My first remembered thought as a child was: How do I get the hell out of this city? The map that made me crisscrossed above Brooklyn’s gray streets—Coney Island, Brighton Beach, BedStuy— then dipped into downtown Brooklyn’s bowels. Crushed against more than 8 million daily commuters, several hundred street performers, and the thousands of homeless who used my subway map for toilet paper, I prayed. We’d emerge briefly, sunlight flashing between steel cables as we crossed the Manhattan Bridge. In that short space spirits lifted then fell as we descended into the underbelly of Canal Street through mid Manhattan. I prayed, but found no exits.
Recurring dreams had me stuck in those tunnels waiting for the B train, F train, IRT locals and shuttles. I’d wander into packed cars, empty cars, derailed cars that careened through blackness, spitting me out at unmarked stations where I’d climb stairs with those (you know) heavy-laden, dream-legs only to be chased by gun-totting mobs, wild dogs, and in one dream a demented clown danced seductively along the third rail as I struggled to wake— heart pounding and sweat drenched—to a life as frightful as the dreams. My God, how I prayed.
It was on the N Train, at 19 years old, that I met my first and only love. James. His smile lit up the dark places and belied his living nightmares as we raced underground. Infatuation grew to love and love always brings hope. I thanked God. But too soon, hope and love and tragedy collided as often happens in my part of town and I joined the parade of women visiting their men: girlfriends, wives, grandmothers who learn to navigate the public transit system leading to Riker’s Island, Sing Sing, Attica. In essence squeezing me into the small, stifling space the larger maps insisted were destined for me.
Still young, I eventually chose to brave those larger maps, crossing state lines, economic, racial, and cultural divides to prove I could, even though so unsure of my destination. I prayed, but nothing could have prepared me for the losses that awaited me. I fell apart, came together, fell apart—losing James to a self-inflicted gunshot to the heart, so many on 9/11, my mother to cancer. My greatest fear is that I have lived too long.
Years, and years more, and I’m still in awe of majestic trails and breathtaking vistas even as I navigate the potholes, detours, roads under construction, with absolutely no proven short cuts.
So don’t be surprised if you find me on the side of the road, on the outskirts of some place or the other studying the crumpled, stained map confused by the keys and legends, seeking and asking for directions. Simply acknowledge that I am here, weary from wandering so long, but still here in this spot on the map.
Reading March 16, 2013 Barrie Jean Borich’s Book Launch for Body Geographic