By the end of my senior year in high school, I felt like a rat in a cage. I had enough of studying, nuns, and term papers. The death of my mother the previous year left me feeling devastated and lost. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was go to college. Instead, I’d try to forget my sorrow, find a job, and move out on my own. It was time to join the ranks of the working class.
It was the early eighties, the beginning of a hedonistic decade promising wealth from a thriving economy. Thanks to my diploma from a commercial high school, I quickly landed a job as a secretary in Manhattan. I was excited because in school I’d spent a lot of weekends shopping there with my friends, emulating the sales girls of Lord & Taylor and Macy’s. Their colored lacquered fingernails and designer dresses lured me in to a world of glamour which I wanted to be a part of.
A month after graduation, I was catapulted from high school student to secretary commuting by subway from Queens to work for a family of attorneys in mid-town. Their office was off Fortieth Street and Fifth Avenue, just two blocks away from the majestic New York Public Library. When I first looked at the city’s largest library, I thought it was stunning. It would become my favorite New York landmark.
Each time I passed the two massive marble lion statues by the front entrance, I felt empowered. With a little research, I learned that in the 1930’s the lions were named Patience and Fortitude by then Mayor LaGuardia. He believed New Yorkers needed those qualities to survive the Great Depression. On the south side of the steps guarding the library sat Patience, and on the north sat Fortitude. They looked fearless.
After a few weeks at my new job, I ventured out on my lunch hour to explore the city. Sometimes I shopped or ran errands, but on nice days, my favorite place was a spot on the steps of the library. I’d sit dressed in business clothes and big hair, and watch street performers and locals bustle around as I ate brown bag lunches of tuna sandwiches, Pepsi and chips. Dozens of others sat around me. Some days I’d treat myself to a thick and oily slice of pizza from Ray Bari, one of the best pizza places in the city.
“Can you believe that guy?” a businessman asked one afternoon as I sat on a top step. He nodded to a mime walking slowly on the street who wore a striped jumpsuit and bowler hat.
“He’s good! I like how he randomly tails people. They don’t know what to do, especially the tourists,” I said, and we laughed.
It was on those steps that I found my joy in people-watching. Around me I saw a colorful pedestrian soup: the stocky mustached Greek vendor who sold souvlaki on pita, well dressed business men and women rushing by and the homeless street beggar who reminded me to count my blessings. The tourists who looked up at the skyscrapers in wonder made me proud to be a native. I smelled franks and fat pretzels from push-carts, watched buses spew little plumes of exhaust and listened to ambulances wail.
On some rainy days, I’d venture inside the library. The gleaming marble lobby graced enormous stairways that ended at a beautiful balcony. All around, walls were covered in museum quality art.
In the main reading room, I’d sit at the mahogany tables under cathedral ceilings. Afternoon sun streamed through wall length windows creating gold slices of light. On the ceiling was a stunning sky mural, filled with pearl white clouds and angels. The room smelled of old books, musty and sweet. It was there that I found my peace, and felt that I wasn’t just a young high school grad working in a clerical job, but a woman to be taken seriously. I loved that I might be sitting next to scientists, scholars, and lawyers poring over thick books. The silence and soft sound of pens scratching on paper soothed me. Ideas, dreams and thoughts hung in the air over everyone, like bubbles in cartoons.
Before I knew it, it was the holidays. As I walked through snow dusted streets, the lions wore giant holly wreaths around their necks. In the springtime, they wore floral wreaths. The seasons rolled by, and soon a year had passed.
I finally decided that I couldn’t stand commuting on the crowded and filthy subways anymore. It became impossible to ignore the homeless person who begged on a street corner. It wasn’t long before my nice colored nails chipped from tapping typewriter keys.
While I rushed through a tepid cup of coffee at the station one morning, I realized that I had become a not-so-proud member of the rat race. The rat-in-a-cage sentiment I felt in high school paled by comparison. Even Patience and Fortitude couldn’t inspire me to stay. It was time to go to college.
In the end, I never forgot the times that I spent at the library enjoying my passageway into the real world. What I missed the most was sitting on the steps on a crisp sunny day, lunch teetered on my lap, surrounded by the sweet sights of the city, and my lions bearing witness.
Liz O’Toole Papazian
Liz O’Toole Papazian was raised in New York City, graduated from Fordham University and has worked in a diverse background including real estate, corporate law, travel and non-profit development. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her family. Her two rescue dogs and swimming keeps her calm and inspired. Liz can be found at lpapazianwriter.com