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A Confluence of Tragedies

People say that memories of tragedy and loss are usually the most vivid in one’s mind. JFK’s assassination, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, FDR’s Declaration of War—these are memories that defined generations. But for me, the memory of watching the second plane hit the South Tower is blurry. I think Mrs. Chiselko, my old school geometry teacher, turned on the television because another teacher burst in, imploring us to watch. I think I was sitting in the back and only lifted my head when I heard the TV turn on. I think the room was silent in shock, but maybe it wasn’t—maybe it was a flurry of chatter and confusion. Maybe I was at the front.

I don’t know, really.

What I do remember clearly is the aftermath. How by lunch time, on some subliminal level I could already sense how the events of that morning were going to change the United States forever, particularly for those with similar complexions to whoever caused the planes to crash, but not knowing who the culprits were and secretly hoping they weren’t Asian, like me. I remember dealing with the tragedy with inappropriate comments, joking that the Japanese probably did it to get us back for World War II, and making the kids laugh uncomfortably at my lunch table. I remember leaving school early, coming home, my neighbor checking in on us, me telling her my theory about the Japanese kamikaze bombers, the grave look on her face, her scolding me for thinking so ignorantly. I remember feeling ashamed. I remember being confused, in shock, sitting on the floor in my kitchen with my sister. We were huddled together under a thin blanket. We watched the footage of the towers falling and dusty masses walking over the Brooklyn Bridge over and over again on CBS 2, the only New York City-based station my analog TV could pick up since it broadcasted out of Paramus, not the World Trade Center like all of the other stations. I remember talking to my mother through our land line.

I don’t remember the sound of my mother’s voice, whether she was worried or crying or stoically nonchalant like she usually is. I don’t remember who called who first. I don’t remember wondering how many of my classmates’ parents or relatives died that day, and I don’t remember thinking about the safety of my cousin, since I was not aware at the time that he worked in the World Trade Center.

Sitting on the kitchen floor, my sister and I watched, in real time, how our vernacular changed. Ground Zero. September 11th and 9/11. Nine One One for a brief period, until broadcasters realized it was too cliché. Al Quaeda. Bin Laden. Terrorism. United We Stand. In a day, these words and phrases were integrated into American culture.

Before that morning, the word “terrorist” was unfamiliar, even clumsy, on the tongue. It was a word people rarely had an occasion to use. When I thought of a terrorist, I thought of awkward-looking, crazy-eyed white guys like Timothy McVeigh and the UniBomber. Ground Zero had something to do with earthquakes. The Twin Towers were the two rather boring looking buildings I always saw when my family drove to the airport, the first beacon of familiarity I had with the approaching skyline, the definitive signal that New York was near.

9/11 Memorial, South Tower

These are the memories I relived last night as I watched the two memorial pools flow endlessly. The 9/11 memorial is beautiful in spite of the occasion that ushered in its existence. The pools are large gaping holes into the depths in which so many innocent people lost their lives, with water, a universal symbol for healing and restoration, flowing through it for as long as our society will stand. My fingers traced over the engraved names around the pools, a tactile reminder that every name once had goals and dreams and a future and still, today, has grieving family, friends, and communities.

I grew increasingly angry and frustrated– at what, I am not sure– and could not find the appropriate method to express how I felt. So, I prayed. I prayed for the first time in years to the God to whom the victims of 9/11 were supposedly sacrificed, not asking for anything in particular, but posing this question and hoping for an answer: What have we accomplished in our post-9/11 world? What have we learned?

On the Brooklyn-bound 4 train that night, the train came to a shuddering halt underneath the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn. I don’t remember it happening, as stopping and starting is a fairly common occurrence. I also don’t remember when the smoke started. I don’t remember who noticed it first. But when passengers started to cry out and called my attention to what was happening, my first thought was crystal clear. Oh God, Sarin gas. We’re all going to die. Then, I made a mental list of the people who I would miss, the people I wished I could talk to one last time. I thought about my mother and, if I suffocated, how pissed she would be at the entire situation. I looked helplessly toward the two families with children and small babies. I held the hand of my significant other and, for a moment, silently waited to die.

Nothing happened. The smoke was just smoke. After the rest of the car came to a collective realization that it was probably going to be okay, I allowed myself to inhale, cautiously at first. We coped with it in the best way we each knew how. The woman with the boxing gloves in the shopping bag leaned her head on the metal grail and read a magazine. The assertive blonde lady asked pointed questions to every MTA official that walked through the car. The woman with the curious scar on her cheek made macabre, inappropriate comments about injuries and compensation. We put cloth up to our face to filter out smoke in the most futile way possible. We groaned and complained when the intercom failed to give us information. Not a single person said anything about terrorism, but we were all listening for it.

Forty five minutes later, the MTA sent an empty train that positioned itself behind ours. People rushed to be the first to evacuate, but many of us waited, letting the elderly and those with small children go ahead, working as a team to hold open the sliding doors, push strollers, hold canes, carry kids. We nodded at the FDNY and MTA officials lining the first cars on the new train, and they nodded back. We tried to ignore the men with the gas masks and the axes and frantic radio calls. And then it was business as usual. I made awkward jokes about human centipede type evacuation protocols.  A man repeatedly asked for change as people walked by and filtered into the cars ahead. People read their kindles. And then we waited, and waited, and waited, and finally the train lurched backward on its way to Manhattan.

On the circuitous cab ride home, it occurred to me that perhaps my obsession with understanding what it means to “be a New Yorker,” my exercise in humor writing that is a thinly veiled disguise for the disconnect I sometimes feel in relation to my surroundings– all this may be due in part to the fact that I have avoided truly thinking about tragedy, particularly the one that irrevocably shaped the mentality and character of New York City since 2001.  Last night was a confluence of memories and hypotheticals that forced me to reflect on how I have lived my life for the past ten years, think about questions  to which I still no answers, and wonder about how I might fit into those answers one day. What have we accomplished in our post-9/11 world? What have we learned?

What have I learned?

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Bed Bugs: The Al-Qaeda of Insects

Here’s a fun riddle!

Q: What’s tiny, parasitic, and ruins lives in a matter of weeks?

A: Your Ex! Bed bugs!

Generally, I am a pretty average person with few interesting and unique qualities. This crippling blandness allows me to seamlessly blend into the background of most situations. (In fact, I am behind you right now, reading a smut magazine and sipping a Coolatta, the drink of champions.) Unfortunately, I have a few irrational fears that draw both confusion and derision. One is the Build-A-Bear Workshop, which, like Voldermort, makes me uncomfortable to type. Another is being trapped in an elevator filled with front butts.

My latest and most paralyzing fear is bed bugs.

What a cad.

When people ask me what bed bugs are, I explain to them, after briskly slapping them in the face for their ignorance, that bed bugs are blood-sucking creatures that live anywhere, typically in mattresses, on clothing, or in fibers. In the past, people thought that bed bug infestation was the cause of unsanitary living conditions, though today that is not usually the case. Like most biting insects, their bites leave raised marks on your skin. Unlike other insect bites, bed bug bite marks are highly recognizable and bring an unjust yet unshakable stigma to those that have them. You are affected. You are blighted. You are a walking testament to the evils of this cruel, unyielding world. All of a sudden your life collapses. Assuming the worst, people who have never seen your apartment secretly volunteer you for the show Hoarders.  Friends bail on plans with excuses such as “My dog has to go outside and take a shit, and I need to be there for this momentous occasion.”

My only personal experience with bed bugs happened across the Atlantic Ocean. I was a bright eyed backpacker then, testing my limits, putting myself outside my comfort zone, and —I thought— rolling with the punches with great aplomb. So of course I was pissed when my travel mate chided me for not “going with the flow” because I insisted on researching each and every hostel and booking them weeks in advance. After succumbing to this hippie passive aggressive peer pressure, I forced myself to have a Devil May Care attitude and ended up checking into what I now suspect was the most decrepit hostel in Serbia. It was as if the hostel outfitted each bed exclusively with twin bedsheets similar to the ones from the 1980s that my mother can’t bear to throw away even though they’ve worn away to a fine, spiderweb like consistency and have no elastic left whatsoever.  I remember my fitted sheet not fitting at all, curling up at the bottom corners of the mattress. I shrugged it off, and in the morning I woke up to my legs covered in what I thought were bites from approximately ten thousand mosquitoes. I walked around Belgrade drawing looks of shock and horror that I assumed were from the particularly hideous pair of Old Navy cargo shorts I donned that day.

But when I arrived arriving at my next hostel, a far cleaner hostel in Croatia (that I, ahem, booked weeks in advance), I saw a sign taped to the front door that both enlightened and frightened me. Although antithetical to its goal, the sign was formatted like a Wanted poster. On it were pictures of bites that looked suspiciously similar to mine and handwritten text scrawled at the bottom that read. Peering closer at the sign, I read:

Do you have these bites that look like this? They are BED BUG BITES. You and your bites are not welcome here!! THANK YOU!!

I backed away from the hostel, rushed to the nearest internet cafe, Googled like a madwoman, and looked at my legs with dismay. And then, like any other self-respecting global citizen, I changed into pants, went back to the hostel, and nonchalantly checked in. Girl’s gotta get her beauty sleep, am I right?

Fast forward a few years, and these pests are now infiltrating my beloved city in record numbers, leaving New Yorkers on high alert. While my apartment has been lucky enough to have escaped the bedbug infestation wreaking havoc on New York City, this constant and ever present threat has drastically changed my life in many ways:

  • After reading about how bed bugs are infesting movie theaters, I flat out refused to go to the movies for the better part of a year. Eventually, I reconciled my fear of the movies and my desire to see Step It Up 2: The Streets by researching every movie theater on Bedbugregistry.com and finding two movie theaters with no bed bug reports. (I’d tell you which ones they are… but I don’t want you bringing your bed bugs to my theater.)
  • Every time I get a bug bite, I needlessly clarify the origin of the bites. This naturally arouses more suspicion from people, which is why, I assume, that people avoid me. All the time.
  • I check my mattress and sheets relentlessly for evidence of bed bugs. Whenever I think I see something, I become momentarily hysterical and surrender myself to the impending bed bug infestation by lying on my mattress similar to how I imagine Jesus did on the cross. 100% of the time this has happened, it eventually comes to my attention that the bed bug is actually lint.
  • Out of fear of getting a bed bug on the subway, I no longer envelop fellow subway passengers in big bear hugs, even when I really think they need it/when I want to smell their strange, yet beautiful scent.

People, namely my psychiatrist, think I’m being histrionic whenever I caution them about the sinister danger of bed bugs. As a truth-teller, soothsayer, chronic malapropist, and concerned New Yorker, I leave you with this post and this Venn Diagram to decide. Good luck, World. You need it.

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Change Is Gonna Come. That’s What She Said.

Instead of a fakepartment, I’m sitting in a faux-ffice, French for “a desk in a hallway.” Rather than procrastinating graduate work, I’m on my lunch break weighing the health risks of a back alley Financial District quickie manicure.

Well, hello. It’s been awhile.

After moving to New York City in 2009, I realized that I was becoming increasingly baffled by the unnecessary complexity of normal things while staying completely unfazed by bizarre things. As it turns out, this is an early presenting symptom of becoming a New Yorker– before the cocoon and the all-black wardrobe acquisition. Noting this change, I did what any self-respecting procrastinating grad student would do: blog about it. And so, HOW TO BE A NEW YORKER was born.

Then, I fell off the face of the planet for two years, and so did this blog. My venture into social obscurity coincided with my attempts to trick people into thinking I’m employable. The blog was on lock down, I (briefly) stopped day drinking, I bought a zillion cardigans, and I started practicing saying sentences like “Pedagogical development is necessary for effective standards-based education” and “No, I do not have a criminal background” so I could say them convincingly in interviews. And once I started teaching, there was no time for anything: going out, exploring, meeting people, pooping, blogging.

I made the difficult but wise decision to leave teaching and slowly get my personal life back. When 2010-2011 the school year ended, I hugged my kids goodbye, cried, packed up the classroom, and prepared for subsequent hibernation (read: an office job). Now with a new job, more spare time than I thought humanly possible, untwisted bowels, four bear cubs, and few real connections made in this vast city, I still find myself as an outsider looking in. I’ve lived here for three years, but I haven’t really lived much at all (she says, poignantly, as a single tear rolls down her cheek and into her personal pan pizza).

So basically, if you’re like myself and gave up after the first two sentences to look for pictures, here:

Nothing much has changed, but I’m looking forward to changing.

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25 Things You Never Knew about New York City

Even the greatest city in the world caves to the most transparent of internet memes.

nyc-25-things

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Posh Lesbians, really?

I’m not even in NYC right now, so this post is only half legitimate. Currently, I’m in Vancouver, which is French for “I swear, we’re not just about cannabis.” It’s a nice place– it’s not New York, but I do love it here. I’ll have more thoughts on it later, but right now my observations are:

1. Vancouver is really clean. Like, really really clean. Like, creepy Pleasantville clean.

2. Vancouver may be the only city in the Western Hemisphere where Asian men are just as likely as white guys to get with white girls. This may be sheer force of ethnic population density, but whatever.

But more on that when I get back home. In the mean time, I thought I’d share with you something that completely made my day. How do people find this blog? Why, by searching…

YES!

YES!

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Suck it, SJP

Living in New York is something I’ve always dreamed about, even before the Sex and the City wannabes decided to flock to my favorite metropolis and attempt to live the life of that beloved, horse-faced fictional character. Too bad that it’s virtually impossible for normal humans to afford a decent one bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side– not to mention comically ugly designer dresses and hard to pronounce brand name shoes– unless one marries rich, works in finance, or moonlights as Eliot Spitzer’s dominatrix.

Minus the dominatrix part, the Sex and the City World is actually sort of what my life will be like in a month. Except instead of a well-paying, low-intensity dream job, I’ll be an impoverished graduate student who will soon be an underpaid, overworked public school teacher in a low-resource, struggling NYC public school. I’ll have designer clothes too—exclusively from the House of Kohl. Psh, and who needs a newspaper column when I have all of THIS delicious grandeur? Oh yeah, baby. Livin’ the high life.

This show was about lesbians, right?

(This show was about lesbians, right?)

But that’s where the similarities between my amazingly glamorous life and estrogen-driven television fiction end. Instead of the posh Upper East Side, I’ll be living in the chic Upper West Side. Except by “Upper West Side,” I really mean Harlem. But whatever, my white friends tell me that it’s cool since Bill Clinton’s doing it. And he’s totally white.

So this is where I begin—my first step toward my New York City lifestyle. Excuse me while I compulsively check Craigslist’s housing section for the first time in approximately thirty-six point four seconds.

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