Leaving Penn Station and stepping into the swirling traffic of midtown Manhattan, I felt as if I were in a dream. I was 13 years old, had never before been farther from Buffalo than Crystal Beach and had just stowed away on an overnight train to New York.
It was July 1947, and my friend, Bob, and I had just finished eighth grade. His father, a railroad conductor, arranged to smuggle his son and a friend onto a train to New York City as Bob’s graduation present. Luckily, he chose me to go with him. His dad gave us each $10 and then we were on our own in New York City. My, how parenting has changed.
We knew what we wanted do: go to a Yankees game, see the Empire State Building, visit Coney Island, eat in an Automat and travel using the subway system. We’d never seen a subway but knew of them from our favorite movie, King Kong. We thought that all we would have to do to get around was find a station and ask someone how to get where we wanted to go.
We quickly found that many of the people we asked either didn’t speak English, couldn’t be bothered with us or, instead, asked us how to get where they were going. After many false starts, we somehow managed to use the subways, but I still don’t know how.
We wanted to see the Empire State Building because that was where King Kong had climbed to swat down planes. It was a very impressive building, but, disappointingly to us, there was no plane swatting going on that day, so it was back on the subway for a trip to Yankee Stadium.
We bought bleacher seats at that fabled park and were thrilled to be where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had played and to see Joe DiMaggio and Phil “Scooter” Rizzuto (my idol) play that day. I was confident then that Rizzuto was only holding down shortstop for the Yankees until I could take it over in a few more years. Several hot dogs later, we were back on the subway to Coney Island.
The elevated train we rode to get there was like the one that King Kong threw off the tracks in our favorite movie; we were disappointed that he didn’t show up that day. Coney Island’s legendary amusement rides were fun, but the boat trip to Crystal Beach was much more fun than the subway to Coney Island.
Another ride took us to legendary Times Square and to an Automat, the high-tech, fast-food restaurant of that time. You put a coin in a slot, a little glass door opened and you took your meal from it. Wow, we were impressed. I still remember that I had a hamburger and baked beans; yum.
One last goal remained for me. I had read everything that the author Damon Runyon wrote about New York. The musical “Guys and Dolls” is based on his work. His unforgettable characters hung out in a restaurant called Lindy’s; I had to see it. Bob and I thought we had enough money to eat there, but one look at its menu showed us that we had only enough left to split a dessert. I was satisfied, though. Lindy’s really existed and I had eaten where Runyon’s fabulous characters ate. Yet another thrill.
A walk back to Penn Station, a furtive entry onto an overnight train to Buffalo and two exhausted boys with empty wallets and full hearts went home after an unforgettable day, carrying memories that linger still.