Tuesday morning began like any other. Except earlier. And without food.
I opened the front door to a gorgeous morning. After a few days of rain, I welcomed the warm rays of sunshine and happily descended the stoop to start my day. One tiny bit of unpleasant business first, however. I walked down 9th Avenue toward 14th Street. I had a doctor’s appointment. I had fasted for 12 hours in preparation for bloodwork.
I was in and out of the doctor’s office in less than 30 minutes. I made a mental note to schedule all of my doctor’s appointments for when I was in New York. Holy cow! And now I had a beautiful spring day ahead of me. What should I do first?
The answer was easy. Coffee! I strolled a few short blocks to Blue Bottle. No line. What luck! I had a short chat with the barista, grabbed my cappuccino and pushed open the door back into the sun.
I paused to take a few pictures of a skybridge against an impossibly blue sky. Beyond the skybridge was the High Line. Perfect. I headed toward my favorite New York City park. And then I remembered that I hadn’t yet taken pictures of The Little Red Lighthouse. A friend had reminded me that the famous children’s book icon was in Manhattan. I Googled the location and saw that it was under the George Washington Bridge. A quick check of my phone map revealed there was a park under the bridge as well. Fort Washington Park. What a great way to spend a lovely afternoon! I hailed a cab and was on my way.
I told the driver I wanted to go to Fort Washington Park. He seemed to know the way, and we headed up Hudson Parkway. I leaned back in my seat and rolled the window down. There was a light breeze off the Hudson River, and I enjoyed watching the city change as we made our way north. I could tell when we left Hell’s Kitchen, and recognized when we entered the Upper West Side. For a moment, I considered asking him to turn and take me to my favorite Shake Shack. I pictured eating cheese fries while perched on a bench at Strawberry Fields in Central Park. I knew there would be musicians playing Beatles’ tunes. There would be children playing and nanny’s pushing strollers and tourists snapping pictures. I smiled at the thought, but decided to keep heading north. After about 91st Street, I was in unfamiliar territory. This of course didn’t bother me. One of my favorite things about being in New York was exploring and discovering new places.
I knew we were passing through Harlem, and then Sugar Hill (I wondered how the gang was as “Rapper’s Delight” played in my head), and as we got to Washington Heights I was abruptly jarred from my reverie by the driver asking if I wanted to go to 181st Street. Uhm, I don’t know. Is that where the park is? He didn’t seem to know. This was a problem.
I grabbed my phone and opened my map. It seemed strange that a cab driver wouldn’t know how to get to a park. After all, it seemed to be a fairly large park.
I want to take a moment and explain that up until now, every park I had visited was an urban park. I had walked to and from, in and out of, and around almost every park south of Central Park. Central Park, by the way, intimidates me. I can’t believe I’m admitting that, but in the past two years, I have done very little exploring of Central Park. I got lost in it while crossing between the Upper East and Upper West Side during one of the hottest days of summer. It wasn’t a great experience. All other experiences (aside from Strawberry Fields) have been short and tourist-filled. I had no desire to go back. But I really need to. Maybe next trip. Anyway… All of the urban parks are surrounded by buildings. Busy streets, sidewalks, vendors, businesses and residences are everywhere you look. Let me also point out that Midtown and Lower Manhattan are flat. The closest thing to a hill is a slight incline while walking up 5th Avenue.
So, back to my phone. Yes, it looked like 181st would be okay. I saw the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River to my left. But then the driver turned right. We were exiting a busy highway and entering Washington Heights. Another quick left and we were in Hudson Heights… and no river in sight. We were also climbing some fairly steep hills. The terrain suddenly seemed more San Francisco than New York, and I felt very out of my element. As he neared a seemingly random corner, I continued to scan my phone, looking for a “put in” to the park. Nothing jumped out at me, but when he began pulling slowly to the curb, I glanced up and saw a laundromat on one side of the street, and a liquor store on the other. No river or park in sight. I told him I needed to head as far west as he could take me. My map served no purpose anymore, but I knew that if we headed west, at some point we would come to the river’s edge.
I was wrong.
He stayed on 181st Street until it ended at Plaza Lafayette. The dead-end was Riverside Drive, so I figured that was good enough. I hopped out of the cab and watched him drive off.
I checked my surroundings. Riverside Drive was a narrow two-way street high on a hill overlooking the river. There was nothing but the backsides of buildings on one side and a stone wall on the side overlooking the river. There was no sidewalk next to the wall, so rather than walk in the street, I crossed over the side with the buildings and began to make my way south toward the bridge. At some point, I assumed, there would be a way to cross over to the river. Again, I was wrong.
As I continued down Riverside Drive, I began to notice the neighborhood was a bit dicey. There were no cars, and hardly any people. Because the buildings all had their backs to me, there was also nowhere to go. Riverside Drive was not a place for a stroll. I decided to turn around and head back up to Plaza Lafayette and try my luck further up the hill.
A block or so past the plaza (which, by the way, was just a grassy strip in between two roads) there was a short set of stairs that led to a pedestrian bridge. I felt as if I was back on track. As I crossed the bridge, I paused for a moment to look down at the highway. The chain-link fence was in disrepair and the view was ugly. The bridge itself was ugly, and I realized that I was still alone. It felt very weird. Not at all like what I was used to in my part of the city.
At the end of the bridge, there was a long, steep path that twisted its way down toward the river. There were signs advising people to share the path with cyclists. A woman on her way to or from work passed me. That was the last person I saw on foot for a very long time.
As I made my way farther down the very steep path, I was amazed at the number of people on bicycles who were riding past me UP the hill. They all looked like models for REI. Every one of them seemed to be wearing very technical endurance gear. They wore fancy helmets and had enough water to travel to Maine. Surrounded by extreme sports enthusiasts, I was suddenly very aware that I was wearing a skort and blouse and carrying my favorite spring purse with little colorful flowers made of leather. I was clearly strolling in a “No-Stroll” zone. I also began to notice that no one seemed to be heading DOWN the hill. What did they know that I didn’t?
I continued on, and the path began to wind through some thick woods. I could begin to see the river through the trees. For a moment, I stopped to take in the beauty and began to appreciate the shade. The day had warmed up considerably, and the only liquid I had consumed in 15 hours was now a caffeinated memory. I hoped there would be concessions or street vendors in the park. (Spoiler alert: There weren’t any!). I licked my lips and cursed myself for not keeping gum in my purse.
The bikers became more sporadic, and I was mostly alone on the trail. I was very focused on not falling (have I mentioned how steep this trail was?), so I was surprised when I looked up and saw a man standing a few yards ahead of me, staring at me as I walked. He was a step or two off the path, and didn’t seem to be going anywhere. He looked out of place, and seemed a little too happy to see me. I took a moment to look around and thought, “Well, this is where they’ll find my body.” As I got closer, he grinned and said, “You picked a beautiful day to go for a walk.” I nodded in agreement and hurried past. I assumed he was either making fun of me or trying to get me to slow down so he could mug me. He was probably making fun of me.
When I was far enough away, I paused to take my phone, house key, and tiny wallet (with my license, credit card and cash) out of my purse, and put them in the pockets of my skort. If someone was going to grab my purse, at least I had my important stuff on me. For the first time, I began to question making this trip.
After what seemed like forever, I made it to the bottom of the bridge. There was no road. No park. Just a lot of gravel leading under the bridge, which is where I found The Little Red Lighthouse. Only it was pink. Sort of. It had faded in the sun, and looked a little sad and worn. I pulled out my phone for some pictures, and filmed a quick video for the guy who cheerfully suggested I find it in the first place. Then I mentally scratched him off my Christmas list. There was a monument with some interesting facts about the lighthouse. And the George Washington Bridge was beautiful. But those highlights did not make up for what happened next.
The sun was beating down, and I was hot and tired. I was a few test tubes of blood shorter than I had started the day with. And I was thirsty! I looked back at the path I had taken, and knew there was no way I was climbing back up that hill. I also wasn’t thrilled about meeting serial killers in the woods. So I took off along the river and headed south. There was a path that once again seemed to be entirely utilized by cyclists. Where they came from, and where they ended up, I had no idea. There were two small groups of people sitting on some grass enjoying a picnic. But there were no picnic tables.
After awhile, I came to some sets of tennis courts. A handful of people were playing, their bikes parked up along the fence. Of course. I realized at this moment that no one walked to or from this particular park. Just dumb girls from Texas who had fasted all day and didn’t carry water with them. I scraped my tongue off the roof of my mouth and scouted the area for a water fountain. Nope. A park employee slowly passed by in a vehicle, and for a moment I considered flagging him down and begging for a ride. Or at least directions. I had no idea how to get out of the park. I should also mention that aside from “share the path”, there were no directional signs.
I continued heading south. At this point, I knew that eventually I would reach the tip of Manhattan, because I knew the geography of the island. What I didn’t know was the topography. I quickly learned that the only way back out of the park was uphill. I turned away from the river and began looking for a way out.
I found some ancient steps that led to what looked like ancient ruins. No signs or people. There were some weeds and trash though. Anyway, I walked up three flights until I reached a bridge. Heading east still, I was hopeful this was the way out. (Shall I spoil this one for you too?) At the end of the bridge was a small path, which quickly came to a fork. One side went uphill, and the other went down. Can you guess which I took?
So, at the bottom of the hill, I realized I had just re-entered the park. I turned and walked BACK up the hill to the fork, and then took the path to head uphill some more. Have I mentioned that I was thirsty? At the top of this hill, there was an even smaller path that looked like it had been abandoned in 1975. But there was literally no where else to go. It took me downhill and through a tunnel. As I passed through the tunnel I looked around and decided that this, actually, would be were they would find my body.
I lived, but came out of the tunnel and found myself walking alongside a very busy highway. Again, no sidewalks. Which probably explained why there were also no people. As happy as I was to be out of the park, and to see traffic, I realized as the cars zoomed by, that there was no way to catch a cab here. I could see that I needed to be on the other side of the highway, but there was no way to cross.
I turned and headed south, even though that seemed like the wrong direction. I needed to get somewhere (anywhere!) with water. My head hurt. My feet hurt. I was sweaty. And oh-so thirsty.
I passed a construction site to my right. There were cars and trucks and equipment. There was trash. But no people. I was living in a Science Fiction movie. There was still no sidewalk, but now, because of the construction site, there was no space to walk at all. The fenced area came all the way to the curb. I walked next to the curb like a circus performer on a tightrope. One false move and I would be in traffic. Off to the side, I noticed a puddle. For a moment I wondered how bad would it really be to drink that water. I mean, life or death, right? But then, I saw him. A kid walking ahead of me. I can’t imagine where he came from, or where he was going, but he was my angel! I was going to follow him!
Kid-Angel walked fast. Very fast. And we were going uphill again. I was slow-jogging (in my skort and blouse with my flowered purse) behind him to keep up. But I wasn’t able to keep up. The last thing I saw him do was cross the highway. As I neared the spot where he crossed I saw a sign ahead for a Presbyterian Hospital. “Now THAT will be where they find my body”, I thought. But really, how convenient?!! What I didn’t see was a stoplight. Or a crosswalk. Or any way to cross the highway that didn’t involve the very real possibility of my guts on the pavement. But I threw caution to the wind (and, thankfully, not guts to the pavement) and ran across.
I would live!
I could see a large stark building ahead. It had to be the hospital. It seemed close, but I felt like I was in one of those dreams where you walk, then run, toward something, but it continues to get farther away.
I was walking uphill. Again. And counting my steps. Trying to distract myself from the fact that I couldn’t even swallow. I had a mouth full of cotton, and I felt like I was about to die the most embarrassing death, just yards from the front doors of a hospital. In a skort, blouse, and carrying a flowered purse.
Only there was no front door. The building ahead of me was a giant white block. No doors or windows. What the hell kind of hospital was this? It was huge, and I had to make a decision as to which side to take. If I chose the wrong side, it could mean another 30 minutes of walking while I circled around to the other side. I walked to the left and realized I was again on Riverside Drive. I saw a driveway, and what looked like stairs and an entrance!
My excitement was short-lived, however, when I glanced up at the building and read the words staring down at me. What should have read Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, read instead “NYS Psychiatric Institute”.
Here was my life-or-death moment. Not with the murderer in the woods or the ghost in the tunnel or the traffic on the highway. No. I had been wrong all along. I had walked into a real life horror movie, not a sci-fi at all. My life came down to this. If I had only packed a bottle of water, I could have soldiered on. But I knew that death was imminent without hydration, so I trudged up the steps of the ominous building toward certain doom. I took a breath as I pushed open the glass door, ready to face whatever killer-clown/Saw/chainsaw horrors awaited me.
Once inside the door, I came to a glass tube. A red button was my only choice. I pushed it, and the tube swiveled open. I stepped inside, waiting to be teleported, but instead the other side swiveled open and I stepped out into a large, air-conditioned lobby with huge windows overlooking the river and a pleasant looking man smiling at me from behind a desk. My brain was still in zombie-attack mode, so I opened my dry mouth and said the only thing that came to mind. “I’m not checking in.” He looked amused, but didn’t laugh out loud. He leaned in and asked if I was there to visit someone. I answered that I was not, and then quickly asked if there was water anywhere. He looked confused, but pointed around the corner and said, “There’s a water fountain in the hall, right next to the bathroom.” Wait, WHAT?!! A bathroom? SCORE! Now I knew I really must have left New York and entered a movie. But this movie was all Disney and song!
I danced into the hall and slurped up as much water as I could. Then I went into the bathroom and took a shower (not really, but you know). I came back out and drank more water. Then I went into the lobby and sat in a chair overlooking the bridge. The one that had a lighthouse underneath. In a park. That wasn’t a park. That tried to kill me.
The story almost ends here. But I still had to get home. Hydrated, freshly showered (not really, but you know), and enjoying the seat/view/air-conditioning, I opened up the taxi app on my phone to summon a ride home. As luck would have it, “Jose” was just three minutes away!
I waved goodbye to my newfound best-friend-ever, and headed back through the glass portal, out the front door, and made my way down the steps of that psychiatric institute. I stood on the sidewalk (hurray!) on the west side of Riverside Drive. I stared down at my phone and made a note of the cab number. Jose was just one block south. I imagined sinking down into the seat and napping on the ride home.
Jose drove up the east side Riverside Drive…and right past me. I called the number to let him know he missed me. He answered, but he was now in the same predicament I had been while trying to get where I was currently standing He had to keep driving up the highway and then find his way through the weird maze of streets. No wonder there are no people or cabs. No one actually lives in Washington Heights. I’m certain of it!
Anyway, almost 15 minutes later (I am again hot and thirsty), I can see him coming back my direction. He is on my side of the street. What could possibly go wrong?
He drove right past me. Again.
I started running down the street, waving my arms and yelling. He eventually looked in his rearview mirror and realized I was behind him. He pulled over, but didn’t back up.
I continued running toward the cab.
It didn’t occur to me until much later what it must have looked like. A short, desperate-looking disheveled blonde in a skort and blouse, carrying a flowered purse, running down the street, away from a psychiatric institute, screaming and waving her arms.
Three days later, as my flight took off from LaGuardia Airport, the pilot crossed Manhattan and banked to the left, giving me a wonderful view of the Hudson River, directly over the George Washington Bridge. This was the first time I could remember taking this flight path. I snapped a few pictures. Looking back at the picture, I realized that I could see the exact path I took, including the “park” and psychiatric institute. My movie had come full circle.