When the engines started, their thunder muffled the sound of my throbbing heart, and gave me something else to worry about. In 1973, I experienced my first airplane trip, from JFK to SFO. The distance covered in miles equaled in enormity the amount of courage needed to undertake that journey. My first plane ride to the far west side of this country became my ticket to a new life in which I carried nothing more of my old life than two suitcases, $200 in cash, and a TWA Get Away credit card.
Courage never equals escapism or avoidance of problems and, cast in a certain light, my journey seemed an attempt to run away from many problems. Psychologists label this form of behavior “geographical escaping,” and warn it never works. But I hoped to run away from a life that had begun rotting under the skin of the Big Apple. My brother had recently died, at the age of 28, from an excessively indulgent lifestyle; I ran away from the despair and pain of his death. I ran away from companions, plentiful, amusing and diverting, few of whom proved themselves friends. I ran away from dreary subways that took me to even drearier jobs. I ran away from a family that loved to the point of smothering. I ran away from an existence that could quickly be extinguished.
Courage claims honesty as its partner. I faced the fact that my youth would not insulate me—no more than it had my brother—from reaping what I sowed. My brother’s death forced me to face the truth of my own behavior, that I might be following his same path. So the genesis of my courage began with an honest evaluation of my own behavior and lifestyle. And my remedy proved the psychologists wrong.
Getting off that plane in late August, dressed scantily in shorts and a capped sleeve tee-shirt, I had left behind an East Coast heat wave only to greet 60 degree temperatures and the San Francisco fog I grew to love. But I shivered more with trepidation than with cold. Following my father’s advice, I approached a limousine rental counter to ask about transportation into the city. When the clerk learned that I wished to go to Franklin and Eddy Streets, he vigorously shook his head and admonished me not to go there, stating that the motel I planned to stay at existed in the heart of the Tenderloin District. I wouldn’t survive the night, he warned. He paternally directed me towards a bus which would take me to the Hilton Hotel. There I would find a safe—and expensive—place to stay. I took his advice about the bus but when I arrived in downtown San Francisco, I asked for directions to my predetermined destination. I stayed in a motel named “The Oasis” and for three weeks it served as just that. I found it clean and safe, about one mile away from the Tenderloin District. Having lived in New York City and having seen the Bowery and Harlem, the East Village, areas of the Bronx and Brooklyn and other untamed turfs, the seamiest part of San Francisco known as The Tenderloin seemed timid in comparison.
Two days after arrival, I registered with a temporary employment agency known as “Kelly Girl” and began working. My temporary employment soon turned permanent and within a month I rented a small studio apartment. I made new good friends and ceased old bad habits.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, courage involves mastery over—not absence of—fear. At times I feared I could not make it alone in a beautiful but indifferent city. I feared I could not overcome my dependencies, loneliness or insecurities. But somehow everything came together, perhaps more because of the struggle than in spite of it. My life not only changed for the better but became far happier than I ever dared dream. Challenges still exist, challenges demanding mastery over inherent fears; situations will develop which require courage to confront, handle and go beyond. For me, the redefining and rediscovery of myself became an act of courage which began back in 1973, and continues to this day.