Calling Yaya

Calling Yaya

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2015 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu.  

Everyone on Dallas Avenue knew Yaya’s high-pitched cackle.

My grandfather would walk home from the train station each night and hear her laugh from a block away. That’s Dorothy, he’d think to himself. She was usually on the phone. She was usually telling a story.

The phone connected Yaya to everyone she wanted to talk to and everywhere she needed to be. Even before coffee, the first thing she’d do each morning was roll over and check her stocks by punching in numbers. She wore out three keypads in just a few years of checking and trading those stocks. And she made my grandfather buy 25-foot-long cords for all phones in the house so she could chat away from absolutely anywhere.

From an early age I loved talking on the phone with Yaya and begged her to tell me the stories I knew and loved. Like the time in high school the nuns caught her smoking in the bathroom, so she filled her mouth with powdered soap to mask the smell but ended up with foam bubbling out of her mouth as she explained herself to the principal. Those stories reached a level of pure absurdity it seemed only Yaya could concoct.

We had serious conversations, too, she lying on her bed in Long Island, me on mine in New Jersey. One summer when I was around 13, a girl my age died in a tragic jet-skiing accident. A few of my friends knew her, and her death deeply affected me. I spent the night writing a poem for the girl and read it to Yaya, and then we talked about death and dying until our conversation slowed to a standstill. She was always straightforward about the topic, saying “when I die” or “will you do this for me when I’m gone, baby?” as if it were inevitable. I always hushed her and changed the subject.

***

I was 17 when Yaya passed. It was obvious her health was deteriorating. Months earlier she’d stopped dyeing her hair that signature red, a sign of defeat too painful for me to admit. Her weight had dropped below 100 pounds, her bones were brittle and her spine was collapsing inch by inch. Despite all this, her death felt sudden because I never got to say good-bye.

She died in February, the coldest part of winter. My younger sisters cried in my bed, not understanding how a person goes from being here to being gone. I thought I was old enough, mature enough, to understand her death and help my siblings properly mourn. But 17 wasn’t old at all, and since emerging on the other side of college and moving to New York City I’ve started missing her in a new way.

Yaya was a city girl, a trait that skipped a generation and landed on me. Papa often tells the story of their 1970s summer house in Greenport, Long Island, where Yaya stayed inside all day, depressed. The town was too quiet and the nearest phone was a quarter mile away. Papa says she’d press her face to the window, longingly watching car lights pass on the main road — the closest sign to civilization. All night she’d gaze at those lights, smoking her cigarettes in silence.
My grandmother needed to be around people. The house had been her idea, but within a decade they sold it.

Yaya grew up in the 1930s and ’40s in the South Bronx Irish tenements, the daughter of first-generation Irish immigrants. When she was 14 her father died suddenly of appendicitis. So her mother took a job as a housemaid at the Waldorf Astoria and moved the family out to Pelham Bay.

Yaya’s father, who’d been a carpet salesman at the flagship Macy’s store in Midtown, instilled in her a strong work ethic and sense of pride in being busy. In her 20s, she was the secretary to a high-powered lawyer at General Motors. Yaya loved showing up to the big building on Broadway, working for the big shots and going out to lunch with the other girls for special occasions. They’d pick a fancy spot like the Russian Tea Room, Tavern on the Green or an Italian place called Patsy’s that Frank Sinatra used to frequent. Birthdays and engagements never went uncelebrated.

Yaya was just around my age when she worked for GM. Even though she never told me about her 20s in Manhattan — maybe she thought I was too young — little things around the city remind me of her. My favorite photograph was taken at the Copacabana nightclub, shortly after Papa proposed to Yaya in 1959. Every time I pass the Copacabana in Times Square I think of the original Upper East Side club and my grandparents at a table inside, looking so glamorous and in love. I have the photograph saved in my phone so I can pull it up and imagine how she’d tell me the story.

My phone can tell me all about the Copacabana’s history, play videos from the nightclub’s heyday, even show me my very last email from Dorothy Coyne. But for all it’s capable of, it can’t connect me to her.

Seven years since Yaya died, I still can’t get past the urge to call her. Sometimes I feel like the helpless 5-year-old who would erupt into tears when my grandparents left after a weekend visit. I’d sit sullenly on our stoop, eyes watering as their car backed out of the driveway and escaped at 60 miles per hour down the highway.

Then I’d go back inside and wait for the phone to ring.

Tell me about the world

Tell me about the world

All summer I’d watch the cool blue light from our neighbor’s mosquito catcher, hanging ten feet from my bedroom window. It glowed mystically, the stillness of night punctuated only by the occasional zap and a small voice beside me.

“Tell me about the world,” she would say.

Genevieve asked this question almost every night. She was six and I was twelve. We shared a room and a bed for a year while our house was renovated – at first I protested the arrangement but soon enjoyed the company.

“What do you want to know?” I turned to face her but she was nothing more than a vague outline of gray against black. I could sense her pupils dilating, absorbing the wisps of light drifting in from between the blinds.

“Oh, I don’t know, how about black holes and supernovas and stuff. Black holes especially.”

My mother started up the stairs and we ceased talking until the clunk of her shoes had faded down the hall. If she caught us we’d be scolded for staying up too late, but that was part of the thrill.

“Well, black holes aren’t exactly in the world, Genevieve. They’re not in the earth. And shhh. Be quieter.”

“What do you mean?’” Genevieve asked. “We can’t go to black holes, even if we wanted to?”

Thinking about black holes stretched my mind to its limit so I did not answer. Instead we fell silent and I could sense her struggling to come to terms with this information.

Isn’t the world everything? What can be bigger than the world? If black holes aren’t in the world, then where are they?

This is how most of our nights went. Silence followed by questions followed by more silence, both of our imaginations spinning as quickly as the fan above our heads.

“Why are animals different colors?” Genevieve asked me after awhile, her eyes bright in the dark.

“Because they’re from different places, “I said. “Doves are white because they come from the moon, and and there it’s all snowy and cold. Crows are black because they come from the sun and their feathers got burned by the fire. And peacocks used to fly by the stars, which makes their blue-green wings shine.”

“Oh,” said Genevieve. “I never knew that.”

Outside our room the mosquitoes buzzed and zapped, buzzed and zapped. It never occurred to me that they were dying and Genevieve never asked. To us, this was just the sound of summer the way rain is the sound of spring.

Sharing a bed with Genevieve, I discovered my passion for storytelling. I had the chance to create a world for my younger sister, as if the six years I had over her somehow made me the authority on things time can’t even measure. Some nights we talked for what felt like forever. But exhaustion always caught up to us and the silences got longer, the air soon filled with ideas, like disturbed dust, settling slowly into our dreams.

Thirteen years have passed since we lay side-by-side, whispering in that four-poster bed. In less than a month, the little girl will go off to college. She’ll study biology and chemistry and physics, learning the true, scientific reasons for why things work the way they do.

But her curiosity for the world will never wane, and she’ll find answers only create more questions. These questions will grow and multiply, buzzing during wake and sleep, swarming invisibly like mosquitoes on a summer night.

“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. 

Irish Boys of Brooklyn: New Year’s Eve 1973

Author’s Note: This article was first published in Notre Dame Magazine at magazine.nd.edu.

***

Some would say bartenders John Pelan and Harold Kelly had the best spot in the house that New Year’s Eve.

All night, off in an alcove behind their simple makeshift bar, Pelan and Kelly poured foaming pitchers of Budweiser and stirred up the occasional whiskey and ginger ale. A radio in the corner spouted updates from the Notre Dame-Alabama national championship game.

Beyond the alcove, men in suits with skinny ties and women with beehive hairstyles danced the waltz and fox trot to a live band.

It was the final night of 1973. About 200 gathered in the auditorium of Notre Dame Parish in New Hyde Park, Long Island, for the annual New Year’s Eve dance. Among the revelers were my grandfather, Patrick Coyne, and my grandmother, Dorothy.

Friends crowded around tables for 10; plastic cups quickly emptied. Men were making regular jaunts back to that little alcove to refill pitchers for their group.

Regular jaunts, of course, to the radio at the bar.

“Wives would be wondering, ‘What’s taking the hubby so long to get a pitcher of beer?’” my grandfather said. “But it was kind of exciting times, and you couldn’t walk away.”

As the time till midnight grew shorter, the beer runs grew longer. Every man wanted an excuse to slip into the little alcove and catch the latest on the game. And as the game moved into the fourth quarter, they lingered longer, crowding around that radio the way they might crowd around a campfire.

“Then it went down to 24-23 [Notre Dame], and Alabama had the ball now with only like a minute and 48 seconds left,” Papa said. “But that could take a lifetime to play.”

Within the parish, alliances to Our Lady’s university ran deep. Most members were first-generation Irish-Americans who had grown up together in immigrant neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens.

The majority had not gone to college. Those who did went on the G.I. Bill. To my grandfather’s knowledge, none had gone to Notre Dame.

But since childhood they had idolized the Irish.


Patrick Coyne, an Irish fan for 70 years, on Notre Dame’s campus for the 2008 game against StanfordPatrick Coyne, an Irish fan for 70 years, on Notre Dame’s campus for the 2008 game against Stanford

My grandfather was raised in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1930s and ’40s, an area teeming with poor Irish, Italian and German immigrants, called the “Ninth Ward” by Brooklynites. His father, a longshoreman, worked hard but sometimes drank even harder.

Despite the crowded apartment, tattered clothes and meager, unstable income, Papa looks back at those years fondly.

Children in the tenement had few possessions but vast, sprawling imaginations. For the tenement kids, the streets, the parks, the abandoned lots and the stoops were their kingdom.

Papa remembers waiting on the street corner for the 8 p.m. “bulldog edition” of the Daily News — only 2 cents then — to arrive. He’d flip to the sports section to read about the “Fighting Irish,” the only college football team he and his buddies took interest in.

On Saturdays, Papa and his friends might head to the theater to see a double feature for 25 cents. A newsreel of current events always played between the two films.

“The [newsreel] would have a less-than-a-minute snippet of the Notre Dame game,” Papa said. “That’s all we waited for, that was the whole thing for us.”

The boys took their love for the Irish out of the theaters and into the streets. But since the movies were in black and white, kids from Papa’s neighborhood never knew what colors Notre Dame really wore.

“When we played organized football we’d call ourselves the ‘Fighting Irish’ and we’d get green and gold uniforms,” Papa said. “When they’d line up behind the center, our quarterback, Marty Dougherty, would say something like ‘down big green and gold!’ Meanwhile, we were these scrawny-looking skinny Irish kids.”

Papa and his friends were just a few of Notre Dame’s poor but passionate “sidewalk alumni.”
Sports journalist Jimmy Cannon also grew up in an immigrant neighborhood of New York City. In a 1967 column for the Daily News, he writes about the pride that bonded the Irish slums of New York to an affluent university over 700 miles away.

Like movie stars, Cannon says, Notre Dame players were revered from afar.

“Football was important. But Notre Dame was a cherished symbol,” he writes. “In our neighborhood, where a good education meant graduating from grammar school, the Notre Dame football players were the perfection of our kind.”

“On our mean streets, no band played and a pennant never waved when Notre Dame won,” Cannon writes. “But we were as much a part of that distant university on the prairie as though we had a diploma to prove it.”

As a child, my grandfather barely crossed the boundaries of New York City. So for all he and his buddies knew, South Bend, Indiana, could have been a landlocked Emerald Isle.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s remoteness made it even more captivating.


As the boys of Brooklyn built their careers and rose into the middle class, they moved east into modest homes on Long Island but have remained close friends for over 70 years.

Hugh Mullin, one of those friends, broke the good news about the championship outcome that New Year’s Eve of 1973. He had disappeared back with John Pelan and Harold Kelly — much to his wife Mary’s chagrin — and wasn’t seen again until around 11 p.m.

“Hughie came running back, yelling, ‘They won, they won, they won, they beat Alabama!’” my grandfather said. “He was jumping up and down, and then everybody was jumping up and down.”

Even the previously irritated wives joined in on the excitement. The band played The Victory March.

“The revelers went crazy with joy,” Papa said. “The real party had begun in earnest.”

When 1974 arrived at midnight, the bittersweet words of “Auld Lang Syne” soared through the auditorium and couples swayed in beer-fogged bliss.

“But needless to say, the ringing in of the New Year was a bit anticlimactic,” Papa said. “By the time 12 o’clock rolled around, we had already done all our [real] celebrating.”

Thirty-nine years will have passed when Notre Dame faces Alabama again in another high-profile matchup for the national title. Since then, Papa has had a son and a granddaughter graduate from Notre Dame. He has visited campus countless times with his buddies from Brooklyn, watched it blossom beyond the original quads. He’s discovered South Bend is a second home for the Irish but no replica of the Emerald Isle.

For my grandfather, he certainly won’t be in a church gymnasium this time around with the Crimson Tide.

“Before, I could go to the dance,” he said, laughing at the absurdity of listening to the game on a bar radio. “Now, I couldn’t go to a dance. No way.”

10 Essential Tools for the Modern Writer

Laptop. Coffee. Water. All a writer needs for a long day of creative composition, right?

Sitting in my favorite Cool Beans today, I thought about the most important things for my productivity as a writer.  I’ve been writing creatively, almost innately, since I was very young, but I realized I needed these “tools” when I began thinking of writing as a craft or a profession.

Essential tools in my writer’s toolbox (besides coffee, water and laptop) 

1. Books: It doesn’t matter whether they’re digital or print. Reading is absolutely vital for good writing. A writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t practice or an athlete who doesn’t train.  There is almost no chance for growth.

2. Internet: Maybe there was a day, way back in 1990, when access to the Internet wasn’t important for the modern writer. Nowadays, I get significant inspiration from flipping through random writing blogs, The New Yorker fiction archives, magazines and online newspapers. That being said, the Internet can sometimes be detrimental to the writing process.  Author Zadie Smith suggests working on a computer that’s disconnected to the Internet. I don’t totally agree, but when it’s time to get down to the really hard stuff, the Internet can be counterproductive.

3. Coffee shops: For me, coffee shops make the perfect environment for writing. I need the stimulation of conversation and buzzing espresso machines. I also need a place that’s quiet enough for me to isolate myself with headphones.

4. Notepad. Again, whether it’s an iPhone or a Moleskin, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I always something on hand to jot down ideas or paragraphs when the muse strikes.

5. Thesaurus. Let’s face it: no writer always has the perfect word to describe their perfect image. The thesaurus is a fabulous writer’s tool for constructing with words the image already constructed in your mind.

7. Music. The way runners have pump-up playlists, most writers use a playlist of songs to help them transition into a writing mood. Sometimes it’s very difficult to go from the mindset of rushed every day life to the very patient, isolated and introverted mindset of writing.  Music is also one of the best tools for climbing out of the trenches of writer’s block.

–> What are your essential writing tools?

Musings on writing, design & NYC

I’ve known my blog needed a tagline for some time. It took me almost a year to come up with the name “Sketching A Story,” but a name isn’t necessarily enough for readers to make that immediate connection with what the blog is about. Yes, okay, I have “story” is in the title, but what kind of story? And what does it mean to “sketch” a “story?”

So my tagline has been in the works for the past couple of weeks.  First I just scrolled through my posts to get a better sense of what I write about. I know that sounds crazy, but my blog has changed a lot since I started it about a year and half ago and I wanted to reassess where it’s been and where it’s going.

I write about writing– that’s an obvious one and pretty much the core focus of my site. I write about New York City. I write about college and Notre Dame. I write about being a recent college grad. I write about everyday things that inspire me. I write about things that visually intrigue me– I am fascinated by design, whether it be graphic, website or interior design.

In the end, I chose “writing, design & NYC” to  be the three umbrella categories in my tagline. Now how to link those three words together?  I really didn’t want to go with “thoughts.” So many blogs use the phrases “thoughts on life” or “random thoughts,” which say almost nothing about the blog’s focus. Then I remembered my high school literary magazine, Musings, which I worked on for four years. (I dug up a 2006 copy for the photo above.) “Musings” was perfect. Not much more specific than “thoughts,” but I like to think it’s more literary 🙂

So there it is: Sketching A Story: musings on writing, design & NYC. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s simple and I like it.

Have you ever struggled to define or brand your blog?

ND Magazine: The Light of Loneliness

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

***

The Light of Loneliness

BY SARA FELSENSTEIN ’12

PUBLISHED: NOVEMBER 14, 2012 POSTED IN: ALUMNI BLOGS

It’s 2 a.m. and for whatever reason you’re lonely.

Maybe family issues have escalated, or the guy you like barely waved at the bar, or you’ve been holed up at work alone for the last three days. But right now you need the quickest distraction you can find, a barrier from your thoughts.

You grab your laptop from its resting place on the bed. It had been humming, sleeping quietly at your feet. You open it, and for a moment feel relief as you prop it up on a pillow and your fingers resume their familiar places on the keyboard. You begin typing “facebook.com” except all you really need to type is “f” and the site loads instantly.

No real notifications, other than a mass invitation to a concert in Chicago you can’t go to. And a slew of notifications from a picture you now wish you hadn’t commented on.

False hope.

Your newsfeed offers unlimited stories and photos, a colorful digital collage so bright it strains your eyes. As you trudge through this wealth of stimulation, other people’s lives become a distraction from your own. But watching as friends post Instagram-filtered pictures of pomegranate mojitos isn’t helping the lonesomeness.

It’s not helping at all.

But you keep staring. That computer backlight — steady, sterile — at this time of night is like the light of loneliness. It reminds you that at any moment in time you could be connected to anyone but at this very moment you’re alone. The light serves no purpose other than to illuminate the infinitely more fabulous lives of others.

What are you looking for? Not what you’re finding. You scroll and scroll. You’re looking for validation, but of what sort you don’t know.

It’s 3 a.m. now. The laptop heats up and the fan starts going, puncturing the silence. Nothing exciting is on Facebook anymore but you keep “watching” it, blankly, blindly, your fingers dragging languidly down the touchpad.

You close the laptop, shove it away. You’re done. Time to sleep, but you’re less tired than ever. The bright computer backlight is gone but now the small light on the side of your Macbook pulses in the darkness. You cover it with a pillow and everything is dark.

You push off the pillow.

You open the laptop.

You click click click click. This isn’t like watching TV before bed, when sounds eventually turn rhythmic and distant, luring you to sleep. No, the computer keeps you constantly engaged, and the only way to sleep is to close it.

You’re not the only one. Other people peruse Facebook late at night, circling like hawks on friends’ walls, revisiting friendship pages with exes, desiring nothing but distraction from whatever they’re thinking about. But Facebook is so overwhelmingly positive, select moments from the best of times, it’s much too easy to forget that.

It’s too easy to forget that a few nights ago, others may have enviously come across your own photos from an evening out in the city, feeling the same feelings you’re feeling right now.

Tonight, though, you’re on the other side of the virtual wall.

Your last resort is to log onto Facebook chat. Late-night chats tend to be unfulfilling, and the people available at those times are never the ones you want to chat with, but a small bead of hope rises in your chest. But the only “friends” you even recognize are your fifth cousin and some people you barely knew in high school who “friended” you three years into college.

Who would be up at 3:30 a.m. on a Tuesday, anyway?

You close the laptop, tenderly this time, like you’re caring for a child.

But now it’s just you and your thoughts. And that light of loneliness — persistent, gnawing, refusing to subside until you slip into sleep. For all you know it will vanish by morning, but it’s so potent right now.

The light on the side of your MacBook keeps pulsing, ominously. Like someone sleeping beside you. Like millions sleeping beside you. It’s a very small light, just a heartbeat, and it hardly breaks the darkness.

You click Apple, Sleep and pray that you can too.