My first job, age twelve, was delivering hats on the subway from Queens to Manhattan. The man in the change booth knew the weight of twenty nickels for a buck. I needed only two for a round trip on the F train. Maneuvering three or four big boxes became part of my skill-set.
I never saw the feathered flowers Mrs. Danziger had fashioned or the artistry she sculpted from velvet and scraps of ribbon. She lived below us in apt. 2-F. A quarter a box was my pay. Soon I would be rich.
New Yorkers in straw seats wore their subway faces, assured of anonymity, staring into defeat or dreaming of the the next stop off the map. I was the kid behind those boxes in that August heat of 1945. One hand gripped the straps while I disappeared, ground up by the overhead fan. In the whoosh and whir we went from Jackson Heights under the East River to a city of promises in a long afternoon.
I emerged on Lexington Avenue, proud how I mastered the Manhattan grid, scooting from one swanky address to another, unseen, as I darted from Bloomingdale's, to Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue.
No longer twelve, I was now going on thirteen that summer when something died in me and something was born. Yahweh, was gone when FDR died. Death everywhere: depraved, bestial acts of men at Auschwitz revealed, mass graves, Hiroshima, burned flesh. Going on thirteen was a secular bar mitzvah. Old enemies were our new best friends. Cartographers worked through the night reconfiguring Europe.
I started thinking outside my boxes of divisions I hadn't noticed before. The well-dressed walked through the front door and soared with the uniformed elevator operator announcing women's apparel and notions. Sometimes a great notion. Others, like me, were relegated to the rear entrance and got yanked up with the freight. No spiffy regalia, no notions, no ceiling to protect me.
My initiation was a kind of faith. To think I could disappear at will in a sweaty subway. To know I had crossed that river. To believe I would not be crushed in the lift. To imagine I could live with the perils of indifferent streets. I would make my way with Mrs. Danziger’s creations, her felt and lace, her flight from the shtetl, refugee to these safe shores in her plumed birds, her deliverance.
Hats and words weigh next to nothing. I still carry an invisible box weightlessly. Millinery birds and words on the wing and always that elevator up and the risk of climbing.