Sunday, February 01, 2015


On that blustery January 3rd morning in 1979, I stood at the bus stop on Front Street in Scotch Plains and shivered. Then suddenly I saw my mother’s powder blue Volkswagen Beetle turn the corner. I quickly ducked behind a bush as she drove by. I shivered all the more - shaking from not only the cold, but now also from the fear. I was afraid my mother would find me and take me back to our little apartment, that den of hell, and beat me all the more because I had tried to run away again.

I left twice before but when I felt cold, hungry and scared, I returned, paying a very high price at the hands of my mother.

This time I promised myself, “No matter what, no matter how hard things get, I won’t not go back. If I make it through the first 24 hours, then I’ll know I can make it on my own for the rest of my life.”

I stayed behind the bush until the bus to New York finally arrived. I had never ridden a bus before and had no idea how much it would cost. Before leaving our apartment, I searched my mother’s dresser drawers and old purses for every coin I could find. When I boarded the bus, I gave the driver a handful of nickels, dimes, quarters and pennies. It probably wasn’t enough to cover the fare, but I think the driver felt sorry for me because he just waved me along.

I sat in the back and thought, “I wonder if any of these people know I’m a runaway? Can they tell just by looking at me?”

Forty-five minutes later, the bus arrived at Port Authority. I was such a bumpkin, I couldn’t figure out where the exit was. I took an escalator, which then led to another. I tried to follow the signs, but wound up going in circles. Asking someone for help would have only drawn attention to me and I was still afraid someone would figure out that I was a runaway and call a cop. So around and around I went inside Port Authority until finally I saw some glass doors with sunlight pouring through. I made my way out to 8th Avenue.

Then I saw it. “It” was the bustling, flashing, noisy and very filthy 42nd Street.

I stood at the corner and observed the theater marquees featuring titles of Kung Fu, porn and blaxploitation flicks.

At that moment I had no idea in 1984 my picture would be displayed on the marquee of the Anco Theater and remain there for several years.

As I walked along 42nd Street, I just followed the crowd since I had no place to go. I also had no money and wasn’t wearing a warm coat.

I told myself, “Just keep moving. Just stay warm.”

Men carrying attaché cases and wearing business suits with dress overcoats kept walking by me saying, “Cup of coffee? Cup of coffee? Wanna cup of coffee?”

And they didn’t stop walking.

They mumbled, “Cup of coffee?” and continued walking right past me.

I thought, “My goodness. People in New York are so nice! So many complete strangers are offering me a cup of coffee!”

I walked on the south side of the street until I got to 6th Avenue. The lights and the marquees disappeared, so I turned around and walked back on the north side. Oddly, I felt safer with the chaos and hubbub between 6th and 8th Avenues. I walked past Tad’s Steakhouse and Modell’s before finding myself at 8th Avenue again. So I ventured back on the other side of the block. I repeated this for hours, walking up and down 42nd Street.

I was hungry, thirsty and I had to go to the bathroom. But worst of all was the cold. I was so very cold. It was going to get dark and I had no idea where I would spend the night.

I told myself, “The next person who offers me a cup of coffee, I’m going to take them up on it. I don’t drink coffee, but at least it’s hot.”

A man approached and asked, “Cup of coffee?”

Before he walked all the way past me, I shouted, “Yes, thank you!”

He was a short, stout man with a mustache and was wearing what looked like a black wig.

He began talking to me nonstop. He had a thick foreign accent and I had difficulty understanding him. I was so cold and hungry; I just wanted that cup of coffee. It was dark as he took me into a Hell’s Kitchen bodega and bought some ginger ale. Ginger ale wasn’t hot, but at least it was something. I hadn’t eaten since the night before and the thought of anything in my stomach was pleasing.

We walked awhile in the darkness until we arrived at a bleak walk-up. It was where he lived. When he opened the door, I was aghast. I had never seen an apartment like that before.

I heard Bette Davis proclaiming in my head, “What a dump!”

But I really wanted that ginger ale. I used his bathroom and when I came out, I asked him for the soda. He pounced on me and started grunting. I screamed and tried to fight him off. Though he was short, he was also muscular and very strong.

He grabbed a knife and held it to my throat shouting, “Do you want me to use this?”

I whimpered a “No.”

He yelled, “Are you pregnant?” (I was a virgin - a chubby virgin, so he probably mistook my round belly for a baby.)

I thought pregnancy might dissuade him from raping me, so I said, “Yes.”

The he bellowed, “Do you have a disease?”

Again, I said yes. I would have said anything to get this guy off of me.

For a moment, he let go of his grip. I ran for the door. It had a vertical row of locks and I frantically began turning them with both my hands. He was shouting at me.

I began to pray, “Please God. Please God” and was suddenly able to open all the locks.

I ran out the door, down the stairs and into the street. I ran and I ran. Afraid to look back, I was convinced the rapist was running after me. I ran until I my legs felt like they would give out. Then I walked. I walked all night until the morning.

And to think, I never did get that ginger ale.

In the daylight, I found myself walking down a block of beautiful apartment buildings. Not at all like the rapist’s. These featured doormen dressed in fancy uniforms with shiny buttons and gold braided epaulettes. I was so cold and needed to rest. I wandered into one of the buildings and sat in an exquisitely upholstered, well-cushioned chair in the warm and toasty lobby.

The doorman asked, “Can I help you?”

I lied, “I’m waiting for someone.”

(Already I was conjuring up ways to survive.)

As I sat there, I realized that I had stayed away from home for 24 hours. I made it. I was really free from my mother.

It was about an hour before the doorman had figured out that I had lied to him about waiting for someone.

“You better move on,” he said.

So I got up and faced the wintry streets again.

I went into a store, grabbed an armful of clothes and entered the dressing room. There I sat on the floor, took a catnap and thawed out. The store also had a bathroom where I stuck my head under the faucet and lapped up some water. I did this routine in a number of stores that day.

Then I had to face that dreaded darkness again. Like the night before, I walked until morning to keep from freezing to death.

During my third day in New York I saw three huge, beautiful white buildings. There was a big fountain in front of the center building.

I went in and sat on a granite bench in the lobby. I sat there for hours. No one bothered me. When evening came, throngs of people entered the doors. Many of the women were wearing mink coats (this was 1979 when fur was still in vogue).

All I could think was, “They’re so lucky because they’re warm. And they have a bed to sleep in tonight.”

Eventually the lobby was empty again and I began to hear music - beautiful music - opera music. I finally figured out I was in the Metropolitan Opera House.

I had to use the restroom and went downstairs. There was an attendant. I opened one of the stalls, sat down and took a catnap. When I awoke, I could hear the attendant telling someone that there was a girl who had been in the stall for an unusually long time. I hurried out and faced the bitter cold again.

Years later, I went to the Met on a regular basis. Before every performance, I took the time to sit on that very same bench where I had envied all those furry ladies. Each time I would close my eyes and remember when all I wanted out of life was to be warm. Yes, I remembered as I said a little prayer of thanksgiving for my warm wool coat and my warm cozy bed.

After another night of constant walking to stay warm, I found myself back on 42nd Street. By this time, I was feeling very weak from hunger and exhaustion. Hypothermia was beginning to set in.

One of those “cup of coffee” men approached me and I went with him. He was middle-aged, obese and wore a suit with an old-fashioned trilby hat.

He looked like he just walked out of the 1950’s.

He asked me if I wanted to go to a movie.

I thought, “It’ll be warm, I’ll get to sit and maybe there’ll be popcorn. I’m so hungry.”

So I said yes.

He took me to The Loews Astor Plaza Theatre on 44th Street.

Superman was playing.

“Oh boy! Superman!” I thought.

So naïve I was. So naïve.

The movie had already started and Margot Kidder was on the screen. I had gone to movies only a few times during my 17 years so I found this a special treat.

Suddenly the man took my hand and placed it on a warm, wet, mushy... thing.

“What in the world is that?” I asked myself.

He quickly took my arm and dragged me out of the theater.

“But what about Superman?” I exclaimed.

We hurriedly walked to his car, which was parked on 8th Avenue. It was a station wagon - a brown Country Squire with wood paneling on the sides.

“Just like the Brady Bunch’s car,” I thought.

We got in and he drove for awhile. We must have been somewhere in Queens when he pulled into a rather cheap-looking motel.

He took me to a room and after closing the door, threw me on the bed. I was so weak and dizzy by now from starvation and lack of sleep, and he was so morbidly obese, I didn’t have the same degree of fight in me as I did with Rapist #1.

So he began to rape me. His enormous belly had a big, thick scar, which deeply indented into his flesh as his fat billowed around it. I remember watching that disgusting scar coming toward my face and going back, coming forward and moving back…

I fainted.

The next morning, I was still in that room. Rapist #2 was gone and there was $10 on the nightstand. I went into the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror and I passed out again. I awoke with my cheek against the cold, aqua blue tile floor. I was shaking uncontrollably.

Taking the $10, I left the room and asked the man at the front desk how to get back to Manhattan. He told me to take the bus that stopped across the street.

Once back in Times Square, I used Rapist #2’s money to buy some food. I went to Kentucky Fried Chicken and bought fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and a biscuit.

It was the first meal I had eaten in four days.

I’m not sure if Rapist #2’s attack was technically a rape. Once I became a little older and more experienced, I realized Rapist #2 was flaccid during the assault. So I’m not exactly sure if I lost my virginity that night. When I was 18, an older man had sex with me. It hurt a lot and I bled. I always regarded that as the time I lost my virginity. I guess it doesn’t matter because without question, I was sexually assaulted in that motel room by that horrid man, whether he could get it up or not.

I simply could not take life on the streets anymore. I went into a phone booth (yes, they had phone booths in 1979) and I dialed the operator.

I began to sob as I sputtered, “I don’t have anywhere to go. Can you please help me?”

I had a younthful-sounding voice, so the operator asked me, “How old are you sweetie?”

I blubbered, “Seventeen…”

She put me on hold. When she returned she gave me an address and said I would be able to get help there. I thanked her, but because I didn’t know New York at all, I had trouble finding the location. I didn’t realize the numbered streets were either East or West. I wound up on the wrong side of the city and had to walk all the way crosstown again. It was evening when I arrived at my destination.

They gave me a sandwich and told me to take a hot shower. Oh my, did that ever feel great. They handed me a flannel gown to sleep in and pointed me toward a bed.

“What wonderful things beds are… ” I thought as I drifted off.

The next morning, I was questioned by one of the staff. She asked to see my arms.

Upon examining them, she seemed angry. “What are you doing here? You’ve never used!”

“Never used what?” I asked.

“You’re not an addict! We only deal with addicts here! You have to leave,” she demanded.

I began to cry.

A sweet woman who was one of the residents took me aside and said, “Go to Under 21 - Covenant House. They help teenage runaways. Go. They’ll help you.”

I hugged her and was on my way.

Covenant House/Under 21 was located on 8th Avenue near 44th Street, right on the “Minnesota Strip” (named so because of the many teen prostitutes from the Midwest who populated the area.) It was across from porn theaters and peep shows.

I went from attending class at the idyllic Mount Saint Mary Academy…

To living in this lovely neighborhood…

Talk about culture shock! I sure wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Under 21 was sometimes referred to as a "flophouse" and I could see why. There were homeless teens flopped all over the place.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

I told the first adult I saw that I needed help. He told me to take a seat on the floor and wait.

So that’s what I did. My mother had trained me to do what I was told, sit still and above all, be quiet. I sat on the floor with my back against a wall. Woody Woodpecker cartoons blared on a television that was mounted up high on the wall across from me.

I sat and I sat. Evening came. Then night. And still I sat. I didn’t even get up to go to the bathroom or have a drink of water.

“I was told to sit on the floor and wait, so that’s what I must do. I must be a good girl,” I thought.

At 11:00 pm, a new group of staff came in and one of them noticed me on the floor.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“This morning, I was told to sit here and wait,” I said.

“Well, it’s too late now to do an intake. Just grab a mat and go to sleep for the night,” the man said.

All the kids slept on thin plastic mats on the floor. And there were so many kids; the floor was covered wall-to-wall with mats. I had to look hard to find a vacant spot.

The next morning, I was given breakfast.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

Then the staff conducted my intake.

I was so afraid of being sent back home. My mother had threatened to lock me up in a state psychiatric facility. So I lied. I gave them a fake name - Karen Green.

For two days, everyone called me Karen. I had no ID and they said in order for me to stay at Covenant House, I would have to obtain a birth certificate at least.

I crumbled and through a flood of tears, confessed my lie. I gave them my real name and they promised me that I would never have to see my mother again if I did not want to.

The only clothes I had were on my back, so someone took me down to the basement where they stored donations.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

I found only a few things that fit me: a light blue ruffled tuxedo shirt, navy bell-bottomed, high-water corduroy pants and a pair of saddle shoes, circa 1972, complete with white platform heels. It was quite an outfit.

Covenant House/Under 21 was founded and run by Father Bruce Ritter. Sometimes I would see him at the main office located on 44th Street. He always had a group of boys with him. Years later, it was discovered he was a pedophile.

Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

After two weeks, I was placed in a Covenant House group home on 47th Street and 9th Avenue. I was now a ward of the State of New York.

On the third floor of the group home, there was a little room, a closet actually, and I asked if I could make it my private bedroom. That’s one thing I always wanted - my own room.

I was able to squeeze in a little bed and taped some magazine pictures on the wall. I scrubbed the floor, closed the door and sat on the window sill. I was never allowed to open windows when I was living with my mother. She had nailed them all shut. So now I gleefully opened the window and deeply inhaled the chilly bouquet of Hell's Kitchen.

Freedom smelled so sweet.