High Anxiety

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I have always prided myself as someone in touch with their feelings.  I can usually pinpoint the source of my emotions. Frustration with a relationship, disappointment in an outcome, anxiety about a challenge, excitement about an upcoming new experience – I can usually identify what is going on. Lately that ability seems muddled – I’ve had more free-floating anxiety than usual.

I was driving south on the Thruway the other day, heading to New York City for something like the 5thtime in a month (I’m usually excited by the prospect of time in the city). This time I just felt nervous, my brain flitting from one thing to another, I was having a hard time concentrating.  Thankfully I was able to focus on the road – it would truly have been a really bad sign if I got lost. I can make the trip on autopilot at this point. I tried to think through what has been going on, why this unease? Why have I been feeling more overwhelmed than circumstances seem to warrant? Since I was alone in the car, I took the opportunity to try and sort it out.

I am well aware that I am very fortunate, my life is an embarrassment of riches. I try to keep gratitude in the forefront, but, oddly, I find that the more I have, the more I fear losing it. I’m not referring to things (though I do have a confusing relationship with things, I like them more than I should), but to people. Readers of this blog know that our daughter-in-law is expecting a baby any day now. I think humming along in the background of my brain has been an awareness of the risks involved for everyone. I am also well aware of the fact that I have no control over how things will go. If only I could wrap up my loved ones in a cocoon to protect them! Obviously, not an option. So, maybe one contributor to my heightened level of anxiety is anticipation of this big event.

It’s funny in some ways because we spend so much time wishing for things (both tangible things and situations/events) and then when they happen, you realize it isn’t quite what you thought. There are strings attached.

You hope that your child finds a partner in life. But when they do, it changes your relationship (in all sorts of ways, many positive, some unanticipated). You look forward to being a grandparent, but that brings new worries. You look forward to a trip, but then you deal with the aggravation of delayed flights or turbulent weather. You want the luxury of a swimming pool in your backyard, but then you have to deal with the maintenance (a seemingly never-ending source of aggravation in our case). These may seem like wildly different ‘things,’ but there is a theme. There is a cost that comes with the things we want. Perhaps that is obvious, but it makes me stop and think. There is virtue in simplicity. Maybe I should consider Buddhism! The way I understand one of its central tenets is that you shouldn’t become attached to things or ideas – you need to let go of expectations. I don’t know if I can do that.

Or maybe I need to figure out how to not let these things get to me; figure out a way to acknowledge the worry, but then set it aside, especially when there isn’t something to be done.

But, it is so easy to lose perspective. Over the last couple of months, we have been enmeshed in the process of buying a condo in NYC. That’s the reason for so many trips to the city. Filling out the paperwork for a mortgage and shepherding it through the process felt like a full-time job. How blessed am I that making this purchase is even an option? But it is also a source of anxiety. It is a huge investment, the numbers are scary. But then I would remind myself that if it fell through, there was no real loss. And, if we successfully closed on it, and it turned out to be too big a financial commitment, we could sell it. So why did it feel so stressful?

In part, I blame Trump. You may ask, what is the connection? As I was driving down the Thruway, mulling things over, I realized that another large piece of my anxiety came from worries about our country’s future. I happened to be reading a novel, Ready Player One, set in a dystopic future that was all too imaginable to me. I have no faith in Trump, he has appalling judgment and is intent on sowing seeds of hate and fear, and Congress isn’t willing to take him on. The threats of climate change, of civil unrest rooted in the growing divide in this country, of America losing its footing, are all too real. Not to mention the tragedy of gun violence. Making such a huge investment in a time like this feels like a leap of faith, but my faith is shaken.

This unsettled feeling about our future was reinforced by an experience I had on that trip. On the day I was driving, a video went viral of a white guy going on a rant in a New York deli because the employees were speaking Spanish. It is the type of thing that seems to be happening a lot more in this age of Trump and ubiquitous cellphones. One of the reasons I was making the trip was to be at the new apartment for the guy to install cable and wifi. The guy arrived, at the appointed time, and, as is often the case, it took quite a bit longer than expected for him to successfully get things running. He was there for a couple of hours. At one point, while we were waiting for technical support people (he was on hold with his office) to try and fix things on their end, his personal phone rang and he asked me if I minded if he answered it. “If I do, I will be speaking Spanish,” he explained. “Of course you can answer your phone,” I responded. He shrugged sheepishly, as he answered. I moved toward the kitchen to give him space.

As I reflect on this interaction, I realize that I would feel differently if he had been in the middle of explaining something to me, then it would be rude to take a personal call, regardless of the language he spoke. But at that point we were just waiting awkwardly. I had no problem with him taking his call. I thought it was a sad commentary that he felt the need to explain that he would be speaking Spanish. It was a personal call, it wasn’t my business to understand his end of the conversation anyway. When he got off the phone I said we had come to a sad place if he needed to ask if it was okay to speak Spanish. He gave a small smile and another shrug.

During my 2 ½ hour drive and as I continue to think about my state of mind, I have come to a better understanding of what’s been going on. Not surprisingly, most of the issues are out of my control. I decided I need to focus on what I can do to manage it.

These are the strategies I came up with:

  1. Avoid reading dystopic novels (at least for a while).
  2. Reduce the number of times I allow myself to look at Twitter and Facebook to two times per day. Look at blocking some of the more vitriolic sources from my Facebook feed.
  3. Find an organization or campaign that I can volunteer for that is in concert with my values. (Or, alternatively, assuming Dan and Beth will allow/need, help with the baby!)
  4. Devote more time to productive activities, whether it is clearing clutter in my home, doing research for my memoir or talking to friends, spend more time doing constructive things so I don’t dwell in worry.

I hope that isn’t too ambitious. It doesn’t seem like it should be.  If you have suggestions, please share. I’ll report back.

5 Boroughs in 5 Hours

When Leah called me back in January and asked if I wanted to do the 5 Boro Bike Tour, my answer was a definitive and excited yes. For those of you not familiar with it, this is a 40 mile bike ride through all five boroughs of New York City. I thought it was a great idea. I love biking – it is an awesome way to sightsee and get exercise. I would plan it and get to experience it with my daughter, we would build memories together. It was a full four months off so I could train for it and get in shape. All of which turned out to be true, except for that last one about the training.

Spring came very late to Albany, in fact we had a number of Spring snows, which made biking outside very difficult, if not impossible. I admit that I am a fair-weather bicyclist. I did up my walking/jogging routine. And when the weather finally permitted, I cleaned up my pretty red bike, Gary put air in the tires, and I took to the road. The longest ride I managed, though, was 14 miles. A paltry amount compared to the 40 the tour would require. But, I was determined and that would count for something.

As the date of the tour approached (it is not a race! all the promotional materials make a point of this, I think mostly for safety reasons), I found myself increasingly nervous. I had butterflies. Aside from the inadequate preparation, I was worried about a few things, in no particular order:

  • potholes – New York City streets and highways, especially in the Spring, are a disaster. I worried, with so many bikers, would I be able to avoid them?
  • the weather – Rain was forecast. While I don’t mind the rain generally, the idea of slick roads and obscured potholes (see above), was frightening.
  • bike malfunction – The tour materials suggest bringing a spare tube because flats are common (again, see the first bullet), and I didn’t get one. Also, I didn’t get my bike tuned up, which was also recommended. So, I was concerned that something would go wrong and I didn’t know how that would work out.
  • my 58 year-old body – I do exercise regularly, but I still manage to be quite overweight. In addition to the lack of preparation, I worried about how my various parts would handle such a long ride.
  • logistics – I read and re-read the online information about the tour, but I still worried about all the logistics, like getting to the start on time, getting back to the apartment, getting separated from Leah, etc.
  • disappointing Leah – I wanted this to be a fun experience for both of us, I didn’t want to fail or be a drag on her.

I think that about covers the sources of my anxiety. I was surprised by how nervous I was. Looking at the list of my concerns written out, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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The route map. Blue is water, the black is land (kind of hard to decipher at first)
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The start – they stagger the start in waves. We were in the third wave at 8:45a.m.

Anyway, I plowed ahead and did it anyway, and I am so glad I did. Here are my thoughts and observations on taking a 40 mile bike ride through potholed streets and highways with my daughter:

  • Leah is the best teammate ever! She is fun, encouraging, fierce and strong (in every sense). I could rely on her. She remained in good humor (with one brief exception I will get to later – which wasn’t directed at me, but at circumstances beyond our control). She took pleasure in the sights. She believed in me. Yay, Leah!
  • The weather was perfect. Cloudy and a little cool, it was awesome for biking. Maybe some sunshine would have made some of the dingier parts of the city look better, but cloud cover was wonderful. We learned later from Gary that there was rain in every direction, but the city was spared. We were in our own dry bubble.
  • The ride up Sixth Avenue from the the financial district to Central Park, and then into the park (in full bloom), was exhilarating. With no automobile or truck traffic, we had the wide avenue to ourselves (and thousands of fellow bicyclists). We passed through different neighborhoods and could appreciate the architecture, sculpture and people as we passed. Central Park was in all its glory with flowering trees and clumps of tulips and green grass.
  • Seeing Gary waving us on as we exited Central Park at 110th Street was a great surprise. Seeing Dan and Beth, in her ninth month (!),  at the side of the FDR at 120th Street was encouraging and so very cool. It’s funny because Leah and I were passing 106th Street a few minutes later when I said, “You know we passed Beth’s school (where she teaches), but I didn’t note it or mention it. Oh well.” I was making a point of mentioning landmarks or places related to our family history. Beth told us later they were standing in front of her school! Obviously I so excited to see them, I didn’t notice anything else.
  • We heard only one lewd comment. We were riding up Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard when a man on the sidewalk yelled out, “Oh, I wish my face was a bicycle seat!” Leah and I laughed about that for a couple of blocks, and periodically throughout the rest of the race.
  • Water is essential! Somehow we had neglected to bring a water bottle. Since this event was ‘eco-friendly’ the water stations offered no cups or containers. We used our hands the first time. When we got to Queens, I suggested we pull over and I ran into a bodega and bought a large bottle of water. The guy in the store took one look at me, and pointed down an aisle, “The water is over there.” What a relief! We refilled it as necessary.
  • The experience of riding with so many people was almost entirely positive. Some riders had blue tooth speakers set up with music blaring. That created camaraderie and gave us a boost. Plus there were real musicians along the way – we heard every type of music. Gospel, bluegrass, rock, jazz. There were also cheerleaders – we had no idea what team they represented, if any. It isn’t like the NYC Marathon where spectators line the route, but that was fine. At times there were bottlenecks, a particularly bad one exiting the FDR and approaching the Queensboro Bridge, where we had to dismount and walk for a while. Most people were courteous. We did see some accidents, but thankfully nothing too serious. The organizers of the tour did a good job – there was lots of support and people giving directions.
  • Riding on the FDR and BQE was an eerie experience. The BQE, in particular, was strange because there isn’t much in the way of scenery to appreciate, it is hard to gauge progress and the road is textured so it created a lot of vibration. My body, from head to toe, did not enjoy that. It also  seemed to feature a lot of gradual uphills. Nothing dramatic, just enough to feel really shitty when you’ve already gone 28 miles. This was the most challenging part of the day for me. My legs were not happy and my spirit was sagging and I knew we had a demanding uphill to come (the Verrazano Bridge). We pulled over, I drank some water, took some bites of a power bar, and Leah gave me a pep talk. We resumed the trek.
  • I told Leah that I might have to walk some of the way on the Verrazano, my legs just may not carry me. I knew I would finish, but I didn’t know if I could ride all of that. Leah wanted to ride it – she was fresh as a daisy (she may not say that exactly, but she was in good shape). We made a plan to meet at the finish and agreed that she should do her thing. Later when we compared notes, I was so impressed with her. The climb up the bridge was tough. I was pleased with myself because I stayed on my bike. I thought I had reached the point where the downhill would begin, but alas, it wasn’t! There another stretch of uphill (at a slightly lesser grade, so it appeared from a distance that you had already crested the hill). What a disappointment! I got off my bike and walked the last part of the uphill. Leah had the same experience of expecting the end of the climb, but fierce woman that she is, she just pedaled harder.
  • We started at 8:45 a.m. and ended around 1:30 p.m.- a bit slower than we hoped, but we had no complaints.
  • We met after we got our medals at the finish line and walked our bikes through the festival area where there was music and concessions. For probably the first time in my life, a cold beer sounded very appealing. We wanted to get back so we didn’t partake, just followed the hordes of people to the exit. We re-mounted our bikes and rode to the Staten Island Ferry. The ride started out pleasant enough. But then it kept going and going. I got angrier and angrier. Where was that fucking ferry!?! I was muttering and cursing. I was not mentally prepared for the four mile ride to the ferry! This was truly the worst part, for me. For Leah, the next part was the worst. Waiting on line to get on the ferry. She was facing a four hour drive back to Boston and was eager to get back to the apartment, get changed, eat and get on the road. She handled her frustration well. It was probably close to an hour of waiting on line before we got on the ferry. I was never so happy to sit down!
  • Gary was waiting a short distance from the ferry landing with the car. We walked less than two blocks with our bikes. He was parked right next to a hot dog vendor, so clutch! I bought a soft pretzel and a Diet Coke and climbed into the back seat. Delicious! Leah and Gary secured the bikes to the car and, other than hitting some traffic in lower Manhattan, we got back to the apartment in reasonable time.
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Taking a break in Brooklyn

What a day! I was pleasantly surprised that I could still walk. My 58 year old body didn’t fail me. I took a hot shower. Leah and I debriefed a bit with Dan, Beth and Gary. I shared a long hug with Leah before she got on the road.

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medal and tour booklet (which I studied!)

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As I sit here writing this, I am not in agony – everything is a bit a sore, but certainly tolerable. I will carry great memories, and, as always, great appreciation for my family. Their encouragement and pride are a constant source of strength and joy.

The Wilds of Canarsie Revisited

Note: I originally wrote this piece about how I felt growing up in my particular enclave in Canarsie and posted it on the blog over a year ago. I have edited it with the thought that I would weave it into the longer narrative that I am creating. The edits are intended to allow it to follow the story of the haircut Nana took me to get (which is part of Nana’s Table).

I have added new material at the end that reflects on some of the insights that I have gained regarding perceptions of safety through my interviews of others who grew up in Canarsie. I have been reaching out to talk with others of my generation who grew up there. So far I have interviewed a dozen people. I hope to interview more. Please contact me if you would be interested in sharing your perspective.

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The ‘x’ near Canarsie Park is the house where I grew up – so you can see it in relation to the rest of Canarsie

As a girl growing up in the late ‘60s in New York City, aside from the impossible beauty standards imposed by Madison Avenue and popular culture, I grew up in the shadow of the murder of Kitty Genovese. That story of neighborly indifference, of violence, of the callousness and danger of living in New York City, was part of the air that I breathed. I now know that the story is far more complicated than originally reported; there weren’t as many witnesses as the newspapers said at the time, calls to the police were made and a bystander did actually help her. [A recent documentary, The Witness, released in 2015, explored this ‘new’ information]. But, that wasn’t the story that was embedded in my psyche at the time.

Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens in March of 1964. The legacy of that crime was that I believed that people in New York City wouldn’t get involved, and that New Yorkers took minding their own business to a dangerous extreme. Add to that the nightly litany of violent crimes reported on Eyewitness News, and my fear of victimization was palpable. Perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy for all New Yorkers.

As a consequence, I never liked when my parents went out for the evening, unless Nana and Zada were home. I would hear creaking, rustling and other assorted sounds – the usual sounds a house makes – and I imagined someone was trying to break in. It was hard to distract myself though I tried by watching television with the volume turned up. Of course, some of the television shows, Hawaii Five-O, Mannix, Twilight Zone, played on story lines of break-ins and bad guys, so that strategy failed.

The feeling of menace was heightened by my physical surroundings in Canarsie. With the park on one side and “the weeds” on the other, it was easy to imagine sinister people lurking. “The weeds” were the marshy landfill that separated our block from the Belt Parkway. When I played with Susan, one of my two friends in the neighborhood, we would ride our bikes on the street that bordered the weeds. We would dare each other to run in and run out, a dare I was not willing to take.

Our neighborhood was also in the flight path to JFK. Airplanes would skim over our roof. If you were on the telephone you had to pause in your conversation because there was no chance of hearing or being heard. If you were watching TV you had to hope you didn’t miss a crucial piece of dialogue. If anyone slept over, the roar of the jet engines took getting used to. My cousin Ahri, who grew up in Manhattan (not exactly a bastion of quietude), asked me how I could stand it.

It wasn’t just the sounds of Canarsie that could be problematic.  If the wind was right,  from the southeast, it brought with it the smell of one of the city dumps. One might imagine the breeze carrying the scent of the ocean, since we were so close to it, and it did that, too. But, the dump was adjacent to the Belt Parkway, just east of our Rockaway Parkway exit, and the odors emanating from it trumped the fresh smell of sea air. The mounds of trash rose like a small mountain range on the south side of the Belt. Naturally I had a sensitive nose.

The dump also attracted scores of seagulls. The detritus and Jamaica Bay beyond were quite an attraction for all kinds of birds. The cries of the gulls were part of the soundscape of our Canarsie neighborhood. I needed only to see a few scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds to make the frightening connection.

There was a fine line between the pleasures of the park, the beauty of the gliding gulls, the earthy smell of the marshes and ocean air, and the menace those same features held. All the elements, sights, sounds and smells, conspired to heighten a sense of foreboding, at least in my imagination.


Based on my interviews, so far, it seems that I was unusual in my perception of danger, my generalized fear of violence. Most of the people I have spoken to felt very safe in Canarsie. Some suggested that changed with the summer of the “Son of Sam,” which was in 1977, and introduced a level of fear that they had not experienced before. Some recounted specific instances of threats of being accosted, mostly at John Wilson Junior High School, or particular places they would avoid (for example, Seaview Park after dark, or particular bus routes where they felt threatened), but those didn’t shake their general feeling of safety in and around their block. Almost everyone I’ve spoken to commented on their strong sense of community, especially on their block or in their building in Bayview – that neighbors looked out for each other. I did not grow up with that sense at all. Fortunately, I had my grandparents, uncles, brothers and parents to provide that support.

In addition to discussing fears of violence, I learned a great deal from my conversations about race and ethnicity and perceptions of the boycott of schools over the busing plan.  I will continue to share what I’m learning as I go along. I also hope to put a piece together that summarizes it. I welcome comments and feedback either here on the blog or via email. Again, if you’d like to be interviewed, email me at lbakst.canarsie@gmail.com.

A Brooklyn Sojourn

Imagine my surprise when I opened my email a week and a half ago and found out I was a semifinalist for the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize! I couldn’t believe it. I submitted a piece, Nana’s Table, which you can read here, to a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Film Arts Festival.

It was Friday night, December 15th, and I was sitting at the island in my kitchen, with Gary, Daniel and Beth. Daniel and Beth had just driven up from New York City to spend the weekend with us. We would be celebrating Hanukkah the next day with more of the family coming to our house. We were chatting easily, I was mindlessly playing Text Twist on my computer, when a new email popped up. I saw the subject line ‘Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize.’ I swallowed hard and opened it immediately. When I saw that it said that I was a semifinalist for the prize, I held up my hand and said, “Sorry to interrupt, but you’re not going to believe this!” I proceeded to read the email to them. They were as excited, or more so, than I was.

The email explained that semifinalists were invited to read a portion of their story at an event scheduled for the following Wednesday evening (December 20th), which coincidentally was my father’s birthday. He would have been 85. Maybe it was a sign.

The reading would be held at St. Francis College, in Brooklyn Heights. I did a quick check of my calendar and saw that I had a hair appointment, but that could easily be changed. There was nothing to keep me from going. Dan and Beth said they would come, too. The email asked for an RSVP, so I sent a quick response saying I would attend. With more than 20 people coming for our Hanukkah party the next day, I didn’t have time to give it more thought. I had salads to prepare, potatoes to peel and presents to wrap.

Saturday passed in a blur, busy from the moment I woke up until I went to bed that night. My brother Mark had driven down to New Jersey to pick up my mother so she could attend the party. My in-laws were able to come too – in fact we planned to celebrate my father-in-law’s 95th birthday. Cousins, in-laws, nieces and nephews mingled and ate potato latkes. I misjudged the amount of food – usually I have too much. Not this time. After the bowls of tuna and egg salad and the platter of lox were ravaged, I made more, and sent Mark out on an emergency lox run. In my family we don’t need a beer run, we need more lox.

Lying in bed after the party, exhausted, I started to think about the logistics of the next few days. I decided since Mark had schlepped to Jersey and back to get our mother, it was only fair that I should drive her home. In an unfortunate bit of timing, we had promised the use of our New York City apartment to a colleague of Gary’s whose daughter was having surgery in a city hospital on Monday. So, I couldn’t just drive Mom back and stay in the city for the week.

After leaving my mom at her place in Freehold, I had time alone in the car – my first private time since Friday night. I could finally think about the upcoming reading and what it meant to me.  I was surprised at how validating it felt. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think sometimes, in an effort to protect myself from future disappointment, I don’t allow myself to take pleasure in accomplishments. The refrain in my head usually includes messages that devalue whatever it is I did.  In this case, between feeling proud of myself (there I said it!), I thought things like: Probably nobody good entered the contest. Or, I have no chance. And, I hope I don’t embarrass myself. My brain ping-ponged back and forth.

The reading at the college was free and open to the public. I went back and forth in my mind about inviting people to it. Should I post something on Facebook? I looked to see if the Brooklyn Film Festival had it listed as an event that I could share. Finding nothing, I decided I didn’t feel comfortable creating something. I felt like I would be imposing on people. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be disappointed if no one came.

I drove back to Albany. I did my usual things, every so often getting hit with nerves at the thought of appearing in front of a bunch of strangers and sharing my story. Though I presented programs and trained small and large groups during my previous professional life, this was different. This was sharing a piece of myself.

In order to simplify things, Gary and I decided I would stay at a hotel Wednesday night. We didn’t want to ask his colleague to leave our apartment, he was already dealing with a stressful situation with his daughter. I was able to get a good rate at the Marriott near the Brooklyn Bridge and we decided I should think of it as a treat. The hotel was only a few blocks from St. Francis College on Remsen Street, it would be convenient, too.

I took Amtrak down to the city on Wednesday and arrived early in the afternoon. I hopped the A train and found my way to the hotel. Fortunately, they had a room available even though it was before check-in. I made myself comfortable, took a shower and practiced my reading. Although I didn’t put anything on Facebook, I did email Merle and another long-time friend who lived in Manhattan, Steven, to invite them – making it clear that I knew it was short notice and I would understand if they couldn’t make it.

Steven responded that he would be happy to come and he would meet me there. Merle wrote that she would come, as long as she had recovered from the bug she was battling. Happily, she did and she came to the hotel at about 4:00.

I got a text from Aunt Clair that she would come, too. I had a small but mighty rooting section: Dan, Beth, Aunt Clair, Merle and Steven. I knew my mother, Leah and Gary would be sending positive thoughts even though they couldn’t physically be there. I felt very lucky to have so much support.

Merle and I left the hotel and met Aunt Clair at the Burger King down the block. We walked together to St. Francis College. As we were about to go in, Dan and Beth joined us. We found our way to the Maroney Theater on the 7th floor. There were a few people in the theater setting up the podium and microphone. It was a small theater with a performance space at the front and rows of seats upward from there.

We took seats in the middle, not too close to the front, but not too far back either.

More people started to trickle in, including Steven. We all chatted and joked, and I tried to relax while taking it all in.

A young man distributed a sheet of paper that turned out to be the program.

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I was slated to be the second reader of ten. I studied the other nine names and titles of their stories. I looked around the room – there was a wide array of ages, races and sexes. I wondered who the writers were.

The program was supposed to begin at 7, but we had arrived early. About five minutes before 7 the same young man who passed out the program asked for our attention. He wanted to take attendance to see if the readers were present. Several were still missing. We went back to chatting and waiting, more people arrived. The theater was getting pretty full.

At 7:10, it was decided that the program should begin regardless. The young man stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone. It was working. I was relieved because my voice does not project well and I have difficulty sustaining any volume. He introduced the first piece, but the woman wasn’t there. That meant I was going first.

I took a deep breath and went down the aisle stairs and took my place at the podium. I read Nana’s Table, fumbling only once or twice over words. I couldn’t see the audience very well with the white spotlight on me, but I looked up every so often trying to make contact with my family and friends. The room was very quiet, as I read. It felt like people were listening intently. Toward the end of my reading someone’s cell phone went off, but they silenced it pretty quickly. I didn’t let it distract me.

There was applause when I finished and I returned to my seat. And just like that, it was done. The young man introduced the next writer. Different stories of Brooklyn unfolded. A range of experiences were recounted. A young African-American man described growing up in the projects where gangs dominated, but he found community there, too. A Latina wrote movingly about her mother’s and sister’s struggles in Sunset Park, sadly known as ‘Gunset’ Park at the time. Another shared her story of taking a class at Brooklyn College with Allen Ginsburg, the beat poet.  A retired police officer, who like me started writing when he retired at age 55, told his story of deep regret at not helping a childhood friend who grew up with him in Coney Island. Two other stories, like mine, focused on relationships with grandparents. A picture of a borough filled with people of different ethnicities, but similar pains and struggles, was painted.

After all the stories were read, all the authors were invited to the front. We received a nice round of applause and then the emcee announced the winner. The retired cop won the Brooklyn Nonfiction Prize for 2017. I can’t lie, I was a little disappointed. But, the whole thing had been an enriching experience. Dan told me several times how proud he was of me. Leah sent texts with the same message. I knew Gary and my mother were eagerly awaiting hearing the result. Their collective pride in my effort was very meaningful to me.

Hearing the other stories, sharing mine, confirmed that I was on the right track, to borrow a phrase from my father-in-law. I was doing what I should be doing.

Everyone with me had enjoyed the evening immensely. Steven said, “Sign me up for your next reading.” I smiled and thought, “I hope there is a next reading.”

It was late by the time it concluded. Dan and Beth, who had work the next morning, gave me hugs and went back to Manhattan, as did Aunt Clair. Steven, Merle and I went out to dinner at an old-style Italian restaurant on Court Street. After enjoying several glasses of chianti, warm Italian bread and a variation on eggplant parmigiana, we parted ways. I went back to the hotel.

I woke early the next morning and took a walk. I hadn’t been in Brooklyn Heights for many years. I found my way to Brooklyn Bridge Park, which didn’t exist the last time I was in the neighborhood. It was a sunny, brisk morning. I marveled at how beautiful it all was. I counted my blessings as I walked.

 

 

Where were you? The Blackout of 1977

Who was batting for the Mets on July 13, 1977 when the lights went out in New York City?*

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Photo from the New York Times

I can’t say I remembered the answer to this trivia question, but I do have some vivid memories of that evening. I was in the shower in my house in Canarsie. Home from college for the summer, working temp jobs in the city during the day, that particular evening, I was home alone. My parents were visiting my grandparents in Florida. I have no idea where my brothers were – but I know they weren’t around. Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara were living in the upstairs apartment in Canarsie, and they were keeping an eye on me while my parents were away (I was 17 years old). That particular evening they were visiting friends in Rockland County and weren’t home yet.

It was unnerving to have the lights to go out while I was in the shower. I shook off visions of Psycho and climbed out of the tub, slowly, carefully. Once I opened the bathroom door, there was enough ambient light to find my way to my bedroom just across the hall. It was about 9:30 pm, but not fully dark since it was still early in the summer. I got dressed quickly so I could check outside to see if my neighbors had power.

I went out on the front porch and saw that all the houses and street lights were dark. I went back inside and found some flashlights. The phone rang. It was Aunt Barbara telling me that they were on their way home. I was grateful for that. I was also relieved that the phone was working. I felt a bit less isolated. I think I spent much of the next hour on the phone, talking to the guy I was starting to see, waiting for Uncle Terry and Barbara to get back. Eventually they made it. Things were quiet on our block. The same could not be said for other parts of the city, though I didn’t know that at the time. It was probably a blessing that I couldn’t find a transistor radio or turn on the television.

After my aunt and uncle got back, the three of us sat on the porch for a while, trying to capture the scant breeze. Eventually we gave up, went in and tried to get some sleep. New York City was suffering through a brutal heat wave, the demand for power and some unfortunate lightning strikes caused the blackout.

When I woke in the morning, the power still wasn’t on. That meant I couldn’t go to work! I was able to make a plan to go to the beach with the guy who I was on the phone with the night before. I had my parent’s car, since they had flown down to Florida. It was a 1972 Impala, a behemoth, it was like driving an ocean liner. The car was so big I had a difficult time maneuvering it. A couple of weeks earlier I went on an outing in the Impala with my friend, Merle. I drove first to Kings Plaza, a huge mall in Brooklyn, where Merle got out of the car to help me negotiate the parking garage ramps which seemed entirely too small for the mammoth car. Then we went to Island Park to visit our college friends. We were like Lucy and Ethel on that trip, Merle trying to give me directions from the handwritten notes I had taken over the phone from Dianne, while I tried to stay calm in the traffic on the Belt and Sunrise Highway. Growing up in Brooklyn in a one-car family, I didn’t drive often. Merle and I made it to Island Park and back – I only bumped a garbage can while making a u-turn – we were otherwise unscathed. But, we were exhausted from laughing so hard.

Despite my driving deficiencies, my guy and I made it to the beach in the Rockaways. It was late morning and the heat was already oppressive. There was a lot of traffic on the Belt Parkway for a Thursday after rush hour. We weren’t the only ones with the idea of getting an extra beach day in during the workweek. It was one of those summer days that wasn’t sunny, but we had to squint because of the glare.

Listening to the car radio, we heard about the looting and violence of the night before. People took advantage of the power outage to smash windows and break into stores and generally commit mayhem, especially in downtown Brooklyn. The city, which still had not recovered from being on the brink of bankruptcy, had a reduced and demoralized police department. It was also the ‘Summer of Sam.’ It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that hung in the air and left us feeling unsettled. The threat of a serial killer was another ingredient in an already roiling pot.

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It was an odd time for me, a time of transition. Although objectively the atmosphere in Canarsie was more fraught than in my years as a child and adolescent, I was not as anxious. I had more friends and was embarking on my first romantic relationship. I had a long way to go to quell my insecurities, work still in progress, but I had made a turn for the better. The blackout of 1977 didn’t derail me.

*Lenny Randle. If anyone knew this, you win a prize 🙂

My Dream of Manhattan

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Gary and me at my graduation from Columbia – May 1982

I always loved Manhattan. I loved the excitement of it, the different neighborhoods, and the energy. While I was in college, at SUNY-Binghamton where I felt exiled in a gray, isolated city that barely deserved that designation, I dreamed of coming to Manhattan to live and work. I got my chance to live the dream when I went to graduate school at Columbia University.

I finished the first of a two year Master’s program at Columbia in May of 1981. I lived in a Columbia-owned apartment building on 80th and Columbus Avenue and I had an internship in New York City’s Mayor’s Office (Ed Koch was the mayor at the time) for the summer.

Each day that summer I descended into the subway station at 79th and Central Park West. The same panhandler that I saw on a daily basis was at the bottom of the stairs. I knew him by his tattered denim jacket and black knit cap. His long legs extended, back propped against the wall, his hand outstretched, jiggling a dirty Styrofoam cup, begging for spare change. Judging by the sound of it, the cup wasn’t very full. I made my way around him. I looked at him briefly, didn’t make eye contact, and continued through the turnstile.

I stood on the platform waiting for the C train. The stagnant, humid air was already warm, despite the early hour. Perspiration started to roll down my back. I hated starting my day with my clothes already damp. I had a desk in a small office that I shared with a full-time staff person and I didn’t want to come in smelling of sweat and the subway. The one window in the office, which contained an air conditioner, looked out at a brick wall inches away. It wasn’t optimal for fresh air, but at least it was cool.

Work was interesting. I was in the Community Assistance Unit (CAU). New York City was divided into community boards. Those boards met with representatives of city agencies (Police, Fire, Sanitation, etc.) to discuss local issues. CAU was the liaison between those boards and the mayor’s office. Staff from CAU attended those meetings and filled out a report. They had files filled with these reports, but nothing had been done with them. That’s where my internship came in. I was to review the reports and look for commonalities or systemic problems and present what I found to the director of the unit.

After finishing my day, if I didn’t have plans after work, I got back on the subway to go uptown. Again, I’d wait for the train to roll into the station. It was always a bad sign if a subway car was empty – that meant one of two things: either the air conditioning wasn’t working or a homeless person was living there and the smell was too overpowering (or both). Sometimes I stepped on to the empty car anyway.

One particular day that summer I got back to my apartment and started dinner. I put a pot of water up to boil. When it came time to add the pasta, I opened the box of spaghetti and a roach fell into the pot along with the dry noodles. I shrieked. I was done. I already had an exterminator on retainer. The building, and many around it, were in the midst of being rehabbed. It didn’t matter how many times the exterminator came, more roaches infiltrated. I lost the war and retreated.

My dream of Manhattan was over. I called my parents and said I was coming home to Canarsie. I knew the commute to Columbia would be a bear, but I would save a lot of money and I just couldn’t deal anymore with life in Manhattan. Between the homeless, the drug addicts, the need for constant vigilance about my personal safety and, finally, the roaches, I gave up. The reality in 1980-81 was a rude awakening.

All these years later, it might surprise you to know that Gary and I agreed that our plan would be to retire to Manhattan. Despite that awful year, I still loved going to the city for shows, ballets, museums and restaurants. Over time, as the 1980s progressed and the city recovered from the fiscal crisis of the late ‘70s, things changed. By the time my children were old enough to take to the city, in the 1990s, I felt comfortable there. I still had to be watchful, keeping my purse wedged between my arm and my body, and be aware of my surroundings, but I felt free to show my children all the city had to offer. My dream of Manhattan reawakened.

Ode to Central Park

Views of Central Park in mid-October (photos by me!)

Oh, how do I love thee?

 

I love the juxtaposition

Nature and civilization

Bird calls and sirens

Steel and glass skyscrapers and majestic ancient trees

 

Ducks and turtles paddling the reservoir

Birds swoop

Stately pre-war apartment buildings stand guard to the west

Museum mile beckons to the east

Commerce to the south

Harlem to the north

 

Flora, fauna and culture abound

Beauty in all its forms

For the taking

 

People of every age and size

Of every skin color

Of every socio-economic level

 

Running, walking

Laying in the grass

Cycling, rowing

Reclining on a park bench

 

Riding in a pedi-cab

Or a horse-drawn carriage

Planking on a pedestrian bridge

Graceful moves of tai chi on the meadow

 

Children’s laughter

So many languages

The wind in the trees

Honking horns

The rotors of a helicopter slicing the air

 

Let me count the ways.