A poem for my grandfather

FAMILY, LIFE, POEMS

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The painting you painted for me, and for my siblings, is unlike any other work you’ve ever done.

Different from your other pieces, which are so precise, relentlessly realistic, this painting is full of broad brush strokes, composed of love and light. The painting captures essence and exact truths fall away. Because when I look at this painting a C+ is an A+, a failure is a learning moment, and no matter what I say or do, I can do no wrong.

That’s a very special work of art to have.

This painting you painted for me reflects your humor, and just the sight of it makes me smile. And if this painting depicted you, it would capture your laugh, the endearing way your eyes creased when you told a joke, and the way you beamed when surrounded by family.

This painting began when I was born and grew into something magnificent, a mural expanding over the 28 years I’ve been alive. And no matter where I was or what I went through, when I looked up, this painting was there.

This painting you painted for me. In your humbleness you’d say it’s worth nothing but it’s the lens through which I see the world. And because of this painting, everything I see is colored by your kindness and your light.

This painting, Grandpa, is forever hanging in my heart.
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Remember the small things

LIFE

“How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is pretty good,” I say. “Nothing to note, really.”

 Usually, everything is just status quo.

The funny thing is, the best things in life often take you by surprise—offering a minute or two of happiness that fades into the rest of the day. Sometimes, these little things don’t get the attention they deserve.

The first snowfall. Free pizza. A $20 bill that survives the wash in your pocket. Running into an old friend in a city of nine million people. Cursing the crowds in the subway, only to look up and see your favorite poem on the wall.

 A couple from college having their first baby. Listening to the rain while you’re cuddled under a blanket, nursing a cup of tea. Driving on an open road with the windows down and music blasting.

When any Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls, or Third Eye Blind song plays at the bar.

 A letter from a friend…in the mail.

A brilliant summer sunset that catches you off guard. Going to work on a “bad” hair day but getting more compliments on your hair than ever. Going out for a run and feeling a surge of energy, like your legs aren’t even yours, like you could keep running forever.

A conversation with a younger sibling and feeling overwhelming pride at the person they’ve become.

The realization that someone you like, but never thought you would be with, likes you too.

So often we “create” happiness—planning for vacations, weekends, dinners out with friends. We anticipate exciting things like a new job, an engagement, a move to another city, or other major life events that will lift our spirits for months at a time and change our outlook. But so many of life’s joys are unexpected. They’re threaded right into the fabric of the day along with the stresses and monotony. The smaller moments that happen so fast are among the happiest moments of all. We just didn’t think to take pictures of them or write them down.

 “How’s life?” they ask.

 “Life is good. Life is great,” I’ll say next time. Because I know it’s not always full of dramatic ups and downs that make for great stories on the phone.

Most of life is filled with little details we choose to either remember, or let slip away.

But together, they add up to something incredible.

Together they add up to a pretty good life.

Home in the heartland

JOURNALISM, LIFE, NOTRE DAME, NYC

This essay was awarded honorable mention in Notre Dame Magazine’s 2017 Young Alumni Essay Contest. It was originally published at magazine.nd.edu

My final night in Toledo, Ohio, I climbed up to the roof of my apartment building to watch the sunset. Brilliant orange hues silhouetted everything below the horizon a dark, velvety black, and only the banks poked above the skyline. The colors were bright and bold, beckoning me to stay.

Straight in front of me on North Superior Street, I could see the old newspaper building where I’d spent long hours that summer covering everything from robberies to school board meetings to controversial city investments. From above, the streets looked clean and still and silent, but I knew that was far from true. Up on the rooftop, I couldn’t see trash rolling through the roads or crooked “for sale” signs hanging in dusty windows. I couldn’t see the crime, deterioration and poverty, all hidden in plain sight.

I lived that summer in a building that once housed the famous LaSalle & Koch Department Store, and until 1984, one of the largest Macy’s stores outside of New York City. It had since been converted into massive loft apartments, but you could still see the Macy’s sign painted on one side, like a faded tattoo. As I watched the sunset that night on the roof while a couple on the far side clinked Coronas, I thought about my three months in Toledo. I’d been intensely lonely and completely out of my comfort zone, but reporting stories throughout Northwest Ohio and Southeast Michigan solidified a longer relationship I’d been building with the Midwest as a region, a fascination with the place and its history.

I knew I’d come back. After all, there were more stories to tell.

The first time I connected with the Midwest was through the words of Nebraskan poet Ted Kooser, when I was 16. I picked up one of his collections at a book festival near my home in New Jersey and couldn’t stop reading — the poems were nothing like what I’d read in school. His words were simple, beautiful and timeless. I did not find out until later that Kooser was in fact Poet Laureate of the United States at the time, the first selected from the Great Plains.

Kooser’s poems, with titles like “Dishwater” and “Creamed Corn,” find beauty in the mundane. Kooser takes basic daily occurrences and shows that just beneath the surface of everything and everyone is something extraordinary. He changed my perspective on what constitutes great writing. Now, I believe great writing is found not necessarily in complex plots or exotic settings but in people — their histories, struggles and challenges. And no region in America exemplifies this kind of writing better than the Midwest. Think Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a classic depiction of small-town America, or Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. The Midwest, of course, is vast and varied, but a common theme fueling its literature is a strong sense of place and a focus on the people who live there.

Another aspect of the Midwest that makes it ripe for great writing is its relationship with the past. While New York City, my current home, paints over the past as quickly as it can build new skyscrapers, the past seems to linger in the Midwest. When I lived in Toledo, everywhere I went I could see remnants of a time long gone — beautiful Victorian houses slowly decaying, an old theater that sat empty most nights, even hot dog joints that opened in the 1920s and haven’t changed much since. Toledo’s past hovers over every street, over every building that was once grand and isn’t anymore. In Rust Belt cities like Toledo, the past is so present, it’s almost a character in its own right.

I spent my formative years in the Midwest, and only after five years of living in New York City do I understand how much that impacted me — as a writer and as a person. Both sides of my family are from Brooklyn, New York — I have no roots in America’s heartland. But after four years at college at Notre Dame in South Bend, a few weeks in Iowa City in high school and, of course, my summer in Toledo, the Midwest now feels like home.

The region is a crossroads of cultural influences, but I believe it shares some common characteristics. For one, the land is mainly flat, surrounded by the Rockies on the West and Appalachians on the East, giving the region its distinguishing wide-open feel. While the small agricultural towns of the Great Plains differ immensely from the Rust Belt cities of the Great Lakes, I’ve found Midwesterners to be politer and more community-oriented than their counterparts on the East Coast. And while, in New York, most people come from somewhere else to achieve and transform, Midwesterners have a strong sense of identity and pride in their roots.

So which region better reflects me as an individual? The self-assured, quieter Midwest, or the more rushed, aggressive Northeast? Right now, I don’t long to live in the Midwest — I’m happy where I am, in a city that simultaneously excites and exhausts me. But every time I arrive back to Ohio or Indiana or Iowa, a part of me feels at peace. I love the predictability of main streets, the kindness of the people, and the brilliant summer sunsets that soar on for miles into the distance because the topography offers so few disruptions. Being in the Midwest reminds me there’s so much more to America than I know.

One summer morning in New York, I was on a subway train so packed that I couldn’t even put my left foot down — all of the floor space was taken up. After about 10 minutes of this discomfort, a woman in front of me got off the train, revealing one of my favorite poems by Kooser, “A Winter Morning,” on a billboard where advertisements usually go on the subway walls:

A farmhouse window far back from the highway

speaks to the darkness in a sure, small voice.

Against this stillness, only a kettle’s whisper,

and against this starry cold, one small blue ring of flame.

That poem greeted me like the familiar smile of someone you haven’t seen in a long time, and for a moment, the oppressive heat and crush of people vanished. Kooser’s words were a small but comforting reminder of my connection to somewhere else.

I know I’ll travel the long, flat roads back to America’s heartland again, before the future finally steamrolls its lingering past. I want to drive around the region, listen to the stories to be told there, learn more about these cities and where they’re headed. Maybe those wide roads will take me out to the rolling cornfields of Nebraska, or back to my former homes in Toledo or South Bend. But for now, I’ll find my Midwest haven in the worlds of Kooser and Robinson and Anderson, and escape, through their stories, to the places that have become a part of me, while the sirens of New York City wail incessantly outside.

What happened to dreaming small?

CAREER, LIFE

Ireland is just over there my grandfather said to me as we stood on the shores of the Atlantic, when I was about six years old. I strained my eyes but hard as I tried I could not see Ireland, just an expanse of water and thin blue line where ocean met sky.

As a child, the “end of summer” always seemed just as far away. If June was the shore, September was land on the other side – and an ocean of time and space lay between now and then.

To fill this mass of time I took on what I call “small challenges”.

One of my favorites, and in retrospect most ridiculous, was the Pogo Stick Challenge of 1999. I’d gotten one for Christmas and enlisted my good friend and neighbor Annabeth to join me in the challenge of reaching 1500 consecutive hops. In the heat of August, using a toy that had rusted over the winter months, this took some perseverance. But all summer long we worked on our goal, stopping only to refuel on cookies and lemonade.

Bounce. Creak. Bounce. Creak. At the end of August I finally hit the magic number – 1500 HOPS! We shrieked and clapped and moved on to a much quieter hobby – making jewelry. I’m sure the neighbors were thankful.

Two summers later, when I was 11, my challenge was writing a book of poems. Looking back, I’m amazed at my productivity before self-criticism got in the way. I’d wake up in the morning and write a poem in my notebook, then type it up on the old Dell after lunch. At the end of the summer I printed out all my poems, brought them to school to be bound and considered myself “published”.

I always dreaded running in gym class, so the summer I turned 13 my challenge was to build endurance. It started as two laps around the block that became three, four and five. I liked the way running toned my body and decided to pair exercise with a diet. At our Labor Day barbecue I refused to eat dessert, and my “small challenge” turned into an obsession that grew cancerously through fall and winter and spring.

That summer I realized it’s possible to take challenges too seriously, self-improvement too far.

Wonderful as they were – summer has always been my favorite season – they’d never again be vast as an ocean. Future summers were filled with reading lists, sports practices and college applications. Read 10 books! Learn to code! Write five short stories! Small challenges got bigger and I started feeling guilt for everything I hadn’t accomplished, rather than pride in what I had.

Now, as a young professional in New York City, summer months aren’t technically different from any other part of the year. I am working five days a week and time is limited. But I still associate the period from June to August with self-reflection and goal-setting. The thing is, because there’s so little time, every challenge feels like it should have some greater purpose. If your friend is going back to school for a Masters degree, you don’t want to be working towards the mid-20s equivalent of pogo sticking. In this city, there are no isolated goals, only goals that help you become a more successful version of yourself.

What happened to small challenges, of taking on random endeavors simply for one’s own enjoyment? Is it possible to do something entirely for you and not for your Instagram?

I’ll always be ambitious. But in a city that constantly shouts think big! dream big! I want to go back to dreaming small, just for one summer.


Image of Atlantic Ocean by jfleischmann

The Uber Positive Uber Driver

LIFE, NYC, QUOTES

It was about 5pm one of the first sunny Saturdays of spring. I stood outside Brooklyn Bridge Park waiting for an Uber over to a party in Williamsburg after a long, mimosa-filled picnic brunch.

“Miss Sara! Hello! How are you? It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Shamraiz, my driver, exclaimed as I slid into the back seat. “Days like this, everyone’s mood changes, everyone walks with their heads held high!”

In just a few minutes I learned Shamraiz has five kids, one named Sara like me but she spells it with an “h”.  He loves his wife more than anything – she’s the reason he left Pakistan for America. I learned he’d driven a yellow cab for 14 years and switched over to Uber last year. He likes the newfound flexibility.

“If you work hard, and stay positive, good things will come to you,” Shamraiz said as we snaked our way through Brooklyn. “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”

“Absolutely,” I agreed. “You should really write a book with all these sayings.”

“Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing,” he promptly spouted, proud of himself for recalling such a relevant quote. “That one’s Benjamin Franklin.”

I laughed. I realized in New York, I don’t blink an eye at extreme negativity. But extreme positivity is intriguing, makes me question whether the person has a motive or simply looks at the world in a different way. With Shamraiz, it was clearly the latter. But why in New York is positivity suspicious, while negativity’s the norm?

“Well, here you are,” Shamraiz said when we reached my destination. I thanked him and got out, but moments later he rolled down the window.

“Learn from the past, live for today, dream for tomorrow!” he shouted over the bar music, before speeding away.

Growing up with the Daily Treat

FAMILY, FOOD & DRINK, LIFE

I don’t remember the first time I stepped foot in the Daily Treat.

I was young enough, actually, that my parents probably carried me into the restaurant, young enough that I didn’t eat but slept quietly at their side. I’m guessing I was about two weeks old.

My parents have loved the Daily Treat since before I was born.

Back in 1987, over sandwiches and salads with the real estate broker, they discussed their future in this quaint commuter town right outside of Manhattan. I think the charm of the restaurant drew my mom to Ridgewood, a place where she knew no one and would be alone most nights while my dad worked long hours at a nearby hospital. She was 24.

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Photo: dailytreatrestaurant.com

Looking through the Daily Treat’s large windows facing Ridgewood Avenue, my mom watched young mothers with strollers walking by. Even though the rest of her family lived on Long Island, where she grew up, she began to picture a new life in New Jersey. In a way, my history with the restaurant began right then.

The Daily Treat has been around for more than 50 years and is a constant in a village that’s constantly changing. As newer, hipper restaurants and shops have moved to town, the Daily Treat has stayed put. For me, it’s a place of comfort. I always order the same thing: eggs and toast or chicken fingers with thick-cut fries. I know when I walk in I’ll see one of the Greek owners, Gus or John, standing behind the checkout desk, greeting customers at the door.

It’s funny how places, just like people, can be there for every milestone of your life.

The Daily Treat was where we’d go with both sets of grandparents after concerts, dance recitals and graduations. It’s where my brother and I complained about ordering off the kids menu and then insisted on ordering off the kids menu, as soon as we were too old.

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Photo: Foursquare

In the sixth grade, the Daily Treat was the first place my friend Jolene and I went “alone”. We dressed up in our best Abercrombie & Fitch outfits, packed our faux leather purses and smeared on lip gloss before walking the half mile to town. I remember the sense of independence we felt going to a restaurant without parents. To us, this was the first step to being grown up.

In high school, the Daily Treat was a respite from the stress of exams and too many extracurriculars. I’d go with large groups, either during an extended lunch or straight after school. I remember seeing groups of middle schoolers and thinking about how young they looked. Do these kids even know how to split a bill? How are they here alone? At some point it occurred to me that we used to be just like them, a giggling gang of sixth grade girls sharing a couple orders of fries. Looking back, I’m surprised the owners tolerated us.

I spent my college years in Indiana and a summer out in Toledo, Ohio, where I was a reporter for a local paper. My job took me across cornfields and through downtrodden Midwest towns where the sense of decay was palpable. I was lonely – most of my friends were interning in New York City that summer – but while on assignment I found comfort at diners that reminded me of Daily Treat, diners that reminded me of home.

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Photo: Dave D., Yelp.com

I still go back to the restaurant a few times a year – it’s where my childhood friend Laura and I catch up when we’re both in town. The place hasn’t changed much, though they now have al fresco dining and fancier-sounding menu items like Grilled Portobello Salad and Prosciutto Caprese Wrap. Over refill after refill of coffee we talk about our jobs, relationships and families. Sometimes we stay for three hours but no one ever rushes us, interrupting only to pour more coffee into the small white mugs.

It’s strange to think I’m already a year older than my mom was when she and Dad settled down in Ridgewood, yet I’m nowhere near as settled. Sometimes, when I’m at the Daily Treat I can almost see my parents sitting at the booth by the window, leaning into their drinks and one another other, exhilarated by the thought of starting their life together in this pretty village outside of New York City. Wondering how long it takes to thread yourself into the fabric of a community, how long it takes to call a place home.


Read more about the Daily Treat and its history here. 

Calling Yaya

CREATIVE WRITING, FAMILY, LIFE, PUBLISHED WORK

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.

Growing up with Chrismukkah

FAMILY, LIFE

We do both.

Yes, Christmas and Hanukkah. Trees and Menorahs. Candy canes and latkes. Come to my house in mid-December and we’ll have it all.

My mom is Catholic, my dad is Jewish and they raised my three siblings and I in both religions. Growing up, we sometimes resented the five hours each week of Hebrew School and Catholic education (CCD), but had no problem embracing our dual faith when the holidays rolled around.

Classmates over for playdates would notice the Star of David ornament hanging on our Christmas tree. What do you mean you celebrate both holidays? Does that mean you get double the gifts?

A few times I said “yes” to make them jealous. But the truth is, my parents realized double gifting was absurd after about a year. Christmas became our primary gift-giving holiday – an explosion of presents beneath the tree – while Hanukkah was about coming together as a family to honor the Jewish tradition.

Gifts aside, being a mixed faith family during the holidays meant celebrations start earlier and last longer. Occasionally, the two holidays overlapped and we’d light Hanukkah candles after Christmas dinner. Over time, unique Chrismukkah traditions emerged.

One Hanukkah when I was in high school we gathered in the kitchen to light the candles. Scrambling to find a yarmulke, the traditional head covering Jewish men wear during prayer, my dad grabbed the nearest Santa Claus hat that was sitting on the counter. We all looked at him skeptically.

“I mean, it covers my head, right?” he said, and started with the Hebrew prayers. My Dad has worn that Santa hat to light the menorah almost every year since.

Celebrating both holidays was trickier when I went away to Notre Dame, where 90% of the student body is Christian. From masses to parties to decorations in every corner of campus, Christmas at Notre Dame is wonderfully festive, so it would have been easy to embrace my Christian identity and toss away Hanukkah for a few years. But I didn’t want to give up on the Chrismukkah traditions I’d grown up with.

Freshman year, my good friend and I took a bus around South Bend, Indiana until we found the one party store that sold Hanukkah decorations. We picked up frozen hash browns from Walmart for latkes and coffee filters for makeshift yarmulkes. Finally, we persuaded an upperclassman to buy us four bottles of Manischewitz – a too-sweet kosher wine I will never drink again – and our Chrismukkah party was in business.

Manischewitz flowed freely in the dorm room adorned with “Happy Hanukkah and “Merry Christmas” banners. For a couple of students at Notre Dame, I was the first Jewish or partially Jewish person they had ever met. They were eager to learn about the Festival of Lights, the “other holiday” always mentioned around Christmas. I remember a classmate asking me in earnest, “Is it sacrilegious for me to play dreidel?”

The party was so successful we repeated it throughout college, and by senior year, everyone knew how to play dreidel.

Growing up with two faiths was at times confusing –  I questioned my religious identity and wondered if I would ever “decide”. But I’m thankful for how my parents raised us, particularly around the holidays. Watching how they embraced the other’s traditions: my mom lighting the Hanukkah candles, my dad writing Santa’s note in the wee hours of Christmas – taught me about respect and acceptance in a fundamental way.

To me, there is nothing conflicting about celebrating both Christmas and Hanukkah. The holidays even share similarities – both revolve around a miracle of light, whether from the guiding Star of Bethlehem or the oil in the Jerusalem Temple that burned for eight nights.

And of course, both are about spending time with loved ones.

Instead of relying on generic holiday greetings that are careful not to “offend,” I believe everyone should make an effort to learn about and celebrate their neighbors’ customs. Because as my parents taught me, joining in others’ traditions doesn’t mean abandoning your own.

“The more the merrier” – isn’t that what the holidays are about?

The proposal by the bay

EXPLORING, LIFE

It was late afternoon in Sausalito and the sun was at its strongest, streaking the bay with light.

After a daylong bike ride through San Francisco, across the Golden Gate Bridge and down a winding road to this coastal town, I was ready to rest. I rode along the water until I spotted a wide green field dotted with couples and families – the perfect place to collapse.

I set my bike down on an empty patch of grass near a couple who looked to be in their mid-20s. She was Irish, he was British. From the high-pitched, exaggerated way she laughed I guessed they were in the honeymoon phase of a new relationship.

Using my backpack as a pillow, I closed my eyes and drifted into that kind of half-sleep only caused by physical exhaustion. Their voices turned distant, blending in with the sounds of boats and children playing. But then something shook me awake.

“Oh, it’s perfect, absolutely perfect!” the girl exclaimed, jumping onto the guy’s lap. “Look at it!”

Did they just get engaged? Within minutes of me lying down next to them, sweaty, nearly passed out? I couldn’t believe it. Clearly I was wrong in thinking they were a new couple. 

I caught a flash of light on her hand. This was like a movie – something better than a movie – unfolding before me, and I couldn’t look away.

“You know when you’d point to those rings in the windows? I know every single thing about those rings. How much they cost, what they’re named, everything.” He spoke quickly, emotions cascading through his chest and changing the pitch of his voice.

“You do? Oh, bless you,” said the girl, kissing him.

“I’ve got all the certificates for it and I’ve got it insured. I wanted to wait for a sunny day because when you move it around it’s just insane. Look at it!” He took her hand. “It’s like fire. Brilliance.”

It was obvious he was the practical, stoic one in the relationship, while she was the bubbly free spirit who laughed just as much as she spoke.

“It is,” she said, cocking her head to one side and examining how the stone glinted in the sun. “Brilliance, you’re right! It’s absolutely per-fect.”

There were no photographers hiding in bushes or trails of rose petals leading to a pretty view. She didn’t shriek. I don’t think he even got down on one knee. The proposal was natural and beautiful and I felt honored to be the only one to have witnessed it.

I wondered if they knew I was eavesdropping, but I was so close, how could they not? A few minutes later they moved to a bench just a few feet in front of me – now I could hear every word of their conversation.

“So, want to hear about how I got the ring fitted?”

“Of course I do!” she said, leaning her head on his shoulder.

”Well, remember a few years back when we found your grandmother’s ring in the attic? I had your friend Heather go fetch that ring. I asked her to try and get you to wear it, figuring the sizes would be similar.  But of course I knew you wouldn’t put it on your left hand, only your right.” He turned and a smirk erupted onto his face. “So it was kind of a risk.”

“You poor thing,” she said, cupping his cheek. “Bless you.”

The sun started to weaken and the scent of baking bread drifted over from the bayside Italian restaurants. The park was clearing out. I knew I should get the next ferry back to San Francisco but wanted to say something to the couple, congratulate them.

When I saw them taking a selfie I walked over.

“Excuse me,” I said, “Did you two just get engaged? Can I take a proper photo of you in front of the bay?”

“Yes!” exclaimed the girl. “Look at it!” She held out her left hand. She seemed eager to share the good news, as if telling someone would solidify it as real.

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Congratulations!” 

“This one, she’s the most difficult girl in the world to propose to,” the guy said to me, as if we were old friends. ”I’ve been trying to do it for weeks but she keeps changing the plans! First, I tried in Seattle but that fell through. And then yesterday in San Francisco, when we were about to go to a nice dinner, she said, ‘let’s get chowder and see the sea lions!’”

I shook my head and smiled.

“Oh, you poor thing,” the girl said, cupping his cheek. Then she gave me her phone and I took a series of photos of them in front of the bay.

“How do they look?” I asked.

“They’re perfect,” the girl said, smiling as she flipped through the shots. 

I congratulated them again and walked towards the ferry pier to get my ticket. The wait would be over an hour, I was told, since so many bikers had come to Sausalito that day. By the time I got on a ferry the sun was setting gloriously over the water, and I found a seat on the upper deck. I took out my notebook to write down what I’d just seen.

Then, from a distance, I spotted the couple. They weren’t speaking now, just leaning into the ferry railing and one another. They stared out at the water as it turned darker and darker, the day’s brilliance clasped safely in their hands.

15 Things I Learned My First Year In New York

LIFE, NYC

January 31 marks my one-year anniversary of moving to New York. This time last year I wrote about the thrill of signing my first New York City lease, of smiling as I walked up 9th Avenue knowing I’d soon have my own pocket of space in the big city. I was about to leave behind the daily monotony of commuting, the packed buses and frantic dash through Times Square. Signing that lease was a pure, fleeting moment of truly making it.

Growing up 20 miles from Midtown Manhattan I’ve always identified with the city but knew you’re not a true New Yorker until you’ve lived here. At college in the Midwest I envied friends’ ability to say, “I’m from Chicago” despite living hours from the actual downtown. The same just doesn’t apply to the New York metro area – my proximity to the city and love for its fast-paced nature didn’t translate to being a New Yorker, as much as I wished it did.

The truth is, when you’re here – day to night to day – you start to notice things about the pulse of the city and the people who live here that didn’t present themselves before.

Here are 15 things I’ve learned after one year in New York:

1. The city never sleeps but it sometimes rests

NYC

When I was commuting, the New York I knew was the rush of Midtown between Port Authority and Rockefeller Center, and the Lower East Side swarming with people late at night. I never experienced those rare New York quiet moments when the city settles down and seems to belong to you alone. The last time it happened was Thanksgiving morning as I left to head home to New Jersey. Stepping out of my apartment around 8 a.m., 9th Avenue was quiet save for the hum of empty cabs, and I didn’t see another soul for 10 blocks in either direction. I don’t pine for these moments but love when they appear.

2. Strangers will brighten your day

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Last year I wrote about Geoff, the newspaper hawker who told me to “have a great day, young lady!” every day for a year when I passed him on 42nd street. Geoff’s smile was contagious and it brightened my day each morning. While they’re not all as visible or vocal as Geoff, I’ve found other strangers are willing to help out when the subway turnstile blinks “insufficient fare” or you stumble on an unsalted sidewalk. The “cold, hardened New Yorker” stereotype is true, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t good at heart.

3. But…sometimes they’ll totally irritate you

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The woman who doesn’t thank you for holding the door open as she saunters out of the store. The biker who disregards rules of the road. The people who walk in a horizontal line on the sidewalk. The occasional “manslamming” (yes, it happens). You try not to take it personally – they’re strangers, after all.

4. Family history comes to life

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My family history on both sides is rooted in New York City. My mother’s father (Papa) grew up in an Irish tenement in Brooklyn, my father’s father in a Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side. This past summer I visited Katz’s Deli with my grandfather, right around the corner from the luncheonette his family owned. He described the Lower East Side he knew, filled with shoppers and street peddlers, not people heading to bars or brunch. And for years I’ve traveled in with Papa, spending days in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, but find it’s different now that I call the city home. It’s an amazing experience exploring the city with my grandparents, seeing the streets transform through their memories and realizing how much has changed.

5. You’ll spend more time online looking for restaurants than you spend actually in them

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Birthday? Where’s a restaurant that’s centrally located, accommodates groups, has a cool atmosphere and isn’t too pricey? First date? How about a not-too-casual, not-too-upscale spot with good food if you get hungry but also lets you just have wine? Family coming in? Where’s a Theater District eatery with an array of vegetarian options that takes reservations so you can get to the show at exactly 7:30?

I’ve spent hours on Yelp and NYMag.com looking for restaurants that fit very specific criteria. Because New York has so many great options, there’s more pressure to find a place ideally suited to a particular night – and not return to somewhere you’ve already tried.

6. Most things are really expensive but certain things are forever fixed in price

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When I go home to New Jersey – or really anywhere – I’m amazed at how much cheaper food items are. Pricey food is pretty much a given in New York. But certain things here, like 99-cent pizza, shock my friends from other cities. They wonder how the same city that charges $15 or more for cocktails serves pizza for less than a dollar. It’s a New York thing, I guess.

7. The subway is your best friend and your worst enemy

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I’m simultaneously fascinated, terrified, grossed out by, and extremely thankful for the New York subway system. For a fixed price you can go almost anywhere in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. I love that on a Saturday or Sunday with nothing to do, I can take off on a train and explore a new neighborhood. That being said, the subway can be an unreliable friend who cancels at the last moment, leaving you stranded with no plans. I’ve learned to tack on an extra 15-30 minutes to trips to account for subway delays.

8. You won’t get through the summer without an AC
Tried that. Won’t ever try it again.

9. Stories are everywhere

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No wonder so many writers are based in New York – not only is it a cultural center, it’s a breeding ground for stories. The city is full of interesting, diverse people and lively conversation is happening around you at all times. I keep a running document of quirky phrases and bits of conversation I overhear on the streets – it’s all fodder for fiction.

10. Port Authority will always be the worst

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If there’s one place in New York I’d be happy never to set foot in again, it’s that dreadful bus terminal. In fact, all of 8th Avenue between 34th and 50th Street for me is tainted by memories of pushing through Midtown crowds to make the 6pm bus. And the building itself, the busiest bus terminal in the world, badly needs a renovation. I don’t have nostalgia for my commuting days and never will.

11. Good luck finding that perfect coffee shop

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Finding the perfect coffee shop in New York is like finding the perfect apartment. You’ll never get everything you’re looking for (space, location, price) but you might get two of the three. I’ve found coffee shops with working wifi and good coffee but no space, and shops with good coffee and space but no wifi. For now I’ve decided to sacrifice coffee quality for wifi and space, but I’m not giving up. One day I WILL find the perfect coffee shop – and it won’t mean going to Brooklyn.

12. You’ll be more aware of what you’re wearing

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You can wear almost anything you want in New York City without attracting much attention. But if you’re not looking to stand out, and just looking to look good, there’s pressure to have a personal style here. There’s pressure to be unique, put together, or purposely not put together. The above billboard says it all.

13. Friends will become family

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Most New Yorkers are fiercely independent, but in a large and daunting city, we all need to strip that façade from time to time. Whether it’s help moving furniture, someone to check in on you when you’re sick, or someone to share Sunday night dinner with, friends play the role of family and I’m incredibly grateful for them.

14. The city is constantly changing and you’ll be nostalgic for “how things used to be”

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When I first moved to New York I told friends and family “don’t worry about the address, we’re the apartment above the Coldstone.” Six months in, the apartment-identifying Coldstone closed. Other restaurants in Hell’s Kitchen have closed down, replaced by new hotspots just slightly more upscale than their predecessors. My gym, which held a 25-year tenure in Midtown, closed only a week after notifying customers through a paper sign taped to the entrance.

When these places shut down it feels personal, like a breakup. Yeah, I know rents went up, but can’t you make it work? For me?

15. You’ll start building your own version of the city

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You’ll deal with small apartments, soaring prices and smelly summers because “there is no place in the world like New York.” And it’s true. There is no place like this city. But within New York itself are millions of smaller New Yorks, and you’ll start building your own to add to the mix. The invigorating potential to make what you want of yourself and your surroundings is what draws people here. As Colson Whitehead wrote, “the New York City you live in is not my New York City, how could it be?”

Pigeon At My Window

LIFE, MISCELLANEOUS, NYC

I captured this photo late last summer in Hell’s Kitchen. The pigeons looked so peaceful silhouetted in the afternoon light, high above the Theater District rush.

I was noticing pigeons everywhere that summer. One in particular, the largest I’d ever seen, had made its home on the ledge outside my kitchen window. I’d turn on the stove for coffee Saturday mornings and it would greet me by fluttering its wings – revealing a streak of silver that each time I’d mistake for a flash of light. Each time I was surprised a bird could emit such radiance.

It occurred to me a few weeks ago I haven’t seen that pigeon in months. Where did he go? He hasn’t traveled south. Unlike other birds, pigeons don’t migrate – once they find a nesting place they will stay year round. Pigeons will always return to the location imprinted on their brains upon birth.

Maybe he’s been there all along but his feathers are dulled by the city dust. Or maybe he flutters his wings but there’s no light in the sky for his silver streaks to reflect, nothing to make me turn.

The Rookie At Bat

LIFE, MISCELLANEOUS

I remember first hearing the term “rookie” when I was five years old at a Yankees game with my dad.

Derek Jeter was at bat and the late Bob Sheppard’s voice boomed over the loudspeaker. For the most part I didn’t pay much attention to what Sheppard was saying, but when I heard him say “rookie” I perked up.

“Dad, what does ‘rookie’ mean?”

“It means it’s his first year playing baseball here. He’s the new guy on the team.”

A future Hall of Famer with just days left in his career, the Yankees captain is a long way from being the new guy on the team. But to this day whenever I hear the word “rookie” I think of the 21-year-old Derek Jeter. Even though 19 years and five World Series championships later, he’s become a legend. Even though Jeter’s entire career passed during the time I grew up, went to college and got my first job, he’s still immortalized as that guy at bat the summer of ’95.

It’s a good reminder that even the best of the best were rookies, once.

Watch Jeter’s touching tribute to fans in this Gatorade ad.