then mom and dad had gotten wind of my death-defying commute. My theory was they heard my nightmare screams of “Robert, slow down.” They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: spend the spring semester on campus at the residence hall. It took me about the blink of an eye to accept their offer.
So for spring semester I was an on-campus student. That was absolutely fantastic, and a semester filled with new eye-opening experiences and one that nearly got me expelled—maybe a story for another time.
All in all—crazy weather, tortuous bus rides and Crazy Robert—my first semester was a total FOG, a Fu##ing Opportunity for Growth.
It wasn’t until the end of my Freshman year—when mom and dad saw that I’d actually completed the year—that they revealed they had a long-term transportation solution for me: they were buying a new car and giving me the family 1956 Plymouth. That and the exorbitant on campus living costs was why I remained a commuter from then on. Life was sweet though. No more torturous bus commute AND I had my own car. Liberation!
The Plymouth was a sleek steed indeed. It was complete with front and rear bench seats the size of football fields, and a magical push-button automatic transmission. The seats were perfect for back seat nooky (in his dreams, so said the 18-year-old virgin).
Best of all it sported an AM radio for listening to non-stop Rock ‘n Roll. Sadly, by then, Alan Freed the AM radio Rock ‘n Roll DJ was off the air. Freed invented Rock ‘n Roll . He WAS Rock ‘n Roll until he was booted off the air in 1959 for the Payola Scandal. But there were imposters to listen to like Murray the K and Cousin Brucie (who was definitely no cousin of mine).
The Plymouth was my constant companion until 1966 when it had devolved into a rusted-out hulk.
1956 Plymouth with unmatched splendor as far as I was concerned.
But in the interim, the Plymouth and I had our adventures starting with the very first day I drove her to school at the start of my Sophomore year in 1961. I had parked on a side street next to campus—a street that faced north but I needed to get to the intersection facing south behind me to make my turn and head home.
As I got in the car, I noticed a cop car at that south intersection. Under his watchful gaze I did a text book U-turn to get to the south intersection, at which point, he and I were now looking at each other eye ball to eye ball. At the intersection Stop sign, I did a perfect look-both-ways full stop and then made my turn. I had been the perfect example of driving correctness, right? (Among my Aunts and Uncles there were heated debates about whether Stop meant full stop or just slow down. I opted for the former interpretation.)
Drat! Half way down the block, I saw the cop car in my rear view mirror, right behind me with lights flashing. I pulled over and got out—shaking like a leaf having never experienced a traffic stop. I eeked out a shaky “What did I do?” The cop looked at me, lifted his shades, and smiled a friendly smile. He then said, “Relax, kid, I’m not arresting you for murder. I’m ticketing you for making a perfect U-turn on a one-way street and then driving the wrong way.”
That traffic stop was followed by another a few months later for guess what? Yes, going the wrong way on a one-way street. I guess I learned a lesson because over the next 60 years I never got another one-way street ticket.
And to this day, I’m grateful to mom and dad for that Plymouth—for the gift of wheels and freedom.
8 thoughts on “The Trek”
Glad to see you back on the track! I really enjoy your stories!
Love to you and Nancy,
Gotta give it to you Steve the smirk laughing never ends. Mahalo hope all is well with you and yours. Auguste in Spirit and John
A wonderful read. It got me to thinking what I was doing in Miami around the same time. And, I still like the Kingston Trio style shirts. And, Buffalo Bob and Howdy!
I’m so glad you enjoyed it Lee. Thanks for letting me know.
Another great read, Steve! I remember seeing the signed Howdy Doody picture hanging in your office and I about fell over backwards (pretty cool!). Your life is like a motion picture 🙂
Thanks Mary Ellen. I’m so glad you enjoyed the story and that you remember my Mr. Doody photo. (Howdy’s getting old like some of us and I think deserves some new respect. On the other hand, Howdy is timeless so I should probably stick with that.)