“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.