I can be unreasonably sentimental about certain things. The Lower East Side and El Barrio, for instance (i.e. the real New York). The NYC subway (even when its latest track record doesn’t warrant it). Hole-in-the walls.
Gaia is another prized possession in this category, a small Italian cafe in the Lower East Side named after the force behind it, the matriarch, the WOMAN. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who presides over the earth. Similarly, Gaia Bagnasco presides over this near-hidden cafe nestled on the corner of Norfolk and East Houston Street.
As equal parts owner, head chef, and Italian maestress, she demonstrates meticulous control over every detail of the cafe. Prices are affordable, in part because she only has two kitchen staff members, but mostly because it’s written into the cafe’s mores: food should not be expensive. A sumptuous panini ranges from $5-$10; a small illy coffee is just $1.00. All this, despite being in a neighborhood where pencil towers are rising faster than new graffiti to cover it.
I discovered Gaia 5 years ago when I lived in Alphabet City. The place is easy to miss in its basement-level location. But one winter day on my morning commute, I happened to turn my head and see the OPEN sign flip. I descended down the stairs, eager to gain entrance into what seemed like a secret underground club. Immediately, the warm, welcoming waft of illy Italian coffee greeted my senses. Alas, there was a credit card minimum and I had no cash! As I began to leave, Gaia insisted I take my coffee & croissant completely gratis; I refused, but she persisted. Without knowing who I was or if I would ever patronize her business again, she trusted that I would be back.
And indeed – the croissant was the best I ever had. Over the weeks, months, and years, Gaia has become my go-to for simple, no-frills cooking. What it lacks in propriety and small talk, it surpasses in value and authenticity. Fresh is the theme: from the perfectly flaky Nutella croissants, to the bread baked each morning (oh that bread!), to the panini that she executes using the finest Italian-imported cured meat and cheeses.
Gaia’s perspective is fresh in abundance too. One day, I worked from home and ordered lunch to-go. She remarked,
“You Americans. No wonder you are all fat and unhappy. Always on the go, never stopping to just eat and enjoy.”
The menu states that “service is not a priority”, and that is sometimes the case – but thisundersells its authenticity. You may be promptly rushed out at 7 pm on weekday evenings and chided for ingredient substitutions. But so long as you come with a basic respect for the space & food that Mother Earth provides, you’ll receive more unsolicited acts of kindness than you probably deserve. Kind of like eating in your mother’s kitchen.
Gaia’s best hits include her fresh salads, spinach & ricotta tegamini, gnocchi, ravioli, black pepper linguini, and paninis; my absolute favorite is the fresh-baked focaccia bread that comes with every dish, often on crumpled foil, along with plastic serving spoons. Wine is served BYOB-style in cheap plastic red water tumblers. A bit reminiscent of a hostel cafe, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a better backdrop in NYC.
I love Gaia for its fresh ingredients and heart-nourishing food. It is the remnant of a NYC that is quickly becoming a relic of the past: affordable, raw, you-get-what-you-ask-for candor. Dine here as you would like any respectful guest invited to a home-cooked meal; drop the ego, be hungry for community. You won’t get special treatment. But you will absolutely get what you pay for: a meal with real food.
My last day at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC) was two weeks ago. Working for local government was never something I dreamed about, but the experience was a surprising blend of all that I love: cities, innovation, media, politics. Truly, it was an unparalleled opportunity to learn the ins & outs of a system where all of these elements converged.
One of our communal kitchens at NYCEDC displayed Mayor Ed Koch’s mantra, a perfect encapsulation of what drew me to work everyday. With a budget larger than any other in the US, NYC is literally and metaphorically, one of the most dynamic and complex metropolises in the world.
When at NYCEDC, you can’t help but speak the language of economic development – creating jobs and developing neighborhoods – which includes a lot of technical jargon and municipal processes that I never wish for anyone’s vernacular (“Did you get LMDC approval to extend the RFEI deadline pre-ULURP, post-CEQR along with the DOT MOU?”)
More broadly, I took away some important life lessons during my 4+ years at this quasi-city agency. Most are in the context of running a city, i.e. seeking Council and community stakeholder approval for public land use projects, which admittedly is very different from running a profitable company in a market-driven society. But I’ve found that work in the public domain mirrors our personal lives in more ways than we think, especially as we grow towards a more open society.
In no meaningful order, my top 7 takeaways:
CHANGE IS INEVITABLE.
We must learn to embrace it. EDC is one of the biggest agents of change in NYC. The city has many levers at its disposal to implement change at scale through zoning policies, tax incentives, and workforce development programs. These mechanisms can also change the fabric of communities in immediate and tangible ways. You see the change with each new condo building and bourgeois office & coffee shop, along with rising prices. Resisting this change is futile, for it’s not all bad. Courting major companies and building large infrastructural projects increases connectivity and brings jobs & activity to formerly disinvested areas.
The work shouldn’t stop here.
Real economic development doesn’t just build and raise property values; it invests in the people of the neighborhood. Real economic development works with communities hand-in-hand to create double bottom-line metrics that not only measure the number of jobs that are created, but the number of local jobs, small businesses retained, permanently affordable housing units, open space, and sustainable community programs. Insomuch that the new development builds capacity for members of a community to sustainably adapt to the changing environment, its a win-win.
PROCESS, PROCESS, PROCESS – It’s everything.
The difference between a tourist and resident is that a tourist sees only the Times Squares and Magnolia Bakeries – the final outcome, packaged in all its pretty glory. The tourist does not have to see who is driven out and who moves in, the businesses that shutter because of rising rents, nor do they reap the consequences of city decisions that might have been made from the top-down. Fully engaging community stakeholders at all levels of any major new development (not just when they are needed for a vote) is key to ensuring that the plan captures all of the neighborhood’s basic needs.
A ONE SIZE ALL APPROACH DOES NOT WORK.
Neighborhoods, just like people, are different. Don’t expect the same strategies to work for neighborhoods mere blocks apart. Manhattan north of 96th Street is totally different from the Lower East Side, or East 95th Street for that matter. A neighborhood strategy is most comprehensive when you seek the input of those who know the neighborhood best – its long-time residents – and not just urban planners or developers drafting plans from their ivory tower.
IT HELPS TO HAVE AN ADVOCATE AT THE TOP.
If you’re just starting at the bottom of the totem pole, a brilliant idea won’t go anywhere unless someone at the top can vouch for it. It’s stupidly hierarchal, but you can either spend time complaining about it or strategize about how to best work within the system & get buy-in at the top (hint: the latter saves a lot of time and disillusionment).
Robert Moses learned this in his early days working for the City, and after a couple botched ideas blinded by his own idealism, shifted the strategy for his ambitious development ideas around getting to know the people in power whose approval could actually make them happen.
YOU’RE NOT THE ONLY ONE FAKING IT.
I was very underqualified for my job as Manhattan Borough Director at EDC and frequently experienced impostor syndrome. I was never sure if what I said would unleash a cascade of angry words, eye rolls, or nodding approval. It was a state of constant uncertainty, but I soon realized that most experienced professionals were never 100% sure either. That’s the beauty of a job where there is no recipe for success. We’re all just trying to make the best decisions as we go. And that’s the way it is with life as well, right?
IT HELPS TO PRETEND LIKE YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING, THOUGH.
One of the best skills to have (aside from coding) is persuasion. If you can sell, you have the keys to unlocking people’s stubborn, change-resistant minds. Sometimes it’s less a matter of what you’re saying than how you say it. At several community meetings, I literally just memorized the same key talking points, and kept repeating variations of the same message. Over time, I began saying those lines with more confidence and felt like I gained greater trust (confidence coupled with consistency is what did it).
CHECK YOUR ASSUMPTIONS.
It’s one of my biggest frustrations but we’re all guilty of it. We enter any given situation with preconceived notions about people, communities, what they are capable of and what they are not. How do we know what people want? Maybe they are happy with the same bodega and old historic district, maybe they aren’t, or maybe they want to keep a valued institution and demolish something else…you just never know until you ask, so ask (unless you are withholding for some larger negotiation tactic).
Government is not without its flaws. Certain regulatory measures are inefficient and things get stuck in the bureaucracy, but working at NYCEDC has reinforced my belief in the need for a strong public sector. We cannot rely on the private behemoths of the day to have the public’s best interests at heart. The irony of an Apple town square open to all except for those who can afford their $1000 iPhone pains me. Local government, on the other hand, is beholden to the public across a wide range of subsidized amenities – parks, roads, schools, utilities, public housing, hospitals, etc. – to build a better life for ALL.
I am leaving NYCEDC for personal reasons. I want to take time to explore & see what else is out there. Maybe I’ll go and learn some best practices from the private sector. But my enthusiasm for the public sector remains and I do hope to go back at some point. If there’s anything that I learned during my time at NYCEDC, it’s that innovation is disrupting industries left & right, and no one is immune to the impending change. Government needs to moderate and soften the change, so it is not an apocalyptic hell of tech-haves and have-nots.
I’m not sure what this next chapter means for me, but am open to the possibilities and ready to take the plunge. As Part I of my ‘sabbatical’, I’m traveling to the Middle East 11/23 – 12/6! If you’re in any of the following cities, let me know:
- Dubai, UAE
- Amman, Jordan
- Wadi Rumi, Jordan
- Jerusalem, Israel
- Tel Aviv, Israel
Thanks to all who have supported me on this journey thus far, and cheers to the open road.
Two weeks ago, I checked a major item off my life bucket list: running the New York City Marathon.
Words can’t quite capture the experience of running through the streets of New York City with 50,000+ other runners. What I can say is that running through the five boroughs — from the mass exodus in Staten Island across the Verrazano bridge into Brooklyn (admittedly, my favorite borough), followed by Queens and a stampede of supporters on 1st ave in Manhattan, into the toughest miles in the Bronx, and then concluding with the final stretch along Central Park West — evoked a powerful sense of unity.
Somewhere in the Bronx between miles 21 and 22 when my legs began to give way, I also began to meditate and pass the time by drawing a line of comparison between the race itself and the race of life. (This is what happens when your neurotic brain calms down!)
Though I am far from seasoned in either race, here are a few racing takeaways that emerged along the path:
- Pace yourself. You’ll burn out by going full blast too quick, too soon. As an all or nothing type of person, this level of control is something I’m still trying to learn in life.
- And yet, you’ll inevitably get tired regardless. It’s ok to stop and take a break when you need it. Recognize when to stop because it’s not about crashing and burning; it’s about finishing the long game.
- Be prepared to lose some shit along the way. I threw out an old hoodie and a jacket as it started to heat up, and allowed my headband to fall to the ground. Some things you’re better off without, for no better reason than to simply lighten the load.
- Go with the (ebb) and flow. There are various phases along the course: times when you’re riding high and filled with determination, and times when you’re on the major struggle bus near drunken stupor. During miles 3–9 in Brooklyn, I felt like I could run forever, as well as miles 17–19 along 1st avenue in Manhattan. The energy on the streets was infectious; when you see people from all walks of life cheering, you can’t help but feel like the whole city is on your side.
Reality hits during what I call the ‘desert miles’; these were miles 12–15, while crossing the Pulkalski bridge into Queens, and miles 19–22, while crossing the Willis bridge into the Bronx. The crowd peters out. You’re alone and doing everything in your power to not give up. The going gets really tough.
We all get by a bit easier with a little help. That said, we don’t always have the luxury of a personal cheering squad which means we ultimately need to rely on our own beating hearts to charge towards the end goal.
- Get over yourself. Just when you think you’re struggling hard, you’re reminded that everyone else is running the same race while facing a battle of their own. People are overcoming challenges beyond what you could ever imagine. Towards the later stretches of the marathon, I found myself running next to a a group called Achilles International. Not knowing who they were, I was a bit irked when one of the runners ran into me. I think I gave her a look, only to realize that she was blind and guided by a volunteer with Achilles International (awesome organization btw, they pair those with sight with the sight-impaired so that they can participate in marathons and running events). Life is filled with humbling moments like these.
- Everything is in your head. We are capable of more than we think. Running a marathon is highly mental. During those moments of immense pain and perspiration, the only thing that kept me going was sheer will, not athletic ability. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other is easy compared to quelling the brain’s desire to quit. Conquer the mind’s restless chatter and truly, anything is within reach.
- Have fun. A marathon is not something people generally do for leisure. But willpower is in short supply. As with all things in life, if you opt to train for something, you need to do it not because you “have to” but because you “want to”. Develop a strategy to make it fun. It will make the journey a lot more enjoyable.
The marathon is one of those milestones that puts everything in perspective. I actually wrote this post two weeks ago without publishing, in between the marathon and our presidential election, but decided to post now because its lessons seem particularly trenchant to our current state of affairs.
Two main takeaways:
- What a gift it is to be alive and healthy. Training and completing the marathon makes me more cognizant of the gift of the human body and all the elements that allow me to move, particularly my 2 legs, 2 arms, 2 eyes, and healthy lungs.
- Unity is possible. If people of all backgrounds can show up on the streets of New York and cheer a simple act of human endurance and resilience — running — why are we so divisive in other areas of life?
Which leads to one final thought about the topic on everyone’s mind –
Though we may not all be on the same page politically, may we aim for simple civility in the days to come. As we enter a potentially transformative time in our nation, let us remember the freedom we are afforded and use it wisely. Fight in the way that matters most, which is inside. And just like the long and winding path on the marathon, press on towards the victorious finish.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
3 years ago, I stumbled upon a small but cozy restaurant in the Lower East Side that beckoned me with its rich brown decor and aromatic Indian spices. The owner – let’s call him MasalaWala – welcomed me with a cup of signature Masala Chai and warm naan. This gesture, accompanied by amazing food, was fuel for my hungry heart to continue the relentless job search amid the throes of a jobless winter.
When I officially moved to NYC a few weeks later with a job, I became a regular. Nursing a warm cup of chai, I wrote:
“I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.
Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking New Yorker who snaps at missing her train.”
In some ways, I’ve morphed into that snappy person…but the dazzle has yet to fade.
In the city that never sleeps, our options are truly endless. Part of this, of course, is branding. New York City, to this day, remains the world’s greatest brand. It may sound a bit goofy, but you need only look up at the skyline to feel like anything can happen.
It can also completely demoralize you with its intense, all-consuming culture.
I moved to New York City, wide-eyed with a lion’s mane of hair much in need of taming. I quickly chopped it off, resembling something like a mushroom head for the next 18 months. “To hell with it!”, I said. I was going for radical transformation.
And that’s what I got. Living in 5 apartments with a dozen different roommates will quickly make you a much more interesting/crazy person. You learn to appreciate your alone time. Between weathering job dismissals, writing furiously to meet deadlines, and navigating bureaucracy, I now know what people mean when they say this city “chews you up and spits you out”. Yet there’s only more gravel-digging ahead.
I know, because I have yet to set foot in all 5 boroughs. I have yet to learn what it’s like to be committed to a cause larger than myself.
I have yet to truly understand the inequality, strife, and deep-rooted fears that befall many of New York City’s most hampered communities.
Moreover, while my persistence has gotten me thus far in NYC, I am aware that my hard-earned diligence was hardly work compared to those who can’t afford (financially or logistically) to spend time at hip co-working spaces and coffee shops to network while searching for a job. Let this be a reminder to all who are highly-educated, connected, and culturally literate that we have a vast amount of resources on our side, including the most basic: access.
So, on my 3rd anniversary in this great city where anything is possible, I give thanks for all of the above: the many opportunities I have been afforded, the goodwill of those who have believed in me, and the valuable lesson of “struggle”, though it pales with the real struggle of the 21% of New Yorkers who live below the federal poverty line.
I am here to to see what this city will be when every New Yorker is activated to meet their full potential in a truly inclusive economy, and everyone can tap into the vast number of resources available without jumping through impossible hurdles.
I’m here for the imagining…and the becoming.
On Thanksgiving Eve, while most New Yorkers eagerly shuttled out of the city, I befittingly found myself glued to my couch in Alphabet City, alone, milking a bottle of wine. Solitary gulps couldn’t replace my family’s embrace but somewhere between the self-pity and nostalgia, I found a silver lining. This week marks my 2nd year of living in New York. Bottoms up!
Should the occasion warrant celebration or consolation? In the past month a number of authors have written emotionally wrenching tales about their breakups with the city. “Why I’m Glad I Quit New York At Age 24” likened the city to the overrated “prom king”. Most recently, “The Long Goodbye“- a NYT commentary on well-known writer’s broken love affairs with NYC – prompted me to ask whether it was time I cut the cord soon too.
2 years is not a long time, but it’s enough to begin embodying characteristics unique to a place. Certainly, my expectations of the city have evolved since day 1. I still remember arriving on a bus with an oversize suitcase that could barely fit in the aisle. Scurrying to the dinner I was late for (the beginning of a recurring New York theme) only to have my dinner date keep me waiting for an additional 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, I had learned an important New York lesson: never wait longer for someone than they will wait for you.
The rest of it reads like a once-poignant-now-trite Thought Catalog riff. But in New York’s defense – or perhaps I’m stuffed with Thanksgiving propaganda at this time of year – I’ve learned lessons which can only be attributed to New York’s hard-knock teaching style. Here are a few:
1. The city moves fast, but you still need to wait at the station.
*applies to more than just commute times.
People can respond to your emails in a heartbeat, but getting anyone to do anything is like moving a mountain. When you’re young, resistance finds you at every corner. You have to pay your dues.
In a literal sense, you need to add at least 20 minutes to a projected commute time because the R or F train will likely be delayed.
The moral is that plans, ambitions, and dreams often get derailed by unforeseen obstacles but usually (God willing) you get to where you need to be. It just takes patience and waiting for the train to come.
2. The city gets smaller, while the world gets bigger.
New York City is the center of the universe and there’s always people to meet. But as my network has expanded, I’ve experienced a shrinking of the “center”. This simultaneous shrinking and expansion of worlds is interesting. The more people I meet, the fewer degrees of separation I am from other people in the city (and the more I treasure my close circle of friends). Neighborhood establishments become part of the routine and former strangers become friends. New York City essentially becomes one big town and way more manageable.
Then I flip to an article on Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe and never does anything seem farther away.
3. The hero is redefined.
Few places embody beauty, wealth, and status more than New York does. I arrived here as starstruck as the worst of Bieber groupies. But after meeting a handful of personal role models- some as impressive as I imagined and others rude as rats – I’ve had to destroy my gods. Working in media taught me that so much of what we see is a marketing blitz and once all the fluff is stripped away, well – celebrities are mere mortals too.
Perhaps because of the preponderance of celebrities in this town, titles and money are a dime in a dozen. What’s harder to find is genuine compassion, a desire to listen, and an ability to think deeply about meaningful issues. While I’m not immune to the allure of wealth and its impact (we all need to make a living), New York’s in-your-face inequality reveals the inflationary value of certain attributes and a gap in appreciation for the everyday heroes who display value beyond the short-lived hoopla of models, millionaires, and moguls.
For the past two years, I’ve raced to keep up with NYC’s speed, size, and glitz. It’s kicked my ass. But I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished overall: building a network within the tech and startup community, writing for one of the most-read US digital publications, working for the government of this grand city of cities, and most importantly, learning more everyday about this intricately woven world. While I have acquired certain archetypically New York characteristics, the hardest part about living here hasn’t been about becoming more assertive, professional, or socially savvy. It’s been refining the qualities that often aren’t associated with New York: patience, humility, and compassion. In its own prickly way, New York City has forced me to reconcile its somewhat contradictory nature (movement-stillness, expansion-shrinking, glitz-poverty) in a way that tamer cities simply can’t.
Saying “Goodbye to All That” is justified. For my friends wondering when I will leave, my answer is not yet. Two years ago, I came to audition. Two years later, I’m still perfecting my routine. I’m still naive enough to believe that, more than anywhere else, New York City is the place for reinvention. Tomorrow, I will say “Hello again, New York” – like I do everyday – and audition for the next month, year, future. The show is yet to begin.
One of the beauties of the city is its sheer diversity. With more than 3 million foreign-born residents and dozens of vibrant enclaves, New York City’s melting pot is golden lore.
But urban environments are inherently greater than the sum of their individually diverse elements. The advantage of the “melting pot”, arguably, comes less from the stew, and more from the cooks gathered round the brew.
The question then is, how do you rally the cooks? In a place like New York City where so many types of people and industries live, it should be easy to bump heads across-industry, ethnicity, and income, right? Mix and match, throw a dash of spice, and voila! Cross-pollination.
All possible, but easier said than done. In the span of a day, I could go from work in a government office, to lunch with a friend creating a fashion-tech startup, to a tour of Harlem Biospace (the city’s first affordable biotech incubator), to drinks with a rep at a wine distributor. Across ethnic lines, I have my pick of the pot: dining options in Chinatown, Harlem, Little Italy, or Williamsburg. And across income brackets, there’s no avoiding the homeless person asking for change on the subway.
I could do all of that, but I could also just as easily retreat into a bubble: spending all day at work, occasionally checking Twitter as my portal to the world (90% of tweets on my feed which come from NYT, FT, WSJ, BI [add other elitist news acronym]-reading journalists/techies like myself) and hanging out with my similarly educated, millennial friends after-hours. This happens about 4/5 of my working days.
I’m not saying one scenario is better or worse than the other, but I am saying that one allows for greater exchange of new possibilities. You be the judge of which.
It’s deceivingly easy to be siloed into little cubby holes. Even in a city that prides itself on diversity – by nature of our occupations, orientations, social statuses- it’s natural to find ourselves placed in certain environments, gravitated toward the same types of people, and engaged in conversations that fit neatly into what we already know. This is fine. There’s something to be said about consistency and comfort. But for those who have chosen a city life, ignoring the diversity around us is like having a bunch of fresh ingredients ready for a great meal, and never actually throwing them in the pot to cook. You’re better getting take-out and moving to the suburbs. A true urban environment is made for serendipitous interaction, fusion of opposites, and a little bit of discomfort. We must be intentional about seeking it.
I’ll end with a story that reveals how easy it is to fall victim to our own bubbles. During NYC’s September primary election, a well-known figure in the tech community, Reshma Saujani, ran for the office of Public Advocate. She had started an organization called Girls Who Code and was married to another well-known entrepreneur, Nihal Mehta. She had the backing of major figures including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who threw a fundraiser for her. I even included her and her husband on a Business Insider list of 16 power couples. So of course, I thought an election win was a sure thing. Everyone on Twitter seemed to think so too.
Well? Apparently I trust Twitter too much. It turns out Reshma didn’t even crack 5% of the vote. Had I bothered to check the polls or venture beyond my Twittersphere/usual tech blogs, I would have seen that the winner, Letitia James, had been ahead in the polls for a while. Now that I work in government, I’m aware of how well-liked Letitia is among government and community circles, making it slightly embarrassing that I had no idea who she was 3 months ago. I also see how few people within government know Reshma, which is also a bit of a shame because her influence through Girls Who Code is significant. Either way, it shows that sometimes, beyond our better judgement, we’re stuck in our little bubbles.
I’m afraid that with the increased emergence of niche-based groups, the population is becoming further fragmented. We stick with what we know. Corporatis in cubed nation, free spirits in their coffee shops. What would our world look like if skills were vetted outside their typical context? Classrooms in restaurants. Bankers in public service. Could be a complete disaster (like the mishmash soup I once created with random leftovers), or a beautiful stew of possibility (when the recipe is meticulously designed to maximize skill sets and tastes.)
Today’s problems cannot be met by government, business, or civil society alone. Yet until we are willing to peek into other worlds, we’ll never know how to create the best mix. We’ll simply remain imagining, instead of living, the possibilities.
I’ve written before about finding community in a big city. When I first moved to NYC, I said that creating community was the key to happiness.
At the time, I was talking more about making friends than community-building. There’s a big difference. I’ve made a handful of friendships in the two years since moving here – and they’ve been wonderful- but they’re not to be mistaken with finding community. Community is when we identify with something greater than the individual sums of after-work drinks and weekly brunches.
While I’ve joined a few groups that have ignited passion for something beyond self (ie. church, volunteer organizations), there are several strong indicators that I am still far removed from a community mindset. The biggest test is the departure question. If I were to leave New York City tomorrow, what would change? Nothing, fundamentally. Sure, my job would be different, public transportation woes would mostly disappear, and I’d probably eat out a lot less, but the way I interact with people probably wouldn’t change (and we all know that what really sticks is the relationships you make).
Virtual tools allow us to maintain communication so, quite frankly, we don’t really ever have to see anyone to be plugged in. Which begs the question, why live in a particular area anyway? If I could still keep in touch with the people I want to keep in touch with, what difference does it make whether I live in Omaha or New York City? The main distinction is community. When tied to a larger group of people, that group’s unique problems are amplified by physical proximity.
Yesterday, I had brunch plans with a friend who lives across the street. (Important to note that the primary way we know each other is through her brother, a college friend, not by fact that we’re neighbors.) She asked if I wanted to stop by and meet her neighbor before brunch. Why not, I thought. I had never been inside her building despite the close proximity.
Her neighbor was in the middle of making coffee, and warmly offered a cup while making conversation. 15 minutes later, he asked that we join him for breakfast. I hesitated – this derailed plans for the individual catch-up session we had planned, and I didn’t want to intrude – but we were enjoying a great conversation, so why be exclusive?
It turned out to be the highlight of my week.
Together, we scrappily gathered some basic brunch elements (generously supplied by Lucille and Mark) and created a sumptuous spread: French toast, prosciutto, cheese, and freshly brewed coffee. Mark dished about his weekend, Lucille provided her usual witty insights, and I shared stories to connect the two. My previously disparate background became oddly connected – and beautifully – with those of a former corporate barista and fashion photographer’s.
2 hours later, we cleaned up…to prepare dessert. Green tea ice cream accompanied by pumpkin spice cookies. The conversation that followed was equally delightful. I never thought I could have such a great time with relative strangers but there I was, experiencing a form of joyful connection I can’t say I’ve ever experienced before in New York City.
The skeptic in me can make all sort of exceptions to how this happened: my friend and her neighbor were exceptionally amicable, food was farmer’s market-fresh, coffee was in abundance. I’m well aware that all of this happened under ideal circumstances and that real community is rarely ever this clean. Getting into other people’s lives, in reality, is messy and probably much less convenient.
That said, I can only recount how blissful the whole encounter was.
Part of it was the great conversation and food, but another part was the feeling that I was no longer a tourist. If something were to happen to these folks, I’d feel responsible. I couldn’t leave a mess. Funny how just 2 neighbors can add a sense of ownership and identification with the neighborhood.
Today, I will return to the day-to-day humdrum which largely revolves around isolated activities that have no significance to anyone beyond myself, and maybe a a tiny tiny circle. But yesterday’s encounter challenges me to think about the implications of my life. How can we make our lives go beyond ourselves in the immediate spheres that we inhabit?
The answer lies in community. Here, the stakes are raised.