Letter to my freshman self

Letter to my freshman self

This piece was originally published in the anthology, A Letter to my Freshman Self: Domers Reflect on their Undergraduate Experience. 

Dear Sara,

When you arrive at Notre Dame that hot afternoon in August you’re not going to feel at home right away.

This becomes especially apparent during your first-year seminar when your professor asks the class to write reflections on the meaning of “home”.

One by one, your classmates will talk about Notre Dame as a second home, a place that felt “right” the very first moment they stepped on campus. You do not read your reflection out loud. You are embarrassed, ashamed. Why does Notre Dame still feel unfamiliar to you, but is already home to others?

The first thing I’ll tell you is there is nothing to be ashamed of. The second thing I’ll tell you is you’re not alone.

Sara, there will be weekend nights when you’ll lie in your dorm room, listening to the sophomore girls next door giggle and blast music before going out. You’ll scroll through Facebook photos of high school friends partying at other schools, worrying you’ll be replaced by Thanksgiving. This notion is ridiculous. College won’t change what you’ve built over many years.

But you’ll make new friends for life, too, and these friendships will start budding early on. You don’t realize that some of the people you wandered campus aimlessly with those first few weeks will become friends you cry with at graduation.

So give it three months and everything will be okay. I can tell you all major life changes will take about this amount of time to adjust to. The only way to overcome homesickness is to endure it – but I know that’s not what you want to hear.

Sara, you were a perfectionist even before coming to Notre Dame, but college will exponentially pronounce that aspect of your personality. While it will help you succeed academically, I want you to be aware of its pitfalls.

Papers can only be perfected to a point. As an English major you’ll write so many of them but there’s no use getting frantic every time one’s due, skipping lunch with friends to rework a single sentence. Try to finish papers earlier so your days feel less crazed. I know that’s easier said than done.

Of course, perfectionism also extends to body image, especially at a school like Notre Dame of people where 75% of students were varsity athletes. You are so terrified of gaining the freshman fifteen that you become hyper-conscious of everything you eat. It doesn’t help that many other girls hold the same fear, silently comparing plates at the dining hall and working out five times a week. You are healthy, active and young. Care less.

And try new things. That’s what college is for.

Sara, I’m proud of you for walking into The Observer office in the basement of South Dining Hall the third week of your freshman year. It won’t be easy stepping into an office full of strangers, but this small act will have the greatest impact on your college career. The Observer will help you dive into the larger Notre Dame and South Bend communities, and you’ll go on to become one of the leading editors as a senior.

Breaking out of your comfort zone is the best way to meet new people. Freshman year, do this as much as possible. Go to the dorm party even when your only acquaintance is the girl from Welsh Fam who sits next to you in Genetics class. Join a sports team even though you’re not very good at the sport. There are so many opportunities to get involved at Notre Dame and you never know the experiences you might have.

I promise, the loneliness you feel at first will fade fast. Milestones will fly by – you’ll cheer at your first football game as a student, watch snow fall gently on the Main Building, dress up for your first SYR. You’re not sure exactly when it arrives, but the “feeling” you’ve envied in so many others makes its way to you, and you’ll know you’re home.

I know the beginning is rough, but there are so many exciting things ahead of you. From studying abroad in London to living with friends off-campus senior year, some of the best four years of your life are yet to come.

So relax and enjoy them.

Love,

Sara

Finding hope

Finding hope

A Syrian refugee giving back. A child dancing after a devastating earthquake. A love-struck couple marrying after their village in Nigeria was attacked. Check out my new photo essay for UNICEF that proves hope and resilience prevail, even in the most trying of times.

Calling Yaya

Calling Yaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons learned from my college newspaper

Lessons learned from my college newspaper

Late nights. Early mornings. Not enough coffee in the world to keep you awake during that morning calculus class. It’s a story most college newspaper editors know well but would never change. We’re willing to put in the hours not only because of the close-knit community, one of the biggest draws, but because the skills you learn working for a college newspaper are invaluable across professional industries. Here are five reasons why.

You meet a wide range of people.

College is a bubble, but working on the paper exposes you to a wide range of people and viewpoints. During my four years on The Observer at Notre Dame, I interviewed a British literary scholar, the Chief Marketing Officer of Subway, the University president and the only Orthodox Jewish student on campus. Reaching beyond the bubble has huge value later on in the working world.

You get used to criticism.

Most professors at Notre Dame weren’t outwardly critical of my writing, focusing on what I could do better instead of what I did wrong. While I appreciated this approach in my classes, criticism is an unavoidable aspect of the professional world and life in general. My freshman year, I remember the first article I received back from my editor was completely covered in red ink, entire sections crossed out. I probably went home and cried that night, but soon learned not take things so personally (and that criticism helps you improve).

You master the art of succinct writing.

I used to think the phrase “writing is an art” meant I could use an unlimited number of words to make things sound beautiful. Now I believe that regardless of the writing form, every single word needs to have a purpose. Working on the paper taught me to boil down stories to their very core, write conversationally and include only the most powerful quotes. All of this prepared me well for a career in digital media.

You get comfortable leading conversations.

Most people love talking about themselves. Once you learn that, asking questions and leading conversations isn’t all that hard. When I started out as a reporter, I was scared to even place a call to a stranger. I read and reread my emails 10 times before requesting an interview. But with experience, I gained the confidence to assert myself during interviews, pursue contacts and ask the tougher questions.

You learn to work well under pressure.

Some of my most stressful days in college, I was under deadline for an article on the same day I had a major test. I spent free moments calling sources and writing while simultaneously trying to memorize history or statistics formulas. The Observer demanded everything of you, and you had to figure out how not to let your grades slip. It took years, but I learned to stay calm and trust that everything would get done (and that the world wouldn’t end if it didn’t).

I loved being an English major at Notre Dame. But truthfully, none of my classes stand out to me years later the way my days and nights spent in The Observer office do. While I nurtured my love for literature through my major, the newspaper that gave me the hands-on, practical education I needed to jump into the real world after graduation.

In the end, I’m thankful for the sleepless nights and overconsumption of chocolate. The Observer was the best (free) course I took at Notre Dame.

*This column was originally published in The Observer 

The 42nd Street Hawker

The 42nd Street Hawker

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

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

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

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

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

pics2

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

“Haaaave a great Monday! Enjoy that job!”

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

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

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

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

“Happy hump day! Knock out your work!”

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

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

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

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

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

He handed me the paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never turned.

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

Lula’s Café: The Community Living Room

Lula’s Café: The Community Living Room
Photo Source: 365 South Bend Blog

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

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

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

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

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

16 years of Lula’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egan had just 50 days to vacate Lula’s.

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

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

“The community living room”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lula’s last call

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

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

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

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

Metropolitan Diary: A Silhouette in the Rain

Metropolitan Diary: A Silhouette in the Rain

Exciting news- a story and photo of mine, about a fleeting moment I experienced in New York City one night, were published today on the NYTimes.com Metropolitan Diary page! (Check out the article here or click the image above.)

The Metropolitan Diary has existed for over 30 years as a place for New Yorkers to share odd or inspiring moments. Recently, the collective diary has taken to the online sphere, and one entry is published each weekday on The Times’ website. For those still in favor of the printed word, some entries appear in the newspaper on Mondays.

In the old days, according to the site, the Diary mailbag weighed 20 pounds, and published contributors were rewarded with a champagne delivery.

While storytellers no longer receive champagne, “today’s reward is a bylined entry into New York’s story canon, an ingredient of ‘this elegant cocktail of the city.'”

I’ll take that.