By Annette Hinkle
When I was 12 years old, I visited New York City for the first time.
In many ways, that trip changed my life… or maybe not so much changed it, as defined it.
It was the mid ‘70s, and we were middle class folk from the Midwest, so naturally, that meant we would drive to New York.
Fortunately we were well armed for the journey.
We had the AAA guides, a TripTik map charting the route in yellow highlighter from Dayton, Ohio to the Big Apple — pretty much a straight line — and Spam and saltines that would be our lunch at a rest stop somewhere along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Among the personal items I brought along was my Kodak Brownie Target six-16, a vintage box camera that I picked up at a local garage sale for a buck. As the name implies, it took Kodak 616 film — very elusive stuff, even then. So elusive, that I had just a single roll of it in my possession.
One roll, eight photos, 1,200 miles. That was it.
We were going to New York to visit my big sister who had recently left her secretarial job at NCR in Dayton in order to take a position with American Airlines in Manhattan. Moving on up, to the East Side, which is exactly where she was living — though not in a deluxe apartment in the sky, but rather, a tiny studio apartment that my parents and I would all cram into with her since everyone knows we didn’t pay for hotels unless we had to.
Memories of that trip came back to me last weekend when my husband and I were in the city with my daughter, Sophie, and her friend. We took the kids to the Upper West Side and Strawberry Fields, then headed down to Chinatown for cheap massages and fortune cookie shopping, and finally, we ended our day in the East Village with an extended visit to the Strand Book Store and Washington Square Park.
Along the way, our adventures were well documented by photos taken on our four cell phones which were soon shared on a range of social networking platforms.
It’s a far cry from my first visit to New York, I told the kids. When I explained how I had to decide which eight images would make the Brownie cut, Sophie’s friend was intrigued and he wanted to know more about the pictures I took.
I told him with certainty that the very first of those eight photos was taken as we drove across the bridge that goes over the Ohio River and separates my home state from West Virginia. It was a monumental moment in that I had never been that far east before and I felt it was worthy to document the fact that I was leaving where I had always been on my way to somewhere else.
And it wasn’t just somewhere else, it was New York and I was positively giddy with excitement.
This is not something that people who grew up on the East Coast seem to understand. When I ask my husband about his relationship to New York as a kid, he just shrugs. But he’s a Jersey boy and the city was in his backyard.
The truth is, when you live nowhere near it, New York is a destination that looms large in the imagination. At least it did in mine. As a 12-year-old I was obsessed with all aspects of what New York might be — despite, or rather, because, I had never had access to any of it. I longed to see yellow taxis, ride the subway and gaze straight up at the Empire State Building.
And for me, New York delivered — even given the sorry state it was in in the 1970s. I was fascinated by the unseemliness of Times Square, squeamishly delighted by the dead ducks hanging in Chinatown windows, and intrigued by the New York City firemen I saw hosing down Third Avenue after a cab hit a pot hole so big it dropped its fuel tank right there in front of Bloomingdales.
This stuff never happened in Ohio.
But more than that, I think for me, New York was about understanding who I was at the deepest level. Even though I was only 12, as soon as I set foot in the city I knew without a doubt that I was a New Yorker. It fit my personality. Something about the multi-ethnic, insanely tolerant, laissez–faire pulse of the place made me feel happy and right at home.
Alas, I can’t say that Sophie takes after me. Perhaps it’s because, unlike me, she did grow up with New York at her beck and call, just like her father. We’ve been taking her there since she was a baby, and now, at the age of 15, it’s safe to say my daughter is definitely not a city person. She hates the smell of Chinatown, dislikes dirt and grunge (even though New York is positively sterile compared to the 1970s), and she gets nervous riding the subway.
But Sophie’s friend? He gets it. Though he had been to the city before to see Broadway shows, this was his first real trip to New York in that we took him to different neighborhoods so he could really get to know the place. Exploring the Lower East Side by poking our heads into mysterious shops along the way and watching the antics of life on the street seemed to energize him in a way I understood and recognized. He was just like I had been and his infectious enthusiasm reminded me of how I felt on that long ago trip.
Why is it that one person fits into a place like a pair of comfortable shoes while another can’t wait to escape from it? Is it in our DNA, our unique life experiences or is it that familiarity breeds contempt?
Turns out, we had picked a good day to wander the city and it was an incredibly warm for February. So we took a side trip to Washington Square Park which, as is often the case on warm days, was vibrant and alive with street performers, music and happy dogs.
That’s when it suddenly hit me. This was the site of another one of those long ago photo ops with the Brownie.
Back then, Washington Square Park was pretty much a wreck. The fountain was broken and I think it may have been covered in graffiti. The park itself lacked much in the way of real grass, except the kind the nefarious characters were peddling along with other illegal wares.
As I recall, I took the photo on the north side of the park, outside on the sidewalk. Back in those days, starving artists would hang their artwork all along the wrought iron fence that surrounds Washington Square Park in hopes of making a buck that many would probably end up spending with the vendors inside the park.
Among the artists selling their work that day was a young boy, probably not much older than I was. There was something about his self-assured salesmanship, and the fact he was at ease talking to customers about his work without his parents hovering nearby. I thought it would be cool to be a kid artist in a place like New York. And people were buying his work. Why not? it was very reasonably priced — maybe 50 cents a piece.
For me it was a perfect illustration that this was the city of dreams — both his and my own. The idea that someone my age could be an entrepreneur in a place like New York intrigued me in a way that stuck.
So I snapped a photo of him and his artwork as he chatted up a potential buyer.
It’s been years since I’ve seen those pictures and as we left Washington Square Park last week to head uptown for dinner at Sophie’s favorite vegan Korean restaurant, I pondered just how far I’ve come since I was 12 and saw New York for the first time.
Maybe some day soon I’ll dig deep in the attic and see if I can find those eight pictures that pointed the way to my future.
All these years later, I’m curious to learn what else they might have to tell me.