From warm zeppoles in summer to suspension school in springtime, New York natives shine a light on what it’s really like to grow up in the city that never sleeps.
By Olivia Aylmer
We knew it was coming when they relocated recess to the indoor gymnasium.
From our perch on the fourth floor, we watched the trucks pull into the parking lot beside the Catholic church to the dismay of our teacher, tapping her foot by the blackboard as she tried to divert our attention back to a lesson on cursive handwriting. But nothing could draw our attention away from the men as they proceeded to build a fair from the ground up before our awestruck eyes.
Every afternoon over the course of a week, we would resume our spots at the window, left slightly ajar to let in the warm breeze that promised a spring respite from our bitter East Coast winter. The men worked from dawn till dusk, starting with the installation of a Ferris wheel at the far end of the lot and ending with a dragon-shaped rollercoaster that reached us at eye level. In the daylight, this haphazard collection of rides appeared to us as the playground we had never known. Recess for the students at Our Lady of the Snows School in Floral Park—our suburban Queens neighborhood—consisted of kickball, colored chalk drawing on the black pavement, or taking laps around the lot.
The first day of May, however, meant the start of the annual church fair and a weekend of magic popping up in unfamiliar places. Italian locals who had supported the church since its early days purchased the ingredients to fill cheap paper bags with their famed zeppoles; my classmates’ mothers whipped up devil’s food cupcakes by the dozen to fill card tables for the bake sale; and churchgoers signed up to enforce fair play at the water balloon booth.
My classmates and I were too busy getting caught up in the wonder of it all to notice that the amount of time and effort it took for every member of our small community to host such an affair hardly made up for the profits accrued from the cheap ride and raffle tickets. By Friday, as the parking lot transformed into a full-fledged fair complete with striped tents, carnival games, and merry-go-rounds, we could think of nothing else but the stroke of seven o’ clock.
I waited impatiently for my dad to step off the bus he took home from work in midtown after school on one such Friday in second grade. The moment I spotted him on the corner of my block, I sprinted down 264th Street and told him he had better change out of that suit before he could get a word in edgewise; it was Friday night, and we were headed for the fair. Dad, a sometimes daredevil, tried to convince me for the umpteenth time that tonight would be the night I’d take my first rollercoaster ride, questionable safety conditions and all. I firmly declined the offer as he changed into a t-shirt.
A short walk of a few blocks found us standing in line to purchase tickets and survey the crowd for neighbors and friends. The sky had turned blush pink and indigo, while a skywriter swooped down with his cotton ball message. The neon Ferris wheel in the distance reminded me of the reflections of lights on the Hudson from the perpetually lit skyscrapers I loved to follow with my eyes as my parents drove over the bridges and into Manhattan on Saturday nights. Tickets securely in hand, Dad led me through the crowd as crooners’ love songs drifted out of loudspeakers. We passed a group of priests sharing a plate of rainbow cookies on a picnic table and chuckling at a private joke, while nearby a group of kindergarten teachers challenged each other to pop the water balloon first. A stuffed tiger hanging from the highest rung of prizes caught my eye.
I soon spotted a group of friends from my class gathered by the roller coaster, their faces turned upwards with a combination of eagerness and utter fright. They waved, shouting at me to join them over the din. Fat chance.
Hands in my pockets, I looked back at Dad to step in and save me from the peer pressure. He diverted his eyes, clearly hoping I would face my fears in the absence of his chiming in. Shirt-tugger girl grabbed me by the hand, not waiting for my reply, which wouldn’t have come anyways since my entire mouth had gone dry.
And suddenly there I was, seated beside her as the noisy coaster started its steady incline, which at the time felt like climbing a miniature Mount Everest but was more like an ant hill. As the fair below grew further and further away, I could see across the entire lot—the rainbow balloons tied to poles that swayed to and fro in the mild May zephyrs, the painted sign that read “Casino Lounge” (a basement room where all the older men and, I imagine, a few priests went after a certain hour) and, at the very tip top of the incline, a familiar sight: My classroom window.
The two minutes that followed remain blurry. There was the breathless screaming, especially piercing in my row, and the wind on my back, and that pit-of-the-stomach sensation, at once the best and worst you have felt in your life. Then, of course, there were the final few seconds of my first ride, which found the girl next to me vomiting her cookies (literally, there were so many Italian cookies consumed at this thing) all over the riders in front of us.
Stepping off the ride in a fit of dizzy giggles, I searched for Dad. A few feet away, my eyes found him, but I was more excited to see the oversized tiger he held up with both hands. His face shone with the sort of pride that only comes to a dad when he beats all the other dads at the water balloon game and leaves the booth triumphant, clutching a stuffed animal without an ounce of shame.
As the evening drew to a close, we headed for home by foot. Balanced on Dad’s shoulders, I clutched my tiger with one hand and pulled warm dough from a bag of zeppoles with the other, sprinkling powdered sugar all over his hair. Behind us, the lights still glowed in the lot and a chorus of screams resounded through the leafy streets.
Olivia Aylmer studies English Literature at Barnard College; writes about fascinating humans of New York for The Columbia Daily Spectator, where she currently serves as Style Editor; and also documents Columbia University’s sartorially savvy students as editor of The Hoot Blog. She firmly believes in snail mail, but emailed notes will do; feel free to write her at email@example.com.
José-Luis Olivares is a cartoonist living in Boston, MA. Check out his online project, Imaginary Friends, where he draws a new imaginary friend every day.
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Sidewalks of New York
By Roja Heydarpour
I had that moving-to-New-York euphoria people who fall in love with the city experience when I was eight, despite getting pickpocketed for my hard-earned gift certificate to Bloomingdale’s that same year. But that was New York in 1988; even little girls on the Upper East Side got robbed by grown men. It was the same city that would produce the Dart Man, who went around shooting darts at women’s butts for one full summer. A criminal with the same sense of humor as an eight-year-old haunted the city. What kid wouldn’t love it?
My family dropped everything in 1985, when we abruptly moved from Iran to Dallas, Texas, where we lived for three years. It was the heyday of Iran Contra, when all regular programming was interrupted with images of Oliver North and Iran, the country’s mortal enemy. I was too young to feel publically excoriated, but old enough to be offended that my shows were cancelled. It was a different story for my sister and parents, so when we moved to New York it was almost as if I sensed the rest of my family exhale. My sister and I were ridiculously happy to go to school and have the first question after “what’s your name?” be a slightly abrasive, but mostly kind and curios, “where are you from?” “IRAN,” I would say proudly. In New York, it was good to be different, preferable even.
After school, instead of playing on the barren, melting sidewalks of Dallas, I stepped into the hustle and bustle of the city, where opportunities abounded. There was an Optimo across the street that sold three candy bars for a dollar. So I would cash in the cans and bottles from our apartment at the Gristede’s under our building for five cents each every couple of weeks, and immediately convert it into a Twix, a Kit Kat and fill-in-the-third (no Almond Joys, please.)
I didn’t have to ask anybody for anything.
But the allure of dragging cans to the supermarket faded when I realized the only other people at the machine were old ladies and the homeless. I soon started to sell lemonade instead, which I either learned from a sitcom or an Amelia Bedelia book. And later—at the suggestion of my friend’s mother, whom I met after crashing into her with my bike one day—scrunchies. I’m still, by all accounts, a tiny woman at five foot and ninety pounds, but when I was eight I looked like a four-year-old with eyes half the size of her head and glasses twice that size. I don’t think the “customers” could refuse me. Did I look like a child beggar? It didn’t matter. I was raking it in, especially since there was almost no competition from the other Upper East Side kids.
We lived in that neighborhood because my uncle, who had already lived in the city for decades, received a settlement after getting burned from head to toe in a car accident on the West Side Highway several years earlier. He used the money to buy an apartment on 79th Street and Second Avenue, which he generously gave to us because it was in a good school district. So when the other kids packed their trunks and went to summer camp (“Why can’t they just take suitcases?” I wondered. “And why are their parents sending them away?”), I sold shit on the street.
That same uncle made our nights and weekends exponentially more exciting than they were before. A gay artist, his parties, his gatherings, his friends were endlessly intriguing. My mother was thirty-six, my father forty-two, my sister thirteen, and for some reason they never hired a babysitter. We were a unit and still are. They talked about politics, they shed tears over the execution binge of their friends and family in Iran, they explained why Joseph, the man, the friend who lived across the hall from my uncle, had lesions on his face. I learned about the AIDS epidemic, I learned tolerance, I learned how to listen to experimental music in Central Park and watch avant-garde plays in the East Village.
I also learned how to be terrified of the life of an artist. As open-ended as all those conversations in smoke-filled living rooms, dining rooms and kitchens were, the takeaway, for my tiny mind, was that art is no joke. Art commands respect, like your elders do.
Many of those elders—because, of course, at that time, everyone was an elder—sacrificed comfortable lives. But even worse, they exposed themselves for everyone to see, and judge. “That was shit!” my uncle would cry about an exhibition or movie, inciting hours of intense debate. I would sit there, watching wide-eyed, thinking, “That’s so cool, but I could never be an artist.”
I was a practical kid who always had dollars in her red Care Bear wallet. It was something to do, so I could eat candy and ride my bike and buy a slice of pizza after playing handball in the playground. It was fun to be independent in New York City.
That taste of earned independence was part of my euphoric first year here and stays with me. And when I meet new arrivals to the city, who come with creative aspirations, and who jump from job to job when they look around and realize they’re surrounded by their version of old ladies and the homeless, I sympathize.
I still am that practical kid. I work and save what I can. But now, instead of candy and pizza, I save for alcohol, take-out when I’m too lazy to cook, and the freedom, to maybe, one day, if I’m lucky, heh, live the life of an artist.
Roja Heydarpour is Cultural Editor at Large at Al-Monitor. She has written and edited for The Daily Beast, The New York Times and The Times-Tribune.
Sally Madden is an illustrator and member of the arts collective, Partyka. She lives and works in Philadelphia.”
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What Books and Their Covers Have in Common with New York City Public Schools
By Arvind Dilawar
Joseph Pulitzer Middle School, better known as I.S. 145, and Stuyvesant High School, often referred to simply as Stuy, are arguably on opposite ends of the New York City public school spectrum.
I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, Queens, was rumored to be one of the worst schools in the city during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. It bore many of the stereotypical characteristics of an “inner city” school: Low-income minority students; high teacher turnover; poor standardized test scores; conspicuous lack of resources; overcrowding so extreme that classrooms were halved with makeshift walls to accommodate two classes.
Stuy, on the other hand, was reputably the best public school in New York City during the early 2000s. Admission was (and still is) based solely on an exam, and only the top performers are accepted. These students travel from the edges of New York City to Stuyvesant’s ten-story building in Manhattan’s Financial District, where their educations are fortified by a rigorous core curriculum, an extensive selection of electives, an environment that compels the competitive spirit and tons of private donations.
Despite the seemingly alternate universes that I.S. 145 and Stuy inhabited, I found they had more in common than anyone might think. If I.S. 145 was the pits, there were gemstones to be found in the dark. If Stuy was Plato’s Academy, too many people confused it for Raphael’s School of Athens—that is, too many people mistook representation for reality.
In the late spring of 2001 I skipped class at I.S. 145 for the third time. High school acceptance letters had recently been received, so many seniors were taking their final days of eighth grade with the ease of inconsequence. After months of test prep, I had made the score for Stuyvesant, becoming one of three students from I.S. 145 to make it that year—a windfall for a middle school school that, at best, annually reared one prospective Stuy student.
I ducked out of school after lunch, just before earth science, to visit Travers Park, commonly called 78th Street Park. Despite being only two blocks away from I.S. 145, 78th Street Park was the go-to site for truants during the warmer months, and this was a gorgeous day of rolling blue skies. There, I met Jeff, whom I had attended elementary school and I.S. 145 with, although we were currently in different classes. (Note: The names of everyone in this story have been changed to spare them any embarrassment.) He was heading to Bayside High School in the fall and we spent some time discussing how our lives would soon be upended, or which girls we liked, or whatever it is that junior high schoolers talk about.
At the park I also ran into Sophie, one of the popular girls from my class who was similarly skipping earth science, though she had cut the entire day and enough of the previous weeks for our teachers to ask after her health. We had been in the same honors class since sixth grade, taking almost all of our courses together, so although we weren’t close friends, I had a classmate’s concern in her absences, in the lunchroom stories I heard about her, in her being here at 78th Street Park smoking cigarettes.
I said hi—or, more likely for that time, “what’s up?”—and we talked about our earth science teacher. A few other kids from I.S. 145 eventually came up to Sophie and, after a brief chat, walked off. As Sophie gathered her things to follow, she asked if I smoked, to which I responded that I didn’t, thinking of my father and the choking odor of Marlboro Lights that clung to his everything. It wasn’t until she had walked away that I realized Sophie was talking about pot.
Woe is she, I thought.
In April of 2005 I was enrolled as a senior at Stuyvesant, but was attending “suspension school” for a month in Chelsea. On my first day there, I had to register with a school safety officer, who, upon hearing that I was coming from Stuy, said, “Oh, the cocaine school. Don’t you bring any of that shit up in here.”
Although that was the first time I had heard anyone outside of Stuyvesant speak of the school unfavorably (or, in the case of Brooklyn Tech students, without bitter envy), I understood immediately what she was referring to: That spring, I was the latest of four Stuy students to be arrested for possession in school and to consequently pass through the suspension school system.
In March, days before my eighteenth birthday, police officers were at the school to arrest another student for theft and decided to investigate a report from my sociology teacher that I had a handgun. In actuality, it was a toy airsoft gun that was safely tucked away at home, but after clipping the Master Lock off of my locker, the cops discovered a tin of flavored cigarettes and, in that, a small baggie of cocaine.
Although drugs are usually associated with failing schools and poor neighborhoods, I’ve never been more surrounded by them more than at Stuy. From pot all the way up to heroin, drugs coursed through the school. They were stored in lockers, exchanged in empty hallways and taken in bathrooms. The relative affluence of Stuy families supplied the funding, the reputation of the school created a haven, and the constantly reaffirmed intelligence of the students reinforced the will to go ahead with even the worst ideas—after all, we were so fucking smart; what could possibly go wrong? Even our education was an enabler; preparing ketamine is a lot easier when you know a thing or two about chemistry.
So, days before my eighteenth birthday, I was cuffed, read my rights and escorted out—shamefully, at the same moment my AP English teacher was walking through the lobby. A police van took me and the other Stuy arrestee to the First Precinct, where I sat in a cell until 9:30 p.m., when I was released to my tearful, furious parents.
I dodged the charges mostly by being underage, but Stuy also somewhat came to my defense. My public defender’s daughter was hoping to attend the school, so he was familiar with its reputation as one of the best schools in the city. It was a fine school, he explained to the judge, and I would be a fine graduate if I were pardoned just this once.
I got off with a month of community service and a year of probation.
Platitudes about the differences between the covers and the contents of books might explain some of my experience at public schools in New York City, but they don’t capture the whole truth, with at least part of that being: The narratives we collectively construct determine people’s lives, keeping them down and bumping them up when they aren’t in line with the story being told.
I.S. 145 was a poor, overcrowded, somewhat rundown school. No one expected too much from its students, so no one gave them much, and observers were occasionally happily surprised with the results, but more often content with the accuracy of their predictions of mediocrity or worse. Stuyvesant was stocked with what were supposedly the best young minds in New York and supported to the nth degree; its students could do no wrong even when they were really, really fucking up.
Thankfully, the endings are all happy this time. Sophie is fine. Through Facebook, I know she moved away after junior high and is soon expecting her first baby girl. She looks happy in her profile pictures. I’m fine, too. I walked away from Stuy with a diploma and a sealed rap sheet, but I wouldn’t have been so lucky if the school’s bulletproof reputation hadn’t shielded me from consequences that would have crushed so many other kids. Regardless of everything I did that could have derailed it, the narrative I entered when I enrolled at Stuy almost seamlessly reached its spotless ending. I should be happy, I guess, but I’m left wondering what would’ve happened if I had gone to a high school whose students don’t get cut as much slack, where the stories are sad because we all expect them to be.
Arvind Dilawar writes mostly about the dumb things he’s done, but has somehow managed to have his work appear on TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Mail and, of course, Narratively. Go figure.
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Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Native New Yorkers… and Have Probably Asked, Too
By Luisa Conlon and Gigi Rose Gray
Have you ever had a stranger openly question your upbringing?
We have. A lot.
It’s a sensitive subject. Despite the hard-line attitude often associated with “real” New Yorkers, the truth is that no one likes hearing their hometown is the wrong place to raise a child, and that it was probably a mistake for their parents to attempt it. That tugs at heartstrings you didn’t even know you had.
The questions native New Yorkers field from people who didn’t grow up here are enough to throw the staunchest city dweller into a full-blown existential crisis. Did we really miss out on a real childhood as kids in the concrete jungle? Would we be more wholesome people had we grown up in an idyllic suburban landscape of houses and trees and backyards? If our parents had moved us there, would we be less cynical? Less jaded? Less New York?
It’s unclear. Because we’ve never known any other childhood; and ours was beautiful for both of us, strange as it may seem to an outsider.
We’ve known each other for twenty years. We met for the first time in a Manhattan nursery school, where we shared nap time on the floor of a mid-nineteenth century townhouse.
Our fathers grew up in Queens, they themselves the children of city kids. We come from a long line of New Yorkers. We are the product of men and women who have seen this city change at an immeasurable pace, and somehow survived it all.
The truth, it seems, is that many people think we lived through a childhood that was out of a Tom Waits song: Fast men and women, drugs, alcohol, and whatever quotidian insanity New Yorkers wake up to every morning.
Much of that is true, yet we thought we’d take on some of the most common doubts and questions from non-natives and reply to them. At the very least, to answer some of our own doubts about growing up in the city that never sleeps.
“New York is no place to raise a child”
Gigi: It’s no surprise someone would question whether this scary metropolis is a safe or nurturing place to raise a child. However, as products of this city, I feel confident that a child can flourish amongst all its conflicting extremes.
Growing up here, kids experience and see things some people miss out on altogether in life. Yes, we did get a condensed, large dose of reality early on, but children are children no matter where they grow up. They live in the fantasies of their minds and take in the realities of their environments in stride. My nightmares were filled with crazy bums chasing me down the street rather than ghosts or zombies, but I too dreamt of fairies, frolicking the magnolia trees of Central Park, the closest I got to having a backyard.
Central Park is an oasis that holds a lot of mystery for a child, and many of my own beautiful experiences were lived there. Whenever I woke up, looked out my window and saw the city quietly covered under a blanket of snow, it felt like Christmas. My mother would pull out our old wooden sled as I would zip up the waterproof onesie that filled me with such shame, and excitedly waddle out of the building into the park. Climbing the boulders of Central Park felt like scaling Mount Everest: knee deep in snow, we would search for the highest point and I’d speed down, gathering snowflakes in my eyes. It was exhilarating! But the actual highlight was the enchanting ride home. I would lie down, my onesie cushioning the wooden planks of my sled, and my mother would pull me along all the way home. Gazing up—with the park’s trees and skyscrapers perfectly framed in the night sky, I was floating through a city that was my Narnia. Every noise was dampened by the snowfall. It was magical and peaceful. It’s one of those memories that, upon reflection, I question whether it was a dream or a reality.
Luisa: When I was in kindergarten, my aunt Joan would bring me to a playground on the West Side, off of Riverside Drive. This was the early ‘90s, a time when you had to keep discarded syringes out of your kids’ hands. Joan had a deep trove of New York stories: Muggings, assaults, robberies. Walking to the park, my little hand in hers, I would beg for another tale: “Like when the guy stole all your money from inside of your sock.” My aunt would look down at me, her morbid and cherubic blonde niece, and tell me the same story again and again. I relished crimes stories, which I’m sure has everything to do with growing up here.
Children like me are why people think that kids just can’t be kids here.
And they are right. In part. New York is a big, and often terrifying, city. There is a lot that can detract from the purity of childhood experience. But I always thought it is, in fact, the perfect place to raise a child. Where else can you come of age surrounded by such rare breeds of people? Artists, musicians, cooks, bankers, doormen, station agents, teachers. If it takes a village to raise someone, then we’ve got a pretty special one. To a New York kid, there is no one thing you can’t be. You navigate the city streets with childlike minds and the collective community on our side. Sure, it can get weird. Sure, there are mornings where your mom tries to shield you from the guy taking a piss on the sidewalk at 9 a.m. But you’ll meet that guy one day, whether as a kid or as an adult. Here, it just happens earlier.
“Don’t you feel like you grew up too quickly?”
Luisa: There is a lot of truth to this. It’s almost impossible for parents raising kids in this city to gauge the pace at which their kids are growing up, with unique experiences, some of which are not the kind you would want your five-, ten- or fifteen-year-old to have. From speaking to other lifelong New Yorkers, it seems many of us feel like there are things we could have waited for.
I had a fake ID before my sweet sixteen, purchased from a shifty man in the back of a smoke shop on St. Mark’s. We all had one because that was the only way to keep up. Everyone wanted to be part of the cool crowd, and that’s what they were doing. Clubs, bars, restaurants—we were hitting all of them at an age when most people are satisfied with the thrill of a high school dance. The advantage is that we stopped at an earlier age. I’m twenty-four, and have almost no desire to “go hard” anymore. So we did grow up fast, but we also gained perspective a little sooner.
Gigi: New York makes no allowances for naiveté. Perhaps it’s true-as adolescence approaches, we were more like young adults than gawky teens, navigating the streets with caution and attitude, quick to bark back at any hecklers. But wouldn’t one see this as an advantage rather than a loss of innocence?
Besides, the exposure to this landscape of differing human conditions, drugs, poverty, wealth and mental illness is not influential until a person develops an understanding of the world and their place within it. Anyone who comes to New York is struck with the variety of faces passing them in the streets, exotic languages spoken, and churches, mosques, temples all coexisting in the same neighborhood. A tolerance was instilled in us before we could even recognize the difference between black, white and everything in between.
“Wow, I’ve never met a real New Yorker before”
Gigi: Each time this phrase is uttered, which is upon nearly every introduction made, I think to myself: Where do we all go? What is this elusive character of the lifelong New Yorker? I always find myself promising people that in fact there were once many of us here roaming these avenues, mommy, daddy and (in some cases) nanny in hand. With over 1,400 schools in New York City one wouldn’t guess us to be such a rarity. We populate all corners of this megalopolis. We are born and live everywhere. From the urban canyons of Midtown, to the townhouses lining cobblestone streets of the West Village, to the flamboyant yet demure Chelsea, to the noble Upper East Side and its bohemian counterpart the Upper West Side, to the ultra cool and euro-central Soho, to the distant memories of punk and grit in the East Village. We cover a lot of ground on a small plot. However, this island is also teeming with tourists, commuters, international exchange students, out-of-state and foreign residents. So perhaps the reason we are so often viewed as a rarity is we are one. We are outnumbered.
Luisa: Meeting another native New Yorker in New York always feels like a homecoming: We’re usually just as shocked to meet one of our kind as visitors are to meet us. And I too wonder where we all go; because when it comes to it, I rarely meet New Yorkers who feel like they could be happy anywhere else. Sure, we have traveled and even lived in other cities, but to us, there is no place like this to settle down. Surely, there should be more of us around.
But the truth is that we grew up in a place where other people come to form their lives. New York is a part of us, and it formed us into who we are today. But it’s not ours. It belongs to every man and woman who came here to make something for themselves. And this city takes them in whole heartedly, as it always has. We are outnumbered. By an incredible eight million people who, whether they love it as much as we do or not, make this city what it is.
Gigi Rose Gray is an illustrator, designer and overall image maker, born, bred and working in New York City.
Luisa Conlon is a freelance filmmaker living and working in Brooklyn. She received a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2011 and is an active member of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective.
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Sara Griffin was born and raised in New York City. She graduated with a degree in Studio Art and Art History from Bowdoin College in Maine. She is a proud member of bad cop, bad cop: an art collective; to see more of her work, visit her website: thesaragriffin.com.