Writer. Traveler. Tourist. Addicted to sunlight and road trips.
About eight weeks ago, newspaper headlines scared the crap out of Americans–or fueled their pre-existing fears–that Mexico was a dangerous place, putting five of Mexico’s states on the same warning level as Yemen, Syria and Iraq. A U.S. State Department travel advisory, issued January 10, begins like this: “Exercise increased caution in Mexico due to crime. Some areas have increased risk. Read the entire Travel Advisory. Violent crime, such as homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery, is widespread.”
Mexico, overall, has a Level 2 warning, as do popular areas such as Cabo San Lucas, which is a New York Times “must-see” for 2018, and Cancun . Level 2, according to the U.S. State Department, means “Exercise increased caution” and in Mexico’s case, it’s “due to crime.” Well, I could also say the same about certain parts of 8th Avenue at certain hours of the day. Also, you know who else is a Level 2 destination? Our Anglophile cousins in the U.K., France, Spain, Germany, Belgium (Belgium!!!) and Denmark are all Level 2s due to terrorism. Level 1 destinations where you are as safe as you’ll ever be since leaving your mother’s womb are Canada (no surprises there) and Japan, where it’s not only safe but the streets of Tokyo blind you with their cleanliness, especially if you’re coming from Newark Liberty Airport, like me.
Journalism credit where credit is due; newspapers including The Miami Herald eventually brought some nuance to the discussion—nuance sorely lacking in most national discussions these days—to remind readers “Hey, folks, not all of Mexico is scary. Go ahead with your spring break to Isla Mujeres.” (Which is beautiful, by the way.)
I’d like to know where are the domestic warnings about visiting Chicago, which, in 2016, accounted for more than 20 percent of the nationwide murder increase? Or the warning about going to a concert in Las Vegas? Or a warning about simply going to school in America? Instead, we get headlines about arming our teachers and keeping our eyes open while lounging on a beach in Mexico. What are other governments telling people who want to travel to the U.S.? Arrive armed with an AR-15 just in case???
These headlines matter because I’ve encountered these perceptions right here in my neighborhood, a blue-ribbon school district that’s supposedly educating our future to be open-minded. You know how many people make decisions about places they’ve never been to based solely on what they see on TV? Everyone. Most recently, I had lunch with some Australian tourism folks who came to New York, and one said “It’s not like ‘Sex and the City’ at all. No one dresses up here.'”
Many don’t even realize how influenced they are by mainstream media. I’ve had people who have graduated from schools far more expensive and fancier than mine make disparaging comments about Mexico. In 2015, at a dinner, I mentioned I was heading to Cancun, a woman asked if that was safe “because you’re blonde.” At a holiday party two months after that trip to Cancun, another woman asked me “If that was safe, because you know, the drugs.” The drugs??? Suburbs are pumped with benzodiazepenes, pot, and heroin, to name just a few. Vincente Fox frequently comments that the U.S. is Mexico’s biggest customer. More than a decade ago, my mother-in-law, who taught Spanish to children, commented on “dirty Mexicans.” There is a misguided perception here in the suburban Northeast which no one wants to own: Mexicans are people who clean our houses and make our tacos. Folks struggle to see beyond that.
There are always exceptions. A family around the corner from us—we’ve been friends for 12 years—go to Mexico every year. They’ve explored the country top to bottom, from sampling different moles in Oaxaca to strolling Mexico City to scuba diving off Cozumel. They haven’t roamed Colima, one of the five states on the State Department’s recent naughty list, but they’re not shying away from visiting Mexico either or ascribing to affluenza notions. Also, Colima is about 150 miles south of Guadalajara, which is where Guillermo del Toro is from. You might have heard of him after last night: his movie, The Shape of Water won Best Picture. He wrote the screenplay and won Best Director. Here he is talking about being an immigrant and finding success.
Clearly, I’m a del Toro fan girl though I still haven’t seen Pan’s Labyrinth because I already have trouble sleeping and had a feeling this movie would stick a little too much, though that was a few years ago. I might be able to swing it now. When I saw The Shape of Water in a movie theater on a rainy January day, it was me and three elderly people there for an 11:45 a.m. showing. The weather had sent my seasonal affective disorder into a spin and I decided to cocoon inside a theater and escape not really knowing what I had signed up for when I bought my ticket. An hour and a half in, I nearly stood up and applauded when The Creature and Eliza break out into a black and white dance sequence. I have to thank del Toro for that; an artist known for darkness brought sunshine into a dark room on a dark day.
Del Toro isn’t the first Mexican filmmaker to win this honor. Three years ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won Best Picture and Iñárritu became the first Mexican filmmaker to win Best Director (Birdman was wonderful and imaginative, but I really liked The Revenant, my idea of a girls’ night out). Change happens slowly, but it’s happening.
After the disappointing 2016 election, I talked with several people who pined for Canada. The running joke was that there would be a beeline to the Canadian border, and while I’m a six-hour drive from the Canadian border, I’ve often said I’d rather go to Mexico. A longer drive, yes, but Mexico is more me. Not just for the sunshine and palm trees, which I seem to be biochemically dependent on, but because everything about me and Mexico clicks: the people, the bright colors, the architecture, the music, the dancing, the fascination with ghosts and the dead, and the abundance of gluten-free food. Last week, I had lunch at Cosme, a restaurant on East 21st Street that serves what’s dubbed as “high-end Mexican food” because in America, we assume that Mexican food means Taco Bell. The restaurant was founded by Enrique Olvera, a pioneer in the haute cuisine scene, and is run by Chef Daniela Soto-Innes, who won a James Beard award at age 25, and who moved to the United States from Mexico at the age of 12. Her corn husk meringue, inspired by her mother’s corn soup, is worth your time and money.
Mexico is America’s neighbor, yet America hasn’t been acting very neighborly these last 14 months. Someday, I’d like to go a neighborhood gathering or a dinner out and not defend my willingness to go to Mexico, which I have done more than once, or explain my love for Mexico, which is only based on three trips to the Quintana Roo region and several visits to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street. I’ve got a lot to learn and much more Mexico ahead of me: San Miguel de Allende, Isla Holbox, Oaxaca, Mexico City, Nayarit, where some of my Christmas ornaments were made. So don’t trash-talk Mexico and then tell me about your upcoming weekend to Las Vegas. I don’t want to hear it. Racism and Otherism is both explicit and implicit, and it’s the subtle, insidious comments, like the ones said to me or U.S. newspaper headlines, that build up and misguide. Our options for nuanced discourse may be disappearing, but our thoughts are still ours, and we get to choose what to think and to not buy into misinformed hyperbole.
To say I stink at blogging is an understatement, plus it feels so 1998. Social media is microblogging and vlogging, and now, in 2018, everyone has either a carefully curated online lifestyle or a reactive opinion to something. I don’t know where I fit into this, and remembering to blog about something feels like remembering to pay our utility bill.
I started this blog in 2005 to talk about my family’s vacations, and now I’m being introduced as a “travel writer” to people. This floors me because in 1998 when blogging and my journalism career were in their nascent days, a travel writer to me was an elderly white dude who had worked his way up the chain at a particular newspaper for the past few decades, and who wrote about eating poi in Oahu. Or, it was cracking open National Geographic Traveler (which has published me–twice!) and reading something awesome in long-form by someone who didn’t have an Instagram account but was somewhere far away, and perhaps had hammered out observations on a Smith Corona (and if you’re of that age where you think I’m referring to a type of beer, think again). Now, everyone is a travel writer because everyone has Instagram.
Lately, I’ve been writing about hotels. For reasons I’m still trying to understand, this brings me absolute joy. And it’s so weird to arrive at this point at almost-45, to feel wow’ed by sharing your opinions on hotels, for tourism boards to invite you to places. You see, my parents did not attend elite four-year universities–or any university–to be groomed for greatness. We struggled financially, and I was raised to attend college, get a job, get married, pay the bills, remain within a short drive from the family, have at least two children, and ride out the years without complaining (I complained). Travel was a luxury, and if you could afford it, was something you did one week out of the summer to some place within driving distance; for us, that was usually Mystic, Connecticut. I was the first on either side of my family tree to actually leave town to attend a four-year, in-state college and come out the other end with a bachelor’s degree. It sounds sad that this would be considered pioneering in 1995, peak Clinton years and the dawn of the Internet, but that’s how I grew up, raised by parents who preferred bubbles of their own making. I didn’t even know what the Foreign Service was until my late 20s when I was building my journalism career, and I look back and wonder if anyone during my high school years had explained to me what the Foreign Service was, would I be schmoozing in nice hotels with ambassadors in places like Riyadh or Dubai? Because I do have schmoozing skills. Sadly, I’ll never know.
So hotels. I can’t get enough of them, and I realized my fascination with them goes back to November 1998 (a pivotal year, now that I think about it), when Mike and I took a boat ride up to Victoria, British Columbia, and as we got off the boat, I saw Fairmont’s Empress Hotel. We weren’t staying there; we stayed at the Bedford Regency, which also sounded classy and was right on that main thoroughfare, Government Street. But still. The Empress was as regal as its name (and on Government Street). It had opened in 1908, an Edwardian chateau-style party house for passengers of Canadian Pacific’s steamship line, which had a terminal a block away. Canadian Pacific Hotels eventually became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. If there’s a chain hotel I’m addicted to, Fairmont is the one. One glance at the Empress and I was hooked. I would have afternoon tea and spend a night there two years later.
Since then, I’ve sought out hotels that had character and swimming pools. There are no points programs for going off-brand. One of my favorite hotels is The Roxbury up in the Catskills, which is adding a pool (thank God!). Other favorite hotels are in the fall 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and I recently gushed about this lodge on Australia’s Victorian coast for Flung magazine. I’d love to return to Paris’s Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, which had this majestic staircase, tiny rooms, and this phenomenal breakfast buffet that was served in the bowels of the building (this was 2011, so maybe they changed that). Or go back to the QT in Melbourne where I stayed last November and soaked in another amazing bathtub. Or walk out on to my balcony to listen to the birds before the heat of the day hit at Sails in the Desert Resort near Uluru. I’m eager to try out The Rookery even though I have no immediate plans to return to London. I’ve wanted to check out El Convento in Old San Juan for about a decade. Macau has hotels sprouting up like weeds. Trying out hotels wasn’t something that was encouraged at home or at college: hotels were cheap places with the same non-threatening taupe decor and dentist office art where you crashed for a few nights. Hotels weren’t the vacation.
(Ah, Le Sirenuse)
Maybe I still want to blog about travel after all but it’s taking on a new form: waxing poetic about beloved hotels (or scrutinizing them for something annoying, though if I’m there in the first place, it’s because there’s something I like). For some people, the excitement of travel begins when they arrive at the airport or board their train or pack the car. For me, it’s sliding the key into that door and seeing what’s inside. Is this hotel about local history? Is it pretentious? Is it an architectural puzzle? Does it want me to have fun? To relax? To sit up straight and take this place seriously? To forget or admire where I am? To disconnect or reconnect? Does it smell like carpet cleaner or someone’s cigarettes? What’s the view?
And that’s the fun, isn’t it?
The word “lunatic” doesn’t have the best reputation, and unfortunately, there’s no appropriate word to describe individuals who are mentally balanced, not overly weird, and simply enjoy the night sky when the moon is out. Selenophile doesn’t work either. Moon spotting seems ok, but has a menstrual quality to me. #Lunafan? #Lunaproud? #LunaLover? See? Nothing fits.
As I type this, Europeans are apparently enjoying a beautiful night for a “supermoon,” one of three to brighten up this winter between tonight and January 31 (the second one happens New Year’s Day). The “supermoon” nickname simply means the moon will appear about 14 percent bigger and 30 percent brighter than a typical full moon. The supermoon at the end of January is predicted to be quite spectacular, which is good news for me because I’m feeling moon-cheated tonight. Clouds cover the New York City region; this morning it didn’t even look like the sun showed up for work, so chances of witnessing a supermoon tonight are dim.
Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m addicted to sunlight otherwise I rapidly sink into seasonal affective disorder symptoms. But I’ve also become intrigued by the moon the more I travel. Years ago, I was at the Griffith Observatory on a night during the middle of the week; in between weekend crowds when there was no line to peer through one of the massive telescopes set up and pointed at the almost-full moon. The image was startling; a white rock with hard grooves posing like some aging nude model in an art class. Two years ago, I was sleeping in a nest in Big Sur and woke to moonlight hitting the Pacific Ocean so hard that almost everything appeared silver, as if someone had turned on a light. This past September, I laid in a hammock in Tuscany and watched the moon. In October, I walked around glitzy Macau and spotted the moon. A month ago, out near Uluru in Australia’s Northern Territories, I had an unforgettable moment with the moon. We were having dinner in the desert. Moonlight poured over everything. Shadows moved across the earth. Someone had set up two telescopes: one pointed at the moon and the other pointed at Saturn. It was a very clear night, the perfect conditions for a spectacular sky, in which there was a very full moon.
I approached one telescope. To the naked eye, Saturn was a speck of light, indistinguishable from the other white specks of light filling the heavens. Then I looked into the telescope and almost jumped. On the other end of the lens was Saturn, with perfectly clear edges and a ring. I didn’t expect to see the ring. The image looked like a kid’s sticker or a classroom science project of a planet dangling from a string. It was almost cartoonish, not at all like the large, looming images of Saturn I always saw at planetariums and museums.
Then I approached the second telescope, the one directed at the moon, and looked through. This reminded me of that evening in Los Angeles at Griffith Park. Like that night, the moon wasn’t being coy, everything was being bared—proudly. It made me think of how we wear our age, or maybe should wear our age. The moon is 4.5 billion years old. It’s easy to think of the moon as timeless, but it isn’t. It has a creation story, and for generations watched Earth’s continents drift and rethink their borders, watched empires rise and fall, watched wars and reunions, watched flags fly, watched men visit its surface and plant flags of their own, watched us watch it, watched me look up, think about how I never thought I would have traveled to Australia, how on my daughter’s desktop globe, Australia looked so far away. Yet, there I was in central Australia, in the middle of the desert, far from anything familiar, admiring the moon, anchored by its light, this beacon that’s been with me my entire life. Yes, we, especially I, need the sun, but where would we be without moonlight? Yes, the moon’s gravitational force is critical to earth’s well-being and to controlling the tides, but without moonlight, I’m guessing we’d lose about half of the world’s love songs—maybe about a third of all lovestruck poems.
I was looking at the moon when my ride back to the hotel arrived; we had a 4:30 a.m. departure for a sunrise camel ride, but I wanted to stay with the moon. That’s the problem with itineraries—they don’t take into account the moments when you want to linger.
During my press trip to Australia, we sat quietly waiting for the sun rise over Uluru. Seeing the light change at 5:30 in the morning was indeed beautiful (that’s not my usual hour for that first cup of coffee), but I kept my eyes on the moon, which didn’t budge. The light I couldn’t keep up with; I’d glance down into my coffee cup for a second, take a sip, look up, and the whole desert suddenly looked different whereas the moon held firm. The sky softened from purple to pink to a misty blue, and the moon was still there—the sun directly across from it—as if to say “This is my hour, too.” I didn’t sense competition, just an understanding that in the morning, the moon doesn’t quickly exit stage right for the day, even if you’re caffeinating up and need to be somewhere in a hurry. It’s not like that. After 14 years of living in the New York City area, I appreciated the lack of rushing. And now I look for the moon wherever I go. It fascinates me that wherever I stand, desert or beach, from a hotel balcony or my own backyard, the moon is steady, with a rhythm that I can rely on and a change in contour and colors that sometimes surprise. Clouds covered tonight’s supermoon, but I’ll be waiting for the next one.
For years, the running joke in our house was that I would never go to Australia. My daughter became quite interested in Australia after the continent/country was a project in her kindergarten class. That was in 2009. She asked if we could go to Australia, see the koalas and kangaroos, and I showed her a map, explained that Australia involved over 20 hours of flying, including about a 15-hour flight across all of the Pacific Ocean, and that it was just simply too far and too expensive.
Last night, I returned from 10 days in Australia. Twenty-four hours of nonstop travel; 19 of those hours in the sky. No one is more surprised by this than me.
I was approached to participate in a press trip, and the itinerary was too intriguing to say no. In fact, despite the long haul, I was quite excited. My trip was coordinated and all expenses, including air, hotels, activities, and meals were covered by Voyages Indigenous Tourism Travel and Visit Victoria (and if I left anyone out, I do apologize, but those were the biggies). I flew Qantas (which quickly became one of my favorite airlines ever) for most of the trip, with a side hop on Virgin Australia when I flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs. I even spent a night in a tiny town called Dunkeld, about a three-hour’s drive west of Melbourne, population 480, which has this kick-ass hotel simply called The Royal Mail Hotel. This posh hotel is across from a tiny bookstore that’s only open on Saturdays and Sundays called Roz Greenwood’s Used and Rare Books. I was there on a Friday, pressing my nose against the glass wishing I had another 24 hours in town. Parked in front of the Royal Mail Hotel was a turquoise-colored, 1950s-style car featuring an airbrushed image of Elvis during his younger years. The car is owned by a local, making me wish that I had been given more time in Dunkeld.
There’s no way to sum up 10 days on another continent in one blog post, and my sense of time, not to mention what season we’re currently in, is too screwed up to offer you anything compelling or coherent. Australia will emerge gradually and sporadically on this blog. It’s a big country with a big landscape, and there’s just too much to process right now. What I can tell you is that I constantly mispronounced Melbourne, as many Americans do. It’s “Mel-burn,” not “Mel-born,” so I’ll work on that. I can also tell you I drank a flat white almost every morning—“flat white” being Aussie for latte—and that the Royal Mail Hotel whipped up one of the best flat whites in the world.
I can also tell you that I’m not a carnivorous or adventurous eater but I ate the following during my 10 days in Australia: green ants sprinkled on several dishes, crocodile, emu, wallaby, kangaroo, camel, eel, barramundi and a gazillion other types of fish with names I can’t recall. I’m jetlagged and know I’m forgetting a few critters, but I know I didn’t eat chicken or beef (I think some bacon might have been involved somewhere along the line). I ate a roadhouse camel burger about six hours after a riding a camel as the sun rose, the first—and, so far only—time I’ve ridden and eaten the same animal in the same day. I wasn’t fond of the camel burger though I’m confident I didn’t have the best cut of camel, probably some mix of body parts with most (hopefully) originating from the rump. No offense to the roadhouse cafe in Glen Helen that served me the camel burger, though the countless flies and wasps hovering over our food were annoying since we were eating indoors and I’m allergic to wasp stings.
It’s nearly summer in Australia right now. The constellations there are different because the seasons are different, some planets more clearly visible than others. Someone set up a large telescope in the desert while we were there and I got to see Saturn for the first time. I looked at this faint star in the desert sky, then peered through the lens and saw a white dot with a very distinct white ring, as if someone had placed a kid’s sticker on the other end of the telescope. I glanced back and forth between the two, my naked eye on the speck of light above, and the image coming through the telescope, trying to gauge if what I was seeing was real. It was a perfect night in the desert. Saturn wanted to be seen, surrounded by many stars, moonlight touching almost everything.
Back in the city, the desert feeling far, far away, Christmas decorations were already up, a tradition that always follows the Melbourne Cup, which this year, occurred on November 6, a holiday in Melbourne that involves high fashion and more than the usual amount of drinking. We were on a flight from Alice Springs to Melbourne when the pilot announced the winner: Rekindling. A good name. The name of one who perseveres. A word I need to hold on to now that it’s almost winter here.
Noshing on that kinda-tough camel burger the day before the Melbourne Cup, I had been dressed for 100-degree heat, sweating from unusual places, begging for a cool breeze to find me. I received texts from home about the drop in temperature, even my daughter complained about the cold, and I tried to remember what cold felt like. I flew home last night, crossing half the globe by air. Somewhere over Fiji, I watched The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, an Australian comedy-drama that takes places in the Northern Territories, and the movie made me love Australia even more, all that heat on screen in that cold, cramped plane. I landed, gathered my overstuffed suitcase, walked out into the dark New York night, and immediately questioned my choices. Daylight Savings occurred while I was away, which means it’s now nighttime at 4 p.m. I went from the southern hemisphere to the northern hemisphere, from late spring to late fall, from light to dark, all in a day. My patio tomato plants are very brown and very dead, some tomatoes ossified on the vine by below-freezing nights. Such a sight to come home to was jarring.
While in the Northern Territories and Australia’s southern coast, I tried to soak up the region’s abundant sunshine like a camel (yes, pun intended!), but I knew re-entry would be hard. Today is re-entry. And it’s hard. I already feel that seasonal affective disorder weight settling in, and I’ve been on the ground less than 24 hours. Outside my living room window today, it’s gray, rainy, and barely 40 degrees, as if the sun decided “I prefer Australia, too. See you in April.” I had to dig out a pair of socks for the first time in almost two weeks, and I’ll likely have to dig out the happy lamp tomorrow.
Please don’t mistake today’s mopey mood for entitlement; I’m just missing sunshine and a functional circadian rhythm. I am home, with my kid, happily doing mom stuff, finally writing again because these press trips actually involve very little writing. Instead, it’s hauling your laptop from location to location, activity to activity, with the hope that you might have a spare 15 minutes to write anything down. It’s all exhilarating and tiring, as most cool things are. Today is simply a hangover after nearly three solid weeks of travel involving two trans-Pacific flights (more on Macau soon). I began this Monday by waking up at 1 a.m. because I was so hungry, I microwaved a few chicken nuggets. I’ll likely spend the day in my baggy flamingo pants writing and drinking tea. I sipped home-brewed coffee that admittedly tasted disappointing after days of being spoiled by the Melbourne flat white scene. Hiking four or five miles along the Southern Ocean last week already feels like it happened to someone else, which is why we take selfies and drain our smartphone batteries snapping photos. We need reminders that we are many people doing many different things all at once. Mother and traveler. Wife and writer. Tourist and homebody. Australia surprised me. I want to go back, despite that ridiculously long flight. The continent I told my daughter was too far to visit got under my skin. I like that the red dirt from the Northern Territories stained my sneakers. I spin the globe that sits on my kid’s bedroom desk, the classic one found in most elementary school classrooms with countries the color of Easter eggs. Australia is flamingo-pink on this globe, impossible to miss, and I think “When?”
America’s story depends on where you stand. If you’re standing on the Navajo Nation reservation or maybe somewhere in Flathead, Montana, America’s story is a story about conquest and resilience. If you’re a black American whose ancestors were brought on slave ships, your story might be about survival and resilience. If you identify with those who arrived on different ships—and now on planes—fleeing persecution or seeking economic opportunities, then America’s story is perhaps a story about possibilities and resilience. Nowhere is this story better told than at The Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street in New York’s Lower East Side.
Look, I don’t readily gush about New York City. It’s crowded, noisy, and abrasive. I lived in Greenwich Village over 20 years ago, and I’ve been back in this sphere now for almost 14 years. I’ve stood in long lines for a morning bagel (back before I was gluten-free); I know my schmears; I’ve gotten stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel; I sneezed while driving across the George Washington Bridge and hit the car in front of me; I got broadsided by a dump truck on Second Avenue; I’ve had afternoon tea at the Waldorf Astoria where I rode the elevator with Leah Rabin five years before she died; I got to see Top of the Rock for free because I knew people. I’ve done almost all of New York except see Hamilton because, like most of America, I can’t afford to see Hamilton. Oh, and I eat my pizza folded (is there any other way???).
Now that we’ve established my NYC street cred, let me get back to gushing about 97 Orchard Street, the visionary magnificence of museum founders Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson (and that is not hyperbole), and the brilliance of how the Tenement Museum executes this vision.
As expected, visitors are taken through the apartments of families who lived in this complex, which was built in 1863 and closed in 1935 before being rediscovered in 1988. Some of the 325-square-foot apartments are restored in the styles of the time, and you’re walked through a single family’s experience of living there, where they worked, how they ate, and even work-life balance, which wasn’t a term in the late 19th century, but still a problem because so many people, children included, were overworked.
Here’s what’s glorious about what Abram and Jacobson did: they left some of the apartments untouched, as they found them: abandoned, peeling, with handwritten notes scribbled in pencil on the walls. Some of these notes are inventories listing numbers of jackets or dresses since this part of New York was central to the garment trade, sewing the clothes for most American women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We see what Abram and Jacobson saw in 1988, which was how the interior of the building was last seen by those who lived there before being kicked out in 1935. They were smart enough to leave things alone, recognizing the impact of decay, how time is really layers. The design of the museum is a restored time capsule interspersed with the real time capsule.
Our guide explained that the walls contain 40 layers of paint and 21 different types of wallpaper, one over the other, each wave of immigrants and families leaving their mark. There are also different layers of flooring cracked and peeling, revealing the tastes of the previous occupants: big, floral patterns, bright turquoises and reds, the working class so eager to mimic the decor uptown. The chipped walls are like the rings of a giant Sequoia tree, each layer an era, a story, a family’s place in history. They won’t let you touch the peeling walls, and I understand why, but I very much wanted to.
Seven thousand people lived at 97 Orchard Street between 1863 and 1935. We took the “Hard Times” tour featuring a German family in the 1870s headed by a single mother who somehow got all three of her daughters educated. Our other tour, “Sweat Shops,” focused on a Lithuanian Jewish family who followed the Sabbath despite pressures to work Saturdays. The father was a tailor, just about everyone in the family worked, and over the years, they managed to save up enough to move to Brooklyn, considered the Promised Land back then with its newer construction and green parks before hipsters and artisanal pickle factories took over.
The Tenement Museum couldn’t be more relevant than it is now. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals was just getting off the ground when Trump’s white supremacy decided otherwise. His hatred and myopia leave hundreds of thousands terrified about their futures, many of them non-white. Trump’s action was a move to decide who gets to be an American, a question posed by our guide. Sadly, this question isn’t new in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, anyone could show up and try to earn a living, and then over the generations, the U.S. government’s attitude towards immigration fluctuated, sometimes open arms, sometimes a door in the face. The federal government officially took an active role in managing immigration beginning in 1891, just in time for the “Great Wave” of 24 million immigrants who arrived between 1900 and 1920, thousands upon thousands of them landing on Ellis Island, a pipeline to lower Manhattan, a pipeline to 97 Orchard Street.
What you see at the Tenement Museum is how immigrants have been the backbone of this country for decade after decade, generation after generation. Who would we be without them? Who would I have been if Anna Woznicka got cold feet about leaving Poland all those years ago when 97 Orchard was hopping? My memories of my great-grandmother are limited, but vivid: a 1950s kitchen with a Formica table and counter tops; above the booth-like seating around the table, a photo of John F. Kennedy, America’s first Catholic president who had been long dead by the time I was hanging out in Great-Grandma’s kitchen. Next to JFK was a photo of a very youthful Pope John Paul II, the Vatican’s first Polish Pope, who was at his peak then. These two faces were the first faces you always saw upon entering my great-grandmother’s house.
Before our visits, in the car ride over (a blue Oldsmobile station wagon) my mother would always tell us not to eat anything that was offered, concerned we would be getting expired treats, which was highly likely. I don’t know when Anna Woznicka left Poland, but I know she spoke little English. I know she was born in July 1894, sometime arrived to New York before 1915 when my grandfather was born, gave birth to four children in America, lived most of her adult life in Syracuse, New York, and by the time I was old enough to remember her from visits during the 1970s and early 1980s, she was a raisined old lady wearing pastel housecoats that looked like tablecloths. She would shuffle about the house crying and mumbling in Polish. No one ever explained why she cried during our visits. Sometimes she and my grandfather would bicker in what I could only guess was Polish because it certainly wasn’t English, and I was working hard at a young age to try to pick up words where I could. She would disappear into her bedroom down the hall and return with $5 bills, one for me and one for my younger brother. Once, I received a Christmas card in Polish and had no idea how to read it. She died in 1988. I was 15, my parents were newly divorced, and I wasn’t at the funeral. I have no clue what happened to the Christmas card written in Polish.
But Anna Woznicka got to stay, and by 1973 when I was born, there wasn’t any question that I, a third-generation American, a blonde, green-eyed girl with a Polish name who couldn’t pronounce a word of Polish, would get to stay.
So go to the Tenement Museum, and definitely book more than one tour. Look at the peeling paint on the walls. Listen to the stairs creak beneath your feet. Think about the smells that were outside those windows in 1863 or 1901 or 1915—plenty of horse shit and garbage and beer because the neighborhood was predominantly German at the end of the 19th century with countless saloons. Think of who you are and where your family comes from. Think about your neighbors; mine are mostly Korean who speak Korean—one little girl two doors down recently learned English. Think about who became American and why, and then think how America could still be America yet turn people away.