New York stories

Le Flâneur

When I go out these days, it’s more likely than not that I am going with a purpose in mind: Meeting a friend, seeing a specific art exhibit, going to a reading. But it’s hard not to see things while you’re en route.

The Sartorialist sees fashion wherever he goes, and that usually involves taking pictures of people. Me, I like items.

Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t one of my greatest failings as a writer: I anthropomorphize everything from construction lights to goldfish. But when it comes to people, I’m less about imagining what might be going on in their heads and more about observation. I wonder which is more important. Anyway, here are some things I’ve seen recently. And some potential dialogue scraps. :) The last two are from the Norwalk Aquarium. No captions needed.

"Bubba, where we goin' now?" "Wherever the wind takes us, boy."

Gina had aspirations of becoming one of those awesome cell-phone towers, but the Powers That Be said she was too prickly for the job.

 

"Oh, for Pete's sake. How did I get here?"

 

"When I was a boy, there was none of this spackle stuff. Don't even get me started on whitewash. Laziness, that's all it is."

 

"Are you looking at my butt?" "Sorry, Phillippa--it's just--you've got some kind of weird protrusion." "What?!" *cranes neck*

 

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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.

Kickstart My Heart, Part II

So. While I was headed down to the gym earlier tonight (at 10:30! What a joke!) I was struck with the most certain terrifying thought that if I didn’t write down all of the wedding weekend festivities, I’d just…forget.
I mean, hey, we all say things like, “It was a night we’d never forget,” but…well, a girl gets old. Stuff falls out and between the cracks. And besides, I want to share this with peeps who weren’t able to go.
So I’ll give you the rundown of the weekend now. But in the interest of space and your own sanity, I’ll save the rumination for later. There’s a lot to think about.
Got that? Boring timeline now; potentially boring reflections later.
Okay. So when last we left this blog, it was Wednesday afternoon and Lara and I were picking up Ms. Jody. We collected a bizarrely baggage-less girl, and although gullible me just shrugged when Jody waved her small carryon backpack at me and said, cheerfully, “dress and shoes, that’s all I need!” it proved to be that the airline had lost Jody’s luggage.
So we spent part of the trip out of Vegas trying to find mobile phone spots in which Jody could bark at the airline, trying to figure out when her luggage was going to get to Death Valley. We had a minor detour during which we stopped at WalMart and Michael’s to pick up some odds and ends*, and then it was finally, finally off to Death Valley. We checked into our individual rooms, said hi to Jim and Scott and Nichole (Jim’s best man and our officiant, respectively), and then, delight of delights, got a text that Peter was already at the resort, family in tow.
We met Peter for drinks and some light eats at the Corkscrew Salon, and then hot-footed it back to my suite to put together gift bags. This included some small disappointments: The letters I’d had the resort print out came out in a different, decidedly non-1920s font, despite my spending some time having chosen a specific look, and I forgot to add the location of the post-race BBQ to said letter, so Jody spent some precious time and energy writing the location on each of the 52 gift bags. Nuts. This might be why the scene in our room looked like this:

[photo: Jody]
In the end, though, everything looked OK.
photo: cousin Rachel, wicked w a camera
It felt a little bit surreal. I’ve never undertaken such a large-scale “craft” job, unless you count the time I made all those bracelets for Terry, and that was just with Jim helping. This time, having two of my closest friends nearby, felt strange, especially with Kim Kardashian yammering in the background. I still don’t know why Lara chose that channel. But I said I wouldn’t ruminate.
Okay. So. The next morning we gathered for breakfast and then showed Lara and Roj (he’d arrived earlier that morning) and Jody around the ceremony and reception site, and then, with Scott and Nichole and our friends Kathy and Jeff in tow, we finally set off a little after lunchtime for a trip to the nearest sites available to us, Badwater Basin, the Artist’s Palette, and…something I can’t remember right now. Oh, right, the Natural Bridge.
Here’s Badwater.

Photo: Lara


Yes, yes, that’s me and Roj tasting the water. I daresay, I think my plank is better than Roj’s, although I will confess I had a dangerous time of actually getting up from the dip that was required if I was going to taste the wine of the desert.
Here, I like this photo:

Photo: Lara


And here’s a photo from Lara’s camera of our group. Lookit all the friends!

Jody and Lara and Roj and I went back to the Inn, where Jody and I went to sit by the pool and chatted up the race director, and then we ended up deciding that it was a good time to head up to the bar with Lara. The text messages started coming in then; Jen and Ken; Kara Andersen, and Jim stopped by, and I know there were one or two others, but I cannot remember now.**
Dan and Audrey arrived then, and we had drinks up in my room, and then eventually my parents and my brother and sister-in-law pulled in, and after getting them all settled in, we went out to dinner down at the Ranch, where we ran into a whole bunch of other friends, like Ed and Kathleen and Peggy and Amalia and some other people*** and it began to sink in just a little bit that everyone was gathered here for a reason.
It was a most delicious sensation. But I digress.
The next day was race day. We got up and dragged ourselves down to race start, where, oh! joy of joys! My parents AND Kara’s were waiting, to take pictures of the race start, and we heard that Lara had indeed decided to undertake the marathon with Jody and Jim’s brother Jon and his trainer TJ. The half-marathoners were me, Roj, Kathy, Jeff, Kara, Rachel, Ed, Kathleen, Peter, and Dustin. And Jim decided he was going to do the 10K. Here’s this lovely lovely race photo!

Kathleen and I ran almost all the way together. I’m sure I was holding her back, but by mile ten my hamstring was seriously jacked up and I told Kath to go on. We had a nice run together, anyway, and I enjoyed the company and stopping to take photos and the scenery and all of it. I do love that race.
I came in nowhere near where I wanted my time, but there’s not a whole lot you can do about crap training.
Roj won his age group, and Jody won her age group in the marathon, and and and … well.
After that, we stumbled back to the hotel and did stuff I can’t remember, like…ummmmm. Gosh. I really don’t know. This is awful. I know I was with Jim. Maybe we were looking for my parents. Maybe we hung out with my brother? Maybe we hung out by the pool again. Or maybe I went down to the Ranch to hang out with Jody. No, that’s not right, cos I was back at the Inn in time for rehearsal.
Yes, rehearsal!!
Here was our wedding site, pretty much:

Photo: Alan


If you look real closely you can see all the chairs set up for the ceremony in the upper right hand corner of the photo.
So rehearsal happened, and then there was a post-race BBQ where there was a ton of roasting and a ton of laughs and just some really good times and apparently the cameras didn’t come out until, at 8PM, it got windy and we all repaired to the bar at the Ranch.
Oh. My.
It was crazy buffoonery and there was rather too much drinking for the night before a wedding, but hey, what the heck. You only live once.
Jim went to stay in another room (why? why? I will never understand this), so when I woke up hungover then next morning at 5:45, having been awakened by the howling whistling wind, I totally freaked out. And I called Jim.**** This is the problem with outdoor weddings, you see. Things could Go Wrong.
Well, they didn’t go wrong. The wind died down, we took our pre-wedding photos, which included a little bit of this:

Photo: Nichole Donje


and some of this:

Photo: Scott Allinson


and finally some of this:

and then we went back to the Inn and put our feet up for a wee bit, and then there was a ceremony and some vows and then there was this:

Photo: Matt Siber

Photo: Scott Allinson


And then there was an Epic Fricken Party with the best friends in the world and a pretty good after-party, and that’s all I have to say about that for now, cos this post is SO LONG.
But I will risk a bit of rumination and just say here that it was one of the two best weekends of my life, for a few reasons. One, everyone who was there mattered. Really, really mattered. And two, it was the best ever for its normalcy. Think about it: We had drinks and dinner, we ran a race; we had a post-race BBQ, and then we had a big event and everyone went home happy.
This is the way every weekend should be.
Next post, some Deep Thoughts. Well…some thoughts, anyway.

*these included some gift bags and an item of clothing which I will er, reflect on later.
**See? How awful is that? I’ve already started to forget! If someone out there is reading this and was there, could you remind me?
***Seriously, brain is for shit.
****It would have been so much easier if we had been together, so I could have just pounced on him and yelled, “MAKE IT STOP!” instead of doing it over the phone.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Photodump

I like this photo of Alison.

Alison and I went to the New York Botanical Gardens last weekend. We had a terrific time despite hot and sticky climes, and I took some photos. So nice to see some new plants and immerse myself in greenery.

Gorgeous trees greeted us at the Botanical Gardens.

This plant looks like it was inspired by a roller coaster.

This one was reminiscent of a waterfall, but felt much pricklier.

This one, called, appropriately, Lamb's Ear, was very comforting to the touch.

Not a copper sculpture, a cabbage. Gorgeous.

I have left the NYBG and entered Whoville.

Alison and me. We are spotted because we stood under a sprinkler for a bit; it was that hot.

Not a leather bookbinding, tree bark. Warm and lovely.

Not a stencil in the sky; a breed of maple leaf.

love these colors. the tonality is so soothing.

butt-cactus. yuck.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

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.