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Excerpt, Essay 1, Journey

(An essay about joining the military, and moving on in life.)

In 1983, New York City had one of those eye-blink springs where one day you are holding earmuffs against your frozen skull, teeth chattering as you pray for the M101 bus to arrive, and the next you are digging musty sundresses out of the back of the closet. So I don’t know what I wore that day in April I walked from 114th and Broadway to the Air Force recruiter’s office in Harlem, but I was probably bare-legged, enjoying the sun on my shoulders and the feel on my face of a warm if slightly sooty breeze off the Hudson.

It was not the first time I had walked from my illegal sublet within the bell-jar of Morningside Heights to the bustle of 125th Street. Each time I marveled how I could travel less than two miles and go so far. I proceeded north toward my decision, past the professors and students lingering over lattes and cappuccinos (still exotic back then in most parts, but long commonplace on the Upper West Side); past neighborhood locals casually picking through the sale books in front of bookstores such as Salter’s and the Book Forum; past the Barnard and Columbia campuses, a mix of dignified ivy edifices and profoundly ugly buildings from the early 1960s (“an unfortunate era,” a guide had once told me on a walking tour); and past the tiny Mill Luncheonette, where the owner, taking a shine to me with my good-girl manners and my penchant for his grilled cheese sandwiches (the cheese perfectly melted inside, just short of liquefaction) had once pulled back his sleeve to show me blue numbers tattooed on his arm.

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