"You take this money and you give it to the man over there and you get two tokens. You understand?"
Returning with the coins she took them from my hand but didn't let go of me. I was taller than her but she held my hand anyway.
The shopping bag she carried was from Macy's Herald Square, though we hadn't been there today. Grandma always saved her shopping bags and kept them neatly in a drawer by her sewing machine for trips like this. Right now it contained the sweater which I refused to wear but she insisted that I take.
"You'll catch a chill and get sick," she reasoned.
I can't argue with grandma.
She was a first generation American brought up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900's. Little Italy they called it then as well as now. She worked all her life in the garment district as a seamstress. With the money she and my grandfather earned, they bought their own house on Foster Avenue in Brooklyn just before the depression. "Manhattan is no place to raise children," she claimed. When she died, that house was passed on to my father and his two brothers.
Still holding my hand, we headed for the turnstile where after depositing the tokens we could get on the BMT to Coney Island. Grandma was intent on taking me to visit my cousin Tony Alongi whom I had never met.
"He's a good boy and he's your age. Besides, I have business with his father. I'll take you to the Aquarium after."
She ambled when she walked, her print dress flowed around her ankles while her black knitted sweater stayed firmly in place, buttoned to her ample form. She wore black boots laced to the ankles. We were taking the subway because she never had learned to drive. She didn't need to drive she would say. She could take the bus or the train. She was about 4 feet and eleven inches high but there was no one from Bedford Styvesant to Harlem Heights that would think to mess with her. And she knew the trains and busses of all five boroughs better than the conductors she knew by name.
We walked through the gate and stood in the lighted waiting area of the station, with the dark tunnel on either side.
"Now we wait here for the train" she said patting my arm but not letting go for fear, I suppose, that I would jump down on the tracks and electrocute myself.
"Yes Grandma," and we waited.
You could hear the train shuddering and clacking from a ways off and when it stopped it screamed like a demon caught in a trap. The doors hissed open and she pulled me into the cabin and led us to a seat.
To this day when I ride the subway, I stand in front of the map posted on the wall of the train, having planned my journey beforehand, and count off the stops as we go by, fearing I'll get lost in the Minator's labyrinth that is the New York subway system. My grandmother never even gave it a glance. She traveled by bus or train wherever she needed to go. She was the person who kept contact with all the aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews for our far flung family.
And now that she is gone, I'll never know half of them.