Six in the City

When we were five and eight years old, our parents told these two San Francisco-born California girls that we were packing up and moving to New York City. My father had entered the doctoral program at Teachers College,Columbia University, and we’d be living in Morningside Heights for a year, giving up our house and our big backyard for an apartment in the city. For months before our move we would jump up and shout every time we heard someone say the words, “New York, New York.” That was where we were going: a place with two names that were the same!
I don’t remember too much about the car ride we took across the country that summer besides being crammed into the back seat of my parents’ gray Plymouth. I do recall we sang “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog” so many times we drove our parents crazy. I’m sure there was also the usual amount of poking and pushing and dividing the crowded back seat down the middle.
We arrived in New York City very early in the morning. Ahead of us lay our first sight of snow, riding in taxis, seeing the Rockettes high-kicking their way across the giant stage, getting hot bagels on Sunday mornings (and learning how you had to time it right to get your bagels before mass was over, otherwise the lines were too long), trips to the automat where the sandwiches lived in little apartments too, exploring Central Park ,Grant’s Tomb and Grand Central Station; taking trips to the New Jersey countryside and catching lightning bugs in jars, tagging along to fancy bon voyage parties on big ships that were attended by glamorous women wearing fur coats, seeing Broadway shows and having the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. Also ahead of us (or me mostly) were several of the childhood illnesses we had managed to avoid in California. In one year, I caught and generously shared with my sister both the measles and the mumps. but somehow spared her the curse of head lice. I left my appendix in New York City.
Bancroft Hall, 509 W 121st St. Center for Childhood  Diseases

We were the new kids at the Agnes Russell School; first and third graders. An adult escorted us to school, even though we lived just across the street in Bancroft Hall, the married student housing for Teachers College. Back home, we were free to cross the street to play with the kids who lived up and down the block. We would spend all our summer days outside, coming home when it was dinner time. But in New York, we were under the watchful eye of an adult at all times, even on the playground behind our apartment. We held hands when we walked together. People talked so fast we could barely understand them, especially the big girls who danced at the studio where we took our lessons: ballet for my sister and tap for me.

Tiny dancers. Why am I wearing this hat?

Our building housed married students and families from all over the world. Our apartment was tiny, and even though my sister and I were used to sharing a room in our small California house, these were very tight quarters. The kitchen was closet-sized, making meal preparation a challenge for my mother.

My parents got invited to some fancy parties and we got dragged along too.We were fascinated with the furs women wore. My sister and I would sneak off to find the the lush coats and stoles so we could run our hands over them and decide which was the best one

Fancy bon voyage part with June Taylor.  Don’t touch the hat!
Lots of memories about that first winter in New York: two little girls bulky in hooded jackets, mittens, quilted overalls and rubber boots – posing for my dad as he adjusted the Brownie camera. How magical to watch the flakes fall on our upturned faces! Inside, the unforgettable, nose-wrinkling smell of wet clothes drying on the radiator. Going from the cold outdoors to the stuffy overheated indoors gave us our share of colds that year, but we didn’t care. As kids, we were open to every new experience: riding the subway, eating new and exotic foods– including Chinese and Kosher dairy–seeing the wonders in the Museum of Natural History and patting the heads of the stone lions in front of the main library.
Nice kitty
For years afterward, my sister and I would begin a sentence with “When we were in New York…” as we launched into a story about the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, or walking around the Columbia campus, or eating in a little restaurant with tiny train tracks on the counter and a miniature train that brought our lunch plates right to us. And we were June Taylor dancers, too. Really. For one year.

To be continued.

9 Responses to Six in the City

  1. thebowlerhat says:

    OMG! That picture of you at the Bon Voyage party is great. I love that look on your face.

    Those suitcases are so cool too. I had one when I was little that was pink with a gray elephant on it (my mother just had to suck up the fact that it wasn’t a donkey), but it was the late 80s revisioning of that style of suitcase, not the real deal.

    And wait…if you lived in NYC for a year, you should know what it means to have snow that falls but doesn’t stick!

    • Nina Miles Buchanan says:

      My mother, myself(Nina Miles 5th grade) brother(Paul Miles 4th grade) and sister (Pavla Miles 1st grade) too lived at Bancroft Hall, apt#101. We moved there from Indiana in September of 1965.My mother went to school for her master’s in Nursing. What an adventure for all of us. I would say it was the most transformational year of our lives. I still remember names such as Gail Arnold, Marie from Quebec, Tamar from Isreal
      Peter from Australia, Beatty, and Guy. Scot and Erik Tonnegon.

  2. Risa Nye says:

    Wow! What a coincidence! So I was there a long time before you and your family. I wish I remembered more, but we knew a couple from Israel too, and a really nice family next door. Memories are fading and there’s no one left to ask! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Hank Vaughn says:

    What years were you at Agnes Russell? My mom, who attended 1952-3 while her dad was getting his doctorate in education is looking for former students that were there when she was.

    • Risa Nye says:

      Hi Hank. I was there in 1957-8, so a little after she was there. I wonder if she caught all the same childhood diseases I did!

    • I was at Agnes Russel pre school in early ’50s. We left for Florida in ’54. Also lived in Bancoft Hall and remember the Playground. My Dad was working on a Doctorate in Physical Education and we had travelled across country from Oregon. He Coached the JV’s in baseball and basketball while a student there.
      I am a retired DDS living in Jacksonville and Quebec. I have fond, however distant, memories of the interesting and challenging early education at AR day school. An opportunity I now highly cherish!
      Nina I remember our meeting friends from the International community such as Nigeria,etc. in Bancroft Hall and the foot powered sewing machines in the lobby! I’m a twin and I think I can get corroboration.

      • Risa Nye says:

        Hi, I hope you see this! Thanks for your comment. I wonder if anyone else remembers a guy who worked in the lobby (not sure what his actual job was) and was great to hang out with. He drew cartoons for us kids–I think they were like Mickey Mouse knock-offs. My sister and I kept ours for years. One of my favorite memories of AR school was the after school drama/improv program. I loved being on stage and pretending. Don’t really remember much else
        that happened in the classroom!

  4. Lynn says:

    My sister and I are forever curious about information relating to our family’s 2 years in nyc. Our dad was in the doctorate program and we lived in Bancroft hall and attended Agnes Russell center from 1958-1960. Surprisingly, we were free to roam the tunnel under teachers college and frequently visited the rooftops of Bancroft hall and the surrounding apt buildings (unaccompanied) at the ages of 5-8!
    We, too, have wonderful memories of the advantages of city living, as mentioned. Subway rides, radio city music hall, Greenwich village and Central Park…
    A favorite picnic destination was an eerie estate near terry town. Untermeyer Park, I think was it’s name…
    Anyway, was pleasantly surprised to see others had the same great memories as we did!

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