Stories from Nurses on the Front Lines

By Samuel Lee

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #18

We write our names across our face shields so we’ll recognize each other and know we’re family.


“Being a folklorist is a bit like being a priest,” my close friend Sam Lee once told me, “you have a reverence for things – especially words. I’ve known Sam since my wife Amanda and I came to New York to work as folklorists for the Queens Council on the Arts in 1981. At the time we were doing the project, City Play, and Sam – who also has a reverence for words – told us stories about growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After his mother died when he was 14, he got a job working at Izzy’s poolroom. “I learned to shoot real well, and I would steer people to the numbers writers, the bookies. During the holidays, the numbers men would come around and give people in the neighborhood turkeys and give their children toys. When the cops came around, they would protect them because they didn’t want anybody coming around and taking their turkey man.”

 For as long as I’ve Known Sam, he was documenting stories, and a few years ago he told the full story of his childhood on The Moth Radio Hour.  Way back in1983, he made a video Rapping with the Rappers interviewing artists including WBLS’ first rapper, deejay Mr Magic, Fearless Four, Spyder D, Female artist D Bora, and LL Cool J to name a few. Currently he runs a storytelling program called Encounters in Black Tradition in Englewood, New Jersey. During the surreal days of the Corona virus, his love of stories emerged as a saving grace for his own well-being and as a window for all of us into what front line nurses braved at the height of the pandemic in New York.

~ Steve Zeitlin

Sam Lee

Sam Lee

When the virus struck, I was stuck like everyone else. I was in a basement apartment, quarantining myself, watching the news and netflix all day, eating 4 or 5 times a day and getting more and more depressed. I got a call from a friend, Michele Vapiano, who is the manager of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Englewood, New Jersey. She told me that the hotel was empty and they were giving away a lot of the food, and making rooms available for doctors and front line nurses. I suggested to her that I could set up a video camera in the lobby, and collect some stories.

I was blown away by the stories I was told. The nurses spoke to me like disciplined soldiers sent off to battle. On the front lines, everyone is the same – there’s no color, there’s no white, no black, woman, man, doctor, nurse or room cleaner. They were hugely empathetic human beings. Like medics on the battlefield, they were often ministering to people when they died. As one of the nurses, Melissa Porco, told me, “There’s many nurses including myself that take great pride that we can be there when a person transitions or passes. No matter what race or religion – we try to make that as comforting and as special – it’s truly an honor to be able to do this work with them. Even when the outcome isn’t what we want it to be – we have to accept it.  Be with them in that moment and be very present, that’s the key.”

I needed to do these interviews with front line workers for myself – for my own mental health – but also because I realized the stories needed to be told.  I have always taken as my tagline some words from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, “I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community… and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.”

The stories of these nurses gave me some badly needed hope. As Michele Porco ended her interview with me, “I would like to say to everybody out there not to give up any hope, that we will get through this. We’re here for you. We won’t leave your side. Hang in. It’ll be OK. Keep hope.”

The very first nurse who came in was Desserie Moran. When I first started interviewing her, I didn’t think this was going to be a quality project – but when I heard the emotion in her narrative, when she started to cry, I realized how deep these stories cut. She told me that when she drove home from work each night she just sat in her car and wept for an hour before she could even open the door to her house. Here is her story.


Desserie Morgan

How has the pandemic changed my life? I don’t sleep like I used to. When I do sleep, I’m dreaming constantly about Covid. When I’m at work I’m worried about my family at home. When I’m home I’m worried about my family at work. I’m a manager as well, and my responsibility is to make sure the people who report to me are safe.

When I’m at home everything has changed, my mental health has changed—hugging and kissing my children is such a natural thing to do, but I find myself feeling stand offish and pulling back – I’m so concerned that I’m going to get them sick. After I do hug them and kiss them I say a prayer – Please God don’t let me give them anything.

I feel like there’s a part of me that’s kind of damaged. That part of my life has changed – I hope not forever. I’m worried when I talk to somebody – I try to get a good look at them and remember them because I may not see them again – because you just don’t know with this thing.

On one of the first pandemic days, the patient in the room with me was not doing great. I was fixing her IV – and as I was fixing her IV her other hand reached over and grabbed mine and I realized she was trying to hold my hand. And I just looked at her and knew she was terrified – her oxygen was de-saturating and I knew she was going to have a rough couple of hours. And there was a very good chance I might be the person or one of the last people to talk to her before she needed to be sedated for intubation. So I tried to make her as calm and as comfortable as I could. I was looking into her eyes and although I was trying to limit my time in the room I knew that she needed me. So I stayed in that room and I held her hand and I told her that I was with her – that she’s not alone. She’s gonna make it through. And she said, “I love you, you’re an angel.” I had to be there for her in that moment.

My worst day so far – it was on a Sunday – I was a supervisor for the critical care department and I was called in by a frantic critical care physician asking me to find the I-pad immediately and to bring it over to critical care. I told him that patient-relations wasn’t there and there was no one to do it and he said we have about two minutes before this patient passes on us and dies and the family needs to see them. And so I ran to critical care with that I-pad and in that moment I didn’t have the opportunity to know what I was walking into so I was not prepared. And when I got inside and it was just myself and the patient. And I had the I-pad on and I dialed the number and I saw it was a 12 year old boy and his 8 year old sister and their Mom saying goodbye to the patient who was their father. And I have 12-year-old twins and a husband and I couldn’t disconnect from it. And I was staring and the way the I-pad communication works – you see them and they see the patient – and I was staring at them pleading with me to do something about their Daddy and I knew he had minutes, if even. And I kept saying “Honey, talk to your father, and tell him you love him and the Mom was on the other side trying to tell them “say goodbye to Daddy.” And it was so heartbreaking – and I fought back as much as I could. I’m not letting them see my tears. When it was over and I had left the room that same physician came and said “I’m so sorry to do this but we have another one right next door.”

So I went next door, the next room – and I had to do the same thing but this time it was a 19 year old girl and her 15 year old brother saying goodbye to their mother. So I went through that as well. I could not shake that – I could not stop thinking about it for days. I saw their pain, I heard their voices in my head. I couldn’t get past that. So that was definitely the worst day in my life.

The best day is whenever I hear the Rocky song. In my hospital they do an amazing job of celebrating discharges. If a patient is discharged from Covid, they are able to push a button on that person’s way out and it plays the Rocky theme song to just tell them what champions they are – whenever I hear that I’m having the best day.

There is no way in this world I could do anything else and be happy. The team I work with is family – we write our names across our face shields so when we see each other we know we’re family. When this is over everybody on the front lines is going to have to heal mentally. To make sense of what happened, process what we went through. It may be over physically but mentally it has taken a toll. It’s taken a toll.

But I don’t think twice about it. I’m a nurse. That’s what we’re supposed to do – if you’re called to this profession you just feel a need to help people. I don’t feel I’m putting them before my family – I feel like I’m doing for them what I hope somebody would do for my family.


 Desserie’s full story on Youtube filmed and edited by Sam Lee can be seen here .



Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.





Looking Back at the Corona Virus Ten Thousand Years from Now

by Kewulay Kamara

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #17

Kewulay Kamara


You don’t even know what you know till somebody asks,” my friend Kewulay Kamara told me. Born in the village of Dankawalie in northeast Sierra Leone, Kewulay Kamara is a member of the finah clan who serve as the oral poets and masters of ceremony for their communities. He immigrated to the U.S. at the age of 17 and, as an adult, he carries on the finah tradition as a storyteller and filmmaker with his new tools – the computer and the camera. Kewulay is also part of the futurist movement, working with UNESCO as a consultant and performer for their Taskforce on Foresight and Strategic Planning throughout the world. As a storyteller, Kewulay continually asks me get beyond whatever we’re going through to think about how we want things to be remembered. So who better to ask how this horrific era in our history might be remembered ten thousand years from now?

Steve Zeitlin



In the spirit of the tradition that says: What is said is done and what is done is said, and of the persuasion that trusts that the infinite universe is created out of utterance, I want to tell the story today of COVID-19  as it will be told ten thousand (or even one million) years from now because, as Einstein foretold, chronological time is a fiction, and because what is said is done. I want to do this in the storytelling modality of the West African practice of libation. Let us stand on this earth 10,000 years from now, and pour a libation to honor the spirit of the ancestors who suffered through this pandemic. Let us begin by recounting events from way in the past and, at the same time, let us stand here today to project a future in the present. I will be there as I am here to witness today.

COVID-19 came at a time when the world had grown closer, when national borders seemed less important, and when the movement of people and things had begun to increase exponentially. The advent of COVID-19 had been predicted years in advance, yet its stealth, swiftness, and ferocity caused frantic course reversals: borders closed, neighbors masked, cities locked down, blocks blockaded, families separated, walls sprouting, and human immigration reversed like rivers flowing upstream. Everyone was advised to speak only with their mouth covered and their hands in their pockets; everyone was afraid even of their own lips.

The sages of the time sought to get a handle on The Mysterious Traveler.  It was not human, it was not a plant, it was not animal, and it was not spirit; it was neither male nor female. No one actually claimed they’d seen it with the naked eye, but they understood that the naked eye does not know its enemy. It was known by its mark.

They saw the mark in one place first, but before the people could come to terms with it, the marks were spreading everywhere. Confusion and panic set in at the very foundations of power. Its path was mysterious—that is why some started calling it the Mysterious Traveler. The MT was like a hurricane that swept through cities and towns with abandon. It did not speak anyone’s language. It did not discriminate. It spared not the high and mighty royals, neither the holy people on the mountain, nor the prostitute in the street, the destitute in the gutter, the feeble in the wind, the humble on the earth, neither the young nor the old. The so-called “good” and the so-called “bad” met the same fate it its path—yet some could get out of its way more easily than others. As always, the working poor, the people of color, and the health care workers who could not get around its deadly approach, and stood firm in the face of it, paid the highest price.

The MT struck with a vengeance, killing over 100,000, including many of those who were brave enough to care for the sick. Many died difficult, ugly deaths, strapped to ventilators, and were so contagious that they died alone, with no one to hear their final gasp.

To some it appeared that the MT had come to turn every human folly and concern upside down. Before MT, humans had been fixated on economic growth, which translated into senseless movements directed by their priest, who uttered daily oracles from the stock markets. Every human value was subsumed under the assumption that what was good for the market was good for all. To service the market, forests were cleared, the wilderness decimated, the rivers dammed, and the oceans reduced to cesspools. It all made sense in their calculus, their primary method of reckoning good and bad.

Kewulay Kamara with the blacksmith’s bellows handed down in his family. Photo by Tom Pich

With the MT came this headline:

Coronavirus: Mexicans demand a crackdown on Americans crossing the border.

It was a time when many predicted that a tide of African immigrants fleeing global warming would traverse deserts and meet a tragic demise baking in the sand under the sun, or that they would cross oceans, braving wild seas in flimsy traffickers’ boats, or face border dogs, armed guards, and razor wire fences on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea. The MT saw this reversed. During the reign of the MT came another headline:

African countries close their borders to European travelers, adventurers, a move that should have been considered 400 years before.

For the world of animals and plants, the MT was a superhero: it was the Liberator, the Avenger. Every animal in the bush, fish in the oceans, and tree in the forests was given breathing space as a consequence of the stay-at-home commands. As soon as humans started staying home, turtles reclaimed the beaches. Penguins danced. Fish in the oceans and trees in the forests were all given space to roam and to breathe. And homebound pets celebrated newfound time with their owners.

In Hong Kong a piece of graffiti read something like this:

Let us not go back to normal, because it turns out normal was a huge problem.

Before the Mysterious Traveler, the most rigorous arguments, the most courageous resistance, and the most fervent prayers couldn’t slow the traffic on the roadways, the seaways, or the skyward-belching factories, for the sake of reducing carbon emissions, to save the planet. The sun grew angry and joined forces with the rising oceans. The winds grew furious and spat fire as the earth grumbled. Yet for all their might, tornadoes and hurricanes only caused momentary discomforts. MT kept the cars parked and quickly smog began to clear. Human arrogance suggested that human beings had the power to determine their own destiny, as well as the destiny of the universe. Now it appeared to the wise that, ironically and tragically, in ways perhaps only the Gods can fathom, the survival of the species was aided by the Mysterious Traveler that killed so many. The earth had painfully and frighteningly been compelled to PAUSE!

During the PAUSE, people searched for sanity by at once separating themselves physically and yet reaching out to one another emotionally, calling friends and family, inquiring about their colleagues, and appreciating their personal relationships as the most redeeming element of their existence. Although calamities undoubtedly expose humans’ duplicity, treachery, and cowardice, the MT also revealed their ability to act with nobility.

The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing doctors and nurses to make agonizing decisions of who lives and who dies. It is the toughest and most heartbreaking decision a person could ever have to make. Infected with COVID-19, that is exactly the decision that faced 72-year-old Italian priest Don Giuseppe Berardelli. And in the highest of priestly callings, Berardelli chose to put others’ lives before his own by giving up his ventilator to save the life of a younger person.

Kewulay Kamara

We could imagine him saying, as he lay gasping, “I live!”

Let the story be told that even while spreading death and devastation, the Mysterious Traveler encouraged us to look within. No fear, no shame, no war, no famine, no hurricane, flood, plague, or guilt can change who are. The times, they are uncertain. We embrace the uncertainty because we are certain that tomorrow will come. I live, we live, right here and right now. We are in-the-future beings. Let us beat this pandemic, recognize the preciousness—and fragility—of humanity, prepare our scientists and factories for the next one, pour a libation to the future so that our descendants may pour a libation to the past. We give water because we living beings are made of water. In the spirit of all those ancestors in body and spirits seen and unseen, in town and in the bush, in oceans and the deserts, in the plants and animals who gave us life, we pour a libation to you and to the ancestors as yet unborn.

Everything You Ever Wanted Is Coming True: Chinese New Year’s Greetings

Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

by Martha Dahlen

intro by Amy Chin and Steve Zeitlin

As the Year of the Pig cycles into the Year of the Rat in the Chinese zodiac, the writer Martha Dahlen gives us a primer on the many meanings of auspicious New Year greetings to ensure our City Lore family enjoys a happy, harmonious and prosperous year.

 –Amy Chin, City Lore Board Member


New Year’s decorations on East Broadway in Chinatown. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

Walking through the twisty streets of Chinatown a few days before the big New Year celebration to take place January 25th, I was intrigued by the ubiquitous red paper signs and greetings.  My friend, Martha Dahlen, who lived for 20 years in Hong Kong, explained to me that these are decorations, but decorations with significant meanings. They are part and parcel of the poetry of everyday life for many Chinese people, especially Cantonese, in China, Hong Kong, and New York. Here is her take on it.




The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is by far the most significant, most widely celebrated holiday in China.  The belief is strong that how you begin the year will influence your fortune throughout the coming months.  Hence, as New Year’s day approaches, people pay off debts, clean house, buy new clothes, prepare gifts, cook auspicious foods, decorate with blooming flowers and fresh fruit (especially round, golden citrus), and hang red banners proclaiming confidence that the coming months will be prosperous and joyful.  When they meet, people exchange greetings but, in addition to the generic “Happy New Year!”, there are many other, more colorful phrases expressing specific aspirations.  Further, the Chinese believe each New Year has its own dynamic energy–something like a new weather system coming in–as represented by the Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.  Thus, the New Year offers the chance for a fresh start on several levels, and the variety of Chinese New Year phrases captures the range of this opportunity.

Gong Xi Fa Cai “Congratulations! Great prosperity!”

Ru Yi Ji Xiang “Your life is blessed according to your wishes”

The New Year greeting most familiar to non-Chinese people is probably Gung Hei Fat Choy, which is the Cantonese pronunciation of the characters which, in Mandarin, are pronounced as Gong Xi Fa Cai.  Gong Xi (Gung Hei) is a two-word combo that means “Congratulations!” with overtones of respect, sheer happiness, and blessings.  Fa (Fat) means to grow, increase (the same word is used to refer to yeasted bread dough).  Cai (Choy) refers to money or wealth.

For Hong Kong Cantonese, the phrase is an exuberant affirmation that life is good, something like, “Congratulations on winning the lottery!”  For other Chinese, the phrase seems crass, and they prefer expressions, such as  Ji Xiang Ru Yi. Ji Xiang means “auspicious”, while Ru Yi means “as wished” or “comparable to your intentions”.  The whole phrase is loosely equivalent to, “May all your wishes come true.”


Bu Bu Gao Bi “Step by step ascend the throne!”

Long Ma Jing Shen “Dragon spirit, horse vitality!”


There are age-appropriate phrases.  For example, let us say you meet your young nieces or nephews; you might greet them with, Bu Bu Gao Bi (step-step-ascending-throne”), hoping to inspire them to greater efforts in school.  To the entrepreneur in your family, you might say Wan Shi Sheng Yi (ten thousand-things- victory/success) or Long Ma Jing Shen (dragon-horse -vitality-power).  In the latter phrase, the dragon symbolizes heavenly greatness, while the horse represents earthly power, and the whole can be loosely translated as, “Fly high!  Charge ahead!”




For people experiencing the challenges of aging, you could greet them with a fervent Shen Ti Jian Kang (body-strong and healthy) or the poetic  Shou Ru Song Bai (longevity-like –pine-cypress), as both pine and cypress trees are classic symbols of long life with dignity. (Note: Both these phrases are also appropriate birthday greetings.)

By this time, you may have noticed that all of these phrases are four characters; in fact, they may be a subset of the huge group of Chinese aphorisms known as cheng yu.  These are pithy statements that express, in meaning, Chinese culture, and in form, Chinese language.  For example, each Chinese character, in every dialect, is pronounced as a single syllable.  Thus, four words have a fixed, regular rhythm.  Every dialect (the most common being Mandarin and Cantonese) are tonal, so each character has a certain pitch and phrasing.  In other words, a four-word phrase has both rhythm and melody, making them easy to memorize and recite.  Indeed, some families, gathering at Chinese New Year, will compete among themselves to see who can remember more of these colorful expressions, in a kind of musical poetry contest.

Yi Tuan He Qi “In unity, harmony”

Another aspect of the Chinese language at play here is the fact that the number of characters in the language far outstrips the number of ways monosyllables can be pronounced.  The result is that characters differing radically in meaning may be pronounced similarly or even the same.  Linking two characters–in a sense, creating two-syllable words—is one way to avoid confusion in speaking.  For example, the word, Ji, when spoken could refer to the various characters for good, a thorn bush, or the great ultimate (as in Tai Ji).  Similarly, Xiang could mean auspicious, or details/minutia.   But Ji Xiang, the two together, immediately narrows the field, such that the listener automatically hears the intended meaning (good fortune).

Several such pairs occur in multiple phrases; e.g., fu gui (honorable), da ji (big luck).  Ping An, meaning “peace and safety” is another such unit.  So, for example, putting the phrase Chu Ru Ping An above your door confers peace and safety (ping an) on all who leave (chu) and enter (ru).  There is also Si Ji Ping An, meaning “four (si) seasons (ji), peace and safety”.  And Lao XIao Ping An, meaning “old (lao)-young (xiao)- peace and safety” (Lao Xiao Ping An is also the name of a steamed beancurd and fish dish, suitable for those two groups who might lack teeth).

Another characteristic of these phrases is the lack of grammatical nuances.  No little words tell you how the ideas represented are meant to be linked.  For example, Kai Gung Da Ji is translated, word by word, as “Start-work-big-luck”.  Does that mean IF you start work or WHEN you start work you will be lucky? Does it promise luck (or blessing) AFTER working?   No matter: the listener simply understands that work and good fortune are linked.  Furthermore, with no verb tense, these phrases fall squarely in the category of affirmations: each depicts a condition as though it already exists.

Cong Xin Suo Yu “As your heart desires, may it be so!”

Home and family are important themes in greetings as they are in Chinese culture.  For example, Man Tang Fu Gui (Full – meeting hall –wealth –honorable.)  The second character, ‘tang’, suggests the central courtyard of a Chinese extended family. Thus the phrase seeks to capture the deep glow of contentment, pride and honor one feels when beloved children and grandchildren gather at home with their parents.   Speaking of parents, one phrase that mothers love to use, and newlywed children are loathe to hear, is Jin Yu Man Tang, which literally means gold (jin) and jade (yu) fill the home, and figuratively means “I am looking forward to grandchildren any time now”.  Abundance is a major theme.  So we have Nian Nian You Yu (year-year-have-surplus).  As the word for surplus sounds like the word for fish, a whole fish is traditionally served at every New Year’s eve dinner–and it is important that some fish be left, symbolic of surplus in the coming year.   Reportedly, in earlier times, during lean years, a farmer might serve a wooden fish to ensure that it would be leftover, thereby also ensuring surplus in the coming year.

Many of these greetings are codified in rectangular red banners known as fai chun (Cantonese pronunciation, as they are predominantly a Cantonese tradition).  These can be seen throughout the year in homes, offices, businesses and restaurants, but are especially prevalent during the New Year season.  Most people buy their fai chun, but it is generally agreed that writing them yourself will give them more power.

Fai chun make aspirations public and permanent.  Currently in Hong Kong, people are using this traditional form to express their political, as well as their personal, hopes for the coming year.  However, the former is not without risk.  “Satirical” decorations are banned, and people worry about surveillance.   One clever fai chun is a square writing of a traditional four character phrase zhao cai jin bao (finding-wealth-advancing toward- treasure/gems).  When viewed upside down and twisted just a little (the many parts of a Chinese word make this possible), it becomes  zhui qiu zi you min zhu (stubbornly pursuing-freedom- democracy).   Such writing is even more clever because the words for “upside down” in Chinese (dao li) sound like the words for “already arrived” (dao le).  So posting this one upside down not only makes it look innocuous but also increases its power.

As January 25 approaches, prepare to Ying Chun Jie Fu (Welcome spring [as] luck enters) with the fervent hope for Tin Ha Ping An(heaven-earth, peace and safety).   Say it, believe it, live it.  Fu Lu Shou Quan:  All blessings are yours.


Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


Nesting Eggs: Planet/Language/Culture/Community/Family/You

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #16

Making the Case for City Lore

The interview was ending. I was anxious to get on with my day. But the interviewer had one last question. It came out of the blue: “So what is your hope for the future?” 

As I pondered the question, it occurred to me that there is something even more precious to me than the goals I work toward as the director of City Lore, New York’s center for urban folk culture. Founded in 1986, City Lore works to preserve places that matter, highlight the work of traditional artists, document stories, bring community-based and folk artists into schools, project poems from our POEMobile, and operate a gallery. Our mission is to foster New York City—and America’s—living cultural heritage. All these are, in themselves, reasons to go online and join City Lore this very moment.

Yet my hope for the future, and the reason City Lore is central to our collective future and worthy of your support, goes beyond this mission. My hope is that each soul whose existence happens to manifest itself on the planet will continue through the generations to bring something new into the world, to retain their individuality, to develop their own sense of humor, and to tell their unique story in a distinctive way. Indeed, I was inspired to become a folklorist because of the expressions and humor I share with my brothers. (We still address one another with “Yo, Sire”; and when someone once asked my brother Murray why, he answered, “Respect.”) These expressions were the “language of us,” as the writer Virginia Randall notes.

Joseph Albert Elie Joubert from Quebec’s Abnaki tribe suggests that “the secrets of our culture lie hidden within our language.” I have come to think of the layers of our existence as the set of nesting (matryoshka) dolls that sit in my tchotchke cabinet at home. I imagine the doll within a doll within a doll, first created in Russia in 1892—or the similar brightly colored eggs—as our fragile blue-and-green planet, nesting diverse languages, nesting diverse cultural groups, nesting communities, nesting families, and, finally, nesting the smallest doll, the distinctive individual. Today we witness a corporate assault on each and all of these meaningful layers of our existences.



Languages nested in our blue-and-green planet. Half of the world’s languages will disappear in this century. Scholars have shown that the areas of the world where languages are disappearing are often the same once-isolated areas where plant and animal species are disappearing. So there is a simultaneous assault on our planet egg and the languages nested within it, a connection between species diversity and language diversity.



Cultures nested in language. An ancient but renewed clannishness and demonization of our fellow human beings, fueled by social media, pits Americans against one another. Racism and xenophobia disparage cultural diversity, while anti-immigrant policies seek to strangle multiculturalism and cultural variety – a variety that has thankfully been replenished by successive waves of new immigrants who, since our nation’s founding, have been one of the most important wellsprings of our distinctly American creativity and renewal.



Communities nested in cultures. Our local  communities are threatened with gentrification that erodes the economic, age, ethnic and cultural diversity of neighborhoods, often tearing apart the fabric of community.


Individuals nested in communities. And then there’s you and me, the nested individuals.


Today, corporations are continually merging into larger and larger entities and increasingly dominating both the global economy and our individual lives with their relentless adherence to the bottom line. On the global scale, they are willing to sacrifice the planet for profit, but their assault affects us on a subtle, personal level as well. If they can put you and me in boxes, know what we watch on YouTube, try to sell us anything we’ve ever googled, they can customize their marketing such that they can shape our tastes and nudge us into market categories, slowly shaping who we are and how we behave. Capitalism runs on homogenization. 

In this new world era, governments are viewed as corporations (small ones at that), and we the people not as citizens, but as consumers. The nuances of art threaten to become simply “content” produced by “creatives” for large corporate entities. From their perspective, minority languages, climate change, diverse cultures, and individuals with unique tastes and personalities are simply hindrances or distractions brushed aside for short term gain.  

So, as poet Mary Oliver asks, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Our job as individuals is to push back, to fight against an assault on the nested layers of our civilization: for a clean planet that sustains diverse life forms, for diverse languages, for diverse cultures, and for diverse communities and families, while at the same finding meaning in our limited time on earth. On top of everything else, our job must also be to protect, maximize, and treasure our own personhood. In the virtual world, people live on their phones rather than in physical places, and develop relationships online rather than with the their neighbors. In this new world where we are continually bombarded with ever-more-subtle advertising, we are tasked with sustaining our sentience, interiority, and free will. “There will be no one like us when we are gone,” wrote British neurologist, naturalist, and historian of science Oliver Sacks when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, “but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled.”

Steve Zeitlin with his nesting dolls. Photo by Amanda Dargan.

In spite of everything, I still believe that there will always be people in search of authentic experiences, art forms, and traditions, created and shared person to person, expressions of individuality nested within cultures and traditions. People will return to those experiences because that’s where meaning lies. It is there that personal, family, community, cultural, and linguistic diversity is expressed. That’s why City Lore is still here—you can access that distinctiveness and singularity by attending any of our programs.

In addition, the work that we and our colleagues in folklore and related fields do and have done to document and preserve folk and community traditions can serve as touchstones for the creativity of future generations. Today, you can find yourself in the diverse cultures, communities, and languages that we share with you at City Lore. The deeply rooted experiences may give us the tools and reasons to fight back.

My hope for the future is bound up with language and an appreciation of cultural diversity. Is that more important than world peace? Perhaps not. Yet if the planet ever does become a “peaceable kingdom,” here’s hoping it’s not because we have been corporatized into sameness but because we have learned to communicate across differences. 

You can join City Lore – “a practical application of a utopian endeavor” – by Clicking Here for the membership form.  You either send it back to us or click on the donation level that will take you to PayPal.



Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


Dividing Up the World: Two Kinds of People

The Poetry of Everyday Life
Blogpost #15

Sitting next to me at a bookfair, a poet told me that the kindest thing his father ever said to him was, “there are two kinds of people in the world, and you’re neither one of them.” I was reminded that my wife, folklorist Amanda Dargan, once collected examples of dividing the world into two kinds of people in notebooks that have sat on our bookshelf for some thirty years. I pulled them out for this month’s Poetry of Everyday Life blog. 

And well I should because, after all, there may be two kinds of people in the world, but Amanda, City Lore’s Education Director and our guest blogger, to her credit, is definitely neither one.


Dividing Up the World

by Amanda Dargan


Illustration by Eva Pedriglieri

I grew up on a farm in Darlington County, South Carolina, and one day my father, Lucas Dargan, announced that as a sideline to his work as a forester he planned to start raising chickens and selling the eggs. At the local feed and seed store where he went to buy supplies, he got into a conversation with the owner. “Lucas,” the owner told him, “you know, there are two kinds of people in this world, those who want to get into the chicken business, and those who want to get out.” 

Years later, when I was a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, I started keeping a notebook of these everyday expressions that I heard or found in conversations, newspaper articles, and books. My father, always a rich source of these and other expressions, gave me another example. On returning from a trip to Italy, he told us about a harrowing taxi ride in Rome and the driver’s response to his concern about the speed and recklessness of the city’s drivers, “There are two kinds of people in Rome, the quick and the dead.”  A similar expression is used to describe two kinds of men–“ the quick and the wed.”

Amanda Dargan. Do you unroll toilet paper from the top or from the bottom?

At the same time I became interested the rhetorical tactics these phrases employ. The “two kinds of people” expressions my father reported are  examples of one of Aristotle’s three laws of thought, the law of the excluded middle. The chicken business expression leaves out precisely the category my father wanted to be – someone who enjoyed and was successful in the chicken business. It also leaves out people who have never considered getting into the chicken business. The Rome taxi driver’s “quick and the dead” expression leaves out the category of those who drive safely and survive.

In addition to the excluded middle, dividing the world expressions often employ the strategy of foregrounding a detail that divides a wide swath of human personalities into two types, often using a mundane behavior to illustrate a larger personality type. Alan Guignard, a friend who was part of a group I travelled with after college, complained that there are two kinds of people in the world, life saver suckers and life saver chewers. He was a life saver sucker, and we, his traveling companions, who gobbled through a whole pack of life savers while he still sucked on his first one, were life saver chewers. Life safer suckers, he declared, are more deliberate, frugal, inclined to delay gratification, and stick to a plan. Life saver chewers, on the other hand, are impulsive, seek immediate gratification, live in the moment, and scrap the planned itinerary when they see something they find more interesting. 

“There are two kinds of people,” our friend Holly Cutting Baker declared, describing another character trait that embodies a larger personality type,“rumpled and unrumpled.”  Rumpled people look rumpled no matter how much they iron their clothes. “I’m definitely a rumpled,” she said. “Unrumpled people look neat even if their clothes are rumpled.” Steve Bannon, for instance, would be a rumpled; Barack Obama, unrumpled.

Not all dividing the world expressions are binary. Others divide the world into three or more categories based on their approach to a common behavior. John M. Richardson, Jr. once claimed, “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen; those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.”

Some of these expressions are built around a tautology. James Thorpe claimed there are those who love to talk, and those who hate to listen, modifying the more common expression those who love to talk and those who love to listen, and suggesting that the later category does not exist.

Some divisions signify absolutely nothing more than a difference in habitual behavior. My friend Craig Schaffer once told me that there are two kinds of people, those who eat artichoke leaves with their top teeth and those who eat them with their bottom teeth. Similarly, another expression divides the world between people who pull their toilet paper from the bottom and people who pull it from the top. Those divisions don’t seem to indicate larger personality traits, just habitual behaviors, and they also exclude the middle category of people who aren’t so set in their ways and may choose to vary the way they scrape artichoke leaves with their teeth. 

For philosophers, mathematicians, and logicians, these dividing up the worlds can be expressed in mathematical terms. The law of excluded middle is written by the mathematician Charles Sanders Peirce as {(x → y) → x} → x.  I won’t attempt to explain.

For folklorists, dividing-the-world expressions are a form of verbal play. They are a way of simplifying the complexity of human beings, often by drawing on stereotypes, by putting them into distinct categories in order to persuade, express an insight, or argue a point of view with wit and humor. For example, optimists and pessimists are described in a popular expression as those who say the glass as half full, and those who say it is half empty. My daughter Eliza suggests a different way, which is not included in this binary expression: If you take an empty glass and pour water into it, it’s half full. If you take a full glass and pour water out, it’s half empty. A friend, Carol Klenfner, quoted a man who told his grandchild: “You ask if the glass is half full or half empty?  What does it matter? It’s such a beautiful glass.”

Some dividing-the-world expressions create a false dichotomy to stake a claim or denigrate a category of people. For example, those who love the art or music of, say Beyoncé, and those who have no taste. When Steve told his father that he was planning to teach high school, his father said, “There are those who do, and those who teach.” And one cynic added, “those who teach teachers,” as if those in this category were somehow on a still lower rung of the ladder. At City Lore, in fact, we do teach teachers and consider it a high calling.  

On reading this the folklorist Phlip Nusbaum reminded me that There Are Two Kinds of People in the World was also the title of a song by Little Anthony and the Imperials back in the 1950s. (That’s the group that sang the hit Tears on my Pillow.)  It goes:

Just two kinds of people in the world
why can’t we fall in love

The tendency to divide the world into opposites has itself become an expression. The American humorist Robert Benchley is credited with the expression, “There are two classes of people in the world: those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.” Hmmm, which am I?  Another claims there are two kinds of people, those who live life and those who ponder it. If you’ve read this far, you must be one of them.`

After a few years of considerable frustration, my father did get out of the chicken business, but not before he inspired a way of dividing the world in our nuclear family that has become a favorite Dargan-Zeitlin family expression to use when someone gets too bossy around the house. When my youngest sister Rosa was a child, my father asked her to do a household chore. She resisted and asked, “Why?”, to which he responded, “Because I asked you to, and I’m the boss.” “You’re not the boss of the house,” she told him defiantly. “Momma’s the boss of the house. You’re the boss of the chicken house.”

Please send your Dividing up the World examples to


Naima Rauam reading Steve’s book.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Time All At Once

Carrie’s Cosmic Seder

Poetry of Everyday Life Blog #14
To be published in the magazine Voices: the Journal of New York Folklore
by Caroline Harris with an Intro by Steve Zeitlin

Brodsky-Stein and Zeitlin Seder, 1946

After celebrating a family Seder in Philadelphia for almost a hundred years, my coterie of cousins became too dispersed, and the celebration gradually dwindled and faded away. So I was happy when Carrie Harris, my close friend and City Lore board member invited me to celebrate her family Seder in Manhattan last year. As Carrie led the symbol-laden ritual meal, we re-told the story in the familiar Haggadah booklets given to each of us. We read aloud about the Jews escaping slavery in Egypt, giving thanks that God who “passed over” the Jews during the ten plagues, parted the Red Sea, and led them to freedom.

As is traditional at the Seder, the youngest child reads the four questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The forthcoming Passover nights will certainly be different from other nights as Jews around the world struggle to cope with the horrific pandemic surrounding us. Yet however we choose to mark the occasion of Passover this year, Carrie’s thoughtful piece reminds us of the meaning of the celebration, and how much it will mean for all of us to celebrate together with our family and friends next year.  

Caroline Harris

The Haggadah tells a story within a larger story, within an even larger story.  On Passover at the Seder, we transcend time. In one night, we journey into the past through the present to the future—time all at once. These time frames are tracked in the Seder:  the past before the meal, the present at dinner, and the future after dinner.  The past is very deep, reaching back not just to Egypt, and Jacob and Abraham before, but to the beginning of time.


The Haggadah reminds me of my mother. As my mom is getting older, and might be afflicted with some dementia, her stories, like the Haggadah, always start further and further back. You ask my Mom a simple question and you might find out where she – or even her father – was born to get to the answer.  For instance, if you ask her about my father who passed away almost 20 years ago, she will tell you the wonderful story of how they met. “My mother and Herb’s sister,” she would say, “both went to the same dressmaker – and one day she told them that the two of us would go great together.”

The Seder is supposed to tell us the story of the Hebrews’ escape from slavery in Egypt. But like my mother’s answers to certain questions, the Haggadah goes back to the beginning of time, to Creation, remembered when we first light and bless the holiday candles separating light and darkness to start the story.

The Maggid, the section of the Haggadah where the official narrative is recited, also doesn’t get right to the point either.  It incorporates portions of Abraham’s and Jacob’s stories that describe the growth of a tribe into a nation.

More significantly, the Maggid introduces monotheism to the Passover narrative. God’s promise of a great nation is predicated on Abraham’s and the Hebrews’ acceptance of the one-God. The Haggadah recounts all of the wonders God performed to free the Hebrews from slavery, showing the one-God’s might over the polytheistic Egyptians’ gods, through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea.

Throughout the centuries, the Haggadah has incorporated what were then contemporary references to make the story relevant to the day, intimating that the Haggadah isn’t only about a particular place – Egypt at a particular time – but about all “Mitzrayims,” all “narrow” places, at all times.

Today, many Seders emphasize that the celebration is not only about freedom from slavery in Egypt thousands of years ago or just about Jewish history; it’s about freedom from oppression anywhere for everyone. In the 1970s, some added a fourth matzah to bring attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Modern anti-Semitism is recalled with a reading from the writings of a Holocaust survivor and, this year, anti-Semitism and all hatred undoubtedly will be recalled by reading about the slaughters at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the All Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch, New Zealand.  A challis of water has joined the Seder table symbolizing Miriam’s well and the role of women in the Passover story.  Along with the shank bone, the bitter herbs and the egg, an orange on the Seder plate now stands for diversity, a tomato, for migrant workers’ rights. Thus, “Egypt” is a metaphor for any place where there is slavery, oppression or hatred.


Caroline Harris and Howard Goldman Seder, 2018

Before dinner, three different themes have been introduced:  slavery to freedom; tribe to great nation; and polytheism to monotheism.  The focus has been in the past, with efforts to make the past meaningful by reference to more recent events.  Finally, with dinner we are fully in the present.

The Haggadahs are tucked away, tossed on a couch or dropped to the floor. There is no script during the meal. We erupt in conversation. Adults find out what’s happened in each other’s lives since the last Seder. Kids run around or play with plastic frogs jumping into wine glasses.  We eat heartily, the smells and tastes reminding us of our family’s and friends’ sweet past, with a dash of bitterness about the brother who won’t join us, sadness about the aunt who died.  Yet, here we are together again, linking the past and the present.

Then the kids (in my Seder, adults, too) scramble around to find the Afikoman. That piece of matzah, raised aloft at the beginning of the Seder, will let us begin to end the Seder, once again merging the past with the present, present with the future. When we bite the small broken piece of matzah from the Afikoman, we bite reality – the reality of oppression and hardship, the reality of a broken world. Yet, we taste our dreams, our dreams of freedom and justice for us and all people.


We open the door for Elijah, the prophet who is supposed to resolve all conflicts before the Messiah comes, and we pray God will once again redeem us, hoping that whatever Jewish or humanitarian crisis we are facing this year will be resolved by next year.

But the Haggadah doesn’t end with our hope that the immediate problems of the Jews and the rest of the world will be resolved by next year, though indeed that would be, as the beloved Jewish folksong goes, “Dayenu!”–  It would be enough.  The Haggadah’s vision extends further.

Where does the story end?  A story that begins with Creation can only end in the far distant future beyond time, after Elijah, in the world to come—in “ha’olam ha’ba.” The concluding line of the Haggadah, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is, in part, the hope for the physical place that Jews consider home. (“Hope,” in Hebrew, is “Hatikvah”—the name of Israel’s national anthem.) It also is the hope that the problems we experience today will be resolved next year.  Beyond that, “Next Year in Jerusalem!” is the existential hope that someday—in the world to come—-all of us will enter the Promised Land, the land of milk and honey. “The Promised Land” is a metaphor for universal freedom, the perfect world of peace and justice.

Just before he was assassinated in Memphis, Martin Luther King echoed the Passover story when he declaimed, “I’ve been to the mountain top. . .and I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!”

In one night, we journey together from Creation, through all time in-between, to the future beyond our imagination in the world to come.  We form a bond that unites us with other Jews now, with Jews in the past and in the future, linking us with all humanity to create a better world.  In the words of Theodore Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The message uncovered is deeply optimistic and challenging.  From the time of Creation of humankind, we have been on a trajectory towards the Promised Land of justice, compassion and peace. The Haggadah teaches us: The light of Creation illuminates our path to redemption.

But we cannot sit by idly. We must walk on that path.  We must take action like Abraham and Jacob, Yoheved, Puah, Miriam and Moses, continuously owning our freedom, striving for freedom and an end to oppression for others, and pursuing justice as we march together through human history to the Promised Land.

And then we sing.

“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.

Corporate Candy

Ungentrified Sweets in a Gentrified City

The Poetry of Everyday Life, blogpost 13

By Molly Garfinkel and Steve Zeitlin


Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

In the 1976 film Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, buys some Chuckles from the concessions stand at the adult cinema. He tells the concessions girl that he prefers Jujubes because they last longer. If he were in a movie theater today, he certainly would not find Jujubes and probably not Chuckles, either. He would be given a choice of mostly Haribo candies and varieties of its juggernaut gummy bears. These are today’s gentrified candies. Although the German gummy bear has been around since 1922, the Haribo company recently swallowed up a slew of other confections manufacturers all over the world, and churns out over a hundred million bears in different varieties every day.

If De Niro were looking for Jujubes now, his best bet would be Economy Candy, at 108 Rivington Street, on the Lower East Side, which opened its doors in 1937, and which thankfully is NOT endangered. Where else can you find not only Jujubes but Dots, licorice pipes, Gobstoppers, Cinnamon Bears, Charleston Chews, a five-pound Hershey bar, or a Betty Boop Pez dispenser? This is a place to go for what we call ungentrified candy. It’s a place that offers a plethora of flavors and shapes that you can’t find anywhere else, at least not all together in one extravagant “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Economy Candy sells the sweets many of us above a certain age delighted in as children. It’s a place that resonates with our memories of taste, a place that can still surprise us. This variety of tastes and experiences, this historic resonance, is what the city should—and sometimes does—offer, but not without our vigilance and advocacy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

Let’s imagine that New York City was made of candy. The city’s glass towers and big-box stores would be the Haribo gummy bears: crystalized corporate candy. Places like Economy Candy, Katz’s Delicatessen, Yonah Schimmel’s Knishery, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue might be the venerable but still extant Jujubes, licorice pipes, Chuckles, and Spearmint Leaves – or the spice drops in your grandmother’s crystal candy jar that like older buildings smack of yesterday.  But many candies are now extinct: Chicklets, black licorice dollars, Mary Janes and now –say it ain’t so! – Necco Wafers. They remind us of the city’s bygone places – Mars Bars (the Lower East Side dive bar not the candy bar), 5 Pointz (the famous Queens mural space), CBGB, the Domino Sugar factory, the Lenox Lounge, the house under the roller coaster in Coney Island, Music Row and now even the Cornelia Street Café.

It’s not that we care so much about candy, but we do care about a diversity of tastes, of experiences in the city. We care about the experiential difference between buying a piece of penny candy from friendly soul at a neighborhood bodega and trying to even find a human being to ask where an item is located in a big-box store.

The iconic Economy Candy is a metaphor for these tastes and experiences. The shop has been in the Lower East Side for over sixty years. Before the Great Depression, the storefront housed a hat and shoe store, with a vendor selling candy from a pushcart outside its doors. During the Depression, the candy started selling better than the shoes and hats. When Morris “Moishe” Cohen and his brother-in-law returned from World War II, they took over the business. Moishe’s son Jerry and Jerry’s wife, Irene, inherited the shop in the 1980s, and, like Moishe, took pride in kibitzing with the customers. Currently, Jerry works part time and their son and his wife run the store.

Today, the Lower East Side emporium, which we were pleased to honor in 2011 with a Place Matters Award, is a thriving pilgrimage site. Neon marshmallow Peeps seem to glow from the counters, hollow chocolate bunnies patiently perch on beds of plastic grass, and bins stacked nearly to the ceiling contain every jellybean flavor on record. In parts of the store, mirrors reflect the merchandise below, so shoppers can feel gleefully surrounded by candy.

Artwork by Bryn Pennetti

At City Lore, we have been inspired by the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry, which, as its website states, “works to save longstanding, community-serving businesses that so often serve as valuable cultural assets,” and which uses a nomination process similar to that used for historic landmarks. We urge New York City to follow suit, but with some key differences.

First, the San Francisco registry, which is itself endangered, relies on the government giving grants to landlords to keep legacy businesses affordable. Grants to landlords? Even the registry has come to realize this is not sustainable. Second, commercial rent control is simply anathema to recent New York City mayors and most city council members. When we brought up cultural landmarking at a city council meeting years ago, we were laughed out of the room for suggesting something so economically infeasible. Thankfully, the Small Business Jobs Survival Act, which was first introduced in 1986, is currently being reconsidered. We strongly support it.

City Lore’s also proposes a Community Anchors rent-subsidy program for cultural landmarks. Small businesses would be nominated for the program with petitions based on their contributions to neighborhood stability and quality of life. If it’s possible to do this for historic landmarks, as the city already does, we believe it’s possible to do this for cultural landmarks. But the number of Community Anchors would be limited so as not to have a significant effect on the overall city economy: this program would not be commercial rent control to upend the city’s economic viability. We would limit the number of Community Anchors whose rent increases would be limited to perhaps less than 2 percent of any landlord’s properties, with a negligible effect on their profits. City politicians are hesitant to consider or strategize about this, claiming that the state constitution forbids it; yet commercial rent control did exist in the city between 1945 and 1963 under a special law. Yes it will take a bit of creativity on all sides, because last we heard the people make the laws and their purpose is not to serve as a straightjacket for the common sense reforms this rapidly gentrifying city sorely needs.

New York is in a constant state of change. If it weren’t, Economy Candy would still be a shoe and hat shop. Thankfully there are still ungentrified newsstands where you can buy a pack of Chuckles. But let’s find a way to protect Community Anchors. For if we don’t, as the folklorist Alan Lomax once put it, “Soon there where be nowhere to visit and no place to truly call home.” As for the gentrified candies, we’ll just swallow hard.

From a concept book by Bryn Pennetti (


The Gravedigger’s Tale

Poetry of Everyday Life, Blogpost 12

Born in Aiken South Carolina, raised in South Jamaica, Queens, Donnie Williams, a gravedigger, spent many long years digging his own grave.

“There was a time when I was actually looking at a death – my own,” he told me.

“When I was growing up, I was in the church – but I strayed.  I first started selling drugs when I was 13 – by 14 I started making real good money.  My grandmother would come and get me and we would go to church and then when I leave church I’d go back to doin’ what I was doin’ – and sometimes I would see my grandmother coming and just go hide so I wouldn’t have to go to church. Like my mother always says, ‘God has a way of bringing you down.’  At 15 I was doing really well. At 17, I ended up in the penitentiary.

Donnie William, Gravedigger

“They gave me 75 years to life – my mother, my grandmother and the church they worked on it and worked on it and after 2 and a half years, they got me out.

“When they finally got me out my grandmother said ‘you’re not going back to jail and you’re gonna get yourself a straight job’ My grandfather got me a job in 1980 in Beth David Cemetery. When I first started out I was just cutting grass with my grandfather. Yeah I used to walk by just to watch people dig the graves and I was wondering when it would be my turn one day –and sure enough one day I came in and a man handed me a shovel. I went in there digging like an old steam shovel.

“I started liking it so after 5 years I cut the drug dealing and stuck with the cemetery. Became honest. If you’re good at something it pays to be good at that – some people are good at writin’, some people good at photography. I was pretty decent at being a grave digger. I learned how to take a rounded spade shovel and make a square hole.“

But when my mother died and I lost my best friend I started drinking heavier and became an alcoholic, and then I became a functioning alcoholic, then I became a functioning fighting alcoholic.

Donnie Williams has mastered the art of digging a square hole with a rounded shovel.

“I used to get out there and tell the guy, ‘you don’t have to dig the grave, I’ll dig it.’  I’d go to the store and get me a six pack and I’d dig the grave 5 and half feet, a little deeper. Then I’d make a square hole down there, bury the six pack under the grave and go.

“But I knew I had to get my life together and in order to do that I had to go somewhere and find somebody and find peace in my life to make myself become who I used to be.  And that’s what happened. I checked myself into a clinic.

“I was in Odyssey Rehab and I was in there for about a year and a half going on- almost two years – and I was beating my own purpose – I was still going out drinking, tellin’ people no I’m not drinkin’, getting dirty urine but you know when I thought about it I thought it’s time to get yourself together – you came here for a reason – so I started stoppin’ little by little.

So one night I came to my room and the light was kind of dim. And there was this person sittin’ on my side of the bed—so I asked this guy, ‘you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’  He didn’t say nothin’ to me – so I said, maybe he’s sleepin’ – I said, ‘Excuse me, Sir, you’re in the wrong room – and if you don’t get out of here, I’m gonna whoop your ass.

He says to me, ‘hmmmm.’

I said, ‘Excuse me, you’re in the wrong room, Sir.’

He turned around and lifted up his head and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘No, I don’t know you. But you’re in the wrong room. If you don’t get up out my room there’s gonna be issues here.’

So the man looked at me, eyes red as fire and said, ‘You don’t know me?’

I said, ‘I don’t know you and don’t really give a damn.’

The man turned around and said, ‘I’m you.’

My head started spinning, really.   I had started thinking, and was thinking maybe he’s drunk.

He says, ‘I’m you.’

I said, ‘what do you mean, you’re me?’

He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you.’

‘The drunk in me?’

Couldn’t figure that one out either.

Then he told me, ‘you’re leaving me.’

I said, ‘leaving me?  If you don’t get out of my room, you right you’re gonna be leavin’ me.’

Then he turned around and told me the whole story.   He said, ‘I’m the drunk in you and you’re leavin’ me.’ And it was then I realized I had stopped drinkin’ for a whole year and I didn’t even know that God was with me then, without the bottle, without any medication. I was sober – and from that day to this day I haven’t seen that person since.

That’s a phenomenon I really would like to understand – but you know what? I ain’t in no rush to try to push it either.  I take it day by day and I let it go and if he show up again, maybe I can ask that question.”

“You know,” I said to Donnie, “you’re a great storyteller.”

“Never a storyteller.  I’m only telling you facts of what’s happened to me. Now I don’t know about anybody else. You asked me about me, and I can only tell you about me. And everything I tell you about me is the God’s Heaven truth. I’m telling you facts, not stories, there’s a difference. I don’t mind telling you because that’s part of what God put in my life.”

The grave digger’s tale is true. These are the facts.  To paraphrase the writer Virginia Woolf these are the creative facts; the fertile facts; the facts that suggest and engender.  I shared Donnie’s story with my friend, the poet and therapist, Marc Kaminsky.  “In Donnie’s story,” Marc said, “facts become images of transformation; they evoke the conversion experience through which the divided self becomes healed and whole through the intercession of grace.  His story belongs to the poetry of everyday life because he is thinking in images. Is the mysterious event in the room a hallucination or a revery or a visitation through the unconscious? The vision confirms that Donnie is leaving his drunken – his divided, dissociated – self behind; it is the revelation that leads to lifelong change.“

Donnie now has five successful children, and is gainfully employed as a grounds keeper in New York City, working with two wonderful women who “regrouped” him.  Long before he sat down with myself and filmmaker Heather Quinlan, Donnie testified to these storied facts of his life each Sunday at Peace Mission Church of Christ in Queens, elevating them to a revelation beyond storytelling, his poetic evocation rising up into the eaves, told before God and everyone – encouraging all of us to walk away from the dark side of ourselves.


“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.












Live from the POEMobile – Poems on Steam

Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #10

My friend and possibly distant cousin, Ariel Zeitlin, expressed the view of many of us when she quipped, “You may be living over a hot air grate, but at least you’re in New York.” I’ve always been fascinated with the steam that billows out from the underground in New York, on and around which many homeless souls have found some cold winter warmth. To me it suggests that the hallowed ground beneath our New York City footsteps is bubbling and gurgling like a witches’ caldron, an orgy of passion or the fires of hell – mirroring the teeming life of the city above.

But for Chris Jordan, who spends his time thinking and imagining and projecting light both from his luminous soul and the hi tech projectors he owns and thinks so much about, the steam from the streets was just another challenging surface to project upon.

And for our poetry team – Bob Holman and Sahar Muradi and myself –the intermingling of words, light and steam was away to express the fleeting evanescence of life.

Ride with us in the POEMobile and watch it now before the steam disappears into the ether.



“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.



Spring Burial

Spring Burial:

The Legend of the Service Tree


Poetry of Everyday Life Blogpost #9


Serviceberry tree in bloom, courtesy New York Botanical Garden

“We grew up thinking that if there wasn’t pavement under our feet, we were lost,” Marc Kaminsky said facetiously, as he sat with his longtime friend George Getzel, who lay dying in a hospital bed at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, talking about spring. They were two Bronx kids who morphed into two aging, brilliant intellectuals. They knew each other from their time at Hunter College School of Social Work in the ’70s. Struck by George’s tranquility in the face of mortality, Marc asked his friend, filmmaker Menacham Daum to videotape their conversation, and sent a copy to me.

In his better days, George told Marc, he’d loved to visit the New York Botanical Garden in all four seasons. Each time it would be a totally different world—the garden was a symbol of nature and birth and growth and decay.

“You discover this natural world,” Marc remarked. “You take this literal fact and use it as a symbol of immortal life.”

“I was especially close to the service tree,” George continued. “It’s an indigenous tree in northeast America. It’s a tree that’s barely a tree—it might be considered a bush—but it’s a tree. It actually fruits, it has a sweet little fruit that comes out of it when spring warms up, but it’s the first tree that blossoms in the woods. It has soft, large flower petals, light pinkish-white, and if you can reach out and smell it, the tree has the most delicate perfume—really beautiful. It only blooms when the earth around it is unfrozen.

Serviceberry tree blossom, courtesy of the New York Botanical Garden

“Our ancestors—at least the ones in North America—had a real problem when people died during the winter, because they couldn’t bury them; the ground was too hard. So what they did was wait till the service tree bloomed, and then they knew they could bury the dead because the ground was soft enough. Otherwise the bodies would have to be kept in coffins stacked in barns. That touched me deeply.

“So for the last few years, when I could still walk, I’d been trying to hit one of my holy places—the service tree. I would go into the Bronx botanical garden to walk on a trail through fifty acres of virgin forest that had never been cut, and there is the service tree, and I try—it has a life of flowering of, like, three days—so I always try to imagine, ‘Is the ground soft?’ ‘Will I make it?’ And sometimes I make it and sometimes I don’t, and the service tree’s spent flowers are on the ground, but I think that it is emblematic of my notion of immortality in life: a brief time, a beautiful fragrance, and then passing, disintegrating, falling to the ground, and renewal.”

Alone with his mortality in the hospital late one night, George spontaneously texted Marc some of his spiritual musings. Marc later lined the text out as a poem. It ended

Humankind calls out for compassion
For one’s self and then the other
The spent perfume of the petals
Of the service tree
Fall to the forest bottom
When earth loses its chill

“The last four lines” Marc told him, “sound like the poem that Zen priests wrote just before they died.” It was as if George were musing about an eternal spring, with ground soft enough to accept his body, a universe that still had a place for him even after his death.

George Getzel

“So here I am in bed, and I’m fading away, I’m losing weight, there are changes, and people visit me and they say, ‘I really want to go to the botanical gardens with you,’ and then a little sadness comes over me—’cause that’s not possible anymore.”

George was a faculty member at the Hunter College School of Social Work, now the Silberman School of Social Work for more than 30 years. As someone who avoided the limelight, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to walk in his footsteps. “If anything I do is truly worthwhile in my eyes or in the world’s eyes, I don’t want to be copied,” he said. “I just don’t want it—I’m me, you’re you. But I do want to inspire.”

And so as spring rolls around after a bitter winter, I was inspired to call the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and ask if they knew about the service tree. The Garden arranged for horticulturalist Jessica Schuler, Director of the Thain Family Forest, to meet my wife and me at the reflecting pool the next Saturday. We traveled into the woods she knew so well and we stood in front of the tree George had loved. Though it was the first beautiful day of spring, the service tree had just a tiny splash of pink on the buds. Perhaps the ground wasn’t yet soft enough to bury the dead.

Checking for blossoms on the serviceberry tree, photo by Amanda Dargan

I told Jessica about George, whom I never met, and his metaphorical interpretation of the service tree. Jessica told us the tree’s Latin name was Amelanchier arborea but that it had had a variety of common names and etymologies in early North America. Shadbush because it often grows in riparian forests at the edges of rivers where the shad run. It was also called “Juneberry,” because it often fruited in June. And it was called “serviceberry tree,” because it bloomed when the ground was no longer frozen and it was time to bury the dead and hold a service.

Back in the hospital room, Marc felt that the space around himself and George was getting greater and greater, and that on the other side of that space was death, but that the space of life was also looming larger. George continued to express his deep and thoughtful perspective on life in the face of imminent mortality, making connections between blossoming and withering, growth and decay. “I remember holding my wife’s hand when she was dying,” George told Marc, “and having a great sense of intimacy, the same as when I held my hand over her belly when she was pregnant. There’s this mixture. Even in the face of the grim realities of life that nauseate you and shatter your dreams, I’ve found—with difficulty—deeper meaning.

“We all hold down to something that we would hope would have permanence,” he continued. “Something that would lead us beyond our grave and have something of eternity tied to it. We discover that the idol—be it money, position, your own children, the neighborhood you live in—it’s not forever and it falls apart and isn’t what you thought it was when you were a young man. It becomes moth-eaten and dissipates, and then with that—and here is where I think the faith of an older person, the circumstance of an older person, is useful—it’s followed by new growth, new possibilities.”

George Getzel died on January 7, 2018. The serviceberry tree he loved so well will bloom again this spring.


“By showing us that poetry lives everywhere,” writes Bob Holman in the preface to Zeitlin’s new book, The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness, “Steve seems to make the whole world into a poem, with all of us collaborating daily in the writing of it.” If you like the blog, you’ll love the book. Click here to purchase.

Please email your thoughts, stories and responses about the poetic side of life to This monthly post continues to tap into the poetic side of what we often take for granted: the stories we tell, the people we love, the metaphors used by scientists, even our sex lives. I chronicle the poetic moments in life and also look at how we all use poetry in our daily lives. I am a folklorist, and I want to hear from you—because that’s where all the best material comes from. For more information about The Poetry of Everyday Life published by Cornell click here.


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