People in my Neighborhood

The People in My Neighborhood: MFAland

I love sport. I love doing it, training for it. I love introducing friends to it.

I love race day. I love the pre-race energy; I love the random camaraderie that springs up on the course. (People ask how you’re doing; people help each other with transition areas; people give each other race food or water when a hard bonk happens.)

I love most of all watching people I know and care about cross the finish line.

I love writing. I love the process. I am learning about the craft. I love the hours when I am in the moment and banging out something I care about.

I love encouraging people to find their voices. I love watching a writer use his voice effectively, when he finally finds it. I love seeing people I know and care about publish the work they’ve worked over and over until this phrase, or that, linchpins the whole thing together.

This past February a Whidbey MFA graduate posted that there was a triathlon the day before residency, and would some of us like to do it with her? Several of us signed up. Hell, we thought, we don’t have a football team, why not do a triathlon together?

So we did it.

I didn’t come to MFAland to make friends. I came because something was or is inherently broken in my writing, and because I needed motivation. I know all too well that when your critique partners become your friends, or when you ask friends to be your critique group, you might run into problems.

But as I watched people I know and now love cross the finish line, and as we celebrated a classmate’s first-ever publication last semester, and as I goggled at the numbers of fellow MFA students and staff who were not racing but who came to cheer and feed us beer and cheese after, and as we mourned the death of a classmate’s brother and another classmate’s close friend, something clicked: You cannot embark on things you love, and invite people in, and not make friends.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The People in My Neighborhood: In Memoriam, Chris Hondros

I’m still pretty shaken up by the death of Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros.

When I met him, I was a fairly good way through my short-lived freelance editorial career, and, arguably, at the peak of it. I was a contributing editor for Hooked on the Outdoors magazine, about a half-year away from getting hired on to work in advertising sales, and I was loving every minute of it.

It was early fall of 2000, and I pitched a story to the now-defunct Hooked about the surfing scene in New Jersey. I called it “Surfing the Right Coast.” My editor John liked it enough that he sent me to cover it as a feature and assigned an up-and-coming photographer named Chris Hondros to cover it with me. Chris was already working with Getty at the time, and I picked him up just outside of his Varick street offices. He was in a sueded brown blazer, jeans, and loafers, and I thought, “Oh boy, is this guy going to be okay?”

Chris was more than okay. He scooted here and there, huge lenses strapped all over, and ended up taking some awesome photos of the surfing competition that was taking place. Perhaps most important to me, he took some beautiful portraits that, when they appeared on the thick glossy stock that Hooked used, popped from the page and pinned down the wistful, evocative feel of a surfing competition that would always remain on the outskirts of the surf scene no matter how many top competitors it turned out, and no matter how much environmentalism was at heart.

Fluffy stuff, for sure, especially when compared to the conflicts that Chris would eventually go on to cover. Chris also shot some photos of me later, for a short essay I wrote on my fear of sharks and the surfing lesson that took place the same day as the surf competition. Of course I’ll treasure those. I remember seeing them in the magazine and thinking to myself, “That looks just like me, and it’s exactly the way I’d want a photo of me in a magazine to appear.”

That was Chris, in a nutshell. He was a student of individuals, and he captured them exactly as they were doing or saying the things that were their very essences.

We became friends that day, and saw each other quite a few times after we’d filed the story.

Last night, while I was struggling to find some peace with the fact that Chris has essentially been murdered (he was hit by an RPG while covering the Libyan conflict), I remembered something else: Chris was present at my 26th birthday party at the Half King. It was, in part, such a memorable event because of the photos Chris took that night with my rinky dinky point-and-shoot film Kodak, a cheap model I picked up at Rite Aid in Queens. I took a lot of pictures that year, and I took that stupid camera wherever I went. Chris was one of the first to arrive, and I remember him picking it up and turning it over in his hand, twice, looking bemused.

After he was done inspecting it, he held the thing above his head and shot ten, twelve good photos of the party from above, and then he got up on a stool, kneeling, and shot some more. They were wonderful photographs. Chris wasn’t an event photographer by any means. But I do remember getting those photos back, and loving almost every single one of them.

Of course, he’s not in any of them. But then again, that wasn’t what he was about, was it?

Later that year, my then-boyfriend and I went to celebrate New Year’s with Chris and his friends. At the time, Chris was living smack in the middle of Times Square, on 43rd street. We went up to the roof to celebrate. It’s the best vantage point I ever have had of Times Square, and the closest I ever want to get to the heaving mass of humanity that is the NYE celebration there. I’ve often thought of how wonderful it was to spend NYE in Chris’ company, and I wrote the scene of that party into my first novel attempt later.

We saw each other after that, well into the new year (2001, it would have been). We spent not a few evenings at bars in each others’ company, slugging back beer and the occasional whiskey, I think, although I may have fabricated the whiskey part of it.

These are my scraps of memory then: a few time-stamped photographs; some e-mails lost in the ether; memories of his voice over the line and across a couple of bar tables, the friendly brown eyes and raised eyebrows–“Tell Uncle Chris about it,” coquettishly–the constantly scruffy face, and that damned jacket he wore when I first met him, the one that made an appearance everywhere, it seemed.

My memories are nowhere near the events and images that made him famous later on. You won’t find our little article on his web page; and he probably didn’t think of me much over the past few years, nor did I think of him all that much, except for when I came across his byline, which was, okay, frequent, and always with the thrill that he’d gone from what we did together to this life. Always there was a frisson of worry and a silent wish that he’d stay safe.

These are the things I remember. I am honored to have shared a byline with him. Happy he graced my life. Infinitely sad that he won’t be around for me to look up when I get a wild hair, dial the number that lived in my Rolodex for years, gathering dust. Maybe I’d hear the warm voice again.

He was a good man, a good friend, whenever I called. My work is better because of his work. Here is Chris’ web site. I hear he has a son, a 3-year-old. Maybe one day I will bring by the clips, show little Hondros the faces his father captured before he his work launched him onto the world stage as an important voice in conflict photography.

Or maybe I’ll just keep it to myself. For now, here are the pages of our work together. I will miss you, Chris. Thank you for sharing the byline.

UPDATE:
In lieu of flowers, the loved ones of Chris Hondros kindly request donations be made to The Chris Hondros Fund. This fund will provide scholarships for aspiring photojournalists and raise awareness of issues surrounding conflict photography.
The Chris Hondros Fund
c/o Christina Piaia
50 Bridge Street #414
Brooklyn, New York 11201

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The People in My Neighborhood: The Track Rats

These are people in my literal neighborhood, not people in my imaginary neighborhood. I know a couple people already, like the crossing guard who says hello to Sprocket every morning (she says it makes her day) and the woman with the delicate Italian greyhound who plays like it’s a much larger dog.

But it wasn’t until I spent two hours on the track, two weeks in a row, that I felt a part of the neighborhood. The track is 1/5th of a mile long. It sits right below Eastview Middle School, which was built in 1929 and still retains most of its architectural charm. Jim and I have run around the track before, in the summertime, but we were not partaking of many of the activities that were going on. Rather, our activity–the dull pounding of pavement in a loose oval, around and around–seemed downright odd, and totally unpleasant, compared to the fun going on in the center of the oval. Families picnicked. Friends brought volleyball nets to play what my brother, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in South America, fondly calls “Ecuaball.” Kids rode their bikes around the track, dodging boring people like me and Jim. Soccer was had, and rubber balls were bounced, and even though there was a big sign saying NO DOGS ALLOWED, there were one or two who ventured onto the field and gamboled about with the children.

It was a community space, and we felt like intruders, robotically moving around, and around.

But recently, as the days have been getting shorter and I have found myself with no safer option than to put in two hours at the track, I have discovered another set of people. They are another type of authentic neighborhood person, and being there with them has helped me to feel more a part of this community.

I have run into them each once, and some of them twice.

  • The Boxer. The Boxer is pretty amazing. When I got there, he was already on the track, and he didn’t leave until an hour later, I don’t think. He wears a heavy sweatshirt and leaves his hood up, and he runs on the outer side of the track, which might account for why I am able to lap him. He jogs loosely, arms sort of flopping. He never sprints. What he does that absolutely makes me want to stop and watch, though, is use the straightaways to practice a few footwork moves. He jabs and spins, stays on his toes. In the deep dark of the night, with snowflakes falling all around and the wind whipping them into a fine smoke at your feet, there are few things more magical.
  • The Loner. I’ve seen this guy each time I’ve been to the track at night. He’s OK with two people on the track, but when the number boosts to three, he vanishes, and you think he’s gone, until you see his grey hooded sweatshirt on the turfed level above as he completes his lap. Each time, you can see his face turn towards the track–the point at which you can see him is also the only point at which he can see the track–and you know he’s checking, either to see if you’re still there or to see if the track has become less, um, crowded.
  • Le Flaneur. An older gentleman, he arrives in a car coat and a fedora. He wears a red plaid scarf and walks a mile or so, five laps. He executes a very slow jog sometimes, slow even by my standards, presumably when he gets cold. He waves when he arrives and waves when he leaves if you’re within sight.
  • The Hooligans. They are inevitable. The first time, I arrived on the track at 6PM and predicted someone with nothing better to do would show up around 7. They did, right on the nose, screaming and pushing each other around in a shopping cart, which they then left. As hooligans are wont to do, however, they left within fifteen minutes.
  • The Football Star. He takes up only one part of the track. He runs on the grassy part of the track just inside the oval and sprints hard, running drills, with an imaginary football under his arm.
  • The Heartbroken Greaser. He wears a leather jacket, motorcycle boots, clomps along the track. Huge on-ear headphones. Moping. Lots of hair. He walked a good two miles before he left, and that was only to run down into the parking garage, where they were ticketing cars and his, apparently, was wailing. I guess he hadn’t had enough of soul-sucking walking in the dark beginnings of snow, because he came back to do another two laps before he left.

Some characters, right? I’m rarely alone on the track. I guess that’s why I don’t mind it so much. Why would I ever consider a treadmill again???

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The People in My Neighborhood: The Big Dogs

Why do we have friends? Do we keep them around to prevent from being lonely? Do we have them because they make us laugh? Is it because they keep us sane? Because they bolster us?

I think all of my friends are incredible people. They’re all beautiful and they all have something great to offer, even if it is just something as basically vital as a voice on the other end of the line.

But in many ways, my friends are so vastly different from me. Like, my friend Kate is a really good literary agent, but that’s not something I’d ever want to try. And my friend Aileen is a die-hard classic New Yorker, but I don’t know how to be one of those, really, beyond loving the city and knowing it. My other friend Kate is a really good outdoors and travel journalist–something I always thought I wanted to do, but which proved not only outside of my ken, but outside of my area of interest, no matter how much I tried to force it.

So you see, I think of my friends as silos–perfect in their individual pursuits, which may not be for me.

Sport does bind us together. Jim and I have many friends that we’ve either followed into a race or friends we’ve tried to get into racing in some way, shape or form. But I was always more support crew or guide: “Here, you should try this sport. It’s super fun. Don’t worry, I’ll be the slowest on the course, so I’ll look out for you.”

Here’s proof:

Of the ten people in this photo (October 2001), only two did not race. I’m one of them.

Anyhow. I’m sure part of this is self-defense. I know I’m not willing to put in the time to train to the point where I can do a marathon in 3:30, or even 3:45. And I know I’m not a gifted enough athlete, although I did have some kind of competitive streak when I was younger. (Have you seen it lying around? I’d kind of like it back, please. Kind of.)

But last week, while I was mucking around in Surrey with Lara and Jody, I caught a flutter of feeling something new in my chest: aspiration.

It happened while I was chugging up a hill, chasing Lara and Jody. Jody’d just completed a fifty-mile race over the Grand Tetons. Lara is, in general, a conscientious and meticulous athlete. Both are stronger than I am by leaps and bounds, but both are generous with their abilities: they invite me places and whenever Jody comes to stay she invites me to run with her. When I went to visit her in North Carolina, where she lives, she encouraged me to “bring trail running shoes.”

Perhaps I should be more obvious: Jody is a four-time Ironman. Between her first Ironman and her second, she took an hour off her time. Her regular marathon time is well below four hours.

Lara’s first Ironman time was around 13 hours. She’s remarkably gifted on the bike, as far as I can tell, and manages her six-foot frame like grace incarnate. (Why, yes, your friendly local short and stubby over here is jealous. Thanks for asking.)

Anyhow. So there we were, mucking up this hill. Me, panting. I don’t know what Lara and Jody were doing because I could only just see them cresting the thing, and then waiting for me, ponytails mussed in the most chic of ways, pacing, looking not at all like running dorks, but rather like people who were inordinately comfortable in their own bodies, while I, overdressed and sweating up a storm, clomped and chugged like a pregnant sow waddling to the trough.

And then it hit me. I want to be up there, with my friends, where I belong. And where, apparently, they think I belong. although they’d never pressure me to be more than I want to be.

We did a 10-miler that weekend, a part-pavement part-trail race that had Lara elated and me and Jody muttering over the fact that we had to run over plowed farmlands.* I couldn’t help thinking, what a formidable set we’d have been, the three of us, if I could keep pace with them, egging each other on, running smoothly.

It used to be that I longed for a Girls’ Night Out group. It would be me and my girlfriends, walking swiftly down the street, an updated, better-looking female version of the Monkees.

Here we come/Walking down the street/Get the funniest looks from/Everyone we meet

And we’d get the funniest looks not because we were the Monkees, but because people could not believe how much fun we were having together. The looks would be looks of envy: Goodness, look at those girls. They can depend on each other. They are good friends. They are each others’ wingmen.

And then I had that for a brief shining year or two in New York, and it was beautiful and wonderful and everything I thought it’d be.

But I want more. I want to transfer my Monkees image to the race course, or at least to the training sessions.**

It occurs to me that this is why you have friends: They make you want to be better than you’ve been before, more than you’ve been before. I speak of this not only in sport terms; I speak of this in all walks of life: one of my friends has been through more this past year than can possibly be expected of a normal functioning human being, and yet, she’s worked through it, and moved on, with aplomb and good humor. This kind of attitude you just can’t buy. I don’t have it. I’m a moper; I wallow. Not for long, but I wallow.

And the other has a sh*t ton on her plate that I’m not sure I’d even know how to begin to handle. She looks at herself with a sharp, critical eye. She never sees her own skills, but that’s okay, because her friends do see them, and we remind her regularly, when she lets us.

Jody and Lara waited for me at the finish line of the 10-miler. Jody looked for me about a quarter mile before the end of the race course and ran me in, and I think it was then that I finally puzzled it out: My friends are my pack. As in any pack, there are alpha dogs and regular dogs. The difference in my pack is that all the big dogs want the regular dogs to grow up and be big, too.

*Jody did it with a stress fracture in her foot.

**The latter is somewhat plausible with these two. The former is nigh on impossible, but I’m okay with that.

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The People in My Neighborhood: The Guardian

Ricardo Pierre isn’t someone I’m likely to ever encounter again. I’ve only ever spent a couple of weeks in his company. I only have a few decent photos of him, and I had to poach one of those from someone else.

And yet, I’d trust him with my life. I know this because I did have to trust him with my life.

Ricardo has been one of our most consistent drivers and bodyguards in ShelterBox‘s nine months so far in Port-au-Prince. We hired him from the French Red Cross and just never gave him back. He is former detail for President Aristide, a father, a recreational boxer, a husband and the father to two boys. He is one of the nicest guys I have ever met. He is one year into law school and a damned fine electrician. Ricardo is also responsible for the caretaking of his elderly father and his younger sister.

Working on a tent

On my last day in Haiti as team lead, I sat in the front seat of our car with Ricardo at U.N. logistics base, counting cash to pass on to the next team lead. Ricardo would have to keep the cash on him until the next lead could fly in, two days later.

I pulled my stash from various places in my pack and on my body, and counted out several thousand dollars. I handed each hundred to Ricardo to double-check the math, counted it all one last time, and stuffed two envelopes with it, so that Ricardo could carry it around better, more safely.

With Steve, working on an interview

It wasn’t until Ricardo had both envelopes stuffed into his front pockets that I felt as if my tour was finally done, and then I thought about the curiosity of trusting someone you barely know with thousands of someone else’s dollars.

And then I reflected, briefly, on how absurd a world I was operating in at the moment: money was the smallest, least valuable thing I had trusted Ricardo with over the weeks I’d known him. When Ricardo said, “It’s not safe to go there today,” we trusted him. When Ricardo said he’d be back at the Deck (the bar and grill) to pick up me and my teammate no matter how late we stayed out celebrating a logistics partner’s birthday, we trusted him.

When he told us we were safe, I believed him. When he told us we needed to make a quick exit, we did it. When he stood by my shoulder and told me quietly to keep a sharp eye on the woman to my right, I did it, but I did it knowing that he was keeping an equally sharp eye on her–and the sketchy-looking blokes to my left. And when we needed him to run interference, I didn’t even need to think about it. He just did it.

Each day he told us he’d be by to pick us up, I trusted him. Each day we needed someone to back us up doing tent demonstrations, I trusted him to pass along the information accurately, and I could trust that after nine months in the field with our boxes, he knew the kit as well as anyone.

Finally, the day we took him and his family to an all-inclusive beach for a rare day off, when he looked at me and my teammate and told us how much it meant to them that he felt truly a part of the ShelterBox family, I believed it. Later that day, we all sang a noisy “Happy Birthday” in French to my brother over the phone, thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.

Ricardo, middle, with two other ShelterBox Response Team members on a day off.

Each day we needed him to be a member of our team, he came through. It’s why he’ll always be a guardian in my book–and why, when I go to look for someone like Ricardo on my next deployment, I’ll be looking for these same qualities.

I should say that they were qualities that are present in the three drivers that we counted on the most there. They were all men who, when shown that they were expected to become a part of our team, took to that role as naturally as could be expected.

I should also say that working with these men hammered home a critical point for me: You get the most out of trust when you give it as freely as you’re capable of giving it. In this area more than others, the rewards are boundless. I’m not saying that you need to trust everyone around you with your life. I’m saying that there are a few who are worthy, and that you should return the favor when you can, whether someone trusts you with a secret, some insight, or something as small as a couple bucks. These things are weightier than we know.

Ricardo with his son Eduardo at the beach.

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The People in My Neighborhood: The Planner

Sometimes, you meet people in one capacity, and you never think that you’ll see them in other capacities. Sometimes our friends are silo’ed. They stay in their individual little places. We call them when we want specific things: I have friends I got out Drinking with; friends I Do Outdoors Stuff with; friends I Eat with, friends I Cook For. I have friends I Shop With, and Movie friends, and then there are the friends I Learn Stuff With.

I am squashily fond of the friends with whom I Chat Deep into the Night With Only a Bottle of Wine to Entertain Us.

My friend Peter the Planner is one of those, but he didn’t start out that. I met Peter in early July of 2002. i remember because this is the same weekend I got together with Jim. We were camping at Round Valley, mountain bike camping; and we packed in and packed out all of our stuff. We led a quick clinic on flats and cables and stuff, and then were off.

I know that Peter had said he was going to meet us somewhere en route. I’d never met the guy before. I was doing some pro bono media work for a non-profit racing association that we were both a part of. At some point on the trail a really sexy bike went by pedaled by a guy with impossibly long legs and perfect riding form–it looked as if his riding was effortless, and I was immediately annoyed–why couldn’t I ride like that?

Hello, Peter. Nice to meet you.

At some point after that we all went to see a movie together; and then we went out to celebrate Karen, Peter’s wife, on her birthday, at a vegetarian joint–was it VP2?–and then we went to a triathlon clinic together, and shortly after that we did a triathlon together, where we off-road people reveled in the three miles of trail run that broke up all of the awful asphalt; we had dinner together that night, and he came out a couple of times to meet me for drinks, and

Then

I

Moved.

To Chicago.

And I began to notice what happens when you leave the right people: They Call You.

And keep track of you. And when you come home, they make every effort to see you.

Peter and i haven’t done anything athletic together in years. But I know that if we wanted to, we could make it happen.

While I was gone, I learned a lot about Peter:

  • His writing, when he does it, is remarkably evocative of whatever it is he’s feeling at the time. (If you think this is easy, you don’t  know jack, and you need to read more.)
  • His sense of organization is ridiculously good.
  • He is a tangential thinker: His train of thought goes in different directions and then he actually connects the dots, and whatever he’s saying is almost always useful.
  • He knows Stuff. Or knows where to find the answer.
  • He is the right person to talk to when things look grey and confused. Peter will either add some color or sit with you until the cloud passes.

Peter is the planner not only because he works for a major urban-planning think tank, but also because when I am having problems organizing my incredibly disorganized brain and life, I know he can help, and that he will be vested.

I met Peter mountain biking, but our lives revolve around people now. Here is proof:

We go to movies. We go to museums. We have picnics on the High Line together. Sometimes Jim and I get to see Karen, and Peter and Karen’s hilarious and wonderful twins, John and Henry.

Isn’t it nice when someone you thought would only ever fit in one area of your life suddenly spills over into everything else?

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The People in My Neighborhood: The Cyclist

I still remember the first time I ever saw Aileen outside of our usual haunts. We were both on the Upper West Side. She had a plastic carrier bag in one hand and was standing in front of a plate-glass window looking at some clothing items. The shop was Clothingline, when they used to have a brick-and-mortar, and I remember standing just near her, wondering if it was the same girl that…

Yep, it was. We exchanged hellos, and then some random platitudes. I can’t remember when we started hanging out after that, or if we actually did. I do know that when we did actually start shooting the shit together, it was in ways that were so far removed from the way we actually met that you might consider it lucky that we met at all.

So enough dancing around the shrubbery–how did we actually meet?

Answer: On bikes, both strong as can be, both confident, both just discovering, I think, what kind of a person extreme competency makes you.

Aileen and I met in 1997, during training for the 1997 Boston-New York AIDS Ride. I did it with my then-boyfriend, who lived in Boston. I was living in New York, and I trained for the thing largely in my living room, on a hydraulic trainer. But I did go on one or two training rides, and it was there that I met Aileen. We would both go on to complete the 1998 AIDS Ride together. Aileen would ride in support of an AIDS Vaccine across Alaska later, and I would ride across Montana in support of the same cause the year following.

Like I say, I’d never seen her in anything other than spandex before the day I saw her standing in front of Clothingline, but I do remember thinking that this woman of bright smile and open demeanor was one to keep track of.

We floated in and out of each others’ lives for years; and then we lost track of each other. Later, we floated back into each others’ orbits, and have known each other through a fair number of birthdays. I have spent two New Years with Aileen. One was a year in the height of my social life, when I had to hit five New Year’s parties, dragging along a boyfriend who wasn’t too keen on all of the shuffling. It was just before Aileen moved to Colorado.

Aileen was, at the time, the coolest person in my immediate circle. She was the quintessential New York girl, the one I wanted to be, with a terrific apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, two cats, her bike stored neatly away. She had a bar at which everyone knew her name. She knew the firemen and the guys who rode Harleys; her hairstylist was her best friend; she introduced me to lots of different people. She played the guitar. Her friends were vastly different from her. She picked up and moved to Colorado, a couple years after I was considering, and eventually not ready to, move to Montana.

Later, she would be a rock in what might be the absolute most confusing time in my life. But I had no way of knowing this. In fact, Aileen has been there through the Married Man, the Cocaine Addict, the Ego-Maniac, and countless friend rotations. (Why do we give our ex-boyfriends capitalized nicknames, but not our ex-friends? Maybe I should start. Well, there’s Dead-to-Me, but that’s about it…)

I also didn’t know, at the time, that Aileen can write. And if now I am eternally frustrated that she doesn’t do more with her writing, I also know that our relationship is indicative of the way I’d like to approach life, and my fragile wish that more of the world will eventually know Aileen’s writing: what’s meant to be eventually will be.

Aileen’s bike is in a corner now, and has been for a little while. It’s a lovely hat-rack. But it’s kept free of dust, and Aileen knows it’s a beautiful machine. She also knows that she’d like to get back on it. Wouldn’t it be nice if, one day, Aileen and I got to ride our bicycles again together?

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The People In My Neighborhood: The Teacher

Almost at the bottom of my second cup of coffee. In accordance with my self-imposed rule of posting more than once a month on this thing, here’s a series of posts about the past week and the people in it. But really, it’s about the varied people in my life, and how they got there.

On Wednesday I went down to my friend Alan’s school, Bronx Science, to talk about ShelterBox. Alan and I have been trying to put this together for a long time. He managed to squeeze me into his Comparative Government class, all seniors, all two and a half weeks from graduating.

The awesome mural at the entrance of BxSci HS (photo: BXSci)

People, can I just say how incredible it is to watch a friend teach? Even if it’s just taking brief command of a class and then turning it over to you; there is something remarkably moving about the process of watching someone you know and love; someone who’s lived a long and storied life, part of which you’ve been there for; stand in front of a class of students who could be unruly, but aren’t, in his presence.

Alan’s students are thoughtful and kind; smart and curious; loving and giving. They are reflections of Alan. Anyone who’s ever doubted the influence teachers have on their charges should witness something like this.

Later Alan took me to lunch. We had mac and cheese in the school caf. I love school cafs. We were in the teacher’s cafeteria, but whatever: same food. I only wish there were fish sticks and tater tots. Alan looks unimpressed here.

I, however, was impressed by the milk cartons:

Hello! “El Moo!”

Would you like to know how Alan and I met? It is a classic New York story. It was early summer, 2001. Maybe even late spring. I was working in advertising sales, and living in Astoria, Queens.

I liked it there. On this particular late-spring day, I dashed down the subway stairs at 59th and Lex, eager to get home, and ran into a wall of people. This is always a bad sign; it means the trains are bogged down someplace and we will all get home a little later, after a sticky subway ride all the way back.

I breathed out, “Ugh,” and looked at the guy next to me, doing a crossword puzzle. “Wow. How long has it been like this?”

He looked up from his puzzle and shrugged. “Dunno. Just got here.”

“Oh, okay.”

I opened my book (Carl Hiasson, but I can’t remember which), and he went back to his crossword puzzle. Not long after, our train arrived, and I looked at him. “Not bad after all,” I said, and he nodded.

We got on the train and I promptly fell asleep, which I did often in those days. You get to knowing where your stop is and your body figures out pretty quickly how long you can nap for, but the crossword-puzzle guy had no way of knowing that. So he watched, nervous for me, as stop after stop went by and I slept.

At the last stop, he got up and reached for my foot to shake me awake, but I snapped awake just in time.

“Oh. I was just about to wake you,” he said, and I grinned.

“This is my stop!”

We walked out together, and he asked about the book I was reading. We made small talk until I got to my corner. He lived only a block beyond, and it seemed we’d been living in that small radius for the past two years or so.

We didn’t exchange information.

But we ran into each other steadily for the next few days, weirdly enough, returning books and videos; picking up stuff; things like that.

We never once exchanged information, and then there came a stretch where I didn’t see him. And then came moving day.

I was moving into Manhattan, and I took the day off to do so. I tried to pack up and then, at around 10:30, realized that I still had dry-cleaning to pick up. I locked up my apartment one last time and went down the street. I turned the corner, and bumped right into Crossword-Puzzle-Carl-Hiasson-Book-Video-Library-Train guy.

“I’m moving today!” I squawked, or something like that.

“I’m late to work!” he returned.

“Okay, we have to do something about this,” I said, and finally, finally, we exchanged information.

We’ve been friends ever since. Alan was with me in the days after 9-11. He’s seen me through breakups and worse; several job changes; he’s been a constant shining star in my life.

I know his students feel the same.

yes, the only photo i have of us together. so lame!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.