The easiest way for a kid to lose track of friends is by moving to a different location. Girls are better at collecting addresses, writing letters, and making long-distance phone calls. Before the Internet, those were the available options.
I was having very little of it in 1978 when my family relocated 60 miles (and across state lines) in the summer between ninth and 10th grade in high school. Although I scribbled down a few addresses, my New Jersey friends were not exactly Shakespearean-level playwrights. Only one, James Springley, diligently returned each letter with one of his own.
During the April spring break of 1979, our mothers arranged for James to take New Jersey Transit into Penn Station. I would meet him there, and escort him back to Great Neck on the Long Island Rail Road. The plan was for him to spend a few days together, before he returned to Somerset, while his parents visited relatives in another state.
New York City in the late ‘70s should not bring back warm, fuzzy memories. Manhattan was in the midst of an economic crunch, crime was on the upswing, and major transportation points were a haven for vagrants and scammers. I wrote about my recent experiences in Penn Station in a previous article. The 1970s make the 2020s look like a preschool party, complete with cupcakes and a piñata.
Although he was 15 years old, James had limited independent travel experience. I had been borrowing my father’s train tickets as far back as age 13, to attend a comic book show in midtown Manhattan held one Sunday every month. In fact, traveling with my brother Eric (who was 6 inches taller than me despite being two years younger), we were once mugged on Seventh Avenue–a story for another day.
I’m sure I related that saga to James, which probably added to his apprehension about navigating through the city, although we weren’t scheduled to set foot outside the train terminal.
There were at least two telephone calls leading up to his arrival, where I gave James a detailed layout of the upper level of Penn Station. Since I didn’t know the track where his train would arrive, I offered him the option of three distinct “landmarks”: Don Pepi Pizza, a newsstand, and the information office. True to his conservative Christian upbringing, James eagerly chose…