Let’s get started.
The first step to find yourself in a similar situation is to lose all sense of responsibility for your actions. This can happen to you in a few different ways. For one, part of your identity might center around a sense of clumsiness, forgetting your metrocard, spilling hot soup on yourself, or not noticing you had ketchup on your school uniform in 8th grade for picture day. That works great. Second, you might have just started college, only being one semester in, and instead of rising to the challenge of being in a new place, with new people, a new environment and surroundings, you may have fallen into a terrifying depression where suddenly you are convinced you no longer can read, think, make decisions, function, or laugh. (Though this adventure does make you laugh, and that’s a plus). But to your family and friends, you are beginning to frighten them ever so slightly as they begin to believe you are serious when you say you feel like you are the devil and are and have always been a terrible person. Dark, not to mention not funny, stuff, that ends up leading to the most ridiculous day of my sometimes quite ridiculous life.
My first mistake on this day? Projecting that I will not be able to pack up in enough time to make my bus home to NYC, and thus calling the bus company to inquire about being put on the next bus. The conversation goes a little something like this,
“Hello, I have a bus ticket for the 3pm bus, can I use the same ticket for the 5pm bus I see listed on your online schedule?”
“Good. Thank you.”
Giddy from my good luck, in the way most people feel when they are given one or two more free hours to get the things done, I smile for a moment as I “pack” my suitcase by stuffing it up with clothes I never wear. I close the door to my dorm, not locking it, because of course I’ve already lost my key to the room weeks ago, and walk downstairs to await the taxi I called to pick me up. Responsible.
When the taxi picks me up, I realize in a panic that I don’t have any cash, nor do I have a way to get cash because there are no open ATMs on campus. I call my resident advisor and beg her to lend me 20 bucks, right now. She agrees and I casually ask the taxi driver to pull to the side of the road because I “forgot something” and then proceed to run frantically across campus to find Molly. Five minutes later, with $20 in my hand, I run back, incredibly out of breath because I haven’t so much as moved in the past three months, not to mention run. I sit back in the taxi and thank the driver for waiting.
It occurs to me a few minutes later that I have no idea how much the taxi costs. “Hello, how much does the taxi cost?” I ask, grasping the only cash I have in my hand and crinkling my face up like I just ate a lemon.
“Twenty … five?”
I look down at my $20. Okay. Time to open the handy dandy coin purse. And for the next 20 minutes I count up a miraculous five dollars made up of, you guessed it, quarters and dimes and nickels and pennies. Mainly nickles though. Crisis averted.
At the train station, assuming I am good to go on the 5pm, I show my ticket to the ticket man. I am informed that whoever I spoke to on the phone is a god forsaken liar.
“So, I cannot use this ticket?”
“No. It is a local ticket, the 5pm bus is express.”
“Can I pay a little extra to get on the 5pm?”
“No. You have to buy a new ticket.”
“Oh my god.”
I look inward, hoping to find a fierce and confident woman who knows how to boss people around to get what she wants, but find a tired girl who wants no problems. Time is meaningless to me now. I ask where the ATMs are.
After seven attempts of imputing what I know to be my pin, I notice in horror that the side of my debit card is beginning to peel. Meaning that, last week, when I received a new debit card, and then immediately cut up the old debit card and put the new debit card in my wallet, to prevent confusion in the future, I succeeded somehow (so help me god) in cutting up the new debit card. Oh my god.
Holding my now useless debit card in my left hand and staring at it trying to will it into working, I do what any 18 year old idiot does when they’re out of money and stranded in Utica, NY. I call my dad.
“Hi dad! So, um, okay… I accidentally cut up my new debit card last week, so the card I have doesn’t work. And I don’t have any cash. And the man on the phone lied to me and said my 3pm bus ticket was valid for the 5pm bus, but it’s not, so I need to buy a new ticket and I have no money please help me what do I do?”
“Hah! Wow, kiddo! You should always have cash on you. And you should be more careful with your debit card, Jesus! But, alright. How about we try to pay over the phone. I’ll read out my card information to the man?”
“Okay. Thank you. Good idea.”
This, of course, simply will not do for the ticket man. We need another plan.
“He won’t accept it.”
“Let me talk to him.”
“Uh.. but, well… okay.”
I hand the ticket man the phone. I hear my dad’s raised voice. The ticket man hands me back the phone.
“He said no.”
I try to think.
“How about I send you money through a Western Union, they got any Western Unions nearby?” My dad says.
“I have no idea what a Western Union is, but sure.”
“Let me look one up, I’ll call you back.”
It’s 4:30pm and I’m pretty sure I won’t be making the 5pm seeing as I haven’t got a ticket nor a way to get a ticket. But there’s hope for the 7pm. My dad calls back and talks me through our game plan. There is a Western Union about a mile away from the train station. He will send $100 to the Western Union. I will find this place, receive my money, and go back to the train station in time to make the 7pm bus. Genius.
Being a proud native New Yorker, I am used to walking long distances in cities to get things. I don’t drive, so you could say I’m a speedy walker. Of course, Utica, a struggling old industrial city with minimal life and, as it goes, (who knew?) high crime-rates, should not have lone eighteen year old girls walking around at night.
I notice this, as instead of finding streets like the ones I am used to, with lights, with people, you know, a grid structure, I find long stretches of winding roads of houses, and darkness engulfing all of them.
Because of the deep depression I’m in at the time, I do not feel fear. If this doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but it’s true. I’m not afraid at all. As I walk down one street, a man exits his car.
“Hey pretty lady.”
“Hello,” I say.
I keep walking straight ahead, keeping my head mainly down, and glancing at google maps for orientation when necessary. In front of me, to my horror, is a highway. I look back down at the map I am following. It is telling me that, yes, that’s right, you need to cross the highway on foot. There aren’t any cars around, but still… a highway?
Call dad. He agrees with google maps. This is our only option. I run across the highway.
I look down at my phone and notice the battery percentage written in red (1%). Frantically, I attempt to memorize the map to Western Union before it dies. The phone dies instead, and so I find myself directionless in the middle of Utica. Walking around slowly, I scan the streets for the lights of a store, any store, that might have an outlet where I can charge my phone. (That’s right, Lily has a charger). Nothing.
Moments later, like finding a stream while stranded in the desert, I spot a bodega. Feels like home.
Without hesitating, I enter the bodega, holding my cell phone and fishing in my bag for my charger. The bodega is relatively small, with two aisles holding different assortments of chips, candy, and drinks. The owner, after hearing my abridged story, offers me his own phone charger. During the time that it takes to charge a phone, I hear his life story in exchange. As a retired NYC cab driver, he is adjusting to life working in a bodega in Upstate New York. It is fine. Except for the drunk people.
Without warning, two tall men enter the bodega, reeking of alcohol. The first one, the same from before, smiles wide at me, recognizing me instantly.
“Hey pretty lady!”
“Hello,” I say timidly.
“Don’t be scared of me! I don’t bite!” He says, laughing, slapping his buddy on the back of the head.
His buddy is smaller than him and much wider. His eyes are bloodshot.
“But I do!” He says, barring his teeth and proceeding to bark as a guard dog, “WOOF!! WOOOF!!”
I laugh, knowing it is the only acceptable reaction. The bodega owner, calm and collected, asks them to hurry on up and purchase something. They leave after a few more bites in the air and barks. Meanwhile, my phone is still charging. A new customer, this one much closer to my age, comes in, also clearly intoxicated.
“Hey, do you have a boyfriend?” He asks, entering the store slowly, his eyes intensely fixed on mine.
“Yes,” I say without hesitation, though it is a lie.
“Oh,” he says.
Walking towards the chips, he takes some and tries to pay. Thinking better of it, he turns around and begins to tell me his life story.
“I wanted to be a cardiologist actually. But I couldn’t go to college for it. I couldn’t afford it.”
“Ah, I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s my regret.” He pauses, “What is your major?”
We begin an honestly engaging conversation over the use of a History degree (although I ended up changing it to a Sociology degree). We speak of the need to teach a balanced history, taking into account the experiences of misrepresented groups of people. That the main use of history should not be used to glorify those in power, but a way to understand what went wrong and how we can do better in the future. I feel respect and pain for him. “You sure you have a boyfriend?” He says, making a final attempt before exiting the bodega.
“Yes, I do.” (Still lying).
I wish him well and he leaves.
Phone is charged.
“Hi dad, yeah so my phone died but I am charging it right now. I don’t think walking to the Western Union is a good idea anymore.”
Somehow, my dad is able to order a taxi for me from this bodega to the Western Union, paid over the phone and everything. It’s a miracle.
When I get to the Western Union, I ask the taxi driver if he minds waiting for me while I retrieve my money. He’s not amused but agrees.
When I enter the Western Union, I notice the employees are beginning to close the store down. Not on my watch! I command to be attended to (more like sheepishly ask if they are open) and am awarded a friendly smile from the staff. They will help me. They’ll just need my ID and the information of the person who is wiring me money. I open my bag in search for my ID. It’s not there. Oh my fucking lord. Call dad.
“Dad, I don’t have my ID. They won’t give me the money.”
“Where the hell is your ID?”
“I don’t know.”
“God Damn It!”
“Well, is there anyone around that I can send the money to and they can give it to you?”
“Is there anyone in the store that will give me their information and I can send them the money and they can send it to you?”
A hispanic woman in her sixties walks into the WU holding her elderly mother by the arm. I don’t want to but I have to.
“I’m so sorry, but can my dad possibly send you money to send to me? I lost my ID.”
“Heh?” The woman says in a thick Spanish accent. I repeat myself slower.
“No. No. No.” She says, alarmed, tightening the grip of her mother’s arm.
“The only woman in the store said no.”
“Are you sure?”
“Can you ask her again?”
I turn to look at the woman who is looking at me with the same disdain and fear many people give people asking for money on the subway.
“I think she misunderstood me.”
“Let me talk to her.”
After a taxi ride back to the station, I am exhausted, still without cash, and it is 8pm. Crisis still very much happening. Dad makes some calls and succeeds in buying a ticket over the phone, and has it printed in one of the officer’s offices. Dad to the rescue! I am on the 3am bus. Only room on the 3am bus. Staying positive. I’m okay with it. At least I have a seat.
I wish I could say we are almost done.
Sitting on a bench in the middle of the Utica Train station, I feel calm. I have many things to entertain me in the next seven hours that separate me from my bus ride home. I have a pair of knitting needles in my backpack. I pull them out and begin the mind-soothing practice of knitting a scarf. I’m exhausted, really. The night before I had pulled an all-nighter studying for my theatre final, a performance in which I played five characters and had of yet memorized zero lines. I pulled it off somehow. I was moderately proud.
While knitting, I notice a man dressed like an elf walking around the train station. It is a casual observation and I do not think much of it. Though I do a double take. He’s just walking around, minding his business wearing a full head to toe elf outfit, a short and floppy red and green hat, a green one piece slip, red and white striped stockings, and green shoes with rounded toes. I go back to my knitting and smile at the holiday spirit. I love Christmas.
Then I see another elf, minding his business all the way on the other side of the bus terminal. This strikes me as strange, seeing as they seem to have nothing to do with each other. This second elf is also casually walking around, quietly, as though he’s just a regular dude waiting for his bus. Immersed in my knitting, I do not notice as five more elves pop up in the station, and when I finally look up again there they are, sitting on the bench three rows ahead of me, eating gingerbread cookies.
Over the next few minutes, I watch as the tired and glum train station suddenly becomes swarmed with elves. They pop up out of doorways, from the street, from inside the ticketing booths. Ten of them strut through the waiting area with an incredibly long table stocked with gingerbread cookies and milk.
Just as suddenly, children and their parents swarm the large station area. Christmas music begins chiming out of the ceiling and I realize if I want a gingerbread cookie I better act quick. Not sure what is going on, I casually ease my way through the crowds of babies and elves to a nice baggy of gingerbread cookies and milk. They are delicious.
At this point, it is 10pm and I realize I have not eaten since breakfast. The cookies were a tease. I am incredibly hungry.
Connected to the terminal, I find a moderately nice Italian restaurant and begin to ask them if I can please order some food to go but pay over the phone because I do not have any money on me. You know, the spiel.
The owner of the restaurant, an Italian American woman in her mid forties with thick black hair, smiles at me with exaggerated pity.
“I am so sorry. We are closed.”
“Oh,” I say, too hungry to keep the disappointment inside.
“Just a moment,” she says, reconsidering, walking away quickly and gesturing with her hands to stay put.
A few moments later she comes back with a to-go box filled to the brim with chicken pasta. She doesn’t ask for any money. I am in awe by her generosity and somewhat concerned that at this point I actually look homeless. Before I leave, the woman gives me a glass filled with Pepsi.
When I get back to the station, there is a line of elves holding identical brooms sweeping melodically up and down the space where the gingerbread cookie tables used to lie. I notice the rest of the elves are beginning to clear out, following a similar method to their entry, exiting in silent bursts of one or two, as casually as possible so that you are never aware that they are leaving and only notice when there are none left.
The rest of the people in the station follow suit, it seems. After a couple of hours, as it is nearing 11pm, I notice I am one of two civilians remaining in the train station. The rest are either police officers or train employees, sweeping or opening and locking doors.
“Uh, excuse me miss,” one of the officers says to me timidly, likely concerned by my rapid scarf making skills.
“Oh, yes?” I say, putting down my knitting.
“The station is closing in 10 minutes.”
“The station is–”
“In 10 minutes.”
“In 10 minutes?”
It turns out my bus will pick up passengers outside of the station, while the inside (not to mention heated) station will close down until the morning. The station is technically for train departures, though those awaiting the bus during its open hours are more than welcome to benefit from the heat.
Me and the officer think about what my options are.
“Okay, so you have a bus that leaves at 3am, m’am?”
“And nowhere to stay in Utica, m’am?”
Waiting outside is out of the question. The motels in Utica, the officer explains, are dangerous. The only option is for him to lock me in the vestibule, the little entrance space in between the outside world and the interior of the station until my bus arrives. And lucky enough, there’s another young woman in a similar predicament. Her bus comes at 1am.
Sitting in the vestibule with my suitcase, just feet away from this mysterious mute other girl, I try to strike a conversation. After some awkward silences, I decide my knitting is a better companion, though I have learned interesting facts about her. She lives in Canada on a goat farm and loves to read Fantasy Fiction.
As the hours pass, some people walk by the window trying to get into the warmth of the vestibule. Though it feels wrong, we don’t let them in, as the security officer instructed us not to.
Trying my hardest to stay awake, I fail miserably, taking a series of spontaneous naps lasting on average 10-20 minutes at a time. The anxiety of missing my 3am bus prevents me from sleeping any longer.
At 1am, the girl leaves.
At 2am, another person knocks on the door, asking to be let in. I keep my eyes shut.
At 2:45am, I sit ready to make my exit. Glancing at the window door, I await my bus. Not wanting to wait in the cold, I decide when I see the bus I can exit the vestibule. This way I’m safe from all the homeless people I have denied entry to the vestibule.
At 3am, the bus comes! I grab my suitcase. The bus stops. I push open the door of the vestibule. A man exits the bus. I push my suitcase out of the door. The bus doors close. I run out of the door way. The bus leaves. I’m running after the bus. The bus driver doesn’t see me and continues driving down the street. I’m crying.
“I missed the bus. It’s 3am. I missed the bus.”
“Jesus, Lily. Are you serious?”
Meanwhile, the man who exited the bus spots me. He is standing on the street waiting for someone to pick him up, it appears.
“Hey, are you alright?” The man asks, walking towards me. As he nears, I notice he is in his early 20s, a college student like me. His baseball cap says “SUNY”.
“One moment, dad, a stranger is talking to me–”
“Yeah, I just missed my bus,” I say.
“Oh, darn.” He says.
I continue my conversation with my dad. We are running out of ideas.
Moments later, the stranger walks back towards me.
“Do you need a place to stay? My dad is coming to pick me up, you could stay with us.”
I turn back to my dad.
“The stranger says I can go with him.”
While talking with my understandably concerned father on the other end, the stranger’s dad shows up. With a thick Indian accent, he greets his son, and listens to his request.
“We are more than happy to help you. Our daughter is away, you can be our daughter for the day.”
After putting the two dads on the line, we decide to give it a shot. Sitting in the back of their car, I try to explain my travel story in as few details as possible. Cut my debit card in half, phone died, no ID, Western Union, elves, free food, vestibule…
Expecting to be offered a couch to sleep on, I am shocked to find a well furnished guest room. I have three hours to sleep in luxury before the whole family wakes up with me and makes me an egg.
The father drives me to the 7am bus and makes sure I get on it. My faith in humanity, despite my apparent incompetency, is restored. Then I pass out, arriving in NYC at 12pm, 16 hours later than originally planned.
To the barking men, the bodega owner, the would be cardiologist, the Italian woman, the Indian family, the elves, the officers, the taxi driver, and my dad who helped me navigate these incredible hours of my life, I have endless thanks. To those wondering, my depression subsided due to the help of professionals. I’m four years older now. I carry around my ID and working debit card and cash regularly. I still spill food on my clothes. I still call dad.
5 Replies to “Utica: An Epic”
Dear Lily –
Utica – an Epic is wonderful. It’s terrific writing in every way. I love it and am so proud of you for putting it together the way you did. Just great.
Also, Betsy wants to know if you can babysit in Sconset in July.
See you soon. Love, Carolyn
Thank you so much grandma! That means so so much to me! Love Lily ❤️❤️❤️
Great writing of a horrific story. Goosebumps.
Thank you Patricia!!