Monthly Archives: February 2014

Twerk and Werk

The working stiff's Friday night drink: coffee

The working stiff’s Friday night drink: coffee

I am a writer, and I have Saturday morning deadlines, which means my Friday nights are spent hermetically sealed off from the world,  typing away and staring at my computer screen. If I get sick of my office, I go to a cafe near my apartment. It is open 24 hours, mostly serving the employees of New York Presbyterian Hospital, which is right across the street.

Dre holds the place down from 9 pm to 6 am. Dre is from Brooklyn, by way of Jamaica. It takes him an hour and a half to commute to Washington Heights, and he has at least five other jobs–he’s a bartender, a freelance photographer, a DJ, and a student.

Here, at the cafe, Dre is a one-man show, making wraps, slinging sandwiches, being the barista, and providing the music.

Amazingly, Dre doesn’t drink coffee. Instead, he stays awake on a blend of Jamaican tunes. Indeed, if it weren’t for the steady stream of vigorous dance hall and reggae music streaming from overhead, and a latte at my side, my mind would have drifted into a catatonic oblivion, and deep pools of saliva would have gathered on my keyboard a long time ago. Lobotomy by pixilation is what I like to call it.

Most of the patrons look like they have gone through hell in a hand basket. They come in wearing wrinkled scrubs and blank stares, like zombie extras on Walking Dead–or like they’ve just beaten back a zombie attack, and are looking for fortification to stave off the next one. That’s what a night in a city hospital will do to you.

Dre has compassion for these folks, these working stiffs who clean out bedpans, peel dying junkies off the street, or who might have just finished a triple bypass surgery at four in the morning.

“It is my job to keep them awake. I tell them to feel free to come in here and scream,” he once told me.

Some of the Working Dead visibly come back to life and shuffle about discreetly to Sean John as they wait for their midnight sandwiches to be made. The music gets raunchier as the minutes turn to hours. I know I wouldn’t possibly be able to meet any of my deadlines if I knew how to twerk, but I still can’t think of a better place to work on a Friday night.

A fraction of the patrons are the homeless people who live at a shelter right next door. And there are some people, like me, who bring a computer, a charger, order a coffee, and spend the night, or “pitch a tent,” as Dre puts it.

With the shelter and the hospital both in close proximity–and the EMS bay station directly across the street, there’s so many different situations and people that a 24-hour cafe can witness at 4 or 5 in the morning.

But Dre does his best to make the most of his own situation, and with his music, does his best to create a festive atmosphere. When he doesn’t think anyone is looking he breaks out in dance, waving his arms about, pointing to no one in particular and mouthing the words to his favorite songs.

I don’t feel so bad about being here, finishing articles on a Friday night. Misery loves company, and I’ve got plenty of it. Dre clearly would rather be elsewhere, and I’m sure these hospital workers can think of 5,001 things they would prefer to do instead of dealing with the flesh, blood and bodily fluids of New York City.

But as I listen to Sister Nancy, I realize things are never so bad as they seem. At least I’m not having a triple bypass surgery.



Filed under pesonal essay

The Ides of February, Part II

Is there such thing as a typical Valentine’s Day? There seems to be a pervasive narrative of candlelit dinners and red roses, but how often does this happen to most people? Unless you’re in a long-term committed relationship, the prospect of having this type of Valentine’s Day is kind of far-fetched. And even if you happen to be dating someone during the ides of February, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your evening is going to be spent in amorous bliss. A few years ago Valentine’s Day coincided with a bed bug problem in my then-boyfriend’s apartment. He gave me chocolates, which we enjoyed despite our exhaustion after several nights spent avoiding sleep for fear of being attacked by six-legged vampires. We ate them sitting amidst piles of belongings that had to be stashed into garbage bags ahead of the exterminator’s visit.

Not romantic.

At any rate, I found three strangers at a writing group I like to go to and spoke to them about their Valentine’s Day plans, and it turns out none of them involve candles.

This is Jeffrey

This is Jeffrey

This is Jeffrey, who works at an Apple store doing employee training and sales “stuff”.

What are your plans this Valentine’s Day?

I’m working, and since I’m working early-ish on Saturday, I’ll be going to bed early-ish today.

What has been your worst Valentine’s Day experience?

I went to my Grandpa’s funeral on Valentine’s Day last year, so that was probably my worst.

Do you have a best Valentine’s Day experience?

I guess a Valentine’s Day when I was a kid, because when you’re a kid it’s fun, it’s just giving your friends Valentines and getting Valentines.

What do you think about Valentine’s Day now?

It’s definitely overrated; I think Valentine’s Day and Halloween are in the running for holidays that don’t mean anything but are super-duper overrated and I never had the motivation to do really anything for them. As a guy who loves romantic comedies I feel like I should love Valentine’s Day, but I’m just blasé.

This is Amari

This is Amari

Meet Amari. Amari has two jobs. She works at a restaurant as a hostess, and also works at a wine shop (she is one of the only female employees there), where she will be spending Valentine’s Day.

Are you going to try to do anything celebratory at work for Valentine’s Day?

We are going to drink heavily and we’re making cupcakes and cookies.

What is a type of wine you would recommend for someone on a budget?

Prosecco. It’s usually 20 bucks, and it’s sparkly.

Do you have a favorite Valentine’s Day?

Yes, one of my ex-boyfriends brought me flowers during the day. He was supposed to be working, he was the manager, and he just left work and came to the house to bring me flowers. For me that was the biggest thing. It was very simple, but for him to risk his job is very serious.

Do you have a worst Valentine’s Day?

Not yet!

Do you think some of your male co-workers will take t his date as an occasion to hit on you?

They do already…

This is Patrick--the towel is to soak up all the sludge soup from the street

This is Patrick–the towel is to soak up all the sludge soup from the street

Patrick is a fifth grade English and History teacher.

What are you going to do for Valentine’s Day?

I think my girlfriend and I are going to do our taxes.

What’s been your worst Valentine’s Day?

There was a single Valentine’s Day when I was single during a break up in the middle of a long term relationship. We has split up and later got back together, but we had split up during Valentine’s Day. It was heartbroken Valentine’s Day. That was probably the worst.

What was your best Valentine’s Day?

I had one travelling in Europe. That was pretty fantastic. We were in Vienna at the time.

What did you guys do?

Not much. We stayed in the hotel room and just…had a nice Valentine’s Day.

What kind Valentine’s Day talk is there among your students?

At fifth grade there’s this spring ritual, where later in the school year the boys and girls would start seeing each other in a different way and the girls essentially—it’s very ritualistic—the girls seem to elect one of their own to shove toward one of the boys whom the boys have elected, to force them into some sort of chase, or date or see a movie together or something, but it’s funny because it’s all about the boy’s relationship to the other boys and the girl’s relationship to the other girls, and it has very little to do with either of them. It’s a very funny little ritual that happens every year without fail.


Filed under interview

The Ides of February, Part I

Let’s talk about Valentine’s Day. There’s a lot of people here in New York City. Many of them are strangers, and many of them have different takes on this holiday. There are those who love it and there are those who love to hate it. Others think it’s a conspiracy between Hallmark and Disney to hijack our concept of love, and some people are simply busting their asses to to make sure your day is extra special, or at least to make sure that you don’t suddenly become single on Valentine’s Day.

I’m hoping to find several types of people over the next few days. First I bring you Betty Zafiros, the owner of Fort Washington Florist, which has been in the Zafiros family for over 95 years. When I interviewed Betty, she was up to her neck in red roses and not much else. I mean, come on people. Have a little mercy. Order some zinnias or something to break the monotony of thorns and red that your poor florist has to go through every year.

Betty would never utter a word against the red rose (or any flower, for that matter), but one of her personal favorite is the orchid.

At any rate, I have bumped into Betty already on a few different occasions, and she let me interview her despite the fact that she was busily yanking petals off red roses so they could achieve that slender, coy look that so many desire.

Meet Betty Zafiros, florist.

Meet Betty Zafiros, florist.

 What are your Valentine’s Day Plans?

My Valentine’s Day plans are that I’m not going home. We’ll be here a full 48 hours trying to make everything beautiful for the beautiful people receiving these flowers and gifts.

What is your ideal Valentine’s Day? If you could engineer the perfect Valentine’s Day, what would it be like?

Very simple: very, very busy, pleasing thousands of people, beautiful weather, and happy Valentines. That’s my perfect Valentine’s Day. Very hard to achieve.

How many customers do you predict you have by Valentine’s Day?

Well, the weather is pretty bad. I can’t give you a precise count. Most people are the same day, last minute, the day before—I do have a box of orders, but Valentine’s is a last minute thing. People always forget until the end.  And this year the weather’s lousy.

What is the most elaborate, strange or creative Valentine’s Day order you’ve had?

Very simple: 500 red roses in a humongous arrangement.

For one person?

For one person. We needed two people to carry it. It was going to an apartment in the Bronx.

Whoa. Do you know anything about this couple’s story? Was he proposing to her on Valentine’s Day or something?

No. Just in love with her.

Fort Washington Florist has received numerous accolades from customers. Betty pulls colors together as masterfully as Monet, and in the blink of an eye can whip together a bouquet worthy of Van Gogh still life. If you want to order a bouquet for someone you love–or yourself, call 212 795 2978, visit Fort Washington Florist, or go the storefront at 4257 Broadway and meet Betty yourself. 

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Filed under interview

Riding the Paranoia Train

Sometimes it's okay to talk to your fellow rider.

Sometimes it’s okay to talk to strangers on the train.

I got on the train, my toes needing a good thaw, and my nose a good wipe. I wedged myself between two women. The one on my left was reading a letter printed out in Spanish; I caught fragments of the content, which seemed to be a 40th birthday message. The woman to the right of me was minding her own business.

I took stock of everyone else in the car. It was so cold that most hair was hidden beneath hats, and hands were kept safely tucked into pockets and sleeves, unless they were being used to turn the pages of a book.

The man across from me was engrossed in a magazine. Because I’m not good a minding my own business I tried to guess which publication he was reading. I determined that it was not the New Yorker, or Harpers, or a glossy.

Earlier that day I had to stand outside in the freezing cold for work until my toes were so cold they were hot—like they had been stuck in the jaws of a waffle iron. When I got onto the subway the first thing I did was take my boots off and cradle them in my hands to make the burning sensation go away and to de-thaw my nerve-endings. I was glad for the subway break-dancers, the homeless people, the tourette syndrome yellers, and the drunks who made my foot-groping seem normal.

It seemed to take a while and I felt that my toes would be hot and numb forever, but I knew that eventually the sensation would be but a memory.

Except now, this train conductor seemed to want to remind everyone how cold it was.

The most the conductors ever tell us is to stand clear of the closing doors, and perhaps again to stand clear of the closing doors, and for the last time to stand clear of the goddamn closing doors. But I soon found out that this conductor was into soliloquizing.

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s very cold outside,” his urgent and concerned voice began.

“I urge you to use the rail when walking up or down the stairs. You do not know what kind of ice could be on the stairs. You do not want to slip down the stairs and fall onto the tracks.”

The man across from me was momentarily distracted from his magazine, and others were dragged out of their subway-induced stupor by this touching manifestation of concern.

The train stopped at 14th Street and kept moving. As soon as people drifted back into their mindspaces, the voice came again from overhead.

“It is very cold outside. The tracks may be slippery. As you may have noticed, the cars are a bit shaky.”

The man across from me smirked incredulously as he looked up from his magazine. I take note of the train; it is rocking as gently, subtly, and loud as usual.  Maybe the conductor was drunk?

“So, please don’t walk between the cars,” he persevered . “You could fall and end up on the tracks. Not to mention, it’s illegal.”

“Wow, something must have happened,” said the woman to my right.

It was possible. Apparently every week someone is killed by the trains. Maybe today someone had slipped onto the tracks. Or maybe their feet were so numbed by the cold that they lost control of their footing and fell. Most of the time it’s not the conductor’s fault, but they’re probably mentally scarred by the experience. As part of the MTA contract, conductors who witness someone getting hit by the train get three days paid time off.

Did this man need an extra day off?

“I know, right? What is going on?” said the man across from me, who had given up on his magazine by now.

The woman with the birthday letter shrugged.

“We’re riding the paranoia train,” I said.

I usually don’t engage with strangers on the train, but I felt like I had to say something. This was a special moment, a rare, collective moment that we as riders were experiencing.

My fellow riders laughed.

The train came to a stop again, belched out some riders, and sucked others in. A woman with a stroller barely wedged her way into the car.

The crackle came again from the speakers overhead. We smiled, giddy to hear what would come next.

“Please, I urge you to hold onto your children when you are standing on the platform and entering the train. If you are standing behind the yellow line, make sure your children are standing behind you. And make sure you are holding their hands at all times. Children are impulsive and you never know what they will do next. Not to mention the fact that they are fascinated by trains. So please, hold onto your children.”

By this point, most people in the car who were not plugged into their portable electronic devices were now laughing, staring up at the speakers, wondering what new gems would flow forth, or they furrowed their brow—either in concern for the conductor, or with a newfound concern for their life now that it was apparent that their chances of falling into the tracks increased tenfold for every minute they spent on the train.

The train halted again at 42th Street and there was a new shift of riders. The train was getting more crowded and I could no longer see the man across from me, but I knew he was eagerly expecting a new message.

I knew it would be a good one, because the conductor tried to close the doors at least four times because some latecomer tried to pry their way into the car as the doors closed after sprinting down the stairs.

This angers most conductors and you know they would love to smack someone in the face if they weren’t stuck in their booth. But this conductor continued to express nothing but a dogged concern for the city’s ridership.

“Everyone’s running for something in New York City,” he began.

Yes, this was going to be the best one yet.

“Whether they’re running for mayor, or running to catch the subway. There’s such a thing as the domino effect. It begins when you have ten people packed behind you,” spoke the conductor, now with the measured but patronizing elocution of a kindergarten teacher who is explaining fire drill procedures, or at least an actor who knows how to play one. Is that it? Is he a retired actor?

“One person falls and ten people fall, including you,” he continued. “Only, by the time the first person who fell stands up and is wiping themselves off, you have fallen onto the track. Please appeal to your higher intellect and stand behind the yellow line.”

The woman to my right, who had been tight-lipped and concerned, let out a chuckle and shook her head.

“Wow,” she said.

She got off the train at the next stop. Before she did, she turned to me.

“Get home safe,” she said, and smiled.

“You too.”

Don't fall onto the tracks.

Don’t fall onto the tracks.

Was this the serial announcer?

Was this the serial announcer?

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Kids are fascinated with trains.

Stranger on the train.

Stranger on the train.


Filed under pesonal essay