Seen in Astoria…

A couple sits
In the corner of a dive bar
She’s smiling
Absentmindedly pushing around
Scrabble pieces
Rearranging the letters
Admiring her work.

He hardly notices what she’s doing
Because his eyes never leave hers
And in her presence
Everything else is a blur

Suddenly he checks his watch
They jump off their stools
And run out of the bar

Left behind are words unseen:

YOU
CHANGED
EVERYTHING

What happened to dreaming small?

What happened to dreaming small?

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

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.

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.

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

quietmoment

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

IMG_4947

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

IMG_0797

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

IMG_2200

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

IMG_4205

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

IMG_0796

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

IMG_3721

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

IMG_2696

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”

IMG_3725

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

IMG_0932

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?”

An Unlikely Moment At Trader Joe’s

An Unlikely Moment At Trader Joe’s

Anyone who’s shopped at a New York City Trader Joe’s knows the checkout line can be a nightmare.

Such was the case last Sunday around 2 p.m. I had gathered up my usual TJ items and took my place among the long line of groaning New Yorkers waiting to get on with their days.

A cheery sign assured us: “Thinking twice about waiting in this line? Well with 29 registers…You’ll be in front of them in no time!” But “no time” seems like hours when a sunny Sunday waits just beyond the doors.

Then I saw a little old lady move up through the line. She was led by a Trader Joe’s associate who looked like a college student—there had to be 70 years between them but they talked like good friends.

“April 21st, 1922 I was born,” the lady said proudly as she walked past me, her voice much stronger than her body.

This statement caught the attention of some other people on the line. What’s happening? Where is she going? Curiosity got the better of us and we craned our heads to see what was going on. We watched as the associate led the lady around the snaking line and brought her right up to the first open cash register.

Then something happened that I rarely see on checkout lines: people smiled. Not just to their friends and spouses but to strangers, too. We admired the good deed and the lady’s vitality, sharing a moment before returning to the pressing needs of our iPhones.

I wondered why the old lady shops here as opposed to the less crowded stores of the Upper West Side. She appeared to only be buying for one, after all. But then I imagined her, in her younger days, rushing around a market or going from butcher shop to dairy shop in a crowded neighborhood of Brooklyn. I could see her haggling, yelling her order, pushing through crowds.

Maybe, to her, the chaos is home.

Ninety-two and still kickin’. I wanted to know this woman’s story, to find out her name, but alas she was on her way up the escalators with a bag in each hand as I stood there surrounded by produce, stuck in time.