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You’re Not Born Knowing These Things!

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

By Viviene Ayres / New York City

Abe and Viv at the New-York Historical Society (2019)
Abe and Viv at the New-York Historical Society (2019)

I was born and raised in Jamaica, where it goes from warm to hot all year round. I don't swim, I don't ride a bike and I don't like warm and hot weather. (I must have been switched at birth from another country.) Making no sense whatsoever, as an adult, I moved to the Cayman Islands, where it's warmer and hotter. Go figure.

Then, in 2002, my husband and I decided to move to America. He suggested Florida. That's the only state in the U.S. that has both alligators and crocodiles. As I often do, I jumped to the worse-case scenario, thinking, if I saw a gator or a croc, I'd faint and then they would eat me. Also, it's hot in Florida, so that was out of the question.

New York was my husband's next suggestion. I knew it gets cold in New York and sometimes there's snow (even though I wasn't sure there really was such a thing). Besides, my husband had family in the Bronx. That sealed the deal.

Coming from Jamaica, I spoke Jamaican Patois. When you meet someone you know, you say “Wah-gwan” – in other words, “What’s going on?” In the Cayman Islands, I worked at a boutique and got used to hearing (more or less) the Queen’s English. It is a British territory after all. Since America doesn’t have a queen, I thought I’d better get used to speaking the President’s English. Problem solved. Instead of “Wah-gwan,” I changed it to a fancy, friendly “Hellew.”

Soon after arriving in New York City, I learned the term “networking.” This one asked that one and that one put the word out and before I knew it, I had an interview for a job in a big apartment house on Manhattan's east side.

My husband gave me tokens and explained that when I get on the bus, I drop a token into the token thing. My husband’s friend, Goosey, drove me from the Bronx to the West 72nd Street M30 bus stop. The M30 (remember the M30?) was the bus I needed to take me from West 72nd to East 72nd. I was warned that it doesn't go through Central Park to the east side. Instead, it goes downtown to West 57th Street, turns left and once it reaches the east side, it goes back uptown to East 72nd Street. (No wonder they discontinued it in 2010. It was too confusing.)

When I got to the bus stop, I read a sign that said, “No Standing”. No Standing? There were no seats. I had no choice but to stand. Would they let me on the bus even though I was standing? Was I breaking the law by standing? Would they arrest me for standing? I didn't know what to do and there was no one to ask. I really needed to take the bus, so I walked to the huge building (now I know that the building is the Majestic) and I huddled in one of its doorways, close enough to watch for the bus. When the M30 showed up, I ran to the stop and jumped on the bus and deposited a token. The driver didn't say anything to me. After all, he didn't see me standing at the bus stop.

I got off the bus at the appropriate stop and found the address that I had written on a piece of paper. The doorman led me to the front desk, where I told the desk man who I was there to see. He asked my name and made a call, announcing my arrival. He then told me, “Elevator on the right, 21st floor.”

I had never been in an elevator. Elevators were part of my worse-case-scenario syndrome. What if I get locked in the elevator car and use up all the air? What if the elevator cable breaks and plunges me down to the basement? Yes, there are elevators in Jamaica and in the Caymans, but I never took one. I always used the stairs.

And so, I asked the desk man where the staircase was. I was actually willing to walk up the 21 flights, but the desk man wouldn’t allow it. Instead, he suggested I wait until someone comes along who is going to a higher floor and could accompany me. Good idea. The desk man asked me to step aside, but before I could, a delivery guy came in and was going up to the 28th floor and I was able to go in the elevator with this man delivering food. I thought, if the elevator gets stuck, at least we’d have something to eat.

The job interview was a blur to me because all I kept thinking about was the elevator ride down. That job was clearly not for me. The woman walked me to the elevator and rang for it. I thanked her for her time and told her she didn’t have to wait with me for the elevator. As soon as her apartment door closed, I made a dash for the staircase and got my exercise for the day by going down those 21 flights.

Now it was time to go home, back the way I came. The appropriate M30 bus stop had a shed with seats. Luckily, I was able to sit and then get on the bus legally.

When I got home and told my husband about my “No Standing” experience, he didn’t stop laughing until I threatened his life. He then explained what the sign was all about.

Really, how was I to know that "No Standing" was referring to vehicles? If the sign had a picture of a car, or said "No Parking," I would have realized that it wasn't for people waiting for the bus. Can you blame me for what I thought? You’re not born knowing these things.

There were some things I could reason out. For instance, in Jamaica, we loved when the Queen would visit. Right before her visit, all the potholes were patched up and the roads were cleaned. Looking around the Bronx and the city at all the potholes, it was obvious that the Queen hadn’t been here … not for a long, long time.

It took me quite a while to learn Americanisms. One day, I was talking to a friend from church and she repeated a news item she heard about a married celebrity sleeping with his wife’s relative. I said, “So what? I used to sleep with my brother.” My friend’s jaw dropped. We cleared it up when I explained that there were seven children and no one had their own bed. My kid brother was ten years younger than me and we slept in the same bed. We really slept. That’s when I learned that “sleeping with someone” most times meant not sleeping at all. I’ve learned a whole lot of interesting things since arriving in town, including five Yiddish words for male genitalia.

Then one day, it snowed. Beautiful flakes falling from the sky. All of my life, I dreamed of seeing snow. Here it was. I went outside in the street and looked up at the sky, letting the flakes land on my face and loving each one of them. It was worth every No Standing bus stop and every high-floor elevator ride. It was glorious. And I thought, I’m home!


Viv zooming in on her GED prep last year
Viv zooming in on her GED prep last year

In Jamaica, Viviene Ayres worked in a hospital's pharmacy, in charge of ordering and delivering medicine and medical supplies to doctors and nurses where and when needed. This fueled her interest in healthcare. To continue her quest in America, Viv earned and became the proud recipient of a GED, which enabled the schooling for achieving a CNA -- Certified Nursing Assistant. Viv is currently working two days a week as a CNA at a nursing home in the Bronx. Expanding her general education, she works three days a week as an assistant to a New York City writer who lives on the 5th floor and whose doormen allow residents' employees to use the stairs.


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