Poem: When You Came Here

Poem: When You Came Here

New York is strange that way

shedding shops and

birthing new buildings,

all while you’re

waiting to cross a street or

watching a parade roll by.

 

In the years since you’ve been here

violent waves of gentrification

have washed over the land

you once knew.

It seems to some like

a shot to the concrete heart

but is a death much slower

change strangling livelihoods

so you’re left to mourn

your favorite places

McLoughlin’s and Boyle’s Bar,

Benny’s Burritos,

the deli around the corner

with the nice man from Pakistan,

as the paint dries

and the sun winks

knowingly

at the streets.

 

New Yorkers are strange that way

missing the ways things were

forgetting the ways

they’ve changed shape

to find a place

in this endless puzzle

of nine million people.

 

But under the layers of soot and grime

in the rare moments of quiet

between sirens and shouts

in the early hours of morning

when the buses sleep in Jersey

and the Hudson flows in silence

you can find exactly who you were

when you came here.

 

Dedicated to Papa, my favorite New Yorker

Home in the heartland

Home in the heartland

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.

Poem: After Stella

Seen along the East River pathway near Carl Schurz Park, after Winter Storm Stella.

walking the winding

east river path 

just after snowfall

a few people

scattered here and there

weak, distant lights

straining to be seen

 

right where the path turns

i see a ballerina

dancing alone,

seizing solitude,

her arms fighting

the pull of the wind

 

though she has no audience

empty benches 

line up to watch her

and the river reflects 

her every move

 

as i approach her stage

she catches my eye 

stopping, for a moment 

than completing her pirouette 

 

twirl, bend, twirl, bend, twirl

moving gracefully into the night 

 

no music

just the silence of the city

and the crunch of the snow

beneath her feet 

The Uber Positive Uber Driver

The Uber Positive Uber Driver

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.

15 Things I Learned My First Year In New York

15 Things I Learned My First Year In New York

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

STRANGERS

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

subway

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

PORTAUTHORITY

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

Pigeon At My Window

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.