When I was 16, I used to cut school, take the E-train to Union Square and stand around listening to the Communist speakers rant about injustice. You could say I was passion-challenged, living in Queens and attending Jamaica High School.
I was the kid who had a crush on television newscaster Chet Huntley while my girlfriends were throwing their panties at guys with guitars, singing songs they wrote in a cloud of marijuana smoke, wearing clothes calculated to look cool. My friends looked for meaning from all that, and they didn't find it. I didn't find it either, but at least I was informed.
On one of those trips to Union Square, a Puerto Rican guy closed in on me in front of a crowded subway car. He backed me up against the exit door, and in the time it took to go from 179th Street in Jamaica to 169th Street -- where I bolted when the door opened -- I was molested. I told no one until I was in graduate school 20 years later. First of all, I was playing hooky. But even if I wasn't, telling my mother would have resulted in my being forbidden to go to New York ever again alone.
Am I permanently scarred? No. But it is an event that is stamped, in all its vulgarity, upon my conscious mind. Did I limit my own daughter's life because of my experience? No. Do I travel the subway when I go to New York? No. But like Scarlett O'Hara in my favorite scene from "Gone With the Wind," in which she returns to Tara after the war, forages for food, finds a radish, and swears to the heavens, "I'll never go hungry again," I, too, swore that I'd never be a victim again. What is the opposite of victim?
Up until that moment on the E-train, I was a naïve, idealistic 1950s teen-ager who hitched rides, smoked Raleigh cigarettes so that I could buy myself a boat with the coupons, and lived in an extended Jewish working-class family in a non-Jewish neighborhood -- and who also had a crush on Chet Huntley. After that one-mile subway ride, I was forever on alert.
Last week, I returned to New York in what has become my rite of spring. The museums were filled with dinosaurs and mummies, the stores with $600 Donna Karan workout clothes, and the never-empty streets teeming with people. I once read that if you walked the streets of New York City for 18 hours, you would see 10,000 new faces. When I wasn't walking, I was riding the buses, looking at the women who are the models of my adulthood -- the elder women, neatly groomed, coifed, dressed, bejeweled and sharp-witted, and I saw fewer than I did last year.
I love watching them. Starting with their hair, every inch is well-thought-out and cared for. Nails are polished, there's just enough makeup and jewelry, and, usually, they're reading The New Yorker. Their clothes are as fashionable as the times when clothes were made not for girls trying to be women but for classic women who would one day ride a bus in New York in their 80s and look truly chic, ageless. These women live in a city famous for its take-no-prisoners attitude, and they look fully liberated.
As I sat on the M4 bus heading uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I thought about this city whose pulse was forever a part of my metabolism. And I thought about my friend Gerri Schlein, who once made me an honorary Schlein when I needed the comfort of family in Los Angeles -- a city consumed with creating a lifestyle rather than a real life.
When Gerri was a young woman, she ran off to Europe with an artist and lived the bohemian life. She was, herself, a talented musician. When I wrote about her for the Los Angeles Times, she was in her 80s and still a force for bringing music to children whose lives were filled with too many dangerous people of the inner city and with not enough Mozart. After the article ran, she stayed in my life.
I telephoned her before I left because I had heard that she was in an automobile accident and suffered a setback -- not so much physical but of a kind that is a harsh intrusion into her spirit. I know this spirit -- part indomitable, part vulnerable. For women such as Gerri, it is not enough to just live out the years; they need to live with a free spirit and the passion that has sustained them for most of their lives.
The Commies are ideologically bankrupt and Chet Huntley smoked too many cigarettes, but the ladies of the bus and Gerri are my heroes -- a reminder from my subway days of what is really worth imitating. So here's to the women with indomitable spirits, the women whose time will never pass as long as the rest of us stay alert.
Linda Feldman, a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times, is the co-author of "Where To Go From Here: Discovering Your Own Life's Wisdom," due out this fall from Simon & Schuster.
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