In my family you were allowed to take the train alone from Long Island into New York City after your twelfth birthday. Because you had reached the age of reason, you were responsible for buying your own ticket and for getting yourself to the station. I waited anxiously to turn twelve, and on that autumn afternoon I rode my bike through the woods to the train station and bought a round-trip fare. I wanted to say something wry and mature to the ticket seller, but he just shoved my ticket across the counter and turned away to abuse a colleague. I folded the ticket carefully and put it in my wallet and rode home.
Two days later I stood by the front door, and my mom said be safe, and she handed me ten dimes with which to make a phone call, and she handed me a sandwich for the train, and she checked that I had a hat and gloves just in case I had to venture into the streets — although that wouldn’t be necessary, as you simply went upstairs from Penn Station to Madison Square Garden, just followed the basketball crowd. I would be able to tell who was going to the game because people had been doing this for untold millennia and these were the same people who’d flooded into the Colosseum for battles between lions and gladiators. I remember that my mom was brisk and firm, but she knew and I knew what a moment this was, and she fidgeted with my jacket collar in a way that was unlike her in the normal course of things. I said I would be alert on the train and follow the signs in the station and ask a station agent for assistance if necessary. In a real emergency find a cop or, failing that, anyone in any uniform, said my mom. Once the game is done, get on the first train home, and call to tell us which one, and your father will meet you at the station. Enjoy the experience but keep your wits about you. Do you have your extra pair of eyeglasses just in case? Put those in a safe place. I trust you to make good decisions and use your judgment. I don’t think I need to go into details here. Make us proud of your behavior. You need a new winter coat. Why people pay good money to watch elongated men run up and down in bright satin clothing is a mystery to me. I can’t believe you are actually twelve. One minute ago you were four and talking to the birds. Don’t forget to tell us your return train. You had better stop fiddling about and get to the station. I will assume you have a clean handkerchief. Go.
I ran down our street and cut through the thin woods and across the highway and got to the platform with three minutes to spare. I could hear the train coming from the east end of the island: Montauk, Amagansett, Patchogue, Copiague, Massapequa. When the doors opened, the cars were packed with Knicks fans. I found a seat in a corner and stared out the window, frightened and thrilled and somehow a little sad for reasons I could not articulate. All these years later I think that was the dividing line between being a boy and being something else on the way to becoming a man.
Our heroic point guard, Walt Frazier, could not stop the smooth, efficient, godlike Oscar Robertson, and the Knicks lost to the Royals by nine. I caught the 10:11 home, and when the train pulled into our station, there was my dad in his good winter coat and fedora and gloves. As we crossed the highway we held hands for a few seconds, just to be safe — the last time we ever held hands like that. I remember the air was crisp and cold, and there was no one else on the streets, and as we walked through the thin woods, the leaves and duff underfoot crackled from the first frost of the year.