Friday, October 16, 2020

My American Dream: Finding Its Way

Brooklyn vs. Rochester

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Someone I knew from New York City wrote to me yesterday with what seemed to be a snickering attitude.  

“What, Rochester?” he wrote, implying “Where the heck is that?” I can’t condemn him, I’ve had the same attitude, and still do, just a little.

I’ve lived near New York City, and the immense range of activity it offers, most of my life. Then, starting six years ago, I began a series of moves to places with a ton of cach
é: Mystic, Connecticut, then Paris and Barcelona. Then I fulfilled a life-long dream and moved into NYC itself: the Upper East Side of Manhattan (for two months), and Brooklyn (for four years). Brooklyn in its own right is such a storied city. I saw baseball caps with “Brooklyn” on them in France and Spain.

How Can I Search for the American Dream Here?

Where the heck, on the other hand, is Rochester? The downtown has two tall buildings and is dead at night. There is a more lively neighborhood of cafes and restaurants known as the Park Avenue neighborhood, and I’m searching for an apartment in it. But even that neighborhood doesn’t seem to have much “there” there, not after the electromagnetic force of Brooklyn.

I must suspend judgment of Rochester as a city, as a venue for the arts, as a place that fosters my creative inspiration, until the pandemic eases. It won’t feel like home until ballroom dancing resumes, and the theater group I want to be involved in (as a mere set painter, not as the superstar that I, in reality, am) springs into action again, and the Wild About Writing circle can meet in person. And in Rochester, I will be able to afford to hear live classical music regularly at the Eastman School of Music! Carnegie Hall was beyond my reach. 

I do miss Brooklyn. Not so much living there, because life was tough, overwhelmed by tons of stressed-out strangers in a brick, asphalt, chain-link, and razor-wire jungle. But I miss being FROM there. I wrote on my Amazon author profile that I’m a writer who lived in Paris, Barcelona, and now Brooklyn. Those place-names have cach
é. I’m a sucker for caché. I’m a location snob, I admit it. 

“Rochester, New York” has ZERO cache. But maybe it should have a little. It is a unique epicenter of social justice. Harriet Tubman lived near here. Frederick Douglass lived here, wrote here, and delivered his famous speech here, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?", delivered on July 5, 1852, addressing the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society.  Women’s rights were championed by women in this area, notably Susan B. Anthony, who lived and wrote in Rochester. Another example of social compassion: Rochester Institute of Technology has a nationally recognized center for deaf students.
Brooklyn had advantages. I could choose all kinds of organic fruits and vegetables at the Flatbush Food Coop, a 10-minute walk. I can’t find that variety here, and you have to drive to the grocery store. I could walk to three Indian restaurants, three Mexican, two burger joints. I could have lavender latt
és at Café Madeline. I don’t know of a café in Rochester that has even dreamed of serving them. Prospect Park, with world-class design, was a 10-minute walk. 

In Brooklyn I lived near three international airports that could take me on direct flights to friends in France or family in small cities like Asheville, NC, Providence, RI, or Rochester, NY. I could easily grab a bus to visit family in Bethlehem, PA. I could easily take the train to Fire Island or to the Jersey Shore. Now that I’m in Rochester, I’m closer to one part of my family but have bigger hurdles to overcome to get to the rest. And getting to the Atlantic Ocean is a huge undertaking.

In Brooklyn, I felt I was in the center of the world. On Ocean Avenue, during my quarter-mile walk to do my laundry, I heard voices from Pakistan, Liberia, Panama, Jamaica, Barbados, Senegal, Kazakhstan. At any given moment on Church Avenue, I could make videos for my little grandson of trucks of every shape and size and function, and long, articulated city buses. 

Here at this house in Rochester, it’s quiet. Once a week a garbage truck goes by. But I can do my laundry downstairs instead of trundling it a quarter of a mile each way.

There were other downsides to Brooklyn. In spite of my best efforts to build friendships and stay connected, I felt acutely alone. The streets felt dangerous. People were indifferent (of course they were, we were all strangers to each other). It broke my heart to see groups of young men hanging out, passing a joint, with tons of pent up energy and talent but lacking the education—and faced with racism in hiring practices—that prevented them from getting into a decent job, unleashing that talent, making a living wage, and making a contribution.  They could have run a company—or a country—but were trapped.
I felt a keen desperation in the atmosphere on the streets. I lived in a gentrifying neighborhood. As rents leapt upward, people were more and more worried about making rent that month. I could feel the anxiety in the air. So many people lived hand to mouth with no hope of a better life – and angry about that fact, and about the racism that locked them into this predicament, locked them out of the American Dream.

And then there was the dog poop. Many people did clean up after their dogs, but enough people didn’t that there was a hazard when out walking or pulling a cart full of laundry. I had to keep my eyes on the sidewalk. Which might have been just as well—looking at groups of young men passing a joint might get me in trouble, so I had to keep my eyes down anyway. Which I didn’t like. As an artist, I love to look around and notice things. I want to look at people and imagine their lives. In Brooklyn, that wasn’t wise to do because you might notice a crime. I really hated keeping my head down.

Here in this suburb of Rochester, I can smile and give a little wave to the people I pass when I’m out walking, and get one in return. We’re privileged to be living in a lovely neighborhood. I’ve nicknamed it “The Arboretum” because of the stately huge shade trees, and blooming trees, and shrubs. During the summer there were eight-foot-tall hydrangeas in some gardens, burgeoning with blossoms, exuding charm. 

So I’ll start life anew in Rochester.  I have to overcome my location snobbery and embrace the advantages this situation offers. One of them might be a sense of dislocation. Exile has proven to be good for my creativity in the past, especially in Paris and Barcelona, and it’s helping me again, I believe. 

I have discovered, to my joy, that I really love swimming in Lake Ontario. I thought the lake would never suffice, not after the joy of being in the Atlantic surf at Fire Island or the Jersey Shore. But the lake has its advantages—most days, it’s quiet enough for me to really swim without having to fear being inundated by breaking waves, as I would in the Atlantic. 

Also, in spite of the pandemic, I’ve made a new, in-person friend! She has put me in touch with working artists in the area, including a local set designer. I’m working on a novel about a set designer, so that interview will be very interesting! 

Brooklyn is a great place. I miss it, and I’m so relieved to be out of it.

How about you? Do you have mixed feelings about a place you used to live? Or that you live in now? Comment below! 

Friday, July 31, 2020

Saying a Lingering Goodbye to Brooklyn

I'm Now a Covid Refugee from Brooklyn

By Norma Hopcraft

        I went back to Brooklyn from July 10 to 17, to linger over it, romance it, appreciate the good, take note of the bad so I could leave with less painand then to leave it all behind. My life as a Brooklyn writer closed on Friday, July 17, when I hopped into U-Haul’s biggest truck, jammed full of my studio apartment’s contents. I drove that monster 400 miles to Rochester, New York.

        My inventory included:

  • 1 box of filled-up, written-in journals
  • 1 box of blank journals (I can't stop buying them)
  • 2 boxes of quilt bits to be pieced together

        I had arrived in Brooklyn on July 10 and enjoyed my apartment whole for two days—my cozy nook, my little abode, my bit of peace in the tumultuous, tossing sea of people in New York City. While I lived there, it was usually quietexcept when the neighbor left her dog unattended and it cried for hours at a time. Except when there were occasional arguments across the courtyard or out in the street. I always prayed, "Please, no violence." There were gunshots the first day I lived here, in 2017, and again this past Christmas. Other than that, this apartment was a refuge from the sea of strangers I passed through every time I went out the door.

        On Monday morning, July 13, I took pictures of my sweet space whole and complete, and then I did my least favorite thing in the world: I tore my home apart. 

        It's not something I had decided upon lightly. I had fled to Rochester, NY as a Brooklyn Covid refugee on March 14. Four months, one-third of a year, went by. From the moment I arrived in Rochester, I began wondering if I would ever live in Brooklyn again. I started to question moving full-time to Rochester.

        It took until Thursday, July 9, for me to come to a decision to move. It’s risky. My employer may require me back in the office at some point. When will that be? When a vaccine is developed, and that will take an unknown amount of time. Another risk: I’m on the hook to pay the Brooklyn rent until a new tenant takes over. When will that be?

        If you know of someone interested in living in Prospect Park South—10-minute walk to the park, 3-minute walk to the Church Avenue B & Q station, 35-minute train ride to Mid-town Manhattan—and who would qualify financially with the landlord, please leave a comment below!

        My studio apartment in Brooklyn has been a great space—in a pre-war building, which means parquet floors, high ceilings, gracious proportions to the rooms. But I felt disappointed in my life there: I had survived living in Brooklyn but I had not thrived: I hadn't been as creative in this studio as I had been in my studio apartment in Paris, where I wrote and revised great chunks of The Paris Writers Circle. Here are some pics:

       Eat-in kitchen, with a window, no less! Not common in NYC!
      Plenty of cabinets and counter space -- also rare in NYC!
      Here's where I lived. My grandmother's marble-topped chest of drawers, on the right, held lots of quilting supplies and journals. My work table is where I tried to sit and write, but usually I felt too restless, too compelled to get out.
     My dressing room (kidding).
My work space. Note the parquet floor.

        Here in Brooklyn, I had found it hard to be alone in the apartment and write. I always felt restless, like the tumultuous crowds of people in the city. During the week it was difficult to concentrate on writing before facing the commute on a crowded Q train. On Saturday mornings, I couldn’t stand to sit alone at my worktable and write. I felt I had to get out and see what was going on. The lively streets have a strong allure.

        To be able to write, on Saturdays in good weather I would walk a mile to my favorite bench in Prospect Park. When it was too cold, I’d walk half a mile to a café to write among people and steel myself to not buy a muffin or a scone. Or I’d walk two miles to the Brooklyn Central Library to work among people in a huge room with 18 long worktables.

        Since Covid shut things down, I couldn’t sit in the library or café. And my favorite bench in Prospect Park is inaccessible now due to refurbishment of the Oriental Pavilion (see my post on this decaying architectural delight HERE. I nicknamed it the Sparrow Hotel for all the nests in its derelict eaves.)

                           My favorite bench to sit and write is entangled in the refurbishment of the Oriental Pavilion.

        In the midst of Covid, in March, I was grateful to have somewhere to escape to. If I had stayed in Brooklyn during Covid, I would have lost my mind. The isolation, the confinement within a small space, the sound of sirens day and night, would have sunk me. I thank my Higher Power for providing an escape—the Rochester home of my daughter and beloved son-in-law and 2-1/2-year-old grandson. We’ve had a pleasant few months.

        When I went back to my Brooklyn neighborhood on July 10, I was immediately struck by one of its strengths: diversity. I saw a Latina girl swing her long black hair, a Pakistani man dressed in a white shalwar khameez, the pajama-like pants and tunic, walking near her, and black and white neighbors: young, old, and in between. It’s a beautiful aspect of this neighborhood.
        I spent a lot of time in Prospect Park the first two days of my stay. I visited the lake and made this little video of my favorite thing: water reflecting on the underside of leaves.

Turn your volume way up to hear my commentary.

        On Monday the brutal packing work began.

        As I packed, I found things of my mother’s, father’s, grandmother’s that I had put in a drawer and forgotten about. I missed these departed loved ones intensely. I tenderly wrapped a little nut dish my grandmother left to the family. It's cut glass, and its sharp little edges prickled my fingers. She loved cut glass and bought it as an investment. My family sold off all the big pieces when my mother died. I just have this one little dish, and I like to put it in a window where the sun will shine on it.

        As I packed, I felt nostalgia for my Brooklyn life: ballroom dancing on Friday nights; Soho Shakespeare rehearsals (check them out, they have free acting classes online), where I did research for my next novel; waiting on the Church Avenue Metro platform for the Q train; lavender lattes at nearby Café Madeline; filming the profusion of buses and trucks on Church Avenue for my grandson; occasional trips on the Q to Coney Island (pics HERE); walks in Prospect Park; worshipping at my beloved church, St. Paul’s Episcopal, where I was the only white face and was welcomed warmly by everyone while I was fully aware that if these black parishioners showed up alone in a white church, they might not receive as beautiful a welcome—it was true Christianity in action and I’ll never forget it.

        During my recent week in Brooklyn, I checked up on Mr. Kosher. Stories about him HERE. He made it through a Brooklyn winter, day and night, never going indoors, foiling all my anonymous attempts to find him help. Now he’s camped under a huge golf umbrella in Prospect Park, in Drummer’s Grove. He was shirtless the day I saw him. I talked with my pastor, the rector of St. Paul’s, who said he talks with Mr. Kosher too. Mr. Kosher offered him a debit card to pick up smoked turkey thighs for him. That experience turned my pastor into a smoked turkey thigh fan himself. Mr. Kosher may have his debit card funded by his son, who lives far away in the Bronx, or perhaps by his Jewish temple, I don’t know.

           Mr. Kosher (his real name is Hosea, like the prophet) is back to camping
            within Prospect Park, instead of spending the winter outside the Prospect Park
            B&Q Station.

         I was happy to sense a new optimism in the air in my neighborhood, Prospect Park South, which is the developers' new name for the north end of Flatbush. It's full of pre-war brick apartment buildings in which so many people live who, when I escaped in March, seemed to have no hope of  prosperity, no chance at economic equity with someone like me. I’d sensed despair, hopelessness. People were always anxious, not knowing if they could make rent that month. It saddened me. So many people in my neighborhood could not afford healthcare. There was a marked prevalence of people limping, of people using canes, of people missing teeth. Many people looked angry. They were trapped in a racist system and had given up hope for a better future for themselves and their children. 

        I tried to help by getting involved in, an organization that helps people coming out of incarceration and that meets at St. Paul’s. I helped a group through one cycle. Then Covid came, activity was postponed, and I had the lucky option that others didn’t have, of fleeing a Covid hotbed.

        When I returned to Prospect Park South in July, however, I felt a new, positive energy in the air. Now that both white folks and black are demonstrating on behalf of racial equity, people are hopeful of change. Now they feel they are being listened to by politicians who are in a position to legislate a more level playing field. They are not looking for a hand-out, they are just looking for a chance. I felt the new hopefulness. I wanted to stay and be a part of it.

        These characters in my neighborhood! The lovely people in my church! The stateliness of the trees in Prospect Park! This new hopefulness in the air! All the caché that saying “I live and write in Brooklyn” conveys! How could I not live here forever?

        But how could I not live near my grandson? And the baby that's expected in October?

        I called a friend and told her how torn I was about leaving Brooklyn.

        “You were a lost, lonely soul in New York,” she declared firmly. “I could hear it in your voice. You’re much better off in Rochester with your family.”

        So on July 17, I said goodbye to my 4-1/2 years of Brooklyn life. Those years went FAST. I lived in three neighborhoods in Brooklyn: Bedford-Stuyvesant (for one month), Sunset Park (for one year) and Prospect Park South for 3-1/2 years. I tried to milk my Brooklyn experience for everything I could get out of it for my writing: the feel of various neighborhoods, pictures of row houses and brownstones, lots of scenes in every season from Prospect Park, one of the great parks of the world.
        I'll miss Brooklyn.
        But I was very lonely there – every face was that of a stranger. The people around me were stressed by being among too many people, and I was stressed to be thrown shoulder to shoulder with so many strangers. As my friend Cecilia says, "New York is a special place with lots of advantages, but emotional support is not one of them." 

        Toward the end of my Brooklyn life, in February and March as news of Covid was increasing, I felt so alone. I was calling my daughter once or twice a day, calling friends, and then not feeling any better. It was unsustainable. By mid-March the sirens, which could be heard day and night even in regular times, were now sounding continuously, day and night. I was frightened, I felt so alone. I knew I couldn’t survive working alone from home, day after day, in a studio apartment, in the middle of a pandemic, surrounded by strangers. What if I got sick? Who would even know? Maybe the paramedics would be too busy to come and help me.
        On March 14, I fled to Rochester and family.

        I went back to Brooklyn in July, and by July 17, I was packed. That morning I got up early and dressed up a bit—makeup, earrings, a cute top, new slacks, ballet flats—I believe in looking my best when I travel so that, if I need help, people will be more inclined to help me—and climbed way up into the U-Haul, packed with the things I’ll need to create a place of my own in Rochester.

        I turned the key. The engine roared. This beast was huge, taking up almost all of a lane. The rear-view mirrors stuck out even farther. I drove, scared out of my wits, through the narrow, car-clogged streets of Brooklyn to the Verrazano Bridge, across Staten Island, across the Goethels Bridge to New Jersey, across that state in rush-hour traffic to the Poconos, then with growing confidence through vast open spaces in Pennsylvania and New York State.

        I arrived in Rochester safely. My belongings are now in my daughter’s garage and attic.

        And I’m left wondering: where’s my home? Now that I’m in a city of 750,000 people, compared to NYC and its 8.4 million and its 23 million in the New York metro area, with all the arts opportunities it incubates, can I still grow as an artist? 

         I'll be journaling on that topic, and piecing together a new quilt of my life. 

        What will I do with my one wild and precious life?  

        How about you? Have you said goodbye to a special space, a special place, special people, because of Covid? What will you do in your new place with your one wild and precious life?


Thursday, April 30, 2020

One Response to Today's Difficulties: Pausing

A Pause Might Lead to Greater Creativity

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

How are you doing? What are you doing? Write to me at norma at normahopcraft dot com to let me know. Now that I'm working remotely, I'm no longer commuting an hour each way each day and I have extra time to respond. I'd love to hear from you! What's happening in your life?

I am doing okay -- I thank God, I was able to get out of Brooklyn in mid-March, when the sirens were already sounding all day all night. The sirens were very distressing, adding to the anxiety already in the air in my poor neighborhood, among people who worry every month about making rent -- what happens now, with so many jobs shut down?

I am blessed because I was welcomed to go to Rochester, New York, near Lake Ontario, where my daughter, darling son-in-law, and hilarious 2-1/2-year-old grandchild live.

"Social distancing is so much better with other people," a friend said. 

Very true. I'm grateful for the quiet companionship.

After one week in Rochester, I caught a cold--I don't think it was COVID because my temp never went up above 99.4. "If it's not 100.4 or above, it's not a fever," a nurse told me. I had a dry cough for three weeks afterward though. 

Other than that, I've been fine, cooking up a storm. I made chicken soup yesterday, and baked cornbread, for dinner. Actually, I put so much rosemary in my chicken soup, it's really rosemary soup. I love the flavor mysteries that that tortured herb puts into cooking. There's lots of white wine in my soup too -- a generous helping of Clos de Bois this time.

I'm calling my older friends who are stuck quite alone. I hope you'll do the same.

I'm taking my grandson for walks around his neighborhood. I tell him to look for cats, for dogs, for the daffodils that are finally blooming in Rochester. The small pleasures are growing in importance as the playgrounds, library, the Museum of Play, have all been shut down.

He's learning the names of the flowers: snowdrops, crocus, primrose. He has a little-child lisp, so "crocus" comes out as "cwocuth."

I am cut off from the big excitements in New York City, like taking an acting class as part of the research I do on the theater for my next novel. Museums. Ballroom dancing. All closed.

But hearing my baby grandson say "cwocuth" takes away any regret over not having access to those grown-up pleasures.

I'm grateful for the quiet life I'm leading in the company of my family. Evenings are spent talking a bit, reading a bit. Jane Austen lived like this, and the Bronte sisters. I'm hoping that this quiet life leads to a focus of energy that results in great novel writing that I can leave behind in the world.

So there's an upside to this pause. I'm privileged to be able to enjoy an upside when so many people have lost loved ones and jobs. I thank my Higher Power and hope that people will see that they can get through everything with the help of their Higher Power.

I confess, I've also been watching TV a bit with my family. We're enjoying Shetland, a murder mystery series on Britbox. Except for one episode that I thought too graphic and violent (Season 3, Episode 2), it's been a huge pleasure. I may never get to the Shetland Islands, but I'm very happy to know that such a beautiful place exists.

One thing I can recommend to you is to enjoy Fire Island. I won't be able to go to my hiking club cabin this summer -- the cabin is shut due to Covid-19. But I have pictures for you from a stay there in 2012, just one month before Superstorm Sandy. The pictures will provide a mini-vacation at the beach for you, in time for Memorial Day. Check out the loveliness on my blog, here.

How about you? Any excellent shows to share? Do you see an upside to this quieter life we're living? Do you put lots of rosemary in chicken soup? Write to me at norma at normahopcraft dot com. I'd LOVE to hear from you! Or comment below! I'll be sure to respond.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

French Things To Do in Confinement. Enjoy.

The Search for the American Dream Gone French

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I hope this blog post finds you safe.

My heart goes out to the many people affected deeply by the pandemic. I left Brooklyn on March 14, the day after my office closed. Thanks to the kindness and generosity of my daughter, beloved son-in-law, and 2-1/2 year old grandson, I can shelter with them in Rochester, NY. Ordinarily, I live in a studio apartment in one of the densest parts of Brooklyn, packed with six-story apartment houses where people are stacked in layers. The sidewalks are crowded--it's impossible to keep six feet away from everybody. The day I left, sirens were constantly sounding, adding to the feeling of anxiety. So to be here, in a roomy house, in a quiet neighborhood, with easy-going dear-hearts instead of all alone among millions of strangers, is a huge blessing that I'm very cognizant of.

In Search of the American Dream
I live in a vast neighborhood of six-story brick apartment buildings. They're "pre-war," which means they were built before WW II, and many apartments have parquet floors, high ceilings, and gracious proportions to the room. That's nice. But it makes my part of Brooklyn incredibly densely populated.

To live temporarily in these circumstances in Rochester, especially to have so much more time with my grandson, is a huge blessing. 

I'd like to share some blessing with you! 

Here's one way!

Please do take a look at this link by There's a long list of free activities for adults and children. With the time you don't have to spend on commuting, learn more French! Or photography! Take a virtual tour of Versailles!  Binge-watch every single episode of The French Chef with Julia Child! 

Please take a look at the free possibilities here, provided in a neat list of links, at

Credit where credit is due: My writing friend Gray, whom I met while I lived and wrote in Paris and am still collaborating with on writing projects, sent me the link.

Another possibility for you:

Macaron baking.

This is a really funny YouTube video that will help you overcome macaron-baking fear and to enjoy chocolaty macarons with a minimum of fuss and muss:

The chef makes cute fun of the snobbiness that can surround macaron-making. His is a down-to-earth method, and the results will taste stupendous.

Lastly, how are you doing in these difficult times? Which French activities did you choose to look into? Please comment below and tell me about your circumstances, and any silver lining you may see. Or send me an email at norma at normahopcraft dot com. Thank you! Please, let's be in touch! I'd love to hear from you!

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Chicken Wings and the American Dream

A Window into a Life

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

"I've gotten used to the cold," he said, as if he wanted to comfort me, the person with plenty of heat in her apartment.

Yes, I've kept loose tabs on Mr. Kosher. 

He lives under a canopy of three layers of plastic tarps just outside of Brooklyn's Prospect Park. His campsite is a 20-minute walk from my place. 

It's now the last week of February, and he has managed to avoid going into a homeless shelter all winter.

He's managed to do that in spite of my best efforts.

in search of the American Dream
The homeless man I'm writing about has lived outdoors outside the B and Q subway station, near this spot in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, all winter, at least so far.

In my previous post (see below), I described what happened when I took him a hot--well, warm--ham dinner. He turned down the dinner because he's Jewish and eats kosher.

I couldn't stop thinking about him. One bitter cold Saturday morning soon after, I felt that I just had to do something to give him some bit of comfort. Reluctantly I walked up to the three layers of plastic sheets that covered him in his wheelchair and that partially covered the three or four shopping carts jammed with stuff that surround him. 

I called a hello, to warn him, and found a small slit in all the plastic sheets. There he was, in hat and jacket. 

"Hi, would you like a hot cup of coffee or tea?" I asked.

"No, thank you," he said, politely enough. "But would you get me a plate of chicken wings and fries? From the deli right here?"

Since it was close by, I said I'd to it.

"And a two-liter bottle of ginger ale?"


"Tell the cook I want the wings cooked extra brown and the fries very lightly."

This guy had been sitting in his wheelchair outdoors for months. All spring, summer, autumn, and now all winter, in the cold day and night, hour after hour. He needed something hot. I said I'd do it.

As I walked towards the deli, I heard more instructions coming from under the tarps. "Chicken cooked real well," he said.

I went into the deli and placed the order.

"The fryer is being cleaned. I can't make french fries," the short-order cook, a Bangladeshi man, said.

"OK, make it rice." I hoped Mr. Kosher wouldn't complain--I didn't want to hear it. "And cook the chicken wings really well."

"Is this for the guy outside?"

I nodded.

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When the order was ready, I took it back to Mr. Kosher, planning to get his real name for the receipt in case the IRS ever asked. I handed the plastic container of food and the giant bottle of ginger ale through the crack between tarps.

"Thank you," he said sweetly.

"What's your name?"

"Hosea, like in the Bible."

He started talking about his life. The homeless say that one of their greatest hardships is that they're invisible, nobody talks with them. So I listened.

He told me he only has one leg (I couldn't see that because his lap was covered by blankets and another tarp). He told me that he's used to the cold, as if to comfort me. He spoke longingly, just for a moment, of wanting to take a shower. He smiled at me and asked me if I didn't have a place for him. He didn't know that the part of me that's like Don Quixote had thought of it, and the part of me that's practical had brought me to my senses.

I managed to break in to his flow of words for a moment to ask why he didn't go to a shelter to get out of the cold. That really set him off on a diatribe about the police being the enemy, stealing the drums he sold for a living; about the shelters housing people doing crack and ecstasy while he only smoked weed (he delivered that line with a sidelong glance at me and a little smile); and that the last time he was in a shelter, the previous winter, someone had stolen his two leather jackets.

Leather jackets? I don't feel I can afford a leather jacket (and it wouldn't look good on me : ). What was he doing living outdoors in the rain with two of them?

He said he had to get his stuff into storage, and then he'd go live with his son in the Bronx. Well, the weed explained why he hadn't managed to get his mind wrapped around his storage situation. 

I broke into his flow of words to say that I had to go.

"Would you exchange this Seagram's ginger ale for some Schweppes?"

"No, I can't." I really had to go, and I had no desire to hunt for a store that sold Schweppes.

"That's okay, I'll get somebody else to do it."

I've kept my eye on the overnight forecast for weeks. Twice, when the forecast was for overnight lows in the 20s, I called Department of Homeless Services. They checked on him and emailed me that he had refused services. When the temperature actually descends below 32, the DHS refers my calls to the police, who respond under "Code Blue." Code Blue allows them to take homeless people to local shelters, even if they don't want to go.

But Hosea had talked to me with such hatred of the police, I was sure that, when I called for them to help him, he was showering them with abusive speech. 

I called Code Blue three or four times. And I'd walk by his campsite the next morning on my way to work hoping he was gone, hoping he was finally warm, sitting in a hot shower for the first time in maybe a year, with a chance to stretch out full length on a bed.

Hosea was still there.

He's still there today. He's made it through a New York City winter so far, into late February. He's still there after two nights in a row when it went down to 14 degrees. Maybe he'll make it outdoors year-round. Is this a case of incredible human endurance against the odds? Isn't it also a case of incredible human stubbornness? Can the shelters really be worse than living for months in the cold, day and night?

I know he's getting help -- his campsite is littered with chicken wing bones, empty ginger ale bottles, plastic forks. When I brought him that plastic container of food, he placed it in his lap on top of another one.

What do I do about calling DHS and the police to help him? He's probably abusive to them. Do I keep calling and sending these public servants into an abusive situation?

I've gone back my previous position, thinking to myself, "Hosea, you're on your own, kid. I'm not meddling any more."

But I say a prayer or two for him.

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Sunday, January 5, 2020

Window into This Woman's Life in Brooklyn

A story from last week and a family favorite recipe* : )

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I called my girlfriend Jane to talk over something that had just happened.

“There’s this man,” I said. I heard her catch her breath. She’s hopeful for me, and for herself, especially around the holidays when most single people deeply miss having a partner. We agree that we just have to live our lives and find other happinesses, but that we especially feel it at the holidays.

I immediately set the record straight.

“Not a desirable man, a homeless man.”

“Oh, nuts!” she said, laughing.

I recounted to her that this man is wheelchair bound and lives surrounded by shopping carts jammed with what he may call belongings but appear to me to be detritus. And he has drums—small congas and bongos. In summer he camps under a big umbrella in Prospect Park near a semi-circle of benches called “Drummers Grove.” I can hear the drums on the opposite side of the park, and I’m not wild about it. I would prefer to hear birds.

Caption: These geese are walking amusingly on ice on the opposite side of the park from the Drummers Grove. In summer, I can hear the drums from here...You've heard of the March of the Penguins, filmed in Antarctica? This is the March/Skate of the Geese, in Prospect Park. Just 7 seconds of fun.

Anyway, I see this homeless man every day as I walk through the park to the subway to go to work. I avoid him because I feel I can’t afford the time—and he undoubtedly needs money—and I don’t want him to shout out at me every day and have expectations of me every day and to depend on me every day. So I skirt him when I see him. From behind him, one time though, I saw him reading what looked like a Bible, with double columns, and I’ve hoped for him to have a relationship with Higher Power.

The police must have forced him to leave the park because since October he’s been camped outside of the Lincoln Road B and Q station, one-half block east of the park. He lives under three layers of tarps: two clear ones, and a blue one, the kind I used to drag autumn leaves around my yard when I still lived in New Jersey and didn’t have to studiously avoid homeless people in Brooklyn.

My daughter, son-in-law, and grandbaby came to visit me just before Christmas, and we passed this man, or rather the hump of plastic over and around him. Maybe because my kids were there and I felt I should set a good example, or maybe because it was Christmas, I stopped postponing doing something for him.

I called 911. They referred me to 311, which referred me to the Department of Homeless Services, the DHS. I described the man’s location and asked them to check on him. I knew he might not accept help, but I thought I’d at least get the man on their radar for the upcoming nights when the temperature plunges into the 20s, the teens. He'd been through two nights in the 20s already. He must be holding out on going into a shelter to the very last minute. I've heard the shelters are terrible. Can they be that much worse than sitting in the freezing cold for months at a time with tarps rattling around your ears?

The DHS took my email address and gave me a case number. They updated me over the next two hours: A unit has been dispatched. A unit has arrived. The subject has refused services.

I decided to take him some dinner. I had purchased a huge ham for Christmas (every ham was huge, there were no small ones to be had). So I had lots of leftovers.

I cubed and warmed up some ham, some pineapple pudding*, and some broccoli. I covered it carefully to keep in the heat, figuring a hot meal would be so enjoyed on a late December day. I wrapped the dinner in a dish towel, put it in a thermal bag, and walked the mile to the Lincoln Road B and Q station. I even included a huge paper dinner napkin and a sturdy plastic fork.

I felt good. This is the way I like to live, I thought, helping others. Getting involved, even a little bit, even though it’s inconvenient. I felt Mother Teresa-ish, perhaps a bit Jesus-ish.

When I got to his campsite, I lifted the edge of tarp, which was flapping and rustling in the breeze.

“Hello? Hello?” Under the tent, it didn’t smell bad, which I’d been concerned about.
The man turned his head. He had on a leather hat lined with fleece, and a parka unzipped to reveal a big chest and tummy under a bright red shirt. The rest of him was lost in blankets, tarps, and detritus.

“Hello, mammy.” That’s a greeting of endearment that the other Caribbean black men in my neighborhood use.

“I brought you some dinner.”

“What’s in it?”

I thought that question was a bad sign. I steeled myself for something weird to happen.

“Ham,” I began—

“I can’t eat that, I’m Jewish.”

Never in a million years could I have anticipated that.

“Yeah, I eat kosher,” he said.

“Okay.” And I dropped the flap and took a step away.

“Would you do me a favor, though?”

I lifted the flap again.

“Yes?” I felt like I was about to be taken advantage of, if I couldn’t summon the strength to resist being taken advantage of.

“Go to Chick Filet and get me some dinner?”

I called Jane as I walked home.

“Jane, isn’t that….” I struggled to find the word…”I guess amazing? He’s homeless. Talk about someone living with food insecurity. And he turns down homemade food? And it took a lot of nerve, didn’t it?” I really wanted to know if she thought so too. “To turn down my food and ask me to spend $15 or $20 for something else?”

“Yes, that took nerve.”

“I was so happy at first to be taking him dinner and then so relieved that I hadn’t brought any cash or cards with me. So relieved I couldn’t do it even if I had been fool enough to go do it. And I’ll never take dinner to him again. I walked a mile and he turned it down.”

“He’s not very hungry.”


“He must have someone who helps him regularly.”

“I think so. I hope so. But from now on my attitude is, ‘You’re on your own, kid.’”

I was glad to know he wasn’t very hungry. I was relieved—for him, and for the fact that I’d never have to try taking dinner again. Would I? The good and the bad of me, always at war.
I prayed for him. I had not gotten his name, which I’d meant to ask for. Homeless people complain of being invisible. I should have at least learned his name. When I pray for him, I refer to him as Mr. Kosher. It’s got a little bit of an un-prayerful edge to it, doesn’t it? I give this man so much credit for physical toughness -- he's out in the cold day and night, not able to move to warm up. 

Later I checked the upcoming nighttime lows in my weather app and put a reminder in my phone so that the next time the temp plunges I remember to call DHS and ask them to go offer him some help. But take him a hot dinner or a hot drink?

I’m off the hook.

I think.

A few pictures from Prospect Park in early winter, and then a delicious recipe!

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

In search of the American Dream

*My mother’s Pineapple Pudding recipe, one of the most delicious foods I’ve ever tasted. Great with ham (don’t forget to serve Dijon mustard with the ham):

Pineapple Pudding (to fuel you in your search for the American Dream)

1-3/4 sticks salted butter, melted
10 slices white bread, cubed
4 eggs, beaten
1/2 Cup sugar
2 Tblspn flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
2 #2 cans crushed pineapple (#2 cans = 15 to 17 oz.)
2 tsp grated lemon peel (1 lemon)

Heat oven to 325. Butter a casserole. Mix everything together. Bake 1 hour. Makes 6 to 8 servings.