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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
All summer I’d watch the cool blue light from our neighbor’s mosquito catcher, hanging ten feet from my bedroom window. It glowed mystically, the stillness of night punctuated only by the occasional zap and a small voice beside me.
“Tell me about the world,” she would say.
Genevieve asked this question almost every night. She was six and I was twelve. We shared a room and a bed for a year while our house was renovated – at first I protested the arrangement but soon enjoyed the company.
“What do you want to know?” I turned to face her but she was nothing more than a vague outline of gray against black. I could sense her pupils dilating, absorbing the wisps of light drifting in from between the blinds.
“Oh, I don’t know, how about black holes and supernovas and stuff. Black holes especially.”
My mother started up the stairs and we ceased talking until the clunk of her shoes had faded down the hall. If she caught us we’d be scolded for staying up too late, but that was part of the thrill.
“Well, black holes aren’t exactly in the world, Genevieve. They’re not in the earth. And shhh. Be quieter.”
“What do you mean?’” Genevieve asked. “We can’t go to black holes, even if we wanted to?”
Thinking about black holes stretched my mind to its limit so I did not answer. Instead we fell silent and I could sense her struggling to come to terms with this information.
Isn’t the world everything? What can be bigger than the world? If black holes aren’t in the world, then where are they?
This is how most of our nights went. Silence followed by questions followed by more silence, both of our imaginations spinning as quickly as the fan above our heads.
“Why are animals different colors?” Genevieve asked me after awhile, her eyes bright in the dark.
“Because they’re from different places, “I said. “Doves are white because they come from the moon, and and there it’s all snowy and cold. Crows are black because they come from the sun and their feathers got burned by the fire. And peacocks used to fly by the stars, which makes their blue-green wings shine.”
“Oh,” said Genevieve. “I never knew that.”
Outside our room the mosquitoes buzzed and zapped, buzzed and zapped. It never occurred to me that they were dying and Genevieve never asked. To us, this was just the sound of summer the way rain is the sound of spring.
Sharing a bed with Genevieve, I discovered my passion for storytelling. I had the chance to create a world for my younger sister, as if the six years I had over her somehow made me the authority on things time can’t even measure. Some nights we talked for what felt like forever. But exhaustion always caught up to us and the silences got longer, the air soon filled with ideas, like disturbed dust, settling slowly into our dreams.
Thirteen years have passed since we lay side-by-side, whispering in that four-poster bed. In less than a month, the little girl will go off to college. She’ll study biology and chemistry and physics, learning the true, scientific reasons for why things work the way they do.
But her curiosity for the world will never wane, and she’ll find answers only create more questions. These questions will grow and multiply, buzzing during wake and sleep, swarming invisibly like mosquitoes on a summer night.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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?”
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.
Benny’s Burritos is closing tomorrow at the age of 26.
My heart sank when I heard this news. For someone who’d only had a margarita here once, late at night with a few friends, my sadness may seem exaggerated. But only recently I’d passed the Avenue A and East 6th Street corner where Benny’s stands, thinking, “That was a great place – I should go back sometime.” The problem is, Benny’s isn’t so much a place you go to but a place you stumble upon. And I never stumbled there again.
I’d only been to Benny’s once but knew it had history. The East Village gem opened its doors to the late ‘80s downtown scene where artist-types roamed the streets looking for a post-club bite. With its bright-colored walls and 1960s artifacts, Benny’s was always a bit kitschy, but that was part of its appeal. As New York Magazine wrote in 1990, “Benny’s Burritos is a rare find: a scene with no attitude.”
These days Chipotles pop up all over Manhattan, but just 25 years ago the burrito wasn’t a fast food go-to. In fact, its rise has been fairly recent. Burritos existed at chili parlors, the burrito joint’s predecessor, but were slender, manageable tubes of rice and meat rather than the monstrous creations we know today. Benny’s was a big-burrito pioneer back when “Mexicali food was as rare as an East Village stockbroker,” according to New York Magazine.
Owner Mark Merker told EV Grieve “the world has changed” since he first opened Benny’s in 1988. Business has been good, but costs keep rising and competition from franchises like Chipotle doesn’t help.
OK, it’s not quite true that Benny’s is closing – it’s downsizing. Benny’s is shuttering its restaurant space and keeping just the takeout counter. (Its sister restaurant, Harry’s Burritos on the Upper West Side, will also close.) But for me this may as well mean the end of Benny’s – it was all about atmosphere. With a proliferation of other food options in the East Village, from fancy fries to authentic tacos, I don’t envision stopping at the takeout counter for a just-OK burrito.
The Twitterverse agrees, one customer lamenting, “it was never about the burritos (average) but the great sidewalk scene.” Reading other reactions on Twitter, it’s clear the burrito joint played a role in many New Yorkers’ formative years:
Benny’s will always be the taste of being 19, broke and spending my last $20 on a margarita and burrito
Mass foreclosure on my early NYC memories continues. Ate many a meal at Benny’s in late ’80s/’90s
Heard last night that Benny’s Burritos on Ave A is closing. End of an era in NYC
This one hurts.
I can’t claim the same disappointment as customers who frequented Benny’s during “Rent” years. But I’m sad for what it represents – continued rent hikes forcing a generation of beloved restaurants to downsize or shut down completely. Casual gathering spots like Benny’s, where the people and not the food take center stage, make New York what it is.
Benny’s had character and building character takes time.
The reality is that the city changes and we want it all – the new and the old. It’s sort of a paradox, isn’t it? New Yorkers are totally obsessed with newness – clothes, food, music – but gripe when change occurs to our New York. We feel protective over our visions of the city and the places within them that feel like home. For many people that cheap Mexican spot on Avenue A was one of those places, so despite more than 20,000 other New York restaurants and countless other burrito joints, it’s impossible not to feel loss.
Bye-bye, Benny’s. Your margaritas were strong and your guac not particularly memorable. But you’ll live on in my idea of New York, the one I’ll hold dear when I’m older and reminiscing about the city “back then.” I’ll remember the tequila bliss and late night chatter, the contagious laughter of a few good friends sitting on worn vinyl bar stools. I’ll remember it was you, Benny’s, even though it could have been anywhere.
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.