Wednesday, August 24, 2016

New York

i got to New York City around 7 pm on the same day that I left home, August 23, 1996. acquaintances of my father's, a couple who had helped us find RIT and submit the paperwork, and who had made the arrangements with my host family in Rochester, were supposed to meet me in New York and tell me what to do next, how to get from New York City to Rochester, New York.
I'd made the mistake of falling asleep on the first leg of my trip, from St. Petersburg to Shannon, Ireland, and couldn't sleep a wink on the second flight. (due to a quirk in post-Cold war politics, Aeroflot flights from St. Petersburg to New York stopped in Ireland.) i disembarked groggy and confused. inside the airport was freezing due to airconditioning and teeming with people. a woman ran up to me at the customs exit and said, in Russian, "are you Olya? you must be Olya. come, come, my husband is circling outside. he can't stop!!"
what? what?
she turned around and without waiting for me to pick up my suitcase, the extra duffel, and the guitar, disappeared in the crowd of people. she then reappeared and waved, "come!"
pushing people out of her way, she rushed to the terminal exit. a blast of heat and humidity hit me in the face. new york city seemed to smell of something rotten. i looked around, expecting to see skyscrapers, but couldn't see anything past the lanes of traffic. while we stood there, waiting for i don't know what, the first raindrops landed. suddenly, somebody mad swerved through several lanes to stop right in front of my companion. "there he is! quick," the woman commanded. "he isn't supposed to stop here."
the raindrops were turning into a torrential downpour, of the kind I'd hardly seen before. the husband opened the trunk, and as best I could, I stuffed my luggage inside. the guitar i took to the back seat with me, and sat there, cradling it between my legs. "you're supposed to buckle," the woman said, turning around from the passenger seat. "ah, whatever. here are your tickets."
she handed me a long envelope. "your flight to Rochester is in forty minutes. it's at a different terminal. we'll drive you there. the family's waiting for you; they will pick you up."
inside the car was like a sauna. when i tried to open the window, i couldn't hear any of the instructions the woman was giving. she was speaking Russian, but i didn't understand half of what she was saying anyway. i closed the window.
"anyway, here you are. bye." her husband, who had said not a word through all of this, stopped the car. they were waiting for me to get out.
"but," I said. "but--"
"don't worry about anything. go, go. he isn't supposed to stop here," the woman said. and indeed, a uniformed man with a whistle was coming our way to shoo the driver from his place at the curb. I jumped out onto the street and rushed to collect my luggage.
inside the terminal, it was mercifully cool and I could collect my wits. I looked at the envelope in my hand. there was a ticket inside, New York City--Rochester, New York. I compared the flight numbers to the numbers on the tableau and went to register my luggage.
at the gate, there was a crowd. somebody made an announcement, but I understood not a word. something was clearly happening though. the tableau was blinking, the people seemed agitated. i decided to go up to the counter and ask if everything was okay. the flight was postponed. i don't think the word postponed was in my vocabulary, and so it took a lot of effort for the airline representative to explain to me what was happening. first it was, "later, later," and then, as the evening progressed it turned into, "tomorrow morning, 6 am."
what to do? my host family was apparently waiting for me in Rochester. "the payphones are over there," the airline representative directed.
the payphone instructions were taped to the payphone itself, and carefully studying the little pictures, I tried to dial the number. to place a distance call, i needed several dollars worth of quarters. luckily, quarters were not a problem. a numismatist uncle had given me a bagful of quarters to take on the trip, happy to collect from my father the equivalent in paper currency.
at the Rochester number, somebody picked up the phone. using the words i had just learned from the airline employee (delayed, postponed), I was able to explain my predicament. tomorrow, I said. 8 am! i wasn't sure who i was talking to and whether i was understood. but i dictated my new flight number to the person on the other end of the line, and that was the best i could do. i hung up the phone. should i call my parents? how many quarters would that take?
and what to do next? where could I spend the night? when did the airport close? could i wait outside?
i returned to the help desk.
"hotel rooms are over there," the airline representative pointed to another counter, where a long line had formed. did i need a hotel room? if all those people were waiting for one, they must've known something i didn't. i was conditioned to wait in queues. i hung in the back of the line, considering. how much did hotel rooms cost? i had about $800 with me, which i hoped would last me for six months.
i ended up paying $200 for the room--the hotel representative promised me that was the only one they had left. following the signs and other passengers, i took the shuttle bus to the hotel. i can't remember whether i had my luggage with me or not. i was confused. going from cold to hot and to cold again.
the hotel was finally a skyscraper, and my room on the sixteenth floor. that was exciting. i turned on the TV, but i was tired and couldn't follow a thing. the American words were all running together and lulling me to sleep.
i couldn't afford to fall asleep.
if i fell asleep, i would NOT be able to get up at five o'clock in the morning, when the airport shuttle would be waiting for me. at home, when i was particularly tired, it took my mother or my grandmother shaking me repeatedly to get me up. (and no, i didn't know about the wake up service. i was probably explained it at the check in, but i didn't get it. i did find the alarm clock in the room, but I did not trust my ability to get up with the help of only one alarm clock. grandmother alarm was far more effective.)
i needed to get to Rochester.
the only solution was to not sleep. i had my audio cassettes. besides the tape that Johnnie had made for me, i had Inna's mix of Metallica and the Scorpions ballads. I had my collection of the Beatles. I put on my headphones and spent the next six hours walking in circles around the $200 hotel room, trying not to fall asleep.

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