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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

My American Dream Is Only Half Come True

But My Search for My American Dream Has Given Me Unexpected Gifts

By Norma Hopcraft

Today I'm offering other people's links--selfless of me, I know. Actually, I do hope these links are highly useful for you as you plan your trip to Paris -- or dream of planning your trip, which is the foundational step to making it a reality.

I believe in dreaming big. As a kid who played piano diligently, thanks to my mother's influence, I one day decided, while watching an episode of the TV show The Name of the Game (glamorous sports cars, beautiful women, settings in the great capitals of Europe), that I wanted to live and work in Europe. The only means I had of making that dream a reality was my skill at the piano. So therefore I would study to be a concert pianist.

I practiced like crazy, four hours a day, for a year, and I mastered complex music by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and many others. And then I changed my mind. But in that year I made huge strides as a pianist.

For the last 30 years, without changing my mind, I've been dreaming of being someone who is just about as rare as a concert pianist: an author who makes enough money on their books to quit their day job and just write. That's been my American Dream for three decades.

Another way to say it is my BHAG: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. The United States had a BHAG, writes Jim Collins, who invented the phrase, when we decided to put a man on the moon. A simple, clear, memorable, compelling, engaging BHAG that can be expressed in several ways.

My BHAG: Have the financial and artistic freedom to write lots of novels that grab people's hearts.

In other words, "to publish my writing to critical and popular acclaim." Even more succinctly: "great reviews and bestseller sales."

I've known for those three decades, each jam packed with writing, that I was taking a risk pursuing this dream. I put hundreds of thousands of hours into writing, knowing my dream might not come true. But hoping. Plugging away anyway. I felt like I just had to write.

I think what my dream was really about was to earn the chance to feel good: the feeling that my life and my art really mattered, that my self-discipline to sit down every day to write had paid off, as I deserved. That my fans loved me and therefore I could finally, finally love myself and feel fulfilled and satisfied and loved.

In addition to satisfaction and fulfillment, I wanted a financial payoff. I wanted my writing to  provide for my old age, and also to free me from the daily grind of supporting myself in order to devote big chunks of time to writing.

I've gotten half my dream. I've gotten terrific reviews.

The second half of my dream, acclaim from the populace as shown in bestseller sales, has not come true. There's a chance that word of mouth will take off, but I'm not counting on it. When I look at the funds I'll someday retire on, I don't add in one single dollar from book sales. The royalties I make I plough directly back into Amazon Ads. 

I'm telling you all this because I've really wrestled with my Higher Power over the financial half of my dream. I tell him I've worked diligently for 30 years, I've done the right thing by developing my gifts, and I've exercised the Protestant work ethic (he who hustles wins). Not only that, the American Dream that I've grown up steeped in says that hard work will pay off financially. And I haven't seen it.

Have you felt this way, too? I've gotten really upset over it at times in the last six months, to be honest.

But after wrestling for six months, I've come to believe that my Higher Power is trying to wean me away from finding my fulfillment in "success" as I defined it in these previous paragraphs. Instead, he's asking me to look to him to provide the love, life satisfaction, self-acceptance and appreciation that I crave. As I sit with him each morning with spiritual literature, I do Step 11 from the Twelve Steps ("
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out"). Most mornings I get enough of a sense of his love for me that I'm filled up enough to go out and be kind, even on the overcrowded and frustrating streets of New York City.

I still feel sad that the financial half of the dream hasn't come true because I want so dreadfully badly to write several more books before I die. Right now, while I work full-time and commute two hours a day, I only get 600 words written per day. That's on a good day. A large number of days I accomplish 0. I'm a frustrated artist. I want to write! I want all aspects of my BHAG to be true right now!

But good things besides financial rewards have come to me because I worked toward my BHAG:

  • I've lived more richly and fully as I've looked for insights and details about people, places, and things that I could use in my novels.
  • I studied two topics that fascinate me for 30 years--writing, and the human psychology behind storytelling--and I made huge strides, just as I did in piano when I applied myself diligently.
  • I delved into the world's greatest authors to deepen my own understanding and craft (and still do). 
  • I took a journey around America on a bus. Never would have done that if I hadn't been enamored of John Steinbeck's classic, Travels with Charley.
  • I finished a creative writing degree at New York University (magna cum laude, I might add).
  • I lived in Paris for a year and wrote a novel there.
  • I lived in Barcelona for three months and wrote several travel essays there.
  • I've been part of writer's circles where I've gotten to know amazing human beings very well.
  • Now, for my next novel, I'm interviewing amazing theater people and getting involved in productions. Fun!

None of that would have happened if I hadn't been dreaming my dream, pursuing my BHAG, developing the gifts my Higher Power gave me, and working diligently toward making my dreams a reality.

And lightning may yet strike my books. They're quite worthy of it -- and you're free to understand that two ways : )

So I believe in setting a BHAG.

I believe it's never too late.

I believe in dreaming big dreams, overcoming obstacles, and running the race. Not that I'm perfect at it.

My daily, real life is different from the dream I nurtured for 30 years. I am free to write, actually--not because I've been able to shed the day job but because I get up at 5:30 a.m. to carve out an hour to write.

That isn't to say I haven't been deeply frustrated with this. I've kicked against the goads. But lately I've decided to just accept what is and to get on with my writing BHAG.

Now, if your BHAG includes exploring Paris, I can help.

Some terrific links about Paris have come to my attention, and I've saved them up for you. I highly recommend these links as you dream, as you set your BHAG to be in Paris by X date:

The 25 Most Beautiful Places in Paris, from Conde Naste Traveler.

The 7 Best Places in Paris for Literature Lovers, from Newsweek:

And for children, 5 Little Museums of Paris for Little Travelers, from the New York Times:

Au revoir, mes amies! Dream big! Comment below if you'd like a big dose of encouragement for your quest for a BHAG.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Life at the Water's Edge in Paris

By Norma Hopcraft

On my recent adventure to Paris this summer, I found myself gravitating toward the Seine.

To me, it's the most fascinating aspect of Paris--flowing through the city with its abundance of  péniches 

These are barges. Some are work barges--family businesses carting coal and many other products around the canals and rivers of France.  

Some were converted to pleasure craft. Families live on them and cruise the canals and rivers of France for fun. Or they tie up in Paris (with permission of the authorities) and live within walking distance of Le Louvre and the many other treasures of Paris.

The canals and rivers of France offer a pleasure-boater 5,000 kilometers to explore.  In France, it's known as the patrimoine fluvial, or the fluvial heritage--an incredible gift from past generations, who dug the canals and connected the rivers. You can wind past ancient stone villages, through cities, past quiet fields of wheat or cows. My friend Cris Hammond did this -- please see the link at the bottom.

The  péniches that are converted look absolutely delightful. I've been welcomed on board two of them, and that experience is part of my novel, The Paris Writers Circle.  I'll show you some incredible péniches, below.

in search of the American Dream
I couldn't get the whole boat into the picture! But you can see it has a gangplank (in the center; it's raised) and bikes on the deck. Under the deck -- cabins! I'd love to be living in one of them!

Here's the other end of the barge. It has seating on the bow.

in search of the American Dream
Here's the seating area -- curved wicker chairs. Can you imagine the wonderfulness of sitting out there, watching Seine boat traffic go by, or tied up on a river or canal in the countryside, watching the sun go down behind an ancient church?

Bikes ready to explore Paris. I biked in Paris--once! Nearly killed myself.
Look at all the wires, cables, pulleys, winches.

in search of the American Dream
The gangplank is raised, and iron bars hold the barge away from the embankment, meaning that this family and the things they have left on the deck are quite safe -- a floating island.

in search of the American Dream
The masts have to be lowered to pass under bridges. These are the mechanics for doing that.

in search of the American Dream
Here are the mast supports and stays (thin steel lines that run from the hull to the top of the mast).

in search of the American Dream
Not easy to manage all this equipment.

This is the cabin, in the stern, where the captain operates the barge.

The barge is held off of the stone embankment by iron bars. The waters of the Seine are choppy with all the boat traffic making wakes, and without these iron bars, the hull would be damaged by the stones.

in search of the American Dream
A view of the stern.

The gangway is huge! 

Pont Neuf, "New Bridge," is in the background. It is now the oldest across the Seine, but it was new when it was built in 1578-1607.

The bridge is lined with gargoyles. They are 400 years old. Think of the generations that have walked across this bridge!

The gargoyles.

in search of the American Dream
There's constant traffic under the bridge, not just boats but people walking and on bikes on the embankment.

in search of the American Dream
Near Pont Neuf is Notre Dame, now shrouded in scaffolding. A symbol of resilience (my specialty). If you read my novels, you'll see my characters in all kinds of trouble -- most of that is from my own life! 

in search of the American Dream
This is the bow of a working barge. The boat is extremely long -- you'll see that over the next four pictures.

in search of the American Dream
Here's more of the hull...

in search of the American Dream
Still more of the hull...

in search of the American Dream
Still more of the hull....

in search of the American Dream
Still more of the hull...

And the cabin in the stern. Please note that there are curtains on the windows and a small life raft on the cabin roof. Some barges have cars on the roof (and a boom to lift them and swing them onto land). How about you? Would you like to travel around France on a barge? You can experience it vicariously by reading my friend Cris Hammond's humorous, delightful book about his first year doing exactly that! Read the first 3 chapters here:  Cris and I didn't talk about this--it's a surprise!