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Battle gear.

bad ass jeansYesterday on the Brian Lehrer show, Emily Spivack spoke about Worn Stories, her new book that examines how clothes are more than just a fashion statement. Clothes reveal something about who we are and how we wish to present ourselves to the world. The book features photos of public figures accompanied by brief personal essays that explain why a particular personal item of clothing holds deep significance. Lehrer invited listeners to call and share their own stories about an article of clothing they intend to keep forever.

I often refer to my clothes as “vintage from my own closet” because many items have been with me longer than my husband. I have a tendency toward keeping clothes past their prime, and wondered what I might insist be packed to accompany me to the nursing home in my later years. I decided it would be my 30-year-old jeans.

The jeans themselves are not 30 years old. I bought them as a 30th birthday present to myself thirteen years ago. Gap, low rise flare stretch jeans, size 4 ankle, dark rinse once-upon-a-time. I paid full price. For that reason alone I would hold onto the jeans. Gotta make sure I get every last penny of use out of them. It felt indulgent at the time, buying something that was not on sale for myself, but who knew how much longer I’d be a size 4 or be able to wear something current without looking ridiculous? I was turning 30 after all. There was a lot of unknown in the years ahead.

One of the things John and I had planned for our 30s was starting a family. It took six years to achieve a pregnancy that went beyond the first trimester. I remember keeping track of the days after a positive pregnancy test, each one a triumphant step closer to a day when I’d not be able to squeeze into my size 4s. I also remember slipping right back into my jeans after losing pregnancies or after unsuccessful rounds of fertility treatments. My relationship with my jeans was finally interrupted when I became pregnant with Liam in 2007. I began 2008 in the final stretch of pregnancy, sure my size 4s would stay folded in the closet for the rest of the year.

Stillbirth was not something John and I had planned for. Who does? It’s the subject that’s not on the prenatal class agenda. It doesn’t get a dedicated chapter in the pregnancy guides and it’s not common to find a dedicated guide on the shelves of the bookstore. But stillbirth happens. It happened to us. We had arrived at the hospital on a February evening, me in labor and giddy. We left less than 36 hours later with Liam’s death certificate.

We lost more than our baby boy. In the immediate hours, days, weeks after I left the hospital, I increasingly lost the ability to function. Kitchen cabinets, chairs, and my own body were the victims of my hair-trigger rage. I was scared and paranoid: Danger pursued me at all times. I panted constantly, like a dog sensing distant thunder. I was detached from reality, forgetful, often lost in my own building and neighborhood. My body was a trauma site. I wanted to be rid of it, and of my life.

Family and friends were at a loss for words. What was there to say? But they were a regular presence in our home. Uncles and aunts stopped by unexpectedly and regularly with still-warm cookies, homemade pasta sauce, or freshly made soup. My in-laws visited and stayed often, washed countless dishes, took me to lunch out of state, and helped me with crosswords that confounded me. Younger cousins and nieces shared stories of school project triumphs, and knocked each other on the head for telling lame jokes.

My best friend took days from work to be with me. I remember one visit in particular: I stood at the stove and she sat at the kitchen peninsula, watching me.

“It’s good to see you wearing your old clothes so soon.”

The morning of her visit, I had slipped on my Gap size 4 low rise flares without thought. At that point, it had been just over one month since I’d left the hospital. So much had happened and changed, yet the jeans fit like I’d never been pregnant. In my head, I was many things: broken, a monster, crazy, a failure, grief-stricken. But standing there in my kitchen in my old jeans, I was also still Nancy. Nothing, not even I, would be the same again, but the jeans were that first bridge that connected where I’d come from and where I was – and gave me hope that I could reconcile both and recover as a new woman.

My 30-year-old jeans are showing greater signs of wear: they’re whiskered white the length of the seams; the hems are rubbed raw from boots; and the denim in the crotch will soon need patching. I’ll prolong their life through judicious and gentle washing, and air drying. I will wear them, or as much of them that is still left in a few decades, as I’m wheeled into my room at the home. Those jeans remind me I’m bad-ass. I kick ass and when I get kicked and knocked down, I get back up. I’m well past 30 and getting more tattered. Life keeps tearing at me, but I’m a warrior. And those size 4s have been my battle gear.

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Caviar dreams and golden toilets.

I’ll see anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman. The same goes for Liam Neeson, though for different reasons. Both are fine actors, but Liam Neeson is quite fine. He was the reason I paid full price to see “Non-Stop” in a theater. Philip Seymour Hoffman was the reason my husband B and I ventured to the Brooklyn Heights Cinema to see “A Most Wanted Man,” based on the John le Carre novel.

It was a rare summer Saturday that was free of graduations, weddings, birthdays, and barbecues. B and I had decided to indulge with brunch at a diner, a stroll along the Brooklyn Promenade, lite cinematic fare at an independent movie house, and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I am the ultimate multi-tasker, my own worst and relentless task master, and I enjoyed the slowed pace of the day—though it may not have been apparent from the way I panned everything. I’m a glass-half-empty type of woman, so that’s how I roll. I loved watching the easy mix and interaction of humans and canines along the promenade, but the walkway was too short. B and I did a U-turn at the promenade’s end at Pierrepont Place and walked back to where we had entered at Middagh Street. I hate out-and-back loops.

The rain and showers predicted that morning never happened, so B and I crossed the bridge post-movie. The sky was slightly overcast and the slight breeze refreshing in the diffused sunlight. My absorbent fro grew to four times the size of my head from the lingering humidity. Foreigners and locals were awed by the views that had fueled so many of my past runs across the bridge: Liberty Island and Governor’s Island; the iconic skyline of lower Manhattan; the river and its traffic of ferries, sightseeing cruises, sail boats, kayaks, and speed boats. The bridge crossers all around us were marveled but not moved: they stopped short for group photos and selfies, clogged the walkways and bike paths, and interrupted purposeful bridge-crossers like me.

“A Most Wanted Man” was not the type of novel I’d read, but B and I both enjoyed the intriguing, if un-challenging, plot and action. Philip Seymour Hoffman did a fine enough job as the stock male lead typical of those macho books and films: the roguish intelligence (or law enforcement or military) guy who’s scarred by a past mission where his unintended error cost lives. He’s fucked by guilt and the powers that be, and can never forget that one mistake. He might seem cold, distant, an asshole. He’s hard drinking, chain smoking, and inaccessible, but it’s a shield against getting hurt again. Underneath it all, our hero is the one loyal, true guy who will never fuck you.

It was so predictable, I said to B. I could write such boiler plate plots while I sat on the toilet. I thought about it. I could have myself a really nice toilet if I wrote the type of mass market novels that sold at CVS and airports and were adapted for films. I could have a custom-made writing chair, ergonomically correct and designed to accommodate my petite proportions. It could look like a toilet if that’s what I ordered. I could muse about chasing scoundrels, downing whiskeys, and avenging wrongs while I sat on my throne, positioned before the full-glass wall of my study in our floor-through, top-floor residence in one of those fancy glass buildings all around and below us. I could get B his own custom-made toilet with a heated seat and a motion-activated night light for nocturnal trips to the throne. If that life was so easy to attain, why didn’t I go for it?

I know what it’s like to write just for the money. That kind of life gave me daily diarrhea. Financial services had been a lucrative gig for a writer before the economy tanked, but there was no fulfillment in trying to make tax law sound sexy or forensic accounting services morally essential and redemptive. During those years, I had separated myself into worker-drone Nancy, who completed her work more than competently, and real-me Nancy, who shrank daily. The day worker-drone Nancy was downsized because my “role did not align with the strategic goals of the organization,” real-me Nancy was just a shell of someone I used to be. I had invested so many years writing about things I didn’t give a shit about for people who didn’t give a shit about me. I made some money, but I lost myself.

Six years ago I received a literal second chance at my one life. That’s a rare opportunity, a true gift. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. Walking on that bridge with B, I knew exactly why I didn’t choose the seemingly easy-money routes. I’m many things: grumpy, pessimistic, crotchety, cheap, impatient, unforgiving. It’s humiliating to acknowledge those things about myself, but I’ve also learned to be grateful. I try to live a life that appreciates, values, sometimes even celebrates, the second chance I’ve been granted. Even a glass-half-empty woman like me thinks there’s got to be a reason for that.

It would have been nice to get B that heated toilet seat. It was fun to dream about those thrones, but I doubt either of us will live poorer lives without them.

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Random observations from my morning run.

Lake Tashmoo, Vineyard Haven, MA

Lake Tashmoo, Vineyard Haven, MA

The new normal
I get lost a lot because of my PTSD, even in familiar places. I never know when my sense of direction and memory of where I’ve been and where I’m going will abandon me. I use street maps in my own city and recite the names of the streets I’ll take every time I walk out my door: Liberty, St. Paul’s, Kennedy, Pavonia.

I worry about getting lost when I travel alone. Here in Vineyard Haven, I never leave without a map or cell phone. Yet who would I call if I get lost? I walked out the door this morning and repeated my recitation throughout my four-mile run: Main, Clough, Lake, Pine, Spring…

Lost dog
I saw the shirtless man as I approached Lake Tashmoo. He spoke with a shirted man who then drove off in a pick up truck. I noted the make, model and color in case he was a kidnapper and I encountered him later in my run. Two men, one me, a lonely road in the early morning: the situation triggered my fight-or-flight. Friend or foe? Friend or foe? I repeated as I ran and hoped I wouldn’t forget my string of street names.

The shirtless man called out to me as I returned from my visit to the lake shore. I acknowledged him but kept running; I would listen but not stop. He stood at the end of his driveway and asked if I’d seen a medium grey dog during my run. I saw the worry in his eyes, his hair askew, a young boy near the house entrance holding a leash. I felt badly and said I’d look out for a dog during my run. I meant it, but never saw the dog.

Rush hour
I ran a mix of quiet residential streets and main roads. It was early in the morning, well before seven o’clock, but there were a surprising number of cars on the main roads. I remembered people actually live on Martha’s Vineyard. Drive like your children live here. Those signs are most prevalent on the side streets closer to downtown. Many of the vehicles I saw so early were pick ups and vans. They belonged to contractors on their way to work sites, not organ stealers prowling for lone Puerto Rican female runners. They waved me on and allowed me to cross the street, even when I wasn’t at an official pedestrian crossing.

The line of vehicles waiting to board the car ferry was long. A lot of box trucks, vans, some smaller trailers. I saw the delivery truck for Our Town Markets, the liquor store in Oak Bluffs where I got my stash on Saturday night. It made me happy to know they would be stocked when I biked back to the store.

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Church karaoke.

My initial 36 hours on Martha’s Vineyard have been full of surprises: My desperate reaction to the news that Vineyard Haven is a dry town. Rich white people on exclusive New England islands wear ugly sherbert-colored clothing. I attended Sunday mass.

I was too sweaty and foul for the eight o’clock mass at St. Augustine when I ran past the church around 8:15 Sunday morning. I knew I had time to attend the 5:00 p.m. mass before the writing seminar’s welcome reception. I arrived at the church, showered and dressed nicely, five minutes before the beginning of mass.

The church was not elaborate, but pretty with crisp stained glass windows and a ceiling beamed and curved like the inside of a ship. I sat in the pew alone and was reminded of how far I was from John and my family. The mass musicians – three vocalists, two with guitars, one acoustic, the other electric – warmed up and the beauty of their voices distracted me from the oncoming black cloud mood.

It seemed the entire congregation sang along with the musicians. No one held a missalette and I was impressed that they all knew the lyrics. I wished I could sing along, even though I can never determine the correct note to sing and sound like a preadolescent boy whose voice is changing. It surprised me when I saw the hymn lyrics projected onto the wall behind the altar and realized the attendees were able to sing along because it was like church karaoke.

What surprised me most of all was that when I read the lyrics to sing along, they choked me up. I tried to sing or at least say the words “Open the eyes of my heart lord” but my throat tightened and tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I’m normally reluctant to attend mass and never sing hymns but the situation was outside of my normal: I was removed geographically from John and the people important to me. But I knew I wasn’t removed from their love. And because I have all this love in my life, I have the courage to do these crazy things like go to remote places to live among strangers and write stories. The people who love me don’t think any of this is crazy. My eyes were so opened at that moment that all I could do was cry.

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Things that have terrified me so far about attending the writers’ seminar on Martha’s Vineyard (in no particular order):

Ethnic hair care
Last summer’s desperate and fruitless search for a satin hair bonnet on Cape Cod highlighted that the basic necessities of ethnic hair care cannot be found outside of urban areas. Put another way: I can’t expect to find products to control the kinkies in places populated overwhelmingly by non-ethnic gente. Martha’s Vineyard is an island; everything needs to be transported onto the island. I doubted highly it received regular shipments of Queen Helene Cholesterol Crème Conditioner, satin hair wraps or shea butter treatment. I envisioned a week of high humidity and native fowl trapped in my gnarly fro. I packed my products and accessories in my carry-on for extra assurance.

Closet-dwelling psychos, van-driving kidnappers, and la chupacabra
The house in which I’d stay for the week was on a dead end street. The door was unlocked when I arrived. No one answered my calls of “Hello?” A note on the kitchen table greeted guests, outlined the week’s schedule and house rules, and invited the reader to make him or herself at home. I went into code red. Anyone could have walked into the house before me, made themselves at home, and be waiting for a lone little woman. Anyone. I checked the closets, shower stalls, behind the curtains, under the beds, and behind the couches for crazies. The toilets were free of piranhas. As I locked the windows, I saw a contractor’s van parked across the street. Vans are the preferred vehicles of cultists and human organ stealers. I locked all the doors and drew all the curtains closed. I didn’t want potential abductors or la chupacabra to know I was alone.

Vineyard Haven is a dry town
This most vital piece of information was not mentioned on the seminar’s web site or materials. An employee at the local bookstore informed me of this when I asked where I could buy a bottle of wine or pack of beer. I never realized a lack of pubs or liquor stores would be an issue until I found out there were none within the town. I left the books on the counter and walked onto Main Street, dazed. A police officer strolled across the street, which seemed appropriate because the situation felt like an emergency. However, the officer was on foot and I was too shy to ask him to call a squad car to take me into the next town, sirens blaring and lights flashing.

Martha’s Bike Rentals was ahead and still open, well past the official closing time. I took it as a sign; I was destined to rent bicycle #19. Georgie assured me the wire basket was large enough to accommodate a six pack and bottle of wine. He circled the location of Our Town Market on the map, three miles away in Oak Bluffs, and assured me I wouldn’t miss the large American flag or Budweiser sign. The ride there along Beach Road was glorious, past homes with unobstructed views of the water and setting sun. The parking lot was packed with cars and bicycles. I rode carefully on the return to not jostle the bottles in my basket. The bottle of Palm ale made me floaty as I sipped it on the swing and watched the fireflies spark the edges of the front yard. Disaster averted.

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Retirement planning.

I’m not retiring anytime soon. As an adjunct college instructor and fiction writer, I might never be able to retire. Living past age 90 is common in my family, so I may be grading undergraduate essays, tutoring, dog walking, and writing reviews of local delis and middle school plays for the next 50 years. But if the day comes when I can put away my red pen and ignore the queries for someone to walk Rover or help Junior with his grammar, I’ll be ready. I’m in my early 40s, but I’ve been a retiree-in-training for about two years and have racked up gold stars in golden years living. I’m fierce and I’m kicking ass.

I leave the Water Whackies in my wake. Every Wednesday morning, I join the Water Whackies for an hour-long aqua aerobics class at the community pool. That’s right: my classmates call themselves the Water Whackies. Retirees tend to have a healthy sense of humor and the Water Whackies are mostly retirees. Who else is available for aqua aerobics at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning? Oh, that’s right: me.

I might share the pool’s shallow end with skirted ladies and bosomed gentlemen, but I stand out in my electric-blue racing Speedo. And who’s the only one who can keep up with the instructor? That’s right, this girl. Oh, and I’m the only one to whom my classmates refer as “girl.”

Everybody knows my name at the retirement home. I’m popular with everybody in my parents’ building: from the front desk attendant to the president of the Bingo club, from the ladies who gossip in the community room to the home health aides gathered in the laundry room. So what if it’s because I’m a break from the routine of waiting for the mailman or the high school kids who deliver the prescriptions from Newport Pharmacy. I’m a superstar the moment I walk through the doors and leave behind the plebeian world; I’m no longer “ma’am,” “uh, honey,” “Professor Booth,” “the main holder of the account” nor “Number 213.” I become sweetie, miss, or something I rarely hear, Nancy.

Gettin’ it fresh and getting’ it cheap. The coffee and muffins are fresher during the morning special at ShopRite. Movies are cheaper and theaters emptier before 11:00 a.m. Those who frequent these discounts might be cranky and fusty and give me the hairy eyeball like I’m some whippersnapper interloper, but I’m faster in my sneakers than they are in their Velcro-closure orthopedic shoes: I’m first in line for those coffee, pastries, tickets, and bathroom stalls.

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Telling Tales.


The latest installment of my contribution to the “Interview” section of KGB Bar Literary Magazine.

If you are a writer or poet with a recently or soon-to-be released work, and would like to be featured in “Telling Tales,” please contact me via email.


If you’re a publisher or agent, this Boricua seeks representation and has a manuscript of tales that needs publication! Contact me via email regarding Underbelly, my fiction manuscript.

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Flip this.

bike signalI have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Because of my condition, I have a hair-trigger temper. I do not own, nor desire, a firearm. I do own a yoga mat. Yoga is one of the self-soothing methods I use throughout every day, minute by minute, to keep myself under control. The local Episcopal church offers free community morning classes, and that is where I was headed this morning on my bicycle.

Yoga helps me flip it. I don’t mean physically flip from say, bridge pose into warrior one position. I’m not that advanced. I mean yoga helps me follow the Flip It program I designed to control my rage. I turn negatives into positives all day long. The moment I encounter a rage trigger, I breathe and flip it so that I won’t flip out. For example, when my alarm clock goes off, I open my eyes, breathe and flip: “A new day is a new gift.” I breathe and flip my way through the world. Breathe. “The man shoving me from behind with his work bag will ensure that I get through the doors and onto the train.” Breathe. “The student in the first row feels comforted and secure enough in my presence to sleep.” Breath. “The breakdown of my washing machine gives me the opportunity to engage with people at the local Laundromat and the repair man.” Breathe and flip until the moment I can close my eyes and shield myself from the world again. Breathing and flipping all day long exhausts me; I usually fall asleep immediately, oblivious to my husband’s snoring so he too can slumber safely in my presence.

I used to think these affirmative self-soothe strategies were hippie-dippie bullshit for lame brains who couldn’t get a grip on themselves; however, numerous unhinged cabinet doors, broken dinnerware, and bruised feelings proved I didn’t have a grip on myself. Ready-to-burst rage had a grip on me. My doctor, whom I’ll call Doctor Berger, assured it was normal and expected behavior for someone with my condition. She taught me to recognize when I was reacting to a rage trigger: the racing heart beat, quick shallow breathing, tunnel vision trained and fixed on a target, the need for speed and to react immediately and explosively. Rage made me feel unstoppable, like a super power that I wanted to use for bad, not good. Doctor Berger reminded me that during these moments of recognition, I needed to stop, breathe, and talk myself down before I react, like my own personal negotiation team. My Flip It program neutralizes moments of rage into time outs.

The mindfulness I develop through yoga helps me be in the moment so that I flip stress. So I was completely aware and in the moment when that fat guy in the grey Toyota pulled out right in front of my bicycle this morning. It was rush hour. I was on Bergen Avenue avoiding city buses, community vans and oblivious jay walkers. I had breathed and flipped for about ten blocks when I approached the Toyota positioned to exit the parking garage and enter onto Bergen Avenue.

Fat Guy took a fist-sized bite of his breakfast sandwich, put the rest on the passenger seat, then glanced to his left. I was the only approaching traffic as vehicles were stopped at a red light behind me. I slowed but did not stop, thinking he’d let me pass then pull onto Bergen behind me. He chewed and made eye contact with me as I neared his front bumper. I saw his smirk as he pulled out in front of me. I stopped short and Fat Guy took a wider than necessary turn to head south along Bergen, coming less than an inch from my front tire. I yelled in the voice that always makes people wonder how a boom so loud can come from me.

“Watch it!”

The Egyptian guys standing in front of the combo convenience store/hookah emporium/fruit stand stopped talking and stared. They definitely heard me. So did Fat Guy as he watched me in the driver side mirror. He rolled down his window and gave me the finger. Fat Guy flipped me and that gesture flipped me from the positive Polly I had tried to be into a hunk (okay, kibble) of burning anger.

Fat Guy drove south along Bergen Avenue and I followed, my legs pistons fueled by rage. I breathed and sucked in the fumes of the No. 80 bus. I wanted the upper arm strength to flip the strollers, pedestrians, taxi cabs, and delivery trucks out of my way. Every one of them further triggered my anger and I wanted to flip them all off. Fat Guy kept about two car lengths ahead of me, his middle finger out and in my view all along Bergen Avenue.

What would I have done if I had caught up? Jumped onto the back of Fat Guy’s car, climbed over the roof and onto the hood? Perhaps my fierce face would have shocked him to stop. I would have rolled off the hood, sprung to the driver side door, pulled him out through the window, beat him with my purple yoga mat, then shoved the rest of the breakfast sandwich into his mouth to silence his cries for mercy. I was more aware of the fantasy in my head than the traffic on Bergen Avenue and in danger of becoming someone’s hood ornament.

Fat Guy sailed through a just-turned-red light and I had to stop to not be splattered by an in-a-hurry school bus driver. The intersection camera flashed and the moment is stored somewhere in the Jersey City Police Department databanks: Fat Guy blowing the red light and extending his left middle finger out his window. Me out of breath and furious, my purple yoga mat strapped to my back. And life at the intersection of Montgomery and Bergen continuing uninterrupted.

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Morning mix.

I don’t need my iPod when I run. My superhuman will of steel won’t let me quit a run. And the hills I run in my ‘hood are alive with the sound of music. Don’t picture me all frau-like, spinning in a big skirt, extending my arms to the glory that is the early morning.

Picture this: me in neon running clothes (yo, bus and car drivers, all the better to see me with), my kinkies covered with an orange do-rag and my sneakers splattered with dried week-old mud. I run those hills in the heights of Jersey City, with their view of what lies west: train yards and containers, puffing smoke stacks, and really way beyond, green hills.

My breath settles into a rhythm that doesn’t interfere with the music around me: The whoosh of the boulevard bus and the automated female voice that announces in English and Spanish that Manhattan Avenue is approaching. The whirr of the garbage truck and the thuds of the trash containers tossed back onto the curb. A crossing guard blows her whistle at a mother pushing a stroller into oncoming traffic to get who-knows-where in a hurry.

The sounds and activities increase as my run and the morning progress. Drivers honk at reluctant left turners. Tweens and teens yell at friends across the street to “wait up” or “yo, get me a butter roll at the deli.” Squirrels chatter and somewhere — I wish I knew where — I hear the hoot of an owl. Dogs behind fences or at the end of too-long leashes bark at me. Traffic and police helicopters fly overhead. Construction vehicles warn of their reverse movement. Parents pushing strollers or towing trailing kiddies cradle cell phones against their shoulder and talk about what a pain in the ass their spouse or sister or boss or co-worker is.

There’s music and celebration at the end of my run. Not because I broke some world record. It was an accomplishment just to get my ass moving instead of staying in bed or stuffing myself with bagels and jelly beans. The music was in the bodega where I get my morning coffee: Marc Anthony on the radio singing of boricua pride. I pour my coffee and listen to the bochinche about who owes who money and who came into the bodega with whose girlfriend looking real tight together. An older lady asked the price of the bananas that were too ripe so they should be cheaper.

I step back into the street and sip my cafecito on my walk home along Tonnelle Avenue, accompanied by the thump-thump of hip hop too new for me to recognize, and the occasional blare of a throwback rock ballad. As I get closer to home, I’m joined by the Spanish, Polish, Hindi, Italian, Arabic, and English in various accented forms in the post-run quiet of my morning.


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The library: A love story.

It was a perfect night: Me, in the New York Public Library, listening to Walter Dean Myers, Malcolm Gladwell, Esmeralda Santiago, Tobias Wolff, and Garrison Keillor talk about their love of libraries. Sigh.

It felt like a dream, but was actually the World Book Night kick-off event at the NYPL. Click the link. Read about it. Spread the love.

The evening reminded me of my own library love story. What’s yours?


I grew up in the projects, and there were two rules in my home that I learned real fast: Number 1: Never ask my parents to buy me anything. Number 2: It wasn’t okay to leave the apartment. However, I was an only child with a lot of time to watch television and develop a lot of wants. Like I wanted to be a member of the children’s book club advertised on television. I wasn’t old enough for school and couldn’t read but, like the kids on the commercial, I wanted to open books and have animals pop out or find myself in a castle. This was so the point-and-click system of book ordering was not so fancy: It was me pointing at the television and urging my mother “Call now!” every time the commercial came on. My relentlessness broke my mother, and house rule Number 1 was broken with a series of clicks: the dial of the rotary phone when my mother finally called the 800-number, the peephole cover when the book salesman knocked, the three deadbolts unlatched to allow him into our apartment, and the lock on his carrying case, opened to reveal the books.

They were glossy with thick pages and just a sample of what could arrive like the wonders of Three Kings Day – but every month! Because my infanta eyes beheld them, I claimed those books mine. What did I care of the try-at-no-risk terms, or that the salesman would return if we were not 100% satisfied? I sat with my book, poked my hungry fingers through the caterpillar’s feast, and felt sated. My parents, though, had no intention of keeping the books, and planned to return them after the two-week trial period. They didn’t think it would be a big deal to disrupt my satisfaction. The day the salesman returned, I kept my fingers curled through the holes as my mother pulled the book from me. I didn’t care what she said, a ‘nice man’ wouldn’t steal books from a child, so I cried for the police long after the door to our apartment was shut and bolted. I wailed for so long my parents became desperate enough to break house rule Number 2, and decided I should be taken to the library.

Our complex didn’t offer much worth leaving the apartment for and, young as I was, even I knew the unshaded playground wasn’t all that. It was just asphalt and scattered metal playsets with bars that burned my palms like curling irons in the summer time. Ravenswood Houses did, however, have a community branch of the Queens Public Library. On a fated day, my mother locked our apartment door behind us, and we embarked on the adventure. We rushed through the hallway, past the stairway entrances because, like on television game shows, there was always a surprise behind closed doors. In the occupied elevator, my mother clutched me as tightly as she did her purse. The men on the benches outside our building greeted my mother as affectionately as I did by calling her “Mami.” I’d lost feeling in the hand my mother gripped by the time we reached the library.

The library surprised me from the moment we arrived. The door wasn’t locked, and didn’t close with a penitentiary clank. Anybody could enter, and the door sighed softly shut behind us. It was just one room with age-group designated areas but to little me, it was immense. I never knew there could be so many books. The glossy ones for children faced me at my eye level, even the caterpillar book. I took my beloved hungry larva to a bean bag chair, and my fingers feasted. My paper library card granted me permission to take my love home and return to the library to leave with him again, or so many others in my arms. I dreamed of reaching the books in the towering cases of the grown-up area the way I longed to be big and bold enough to climb to the top of the jungle gym, and see beyond the asphalt playground.

As I grew taller, my curiosities increased and became more complex, and the community library seemed to get smaller. Other branches outside of Ravenswood had better and more numerous resources. These libraries were public, too, but on my first ventures outside of my ‘hood, they didn’t feel free to me. However, my hunger was never satisfied, and I feasted on the wonders I found in books. Animals and castles never did pop from pages, but I found knowledge that led me steady and sure beyond the projects, Queens, the United States, even across a mighty river to the land of New Jersey. I returned to Ravenswood recently and visited the library. It’s still on the ground floor of building number six, and I was surprised by how small that one room is. But I grew big in that little library, and bold enough to make my world immense.

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