Paper Maps: An Essay About Finding Your Way
by Kristin Russo
I moved to New York City when I was nineteen. I’m not sure that there’s ever been a place that sparkled and shone quite as much as NYC did for me that year, teeming with tangles of dirty streets, angry, honking cabs, and an endless array of scuttling rodents. I’d dreamed of this for years. Finally, it was all mine.
When I first arrived, I rented a tiny room in a hostel on the Upper West Side. My room had everything I needed: a twin bed, a desk, a mini-fridge, a heating pipe (which would burst a few weeks after I moved in, soaking all of my belongings and my brand-new forty-pound laptop), a sink, and a closet with three hangers. I shared a bathroom and a kitchen with five strangers who lived in my hallway.
At the time, I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in theater at Marymount Manhattan College. Marymount was on East Seventy-First Street, and my hostel was on West Ninety-Fourth Street. I studied the subway map (a paper map! I actually had a paper subway map!) to determine the best route between my new home and my new school. If I took the 2 train south to Times Square, I could transfer to the S train that would shuttle me across to Grand Central Station. Once there, I could transfer to the 4 train, one stop up to Fifty-Ninth Street and then transfer one more time to the 6 train to Sixty-Eighth. Boom. Four trains, no problem. This was city life. Yes!
I took those four trains twice a day. Not to brag, but I also learned how to get down to the NYU dorms at the South Street Seaport, where my then-girlfriend lived. (She was my very first girlfriend, and she was a great girlfriend. She let me smoke her cigarettes, wear her clothes, and borrow her wonderful CD mixes for my Discman-accompanied commutes.) One fateful day, I left her dorm and headed to catch the 4 train (another added bonus of staying at her place was that it only required two trains). I was wearing my favorite pair of overalls, which incidentally belonged to her and had legs that were wide enough to fit around my whole body. As I pushed through the subway trestle, I saw my train pull into the station. It had apparently only taken me three months of city living to begin to have the mind of a New Yorker, because my first instinct was to run as fast as I could to catch that train. And so, I ran.
And then, I fell.
Well… I almost fell. Truthfully, it would have been much better had I just fallen. Instead, my right foot caught in the wide swath of denim that surrounded it, and as I descended, I caught myself on the side of my left foot… and broke it.
Three months into moving to NYC, in the freezing November cold, I broke my goddamn foot.
I didn’t immediately know I’d broken it, but I did know that I was in a massive amount of pain. Not too much pain, however, to continue my now one-legged sprint to catch that train. And I did! I caught the train! No one cheered for me, but now that I understand the spirit of NYC a bit better, I’m certain they were all cheering on the inside. Once on the train and in the wake of this very real, very extreme pain, I lost awareness of what was and wasn’t acceptable train behavior. I dropped my bags in the middle of the train floor, I took off my giant winter coat, dropped it next to my bags, and I stared at my foot. That’s all I did. I just stared at my foot, sweating with pain, brow furrowed, with my belongings all around me on the subway floor. I stared at it all the way to Forty-Second Street, scooped up my things, and hobbled across the platform to transfer to the 6 train, dropped them once more on the subway floor, stared at my foot until we got to Sixty-Eighth Street, and then somehow walked, on my freshly broken foot, to my acting class. It took me almost thirty minutes to walk three street blocks and one avenue. For reference, that’s less than half a mile.
As you might expect, upon my arrival to class, my professor immediately told me to go to the walk-in clinic down the street. After x-rays, I was given a blue canvas boot and a pair of crutches, and I hobbled my way to an indulgent taxi ride back to my hostel.
In case you are unfamiliar with NYC winters, I will let you know that they are cold, they are icy, they are dirty, and they are entirely unforgiving— and all that with two working feet. I want to also remind you that my commute, up until this point, included about eight trains per day, and each of those came with ample walking and many stairs. I couldn’t get up and down stairs much at all, and certainly not when they were covered in icy slush. Suddenly, canvas boot and all, I couldn’t get anywhere.
Until, that is, I revisited my subway map and learned that NYC, in addition to its sprawling subway system, also has buses. Who. Knew. I learned (via my paper map) that just a few steps from my door was a crosstown bus that, on the regular, traveled right through Central Park to the east side. I’d been taking four trains this whole time when I could have taken just one bus? This was the first moment where the NYC I thought I knew laughed directly in my face before playfully tousling my hair. You see, NYC isn’t shy about breaking a person, bones and all, in a gesture of the warmest welcome.
I’ve now been in this city for fifteen years. I know almost every subway line and bus route that exists in nearly every borough. I traverse it with the same ease that I brush my teeth or climb into my bed. That moment, fifteen years ago in lower Manhattan, was the first of many moments (they really never stop) where I was forced to readjust, recalibrate, and further question the city, and world, around me. I had many other pivotal moments in those first few years— some with only a handful of subway passengers as my witness, and others where the whole world watched my city in confusion and wonder.
We all, inevitably, break our metaphoric (or in my case, literal) feet. Am I glad that I broke my foot? Not really. Am I glad that it made me recalibrate, readjust, and continue to question? You’d better believe I am. I needed to learn, just as we all do, that there is always more than one route on that paper map.
Oh, hey! This is a piece I wrote for the essay collection called Freshman Year of Life : Essays That Tell the Truth About Work, Home, and Love After College. I am in some pretty wonderful company, alongside writers such as Ashley Ford, Shannon Keating, and Mara Wilson. You should check it out!