New York City, April 1953
It was a cold, grey, spring day in Manhattan. The dense
cloud cover made it impossible to catch even a glimpse of
the sun. Wednesday night’s torrential downpour made the
sewer run-off drains overflow. This caused the water to back
up and cascade into the gutters all along East 82nd Street.
Nancy stood at the corner of Third Avenue and East 82nd
Street, her mother close by her side.
“I said ye should have worn yer boots. Look at that water
gushing down the street. Ye’ll be coming back with a cold
from getting’ yer feet soaked. And besides do ye even
remember the things we talked about this morning?”
“I know, I know! Look both ways when I cross the street, and
don’t talk to anybody I don’t know, except for the police.
Momma, I promise I won’t forget. Can I please go now?”
“I’m not sure I want ye goin’ off like this on yer own.
Who’ll be lookin’ after ye? What if somethin’ happens, how
would I ever know?” Nan Kelly squeezed her daughter’s hand.
Nancy looked at her mother and smiled. “Momma, remember the
first time you let me go outside to play with the other kids
by myself? You didn’t want to do that either. I promised
then, like I am now, I’ll do what you said. You don’t have
to worry, nothing’s going to happen.”
“The first time you went outside by yourself, I could see
you from the front room window. You were never out of my
sight. This time you want to go all the way to the museum by
yerself. I just don’t like it.” Nan paused for a moment,
then continued, “How about this, I’ll walk up to the museum
with ye. Ye can go in on yer own. I’ll just wait outside.
OK?” Nan gently brushed her daughter’s bangs aside with her
free hand. “Ye look so grown-up today, I know, but ye’re
still barely nine years old. I think we might wait another
year before we do this. OK?”
“No, Momma, it’s not OK! You promised I could go to the
museum by myself today, and that’s what I’m going to do. If
you want, we can go together tomorrow. Today, I’m going
alone.” The light turned green for the third time since
Nancy and her mother had gotten to the corner.
Wrestling her hand free from her mother’s grip, Nancy looked
both ways and then stepped into the street.
Nan stood on the pavement and watched as her daughter
hurried to the other side of Third Avenue. Waiting for the
light to change again, she blessed herself, and mumbled
aloud, “Sweet Jesus, watch over that child. Don’t let her do
anything stupid. Forgive me for lying to her, but in case
ye’re busy, I’ll just follow along behind and make sure
she’s safe. But please, don’t let her see me following her.
Amen.” Nan blessed herself again, and then crossed the
street; clandestinely following her daughter.
Halfway between Third and Lexington Avenues, Nancy opened
the top button of her blue wool coat. She removed the velvet
princess cap from her head and stuffed it into her empty
pocket. I’ll put that back on before I go home so my mother
won’t be mad at me. She skipped along the city street that
led to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her anticipation
growing with each step, she could hardly wait to get there.
She was completely on her own, for the first time in her
Stopping at each street corner, she checked that the light
was green, and that there were no cars coming, just as her
mother had instructed. Lexington, Park, Madison and then
Fifth, only four more blocks and I’ll be there.
Moments later Nancy arrived at the corner of 82nd Street and
Fifth Avenue. She stood there waiting for the light to turn
green. She heard a drum beating close by. She looked around
for the street musicians that usually played in front of the
museum; they weren’t there today. She wondered if anyone
else heard the drums. It was then she realized that what she
was hearing was her own heartbeat.
She smiled. I’m almost to heaven. Nancy watched the light
change. She looked across the street, focusing on the
building that housed one of the world’s great art museums.
There, rising into the sky, sat the two-story, sand colored,
Sphinxes that guarded each side of the entrance. Massive and
intimidating, they loomed above the steps that led to three
brass revolving doors. Nancy could feel their eyes watching
her as she crossed the avenue.
She looked up. Bright, colorful banners flew over all three
of the main entryways. There’s a special show today: that’s
good. Nancy slowly and deliberately climbed the widest part
of the front steps and crossed to the stationary door on the
right side of the building. It was marked ‘special
circumstance entry’. Here comes the second hardest part she
thought. Getting my mother to let me do this was the first
hardest, this is the second. Nancy had never gone to the
museum alone before. She wondered if the guards would even
let her in.
She had stuffed her hat into the right hand pocket of her
coat. The left pocket held her life savings, twenty-five
cents, a single silver quarter. It was just enough money to
get her into heaven, if they made her pay because she was
alone. It was also enough money for a cup of hot chocolate
and a piece of cake if they didn’t.
When she went to the museum with her mother, they always
went on “free admission” day. Today wasn’t a free day for
adults, but because it was Easter break and a school
holiday, kids who were under twelve were supposed to be
allowed in free.
Nancy hesitated; the tiny hairs on the tops of her hands
were standing at attention. The drums had subsided, but now
she had the eerie feeling someone was watching her. She
turned and scanned the steps, the street, and the avenue to
see if she could determine what made her feel this way. She
couldn’t see anything, or anyone, that might cause er
discomfort. She shrugged her shoulders and turned back
towards the entrance. Nancy didn’t see Nan Kelly duck behind
the base of the Sphinx, or take a seat on one of the side
steps to wait for her daughter.
The brass, iron, and glass door was heavy; Nancy struggled
using both hands to open it.
“Hello there, Miss. May I help you?” The museum guard
smiled. The brass buttons on his uniform glittered, as
though they had just been polished. “Are you all alone?” he
asked. He held the door open wide enough for Nancy to duck
under his arm and enter the building lobby.
The guard wore a dark green uniform, and a hat that looked
like the ones police officers wore. His smile revealed a
perfect set of teeth. At least Nancy thought they were
perfect. He also had on a nametag that read "Ed Vydnansky".
Nancy wondered how you pronounced a name like "Vydnansky".
She also wondered if talking to him counted the same as
talking to the police. She hoped so, she wouldn’t want to
upset her mother by talking to someone she shouldn’t have.
Although, she did wonder how her mother would ever know.
“Yes, sir, I am. Do I have to pay because I’m alone?” Nancy
held the quarter tightly in her fist. She was prepared to
pay the admission fee but hoped she wouldn’t have to. Most
importantly, she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be asked
to leave because she was alone.
“No, Miss, you don’t have to pay. Kids are free all this
week. Are your parents on their way?” The guard made Nancy
uncomfortable asking about parents. Maybe it isn’t the same
as being a police officer.
“No, sir, I live down the block, on the other side of Third
Avenue, and my mother said it was all right for me to come
here alone today. That’s OK, isn’t it?” Nancy was shifting
her weight from one foot to the other. A nervous habit she
tried hard to control.
“I think it’s OK, but I have to check with my supervisor.
You can wait here.” The guard began to walk across the
cavernous entry hall. Turning back to where Nancy was
standing he smiled and asked “How old are you anyway?”
Nancy stood up as straight as she could. She was trying to
exhibit all of her five feet one inch to its best advantage.
“I’m nine. I’ll be ten on my next birthday.” Nancy wasn’t
lying; she just wasn’t being a hundred percent truthful.
“And when might that be?” the guard waited for her to reply.
Nancy lowered her head, and dropped her shoulders, her voice
was barely audible, “A year from today.”
“Sorry, Miss, I didn’t hear you. When is your next
birthday?” The guard put his hand in front of his face so
that Nancy could not see him smile.
Nancy stood up straight once again. She took her hands out
of her coat pockets and then planted her feet firmly on the
marble floor, before she spoke. “I said, today is my
birthday. Next year on this same day I will be ten years
old.” She held her breath waiting for the guard to respond.
“Oh, so then it’s your birthday? Well that’s special
circumstances for sure,” the guard looked around the room.
“Ahem … Ahem …” he cleared his throat. “ I don’t see my
Nancy let her shoulders droop, she anticipated the rest –
"sorry, I can’t let you in here alone" would be his
response, she was sure of it.
“But I’m sure if I did, see him that is, he’d agree that
this is special circumstances.” The guard paused, “So young
lady, enjoy your day. Happy Birthday.” This time the guard
did not hide his smile, instead he displayed a wide, toothy
grin as he pinned an "entrance paid" badge to Nancy’s coat
collar. “Now go on, off with you. And remember, don’t touch
Nancy watched as the guard returned to his post at the
"special circumstances" entry. When he looked back, Nancy
raised her hand and waved. “Thank you, Mr. Vy – nan - sky”
she called. He smiled.
“That’s Vid – nan – ski.” He said then nodded his head and
saluted her casually. Nancy returned the gesture.
I’m finally flying solo and in heaven too, she thought as
she moved swiftly across the lobby. Her fist, pushed deep
into the pocket of her coat, still clutched the quarter she
had brought with her. The museum held many treasures, all of
which she was anxious to see, but first she would take time
for hot chocolate and cake.
Outside, on the steps, Nan Kelly sat waiting, just in case.
Interior, Metropolitan Museum, New York City
Buy at AllPosters.com
the first to review this story - click here.