This trip, for someone who has only ever lived in three New York City Zip Codes, is a pilgrimage. I need to go off and do a challenging thing, so that I can process what I’ve lived and learned thus far, and know myself better as I begin my “Third Act.” I need to learn to take care of myself in the face of geographic and social variations.
When I was a child, I lived under my parent’s care, their rules. Then I wed, expecting to have a degree of autonomy, but found that I was living under my husband’s rules. When I left him in 1980, I was caring for my four-year-old son, and struggling to keep us fed, clothed and housed. At that point though, I'd finally achieved a measure of independence and control over my time, my body, my life.
When I left my marriage, the first jobs I had (three-at-a-time, trying to make ends meet), were in a fast food joint, a retail department store, and I worked as a cleaning woman on the weekends. With all those hours worked though, I still made so little money, that we qualified for Food Stamps. It was the typical baptism-by-fire, that millions of women have survived after leaving their husbands.
I did what many of us did in those days; I started buying The Chief, and scoured the back pages, looking for the schedule of upcoming exams for “City and State jobs.” My only credentials at the time, were my high school diploma and a driver's license. The responsibilities as a newly single mom, needing the highest wages I could possibly make, meant that I was looking at the blue-collar positions. They were just staring to accept female applicants at that time for: Bus Operator, Subway Conductor, Motor Vehicle Operator, City of New York. And I also tested for New York State Corrections Officer, Court Officer, Parks Employee, but whatever job I took had to schedule me with some grace, some workarounds to deal with childcare. This was not as built in to the system then, as it is today.
I did very well on some of those tests, which is why I am about to retire with a thirty-year teacher’s pension. The pensionable years I worked for City University of New York have been added to my time in the teacher's pension system. The salaries I earned back then were quite low, but the benefits were important. I needed the medical and dental plans to take care of myself, and my little boy. And CUNY offered its employees tuition reimbursement. Finally, I’d found a way to put myself through school. It was a struggle, but at this point, I feel like I made a number of really good calls in my life. Registering for those first classes was the best idea I ever had.
As I go off traveling, I am engaging in another kind of productive struggle. I know this isn’t going to be easy or totally comfortable. And, my blessings to all the young people out there, seeing the country with a backpack and a bedroll. May they all find a warm, dry place to sleep tonight.