Tag Archives: stories

a return of sorts

Last year, I wrote a story about a strip club off a highway in rural Missouri. It was dark and grimy, the only building for miles.

As a five-foot-tall woman in her twenties, it probably wasn’t the wisest idea to go alone at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night. But I wanted the story. So I went anyway.

There were two men who did business at the place, and two women who danced. They were suspicious of me. The second time I visited, the bartender asked me if I wanted to strip down and dance for the customers sitting just below the stage, all of them men, gawking at the dancer as if they were a single unit, a single man in his dirty jeans with a collective pair of eyes. But of course, they weren’t one man, but three different individuals, each who had driven to this club on his own, each watching the dancer on his own, and I both resented them and felt sorry for their loneliness.

The bartender’s question — when he asked whether I wanted to go onstage and have my turn at the pole — was a joke. I think. But I was already uncomfortable, and my hands began to sweat after he asked. I tried to hide how scared I was, so I smiled and declined and laughed it off.

When I left, the bartender walked me out to my car.

“It’s not safe for a girl like you to be out in the middle of nowhere,” he told me.

I wanted to tell him that I only felt unsafe around him, but I didn’t say anything.

“I did some research on you,” he said just before I opened my car door, and I think every muscle in my body froze when he did.

“Oh yeah? What did you find?” I said.

“You’ve written about some… pretty controversial stuff,” he said.

“I like writing the tough stories,” I said.

“Your family is from all over the world,” he said, and after a pause: “Your grandmother died last year.”

And that’s when I discovered that he’d found my personal blog. It terrified me to know that this potentially dangerous stranger knew so much about my private life. And I knew the bartender’s words were a subtle threat.

Since then, except for little essays on Instagram, I haven’t shared much of my personal writing online.

The stakes are higher now that I’m working as a professional journalist. I don’t want to give too much of myself away. But I want to write, and I want to share what I write. So I’m going to try to blog this summer, but it’s a struggle to mark a line between my public and private persona — a line that I suspect doesn’t actually exist — and try not to cross it.

The goal is to publish at least seven blog posts this summer. Hold me accountable, internet.

(I drove off after that conversation, by the way, and I wrote the story, which you an read here.)

Until next time, xoxo from South Carolina.

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storytime: chats with uber drivers

The first time I took an Uber, I tried to get into the wrong car.

I was in Arlington, Va., and after a midnight soak in a friend’s rooftop hot tub on a freezing February night, I had to get back to my budget hotel in D.C. My friend sent me a code for a free Uber ride, but I was apprehensive. Could I trust the Uber driver to not kidnap, kill, cut me into tiny pieces and/or stuff me into his trunk? That apprehensiveness grew when when I tried to open the door of a car that was parked in front of my friend’s apartment.

The door was locked. I knocked on the window.

“Uber?” I asked, waving my phone. The confused driver stared at me, and then shook his head.

I tried to ignore the fact that I had essentially turned a stereotype on its head–instead of a large black man trying to rob a small white woman, I was the small white woman who appeared to be jacking a large black man’s car–and I called my Uber driver.

“You’re parked around the corner?”

I got back to my hotel in one piece.


Two days later, I almost missed my flight back to Kansas City.

I sat in the back of an Uber, waiting as we stood still in traffic for five full minutes.

“Is it always this bad in D.C. on a Friday evening?” I asked my driver.

“Oh, that’s the President’s motorcade driving past,” he said.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.

Washington, D.C.: view from the Newseum.


By the time I visited Atlanta a month later for a computer-assisted reporting conference, I was an Uber convert. An Uber proselytizer, really. I was sharing a cheap hotel room with three other  grad students, and we were shamelessly cutting costs at every corner.

“We can share the cost of one Uber ride, which’ll be $3 each,” I told them. So, we took Uber everywhere.

We probably had ten drivers total. Not one of them was white, and two of them were women.

I asked one of the women how she started working for Uber.

“Well, I came to Atlanta to help out my daughter,” she said. “She’s thirty, but she acts like she’s sixteen years old or something. She burned through all her money. So I moved from Alabama to help her out.”

“Do you like Atlanta?” I asked.

The woman laughed. “Nope, not really.”


“Do you like Atlanta?” was a question I asked often, and more often than not, the Uber drivers said yes.

I soon learned that several of these drivers had recently moved to Atlanta from other states in the South–Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana.

Our first morning in Atlanta, our driver  could not sing the city’s praises enough. “I moved here two years ago, and I love it,” he said. “Ladies, you would love it too. You’re just what Atlanta needs–four, young, smart, pretty single ladies out on the town!”

He wore a metallic patterned shirt, and his energy at 7 a.m. was more effective as a strong cup of coffee.

“Is that your real eye color, or are you wearing contacts?” he asked me.

“I mean, I’m wearing contacts, but they’re not colored…”

“Well, girl, you have got beautiful eyes.”

Funny, the most romantic thing ever said to me was by a gay Uber driver.

He loved that we were new to Atlanta, and he loved pointing everything out. “And that’s the Hard Rock Cafe,” he said, his voice authoritative, as if we couldn’t read the giant neon sign that read: “Hard Rock Cafe.”

“That’s a trolley car–they’re just testing it out. See that man in the yellow vest? That’s a cop. They’re everywhere, but they’re friendly. They’re here so tourists will feel safe and come back,” he said. “Homeless people might ask you for money, but if you say no, they won’t harass you. It’s because they know the cops don’t mess around. Oh! See that other guy in yellow? Another cop.”

Thanks, buddy.

Atlanta

Downtown Atlanta


One of our Uber drivers, it turned out, was a retired cop and Atlanta native.

I couldn’t help myself.

“I’m a journalist from Missouri, and I’ve been covering some stuff about Ferguson and its aftermath,” I said. “What do you think about the police department here in Atlanta? Do you see similar issues?”

“It’s not as bad here. In this city, a lot of the cops are black. A lot of the people are black,” he said. “I tell you what, and this is just my opinion, but I truly believe it. If the racial makeup of police forces reflected the racial makeup of their cities, we wouldn’t be having these problems.”


On our final morning in Atlanta, our last Uber driver had another solution to my questions about Ferguson and race (oops–we’ll blame it on the reporter in me; nobody’s perfect).

“I’m not a Republican, I’m not a Democrat. We need rules and regulations, but we need family values too. You know what would solve the world’s problems? If parents taught their kids compassion!” he said.

“But how does that translate to legislation?” I asked.

“Those lawmakers need to legislate compassion!” the driver said, half-laughing, half-serious. “Nothing is just Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. It should go deeper than that. My political philosophy, I get that from Star Wars. Yoda said, ‘Only a Sith deals in absolutes.'”

Hear that, world? Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

pierogi in greenpoint

It’s Dec. 27, 2014, which is almost 2015, and I’m ready for it. 

I carved out a bit of time in my break for filling out internship applications, and instead I’m sitting next to a pile of Hershey’s Kisses wrappers with my dog at my feet and I’m blogging instead. Go figure. 

I don’t like to forget things, but I often do. That’s why I try to scribble my thoughts down whenever I can. Even if it’s not well-written, or if it’s one giant rambling mess, at least it’s been recorded. So I’ve decided to share a memory from 2014. Read if you want to, or not.

Let’s start with New York.

Two days after I arrived, I decided to skip out early on the mixer for the business journalism conference I was attending. I was ready for dinner, and after reading novels and stories and blog posts about New York, I knew exactly where to go: Greenpoint in Brooklyn.

Greenpoint is one of the few Polish neighborhoods in the States, and I was eager to eat authentic pierogi. Roll your eyes at me if you must, but America is full of sickening pierogi imitations. It had been two and a half years since I had last visited my grandmother in Poland, so two and a half years since I had tasted real-life, actual, laboriously hand-made, cheese-and-potato peasant pierogi.

Thank you, God, for smartphones, I thought as I found my way to the G-Train. I was still dressed in the outfit I had planned for my New York Stock Exchange visit earlier that day, complete with a pencil skirt, blazer and oversized black heels. When I got off at the subway at Nassau Avenue as dusk fell darker and darker into night, I felt completely out of place.

Just walk around like you used to in London. I thought. You’ll find a place to eat, easy peasy. 

Except for a few things. I knew London fairly well. This was the first time I had ever set foot in Brooklyn. I was surprised to see that the streets were almost completely deserted. I saw a few mothers with strollers head inside their brownstone homes. Gentrification had taken over the Greenpoint of my imagination. Silly.

I walked into the first restaurant that I saw. It was a narrow place decorated with Polish memorabilia  with a bar up front and booths in the back. The bartenders and waiters were dressed in traditional Polish costumes, and although I’ve never been crazy about cheesy tourist vibes, I was too comfortable in the heated restaurant to consider walking back out in the cold. So, I sat down at the bar, ordered a bottle of Tyskie–my uncle’s favorite beer, which has an okay taste, not great, but I didn’t know of any other Polish beer–and opened the day’s Wall Street Journal so that I wouldn’t be bothered.

Wishful thinking.

Not ten minutes later, I received a glass of red wine.

“From the man sitting behind you,” the bartender told me in Polish.

A few things you should know about me before we move forward: I’m 23 years old, and I’m small. Five feet tall on a good day. I’m the sort of person that grandmothers look at and ask, “Well aren’t you terrified to be out in the city on your own?” And the truth is, maybe I should be, and sometimes I am, but I often feel at my most comfortable when I’m on my own and exploring. That is, until I get unwanted attention from men. Like, for instance, the 60-something year old man who was eyeing me and who had apparently sent me that glass of wine. Oh God. 

This was the first time I had been to a bar on my own, and it also happened to be my first time in New York. I had no idea what proper protocol was for this situation, so I smiled at the old man politely and took a sip of the wine. He then came over to sit next to me. I felt terribly awkward and was totally sober. I was going to have to sip on the wine a lot faster.

“Cześć,” he said.

“Dobry wieczór,” I replied with a formal “Good evening.”

Then he got real personal, real fast. He told me his name, and the fact that he hadn’t been to Poland for thirty years, but he was going to go back in a couple of weeks because he had cancer and that’s why he couldn’t drink alcohol, you see, and it was a terminal illness and that’s why he wanted to die in the country where he was born and grew up.

I felt bad for him for a moment. And then he said, “That’s why you must live in the moment, you know, and live without regrets.”

I’ve been hit on by enough slimy men to know exactly what that meant. So I breathed a sigh of relief when my pierogi–my gorgeous, delicious, authentic piegori!–were placed in front of me.

“Ah, I’ll leave you to your food,” the man said. “It was lovely meeting you.”

Saved by pierogi!

Except not.

I was just about to pay the check when he came back over. He had a beer in his hand.  The wine and beer had gone to my head a little bit, but for not being able to drink alcohol, this man now appeared flat-out drunk.

“You look so young, you know? Like no older than 19,” he said.

Whoomp, there it is. I assured him that I was 23 and spit out that memorized joke about how lucky I would feel in ten years. But he didn’t laugh politely as everyone else did. Instead, he asked where I was staying.

“I’m all the way in New Jersey,” I said. I got out my phone and began to draft a text to my friend Kouichi. Hey, we need to meet up.

“New Jersey? Cholera. That’s not New York. Come with me, I’ll show you around in my car,” he said.

“Oh, no, I–”

“Why not? Live in the moment, Kasia! This is New York City!”

He was leaning in closer to me, reeking of beer. I implored Kouichi to text me back, hoping that he would connect with me on some trans-city brainwave.

My phone buzzed. Yeah, let’s meet up! I’m in Times Square. Where are you?

“Actually, my friend–he knows New York well–he was going to show me around. He’s in Times Square, so I better leave–” I was thankful for Kouichi, but scrambling for words.

“I can take you there!” the man insisted.

“No, that’s all right. I’d rather just take the subway…”

“Well at least take my number.”

Now, that I could deal with. And that’s how I ended up with “Tomek Brooklyn” in my contacts.

The pierogi, by the way, were totally worth it.

railroads, highways, and stories of self

These stories that we tell about ourselves, they’re almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to, but once they’re in place, this whole inner landscape grows around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you’ve told it, once you’ve built the highway, it’s just very hard to move it. Even if the story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life; even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

This week’s rerun This American Life ended with this vignette, written by Michael Lewis. The episode’s title, “How I Got Into College,” is a bit deceptive in light of the story told by Lewis. He interviewed Emir Kamenica, a man who came to America as a Bosnian refugee in high school. In his brand new American English class, Kamenica plagiarized an essay from a book he’d stolen in Bosnia. His student teacher was utterly unaware of his cheating, and she was so impressed with his essay that she got him into a private school on full scholarship. Kamenica later went on to Harvard and is now a faculty member at the University of Chicago. The episode of This American Life hired a private investigator to track down the elusive student teacher/possible angel. It’s a fantastic story, and I encourage you to listen to it the next time you’re scrubbing the bathtub and in need of a serious happiness pick-me-up

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Swoon. Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

Emir Kamenica as undergrad. Not to advocate smoking, but swoon, right? Photo credit Terri Wang, from This American Life.

It certainly stuck with me; I haven’t been able to shake this metaphor on the infrastructure of personal stories since I heard it on Sunday. 

Lewis digs into the notion that we create ourselves based on how we tell our own histories. This cognitive railroad is the dominant understanding of who we are, and perhaps more importantly, how we came to be. Take this part of the episode:

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself, but I think there’s a not-so-obvious one. When you insist the way Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you? It’s just very different than if you tell yourself that you deserve all the stuff that happens to you—because you happened to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard. That way of telling your story, well that’s what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the Earth.

Is Lewis suggesting that happiness is simply a choice? Well, consider his earlier language. He compares our personal stories to infrastructure–a complex system that takes years to build, and then signifies a sort of cohesion, a means of letting the rest of society to run smoothly. Once infrastructure is built, it’s so tightly fixed that to completely uproot it is to uproot society.

Our personal histories are similar, I think. How we render ourselves, the cognitive reinforcement of repeating a memory from one frame: this creates a personal infrastructure that cannot merely been restructured by waking up one morning and thinking, “La dee da–I’m going to be happy today!” That inner landscape that grows around the railroads and highways is comparable to how we see the world and, furthermore, how we digest and react to its events. Once that landscape grows thicker and the roots deepen, it becomes even more difficult to reframe whatever history we’ve created for ourselves.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image, I think. Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

The High Line, a park in New York City where vegetation grows over abandoned train tracks. A fitting image.  Photo credit: NYC Parks & Rec.

Lewis’ piece examined composing personal infrastructure on an individual, psychological level, but his metaphor can be expanded to a much broader level. After all, what are the stories we tell ourselves but histories? And histories (no, not a single history) should be understood on a pluralistic level, taking into account perspectives beyond a dominant narrative. “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…” Sure, and as Howard Zinn would tell you, the native peoples have their own story to tell about his arrival in the Americas, too.

In terms of our modern world, one might say that the all-encompassing “Media” has a dominant narrative of culture and society stuck in its hammerlock. Of course, the word media itself suggests a plurality of way to tell stories, which already complicates this idea. In the world of news media, journalists are active in creating and framing every article that they write, every piece that they produce. Who they choose to interview, what questions they choose to ask, what quotes they choose to include–all of these factors are directly influenced by their own biases, the infrastructures set in place by their personal histories. And get this: based on their railroads, they put another bolt in the track for those who read their stories. 

The point? Reporters should, at the very least, be aware of their inner infrastructure, even if they can’t put it under construction. Especially as this summer of discontent ends, marked by shells between Gaza and Israel, ISIS’ mass killings in Iraq, ethnic tension in Eastern Europe resulting in a fatal plane crash in Ukraine, and the shooting an unarmed black teenager right here in Missouri, it becomes more and more obvious that these personal infrastructures have consequences on a global scale.