EVERY APRIL, I spend one day in New York City with four female friends.

Three of us are in our late 40s, and our fourth is a woman a generation ahead of us. In fact, Joan is ahead of us in many ways.

Joan is a fast walker who knows New York like a native. We struggle to keep up with her.

From midtown, we routinely parade down to Macy's spring flowers. We skate our way through a crowded Rockefeller Plaza, then stroll through Takashimaya's elegant displays, pricey merchandise, and, always, a visit to the marble-and-glass ladies' room. We never tire of these annual stops, April after April.

But Joan, our unofficial guide, always finds something new, too.

On one such day, just as a little spring rain began to fall, we caught a cab to a museum on the Upper West Side for an exhibit Joan recommended. As we left the museum, rain still falling, there weren't any cabs - but a bus was coming our way.

We needed exact change to ride the bus, yet we were four women with little change.

Joan wasn't deterred: "Get on the bus - we'll find the quarters later," she advised.

We hurried on, created a small scene, clearly out-of-towners, those Wednesday-matinee women. And with the help of another rider, we dug up the necessary quarters and were transported back to midtown.

As we rode along, I thought about that little moment. Me? I would have missed the bus while I searched elsewhere for quarters.

But not Joan.

Is it her experience with New York - or with life - that told her to get on the bus and worry about the quarters later?

A couple of weeks afterward, I was considering a new job - a chance to teach something I love. But I worried about the effect of full-time teaching on family life and raising children, on homework and housework, on mothering, I suppose.

At times like this, I lean on a small cabinet of counselors for guidance. And Joan, with her clear-eyed wisdom, is a member of that select group. In short order, she listened to my opportunity and to my concerns.

"Mad, I think you should do what we did that day in New York." I was puzzled. "Get on the bus - you'll find the quarters later," she recalled.

How quickly Joan cut through the clutter and recognized that that my worries were really about the smaller things: how to keep up with homework and housework - the quarters.

JOAN WAS right: I would find them later, if I needed them. Meanwhile, I needed to board the bus. I did - thanks to Joan - and I got the job.

As Mother's Day approaches, I know that this fortysomething has been lucky to have a more experienced traveler from a generation ahead to lead the way. Maybe some day I can catch up to her. *

Madeleine Dean teaches writing

at La Salle University.