Saturday, May 24, 2014


So after seven years in New York City, I'm finally leaving. This time for real. Like I quit my job and I'm heading west for real. So, in the interest of self treatment for all of the weird feelings and pangs I'm feeling, I'm drawing cartoons to capture what pleases and annoys me about this city that I love.

Even though I'm no artiste, I started drawing in grad school to express my feelings of wanting to get out of whatever three hour class I happened to be in. Now I am drawing to express my feelings of wanting to leave and wanting to stay in this seven year learning experience that I happen to be in.

This is the cartoon me. 

What follows is a series of Perks! and Not Perks! about living in the city. This is how I express my complicated feelings of grief. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Top Ten Signs That You Live in Park Slope

10. You stand behind a fourth grader to buy bubble tea.

9. You live on the same block as Captain Picard from Star Trek.

8. Your landlady calls you “Boo.”

7. You shop at Trader Joes because you (at least 25%) believe the Park Slope Coop is a cult.

6. You refuse to sign over your soul to said Park Slope Coop in exchange for cheaper produce.

5. You want the French guy at the French coffee shop to act French already!

4. You see a single man of child bearing age walking on 5th Avenue without a child and want to ask him if he’s lost.

3. You experience a moment of panic when you think you hear one of the many kids from the many schools in the neighborhood say, “Hi Miss Celina.”

2. You simultaneously have an existential crisis and miss the hipsters in Williamsburg when you hear a bunch of really square drunks singing the national anthem outside your window on Saturday night.

And number 1... You were almost run over by a trio of stroller pushing moms coming at you head on (more than once).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Who's Juan Villa? How He Wrote His Life Story

When I lived in a little attic apartment in Syracuse, a guy’s name would pop up on the caller id when I used the telephone. “Who’s Juan Villa?” everyone who called   asked. “He was a tenant in the apartment before me,” I answered. But the Juan Villa thing didn’t die down. People took to answering my calls with, “Hola Juan!” Some people pretended to flirt with Juan.  My Nigerian classmate flat out asked me if Juan Villa was my husband that I hid in my apartment and didn't tell anyone about. Unbeknownst to him, Juan Villa had become a bit of a legend.

I met the real Juan Villa before I moved to New York City. It turned out that he’s an actor, and was also moving to New York City after living in Chicago. We became friends, and he took me to his home on the Lower East Side where I met his mother and the rest of his family at their apartment on Allen Street.

I had a feeling that Juan and his family were epic in some way, but I had no idea how epic they were until I went to see his solo show, “Empanada for a Dream.” This show, written and performed by Juan Villa, seeks to answer thesame question inspired by all the people I talked to in Syracuse. Who is he? He's a Colombian kid who grew up on the Lower East Side. But there’s so much more to his story. And isn’t there always more to the story?

I went to the show and sat, aghast, as his mother sat in the front row, reacting to all of Juan as he aired the secrets, confessions, and confrontations of the family on  stage. After the show, I happened to see a woman who had a tattoo of a signature on her foot, like an artist’s signature at the bottom of a canvas.  And I wondered if we all are works of art, paintings, books, plays, in human form. And if this were true, what would make them good?

Juan gave me some insights when we talked after his show. Although these are ostensibly tips for writers, they also double as strategies you’d pay personal guru lots of dinero for.  These are some of the tips that Juan would give to someone who is writing their life story:

· Figure out how you feel about everyone and everything. This can be a revelation, especially if you’re one of those people that need to let go of something or someone in their life.

· Tell your truth. Don’t edit yourself based on what you think or know others will say about you. Also, internalizing other people’s truths leads you away from what you want and who you are.

· Find your thematic cord. In acting, this is the through line of all the roles you’ve played. In other words, these are the themes or subjects that have inspired or drawn you to them throughout your life. Think about what roles you have played in your own life and determine if there are themes or situations that are repeated.

· The more specific you are about your experience, the more universal it is.  Also, the more you you are, the more genuine and relatable others find you.

· How do others see the subject you are writing about? Getting feedback about your subject (even when the subject is you) is necessary, at least as a starting point.
  Have an objective observer or editor help you find what’s necessary and important. This is important in so many areas of life. In order to tell the true story, we need someone to let us know if we’re over focusing or cluttering our vision with extraneous or impertinent details. I often wish I had an editor for my life.

Juan did a lot of soul searching to tell his story.He turned what could be a typical Latino coming of age story into a Greek tragedy. His solo show is populated with many characters that he plays with a searing honesty that hits hilarious and heart breaking notes. If you’re in New York City, go see the show and find out who this guy on the caller id really is.

Empanada For A Dream - soloNOVA Arts Festival

 May30 at 7:00pm until June 6 at 10:15pm
Written and performed by Juan Francisco Villa
Directed by Alex Levy
Wednesday, May 30 at 7:00 pm
Thursday, May 31 at 9:00 pm
Saturday, June 2 at 7:00 pm
Sunday, June 3 at 4:00 pm
Wednesday, June 6 at 9:00 pm
Fresh from a sold out run with Ballybeg at the Barrow Group Theatre, EMPANADA FOR A DREAM is a haunting love song to the Lower East Side. Juan Francisco Villa's return to the neighborhood of his childhood is a dangerous and hilarious tale about growing up by getting out.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Drive by

It was one of those moments on the B44 bus when I really wished I had a car. I had a crumpled bag of food in my lap, along with my book bag, which I was trying to balance my bottle of water on as I ate my soggy sandwich. I dubbed those hurried meals on the bus my “grad school dinners,” in other words, dinners that have survived various states of refrigeration to be consumed during the 65-minute ride from Williamsburg to Brooklyn College. Bon app├ętit!

The bus was stuck in the usual rush hour traffic on Nostrand Ave when something made me look out the window. Parked on the curb on the opposite side of the street was a silver 1997 Honda Accord with a dent in the rear passenger side door and another smaller dent on the side of the trunk. There were like facial features on a person I knew because I could tell you exactly how those dents were made (an unfortunate scrape with the fender of a pick up truck and an ill-fated encounter with a pole in a dark parking lot). I never had them fixed, and it seemed strange that they were still there. As the bus inched forward, I saw the New York State license plate and confirmed it.

It was like looking at an old boyfriend. I almost spilled my water as I was staring at it.

I could almost hear the car saying, “Remember cup holders?”

No doubt my old car and I had some good times in the 11 years we were together. And now, looking at its miraculous reappearance in Brooklyn, it somehow stood as a remnant of one of the longest relationships I’ve had. Clearly, the car was busting a drive by—in other words, stalking me a little after our breakup.

The car wanted to see how I was doing on my own. Of course, I remember cup holders, and a trunk to put all of my stuff in, and freedom of mobility and being able to listen to my music and NPR. But now I’m involved with public transportation. I’m being green and all that.

The water bottle tipped over and spilled because my neck was craned as the bus passed the parked car. Should I have kept the car? I wondered.

I’ve survived harrowing blowouts of tires on the highway, colossal overheating on the freeway and in the snow (how can a car overheat in the snow?!). The car had broken down and had to be nursed back to health many times. I’m sure it cost as much to fix over the years as I paid for it. Everyone who came into contact with it called it a lemon (no offense to citrus or citrus named people).

So when it finally blew a gasket (literally) in Syracuse during the last month of my last year of school there, I knew we’d reached the end of the road. (I had to make one pun at least). It would cost more to fix than what the blue book said it was worth. I put an ad on Craig’s list and sold it to a mechanic within ten minutes (literally). I was leaving the car in good hands. The mechanic said he would fix it up to sell. I thought the car would have a better life with someone who could care for it better. I knew too much about its failings to give it the benefit of the doubt any more. It seemed I had learned the names of all its parts that had broken.

As the bus pulled farther and farther away, I realized that I had always blamed the car for breaking down. In my mind, it was something that should have been reliable no matter what I knew or did for it. And trust me, I knew nothing and did very little.

I was haunted by the drive by. It was if our fates had somehow fused in the metal. I was relieved the car looked shiny and well kept despite the scars I’d left on it. I didn't know why, but the car’s body had become the past, still in one piece, and somehow found me all the way in Brooklyn.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


One week ago today was the first time in its history that the New York City subway system was shut down. We were waiting for a hurricane to come bearing down on us, but it hadn’t hit yet.

The city was eerily quiet. There were no buses screeching to a stop, or cars starting and stopping down the street, or neighbors blasting reggae music on my block. If I didn’t have to stay indoors, I would have gone and spied on the city. I would have found what the 7 million people who ride the subway were doing.

It was so desolate; that I felt the world was right again only after the subways starting running again, fueled by the unique brand of madness of NYC commuters that is part monologue, performance art, street violence, and just being bat shit crazy. One friend calls it dinner theater; I would suggest it’s more like a Grand Performance series from this past week:

Grand Performance #1

Featured a woman dressed in traditional Muslim attire that was a bit frayed at the edges. It took place after midnight on the suburban Brooklyn bus that she, along with a handful of people were taking into Crown Heights.

Woman: (pointing to a young Arab man sitting across from her holding a bag of takeout Halal Food) That’s spilling! There’s a hole! Look!

(Alarmed, the Halal guy looks at his bag of takeout, only to find that there is no hole and no spillage).

Undeterred, the woman continues: It’s going to spill all on the floor. I’m telling you. There! You see? On the floor. It’s going to be all on the floor. And you. It’s leaking! I see it.

(Halal guy glares at her but says nothing).

Woman: (To a young woman sitting a few rows behind Halal guy): You're Sudanese?

(The woman, with very erect posture, bows her head, which is wrapped with an African headdress. The Muslim woman takes this as a yes).

Woman: Hrmphh (triumphantly)

(It is unclear if she is addressing the Sudanese woman or the bus at large).

Woman: Do you know…(turning to me, who unfortunately, is sitting right behind her, pretending to be really involved in game of solitaire on my phone)…that some people are looking to see how they can rip cell phones out of your hand?

(I hold my phone away from her so she can’t reach it. She leans toward me like she’s going to tell me a secret).

Woman: I think about inventing a laser. You know, a laser. (She makes a motion of a gun firing). It would scan the area for phones that are taking a picture of me and blast it!

(My internal technology having alerted me from the onset that taking a picture of her was out of the question, I put my phone in my bag and make direct eye contact with her).

Woman: (Pleased that she has my attention) But I don't have the technology yet.

Me: (Feeling brave enough to answer only because I’m about to get off the bus)
You’ll find the technology.

Woman: Yeah?

Me: Someday. (And get the hell off the bus.)

Grand Performance #2

Different from a monologue, an apostrophe features a speaker who addresses an imaginary person, an inanimate object, or idea. This performer is a tall African-American man, standing in the middle of a crowded subway platform at Broadway Junction during rush hour.

Man: SUCK MY DICK! SUCK MY DICK! Mumble mumble mumble. SUCK MY DICK! Mumble. Mumble. I SAID SUCK MY DICK! Mumble mumble mumble. SUCK MY DICK! (He walks by me and my co-workers punching someone or something invisible that is apparently blocking his path while he walks to the end of the platform). SUCK MY DICK! (more punching) SUCK MY DICK!

Grand Performance #3

Features a Hispanic man on A train, who is sitting at least ten feet away from a man who purportedly had been startin’ some shit with him minutes before I entered the crowded subway car.

Man: Oh no you di’nt! Oh hell no and am I gonna let nobody talk to me like that. Come get in my face. Get in my face. Say it to my face. Why you just standin there? Be a man. Ain’t you man? Ain’t you got the balls to talk shit? Why you all the way over there? You wanna get in my face? I oughtta go up and pop you, son. But I won’t. I’m on this train, cuz I gotta go work, cuz nobody gives me nuthin. Nobody ain’t done nothing for me, son. But I get up and I go to work. That’s my manhood.

(The people standing near him are shifting uncomfortably, not sure where to look. At the door across from the guy is a girl wearing black tights that have words written in white up and down her legs. Peace. Love. Peace. Love. Peace. Love).

You wanna come at me? I pop you son! You want to come start some shit? Yeah? Well come finish it! Don’t let nobody talk to me like that. That’s my manhood. Wha happen? Cat ate your tongue? Yeah, I thought so!

(An obese man sitting a few people away from the Hispanic man speaks up)

Obese man: What ‘bout my manhood? Why don’t you shut up? You botherin’ my manhood.

(The people around the Hispanic man start to laugh. The train doors open. The train car empties. I walk behind the girl who has words written up and down her legs. Peace. Love. Peace. Love. Peace. Love).

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Home on the A Train

In the summer of 2007, I visited Manhattan for a week. I stayed at a friend’s apartment while he was out of town. I walked the streets of the village and called every person I even faintly knew to see if they would see me. I was struggling with being in a strange city by myself.

I walked the streets and marveled at the throngs of insiders that scuttled to get to work, or the ones walking their dogs. I didn’t have a job yet, so I studied the people on the streets. I was so absorbed, I almost smacked into Alec Baldwin in SoHo.

Then I focused on woman in front of me whose high heels clicked hastily on the pavement. She was sort of faux Sex in the City (possibly from Jersey). She went into a restaurant where there was a group of other women wearing dresses and very impractical shoes. They greeted each other and went to go find a table. When I looked around everyone seemed to be in groups or couples and I was the only person in the vicinity that was alone. It was then I found myself wondering if the day would ever come when I had friends that I would hurry to meet at a restaurant, if I would ever look at someone in a crowd and recognize them, if New York would ever in any way feel like home.

Well duh.

I thought I got my answer when I was riding the A train the other night. I had taken the A to go meet my co-workers at a tapas bar in the Village. Yes, I was late, and yes, I had to kind of hurry, and yes I consider them friends, but that’s just part of the story. After some drinks and then a pizza and beer interlude with a subgroup of them, I got on the A train back to Brooklyn. The train was crowded but I found a seat. Since it was Thursday, no one had thrown up on the train. (It should be a well-documented fact that someone always throws up on the A train on Friday and Saturday nights). So I hugged my purse to me and was floating off into a sleepy torpor for a couple of stops. Then I heard the doors open and people move around. I opened my eyes.

“Hi,” I heard.

I looked up and my friend Julia was standing in front of me holding a shopping bag with two dozen roses. She’s one of my Teaching Fellow friends who goes to grad school with me. After class, we’ve started shopping at stores by the college and having leisurely conversations that somehow feel spiritual (maybe in part because she does yoga?).

“Hey,” I said, sitting upright. I remembered walking behind the woman in high heels. Then, maybe because of the drinks I had, the last two years of teaching, and grad school, and parties, and marriages and children of the Teaching Fellows in our cohort drizzled back to me in droplets.

“If you want to fall asleep, don’t feel like you have to talk to me or entertain me or anything,” she said.

But I perked up and chatted with her anyway. And then right before my stop, I said, “Running into you makes me feel like I live in New York.”

“Don’t you feel you live here?” she asked me.

I cobbled together some answer, but it wasn’t right. Feeling that you belong somewhere isn’t so much about knowing people, or recognizing them. I mean, in that case, I would have had this epiphany weeks ago, when I saw the principal of my school on the train platform. I was giddy and taken aback when I saw her.

“It’s sort of like a celebrity sighting,” I told her.

She laughed. “It’s because you’re seeing me out of context,” she said

But my mind doesn’t work in that kind of linear way.

I actually got my answer when I was out today with two friends. We walked the length of Prospect Park to get to a concert. Around 10th street, I relived a field trip I took with my students on a blistering hot day, where we hiked through the park and saved the day by finding a playground and ice cream. When my friends and I got to the band shell, the line to get in snaked beyond our line of vision. So we left and went to see Midnight in Paris.

In the women’s bathroom at the movie theater, I remembered my students again. I was washing my hands and almost went to look under the stalls for the little feet of the only girl in my class. On field trips, she and I were the only ones that went to the women’s bathroom. All the boys were usually in the men’s room with my paraprofessional, who is also a guy. My only girl always took a long time to zip her pants back up. I would wait for her to finally walk out of a stall and made sure she washed her hands.

It was strange to go to the bathroom and not have to wait for her. I don’t know how many field trips we’ve been on in the two years I taught her and the boys in my class. It couldn’t have been more than ten trips altogether. But somehow those children have become part of the fabric of my life here. It made me sad that I won’t be teaching her or those boys next year.

The main character in Midnight in Paris gets into a car and travels back in time. While I don’t believe I have that power, I do think that I might live several lives at once. There is a life I live in present time where I’m an individual, and another life that I live with other people, and a life that’s coiled in my memory. And when those three lives intersect, I’m home.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Wild, the Passionate, and the Fanatical

When you live in New York and you leave town, you don’t know you take them with you. I had been in Central New York for a week. I was staying with friends, surrounded by green grass, trees, fresh air, and pleasant people in the town I was visiting. I was driven around by my friends in their cars and for a while, I regressed back into that comfortable, seemingly normal way of living. There was polite conversation, and porches, and children, and the relatives they belonged to. Everything made sense in that world.

After my visit was over, I said goodbye to my friends and took the Amtrak back down to the city without incident. But as soon as I got on the A train at Penn Station in the middle of an afternoon on a Monday, it hit me.

I was in a relatively empty subway car headed downtown. There were only a few other people there besides me: a guy scribbling in a notebook and muttering to himself, couple of teenagers tongue wrestling and feeling each other up through their clothes, and a man contorted like a pretzel so he could smell his foot.
I blinked. It occurred to me that they had been missing from the tableau of normalcy that I had enjoyed upstate. In the next second, I had to stop myself from almost saying out loud, “I missed you crazy fuckers!”

Even if they’re silent, the crazy people are always the loudest and the ones who seem to take up the most space. They peel back a layer or two of reality so that you sense something genuine about the human condition. Sometimes they don’t know they’re being crazy. It could be that they just stole a big bag of fish and they had to take it home one way or another. I’m sure that if we asked them, they would all have a workable explanation for what they’re doing. I don’t want to get into the psychology part of it too much. I’m more like a bird watcher, except I’m not watching birds.

So, not claiming to be an expert or anything, here are some of the crazy people subtypes that I’ve identified in my public transportation travels thus far:

The Ones who Should be Scary but are Funny
A very angry guy on his cell phone, pacing up and down the A train at rush hour, repeating, “I’m gonna do somethin’ awful. I’m gonna peel his balls off and clip em!”

The Ones who Should be Funny but are Scary
A homeless man sitting across from a girl, reaches into his cart containing all his worldly belongings and pulls out a French roll and a jar of mayonnaise. He rips pieces of the bread and dips them into the mayonnaise and eats them, all the while glaring at the girl, as if daring her to look away from him.

• The Ones that People Don’t Look Twice At

A man with a large nose, carrying a briefcase, dressed as a frumpy grandmother with support hose rolling down his hairy calves.

A man running into a subway car a split second before the doors close stands to catch his breath while he holds a black trash bag full of raw fish that has ripped and is seeping fishy water onto the floor of the train.

Two women sitting side by side, sharing a jar of pickles.

• The Fanatics
Otherwise known as the proselytizers. These ladies and gentlemen think it wise to undertake fiery, passionate diatribes about the hellfire and damnation that will surely befall all of the people around them if they don’t repent. The proselytizers like to speak or yell at unnaturally high volumes, usually in the early hours of the morning, and always in crowded subway cars or platforms in order to maximize the number of sinners they reach with their message.

• The Heroes
These are the brave souls that tell the proselytizers to shut up. The best example that comes to mind is one man whose name I don’t know, but who seemed to speak for all of us in the standing room only A train headed into Manhattan at 7:00 a.m. that was being (morally) hijacked by a very loud song about salvation. We were all suffering through it, when he interrupted the song with, “Aw hell no!” And then proceeded to tell the singer to shut the F- up because it was too early for that Sh-.

• The Pervs
Luckily, this is a subtype I hear about and don’t see with my own eyes. I have an acquaintance that claims that she’s been “wienered” many times by different men on the train. She was incredulous that I had not been wienered even once. We concluded that she must be a wiener magnet.

• The Lovers

Among the early morning weekend passengers on any subway train you can usually find those that are engaged in the “Commute of Shame.” Those who could not walk home from their random hookups, trying not to look embarrassed in the now crumpled clothes they wore during their conquest, bearing some of the battle scars of the night before, their eyes are glazed over from lack of sleep, sometimes accompanied by a slight trace of euphoria, and other times, by a world weary disappointment.

Then there are the people who commit to no more commutes of shame. Like the couple that was sitting at the front of the B65 bus with their bags of groceries at their feet. Something about the blue interior of the bus must have inspired the woman to ask the man, “Will you marry me?” And the man, slightly taken aback, to ponder for only a few seconds before answering, “Okay.” And then for the two of them to high five, and the woman, who was wearing shorts but you know wears the pants, to announce, “We just got engaged!” and for old the Caribbean ladies and the stray hipster and I to break out in scattered applause.