Tag Archives: Triangle Fire

When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Why am I doing this again? Aspiring author journeys back to New York, NY.

“Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs. Don’t … Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs!” The woman stood a few feet away from the hot dog cart. With the unmistakable rasp of a heavy smoker, she warned frazzled-looking tourists as they walked up to it to buy lunch outside a subway entrance near Manhattan’s Herald Square. “Big fuckin’ cockroaches all over the fuckin’ hot dogs.” And yet folks kept buying their hot dogs from the vendor, who looked disgruntled but otherwise unfazed. The woman recoiled and turned her head in dismay, as though there was someone beside her in support of her crusade. “Ugh!” Her face conveyed the distress of someone whose sincere concern for the greater good of another goes unheeded. “Can you believe this? They’re buyin’ the fuckin’ hot dogs!” she lamented to no one in particular, before taking a long drag from her cigarette.

This was last Saturday at lunch time. I was in the City on another one of my research trips for my first historical novel, set in New York City in 1911. My train from DC had pulled into Penn Station less than an hour earlier. New items on the agenda this time were seeing some of the buildings where workers at the Triangle Waist Company once lived, visiting the Brooklyn gravesite of the six victims of the fire who remained unidentified for nearly a hundred years, and hoping to meet with Triangle historian Michael Hirsch.

I had made an inquiry about the victims of the Triangle fire on Facebook, when I heard from someone named Michael Hirsch. Where had I heard that name before? Oh, right, I’d seen his name here:

And here, as one of the producers of this HBO film:

And oh yeah, he was the researcher who single-handedly uncovered and confirmed the names of the six once-unidentified victims. You could say I was pretty excited at the prospect of meeting him.

Nevertheless, this time I was significantly less exuberant than I’d been on previous trips. Gone was my I’m-writing-a-novel! cockiness enthusiasm, ironic given that this was my first trip after actually completing the first draft. The enthusiasm had given way to a raging why-am-I-doing-this-again? funk. The past weeks had been spent waist-deep in novel revisions, and at least elbow-deep in the funk.

More and more people asking me if I have a publisher (no), an agent (no), or if I have “workshopped” my novel (no) or am “working with someone” on it (um … no). Then I talk about self-publication with enough people to realize that the stigma around it is still very prevalent. Don’t think I haven’t thought that these beloved, passionate projects of mine may never really see the light of day, let alone earn enough money that I can be a writer full-time while also affording to take my kid on a few trips during his growing-up years, then send him to college one day. Besides (whines the funk), does the world really need another novel about the Triangle fire? What makes me think I have anything to add to the stories that have already been told? Finally, I was bogged down, as I often am, by the knowledge that while I am not earning a paycheck, each one of these trips costs my family money, and I–still!–feel a degree of guilt about leaving my 4-year-old son for a couple of nights away.

I slept less and less in the nights leading up to the trip, until I barely slept the night before. This was the state in which I was confronted with the woman and her anti-hot dogs tirade. It bothered me. I hurried past her and down the stairs into the subway. Two minutes later, I got stuck in one of these damn things.

(Photo from http.nybydzine.tumblr.com)

This time I didn’t even have luggage!* After swiping my MetroPass twice (and feeling a little ripped off), I was finally in. It was after 1PM, breakfast had been in DC around 7AM, and I was lightheaded from lack of sleep and the train. The wait felt endless, and the ride was cramped and sweaty. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable my beloved City can be during summer. And I was starting to fear that it was my beloved City no more, that I was turning into one of those people who find it to be too much.

Lemme tell you about a glistening, sweaty subway ride.
I was on my way to historic Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side. It was a place where immigrant women (men, too) living in New York one hundred years ago had access to books, and I’ve set a scene in my novel there. But first, I needed lunch. And finally it came, at a place called Cafe Petisco, across the street from the library.
Falafel pita with fries: Extraordinary in both flavors and textures. The pink dipping sauce was especially inspired. And when the check came for a whopping $8, I knew I’d found a new favorite place in the City.

And it came with a side of interesting conversation. Cafe Petisco is the sort of place where you sit thisclose to the person at the next table. The woman next to me was an Australian living a couple of blocks west from where we were, apparently, in the heart of Chinatown. “I am the only English-speaking round eyes on the entire block.” Her words. For the past two years, she has rented a room in a 5-room apartment full of Chinese people, including entire families. I wasn’t certain of the number of people in her apartment. But she did tell me that when her flat mates stock the fridge up with fresh groceries, she has opened the door to find seafood so fresh it’s still moving, and has been startled by chicken feet falling out of one of the refrigerator shelves. I wanted to hear more, while also wanting to reserve the right to hit the Undo button if it got too weird. I asked whether she can have friends over–mostly, my curiosity had to do with a specific kind of guest … the type that might be inclined to spend the night, tú sabes. She said she probably could, but hasn’t felt the need to these two years. All she knows is she pays less than $700/month (utilities included) to live in Manhattan and she is saving loads of money.

In the 30 minutes we sat together, my new friend drank two Bloody Mary’s and a coffee. I paid my check and headed across the street to the library in a bit of a haste, realizing only too late that, at least in the context of my mildly weary state, I had indeed crossed into too-weird territory in my conversation with the friendly woman, who was now probably tipsy (if caffeinated).

Left, Seward Park Library at the turn of the 20th century (photos courtesy of New York Public Library). Right, the library as it looks today.

From the library, I made my way up to the East Village on foot to meet Michael Hirsch. No tequila was involved, and I had plenty of cold water to keep me hydrated. (*See previous blog post for a bit of context on the topics of subway with luggage, and tequila.)

My meeting with Michael Hirsch at Veniero’s Pasticceria, and our stroll around the East Village, did not disappoint. Talking to him is like getting the inside scoop on the garment workers’ strike, Triangle, and the fire, with plenty of nuance and countless poignant details about the lives of the workers.

Piragüero outside the site of the Clinton Street building where a 35-year-old widow from Russia named Julia Rosen lived with her children in 1911. She and her son, Israel, worked at the Triangle Company. Both perished in the fire.

An after-dinner stroll around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library brought the day to a close on a decent note.

But when it came time to leave the hotel Sunday morning, I suddenly didn’t want to. There was a Harry Potter movie marathon on TV, and I thought, how often (not counting illness) do I get to just lie in bed and watch TV? I could take a mini-vacation! I just didn’t feel like dealing with the City. Could New York’s energy, which I’ve always so proudly reveled in, be getting the best of me? And what if I got lost on my trip to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn ?

Still, I couldn’t not go to Evergreens. If I did nothing else, I would go to the cemetery and pay my respects, then I’d spend the rest of the day in the hotel if I still felt like it. So I got over my boo-hooing self, and hopped on the L train to Bushwick Avenue and Aberdeen Street. The cemetery was deserted. It was beautiful, sprawling, old … I got lost about 5 minutes in. It was also very overcast and windy. I tried my best to keep various points of reference in sight so that I wouldn’t become deeply scary-lost.

I also tried flagging down the lone security guard making rounds in a large white sedan; no joy. A small voice inside my head taunted that I should never have left my hotel. Yet I knew even then that I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt at peace, and I knew I’d find the gravesite. After several more minutes (with my husband on the phone reading from Google Maps), I did.

It had started to rain; this brought to mind accounts I’ve read of the burial of the victims in 1911. Countless stones sat atop the base of the monument, placed by previous visitors, and I instantly felt less alone, even though there was no one else there. The only sound, aside from the rain drops, was the subway rumbling in the distance every few minutes. It was a powerful, unforgettable moment. I said a prayer, and felt duly ashamed of my self-pity earlier in the morning. As more people began to arrive to visit other graves, I made my way back to the subway for the ride back to Manhattan with a very full heart. The rain cleared, and the Manhattan skyline came into view.

The rest of the day was spent in the West Village. I stood at Greene Street and Washington Place a good long while, making notes of different details I hadn’t noticed before about the building that once housed Triangle.
I like to think that talking to myself while pacing back and forth and taking notes on this street corner confirmed my place among New York’s eccentrics.
Afterwards, I visited Our Lady of Pompeii Church, where I’ve also written a scene–and where I took the chance to say a quick thank you. The final stop was the Merchant’s House Museum, taking more notes for my novel, in addition to snapping photos of mirrors throughout the home. Why? Read my book!  🙂

Crossing Broadway that afternoon, I overheard a man say to his friend, “My mom always says you can have comfort or courage, not both.” I knew I’d heard that phrase before; two minutes later, Google told me where. Of course it was Brené Brown! The quick search revealed another really good one.

I only headed back to my hotel to get showered and dressed for dinner. Along the way, I noticed a disheveled woman on the subway fighting with an MTA attendant about her MetroPass. It seemed she had swiped it, but hadn’t been able to enter. “It’s unlimited!” she insisted. Then, to no one in particular, she loudly decried, “They’re trying to stop me because I’m bringing people to Christ!” I smiled to myself. Not in the spirit of mocking the poor woman. One thing I love about the Big Apple is the keen reminder it offers that we are all the same. I may not be bringing people to Christ, but I have plenty of experience getting stuck entering a subway station. I did not hurry uncomfortably past this woman. That’s when I knew I got it again, that we’re all the same. I was back on track. At dinner, I treated myself to an outstanding mofongo at a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazón.
Tried so hard to finish it …
Upon returning to my hotel room at the very end of the day, I got really comfortable, and watched the final installment in the Harry Potter movies. Afterwards, I had my first real night’s sleep in several days. It had been a good day. A very full, fast-paced New York day. I no longer felt ashamed of the discomfort I’d had previously. After all, one of my fears was realized; I did get lost by myself in the big old cemetery on a gloomy day. And yet, I was okay. So instead, I blessed my vulnerability and the realization that it hadn’t been the end of the story. I had walked through that vulnerability and come out stronger on the other side. Noted. I still have no publisher, no agent, etc., but I’m going to keep walking through it…!
An ad on the subway … Really?! Ah, I love this City.
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Tips for New York City

I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.

While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.

(Photo from Subwaynut.com)

But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.

Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.

The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.

My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.

Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.

Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!

I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.

Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.
Now go.
You’re welcome.
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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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