I grew up in Manhattan. I traveled to school on a school bus and when I was old enough I used my school bus pass to take the regular public buses. The uptown buses often let you out right onto subway grates. Not a problem, we wore school uniforms . . . with bloomers. No kidding.
While in grammar school all the kids took ballroom dancing classes. There were various austere ladies who taught such classes. We were obliged to wear party dresses and white gloves were essential. The boys wore blazers and also wore white gloves — no sweaty palms in ballroom dancing. My mother would travel with me to dance class, and the thing I hated about going, aside from being taller than most of the boys, was that the Fifth Avenue bus we took to get there stopped at a subway grate. Invariably I would be arranging myself and my crinolines, just off the bus, when whoosh, a subway would go by below me and up would go my skirt and petticoats. Deeply embarrassing for a 10-year-old in white socks, Mary Janesand a party dress, you can be sure.
And so began a deep distrust of the subways and their grates and the wind that came through them when the subways passed below. They became fashion danger zones. The dirty wind ruined freshly combed preteen hair and lifted skirts no matter how you tried to hold them down. I had never ridden the subway.
In high school I had to actually ride the subways, daily. While going down the subway stairs in a very full skirt (with the subway coming into the platform), my skirt once flew over my head. After that I switched to a wardrobe of straight skirts for the entirety of my high school years. (Dear reader, during my high school years girls were not allowed to wear pants, trousers, slacks, or dungarees in school. Even on snow days. No kidding.)
Pantyhose had not been invented yet, and black dancer’s tights were for beatniks only. Billowing skirts were for party dresses and fancy dances. A boy picked you up and you went by taxi. That was how it was.
Graduation from college brought me back to New York, and the wonderful world of daily high heels and a job. Once more the subway grates became the enemy. Try to walk across one with skinny high heels in the 1970s and you risked a broken ankle or broken heel if the hole and the grate and your shoe lined up and created the perfect storm of a ruined shoe or a fall on your face. The subway grates and the equally evil sewer grates were famous for peeling the leather off of a heel like a banana. Walking in Manhattan is hazardous to shoes. Why do you think there’s a shoe repair store every block and a half?
Working for a fashion magazine (Glamour) for many years allowed for wardrobe experimentation. The subway grates were no longer a threat to the dame striding down the street in great pants and silver Converse high-tops. I was Annie Hall. Bring it on, sidewalk grate and subway wind. I was fine.
Taxi money in your pocket for a fast exit. No, please driver, do not stop over the sewer grate, thank you.
Largely untroubled, I still move around Manhattan like a native, remembering to close my eyes to avoid the soot coming up through those dreaded subway grates (now intent on making mascara run when a bit gets in the eye). In winter I know to avoid the grates because they are really slippery. It is Manhattan. We walk while looking down. Street savvy.
Now I live in East Hampton. No more high heels, no more subways, no more petticoats (well once in a while), and yet. . . .
I have developed a new fear of storm drains.
I brought it with me from the city. The deep distrust of what is below the sidewalk clearly comes from the subways and my youth.
Out here I imagine I know what is down there: In the storm drain is a river of water and a magnetic force that wants me to drop my car keys. And I know that when dropped, they will slide between the ribs of the grate and keys will float off to the Azores on a current so fast that they will be lost to me forever. Storm drains are scarier than the subway grates of my youth. No keys, no nothin’.
When I get out of my car, keys gripped tightly on their way to the safety of my pocket (old habits die hard), right there at my open door is inevitably a storm drain, wanting my car keys. They follow my car. The storm drains don’t want my cellphone, they don’t want anything but my slippery car keys.
You may see me driving around and around seeming to look for a parking space when there are many available. I am not looking for a parking space; I am being chased by a storm drain that wants my car keys.
Durell Godfrey takes pictures for The Star when she is not being stalked by storm drains.