The Cell Phone Samaritan

I was immersed in work one night at Starbucks when I heard a loud, raspy voice call out, “Excuse me, you dropped your phone!”

Instinctively, I looked to the floor for my pink case before I heard a woman say “thanks!” She reached under the table and picked up her iPhone. The man seemed to appreciate her appreciation and started chatting with her.

“Just today this guy dropped his phone outside. I called a number and got through to someone,” he said to the woman and the young man she was with, tone friendly as if they’d spoken before. “A $400 phone, and no thank you, nothing. I waited for an hour outside Rockefeller Center, too. Unbelievable.”

His anger became other customers’ anger, and soon four or five people in the store shook their heads in unison. It was the first time I’d seen everyone in Starbucks engaged in the same conversation.

“Next time it happens, I’ll throw the phone in the garbage can. I’ll throw it out!” The man was standing now.

“Do it!” cheered the young man with the woman who had dropped her phone. The woman smiled, offering her approval. Even the baristas momentarily abandoned their shop-closing duties to listen to what was going on.

Finally the man sat down, pleased with his good deed for the day.

I can only hope what goes around comes around for this Cell Phone Samaritan—even in a city where phones seem to evaporate the second they’re left alone.

Cover photo: “OR” by Thomas Leuthard/ http://thomas.leuthard.photography/

Scenes from the weekend

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Saturday morning run through Central Park. It was my first time visiting as a resident, not just a tourist, and jogging up the path to 81st Street without any agenda was glorious.

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Sunday afternoon I wandered around the West Village, checking out the cafés (I have yet to find my go-to place.) It was cold, but I managed to take off my gloves to capture a few shots.

The Village is full of rich reds, browns and greens, and noticed how yellow taxis stick out here more than other places in the city.

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This West Village fountain is a refuge for the city’s weary pigeons.

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Our Lady of Pompeii Church on Carmine Street, framed by trees still looking bare and wintery. Hopefully spring is coming soon!
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The 42nd Street Hawker

mcdonalds

Author’s Note: This essay received honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. It was first published at magazine.nd.edu.

I have walked past Geoff nearly every day for a year.

After getting off the bus in Midtown Manhattan, I need to cut two avenues east and seven blocks north. I always choose the path that goes down 42nd Street that passes Geoff.

Forty-second Street at 9 a.m. is one of the black diamonds of New York terrain. Commuters and tourists alike unload from buses at Port Authority — the busiest bus terminal in the world — and mix like oil and water on the streets. They mostly move in one direction, streaming through the city’s concrete arteries towards Times Square, its thumping heart.

I hit my stride as I walk down 42nd, expertly swimming through the crowds, spying then slipping into open pockets of space. I pass a glorified McDonald’s with a glittering golden arch, breakfast lines spilling onto the sidewalk. Pop music blasts from the “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” museum and larger-than-life video screens compete with the morning sun.

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But as I approach the corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenue, a single man’s voice soars above the drone of music, cars and construction.

“Haaaave a great Monday! Enjoy that job!”

It’s Geoff, standing there in his usual spot beside the 42nd Street subway entrance. He’s handing out AM New York, a free daily newspaper popular with commuters. Geoff is a hawker, stationed at this high-traffic location and paid to deliver the paper to anyone who walks by.

“Enjoy your work, young lady! Have a great morning on your job!”

Geoff is different from other hawkers, though. He’s never aggressive, never thrusts the paper at your face, and always tells you to have a good day.

Geoff puts his entire body into the greeting, first making eye contact, then smiling and bouncing on his feet before shaking his fist in a way that says go tackle that day.Sometimes, I wonder if he thinks his job is getting New Yorkers to smile.

“Happy hump day! Knock out your work!”

Geoff looks to be in his mid-forties. He wears a red vest and baseball cap and sets his eyeglasses perched precariously on his forehead. He’s never fazed by the swarms of people coming out of the subway or the pounding music from nearby tourist traps. For hours he yells over it all.

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Photo by HelveticaFanatic http://www.flickr.com/photos/helveticafanatic/

“Only eighteen hours till Friday! Come on, you know it. That’s all we got.”

The smiles Geoff gives often go unrequited. Once in a while, someone will emerge from the subway and greet him. How ya doin’, my man? How bout them Giants? But many ignore him — absorbed in phone conversations — or take a paper without saying anything at all.

Months after I started passing “the man who hands out the papers,” I finally asked his name. It was one morning in August when the clouds hung thickly overhead but the crowds on the street were thin. People anxiously gripped their umbrellas, prepared for the oncoming downpour. It seemed like the right time to approach him, but I felt nervous for some reason, nervous to go from just another young lady to an acquaintance.

He handed me the paper.

“Thanks,” I said. “Excuse me, what’s your name?”

“Geoff,” he replied, a slight questioning tone in his voice.

“Geoff, thanks for being so…” I didn’t immediately have words to describe what I was thanking him for, but he understood. He smiled and fist-bumped me. After a few moments I turned around and looked back through the bustling crowds, catching Geoff’s eye. He was still smiling and waving at me from 50 yards away.

The scene is so absurd. It’s 9 a.m. in New York City and thousands of people rush, straight faced, to wherever they need to be. And then there’s Geoff, relentlessly happy, sending sparks of enthusiasm to anyone who walks by. For the most part, those greetings fall short of passersby, evaporating quickly on the hot, hostile concrete. But every once in a while, someone turns and smiled.

One day, a little old man, no taller than five foot four, struggled to make his way east down 42nd Street. Surrounded by Times Square lights, this man’s life just seemed dim. Briefcases, heels and tourists in matching T-Shirts rushed by him — yet he and his wobbling cane seemed to exist alone in the crowd.

“Have a great day, young man!” Geoff called out from beneath the subway awning.“Have a great day!” The man didn’t look up. He didn’t react. He just kept pushing forward, step by step by step.

I waited to see if he would turn around. He was likely a veteran New Yorker who had long ago learned to ignore the white noise of hawkers.

New Yorkers like him don’t believe in acknowledging hawkers. Street salesmen are everywhere, calling the same things, blending into the drone of the city. Maybe he feared letting in one hawker meant letting in them all, and he was too old, too weak to fend off these intruders of personal space.

He never turned.

I wondered how many people like Geoff I pass each day, but disregard in my hurry — how many faces and voices get lost among the city’s sights and sounds.

City girl

Source: michaelminn.net
Ninth Avenue. Source: michaelminn.net

I signed my first New York City lease about three weeks ago.

I was walking up Ninth Avenue before work, around 8:45 a.m. It was a slight detour from my usual walk east from Port Authority towards Sixth Avenue, and I loved the change of pace. Instead of passing flashing screens and packs of tourists like most mornings, I passed cafés, bars and bakeries with unique storefronts. Restaurant staff carefully etched the day’s specials into street-side chalkboards. People walked out of nearby apartment buildings, coffee in hand, keys jangling.

Clearly I wasn’t a New Yorker yet, because I broke out smiling.

I probably looked like an idiot, but I couldn’t help it. I was happy, exhilarated. I’ve been coming into the city every day for over a year and a half, and on occasion for my whole life, but today was different. Signing this lease would mean formally crossing over into a new phase.

University of Pennsylvania's Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.
University of Pennsylvania’s Locust Walk. Source: Alan Turkus.

The moment reminded me of another time in my life, about eight years ago, when I took a tour at the University of Pennsylvania with my parents. It was the very first college visit I made, the very first time I crossed a campus and thought in a few years I could be part of this. I remember loving the fast-paced campus where professors and students filed in and out of buildings, talking. I loved the intellectualism and sense of opportunity. The university had an energy I’d never experienced before, one that I’d go on to find at a number of other campuses.

After we finished the tour I said to my parents, “Let me go ahead for a minute. I want to feel like I’m in college.”

So I walked briskly and blissfully down Locust Walk, the main campus pathway, acting like I was a student. (I’m sure my wide grin and calculated stride gave my age away.) After a few seconds I turned and looked back at my parents, who were also smiling.

“You look like a real college student,” they said.

“Thanks,” I said, wanting to believe it but knowing I had a few years to go.

I felt the same excitement walking down Ninth Avenue a few weeks ago. But while Locust Walk spans a few hundred yards, New York City avenues go for miles. And this time, there were no parents to look back on. I was totally and completely on my own.

I smiled because I’d soon be part of this city full of lights and people and endless stories. I’d soon be part of this city I’ve loved since I was a kid, finally opening up to me, no longer just out of reach.

A Sign or a Sign?

I was walking down Ninth Avenue, somewhere between 45th and 50th Street, when pain overtook my left foot. Within seconds my quick stride halted, the couple I’d just breezed past gained 20 yards on me, and I was in danger of missing my bus from Port Authority back to New Jersey.

My toes curled and twisted, every muscle in my left foot erupting in mutiny of the heels I’d been wearing all day.

I didn’t stop. For a block and a half I walked, dragging my left foot behind me, careful not to catalyze any further spasms. I expected confused looks (or sympathy, maybe) but no one seemed to notice. After all, a limp is hardly the strangest of sights in New York.

Too far from the A-C-E lines to take the subway, I finally just stopped to wait for the pain to subside. Leaning against a storefront in the eight-degree cold, I watched couples holding hands, friends leaving dinner and suits stumbling out of happy hours. I felt awkward standing by myself while watching all these people pass, and realized my fingers were too cold to even distract myself with my phone.

After a few minutes I turned around to look inside the closed store. A glowing neon sign faced me, reading: “BACK AND FOOT RUB.” I laughed out loud.

Some would say it was coincidence, but I believe the city has a way transforming into exactly what you need it to be, at any given moment. By the time my smile faded, so had the pain, and I continued on.

I knew this was the New York’s way of telling me, “I got you.”

Lula’s Café: The Community Living Room

Photo Source: 365 South Bend Blog

*Author’s note: this article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu. 

I had never seen this much flannel in one place at Notre Dame. The room was filled with men and women in plaid shirts, and standing at the microphone was a poetry student from Notre Dame’s creative writing M.F.A. program, reading selections from her work.

A few girls “whoop whoop” and others in the audience clapped, smiling at the student’s cleverness. This group thrived on wit, intellect and the beauty of language.

The décor was an eclectic mix of things that shouldn’t go together but somehow did. Sunflowers sprang from the walls beside oddly shaped mirrors. Shelves held books and random knick-knacks. A wall was painted in red and yellow stripes, and a dusty emerald lamp hung in one corner. None of it made logical design sense, but that was the whole idea of Lula’s—letting loose, being creative and taking risks.

Mostly M.F.A. students filled the room that night, but scattered throughout were undergrads and professors. In the middle of the readings, two huge football players walked in, dressed head-to-toe in Notre Dame gear. They were out of their element, and intentionally so. There was just something wonderful about that.

16 years of Lula’s

“It was a happy accident, really,” Lula’s owner Steve Egan ’93 told me over coffee one fall morning in 2010. “Lula’s was a hit right away.”

The idea for Lula’s was born 16 years earlier when Egan, a public accountant in Chicago, talked over dinner one night with a friend and Notre Dame alum about opening a café near campus. “There was nothing like Lula’s in South Bend,” Egan recalled. “I felt pretty confident in the idea.”

“I did the benchmarking at every café in Chicago practically, to just kind of figure out ideas, and figure out as much financial data as I could from the owners who would be forthcoming with it,” he said.

The next step was writing a business plan and executing it.

“We wanted to be close to campus, and this was a good crossroads area, with high traffic,” Egan said of the 1631 Edison Plaza location, at the Edison/23 intersection near The Linebacker. “I didn’t leave my job in Chicago until we had a location that made sense.”

From the very beginning, Lula’s was meant to be more than just a café — inspiring the sharing of ideas and life stories. And Lula’s was always intended as a bridge between South Bend and the surrounding campus communities, including Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) and Bethel College.

“We wanted to break down barriers … misconceptions that people from town have about people from campus, and vice versa,” Egan said in 2010. “We wanted to appeal to all demographics. I think that’s one of the tricks to Lula’s, that it’s been able to appeal to a lot different types over a long period of time.”

But after 16 years it became apparent that Lula’s time — at least its time on Edison Road — was limited. On October 5, 2010, Egan spoke to an entrepreneurship class at Notre Dame. The very next day, he was surprised with a notice that his lease would not be renewed.

Egan had just 50 days to vacate Lula’s.

After months of searching for a new location, Egan let go of the dream and took a job with Anthony Travel. Egan said one of the blessings of going through this change was hearing what Lula’s had meant to so many different people.

“It’s kind of like getting to hear your own eulogy when you’re alive,” he said then. “That’s a powerful affirmation that Lula’s has mattered to a lot of people. Lula’s has meaning outside of just a restaurant or coffee shop. There’s something deeper here.”

“The community living room”

Over the years, Lula’s was called “the community living room,” “the gateway to South Bend,” and “the place in Michiana where people come to try to save the world.” Lula’s embraced open-mindedness, encouraging its customers to sit, talk and stay awhile. Students perched at corner tables with laptops, books lined shelves like a library, and cards and board games invited customers to play over coffee or after meals.

“We created so many collisions,” Egan said, explaining that Lula’s was a crossroads for people, communities and ideas. The cozy, thought-provoking space attracted college students, Midwestern hipsters, counter-cultural high school kids, professors and professionals.

“Somebody said, ‘That’s one great thing about Lula’s: you can be next to a nuclear physicist, two high school kids on a date, and two grandmas playing Scrabble,” Egan recalled.

Egan attributed Lula’s success to its customers and staff, the good food and drink, the community and cultural events it hosted, and its general “vibe.” He said customers who recently moved to South Bend were told, “the first place you need to go is Lula’s. That’s where you need to start connecting to people.”

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, I struggled to find a place that felt just “right.” As a quiet freshman uprooted from my New York City suburb, I needed more than Notre Dame football and tight-knit dorm life to feel at home. I often complained to my family that I hadn’t found a community of writers on campus. In fact, I hadn’t found any arts community at all.

One day I heard about a poetry reading at Lula’s Café, which was close enough to campus to walk. I fell in love at first sight. The relaxed atmosphere, friendly staff and delicious food welcomed me right away. Lula’s became a refuge when campus was overwhelming or when I just needed to think.

And Lula’s had been that safe haven, that escape, that home away from home for many.

Matt Storin, a former Boston Globe editor who worked and taught at Notre Dame, said Lula’s helped compensate for South Bend’s inadequacies as a college town. “I was originally attracted to Lula’s because it reminded me of what a college-town coffee house or restaurant should look like,” he said. “Being from the East Coast, I felt that it had a kind of Cambridge-like feel.”

Lula’s last call

Egan said closing time was bittersweet, but he felt an outpouring of support as Lula’s history at Edison Plaza came to an end.

“The last day was a tremendous day,” he said. “Both Tuesday and Wednesday were two of the best days we ever had. I gathered the staff at about nine, and in true Lula’s fashion there were customers and friends of staff just hanging around. We all went around and talked about what Lula’s means to us and the community.”

Lula’s final day of operation was Wednesday, November 24, 2010. It closed for good on Thanksgiving Day. Lula’s staff spent the next few days taking the restaurant apart, and by November 30, all that was left at 1631 Edison was an 8×11 inch sign on the door.

Another café followed but didn’t stay long, and the space once filled with Lula’s is still vacant.

“Give my regards to Broadway”

I met my grandfather (Papa) in New York City last Saturday for a couch-shopping excursion followed by lunch.

I noticed he blended in so nicely with the city in his handsome trench coat and hat. He looked like someone right out of Humans of New York, and I knew he’d have a quote sufficiently poignant if ever stopped. Or a song lyric.

Papa has a song for everything, and as we were walking he began singing “Give My Regards To Broadway.”

Give my regards to Broadway
Remember me to Herald Square
Tell all the gang at Forty Second Street
That I will soon be there.

We went to the Macy’s in Herald Square. He told me how my great-grandfather (his father-in-law) was a carpet salesman there in the 30s and 40s. I love spending time in the city with Papa because he’s full of old stories about the places I pass every day. The buildings and streets glow with history. Even the not-so-pretty, not-so-famous sites transform through Papa’s memories, flickering for a moment in the form they once were. 

Mother’s Day and Last-Minute Gifting

It’s Mother’s Day morning and young men and women emerge from apartments all over the city, dreary-eyed and caffeine-deprived, on the quest for that perfect last-minute gift.

Many of us were excused from present-buying duties during our college years. In those days, a simple phone call and card sufficed.

But ever since we’ve become “real people,” our mothers have begun expecting “real presents.” And rightly so.

The hard thing about Mother’s Day, though, is that it’s on a Sunday. Sundays are right before Saturdays, which are right before long workweeks. Long workweeks come before other long workweeks, when Mother’s Day is still just an embryo of a reminder on our iPhones.

But then—suddenly—the day arrives. The iPhone alarm rings and rings. Early risers post Instagram collages and poetic Facebook statuses in their mothers’ honor, while the rest of us still lie in bed, fighting off Saturday night.

My mom and I in Stone Harbor celebrating her 50th birthday.
My mom and I in Stone Harbor celebrating her 50th birthday.

When the clock strikes 12 noon, the pressure’s on.

Now, the amount of love we have for our mothers and the amount of time left till Mother’s Day dinner do not correlate.  In fact, some of the latest gift-buyers are the most dedicated, roaming the streets of New York during the wee hours of brunch.

They are driven by love, and they are driven by guilt. They are driven by an extra-large coffee from the local bagel shop.

And they won’t show up empty-handed.

Having stayed with some college friends in the city that Saturday night, I joined the pack of last-minute gift-buyers Sunday morning.

Luckily, New York City came through for me no fewer than five minutes after emerging from my friends’ apartment. As I crossed 71st street, I saw a table overflowing with flowers ranging from lilies to orchids to roses.

Tucked among the array of colors, I spotted the perfect bouquet of 12 roses—six red and six white. They were classic, beautiful and exactly what my mother would like. I fished a crumpled 20 out of my purse and handed it to the man behind the table.

I turned and made my way toward the 72nd street subway, pushed through the turnstile and hopped on the 1 train to 42nd Street.

As I left the subway and walked down 42nd towards Port Authority, I noticed the bouquets became more frequent. In fact, they were everywhere. New York City was now dotted with these colorful, tangible representations of love.

But what’s a bouquet without a card? I stopped in the Duane Reade at the corner of 42nd and 8th, not prepared to meet swarms of my fellow last-minute gift-buyers in the cards section. I had just 15 minutes till my bus embarked for Jersey. I waited on line for my chance to pick one out, borrowed a pen from the cashier, and made it to my bus just in time.

After 30 minutes, when the bus rolled to my stop, I turned to thank bus driver. In that moment, I saw a young man sitting in the front seat, holding a bouquet so large it would hardly stay in his lap. Roses. Orchids. Tulips. Lilies. Everything.

What does he do? How does he afford that? His flowers were bigger and better than mine—his smirk told me he knew that too—and my confidence with my gift plummeted.

Is it possible…I went wrong with the roses?

I stepped off the bus, took a deep breath, and knew.

The beauty of mothers is no matter which flowers you buy them, or how many they are, they’ll always be exactly the right ones.

A Saturday Spent with Wildlife

Zoos have never been my thing.

That’s what I told my sister, Genevieve, when she asked if I wanted to join her in the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Run for the Wild, a 5K to benefit elephants held at the Bronx Zoo.

“Absolutely not,” was my answer.

“But why?”

“Because.”

“Can you at least donate money?”

“Fine.”

Nothing about going to a zoo, or even just running through one, seemed appealing to me. Never mind that we’d have to leave the house in New Jersey around 6:30 a.m. to get there.

Decision: made.

And I didn’t regret that decision when race day came and my family rushed around at an hour no 22-year-old should ever see on a Saturday morning. I didn’t have plans for the day except to go for a run and get coffee with my friend Laura later in the afternoon. So while my family meandered around animal cages in the Bronx, I meandered around the house, drinking English Breakfast tea and enjoying the rare silence.

But despite the big to-do I made about “never in a million years waking up early to run through a zoo,” I ended up at a local wildlife conservation center later that afternoon.

How? It was too beautiful outside to sit in a coffee shop, so Laura and I decided to grab coffees to go and visit the Wyckoff Wildlife Center instead.

And–to my surprise–I loved it.

Now I wouldn’t say we engaged with the wild as well as we could have. Sunglasses set and ponytails high, we powerwalked around the paths the way we would powerwalk down a city street. We chatted, gossiped,  laughed, and made no effort to quell the constant clunking of ice in our Starbucks iced coffees.

But for all the time I spend inside buses and on city streets, this was a wonderful change of scenery.

We stopped to look at the Red Tail Hawk. We oohed and aahed at the peacocks. We basked in the 70-degrees-and-sunny weather. The day was beautiful, a spring breakthrough.

The more we walked, the more I remembered really loving this place as a kid. After all the birthday parties and field trips, why had I never thought to go back?

Our foray into the wild came to a close, though, when we’d lapped the same young family three times on the nature trail and filled our iPhones with daffodil photos.

Just me among the daffodils. Photo courtesy of Laura Herzog.

Also, I had some returns to Banana and H&M that needed to be taken care of.

Later that night I told my family how much I had enjoyed the wildlife center, that maybe I should do things like that more often. It’s a good way to slow down, enjoy the weekend,  and get away from the rush of the city.

“You should have come to the zoo with us, then. You should have run for the elephants.”

“Well, I wouldn’t go that far…”

I guess I put ideas in their heads, though, because tonight my sister approached me with another question.

“Are you going to do the run with us in October? I’m pretty sure there’s another Run For The Wild at the aquarium in Coney Island.”

A run for aquatic elephants?

Maybe, just maybe, I’ll consider it.