I was 11 years old when I went on my first flight alone. Because I was under the age of 15, I was considered an Unaccompanied Minor and was looked after by the flight attendants. Where was this 5th grader headed? Probably to her grandparents’ house, or somewhere that she has flown to a couple of times. Summer Camp?
Nope. I went to Texas for the first time; Austin, Texas, to be exact. I had never been there before, let alone by myself. My best friend in elementary school had just moved there with her family, and they invited me to come visit, so I did! They picked me up from the airport and everything was fine. I had a wonderful time, and a week later my friend’s mom dropped me back off at the airport, solo again.
I remember being a little nervous when leaving Atlanta on the plane, but I had a whole row of seats to myself so I lifted the armrests and sprawled out, taking a nap. (This was back when I was short enough to do that, mind you). Departing from Austin a week later, there was not one butterfly in my stomach. I was excited to get home and see my family! I strutted down the aisle and found my seat like a pro.
This time I was next to a wiry girl wearing cargo pants and sporting a butterfly tattoo on her wrist. I politely said hi, digging through my backpack for my Nintendo DS. Next thing I new, she began word vomiting her personal life issues to me, an 11 year old girl, and as the underdog sitting next to someone with authority, I sat up and listened. For the next 2 hours, she warned me of adulthood and how I need to cherish my youth and have fun. “Right now you have no responsibilities and I am so jealous of you. You don’t know how good you have it. God, being an adult sucks”.
I dealt with a lot of anxiety when I was young, so once this woman put an idea into my head that the future was dim my mind began spinning faster than Alice’s Tea Cups at Disney. I practically ran off the plane into my mother’s arms, crying because this woman had honestly scared the crap out of me. I told her everything the woman had foreboded me of, and after comforting me for a while, she said, “Kelly, how old was she? Did she say?”
When I look back now, all I can do is laugh. How crazy is it that I was listening to some 23 year-old punk vent about the hardships of adulthood, when she was barely an adult herself!? I mean, to an 11 year-old she seemed so old. But now I realize she was probably going through some hard time where her parents decided to cut her off and she was pissed at the world and decided to vent to the first person that would listen to her. I just happened to be the victim, an elementary schooler about to embark on her first year of middle school. After that conversation, I was completely freaked out to grow up, let alone begin middle school.
I’ve always been timid of growing up since then. Okay, I can’t blame it all on that one experience in flight, but that conversation really had a big impact on me; I will never forget it. But as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to stay a kid and be in the comfort of my childhood home. I always felt a strong connection to the movie Peter Pan, for Peter and I have the same basic principles of life. I think we would have been friends, and I definitely would have taken his offer to go to Neverland.
Fortunately, I grew up having an incredible relationship with my parents, and home truly was an amazing place to be.
The irony? I have always been a very independent person. The story above is just one example: flying alone at 11 years old? I never realized how unusual this was until I took one of my best friends on a trip with me to Florida in high school, and she was really scared of flying without her mom. She was 16.
Despite my desire to stay forever young, I grew up pretty fast, at least in the realm of travel. [Refer back to “Friends In Flight” where I gushed about being in New York City without adult supervision for a week with my two best friends. We were 15 and 16.]
I was 17 when I went to New York City alone for the first time. It was spring of my junior year in high school, and while most kids were showing their independence by driving into Atlanta on the highway for the first time, I flew to NYC by myself. I landed in La Guardia wide-eyed and bushy tailed, excited for to explore the streets of Manhattan alone. No longer would I have to wait for my mom to catch up with me, or stop at the edge of the sidewalk when the red hand signal was showing. I was free to walk as fast as I wanted and breeze past the tourists at the crosswalk, crossing when the “Walk” signal was not showing. It was the first time I ever felt like a true New Yorker.
I navigated my way to Times Square and sat on the TKTS steps, feeling pretty good about myself when I saw teenage girls walking with their moms and dads and looking completely lost. I know, this sounds prideful. But honestly, that’s how I felt: Independent.
That trip, I met one of my good friends Lauren for the first time. We had connected over Instagram (Yeah I know, how millennial of us), and decided to meet in the City face to face and see a Broadway show together! Lauren was from New Jersey, so she and her mom took the train into NYC that day to meet with me.
Let’s recap: 17 year old Kelly flew to NYC by herself for the first time, avoided sketchy gypsy cab drivers at the airport and took a Yellow Taxi into Midtown, and met up with a complete stranger that she met over the internet?
Yep! Completely normal, right?
When I met Lauren and her mom, we clicked immediately. They were so nice and sweet, and we even got to see one of our mutual friends, Emerson, make her Broadway debut in Violet at the American Airlines Theatre. It was such a blast!
When we sat down for pizza before the show, Lauren’s mom asked about my experience flying alone. I related that I had done it before, but never to New York. I had been to NYC with my mom and friends a couple of times, but this was my first time alone. Her mouth dropped for a second, and shaking her head she exclaimed, “Well, I know a lot of people over 18 would never be able to navigate this city alone for the first time, let alone 17. I give you major props for that!”
That night, I took the subway to my Uncle’s apartment in Harlem after he had texted me specific instructions on which train to take, which direction, and rules of proper subway etiquette. I sat in his living room boasting to him about how I took the subway alone and it was “so easy and fun!” I was bubbling over with excitement and joy, purely enlightened by my first day in the City. He kept laughing at how amazed I was: Baby’s First Solo Subway Ride.
My uncle taught me everything I know about the subway. He pulled up the map on his computer and even gave me a newspaper to read on the train. After our lesson, he presented me with a certificate that read “MTA Green Belt”, and ever since then we have this running joke of MTA Karate. Whenever I stay with him, he will ask about my latest subway endeavors, and if the stories seem challenging enough to him he will move me up a belt. Challenges include switching trains, picking out the best car to get on for the nearest exit I need, near misses, and… wait for it… the MTA bus system.
I’ve come a long way since then: Currently, I am at a Brown belt. Take that, NYC.
In my next post, I will explain all of the exciting, cheap, and easy ways I use to navigate Manhattan. I have learned by trial and error, and now I can honestly say that I am a subway pro. I will provide my travel secrets for getting into NYC for under $3 from La Guardia airport, and my other modes of transportation when coming from Newark and JFK airport.
I truly am thankful that my parents trusted me enough to let me go to one of the biggest cities in the world by myself at such a young age. That day my junior year that I landed in NYC, something changed. I began to grow up for the first time. And while I was nervous at first, I flourished and thrived in the concrete jungle. Being an adult didn’t seem so scary anymore; it was thrilling.
Walking down the halls of my high school that Monday seemed so trivial and unexciting. I was anxious to go back to the freedom of Manhattan again. I thought to myself,
“Get ready world, here comes Miss Independent”