Within hours of my arrival in September 1960, New York astonished and delighted me. The astonishment was instant. I stepped from the plane at what is now called John F. Kennedy Airport but was then called Idlewild into a wall of water, my first encounter with an East Coast hurricane. The scene inside the airport resembled a Brueghel run wild. Sodden people lurched in all directions, colliding in their frantic search for lost luggage and nonexistent taxis. Some laughed and told war stories of other major storms. Others interrogated all comers, anxious for news.
Accustomed to a prim British stiffness when with strangers, and doubly wary because of repeated warnings delivered by well-traveled Australian friends about the dangers of life in New York, I was monosyllabic at first in response to friendly and cheery questions about where I was from and where I was going. I could scarcely believe the hive of activity at the airport at 2:00 a.m., or the philosophic figures draped over every chair and bench seeking sleep amid the hubbub.
The reasons for the chaos emerged slowly. The hurricane, named, for reasons I couldn't understand, Donna, had flooded all the roads leading to the airport, preventing ground crews, taxis, indeed all forms of transportation from reaching Idlewild. The crowd seemed to accept this situation with easy familiarity. I, accustomed to Australian good weather, thought it highly disruptive of well-laid plans. These people seemed much more flexible than I was used to, and much more friendly. I broke down and began to exchange stories with my neighbors about how long my flight from San Francisco had circled the airport (an hour and a half). I wondered out loud how I could make it to the International House at Columbia, where I was staying for a few days to explore the city. "Oh, there'll be a night watchman to let you in, no matter what hour we get into Manhattan. The buses will make it first. Just take a Carey bus to the East Side Terminal. There will be taxis there. It's only a short ride to Columbia." The speaker was a lanky young man with a crew cut and thick-lensed, horn-rimmed spectacles, who turned out to be a graduate student headed for Yale. He eventually helped me extract my heavy suitcases from the mountains of luggage suddenly produced by a few drenched and harassed baggage men, and showed me where to load them on the bus headed for the East Side Terminal.
The night watchman at International House was a friendly and dignified black man. "I thought you'd show up soon. I've been listening to the radio, wondering how you were doing in this storm after coming all the way from Australia." As he spoke over his shoulder, leading me to my room, the image of Manhattan as a vast impersonal city, an image created by countless movies, antiurban novels, and crime stories, faded farther into the background. I fell asleep relishing the comforts of a room far less spartan than the Australian dormitories I'd grown up with.
The next day was sunny and steamy. Not in the least like the fall weather Australian travelers to New England had told me to expect. At breakfast I met a diminutive blond girl from Oklahoma, bound for graduate work in history at Columbia. Over fruit and coffee she quickly corrected my political attitudes. Eisenhower, to me still a hero from the 1939-45 war, was a villain to her. Her eyes flashed as she told me how Ike had catered shamelessly to the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and how he had presided over the buildup of the defense industry. Despite my initial puzzlement at these views we took an instant liking to each other and agreed that we would meet the next morning to explore the city. Reassured by having found a companion for sightseeing, I set out on my own to find Fifth Avenue and the city's fabled emporia of fashion.
The cab I hailed on Amsterdam Avenue was of a type I came to love as a New York fixture. Rattletrap, dirty, driven by an overweight man in a windbreaker, it slowed to my wave. Where did I want to go? I gave the address of an American Express branch on Fifth Avenue at midtown, intending to replenish a dwindling supply of dollars.
"Where're ya from?" the driver asked, eying me in the rearview mirror. Still a little tense about talking to strangers in a city I'd been told was a dangerous place, I said I was from Australia. His face broke into a happy smile. "This your first day in the city?" When I admitted it was he leaned across and turned off the meter. "Well, honey," he said, "I'm gonna show you Manhattan. I was in Sydney a few times during the war. People were very nice to me there, so I want to pay a bit of it back."
We worked our way down to Battery Park, looked at the Statue of Liberty, stopped at the Fulton Street Fish Market, had coffee in a place in the Village where he told me the jazz was good at night, strolled around Washington Square, stopped to examine the Chrysler Building (Frank, my guide, said the Empire State Building was crummy), took in Sutton Place ("where Marilyn Monroe lives"), rode through Central Park, all to Frank's ironic and witty monologue about the city and its inhabitants. At the end of three hours we were fast friends. I knew all about Frank's experiences at Bataan and Corregidor, the names and ages of his wife and children, what he'd done in the fifteen years since the war, still clearly his most vivid experience. He had oriented me to the city and made it seem safe. He had also corrected permanently my thirdhand view of America as a cold and competitive place. Instead of fearing I would be ripped off by every New Yorker I met, I knew I was going to love the city's electric mood, its pace, its contrasts, and its dazzling beauty.
The next morning I rode the Circle Line Ferry around Manhattan with my Oklahoma friend. Both of us were intoxicated by the sparkling, crisp morning. We each fell into a companionable reverie listening to the usual tourist blurb over the loudspeaker. I began to fit the colonial history I knew to the skyscrapers and the grand houses of the West Side, and to imagine the seventeenth-century port alive with sailing ships and buccaneers. As with all new sights in Australia, I could never resist trying to imagine what each new vista of the land looked like to the first Europeans. I tried stripping away the buildings to arrive at this low-lying island bounded by rivers with the great land mass beyond. I could see why F. Scott Fitzgerald had found it so romantic, this little wisp of land at the edge of a great continent. It was not that I had come like a Fitzgerald hero to conquer this new territory. I had come looking for knowledge, the discipline of study, and the challenge for someone of my overindulged life implicit in the simple circumstances of a scholarship student. Yet these resolves began to pale because I could barely contain my excitement leaning there on the rail, gazing at Manhattan. The light seemed dazzlingly bright, the buildings more visually challenging than one could tell from the most spectacular photographs, and the aspirations that had found expression in the city seemed to vibrate palpably in the air. My somber sense of exile from Australia dissolved like a fog in sunlight. I was going to enjoy myself here.
On the train to Boston the next afternoon my excitement subsided. The coastline which was revealed as the train rattled along was unexceptional, the grey pebble-ringed Atlantic a disappointment to a denizen of the lyric blue Pacific. The neat towns with their white churches, their meaning as yet concealed from me, flashed by like so many postcards. The most startling sights and sounds were inside the Pullman car, where I heard my first Boston Irish accent, and where, unwary about seeking a nonsmoking car, I found myself seated in a fog of cigar smoke, listening to loud talk about horseraces and football.
I couldn't fit the places to the images their names evoked. New Haven. Was such a nondescript platform really the place where one descended for such a seat of learning? Providence, visible from the train, was a run-down place, not the grand eighteenth-century city I expected. And Boston. When the kindly conductor assembled my bags and helped me down at South Station I seemed to have come to a depressed industrial city, not the center of learning and high culture I'd read about.
The cabdriver spoke the same nearly incomprehensible dialect. "Mass Ave. or Storrow Drive?" he asked impassively, sounding as though some strange spell had stretched out his vowels. We settled on Massachusetts Avenue, a mistake in the evening rush hour, and a worse one because it carried me to Cambridge past scenes of urban blight worse than any I'd ever encountered. "Where's that?" I asked, gesturing toward a quadrilateral of teetering buildings festooned with decaying neon signs, crisscrossed with trolley wires. "Scollay Square," the driver remarked, apparently untouched by the ugliness outside his window.
I began to reflect on the folly that had taken me from the beauty and comfort of Sydney to this decaying city. Every unfolding scene confirmed my gloomy prognosis. Harvard Square, when reached, was no grand square, but an ellipse of shops converging on the low buildings of Harvard Yard, shadows in the dusk. Mercifully the Radcliffe Graduate Center, at 6 Ash Street, was a modern, pink-brick neocolonial building on a quiet side street. After piling my bags in the hall and tipping the driver far too much, I went to find the Head Resident. To my surprise she was a fellow graduate student who was administering this residence for three hundred graduate women as a part-time job while she finished her doctorate in English Literature. Barbara Charlesworth was a beautiful, willowy woman, just my age, whose soft voice had a faint Scottish burr, something I learned was part of her Canadian heritage. Abundant light brown hair framed her heartshaped face, remarkable for its delicately chiseled features and large luminous grey eyes. It was plain to see that she looked on life with humorous detachment, her passions all directed to the world of ideas. I liked her at once.
My premonitions of discomfort about the new world were confirmed by her laughing explanation that dinner, which had begun at 5:30 p.m. (the time for nursery tea in my calendar), would conclude in a few minutes, at 7:00 p.m. The knots in my stomach at the thought of the graceless girls boarding school I'd entered subsided at Barbara's cheerful offer of help in getting my bags to my room, where I could begin settling in while she prepared a snack for me in her apartment.
So began a friendship which became, within a very few weeks, a shaping influence on my life. Barbara was a student of Victorian literature whose love of language fit easily with my own. She had attended the Canadian variant of my Australian/British girls boarding school. She had come to hers from the wildly exotic setting of a Colombian mining camp, where her father's career as an accountant had carried the family. At her Toronto convent, she had, like me, been a stranger, struggling to translate between dissonant cultures. I had found someone, on the other side of the planet, who shared my experience almost exactly. Moreover, though our cultural journeys had set out from different points on the compass, they had produced the same result: a driving passion for knowledge-mine, historical; hers, literary-and a shared need to push below the surface of things to look for deeper meanings.
I began to relax when Barbara offered me a stiff Scotch, chatting easily while she opened a can of soup, produced a hearty sandwich, and found the components of a fine salad in the recesses of her refrigerator. As I took stock of her quietly elegant rooms, other lively and interesting people began to appear. I forgot about how ugly Boston had seemed, as it dawned on me that I had come to live in one of the world's greatest concentrations of intellectual women. It was a sign of my low level of awareness of such things that I'd given great thought to the Harvard faculty I would meet but none at all to my fellow women graduate students. Although the odds against such happenings are astronomically high, I met, within the next hour, sitting in Barbara's comfortable rooms, three other women who were to be lifelong friends. The first to erupt into the room were Mina Farhad, a woman one would have thought to have stepped straight out of a Persian miniature, until the sound of her wicked belly laugh made her seem utterly contemporary, and her improbable suite mate, Jana Moravkova, a Czech woman, daughter of implacable resistance fighters against the Nazis. Jana's accent was French because of her undergraduate education at the Sorbonne, but her Gallic joie de vivre was matched by a spirit and intellect clearly from pre-Enlightenment Europe. Her manners were formal and aristocratic, while in appearance she looked like the wood carvings of youthful Madonnas one saw in baroque churches. Both women were working in the molecular biology program which had recently contributed to the discovery of DNA, and both conveyed some of the excitement that went with the awareness that one was working on the edge of great discovery. Their easy curiosity about who I was, and comfortable acceptance that any woman in her right mind who wanted to achieve something as a scholar would come to Radcliffe, eased the memories of hundreds of careful explanations to uncomprehending Australian friends and acquaintances about why I wasn't satisfied to settle at home, or study at Oxford or Cambridge.
Promptly at 10:30 p.m. Carla Levine arrived, invited by Barbara to meet me, because Carla's room was across the corridor from mine in our distant wing of the building. Just home from the library, Carla was petite, dark haired, and strikingly beautiful. Everyone laughed at the promptness of her arrival, because, they told me, one could set one's watch by Carla's hours of departure for the library, and her equally predictable return. Several years younger than I, she was already a year into her doctoral program in Middle Eastern Studies, intent on understanding Arab-Israeli conflicts at a scholarly rather than ideological level. One could see that this woman from Kansas City, Missouri, was no typical Midwesterner. I'd had few Jewish friends, and was unprepared for her wildly extravagant sense of humor, or for the laughing way in which she told me I looked like the walking Jewish stereotype of a goy. After we returned to our rooms Carla and I talked until the small hours of the morning about our dreams as scholars, where we had come from, and why we were in Cambridge.
Excerpted from True North by Jill Ker Conway. Copyright © 1995 by Jill Ker Conway. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.