18 February 2009

Perfect Strangers.

No one would argue with you if you were to say New York City is one of the most scenic and thriving cities in the world. The Bronx, Harlem, Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn are connected by one of the most entertaining venues New York has to offer: the subways.

The subways are a great break from monotonous days.

I’ve seen elementary school kids break dancing on the subway. I’ve seen couples break up on the subway. I’ve even seen a girl almost break her face on a stability pole while leaning over to vomit on the subway.

A day of taking the subway without a six piece Mariachi band playing in the two foot space directly next to you is bizarre. If you want to fully experience New York, take the subway.

My train, the D, spends a lot of its time above ground as well as under. Majority of the lines when heading into Manhattan from Brooklyn and vice versa go under the East River. The D doesn’t. It goes above it via the Manhattan Bridge. Every time I enter or exit the city, I get the six million dollar view.

The Manhattan skyline proudly serves as the bustling backdrop to calm water housing Lady Liberty and Ellis Island—both of which are visible from the Manhattan Bridge.

Every time I cross the East River, I look at the Statue of Liberty and am reminded of a woman who sold me luggage at a department store in Oregon months ago. She asked me what I needed luggage for and I told her about my move to New York.

“I’ve told myself since I was a little girl that before I die, I will see the Statue of Liberty,” said the 50-something cashier.

I get to see it everyday. There is never a moment during the two-minute bridge crossing when I don’t feel overwhelmingly thankful.

When taking the bridge last week around dusk, my thoughts were interrupted by a middle-aged woman sitting next to me.

“Does that ring open?” she asked pointing at my jewelry.

“No,” I answer. “It’s just obnoxious.”

She puts her weathered hands out in front of her and spreads her fingers. A large Tiger’s Eye ring adorns her left middle finger, the same finger where my massive white onyx resides.

“I like your ring,” I tell her.

“Really?” she asks more surprised than I was expecting. “Thank you.”

“So where did you get your ring from?” she asked.

“Well actually I got it from Oregon, where I'm from.”

“What brought you here?”

“I’m a writer,” I tell her. “I’m currently copy editing at a magazine.”

“Well,” she says breathing out. “Then I think you should know about the dance studio that’s closing on 36th street.”

“Oh, ok.”

“Yeah, maybe you could pass it along to someone.”

When telling someone you don’t know you are involved in media, the conversation tends to go towards something you “should” cover.

“Yeah,” I tell her. “I’ll do that.”

After a moment of silence, she speaks to me again.

“It’s sad,” she says. “I used to take lessons there all the time, but I haven’t been recently because I just lost my mother.”

As I turn to look at her, she puts her head down. I cock my head to see her face, and I notice her eyes are flooded. Like a yawn, I am immediately triggered. I start to tear up, too.

I am instantly reminded of my grandmother, who was probably around the same age as her mother. I lost her last year after a long, mean battle with Alzheimer’s.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” I say. “Really.”

“It’s been tough. It’s not the best way to start a new year.”

“I can’t even imagine.”

“But I’ll be ok,” she says still looking at her thighs.

Seeing my stop is approaching, I look up at the subways abrasive fluorescent lights and blink away the sadness engulfing my eyes. Bowing my head to her level, I extend my right hand.

“I’m Meghan.”

“Maria,” she says, accepting my hand.

Still embracing her hand I place my left one on her knee and she looks up at me.

“I think 2009 is going to be a great year for you, Maria.”


“Without a doubt.”

She warmly smiles and wipes her face with her hand. She nods at me. “Thank you.”

As I stepped off the train, I’m overwhelmed with emotion—about everything: the recession, my job industry, my friends and family and their distance away, and now Maria.

I didn’t lie to Maria. 2009 will be a great year. Because it has to be. For all of us.

Now every time I go over the Manhattan Bridge I am reminded of two strangers: the Oregon cashier and Maria.

I hope the Oregonian gets to see the aqua marine monument before she dies. I hope Maria will find a new dance studio. I used to hope that I would never take my time here for granted. But because of two perfect strangers, I know I never will.

13 February 2009

Mazel Tov.

It was like the opener to a bad bar joke: a fair Irish Catholic moves to Hasidic Brooklyn.

Except it isn’t a joke. It is my life. I, the fair Irish Catholic one, moved to a Hasidic Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood almost nine months ago.

And not just any Hasidic Jewish neighborhood. I moved to the largest Hasidic neighborhood in the United States.

When I decided to move to Brooklyn from the West coast, I was unfamiliar with her neighborhoods. I came to visit Manhattan’s sister borough in May to find an apartment before my summer move. New York was dark and rainy; borderline apolocalyptic. As I visited apartments with my companion Conner, I based my judgment on a very important, highly scientific test: The “Do I feel comfortable walking these streets at night in the dark without fear of getting jumped, groped and/or murdered?” Test. Majority of the neighborhoods I looked at failed—until I came to Borough Park.

Borough Park is in South Brooklyn below Park Slope and above Coney Island. I could tell the neighborhood was quaint based on the fact I walked by two elementary schools within two blocks of one another. Even in the late May downpour, I felt instantaneously comfortable and connected. The apartment I came to see was wonderful. 1,200 sq. ft, 2.5 rooms, top floor and a roof view that was enviable. The building owners are a mother-daughter duo and spoke with such heavy New York accents, I could barely understand what they were saying—but I knew I liked them. I trusted them. And more importantly, I trusted the neighborhood.

I signed a lease.

Walking back to the subway, I noticed a few men in wide brimmed hats and heavy overcoats. They had curls at their temples that tumbled past their ears. These men were accompanied by women pushing double-seated strollers. As I continued down my new street, I noticed all of the women had identical haircuts: a blunt cut brunette bob. Because of the rain, they covered their hair with plastic bonnets. After a few more blocks I figured out they were all wearing wigs. And I also figured out I just signed a lease in a Jewish neighborhood.

When I arrived back to Oregon I googled my new neighborhood and found out my speculation was correct. Borough Park was the largest Hasidic neighborhood in America. Crown Heights Brooklyn, made famous by Jewish reggae rapper, Matisyahu, was number two.

I arrived in Brooklyn full-time in the dead of summer. The July humidity was almost enough to make me trek back across country without looking back. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. There was no way to remain cool and there was no way to remain clean. Now that the weather was bright and clear, I saw many more of my new neighbors. Dressed in their wool coats and slacks, their dark brimmed hats were lined with white residue from their head sweating in the 95-degree sun.

I was immediately singled out. My wild curly, blonde hair paired with my kelly green shirt and shorts didn’t make the best first impression.

I found myself intimidated by this culture. Never making eye contact, they didn’t acknowledge me. They looked right through me. I constantly had to step off the curb so they could pass. It was like I wasn’t present on the street at all.

My father and I went to the local hardware store to purchase an air conditioner. The Hasidic man behind the counter didn’t help us. After waiting at the counter to pay for what we came for, the shopkeeper looked at me and simply walked away.

My dad had an idea.

When he returned without me, but with Conner’s brother Sam 15 minutes later, he was sold the unit without a problem.

Summer continued with like experiences. I felt guilty walking the streets in dresses and shorts. Women would stare at me while waiting in line at the local, non-Hasidic owned drug store. I found myself getting more and more frustrated as time wore on.

The first five months of living in Borough Park, I didn't talk to a single resident. It was an unspoken agreement. I became a silent observer. I was fascinated by the Hasidic way of living and I started noticing their subtleties.

Like how Hasidic men would cut in front of women in various lines. How the usually packed streets were vacant on the Sabbath (Saturdays). How their children go to school Sunday through Thursday. How not once have I seen a Hasidic man or woman walk at a leisurely pace. They walked very quick and with purpose. Their coats are very long, sometimes covering their feet and they looked like they were floating because of it.

A few months ago while waiting to pay for some cards at Duane Reade, the local drug store, a Hasidic man cut in front of me. Usually I am very non-confrontational, but today I was a bit feisty. I walked in front of him and placed my items on the counter. A moment later I could feel his chest on my back, letting his presence known.

I was an outcast in this neighborhood and this man made sure I understood. So when a Hasidic woman reached out to me one Fall night, in one of the most bizarre encounters of my life, to say I was shocked is a severe understatement.

While walking home from the subway with Conner around midnight, we noticed makeshift tents all over my neighborhood. 12x12 foot wooden boxes were assembled and covered in tarps on the sidewalks. As we walked by each one, we could hear conversation inside.

Upon reaching my apartment entryway, a Hasidic woman who I recognized as living in the building next to mine approached us.

“I need you to reset my oven,” she states in broken English.

Completely caught off guard, I ask her to repeat herself.

“Here, you go with her,” she says while pointing at her pre-pubescent daughter in the doorway of their building.

Without giving it a second thought I go with her. To reset the oven. At midnight.

While walking up the never-ending staircase, I start to overheat. Not because of the incline, but because I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. I turn to look behind me and Conner has matching bewilderment on his face.

When we reach the apartment I notice instantly it is three times the size of mine and I’m immediately envious. Furnished in dark oak and gold, the home is rich and warm. When we walk into the living room, we are met by an audience. Roughly seven or eight children look at us in confusion. My red pants and knee-high boots were not helping.

“Here,” says the daughter while pointing at the oven.

The oven is running perfectly fine. It’s on, baking something at 400 degrees.

“Push this down arrow button,” I’m told.

So I do.

“Keep pushing it until 350.”

So I did.

“Ok. Thank you.”

I don’t think I even returned the sentiment because I was so confused. Why couldn’t she press the button three times? My mind is racing. If they were to kill Conner and I right now, no one would know. Seriously.

As we turn to run back down the stairs to safety, we are blocked by the mother who was coming up them.

“Ok, now I need you to program my lights,” she says. “In the back room.”

Now I’m officially feverish and suffering from slight tunnel vision.

We follow her to the dark back room where we are met by her older son. She points at the light timer on the ground of their laundry room, and Conner picks it up on command. As she and her son are speaking Yiddish to one another, Conner and I are wild eyed.

“Ok, he says you have to turn it three clicks to the right,” she instructs.

Conner clicks it times three.

“Ok, now you have to put this pin in it to set it.”

Conner sets the pin.

“Ok. Thank you.”

I yell “You’re Welcome” over my shoulder as I’m already out the door.

“Here, I must give you cake,” she says.

We enter her kitchen and she cuts us a generous piece of marble cake. Feeling a little more at ease while giving her countless children awkward smiles, I ask, “do you mind telling us why we needed to do these things and what the huts are outside?”

“Why yes, it is our holiday, Sukkot [pronounced sue-COAT]. Our men eat, drink and sleep outside for seven days,” she says. “And we cannot do any kind of work for a week.”

Like setting light timers and ovens.

Thanking her for the cake, we descend the stairs.

“So when do you work, just in case we need something else?” she asks us.
“Well are you able to call us?” I ask.


“What about leave us a note?”


“Ok, well if you see us outside, we’ll come help if you need it.”

Note taking and dialing were all considered exerting themselves during this time.

It was at this moment I felt a part of this culture. Hasidic Jews are a quiet, ultra orthodox culture. I get it.

On New Years Eve an acquaintance I don’t know well approached me at a bar.

“How come you live in that neighborhood?” she asked rudely. “I’m Jewish and I wouldn’t even live in that neighborhood.”

Well good. Then don’t. Because it’s my neighborhood. And when they need their ovens set, I’m the only gentile they've got. And I'm ok with that.

07 February 2009


I quit my job.

During the worst economic recession of my lifetime, I quit a well paying job.

During my time in New York, I worked as a design assistant to a well-known New York dress designer. The hours were flexible, the pay was good and it gave me the luxury to make money while working for free at an independent magazine.

New York has become the eye of the economic storm. Effects of this recession hit the city in waves, giving small and independent business owners optimism one week and leaving them devastated the next. Manhattan has become the city of egg shells and I have become a professional at treading lightly.

The dress shop I worked for is the prime example of what entrepreneurship is going through during this arduous time. With pieces priced between $400 and $800, residents of the lower east side are more concerned in making their rent and paying their escalating utilities than purchasing gratuitous gowns. When I was hired, the store was in its prime, pulling over $20k a week. When I left, weekly sales were around $5k.

Working became dismal. And the times reflected in the designer's attitude.

My job was in fabric selection. The designer would sketch dresses and I chose what it would be made out of. I spent my days perusing the garment district looking for poly lycras, silks, linens and cotton blends. The 2009 Spring line would be made out of textiles I researched and found. For someone with no background in fashion design, it was exciting.

Regardless of how important I felt I was to the label, the designer made sure I felt otherwise.

Throughout the six months I spent with her, I was treated and talked to like a child. I was a verbal punching bag. The recession took its toll on the designer. It was an illness. She was scattered and decided the reason sales were down wasn't because of the current financial hardships. It was because of me. I was tangible, therefore the spoken barrage was easier to localize.

We came to verbal blows a few times and I always stuck up for myself. I felt bad for her. I knew her entire livelihood depended on the success of the store. She was desperate-- but never wanted to look like it. She refused to put signs in her window or lower her prices. Her form of advertising came from those who reached out to her, like nymag.com.

In November, New York Magazine Online called the store to fact check a paragraph they were going to run on their Website. It covered the basics: our location, telephone number and what we carried. Six sentences total. The designer wasn't around so I fact checked it.

"..and you have silk wrapped dresses," read the fact checker from the blurb in front of him.

After I address that we don't carry such dress, the caller says, "great. I'll take that out and get it right in".

When I told the designer she was elated. She was thankful I was the one who took the call because of my "journalism background". I was treated as an equal for the rest of the day.

The paragraph never ran. The designer called every person she could at nymag.com to figure out why and came up empty handed.

Months passed.

Last Wednesday, I called the designer when I opened the store to inquire about the paintings that were newly displayed on the walls. I could tell they were painted by Christy, a girl who worked primarily selling in the store. I called to see if they were for sale.

"What I need for you to do, Meghan, is to keep your agenda out of my store," she harshly replied to my question.

The biggest peeve I have is when people say my name condescendingly. It is the one thing in this world that will raise my hackles instantaneously and at this exact moment I'm flushed.

"Agenda?" I ask trying to keep my octave at a professional level. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I know Christy is a painter, and you're a journalist, but when you are in my store, you are neither."

Her stance makes perfect sense. Her tone with me at this moment, doesn't.

"Where is this coming from?"

"Well, since I'm over it now I guess I can address it, but it's taken me a long time. I was really upset about this, Meghan."

Again with the name thing.

"Remember the New York Mag article?" she demands.

How could I forget? There wasn't a day in the past two months she didn't mention it, and now that I think of it, mention it directly to me.


"Well basically you cost me thousands of dollars."

My furrowed eyebrows weren't helping my accelerated migraine.

"Oh yeah? And how is that?" I ask, my voice now gaining fire.

"Because I made some phone calls-- because I know, like a lot of people in the publishing business-- and they said the reason why they didn't run the story on me was because you corrected it."

I am now sitting Indian style in the middle of the store. My left elbow is resting on my knee and my forehead is in my hand.

"Uhh, no..."

"-- actually yes, Meghan. I made the calls."

"Did New York Mag tell you that?"


Well of course not.

"And that story, Meghan, would have been seen by millions and the store would have generated a couple thousand dollars off a story like that."

I would like to address, it wasn't a story. Her face was not going to be plastered on Vanity Fair with an accompanying article written by Dominick Dunn. It was shorter than an obituary in a local paper. And I know they didn't run it because of me.

"Well I don't know what to tell you," I say. "I really don't think that's the cas--"

"-- and the things is Meghan, I was going to fire you. But I didn't because you are new to the city and I'm sure you have personal things going on," she interjects. "So I've really done a lot for you."

I start stuttering giving her more fuel.

"So I'm over it now, but your agenda needs to not be in my store. I know a lot of people in the publishing business."

I don't fully understand what she means by her last statement. Was that a threat?

I get off the phone. Sitting on the floor with my scarf and coat still on, I notice I'm in the middle of two racks of her designs. I wonder how I'm going to sell these products after the recent conversation.

I get through the day and call her. I give her my notice. She is surprised, oddly, and starts telling me how much she has done for me.

I ask her if she wants it in writing.

"Can you give me a week?" she asks. I tell her I would.

The next day I open the shop and store my things in the back. A minute later, the designer enters with shopping bags full of the Spring pieces-- the pieces I have researched so hard on.

"I need you to get me a cider," she says handing me a twenty.

Upon my return, I notice my coat, scarf, purse and bag on the front chair. As I approach the desk, I see my key ring two keys short. The designer is writing a check.

"Since you're so unhappy here, Meghan, I'm going to let you go today."

With a full tooth smile I over eagerly reply, "great!".

As I take my personal items out of the pile she put them in, I ask if I can see the Spring line before I go.

"You can come back and see them when they're on the rack."

My back teeth are slowly turning into powder as I'm forcing to keep my mouth closed. I'm positive she can hear the grinding.


As I walked out, I am upset. I'm infuriated. But as quickly as these emotions come, they disappear. And I'm randomly at peace. I'm walking taller than I have in a long time. And I'm proud of myself.

As someone who is anti-cliché, it's crazy how they surface at the most opportune times. If you don't stand for something, you will fall for anything.

The designer's store is destined to fall. And it's incredible to know that it won't be on my shoulders.