Tag Archives: Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Coming to Manhattan

teaching-in-the-dark-learning-to-love-what-we-fear-23-638Tomorrow I’m going on a two-day trip to New York City, as I have done every February since 2012. I like to call it Mama’s Annual Pilgrimage (previously documented here, and here). My plan for this year is to attend a tour at the Tenement Museum, called Exploring 97 Orchard Street. This is like a dream for me. Besides that, I’m going to find a nice café (or a few different ones), and work on my whittling.
Whittling tools. If only they could help me in this situation!

Turns out the novel I’ve spent the past three years writing is too long. “Debut novels” in my genre are supposed to be no longer than 100,000 words. My first draft was–wait for it–147,000. Stephen King says the second draft is the first draft, minus ten percent. That, I can do. On draft five now, I’ve so far hacked off 10,000 words; ten percent looks well within reach. Will I get all the way down to below 100,000? Not sure. And if I can’t, odds are pretty good no agent will even look at the manuscript. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving these pseudo-dogmatic standards this treatment. But I’ve had them explained to me recently in a way I understand (almost) better; and so, I hack away. Hacking doesn’t sound very artistic though, hence the term whittling.

In a recent Google search on book word counts, I found that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is approximately 150,000 words, similar to my original word count. I like to look at it and think it’s what my novel will look like once it’s published.

Momentum has admittedly slowed down. It’s partly due to feeling disheartened. Also, though, recent family needs compel me to re-evaluate things. No, I’m not pregnant. But there could be change on the horizon, which will be felt on many levels within my family. The meme posted by my hero Elizabeth Gilbert on her Facebook page today couldn’t be more timely.

For the past three years, I’ve been going strong–creativity-wise–fueled to a significant degree by this sort of feel-good inspiration. I tend to dislike gratuitous cynicism. I find it so one-dimensional, and we can do so much better. Lately, though … ? How do I distinguish between good old reality check and caving to cynicism? Here’s another recent meme.

A few months ago, I would have shared this, lived by it, maybe even written a blog post about it. The thing is, though, I also think that people who think they’re above paying their dues are idiots. Was that unkind? I’m sorry. The message about being born for something greater and more profound still resonates with me deeply. I’m not trying to be unkind. I swear I have a point.
My point–aside from having fun with social media memes–is that I strive to not be an idiot. And I know that, at age 39 and a half, I’m nowhere near done paying my dues. My own practical form of dues-paying will likely–hopefully, and for very happy reasons–mean finding gainful employment again, and soon. We just can’t continue the sponsoring at this time. I’m excited about it. I’m also panicked: That if I can’t get my book down to the desired word count by the time I start a new job, I’ll have to give up on writing. Dramatic? Please. This is nothing.
Because I work well with to-do lists, here’s the plan for now.
1. Keep whittling.
2. Pack vitamins and cold meds for NYC. (I caught my son’s recent cold, because sharing is caring.)
3. Attend some super-fun writers conferences this year–yeah!
4. Find new job and start it. Resume getting up at 5AM to write/research for an hour before the rest of the day starts, and again after boy goes to bed. It’s been done before, it can be done again.
5. Love my family. Love hard, in general.
6. Write down ideas (coming fast and furious lately) for second book. Give myself permission to be excited about it.
7. Remember that life is good, very.
8. Reread the article about 12 historical women, as needed.
9. Enjoy New York.
10. Write blog post about the trip.
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My weekend in New York

What an awesome weekend. I have written before about my ongoing love affair with New York City (see here, and here). Friends and family ask me all the time what I do on these trips. It’s a very valid question. Here I finally answer them in some detail. But first, a summary of some logistical faux pas; still scratching my head over these …
Snow and ice outside the train window; sweltering heat and sun on board the train. And a heart that swelled with gratitude!
On this trip to NYC, my first one since becoming the proud owner of an iPhone, I was especially psyched to use the compass app that comes with it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve exited the NYC Subway and wanted to cry out, “Won’t someone just tell me which way is East, please?!” (Hey, it’s not that easy!) This time that wouldn’t happen. As I emerged excited–exuberant, even–from Penn Station and onto the snowy streets of Manhattan, I whipped out my awesome phone … and went the wrong freaking way. Ugh! The walk to my hotel took easily twice as long as it should have, and included an extra long, puddle-filled stretch of city block behind Madison Square Garden, pulling my little suitcase behind me with one hand, holding my umbrella in the other; no hand left for my phone. Not that it was of any use, and I am still not sure how the awesome compass app led me astray.
The coaster at one of the restaurants. I can always count on Mr. Louis Armstrong: now I will think of this quote every time someone asks me, “What is it with you and New York?”

There was also the issue of my umbrella, which kept trying to flap itself inside out in the wind. Slapstick was so the opposite of the cool, seasoned NYC-visitor look I was going for. By the time I was leaving my hotel after checking in and dropping off luggage, I was not above asking the receptionist, “This way is North, right?” I knew it was, just wanted the confirmation. Her response, a little indignant: “I don’t know which way is North! All I know is this way’s Uptown, that way’s Downtown.” Ah, another inadvertent faux pas. What was I thinking!

 

An alternate title for this blog post was Expanding my collection of selfies.
There is some variety in where I stay (wherever I find the cheapest hotel around Midtown Manhattan), and based on that, the places where I choose to eat. Otherwise, though, the truth is I tend to do a lot of the same things. I visit the three focal points of the research for my book. They are places that have captivated me so profoundly, and sent my imagination soaring so high, that I have ultimately felt compelled to create a story around them.
And so, my first stop on Saturday was the Merchant’s House Museum, on East Fourth Street. As their website indicates, it is “New York City’s only family home preserved intact — inside and out — from the 19th century.” The family that occupied this home for 100 years also had an intriguing history. The final survivor was an unmarried daughter, who spent many years alone in the house until her death–alone, in the house–in the 1930s. She was regarded by some as an eccentric, but little is known about that. The house is also, by the way, thought to be haunted.

My second favorite place to visit is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. It offers tours of the neighborhood and of the recreated apartments of different families–Irish, Italian, Jewish–in a historic 19th century tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. No one famous ever lived at 97 Orchard Street; George Washington did not sleep here. The Tenement Museum is important–invaluable–because it tells the stories of thousands of immigrants who lived hard, worked hard, sacrificed much, and ultimately forged a new American identity in a part of the city that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the world’s most densely and diversely populated neighborhood. Think about that. The highest concentration of people, from the largest variety of countries of origin, in the entire world, coexisted on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Orchard Street in 1898. (Museum of the City of New York)

These places have become such a part of me, that I know it is borderline obsessive. Just call me the Merchant’s House and Tenement Museum stalker, that’s okay. Each time I visit either one, I am routinely asked by a museum employee, “You’ve been here before, haven’t you?” Plus, I’ve read so much about them, that during tours, I have a hard time resisting my Hermione Granger urge to raise my hand and chime in.

97 Orchard Street then and now. (Lower East Side Tenement Museum Photo Collection)
This was my first time in the city after having completed roughly 95% percent of my novel. I kept walking through the rooms, pacing back and forth, seeing the action of my story in a new way. Wow! Currently the story only exists on my laptop–thank goodness it’s no longer just inside my head–but it came to life before me this weekend. That, my friends, was pretty damn cool.
NYU’s historic Brown Building (Greene Street and Washington Place) off Washington Square Park

The third routine stop on my tour of Manhattan is NYU’s Brown Building, on the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place. This 10-story building once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, the largest and busiest one of its kind at the time. Triangle occupied the top three floors of the building. On a mild Saturday afternoon in March of 1911, 146 factory workers, most of them women under age 40, perished in a fire that started on the 8th floor and traveled–exploded–upwards within minutes, likely caused by a cigarette butt tossed in a scrap bin. It was a senseless loss of life, the tragic convergence of unsafe working conditions, panic fueled by ignorance fueled by more panic, unfair employers, and the same sort of hubris that caused many to declare the Titanic unsinkable just one year later. The story left me breathless from the first time I heard it.

There is a coffee shop in the NYU building across the street from the Brown Building. Eye witnesses from 1911 recall being, basically, at these very windows when they saw the bodies of fire victims fall to the street. Reading Leon Stein’s book* while sitting here was so powerful, it was hard to hold back the tears. It was also an incredible gift. How had I not known to come and sit here before? *Leon Stein was a journalist whose research on the fire provided the most detailed, in-depth account of it that exists today.

Every time I stand on the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street, I want to stop passersby, point out the site of the tragedy to them, ask them to take a moment. I have shed tears standing by myself on that corner. Don’t think I don’t know how this adds to the strangeness of my behavior around these locales. What can I say? It’s a passion, passion about the places, passion about the stories they tell. And a passion that finally led me to ask, what if these stories converged in a novel … ?

What if a young immigrant woman living in the Lower East Side and working at Triangle forms an unlikely friendship with the eccentric elderly spinster living alone in the fancy old house that sits on East Fourth Street, directly en route between her neighborhood and her factory job … ? And what if a Hispanic woman in the 21st century is haunted by something she sees on a trip to New York, and eventually uncovers her own family’s mysterious connection to these women and to a century-old tragedy … ? To be released in 2015 🙂

This, folks, is what I do on my trips to New York. Also? I take advantage of the chance to travel solo, pursuing a deep personal passion, very grateful for the opportunity. When one’s day job is wife and mother, no matter how loved and cherished that job is, such opportunities are imperative, and priceless.

Finally, when in New York, I eat, a lot. Ohhhhh yes. Until next time, I leave you with a few highlights of the food. What a gift this trip was!

Lunch at Taqueria Lower East Side. It is superb and outstanding and comforting and abundant–and cheap!–Mexican food. Please note the very reasonable total for the amount of food and drink. The margarita was also delicious but a little too strong if I wanted to remain conscious and act relatively normal during my Tenement Museum tour.

Dinner at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. Beet, goat cheese, and endive salad with arugula and walnuts, French fries, Comté and Machego cheeses. A truly special meal. The culinary equivalent of an hour at a spa, and I did take a good hour to eat it all. Holy sheep’s milk; and cow’s and goat’s. I covered them all, and I was in heaven!

 

 

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Why New York?

Because it is where most of the story I am currently working on takes place. And
where I had the idea for the story in the first place, in 2009. And where I
definitively began to cure my postpartum depression, in 2010. And where for the first time since
becoming a mother, I gave myself permission to feel like my old independent self again, in 2012.

I can explain.

In late June of 2009, on a solo trip to Manhattan, I
visited a place on East 4th Street called the Merchant’s House
Museum. On this trip, at age 33, I had an idea for a book, which I thought
was the thing that at long last gave me the motivation, and the
permission, to write like I had always dreamed.  A couple of
weeks later, surprise! I found out I was pregnant. A couple of months after that, by the time I had
recovered from the shock of the news, I’d also become extremely busy with my teaching job, planning for baby, sorting out my maternity leave, etc.

I had never really envisioned what
kind of mother I would be; this wasn’t something to which I had
given much thought, until motherhood was upon me. I decided, a few months before my baby was born, that I
did not want to return to work. I loved my teaching job. But I also knew that I
wanted to be home with my baby. Before I knew it, I was the stay-at-home mother
of a wonderfully healthy and happy baby boy. And I was in the
throes postpartum depression. My book project was completely forgotten. I
decided I must have been wrong when I thought the timing had been right for me
to write like I’d always wanted. My who-do-you-think-you-are syndrome was in full
force, and it felt as though it had been decided for me that my one and only
identity was to be mother.

When my 35th birthday rolled
around that year, I told David–my husband–and my mother, both of whom knew I was struggling, the one thing I wanted as a birthday gift:
a weekend trip to New York. So David and I packed up our car and our six-month-old shortly after my birthday, and
took a roadtrip to New York City. What happened, no joke, was life-changing. I realized that the world I had left behind when the cloud of
postpartum hormones had descended and whacked me off
kilter months earlier was still there. All of it. The fast pace, the craziness, the possibility
and promise, it was all still there. And it was mine for the taking if I still
wanted it. It took being there, with my family, as a wife and mother, for this
to feel real to me again. The cloud began to lift, and after we were home, I was able
to enjoy my child with a simpler ease, and to truly cherish the incredible opportunity I’ve
been given to be more fully present during these indescribable early years.

A year later, I’d gone back to teaching
part time and found myself in a funk. I do love teaching; loved it then, love it
still. But going back to my old work, in this moment, simply wasn’t enough. I
had thought that having a paycheck to my name doing what I had done before was
enough to feel like “my old self” again. Nope. Because I wasn’t my old self
anymore. Never would be.

Teaching is something I can
happily return to one day. What I needed now was to write. And
bless my husband a thousand and one times: He agreed. So he and I
planned a trip to New York, this time just me, so that I could begin research
for my book project for real this time. This was in February 2012, one month
before our boy’s second birthday. It would be my first time away from home by myself
since becoming a mother. Two nights. I booked everything, all nonrefundable.

There was a woman I spoke with
two days before my trip, someone with grown children of her own, whose opinion I respected and valued greatly
… and … she meant well … This woman told me she thought it wasn’t time for me
to go, that my son wasn’t ready for me to leave him after I had been a
stay-at-home mother this whole time, that the damage could be terrible and irreparable. I see
this better now, in hindsight. It was nearly two years ago. When it happened? It
threw me into a tailspin of guilt and self-doubt. And anger. On the one hand, how dare she? On the other, what if she’s right? I got cold feet, didn’t want to go. Then my husband stepped in. “Go!” He said. “Our boy will be fine. We will be fine. You need to do this! Go. To. New York.” Getting choked up this minute recalling that moment.

So I went. Sure, I had a stomachache the first night and couldn’t finish my dinner. Sure I missed my boy terribly and wondered whether my “selfishness” would leave him scarred for life. And then something else happened. It was on this trip that I established for myself something no one and nothing could do until I was good and ready. I found the line that separates, for me, my profound love of stay-at-home motherhood, and clinging to motherhood because I need it as my only channel for significance and worth in the world. I’ve seen these types of moms. Being an at-home mom doesn’t have to equal this. Going back to my old paying job wasn’t necessarily the cure for it, either. I found this balance for myself when I got on that bus in February of 2012 and finally started this journey for myself. And it’s all because my husband made me do it!

Our boy was napping when I got home two days later. When it was finally time to wake him up, I ran up to his bedroom, aching to squeeze him and part of me still dreading how he would react. He opened his eyes, blinked up at me a few times, and asked, “Es hora de Plaza Sésamo? = Is it time for Sesame Street?” So far as I know, he continues to be a happy and well-adjusted kid, who knows himself to be very well loved, and who now also knows that his Mama goes to New York and writes books.

One final note about the woman who meant well and nearly kept me from getting on that bus. It was on the day of that conversation, in the midst of miserable turmoil and doubt, that I put down in a Word document the first words of my novel set in New York City. It only took three years after my original idea. Sometimes turmoil can be a good thing. I do owe her that.

“She decided…” photo quote courtesy of Nancy Levin. “Sometimes…” photo quote courtesy of Sacred Dreams on Facebook.
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