622 Jefferson Street

Below I’ve posted the first three sections of one of my short stories, “622 Jefferson Street.” I wrote it as my final assignment for an Advanced Fiction Writing class at Notre Dame this past spring semester, but I’ve been working on it in one form or another for about a year. The tone, style and even plot line are still in flux, but I’ve given myself a few months’ distance. I’d appreciate any comments you might have– positive or critical! And please contact me if you’re interested in reading the full manuscript.

***

622 Jefferson Street

The 1200 block of Jefferson Street surprised me. It’s hard to tell what a neighborhood’s like from the aerial view on Google Maps, but when I got there I couldn’t believe how beautiful the houses were. Old Victorians with extravagant molding, long windows and the sad remnants of wraparound porches. Somehow, the houses looked vaguely familiar, but I’d never been to Ohio before and I’d definitely never been here.

The houses were beautiful but twenty years past their prime, stripped of paint and porches, roofs so thin a bird’s claw could puncture them. If you looked close enough you could see entire structures sinking an inch or two into the dry earth, the ground coughing up bits of dust from the pressure.

If you looked even closer you could see folding lawn chairs — the old rattling kind made of rainbow vinyl and plastic — and on those lawn chairs, people. The people only watched what was in front of them. The people stared right into the dusk, their eyes dark and full and steady.

I pulled up slowly, grazing the curb. When I got out, a bunch of teenagers were messing around in the street, cursing and kicking around empty cans of Coke. I walked briskly past them. They stared at me but said nothing; I became intensely aware of the way my skirt’s material gathered under my ass each time I took a step. The can rolled towards me in slow motion and I kicked it to the side with my heel. I didn’t look back. I loved the way that skirt hugged my curves but 1208 Jefferson Street was no home for pencil skirts.

The empty tin sound of the can-kicking didn’t resume until I’d made it two blocks down.

I had gotten the call around 5:30 p.m. to head out to the East side of the city. Fifth fire in two days, Shirley said. Still burning so I better move fast. Fast fast fast fast, I know you’re on the late shift and it doesn’t start till six but it’s red hot and will be out soon, we need a photo Jules, the photog couldn’t get out there — his kid’s sick with the stomach bug — so we’ll need you to take a shot on your phone. You’ve got one of those smarty-pants phones, right? Always better to capture something in action than post-action, right Jules? I mean, who wants to see a burnt-down house, a pile of ashes, when you can see a burning one?

Shirley advised me to park way back on the road away from the cop cars, which meant I would have to walk through the neighborhood. Jeez, this wasn’t one of the best neighborhoods — she should have warned me. That’s the thing about Shirley, I love her but she’s been off the streets so long she doesn’t know how bad it’s gotten around here. Considering there’ve been 17 shootings this summer and 13 in August alone, she should realize. But Shirley, she just remembers when she was the cops reporter back in the eighties and the bad part of the city was a quarter square mile thick with bodies and blood, all of it gang violence. As long as you stayed away from that you were safe.

But it’s not like that anymore. Things around here are always smoking, or burning, or disappearing altogether. The violence goes wherever the heat goes and the heat is everywhere. And Google Maps doesn’t tell you where the “good” and “bad” neighborhoods are in Norge. Google knows, I’m sure, but Google has to be objective. Google has to be PC.

I had one more block to go until the fire. The house looked totally fine from a distance, which was the strangest part. All of the damage must have been shrouded in smoke.

At the end of the road I saw police lights, flashing violently behind a shade of ash and smoke. The closer I got, the lights became stronger and the fire weaker.

I felt around my purse for my notebook and tucked it under my arm.

I couldn’t help but view the scene as swarming dots of darkness and color.

***

 “It will get easier, don’t worry, Jules,” Shirley told me that night after I came in from the Jefferson Street house fire, my hair disheveled and reporter’s notebook essentially illegible. Soaking wet. It looked like I’d fallen right into the hose’s stream, and I hoped that’s what Shirley thought, but honestly, my water bottle just opened in my bag. God damnit.

I’d already lost three iPhones that way and I really needed to stop doing that.

“After awhile, you’ll hardly think twice about the fires,” Shirley said.

I nodded at my editor without really looking at her, and when she walked away took an excessively large bite from my cardboard vending machine sandwich. The turkey was about an inch think, a slab of salt and rubber. The bread was hard. Probably sitting in there since the 70s when they installed the vending machine. I was absolutely famished, though, with that clawing gurgliness in my stomach, so I ate it anyway.

“You’re a brave soul,” the court reporter, Kelly, said to me as she walked past my desk. I looked up to smile at her but my mouth was stuffed with bread and meat. I tried to do that thing where you smile with your eyes, but because my mouth was all contorted with sandwich, I’m pretty sure it just looked creepy. So much for making good impressions on your coworkers. She sort of stood there awkwardly, waiting for my response as I tried desperately to swallow, but the bread was just too dry to slide down that easily. Not my fault, but how do you tell someone that?

Finally, I managed to get some words out.

“Um, thanks Kelly. I really appreciate it.”

It was my first fire, my first real one anyway, and I was glad I was getting some recognition.

“Even if I were actually starved, like actually starved, I wouldn’t buy one of those sandwiches,” she said. “That’s intense, Jules.”

***

For a few days I didn’t think much about the Jefferson Street house fire. The Norge Daily News kept me busy running around to drownings and shootings across the city, picking up reports from the station downtown.

I didn’t dwell on it much, but it seemed everyone else did. The people in Norge were scared, more so than ever, and they definitely had a right to be. I could see it in the way they stood — the broad-shouldered men in circles crushing beer cans in their hands and the cowering women, huddled together on the edges of their lawns. It was only mid-August, and already 20 shootings had happened in the city. Most of it gang violence, of course, but not all. And the drive-by shootings were the most frightening. One man was shot to death at night on his way out of McDonald’s, only one bite out of his 99-cent burger, still hot and fresh in his hand.

How do you stand all the death?  My mom, an accountant where I grew up in suburban Boston, asked me one afternoon while I Skyped her at a picnic table during lunch. But the truth was, I didn’t always mind it. There was job life and there was life life. And shootings don’t always mean death, of course, there were only three homicides of those 20 shootings. Covering violence is exciting, horrible to say but it’s true. And there’s a certain distance a police reporter has to have, kind of like a doctor doing major surgery, who knows his patient might not survive — you can’t be attached to everyone you get to know.

Pozie poems: moving poetry, inspiring messages

Source: http://www.facebook.com/poziepoems

moving poetry made with loving hands and minds in NYC

Hard economic times typically spur dismal messages by struggling artists, but the artists behind Pozie poems want to set optimism in motion.

The idea for these brightly-colored mobile poems was born out of the 2008 financial crisis, founders Rion and Kay Merryweather said.

“The mood was very somber in NYC and we knew we had to do something to help,” said the husband and wife team.

Words like “bold,” “confident,” “enjoy” and “love” are painted on colorful wooden boards and linked together to create inspiring messages that change slightly as the mobiles move. At about $30, these Pozie poems make beautiful, simple and creative gifts or conversation pieces. And the top part is a chalkboard for you to write whatever word (words) you want!

You can purchase and view Pozie poems here on Etsy.

Source: http://www.etsy.com/listing/58862077/be-yourself?ref=pr_shop

Top 5 places to write outdoors

Swimming. Sundresses. Street fairs. There are so many things to love about summer, but writing outside may be my favorite. I have a few months to go before I begin my new job, and I’ve been trying to get some sun and catch up with reading and writing in the meantime. Here are some of my all time favorite spots to ponder ideas, scribble down thoughts or seriously write.

1. On a city bench (eavesdropping)

I learned this trick at the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio back when I was a junior in high school. There’s no better source of inspiration for a story than picking up and trying to piece together scraps of conversation from daily life. Listening to entire conversations is okay, too. I mean when you’re out in the public it’s fair game, right?

2. The back patio of my house

It’s away from the commotion, but close to an endless supply of snacks and San Pellegrino!

3. The second floor balcony of the Concord Suites in Avalon, NJ

Each year since I was about 11 my family has gone down to the Jersey Shore and stayed at the same hotel, the Concord Suites. The second story of the building has a wide balcony with tables that look out over the street. I love the clear, breezy nights when you can see the stars, and the combination of hushed conversation of and the hum of the ocean makes for the perfect background sound. Every year I try to write at least one poem from up there.

4. The bench and table at St. Joseph’s Lake in Notre Dame, IN

I never actually wrote here, but my roommate Megan and I would often go for runs around the lakes at school, and each time we passed this spot I’d vow to come back with my notebook. Basically, there’s a charming little writing desk off in a tree-shrouded area beside a beautiful lake, and I never actually see anyone using it.  I’ll definitely have to find some time away from bookstore-shopping and tailgating to come back here during a football weekend.

5. Sitting outside a café 

Okay I may be cheating a little bit with this one, because obviously a café is an ideal spot for writing. But writing OUTSIDE a café  is most ideal!  I love the outdoor tables certain coffee shops have, where you can sit with your laptop, enjoy your latte and the warm weather and still observe people on the street.

In June, in January…

Sometimes exposure to one environment gets me thinking about the opposite of that environment. It’s strange, really. It’s the beginning of summer and I’m sitting here thinking about winter. Come winter and I’ll be thinking about summer. And not even in the sense that I’m longing for that season – I am definitely not longing for winter- just pondering it. If I’m spending time in a city I’ll imagine dusty country roads. If I’m out in the Midwest I’ll close my eyes each night to city lights. (Maybe that’s from longing.)

I guess it makes sense. As a creative writer, I write best from experience, but even better when I have some distance from that experience. Still, doesn’t it seem contradictory to remove oneself from the environment your writing pictures, develops, scrutinizes? I don’t like the idea, but I guess I have time to figure out what works best for me.

I mentioned in a previous post that the poet I’m most inspired by is Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate. One of his poems I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is called “In January.” I love the way Kooser develops atmosphere in this poem, creating shapes and sounds from intangible things like light and age.

In January

Only one cell in the frozen hive of night
is lit, or so it seems to us:
this Vietnamese café, with its oily light,
its odors whose colorful shapes are like flowers.
Laughter and talking, the tick of chopsticks.
Beyond the glass, the wintry city
creaks like an ancient wooden bridge.
A great wind rushes under all of us.
The bigger the window, the more it trembles.

 

Lights and Fireflies

Tonight I almost tripped over a firefly.

Well, not exactly. I was out for a run and it was around 9 at night. By that time, nearly the only light in my suburban neighborhood comes from scattered lampposts and the flickering of televisions in living room windows. Which means it’s hard to see uneven sidewalks elevated by tree roots, especially if you’re distracted by the first firefly of the season.

Every year I look forward to that first firefly – it’s as if the illuminated case holds within it all the wonders of childhood summer: dripping popsicles and ice cream cones, late night sprinklers, playing out in the streets and watching thunderstorms from my bedroom window. My birthday.

But now it’s a different kind of summer, because for first time in years I’m totally and completely free. And of course, this may be my last summer in that sense.

Having just graduated from college, I’ve been struggling to accept that sense of freedom, since my previous life was defined by never being free. I can’t accept summer for what it is, an open in-between period when it’s acceptable to spend hours shopping or tanning at the pool. I can’t accept that I should relax. (But should I?)  

Apparently, there’s no need to power walk to the pantry just to get a handful of crackers and get back to work. I can sleep in if I want to, and accompanying my mother on a long trip to the grocery store will make no difference in my plans for the day, and will certainly not set me back from the nonexistent pile of work I still need to get done.

Because my goals — write more often, keep up with the news, spend more time with my family — are all rather vague “self-improvement” goals that do not have a set timeline. But I have this irrational fear that by letting down my guard, by not filling my free days with something like the antithesis of relaxation, I’ll lose the drive that powered me through my college years.

As I continued my run tonight, which itself had been an escape from my too-relaxing book and movie, I realized this summer is so unlike “real life” that it’s hard to define what my ideal summer would even be. By the time I made my way back up the road, careful to watch for tree roots, the fireflies had retreated to wherever they go between dusk and dawn.

I opened the door to my house, greeted by central air and the possibility of spending the rest of my night doing whatever I feel like.

It’s summer and I’m not sure what that will mean.

Story excerpt: Register 3 is Now Open

Four-page excerpt from one of my short stories, inspired by a nightmare of a high school job at TJMAXX and examining the consumer culture and hyperconnectivity of young people.

Source: Snarky’s Machine                                        

Register 3 is now open.

Hour 1. A man comes up to me, doesn’t say hello, slams down a T-shirt about as hard as you can slam down a cotton garment. Like he’s got a problem. I don’t deal well with these kinds of customers — mostly I just don’t know how to react to them — so I adjust my nametag and play with that electronic pen-thing that’s attached to the credit card machine. I don’t understand why we have that electronic pen but we still have printed receipts, receipts that need to be signed with ink. Confuses every customer. No, sorry, you have to sign here.

 0 unread messages.

 Something about that is backwards.

I try to be friendly to this guy. Hello, I’m Jason. Find everything OK? How’s your day going? Beautiful, isn’t it for February?  But he whispers something to his kid and doesn’t answer me so I smile and fold the shirt, scan the tag, tap the touchscreen with the pad of my finger.

Just like the manager told me to.

Fold, scan, tap.

The man’s got a salt and pepper mustache and cigarette skin. Rough around the edges. Cut-off Giants T-shirt. You’ve got lots of time to notice a person when they’re not looking at you.

Please, sir — I turn to him. That’s $9.99. Credit or debit? Debit, good, then you don’t have to sign a receipt, which means I don’t have to look for a pen. I hand the bag to the man and the man hands the bag to his kid, a blonde kid in a wrinkly red zip-up hoodie whose head barely reaches over the white counter. The kid wants to eat lunch. The man knows the kid wants to eat lunch but has some things to take care of before they do that. He reaches into his butt pocket for his wallet. For how muscley this guy’s arms are it’s kinda surprising he moves in slow motion.

Please, please, please move a little faster. Look at that line.

I slyly reach into the drawer and check my phone.

1 new message: Heyyyy are you going to Brad McNeil’s tonight? He’s having an America party should be pretty awesome. Wear something patriotic!!!

 For a moment I wonder if he remembers I’m here. This guy who’s buying a T-shirt and checking his phone and looking angry. Then the kid gets pissy too about something and jumps up and down in a mini-rage. He wants Mac ‘n Cheese. He can’t have Mac ‘n Cheese till he gets home. So he runs under the line divider, over to the Purse & Wallet aisle and then to the adjacent Housewares. I hear a crash and it’s pretty loud. Sounds like a $15.99 crash to me — probably one of those ceramic platters we got a huge shipment of last Thursday. People have been flocking here to buy those platters.

Thank you, sir, and thanks for shopping at—

I’m so preoccupied with the speech, the speech they literally drilled into my mind during training that I don’t realize the man’s already gone, running after the kid and pinching him on the butt for breaking the platter, then gripping his wrist the way no child ever wants to be gripped. No. Mac. ‘N. Cheese. For. You.

The kid starts wailing — I swear to God I hate when kids do that, plus his screaming voice clashes with the elevator jazz the managers insist creates ‘the most pleasurable shopping experience for our valued customers.’ By the time I tap the touchscreen and prep for the next transaction, there’s already another customer in front of me.

I don’t even remember pressing the button. I don’t remember pressing the button but there’s someone right here.

Register 3 is now open.

The customer smiles at me and I smile back. I bugs me when they do that — come up to the counter before I press the button — I mean sometimes you need to refill the receipt paper or pick up a pen or take a breath or something. But I don’t say anything about it to her because she’s kinda hot. She’s got nice-looking big brown eyes with tons of makeup around them, but whatever. Her lipstick’s bright red. I don’t get why good-looking girls insist on wearing such bright intense lipstick.

She’s hot but Jenny’s still hotter. Jenny Brown who I kissed last night.

Jenny was wearing some fruity lipstick, not nearly as bright as this girl’s, which I thought was cute and complimented her on after I kissed her. But she said she wasn’t wearing any lipstick and that maybe it was the Juicy Fruit she chewed earlier. But I know she was wearing lipstick, she just wanted me to think her lips are naturally like that, which is cute because obviously it means likes me.

This girl at the counter, she seems familiar. She’s super-dark-haired, that almost-black color like she dumped an entire package of hair dye in it and never bothered to wash it out. She’s wearing a matching Juicy Couture burgundy sweat suit with the little dangly J on the zipper.

Dangle dangle dangle goes that silver J, as she talks and moves her hands, dangle dangle dangling, right below her boobs.

Then I realize…I know her. She’s friends with Jenny. Was friends with Jenny, last year at least. I’d see them together at lunch and getting Diet Cokes after school from the vending machine near the theater.

I don’t want her to tell her friends she saw me and I was awkward. I need to make at least a semi-good impression.

1 new message: Where areee you?

We sell those here, the Juicy sweatsuits, for 50% off the original price. Did…you buy yours here? I ask her, gesturing towards her outfit. Wow, of all the things I could have said why did I say the dumbest thing ever? God I’m an idiot. She looks offended. I’m an asshole. Ohhhh you onlybuy housewares at this store, obviously I should have known. I’m so sorry — uh, um Marissa…right! I’m—well you can see it on my nametag here but I’m Jason. We were in…Pre-Calc last year, right!

So. Embarrassing.

I consciously keep my eyes off the dangly J but the more I consciously do that the more apparent it is that my eyes are averting it. The silver J keeps dangling, I can practically hear it, louder than the Register 3 is now open, louder than that goddamn jazz music.

That J dangle dangle dangles, around and around in my head.

Focus on the transaction, not the person, I tell myself.

She’s buying scented candles! She says it like it’s the most exciting thing in the world. Like she’s been looking for the perfect set of candles all her life and here, in this store, she’s finally found them. 20 of them! Which she insists I wrap in tissue paper! Individually! And then a second time! Because they’re for her mother! In case the power goes out!

Marissa literally talks like that, with a perpetual smile and wide-open eyes. Okay, yeah no problem, nice meeting — seeing you again too Marissa, see you in school. Yup enjoy your, um, candles and have nice day. Thanks for shopping at—

Register 3 is now open.

Register 5 is now open.

 Register 3 is now open.

A woman approaches, struggling to push two shopping carts to the checkout counter. In the first cart is a framed black and white poster of Audrey Hepburn, for her daughter. In the second cart are 27 pairs of Sevens Jeans. Who are those for? That she won’t tell me. Kinda sketch, in my opinion. I bet she’s one of those women who buys tons of stuff from stores like this and then sells it on eBay. She’s probably also one of those women who show up at the mall during the Christmas sales with two giant pieces of luggage and fill it with loads upon loads of discounted crap.

I reach over to scan the poster and she starts loading all the jeans onto the counter — I don’t know how they’re all going to fit on there but somehow they do. I take a deep breath and begin tackling the mountain of clothing before me.

Fold, scan, tap.

Fold, scan, tap.

They’re all marked down to $39.99. Original price — $129.90. That’s what these people come here, for the prices. Designer stuff they otherwise can’t afford. Coach. Kate Spade. Michael Kors. Marc Jacobs. BCBG. Versace. Oscar de la Renta. Valentino. You name it. That’s why they sacrifice hours of a perfectly good day trekking through the disorganized aisles, inspecting price tags, fighting with that bitch that grabbed the shirt they had already claimed with their eyes. That’s why they drag around three screaming kids, kids who are hungry and tired and just want to go home before soccer practice.

9 down.

Fold, scan, tap.

20 down.

Fold. Scan. Tap.

24 down.

27 times I fold and scan the jeans, tap the touchscreen. 27 times, and I take a deep breath and smile. Now if you could juuust sign on the dotted line—

But no, she thinks I charged her for 28 pairs.

No, no, no look here, it says on the receipt. 28 items. The poster and 27 pairs of jeans. I got it right, I promise. I can’t do them over, that would involve a void, which I can’t do, and a manager to come, and he’s on his lunch break I think, and I’d need to ring the jeans up all over again and who knows how long you’d have to wait.

No, I did not charge you for an extra pair.

Please, ma’am, this is my third day. Technically I’m still training. I know that doesn’t help my case but really, I only charged you for 27. Twenty-seven Sevens Jeans.

Before I know it I feel my manager’s breath against my neck. He asks in a low voice what the problem is and stares at me and then whispers something in my ear. I know sir, I know the customer’s always right, but look here, look at the receipt! The receipt says 27!

The customer is always right.

Tribute to Yaya

In honor of my grandmother Yaya’s birthday — April 2, 1936 — I’m posting a poem I wrote about her that I read in this year’s Notre Dame Literary Festival.

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Today, Yaya would have been 76.

My grandmother, Dorothy Coyne, was one of the best people I’ve ever known. She wasn’t a stereotypical grandmother– we weren’t greeted in her house by the smell of baking cookies (she rarely baked) and her voice wasn’t hushed and gentle. She loved dancing and the bustle of cities. She hated the beach and staying on the phone any longer than was necessary. She was spunky, stylish and confident, and when she had an opinion she made sure it was heard. I admired those things about her.

I can look back to countless nights sitting around my grandparents’ kitchen table with my siblings or spread out across her plush brown carpet, listening to Yaya tell story after crazy story. Like the time in 9th grade the nuns caught her smoking in the bathroom, and she and her friends filled their mouths with powdered soap to mask the smell but ended up with foaming, bubbling mouths as they explained themselves before the principal. Somehow, her stories always reached  a level of pure absurdity; she’d have our entire family keeling over with laughter.

Those stories brought us together. Those stories were the best.

But above everything else, Yaya was a beautiful and loving woman, deeply committed to her family. Four years later, sitting around the kitchen table or spread out across that carpet, trying to imitate the high-pitched inflection of her voice, her stories still leave us hysterical with laughter.

We love and miss you, Yaya.

Yaya

There are times I wonder:
had you dyed your hair
that mahogany-red
one last time,
would you still be
alive today?

Because once you let
that hair go dead and gray,
everything else followed.
spunky-bright cheeks
turned pale in submission,
spine collapsed beneath
the winter sky,
and withered fingers hung
from your hands like
dead leaves.

Yaya, if I could trace the
tracks of your spider-veins
back to the start of this nonsense—
I would.

Then, you could tell me
about the time
you poured shampoo
on Billy’s pancakes,
or when the
hair-dye
turned your hair
“freaking eggplant”

Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is a brilliant poet.

I stumbled upon his collection, “Delights & Shadows,” a few years ago and it has influenced my writing ever since.

Kooser, an Iowa native who was the United States Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006,  writes poems that show glimpses of daily life. He has a way of making the mundane fascinating, of making everyday events  awe-inspiring.

Kooser maximizes meaning in minimal words. He proves that economy of language is extremely effective. Kooser’s clear, simple, beautiful language is something to be emulated in all writing forms– creative, academic or journalistic.

Listen to an interview Kooser did in 2005 with NPR.

Here’s on of my favorite poems:

A Rainy Morning
by Ted Kooser

A young woman in a wheelchair,
wearing a black nylon poncho spattered with rain
is pushing herself through the morning.
You have seen how pianists
sometimes bend forward to strike the keys,
then lift their hands, draw back to rest,
then lean again to strike just as the chord fades.
Such is the way this woman
strikes at the wheels, then lifts her long white fingers,
letting them float, then bends again to strike
just as the chair slows, as if into a silence.
So expertly she plays the chords
of this difficult music she has mastered,
her wet face beautiful in its concentration,
while the wind turns the pages of rain.

Writer’s Block

Taken on FDR Drive on my way to Brooklyn!

Like I said, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my next longer piece of fiction. This is always the hardest part, coming up with an idea. “It’s not about what you write– it’s how you write it” might be a writer’s anthem, but still, there’s definitely merit in writing that presents a fresh, new idea.

How do you make an old story fresh, or a new story relatable? How do you avoid writing what hundreds of people have already written?

One thing I know for sure is that I want to write in the vignette style. Some of my favorite works of fiction are written this way– Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. I love how vignettes allow for multiple perspectives on a common theme, and let the writer flip through time effortlessly. There’s also something poetic about a series of vignettes, because each one is pretty brief. Sometimes a never-ending chunk of text, no matter how amazing the writing, is exhausting. Vignettes let the reader and writer breathe.

I’m a fan.

But what to write about?

Right now I’m at that stage when ideas are still forming; for a moment they’re immensely exciting and I can’t wait to put pen to paper. Then the feeling fades. What was I thinking?  I can’t write about that. Whoosh. Off to the trash.

When I was younger, I always saw fiction as a total escape from my  suburban life, a chance to travel outside the bubble. I wrote about things I had no experience with: flappers from the 1920s, a drug-abusing mother, children with mental disabilities, a quirky New York City coffee shop. I want my new work to fall closer to home. I’ve found that good fiction writing always involves opening up somewhat. Fiction doesn’t have to be based on your life, but on some level it has to be based on your experiences.

Much of my family history lies in Brooklyn, N.Y. My grandfather (mother’s father) grew up in an Irish tenement in Brooklyn in the 1930s and 40s. My father grew up in Brooklyn Heights in a Jewish neighborhood in the 50s and 60s. People usually think of Brooklyn through its context with Manhattan, but for those who grow up there, Brooklyn is its own entity, harboring a history and character independent of “The City.”

When I think of Brooklyn I think of rising housing prices, veganism, the Brooklyn Bridge, trendy bars, artists’ studios, and hipsters. The Brooklyn I see is totally different from my father and grandfather’s Brooklyns. My story would be set only partly in Brooklyn, and would not be focused on history, but it would be interesting to somehow show the area’s development through the lense of a modern-day 20-something-year-old.

Sparknotes of a book that’s not written:

Vignettes/Flashbacks. Brooklyn. Manhattan. Midwest. Social Networking. Newspapers. 9/11.

I’ll elaborate on the other themes in a later post. Vague, I know, but let’s see where this takes me…

Waiting in Hoboken

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my next work of fiction, going through old stories and poems for inspiration. I stumbled across this poem in my files, and it seems appropriate since the ten year anniversary of 9/11 is approaching.  After 9/11 my family and I went to Hoboken to see the Tribute in Light  and I remember feeling emptier after going than I had before– I wondered how people found comfort in lights that could be switched on and off in a second. Back then, I couldn’t understand the point of a tribute that only drew attention to what was lost, and the eeriness of those blue-light towers has always resonated with me.

Waiting in Hoboken

Dusty nighttime,

two blue columns

from another world

pierce the sky and draw

long, swaying paths

in the charcoal water.

a woman gasps

well isn’t that extraordinary

I feel

so close I could swim,

I feel

as long as these

blue lights can float

atop the river,

I can follow them back

to the

get on defense!

call of my soccer coach

and the

dog-walking hey kiddo!

of my next door neighbor,

escape the debris,

and I hear their voices

scuttling cross the Hudson.

it’s a school night, let’s go

say good-bye

to the river

home

the towers have fallen,

and no one speaks

my language.

City of the Past

More Toledo Then & Now posts to come. For now, I want you to get a sense of the emptiness in Toledo that I mentioned in my last post, the contrast between tall buildings and beautiful architecture, and “For Sale” signs in just about every other shop window. I don’t want to create the impression that Toledo is a terrible city to live in, because it’s not. Just like with South Bend, if you open up to it, there are things to do in Toledo. And there is definitely history.

It’s just that Toledo’s past seems to hover over every street, over every building that was once “grand” and isn’t anymore. The past is so present; elderly people smile and shake their heads at the thought of the “old days.” It’s really unsettling to watch a Walmart bag roll for a mile down a major street, never passing a car or another person. Because this is not a rural town, this is a city.

Which has made me question the definition of “city”–what even makes a city a city? Is it the big buildings? The arts scene? The people? Can a city ever lose its “cityness?”

I get the sense Toledo has lost something that can never be recovered.  That’s what I want to pinpoint through these posts.

Sometimes I’ll take a walk around my apartment after work hours or on a weekend, and literally pass no one on the streets.

See slideshow below:

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From London to Toledo

Credit: Toledo Lucas County Public Library

Above: Madison Avenue, Toledo, OH, circa 1918.

I’m spending the summer working for the Toledo Blade in Toledo, Ohio as a reporting intern. Friends and family keep asking me, “From London to Toledo–why?” and I can honestly say that although Toledo’s no London, no New York, I like it here. I get to write every day and work with amazing people. I’m getting solid reporting experience, and am finding out a lot about the city while doing it.

It was Memorial Day Weekend when my parents helped me move in to my new apartment (which is HUGE, by  the way). When we drove up to the parking lot in our Target-stuffed Suburban, dusk just starting to fall, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. The building didn’t look all that nice from the outside. And there was absolutely nothing going on, absolutely no one on the streets, which was kind of eerie. The city is somewhat of a ghost town– when business people leave at 6 p.m., the downtown empties out. After work hours, it becomes nearly impossible to find a place to eat, except for a handful of scattered restaurants and bars. Sundays are just a lost cause.

There’s not much socially going on in Toledo, but there is always news.

Toledo is a depressed city. Once bustling and prosperous, the decline of the automotive industry and the white flight epidemic left it deflated. But everywhere, still, you see remnants of the past– beautiful Victorian houses from the 1900s, a grand theater, even hot dog joints that were opened in the 20s and haven’t changed much since. It’s interesting seeing the juxtaposition of majestic architecture and spreading urban decay, and I’m intrigued by this idea of what Toledo used to be.

I’ve been scrolling through the Toledo Library‘s archives of old photos just to get a sense of it. Pictured above is a street right in the downtown, Madison Avenue. It’s hard to imagine so many people once crowded these streets, because today they’re almost always empty.

I’ll be posting more “then and now” pictures later.



This is the same street pictured above, Madison Avenue, today.