Years ago, I was friends with an accomplished scientist. But unlike a lot of other science weenies, he was a vast and versatile reader, as well-versed in literature and the arts as he was in science.
One day we were talking abut the European "discovery" of the Americas and its resulting conflicts and culture clashes, and he said, "You think that was traumatic?"
"You mean you don't?" I said.
"No, of course I do," he said. "But I'll tell you something."
"That conflict was nothing compared to what'd happen if we ever came in contact with extra-terrestrials."
There's no denying the truth of that statement, but when it comes to culture clashes, there's another one that's big enough for me - the one between city and country.
I was aware of it from the time I was hatched, since my parents and extended family were all from "The City" - the Rotten Apple, itself. And not only were they from it; they were also of it as well.
They were comfortable in huge crowds; they understood the subway system as well as the items on a Chinese menu, and they never knew you could swim in anything that wasn't man-made and chlorinated.
They also accepted elevators and escalators as merely part of the everyday, rather than the mechanical marvels they were to a rube like me. In town, I knew of five elevators - in the Hotel Saranac and Alpine, in the Santinoni and Thompson Building, and in Leonard's department store.
Of the five, I only had access to Leonard's, when I went shopping with my mother, which was frequent enough to keep it in my mind, and infrequent enough to make it thrilling every time I went on it.
As for escalators? They were only a city thing, and thus, at least as exciting to me then as a trip to Disney World is to a kid today. In fact, the first time my mother lost me was due to a bad bout of "escalator intoxication."
Moving out, moving up
When it came to shopping (and everything else), my mother was not an improviser. She never went into a store just to look around and see if anything caught her eye. When she shopped, she knew exactly what she wanted (which was actually only what she needed). Once she found it, she'd study which model was the best deal before she bought it.
It was the perfect approach for a Depression-Era survivor. It was also the perfect way for her to momentarily lose track of me, which is exactly what happened.
We were on the first floor of Macy's department store and my mother was at a counter examining something totally irrelevant to my life, like boys' socks or underwear. The counter was pretty close to the escalator so using the wiles I'd learned from watching The Last of the Mohicans, in a few seconds I slipped away and was riding the escalator.
I assume my plan would've been to get off at the second floor and then ride back down to where I'd started ... provided I'd had a plan. But I didn't. And how could I, since I didn't know the down escalator was on the other side of the store from the up escalator? So once I hit the second floor, I did the only thing I could: I kept going up.
It was heady fare indeed, riding higher and higher on those shiny steel stairs, seeing them start flat, then become upright and then flatten and slip under the floor, and then repeating the process on the next escalator. It was my first taste of adventure.
It was exhilarating, electrifying, and intoxicating, and with each floor I felt I was getting closer and closer to the Kingdom of God, which for all I know about things metaphysical, I was. I only know that in the physical sphere, I was getting farther and farther away from my mother, something that hit me when I arrived at the top floor.
Suddenly, everything changed.
The ride was over, the fun was over, and it looked like life as I knew it was over. I was no longer an astronaut, soaring through the vast reaches of outer space. Instead, I was a lost little kid.
As I looked at the hundreds of strangers swirling around me, my heart pounded all the way up my throat, my nose started to run, and I was sure I was going to barf my breakfast.
I knew I couldn't go any farther up, but had no idea how to go even a little bit farther down. In fact, I couldn't go anywhere. I was in a state of shot, stuck to the floor as if cemented there, losing all sense of self, sureness and sanity.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed by a vision of my future. There I was, old, weak and wan, wasting away somewhere in Macy's, unknown and unloved, forgotten by friends and family all because I'd made one huge mistake: I'd allowed myself to trade the gentle bosom of My Home Town for the mean streets of New York City, Destroyer of Little Boys.
Visions of Home floated before me - romping in verdant fields with my faithful dog Happy, having icicle duels, playing mahsay during lunch hournow all gone, never to be seen again.
And then, nothing.
The next thing I remember was being reunited with my mother, who was doing a brilliant job of balancing her two dominant emotions at the time - overwhelming joy and murderous rage.
It turned out the top floor was women's lingerie, so it didn't take the clerks long to realize any eight-year-old boy was in there alone for only one reason - he was lost. And so the rescue and reunion operation was immediately put into action and soon after resulted in success.
It resulted in something else as well - an unforgettable insight about Adventure.
It is that if you want adventure, you'll surely get it and you'll also get a whole bunch of things you never wanted at all.