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Archive for the ‘Personal Essays’ Category

Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel. –Seth Godin

For the last few years I’ve been a huge fan of the Under Armour brand. There was something about their marketing, their spokespeople, their attitude, and the apparel itself that spoke to me.

I read news stories about how Stephen Curry, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and the face of the Under Armour brand, had been half-heartedly pitched by Nike—they mispronounced his name, which sounds like “Steph-in,” not “Steph-on”—before choosing Under Armour as his endorsement partner. And I ate it up.

I even read stories about how the company’s founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, started the company by selling sweat-wicking athletic t-shirts out of the trunk of his car. A true boot-strapper, an American success story, taking it to Nike. What was not to like?

I bought so much Under Armour gear you would have thought I owned stock in the company (which I do).

Fast forward a few years to last week, when a story broke about the CEO, Kevin Plank, and his comments as a new member of President Trump’s American Manufacturing Council. Plank told CNBC: “To have such a pro-business president is something that is a real asset for the country.”

That was, apparently, a mistake.

Plank has since faced backlash from Curry* not to mention two other big names under the Under Armour flag: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Misty Copeland. Under Armour eventually released a statement clarifying Plank’s and the company’s position, but the damage had been done. [EDIT: Since posting this on February 14, the story continues to evolve. Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank, took out a full-page ad in the Baltimore Sun on February 15 to write an open letter to Baltimore, where UA is headquartered, clarifying his previous statements about President Trump.]

*Curry said he agreed with Plank’s comments, if you take “asset” and “remove the -et.”

I started writing this piece a few times, including the day after Pennsylvania-based construction supplies retailer 84 Lumber aired a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration ad during the Super Bowl. Its CEO, Maggie Hardy Magerko, a Trump supporter, then came out and said the commercial wasn’t necessarily promulgating a pro-immigration message, so much as a vaguer, “that through struggles we will do anything we possibly can to make [the world] a better place for our children” message. In other words, 84 Lumber paid at least $10 million for a Super Bowl ad, the result of which is a lack of understanding of what it meant.

I could have written this piece even earlier, following the #DeleteUber movement in late January, when the on-demand taxi app caught flack by undermining a cab driver strike at JFK Airport in New York, in response to President Trump’s short-lived executive order on immigration (a.k.a the “Muslim ban”). Consumers were outraged that while cab drivers staged a work stoppage to draw attention to the ban, Uber was still sending its fleet to the airport—and charging higher rates, a.k.a. “surge pricing”—during the ban to capitalize on the lack of competition due to the strike. In response, hundreds of thousands of Uber’s (ex-)customers deleted the app from their phones.

When I heard about #DeleteUber, I rolled my eyes as I often do when I catch wind of this sort of slacktivism. Will it really make a difference?

Uber isn’t a publicly traded company, so we don’t know whether the company’s value took a hit (more on that later), but #DeleteUber certainly had a ripple effect:

  1. Uber’s biggest competitor, Lyft, smelled blood in the water and pledged to donate $1 million to the American Civil Liberties Union over the next four years. (The ACLU was in the news at that same time for its lawyers storming American airports to offer pro bono council to Muslims affected by the ban.)
  2. Uber set aside $3 million for a legal-defense fund to support drivers.
  3. Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, facing consumer and employee pressure, stepped down from President Trump’s economic advisory council.

So, did some silly slacktivism campaign actually move the needle in any significant way? Hell yes.

My friend Elliot has taken to calling this “commercial activism,” a.k.a. voting with your wallet. Perhaps the most prominent recent example is Nordstrom, which announced it would stop selling Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. (President Trump famously replied to this news via Twitter.)

Nordstrom said sales of the eponymous brand have plummeted over its past fiscal year, and that this was purely a business decision. If that’s true, and people are exercising commercial activism in response to a president whose beliefs and policies oppose their own, then we’re seeing something special here. And we should expect a lot more of it moving forward, regardless of who (or even which party) is in the White House.

Brands like Patagonia pride themselves on doing the right thing, particularly from an environmental perspective, by encouraging people to “buy less” of their clothing rather than wastefully replacing their coats after a few years when all then need are a few minor repairs. (I know this to be true from personal experience: I once brought in an old Patagonia coat to one of their retail locations to be repaired; instead, they offered to take my old coat and let me select a new one right off the rack.)

While it’s a unique and interesting time from a business perspective to think about how brands might align themselves politically to put themselves in the best possible positions financially, for me it raises lots of questions.

For example, would (or should) a left- or right-leaning CEO or brand intentionally manipulate its marketing messaging against its own core beliefs if they thought it would help them sell more widgets? If they did, is that unethical?

And circling back to my earlier example, should Kevin Plank’s (the Under Armour CEO) comments dictate whether I continue to buy Under Armour’s products if I don’t agree with Plank’s political views? What if Plank supports Trump, but his employees—including the spokespeople who came out against him—mostly don’t? Should I simply ignore the CEO’s comments, because by boycotting him I’m affecting his employees, who had nothing to do with those comments?

I’m not sure how I feel about Under Armour at the moment. As The Rock said in speaking out against Plank, “a good company is not solely defined by its CEO.” But do I want to put money in Kevin Plank’s pockets, knowing that he may use a tiny fraction of it to support a political candidate I don’t like? And if I decide to buy Nike, or Adidas instead, must I research those companies’ executives’ campaign contribution history? Or do I just stick my head in the sand and simply buy whichever products I like best, regardless of my (or the company’s) political leanings?

Regardless of how (or whether) I’ll personally take action moving forward, my takeaway from the last few weeks is this: brands absolutely care what consumers think of them, perhaps more now than at any point in history. Companies exist to make money, and if consumers decide—for whatever reason, political or otherwise—to stop giving them money, they will notice and they will react.

As the Seth Godin quote at the top of this post suggests, we as Americans don’t just vote in November. we vote with our money–and our social media, and our Google search history, and what we watch on TV–all day, every day. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make my votes count.

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We’ll Miss You, Jim

On Sunday, my 35th birthday, my step-grandfather, Jim, passed away at age 93.

I met Jim about 20 years ago, when my mother was dating Jim’s son and my stepdad, Tom. Jim and his late wife, Rose, were older than my biological grandparents. As is typical with blended families, we didn’t know what to call them, so we simply referred to them as Jim and Rose.

Over the years we would visit with Jim and Rose, going to their house on Long Island for holidays. Even when they became my ex-step-grandparents, I still made a point to stay in touch as much as I could with an occasional visit when I was in town, or a call to the house every so often. When Rose passed away a few years ago, my wife and I attended the wake.

Since his wife’s passing, Jim’s own health had begun to deteriorate. He had fought and won a battle with cancer two decades earlier, but now his body was breaking down though his mind stayed sharp.

Over the past year, I put reminders in my calendar to call him every few weeks to check in, to see what he was up to, what he was reading, how he was feeling. My wife and I would stop by for a visit when we could, and he was always appreciative when we did. On one of my visits, when he was still feeling well enough to move around the kitchen, he made me lunch—chicken soup.

Despite what I can only imagine was heartbreaking frustration at not being able to use his body to do much of anything, he didn’t let his brain quit. He devoured the New York Times every day, listened to books on tape with an old school tape player at his side, read long biographies, and listened to music.

Once he mentioned that he had read about all the excitement the then-new musical Hamilton was generating on Broadway, and that he was curious about it—though not sure he’d like the show’s hip-hop score. A few days later I sent him the original cast recording.

Given the speed of the singing and rapping—especially the character who rapped in double-time with a French accent—I wasn’t sure Jim would get past the first few songs before setting it aside. But when I called him a few days later, he told me he had listened to it twice.

He admitted that the music was not exactly his cup of tea, but that he did his best to follow along using the CD’s printed liner notes. That just blew me away. That he would even listen to Hamilton (twice), no less read the tiny-print lyrics, told me a lot about Jim’s thirst for knowledge. Just because he didn’t have the energy to leave the house, take a train into Manhattan to see the show on Broadway, didn’t mean he wasn’t going to at least see what all the fuss was about if he had the capability to do so from his living room.

In the past few months his health took a turn for the worse. I didn’t get the full details—I could have, but didn’t feel the need to pry—but it seemed that as hard as he battled he wasn’t going to win this time. Still, he persisted. On several occasions I thought I would be speaking to him on the phone for the last time. On some calls, I got the sense he thought that, too, especially when he would effusively thank me for calling him so often.

In the last months I began to call more frequently. His daily routine of taking midday walks had been all but curtailed; he spent a lot of time at home sitting, doing some light physical therapy in the house when he had the energy. I figured he was bored, so I called. Sometimes he was too tired to chat and only stayed on the phone a few minutes. Usually I could tell his energy level by how well I could hear him. In the past few weeks, despite some complaints about physical weakness and pain, he sounded as good as he’d sounded to me in years. In one of our most recent conversations, Jim told me he had just finished a biography about the Wright brothers (on his iPad), and suggested I check it out.

This past Thursday, I called Jim to firm up plans for my wife and I to come out to Long Island and see him on my next visit to New York a week later. He jokingly said, “Um, let me check my calendar. Let’s see, Saturday. Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing. Yeah sure, you can come by on Saturday.”

I wasn’t planning to call Jim this week because I knew I’d see him in a few days. I went on with my day and week, celebrating my 35th birthday over the weekend. I even received a card from Jim in the mail.

On Sunday night, while returning some birthday calls I’d missed during the day, I spoke with my stepdad, Tom, who told me that Jim had passed away earlier that day. He had been in some pain and the family made the decision to move him to a hospice facility, where he passed away peacefully.

Jim told me stories about his childhood, growing up on a farm, and about his time after the war when he and Rose moved to Virginia for a few years, not far from where I live now. He told me stories about taking his station wagon full of kids across the country to camp in national parks. About how with the help of doctors and medication and meditative gardening in his backyard, how he beat cancer.

If you met him just once, you would say Jim was a nice man. He was also a World War II veteran, a teacher, a gardener, a cancer survivor, a husband and father of four, a grandfather and step-grandfather. And he was my friend.

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By Danny Calise

As my boss, Antony, spoke toothlessly through his beard while lighting an already-lit cigarette, I looked around at the empty beer cans and various pieces of trash surrounding me in the 75 square foot office/bedroom of the pedicab shop where I had been working and thought to myself, “How did I get here?” Originally, I had envisioned pedicabbing to be a healthy gig where I got to spend time outdoors and meet all kinds of people. It would be hip, profitable, even glamorous. Well, some of that was true.

* * *

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a pedicabber in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest (SXSW)?

Well, I’ll tell you from first hand experience: you wouldn’t hack it. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but much like the persistence and determination it takes to run a marathon, SXSW pedicabbing is as much of a mental feat as it is a physical one.

What exactly is a pedicab? you might be thinking. Well, a pedicab can take two forms: either a full bicycle with a trailer attached to the back with seating for 2-3 people, or a tricycle, which rides like a bicycle and has a front wheel and two wheels underneath the passenger seats in back. Pedicabs thrive in urban areas where points of interest are just beyond reasonable walking distance and streets are flat enough for the pedicab drivers to not have to work too hard to get riders from point A to point B.

Pedicab drivers, or Pedicabbers, can rent the cabs for a nightly fee of around $35 on Fridays and Saturdays or monthly for rates of around $325 to have free rein to take the cab out any time that month. Why not just buy a pedicab outright so you can collect all money and not owe anyone? Well, the benefits of renting the cab from a pedicab company are that they handle all cab maintenance, they possess the proper insurance and business license to handle any potential claims, and, quite frankly, pedicabbing isn’t a sustainable form of income, so the average rider doesn’t want to be invested in it for more than a few months.

* * *

A high school teacher by day, I sought a part-time weekend job where I would be rewarded for working quickly and efficiently. Pedicabbing seemed to fit the bill. From the moment I interviewed for the pedicabbing job at **** **** in Austin in January, 2016, there was talk of a massive gathering of the pedicabbers in March. It was the Super Bowl of Austin pedicabbing. This epic 9-day affair was known, to some, as South by Southwest. To pedicabbers, though, it meant hard work. I was told when I took the job that my body would surely give out physically at some point during the music, film and tech festival. That I’d be pedicabbing day and night, with people in constant demand of a speedy ride. Veteran pedicabbers shared forgettable lore and half-stories about times they…really needed a break, or spent upwards of nine dollars on a meal during South-by because they were just THAT hungry. “Whatever,” I thought to myself, nodding with polite faux-awe on my face as they spoke.

The weeks building up to South-by, I “got my legs,” so to speak, building up the stamina and strength to be able to pedicab straight through the 9-day festival. I went out on Friday and Saturday evenings, starting at around 9 PM and staying out until 2 AM. My cab was bare bones: I didn’t have any music-playing capabilities, nor did I have a blanket to shield riders from the cold weather. What I did have was conversation–I walked the fine line between funny/charming and intrusive/annoying, and what I learned in these weeks was that riders are 99% nice and understanding, and mostly just curious about what it’s like to ride a pedicab.

As someone with a short fuse when it comes to verbal altercations, it was easy to let myself be angered by smart-alec responses to my pedicabbing pitch. I’d shout out, “Hey guys, would you like a ride?” And a man walking with a woman would grab his thigh as he was walking and say, “Not while I’ve got these,” referring to his legs. The woman would make an embarrassed face, I would ride away silently, later thinking of all the comebacks I should have used on him. “You won’t have those for long if you keep wasting them on walking, buddy!”  The truth was there was nothing I could say. If someone didn’t want a ride, there was no reason to waste energy on a comeback, especially if I couldn’t think of a clever one.

* * *

I got the feeling that the pedicab company I worked for was past its heyday. The owner, Antony, a 28 year old toothless man appeared to be one step above homeless. Or, really it seemed like he just slept at the shop. For my first night of training, his excuse for being late was that his ride to the shop took too long, which didn’t make sense to me because he was apparently a business owner. But regardless, I didn’t question his lack of car ownership. I explored the shop, which was located in a bad neighborhood on the East Side of Austin, behind a train station where homeless men could be seen urinating before one’s very eyes. Inside the shop’s gate, there was a garage that could have fit four cars, but instead held 8 upright pedicabs and had many tools sprawled across the floor and various workbenches. Towards the back of the garage was a room with two floor mats, an acoustic guitar, dozens of empty beer bottles and cans and trash everywhere. That was presumably where some pedicabbers or just homeless people stayed nightly. Outside the garage around the back was a space for storage of more cabs and a workstation where the owner did some welding for some extra cash on the side. Even farther back was a shack where the shop’s resident artist lived and sometimes created art.

Once the tour of the shop was over, the owner invited me into his “office,” a room beside the garage towards the front of the shop. Inside was more of the same: beer cans everywhere, some empty, some half full, cigarette butts as far as the eye can see, and a bunk bed with trash on the top bunk and a dirty bedspread on the bottom. All of this was in a space of 75 square feet.

The owner himself, Antony, was a manic dude. He was a businessman, first and foremost, but had a soft spot for people in need, hence all of the opportunities for people to sleep at the shop. Throughout every conversation I’ve ever had with him, he would chainsmoke cigarettes, continually lighting the already lit cigarettes seemingly because he enjoyed the lighting process. When he needed to hold a document and a pen, he would put the lit cigarette in his ear for additional storage. Mid-conversation in the office, he would gently lift one of many beer cans and ask me, “Is this the beer I just brought in here?” and of course, I didn’t know or care. It didn’t bother him, though, and he sipped away.

How this man came to own this shop and all of the pedicabs therein is still something of a mystery to me. Essentially, I think he was just in the right place at the right time and took over for someone else. What I observed was that he certainly didn’t appear to me making any money off of the company, but enjoyed being in charge and made just enough to keep the shop afloat and the cigarettes burning. He alluded to a time in the future when he would have the money to open up a local boxing gym in the neighborhood.

He was a chronic story repeater. The first night I met him, he told me all about the benefits of becoming a “monthly rider” (renting the pedicabs from him on a monthly basis): that he would present me with better riding opportunities, that my cab would always be available, and that the South-by rates would be half-price for monthly riders. Several times after this he would give me the same pitch, even after I had already agreed to become monthly. I grew to hate interacting with him. Not only was he verbose, and always talking about things I cared nothing for, but he possessed a trait that I despised in someone: lack of appreciation for someone else’s time. One time after a South-by shift, he talked my ear off for over an hour, with his eyes half open (I suspected that night that he might be on drugs of some kind, but upon reflection I concluded that he was just insane), about how it would be great for the shop if I could make a run with my car to a used video game store and pick up a few games as well as wires in order for the guys to be able to play a four player game of Mario Kart the next day. He had me write down all of the items that I was to buy, and finally, at 3 AM, he let me go home. I threw the paper with the items away immediately, and cursed the day I ever agreed to work for this man. But after all of our long “talks” (he talked, I nodded), I realized that he was just a lonely man who had so much to say and no one to listen to him. Perhaps this was the case with many veteran pedicabbers.

Every night of South-by when I would return the cab to the shop, I was forced to meet with him one on one to hand him my nightly lease ($35), and listen to whatever he had to say that night. He would be constantly lighting his cigarette, touching his beard and face, tugging on his beltless pants and grossing me out to no end. Then he’d approach a group of pedicabbers sat on a bench outside the garage and shout an obligatory joke that they’d all laugh at out of respect. Yes, the heyday of the shop, if ever there was one, was long gone.

Before South-by, he had described a ritual gathering at the shop that took place the night before South-by started. Pedicabbers and friends of the shop would gather around a fire and burn a dollar in sacrifice to the gods of weather, as well as eat pizza in order to carbo-load in preparation for the great journeys ahead. I ended up sleeping through this ritual and didn’t hear any mention of it around the shop afterwards. It seemed more for Owner’s benefit than ours.

After South-by finished, the owner described an epic annual party that the shop threw. He’d get a great local band to play, and everyone from the neighborhood (did I mention who lived around this neighborhood?) would come together and party down. Impromptu boxing matches would occur, people would climb to the top of the garage, and all types of debauchery would take place. I didn’t attend this event. They held it on the Tuesday after South-by and didn’t get the word out until 10 PM Tuesday night. I asked a fellow pedicabber about this party a few days later and he told me that it was quite tame compared to previous years’ parties. “No one boxed,” he remarked.

* * *

The owner talked a lot about pedicabbing, while admitting at times that he hadn’t done it himself consistently in months. I learned that his advice was not useful because he was officially out of the pedicabbing game. Whatever he knew or had known about pedicabbing was no longer relevant.

On the fourth night of South-by, I had rolled by the shop around 9 PM to take a little break, charge my phone, have some dinner and gather my strength for the night ahead. Knowing that I was one of the few pedicabbers on whom he could rely, he entrusted me with the task of training his roommate, who had just been fired from his job due to his refusal to take a drug test. This was an enormous request on the owner’s part because South-by is the most profitable time of year, and training a new person would ensure a pedicabber that he wouldn’t make a dime for at least an hour. And knowing how much the owner loved talking, I knew that he would flap his toothless gums for a while before he’d let us go. A stingy businessman, he asked how much I’d like to be compensated for the hour and a half that I’d train his roommate. I thought about it, and determined that, in that time, I would make at least 50 bucks. So I told him that’s what I wanted. He sure didn’t trust that amount. He said, “Really? Because typically this night of South-by is pretty slow. The music hasn’t started and tech is just ending.” Utterly frustrated by this guy, I said, “You asked what I thought so I told you.” “Okay, how about this: If you’re out there and it looks decently busy, like you’d be missing out on rides, I’ll pay you $50. Otherwise, I’ll give you $30.” Knowing that I would be the one to tell him whether or not it looked busy, I agreed. He never stepped foot out of the shop so there was no danger in him seeing for himself.

So I trained his roommate, a nice guy with a decent work ethic. And in the end, I took him to a line on Brazos St. where we both lined up and eventually both got rides. I had impressed upon his roommate that the night looked busy, and that later, when the owner asked him, which I knew he would, how it looked out there tonight, he should say it was busy. When I returned to the shop that night, I reported to the owner that it sure was busy out there and that I expected to be paid $50. He skeptically looked me up and down, to read whether or not I was lying to him. “Really? Let’s ask around and see how it was. What time were you training?” “10-11.” He approached the bench where six or seven pedicabbers sat drinking and smoking cigarettes. “Hey how was it out there around 10-11 tonight?” They thought for a moment. It was currently 3 AM. No one had a good idea of what it was like that far back. They looked puzzled. “Uh, it was okay out there, not too crazy.” One pessimistic rider who I usually avoided talking to responded, “It was dead out there for me.” And the owner turned to look at me, convinced that he had correctly smelled a rat. My face didn’t change. “I could have picked up three rides in that time. I don’t know what you want me to say.” Then one of the pedicabbers shouted out, “Isn’t that when ACL Live let out?” And the pirate-like pedicabbers’ table all agreed. The owner conceded, “Okay, okay, that’s a big venue. You would have gotten some rides from that.” I hated him so much. But the cheap bastard walked into the office, walked out and handed me $50.

* * *

A typical night of pedicabbing during South-by might look like this:

5:00 PM – Report to pedicab shop to pick up cab. Check to make sure you have all of your essentials: a Square credit card swiper, a blanket in case riders get cold, a bike tire pump, a spare tire, an external phone charger, at least one bottle of water, food consisting of bars and fruit, and business cards with your name on them.

5:15 PM – Depart the shop and head for East 6th street, home of the Fader Fort and Spotify House. This means that big crowds will be milling around these two music showcase locations. Many people park around I-35 and walk to the shows. Depending on how hot it is (or how lazy people are feeling), this means that a group of two to three people might be looking for a lift for the half-mile uphill distance. Ride around East 6th for 10-15 minutes and if nothing’s doing, head west to the Convention Center.

6:00 PM – The next hour or two will be spent riding up and down Trinity Street, raising my hand and looking for groups of two or three that look like they don’t know where they’re going. During the music part of the festival, they might look like young hip hop artists or messy-haired British rock n’ rollers. Every musician must come through the Convention Center to pick up their badges, so a ton of people are constantly walking in and out. Riding beside the main doors of the Convention Center on the bicycles-only path, I was grateful every time someone opened the door and I got a whiff of powerful indoor air conditioning.

Bizarre protests were witnessed here. One where a group of people ages 8 to 68 were protesting against Netflix. Their signs read “Give us our movies back,” and their shouted slogans included, “What do we want? Movies. When do we want them? Now.” I gathered that they were of the belief that Netflix was somehow taking their movies away from them. Their protest lasted an hour and the constant foot traffic resumed unaffected. I wondered what the debriefing meeting of this protest consisted of. “I think we made our point.” And they all cheers their Blockbuster brand microwave popcorns.

Another protest was a group of punk rock types with tough looking dogs in tow who were protesting against gentrification…in general. They didn’t appear to have any goals other than to shout as loud as they could. Evidently, they measured their success based on the old protesting rubric, “If you change just one person’s mind, you’ve been successful.” I didn’t witness anyone volunteering to join their ranks.

8:00 PM – People are officially out drinking now. This means that people need rides to and from the nightlife hotspots: Rainey Street and the Dirty 6th.

On a typical Friday or Saturday night in Austin, the Dirty 6th (a stretch of East 6th Street that runs from I-35 to Congress Ave.) is the place to be for partygoers. It is notorious for its wild and crazy atmosphere, and its pedestrian-only walkway similar to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. For pedicabbers, the Dirty 6th is a great spot to pick people up, except that police block off certain streets and only allow us to line up on certain others. On ordinary Friday and Saturday nights, pedicabbers are permitted to line up on either side of Neches and Brazos Streets, and on one side of San Jacinto Blvd. and Trinity Street, while also being able to ride up and down Red River St., a popular route connecting Rainey St. and the Dirth 6th. During the 9 days of South-by, however, pedicabbers were limited to only Brazos and Sabine Streets.

On my first day of South-by, I wasn’t aware of these limitations, and I optimistically rode north on Red River up to 6th and was greeted by a police officer. Having been a pedicabber for two months previously to South-by, I learned through word of mouth and from my own experiences that the cops were not on our side. They loathed us due to our lack of regard for their ever-changing and ever-specific laws. They weren’t even the ones who might write us a ticket for not having a proper pedicabbing license or the right type of blinking lights on the backs of our cabs, that was reserved for special transportation officers. Instead, their role was to forcefully yell at us, and their frustrations were amplified by the fact that pedicabbers, too, were ever-changing. So every time they yelled at a pedicabber, there was no assurance that that pedicabber would spread the word amongst his co-workers because there are over 10 pedicab companies in downtown Austin, and missing among popular topics of conversation between us was the new and exciting restrictions now enforced by the cops. The fact was, we were arch nemeses my nature. All we wanted was to bend the very laws that they lived to uphold. So when I strolled up Red River and saw a brigade of 5 cops sitting in a golf cart next to a road blockade, I wasn’t surprised to get an exasperated reaction from their leader. He shouted angrily, “I already told you guys, you can only go on Sabine and Brazos.” I shrugged my shoulders non-communicatively, for, who were the “you guys” he was referring to? All pedicabbers? If so, I had not gotten the memo. I cursed said officer under my breath and rode down to Sabine to see if my kind were welcome there. We were.

Now, pedicabbers, for the most part, follow an unwritten code of rules among ourselves. Obviously laws like “Don’t ride on the sidewalk.” or “Don’t ride the wrong way on a one-way street.” are broken at the pedicabber’s discretion. But when it comes to breaking rules against one another, these rules are strictly followed and can be punishable in any number of ways such as a group of pedicabbers blocking you in or simply just kicking your ass if you cross the wrong pedicabber.

The foremost example of an unwritten pedicabber’s rule is that of snaking, a loathesome practice that involves a pedicabber stepping in front of a line of pedicabbers and stealing away their rider without regard to the established line for that area. Snaking also includes taking a ride when you are at the back of a line. The accepted practice if you are not first in line (some lines can have up to 20 pedicabbers on them) and a potential customer approaches you is to cease negotiating with that customer immediately and point him.her to the front of the line so that he/she may hire the first pedicabber in line. One can also shout audibly, “First up!” so that the first pedicabber in line can move towards the potential customer to expedite the process. During South-by, however, the rule of law is weakened and the new stance on snaking becomes “monkey see, monkey do.”

11:00 PM to 2:00 AM – On Rainey St., the pedicab lines grew long because pedicabbers weren’t allowed to ride through the street and must wait at the edge of the line of bars for potential customers. It’s a kick in the gut to optimistically ride up the hill to Rainey St., only to find a line of pedicabbers 20 cabs long. Don’t get me wrong, there are times when a break is needed and joining a line is a smart play. When you’re ready for dinner, it makes sense to join a line, ask the pedicabber behind you to look after your cab and jet over to a food truck to get some fuel, all the while building up to a guaranteed ride when you reach the front of the line. But when you’re full of energy and ready to ride, all thoughts of obeying laws and the right thing to do go out the window. If a couple comes up to you asking how much it would be for a ride to the Dirty 6th, you tell them 20 bucks and hurriedly usher them into your cab, first in line or not. This form of snaking became a reality during South-by, and by the second day, it was common practice. If people wanted a ride, you gave it to them.

But not all pedicabbers subscribed to the “monkey see, monkey do” logic of snaking. On 6th and Sabine, the line wasn’t 20 pedicabbers long, but rather 8 or 9. Each time “First up!” was called and the first pedicabber in line got a ride, we’d all have to re-maneuver our cabs so that we’d be closer to the front. By the time midnight rolled around, thousands of people were milling about around the cab line and people were hiring cabs left and right. I was fifth in line when three partygoers approached me asking if I can take them to Rainey St. This was a no-brainer. I told them to hop in. The pedicabber in front of me had a more traditional mindset. When he saw the trio about to hop into my cab, the older pedicabber shouted out “First up!,” and moved his head chicken-like, wondering if anyone else was watching me snake this ride. He asked me nervously as the trio sat down in my cab, “Are you part of this line or…,” and I just ignored him, only interacting with the customers. He continued to freak out, and I simply smiled at the customers, asking if they were ready to depart. They were, and we were off. Yet another successful snake.

2:00 AM to 3:00 AM – Power hour. All bars close at 2 AM, which means that every patron leaves the bars and needs a way to get back to their hotels or their cars. Sure, there is competition from Uber and Lyft, but pedicabbers can navigate through traffic legally and illegally, using bike lanes and riding on the opposite side of the double yellow lines. So we got plenty of business. On Rainey, the once long lines are non-existent. As quickly as you can ride up to the end of Rainey St., you can nab a duo or trio and take them to the East Side to their cars or to the JW Marriot downtown, or similar hotels. If you had the stamina to make it to this hour, you are rewarded with consistent rides back to back. I must admit that I didn’t make it to Power Hour every night, but when I did, my adrenaline carried me through to 3 AM.

3:00 AM to 4:00 AM – All pedicabbers ride back to their respective shops down East 4th street. I passed 4th and Attayac, a corner which houses four pedicab shops and where upwards of 15 cabs would be parked outside just chilling as their drivers sat around drinking beers and enjoying a well-earned break. I pull into the shop and park my cab. I pay my nightly lease to the owner and drag myself to my car, knowing that I’m in for the same tiring experience the next day. When I get home, I total up the day’s wages and add them to a post-it on my tv stand. I take a brief shower, dry my hair the best I can, stretch my legs while I brush my teeth and fall face first into my bed. I will wake up eight hours later with my legs feeling like Jell-O.

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In February 2005 I started at my first post-college job at Petry Media Corporation in Manhattan. The sole perk of this position, besides being gainfully employed, was the company softball team.

An athletic guy who played sports all his life, I thought I’d automatically be given a spot on the team. (What an entitled millennial I was!)

Instead, the manager and starting pitcher for the team, Marty, explained that the team was highly competitive, dating back to the 1970s, and that if I wanted a spot on the team I’d have to try out for it.

When the season started a few months later, I was given an opportunity to get into a game and show Marty that I could play. I barely passed my audition, managing four infield singles and solid defense in the field. But Marty was impressed with my speed and glove, so I had earned my spot.

After that tryout, I started on Petry’s team for 11 consecutive seasons until I recently moved from the New York area to just outside of Washington D.C.

Now, I find myself, at 34, trying out again, this time for the local softball league. There’s no such thing as a résumé or references when it comes to joining a softball league. I can regale the head of the league with stories about how I once hit four home runs in a game (leaving out the part where I committed seven errors at shortstop in the same game), or how I hold virtually every team record for the Petry Pilots (again, including most errors in a single game), or how my lifetime batting average is around .450.

But none of that matters. I’m starting from scratch. I’m just some not-that-young guy who is looking to keep the last of his competitive fire alive, meet some good people and make some friends in the process, and maybe have some fun and win some games, too.

After asking too many questions for the league commissioner, he eventually informed me that there would be an open tryout on March 12 at noon at the local field for “free agents” (i.e. prospective players without a team) like myself, and that I had the opportunity to showcase my talent (if I had any) to any of the team captains and coaches who chose to attend the tryout. If they liked what they saw they could select me from the free agent pool and add me to their rosters.

I hadn’t had to try out for a team since 2005* so I didn’t really know what to make of the situation. I had to put my feelings of entitlement and indignation aside and focus on showing these guys what I had to offer to their teams. (I also had to get used to the fact that despite my improved play at shortstop—that seven-error game was years ago, so lay off!—there was no guaranteed I’d get to play my favorite position.)

*I’ve interviewed for many jobs since 2005, which were all effectively tryouts to some degree. But sports feels a little different.

And so I went out and gave it my best without being too flashy. My defense was solid, though I didn’t get much of a chance to show off my arm. My hitting was passable for not having hit a softball since last August. All in all I gave them enough to judge me as a guy who could add value to most softball teams.

During the warm-ups, the scrimmage game that followed, and after we ended the official tryout, several coaches approached me to ask me what night I was interested in playing on (each league was assigned a night, much like the Petry Pilots had all their games on Tuesdays since, I think, the beginning of time), as well as what position I was interested in playing (and which other positions besides shortstop I would be open to). They also told me about their own teams, trying to put their own best feet forward. “We won our league last year,” or “We’re a fun group of guys,” or “Do you like burgers and beer? We’re partially sponsored by a local pub.”

I played tennis in college but had walked onto the team without being recruited by any schools, and so this feeling of someone actively pursuing me based on my athletic ability was new. None of them offered me a sports car or illicit cash in an envelope, but they were certainly jockeying with each other for the best possible players for their roster. And by the time I left I had given my contact info to four different team captains. (When I left I said, “Okay, well that’s enough speed dating for me!” No one laughed.)

Though a full-time position as shortstop is not guaranteed on any of their teams—just like I had on Marty’s team, I’d have to earn my position—I ultimately decided to play for Frank, a retired military guy I met during warmups who reminded me a lot of Marty, my former coach.

Frank has a first-place caliber team who lost a few guys during the off-season and is looking to reload his roster. He brought one of his teammates to the tryout, who hit a couple of home runs during batting practice, so it was clear they had at least one guy who could swing the bat.

The first game will be in a few weeks, and that’s really when my tryout begins. Will I be able to secure playing time on Frank’s team throughout the season, and prove him right in selecting me for his roster? (I use “select” loosely as he group emailed me and four other guys after the tryout about joining his team.)

Maybe Frank’s team will be a bust, or maybe I’ll play 11 seasons for him. Either way it’s a fresh start in a new place, and I’m thrilled for the opportunity to be playing competitive softball again.

I should only hope the tennis team tryout I have next week goes so well…

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This blog post comes from my mom, Joanne Kelleher, as she recalls a #christmasmiracle from 30 years ago. It’s a great read, especially this time of year. Enjoy.

Gratitude is currently enjoying its day in the sun. Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines are sprinkled with #gratefuls and #gratitudes, and the happiness experts advise you to keep a gratitude journal if you want to live a happier life. This particular happiness hack is not new, it’s just become popular to publicly proclaim your gratitude. Most of us have always carried with us moments of grace that we call to mind for a burst of joy, or comfort, or encouragement, and they have been inspiring gratitude in us before there were hashtags to label them. As Christmas approaches, I remember back to such a moment that redeemed a difficult holiday season thirty years ago.

My little boy Bobby was three and he and I were living with my twin brothers in their 2-bedroom apartment in Bayside, Queens. My husband and I had separated, and my brothers had been kind enough to take us in until I could save up some money to rent an apartment. They were two single guys in their mid-20’s, not used to having an active little kid around, so I tried to keep Bobby quiet and out of their way when they were home so as not to wear out our welcome. Usually, we slept in the living room, but sometimes one of my brothers stayed at his girlfriend’s apartment, and on those nights we got to sleep in his bed.  That was always a treat, especially if it was a Thursday night and I could catch up with Knot’s Landing on the television in his room.

During that time, I worked in a warehouse answering phones for a company that rented out televisions and VCRs on a monthly basis. It was my job to let customers know the window for their delivery, pick-up, or service call. I also handled customer complaints, which could be pretty frequent because when stock was low, they rented out equipment that was not up to the usual standard. It wasn’t a great job, but it provided a small income while I tried to get my life back on track. I had become friendly with the other girl who worked there and we were planning to rent an apartment together.

Aside from the everyday stress of trying to get my life together, the added expectations and expense of the holidays were weighing on my mind. I had a few items on lay-away for Bobby, but there were always holiday-related purchases to make and errands to run. With the Christmas countdown accelerating, I decided to squeeze in a lunchtime dash to my go-to neighborhood for bargain shopping. I knew that parking wouldn’t be easy in that congested area, especially at this time of year, but I had to get my shopping done. As I reached the heart of the shopping center, I saw a prime parking spot right on the main street. What a lucky break! I pulled up in front of it preparing to back into it, but before I could back up, a car snuck up behind me and pulled into the spot front first. What?! Are you kidding, guy!? I flung the car door open and stormed back to address the other driver – That is MY spot!  He said, “I’m not moving.”

That was pretty much the end of the conversation and the end of my reserves. It wasn’t just the fact that he wasn’t moving, but the way that he dismissed me, like I wasn’t even worth the argument, that deflated me. I couldn’t muster up more yelling but I couldn’t move either. I stood there frozen in place, hand on hip, the recent months of failure and worry flooding through me and pooling at my eyes in tears that threatened to spill over. Suddenly, I heard a voice from somewhere above my right shoulder. I looked up from the spot-stealer to see a police officer sitting on a horse.

Officer: What’s the problem?

Me: He took my spot.

Officer (to spot-stealer): Get out of the spot.

As simple as that.

All of this had taken place under the el (the elevated train tracks), which obscured the midday sun, but a few blocks beyond us, the el ended and the sun shone brightly. When I looked up at the officer to thank him, he was backlit by sunlight; it looked as though he was glowing. And just then, it began to snow – flurries, the kind that swirl around you like the last flakes settling in a snow globe. The only thing missing was a choir of angels singing. I stood transfixed in the magic of it all, then headed back to my car to claim my parking spot.

I have never forgotten that moment.

On the day of the hero police officer, I couldn’t know that things would get worse before they got better, that my father would die alone in his apartment on Christmas Day, or that the friend who had agreed to rent an apartment with me would back out and leave me with a rent that I couldn’t cover. On that day I only knew that for the first time in a long time, I felt hopeful. It was my own tiny Christmas miracle.

Moments of grace don’t always appear as a literal knight in shining armor riding in on a horse illuminated by rays of sunlight in a swirl of gently falling snow, serving justice. Yes, sometimes these moments are huge, like getting the call that your son is in the clear after a months-long medical scare he’d been dealing with. But there’s also grace to be found in the things that we take for granted – having enough to eat, a roof over our heads, our friends and family, even just a quiet moment with your cats purring on your lap.

Catch these moments when you can, and savor them.

Merry Christmas!

#gratitude #grateful

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In the early 1980s my mother, then in her early twenties, was working as a secretary at Blue Cross & Blue Shield. While there she befriended a co-worker, an African-American woman named Bennye, whose husband and son shared the same name: Bobby. My mother got a kick out of it when Bennye would talk about her two Bobbys, big and little, in her thick southern accent. “BAH-bay,” she’d say, “an’ BAH-bay JUNE-ya.” So when my mom became pregnant with me in 1981, she decided I’d be a Bobby, too.

She had to sell my father on the name, which didn’t take much. “What about ‘Bobby Raymond’ for a boy?” my mother asked him, tacking on the middle name for her grandfather, who had recently passed away.

“Hmmm,” my dad pondered, “Bobby Ray…like Bobby Ray Murcer,” a popular outfielder on the Yankees at the time. “Yeah, that works.” I imagine him deciding this as casually as he might have decided between a hot dog or a hamburger at a barbecue.

When it came time to make it official on my zero-th birthday, my parents chose to put “Bobby,” not “Robert,” on my birth certificate. Like my namesake, an Okie whose legal name was actually Bobby Ray Murcer, I too, was just Bobby.

Years later I asked my mother whether she had ever considered that someday I’d be a full-grown man named Bobby—i.e. a full-grown man without the benefit of being able to switch back and forth between Bobby, among friends, and Robert, in professional situations or on legal documents.

“Back then my world was so small,” she told me. She hadn’t really thought about her life, or mine, that far in the future. I can’t fault her for that…right?

Yet when my brother was born four years later, my parents were four years older and ostensibly four years more mature. They put “Daniel Joseph” on his birth certificate. I guess there was no Yankee named “Danny Joe.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that name,” computer programmer Michael Bolton’s co-worker reassures him in the 1998 movie Office Space.

“There was nothing wrong with that name until I was about 12 years old and that no-talent [1990s adult contemporary singer Michael Bolton] got famous and started winning Grammys.”

Having a pop culture reference point for their name might be a good thing for some people, but it never did much for me growing up. I’d get “Bobby’s World” (the popular ‘90s cartoon show about a little boy named Bobby, voiced by Howie Mandel), or “Bobby Boucher” (Adam Sandler’s mush-mouthed lead in The Waterboy), but none was particularly original. Needless to say my peers never made the connection on their own that I was named for the Bobby Murcer.

More recently, though, the popularity of the TV adaptation of the Game of Thrones books ended up working to my advantage. As people became acquainted with the show’s most popular character, Daenerys Targaryen, a.k.a. Mother of Dragons, a.k.a. Khaleesi (wife of the king, or “Khal”)—which is coincidentally pronounced on the show exactly like my last name, ca-LEE-see—I no longer had to accept common mispronunciations like “ca-LEES,” or worse yet, “Carlisle.” I simply mentioned the show and they immediately got it.

In fact at an airport about a year ago, I walked up to a kiosk to pay for a shuttle bus back to my hotel. When the young woman working there asked for my last name, I gave it. She stopped writing and looked up, shyly. “Um…have you seen Game of Thrones?” I smiled knowingly and told her I had.

The GoT effect has extended to my wife, who changed her name after we got married and sent out a companywide email notifying her coworkers. “It’s pronounced like Game of Thrones,” she wrote in the note.

A few moments later she got an email back from someone at the company she had only spoken with a handful of times. “So, how many dragons do you have?”

When I was in grade school, being called Robert instead of Bobby made me furious—especially when it was over the loudspeaker to summon me to the main office. I’d angrily march down the linoleum halls and storm into the office.

Not bothering to ask why I’d been called to the office in the first place, I’d explain to anyone within earshot that MY NAME IS JUST BOBBY, NOT ROBERT. Usually the offending secretary would halfheartedly apologize, then go right ahead and call me Robert the next time.

Loudspeaker snafus aside, I liked school. I liked it so much, in fact, that I had perfect attendance from first grade through my senior year of high school. It’s not that I was never sick, just never sick enough to miss school. (As my mom, a single parent by then, would say: “School for you guys was half education, half free babysitting.”)

None of my high school friends were particularly impressed with this feat. “You never missed a day of school?” they’d ask. “Why not?” Still, at the time I felt my Cal Ripken-like attendance streak was something unique and special about me. And as Woody Allen purportedly said, “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

I looked forward to receiving my perfect attendance award in a ceremony at end of senior year. This achievement was supposedly verified by amalgamating my last high school’s attendance records with my new one’s, but I suspect they simply took my word for it. I clearly cared far more about getting the award more than they cared about fact-checking it.

When I went up to the stage to accept my honor, twelve years in the making, I stared down at the fake wood plaque with its fake gold plating. It read:

Perfect Attendance Award
Robert Calise

My brother—nee Daniel Joseph, but who, incidentally, mostly goes by “Danny”—taught English at a university in China for two years. He told me that on the first day of class, he had to assign “English names” to his college-age students:

If a student didn’t have an English name, I asked them to pick a letter from the English alphabet that they wanted their name to start with. They would choose one based on the sound of their Chinese names. Whatever letter they chose, I would give them a bunch of choices, which they usually hated, and then forced them to pick the one they hated the least.

The most popular names according to Danny included: Cherry, Sherry, Jason, Vicky, and Allen. Beyond those, the names were a little more unique, at least from an American point of view.

Kids would select names like Purple, or Poet, or Wood. Others might choose Dragon, or Hometown or Man. He had students named Fish, Dollars, Garlic, Money, Color, Nature, Echo, Short, and my personal favorite, Kidult (a combination of Kid and Adult, obviously).

I can’t help wonder what names I might have come up with for myself, but part of me is glad I didn’t get to choose my own name–especially when I was a kid. There’s a good chance Michael Jordan Calise or Knight Rider Calise would be writing this today.

While studying abroad in England during my junior year of college, I met a fellow American student named Dan, who came from a neighborhood just outside Boston. I introduced myself as Bobby, as I always did.

“Good to meet ya, Bawb,” he replied in his local dialect. I didn’t correct him—Um, actually, it’s Bob-by—preferring instead to imagine myself as a Boston street tough Dan knew from his neighborhood. Oh him? That’s Bawb. You don’t wanna mess with Bawb.

A few days after meeting Dan, he and I got together at a pub near campus. I went up to the bar and ordered a Newcastle and when I came back, Dan was talking to a group of American students he knew from orientation. He introduced me to everyone: “Hey guys, this is Bawb, from New Yauk.”

“Hi Bob!” said one of the girls in the group, a perky Floridian. I was happy to have this new group of friends served up on a silver platter for me—Bobby wasn’t so great at meeting new people—so I didn’t want to make waves by clearing up that small detail of what my name actually was.

Initially it was strange hearing these new people call me Bob, as if they were speaking to someone else. But it also wasn’t altogether unpleasant, the idea that I could take on a new identity among these new people in a new place.

But after a few weeks playing the role of Bob, I eventually confessed to two of the girls in the group that back home I went by exclusively by Bobby. They didn’t miss a beat. I seemed much more like a Bobby, they said.

Making the Bob/Bobby distinction ultimately made me feel more comfortable while in England, though it did cause some confusion among the natives. While checking my email in the college’s computer lab one day, I ran into an English guy I’d seen in one of my classes. We started talking.

“What’s your name, mate?” he asked.

“Bobby,” I replied.

“Like the doll?”

“Huh?” I said, confused. Then I realized what he meant. “Oh…no, not Barbie. It’s Bobby, B-O-B-B-Y.”

“Oh, BOE-by,” he said, drawing out the first syllable–basically explaining to me how to pronounce my own name for the English ear.

“Right,” I said. “BOE-by.” My English name.

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When I was a senior in high school, I applied for a $500 scholarship from an organization called the Sons of Italy.

I didn’t know much about the Sons of Italy except for the few times my Italian grandfather had mentioned them in passing. In their own words, here’s what the Order Sons of Italy in America (OSIA) are all about:

We are a national organization of men and women who represent the estimated 26 million Americans of Italian heritage, dedicated to promoting our culture, our traditions, our language, the legacy of our ancestors, and our contributions to the U.S. and the world. … We exemplify the very best of what it is to be Italian American.

To compete for the scholarship, I had to write a short essay on why I was proud to be an Italian. Easy money, I thought. I ate pasta and meatballs with my dad’s side of the family every Sunday for as long as I could remember. Surely, I could parlay this pseudo Italian-ness into a saccharine story about my Italian pride. Even if I didn’t really believe in the concept of ethnic pride.

When I told my family the next Sunday that I was writing the essay, my Italian grandmother beamed—that is, until I spoiled her good cheer by admitting that I was not, in fact, proud to be Italian.

“Not proud to be Italian?” she said, incredulously. “What would you rather be?”

It wasn’t that I would rather be something else. It was just that I never felt a sense of pride for being something that I had no control over. It’s not as though I’d been given a choice and selected to be half-Italian, 3/8 Irish, and 1/8 Portuguese. I’d simply been born with this heritage. The way I saw it, I was nothing more than a random soul floating around, eventually landing in a human body that happened to be a part of an Italian family from Queens, New York. How proud could I really be about that?

Over the years I’ve tended to identify more with my Italian side, perhaps for no other reason than my last name. (Had I been outfitted with my mother’s maiden name, Kelleher, I wonder if anyone would have sniffed out my Italian-ness.) But really my ethnicity was nothing more than a small talk topic of no more significance than the weather.

About eight years ago, my mother and grandmother (my Irish-Portuguese side) were invited to an unveiling ceremony for a new exhibit at New York City’s Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

The museum opened in 1988 and serves as an educational memorial to the millions of American immigrants who settled in New York and lived in almost sub-human conditions as they tried to find work, raise a family, and build upon their social status ever so marginally with each passing generation.

My family was invited because one of the museum’s tours apparently mentioned one of my Irish-American relatives who struggled so mightily to find a social and financial foothold in 1860s New York City.

At the time I didn’t attend the ceremony, and didn’t give much thought to the Tenement Museum for years after the unveiling, even after my mother visited it a second time and assured me it would be worth my while for me to go see. I still didn’t budge, and so for our wedding anniversary she just went and bought two tickets for my wife and me.

In February 2015 we finally visited the museum. And I was blown away.

Our knowledgeable and engaging tour guide, Rebecca, unfurled the remarkable—yet almost banal for new Americans in the 1860s—story of Joseph and Bridget Moore.

Hmmm, I thought, Moore. When, earlier in the week, I had told my grandmother I was finally going to the Tenement Museum, the name she told me to listen for was Jane Moore.

As Rebecca continued to tell Bridget and Joseph’s story, I realized that the tour included more than a mere mention of a long-ago relative of mine; the exhibit was the story of my own family’s origins in America.

By the end of the tour, as I slowly connected the dots of the real-life characters in Rebecca’s story, my family members, I discovered that Jane Moore was the daughter of Joseph and Bridget, making her the grandmother of my grandmother—my great great grandmother.

The hour-long tour covered the many challenges Irish-American families like the Moores faced: substandard living conditions; not enough work opportunities; specious blame for bringing cholera to America; crooked politicians leveraging financial favors given to poor Irish for their votes; and little to no medical care or government-sponsored financial assistance. (In the Moore’s case, a lack of medical care or access to medicine led to the death of one of Jane’s infant siblings. The tour included a room recreated to look like the site of the child’s wake, complete with a tiny coffin.)

Towards the end of the tour, Rebecca showed us a picture of Jane and her husband; Jane was the only one of Joseph and Bridget’s eight children (four of whom died during childhood) to have her own children. One of those children was my grandmother’s mom. Rebecca told us that two of Jane’s grandsons grew up to be a New York City fireman and policeman.

Those grandsons are my uncles (my mother’s twin brothers), Chris and Kenny.

I’m usually not a crier, but something struck me in that moment. That I’m a sixth generation New Yorker. That my family’s humble beginnings had been preserved so beautifully. And that every day Tenement Museum tour guides like Rebecca are telling complete strangers from all parts of the world the story of how the Moore family survived an Irish potato famine in Ireland, a hellish five-week trip in the hulls of a slave ship, treacherous and sometimes deadly working and living conditions, and evolved into the family I belong to today.

I still can’t quite say pride is the right word for what I feel towards my ancestry, whether it’s the Italian, Irish, or Portuguese pieces of me. But I certainly have a new appreciation for all the work and sacrifice and hardship that led up to my own existence. And for that, I should strive to make my ancestors proud of me.

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Petry Media Corporation, where I started my career back in 2005, officially shut its doors earlier this month. This is my version of a eulogy for the defunct company which, for better or worse, gave me my start in the media business.

“Do you play softball?”

I was asked this question while sitting in a decade-old, coffee-stained desk chair, waiting to be interviewed for a position at Petry Media Corporation. My potential new boss, Judy, was finishing up some paperwork and had me wait outside her cube for a few minutes. While I sat there, my would-be coworker, a guy named Ross, had ostensibly decided to conduct his own pre-interview.

Ross was my age and played for the company softball team. Petry didn’t have many employee perks, but softball, if you were good enough to make the team, was one of them.

Whether he was intending to or not, Ross put me at ease for my actual interview with Judy. By the time I finished a short while later, I was reasonably confident that I had the job. A couple of days later Judy called to formally make me an offer, which I accepted.* For a cool $26,700, I would be a research analyst at Petry Media. More importantly, I had my first real job in New York City.

*Earlier that week I had accepted the a research analyst position with one of Petry’s competitors. Before I could officially accept Judy’s offer, I had to renege on my acceptance at the other company. It was a pretty awkward call and my almost-new boss was pretty pissed—this was Friday and he had been expecting me to start the following Monday. You might be thinking that what I did was unethical, but the other company was offering an even lower starting salary, $22,000, so I didn’t really feel too bad about walking away.

What I didn’t fully understand when I accepted the offer, but would slowly piece together later, was how Petry actually made its money.

Petry was a “rep firm” for local TV stations across the country. If you own the local NBC station (a.k.a. “affiliate”) in a relatively small market like Green Bay or St. Louis, you might not be able to afford to hire your own sales people to sell TV commercials on your station. Instead, you contracted a company like Petry, whose sales team would sell your station’s air time—and collect a percentage of the ad revenue they bring in.

My job was A) to keep the inventory (the TV shows) current in the system so the sales people could sell the ad space in them; and B) to give my best estimate of how many people would watch them (i.e. Nielsen ratings), so the sales people knew how much to charge for the ad space. For the second part, the estimates were based on how many people watched that show in the previous season, or for a new show, how other shows like it had performed in the past. (If we didn’t have high hopes for a show, we would simply use “time period” estimates based on the ratings for the canceled show that ran during that day and time in the prior TV season.)

The job was far from rocket science—a lot of the work was glorified data entry—but I enjoyed learning about the television industry. I’d heard the terms “rating” and “share” before, but didn’t really know what went into calculating them.

I made fast friends with Ross (the softball guy). It turned out we were born a month apart, both former journalism majors, and both huge Yankee fans. Ross had grown up in Manhattan; even as a Queens-born kid, I found that fascinating. I was commuting into work every day from Long Island and didn’t know a whole lot about The City. Ross was my unofficial tour guide, directing me on things like best subways to take to get somewhere, or the fact that Fifth Avenue was Manhattan’s vertical dividing line between streets, e.g. East 54th Street and West 54th Street.

I had been at Petry for a couple of months when softball season started. I wasn’t guaranteed a spot on the team, but Marty, a veteran sales rep at Petry and the longtime manager of the softball team, let me try out. As the youngest guy on the team (besides Ross), I assumed I’d have no trouble playing my way into the lineup—but the fact that I even had to try out made me a little nervous.

I reached base on four infield singles and play solid defense in the outfield and made the team. (Eleven years later, I still play for the team. Over the years guys left Petry the company, but not Petry the softball team. Marty was the only remaining Petry employee to play on the team before the company closed up shop earlier this month.)

The other nice perk of working at Petry was lunchtime. On most days we used the unoccupied conference room to watch TV while we ate lunch—and we could usually push the lunch hour to 90 minutes. If it was “upfront season,” the time of year when the TV networks were previewing their new fall lineups to whet the appetites of advertising buyers and sellers, we got to watch the pilots for new shows that the networks would send to Petry (to help our reps sell them). I remember seeing the pilot episode of How I Met Your Mother and knowing it would be a hit.

The research analyst position at Petry, for most people who held it, typically had a shelf life of about a year, two at the most. Most of Petry’s research analysts followed one of two career paths. They either found research jobs at other media companies, or they entered Petry’s sales training program. (By all accounts the training program was fairly rigorous and low-paying. If you “passed,” Petry required you to sign a multi-year contract pledging your loyalty to them. This was, I gathered, a standard deal for rep firms.) The research-to-sales guys I knew seemed happy enough, but I wasn’t interested in selling for a living after a negative experience selling Cutco knives during college had left a bad taste in my mouth.

While I looked for work at other companies around my year mark at Petry, Ross and I had tons of down time once we got our work done. We spent a lot of that time talking about Moneyball and the new trend of advanced metrics in baseball. Sometimes, when things were really slow, and felt like we’d “run out of internet,” we’d tinker with some of our work processes.

Part of keeping the inventory current was loading “tapes,” or the most current data files from Nielsen that had the ratings from all the shows in the most recent “sweep” period. (In my nearly two years at Petry, I never actually saw a “tape.”) The process involved putting certain codes in an application that looked like it was stuck in 1980. The numbers and letters we entered into the program’s various blank spaces didn’t seem to correspond to any sort of user manual. So, we wrote our own. When we found a step that didn’t seem to make sense, we changed it and put it in our manual (i.e. a Word document). Before we knew it, we’d literally rewritten Petry’s antediluvian process for uploading ratings data to its network. (I’m sure it’ll eventually be placed into the Petry time capsule for our great-grandchildren to discover.)

Eventually, Ross left Petry for a job at CBS, where he was already freelancing on weekends, trying to break into sports production. I left a few months later for another media job. Having Petry on my résumé helped me land the gig—my new boss had also started her career there, too.

Petry gave me my start in the grown-up working world, and while I left the company for greener pastures ten years ago, I’m still thankful for the time I spent there. R.I.P. Petry.

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A while back I got a letter—in the mail—from someone in SUNY New Paltz’s alumni relations department asking me to give back to my alma mater. (I’ve written before about my feelings donating to my school, so I’ll save you having to read that rant again.)

The letter, which was ostensibly personalized to my year of graduation (2004), included a reference to the “unforgettable” a capella group at New Paltz, Absolut A Capella.

Referencing something from my time at New Paltz was a smart move, and likely a tactic many alumni relations people at all different schools use as a way of getting grads to feel all mushy inside about their college experience—and to loosen their purse strings (or their Venmo accounts or whatever people use to pay for things these days).

But here’s the problem: I have no effing idea what Absolut A Capella is or was! I don’t doubt that there was an a capella music movement at my school during the years in which I matriculated (I’ve always wanted to use that word) at New Paltz—they made a whole movie about it, and I’ve confirmed with friends that this was a thing at other schools—but I have NO recollection of such a movement at New Paltz. In fact an a capella group, based on my experience at NP, was the exact opposite sort of thing that would have been indigenous to the culture of the school.

(A quick Google search confirmed that Absolut A Capella is and was indeed a thing at New Paltz, originating in 2001, my freshman year at the school. Further, if you click on the link in their Facebook profile it brings you to what appears to be an Asian website about catering. And, despite my holding a journalism degree from New Paltz, this is where the investigation ended.)

The stars of Absolut A Capella...?

The stars of Absolut A Capella…?

Anyway I thought of the legendary Absolut A Capella last night when I came across a Buzzfeed article called “15 Things Only A New Paltz Student Would Understand.” (How does a small, public liberal arts college get a feature on internet darling/juggernaut, you ask? Per the site: This post was created by a user and has not been vetted or endorsed by BuzzFeed’s editorial staff. BuzzFeed Community is a place where anyone can post awesome lists and creations.)

I don’t want to dissect this unvetted, unendorsed post written by a college student—who, BTW, probably just got more eyes on something she wrote than I ever have—because that’s a little lame and weird. That said I do have a couple of notes as someone who graduated from New Paltz 11 years ago.

None of the following items on her list are endemic to New Paltz, specifically: hilly parts of campus; student-athletes using Gatorade bottles; a preponderance of dyed hair; overly aggressive campus cops; printing quotas—you know what, nevermind. This article stinks to me, but maybe current New Paltz students love it. Maybe seeing people with dyed hair is completely mind-blowing to the modern college student. Whatever.

I’ll leave you with a glimpse of the SUNY New Paltz I remember, from an excerpt of a thing I wrote when I was in school as part of a Joan Didion “Los Angeles Notebook” knockoff:

It was a late October afternoon, walking on my way to my Literature of Journalism class. It’s about a five-minute walk through campus to the Humanities Building. As I walked to class on this brisk autumn day, dreading the thought that it will only get colder than this as we get into winter, I see a girl walking towards me.

Like many colleges, New Paltz tends to be extremely liberal. So whenever I walk through the campus and streets of New Paltz, not much surprises me.

Walking towards me and eventually past me on my left side is a girl wearing a sandwich board. However, instead of the board reading the sandwich special of the day for a local deli (which would have been odd enough), it was painted like a stick of Doublemint gum. As I am prone to do when I am in New Paltz, I shrugged it off and walked to class.

On that same route to class I noticed a girl wearing devil horns, and again, I thought, “OK, nothing I haven’t seen before in New Paltz.”

Suddenly, I realized it was Halloween, and though I felt like an idiot because I didn’t figure it out right away, I didn’t feel that stupid about it. I see things like this on the other 364 days a year that aren’t Halloween. But instead of a feeling of frustration, or confusion, I kind of just laughed it off and thought, “Just another day at New Paltz–my college.”

Was there something unique to your college experience that you think people who graduated when you did could appreciate? Share in the comments!

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The Cool Sub

“JEN-ri? Is there a JEN-ri Rodriguez in this class?”

“Uh…it’s Henri,” Jenri said.

I was four minutes into my substitute teaching career, and I was already butchering a student’s name while trying to take attendance.

“Oh, um, sorry about that.” I may as well have been repeating Bueller.

I’d gotten the subbing gig through my mom, who was a middle school teacher on Long Island. It was late 2004 and I was a few months out of college at that point, with little in the way of job prospects. I’d snail-mailed my cover letter and resume to every publishing house in the tri-state area in the hopes of getting something entry level with my journalism degree, with visions of reading manuscripts for a living. But after receiving just one response—a polite but unequivocal “no”—I took a part-time job at The Sports Authority for $8 an hour to hold me over with first student loan payment looming.

The prospect of dealing with 13- and 14-year-olds all day was not appealing to me in the least, but subbing paid $110 a day and didn’t require any teaching experience—plus I’d be out of work by 2 pm every day. Meanwhile, I continued to look for full-time work and kept a couple of shifts a week at The Sports Authority.

Like every substitute teacher in the history of substitute teachers, I was determined to be “the cool sub” who wasn’t a stickler for the rules. After I made a few appearances, all the kids would be glad to see me when their teacher was out. “Nice, we got Mr. Calise subbing today,” they said in my insanely unrealistic fantasyland scenario.

Delusions aside, I knew better than to attempt any actual teaching. I fully understood that my job was to do nothing more than take attendance, hand out whatever busy work the teacher had left for her students, and make sure the kids didn’t fight with each other or destroy the classroom. I was a glorified babysitter.

After my first day my name was in “the system,” meaning that the night before a school day I would receive an auto-dialed call on my cell phone, which would tell me my assignment for the following morning.

There was no ostensible rhyme or reason behind my subbing assignments—as far as I could tell, they simply were pulling my name out of a digital hat. In my short career working at the school, I subbed in just about every subject.

One day they had me covering for a music teacher. His “classwork” for the kids was having them watch the part of the movie Grease they were up to from the last time he’d been out. I had very strict instructions to “fast forward through the sex parts.” By the third or fourth class of the day my censoring was faster than Greased Lightnin’.

The music teacher’s final class of the day was off the middle school campus at an elementary school, where all I had to do was put on a Charlie Brown video for a class of first graders. Unlike the junior high kids, who gave me a hard time about everything I said or did, the first graders were afraid of me. But once I turned off the lights and put on the video, they were entranced and seemed to forget I was there. When a song started in the Charlie Brown movie, they started singing along in unison in their little voices. It was the only time in five months subbing that I actually considered becoming a full-time teacher.

My most coveted subbing assignment was phys ed. (I cannot overstate the satisfaction of being allowed to come to work in a polo shirt and track pants.) The kids were even wilder than they were in their other subjects, but each phys ed class was taught by three teachers, so I pretty much just played with the kids and helped corral any stragglers back to the pack. Usually the “lesson” I co-taught was a game that could be played by fifty or sixty students at a time. One day we did volleyball with a twist—each side had about thirty kids volleying an oversized beachball that required at least five people pushing at the same time to get it over the net.

I didn’t typically interact with the teachers I’d subbed for once they came back to work. I would usually leave a short hand-written note for each period’s class in the teacher’s mailbox, letting them know whether the kids completed their classwork (or at least pretended to work on it) and whether they behaved.

On one occasion, I wrote a scathing note about a science lab class that had given me a particularly tough time. When I came for work the next day, I got called back to that classroom during the period that the class had behaved so poorly the day before. The teacher for whom I had subbed told me, in front of the whole class, that her students were not allowed to do a lab that day because of how badly they’d behaved for me. The kids collectively glared at me for having ratted them out. I did a terrible job of hiding my smirk as I thanked the teacher and left the room.

After almost five months of subbing, I finally found a full-time office job in the city. One of my last assignments before I left was a shop class. I didn’t know the first thing about shop — I hadn’t even taken shop when I was in school — but luckily the teacher had left a video.

I arranged for the audio-video set to be wheeled in, a tall tower with a heavy tube TV and a VCR, just like the ones we used when I was in middle school.

I popped in the VHS, which turned out to be a recording of an NBC Saturday morning TV special about technology from the early ‘90s—remember, this was 2005—hosted by none other than rapper-actor LL Cool J. (About the video: The creators apparently thought the future would be a lot like The Jetsons, minus flying cars and meals in pill form. Strangely, the creators of the special hadn’t seen the iPhone coming.)

Maybe I’d become more comfortable being in front of a room full of kids, or maybe I was a little giddy because I knew I was leaving soon for my new job. Whatever the reason for my newfound jocularity, I decided to make a little off-the-cuff comment to the class about how outdated the video was.

I said: “Looks like this is LL Cool J somewhere between ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and In the House.” I smiled goofily at my own humorous observation, as if to say, “Am I right???”

I was met by twenty blank stares from the kids. Immediately, I realized my mistake: LL Cool J’s career-defining hit song, “Mama Said Knock You Out,” came out before they were born, and his moderately successful sitcom In the House was canceled in 1999. Most people my own age would not have gotten that reference, no less a room full of 13-year-olds.

After the class’ complete non-reaction to my “funny” comment, a rare break from the “serious substitute teacher” character I’d played for five months, I slunk back into the darkness for the rest of the period.

Not long after my LL Cool J gaffe, I found myself on the Long Island Rail Road, commuting five days a week, two hours each way, in and out of the city. Staring out the window of the train, my insanely unrealistic fantasyland thinking kicked in again and I wondered briefly if any of the kids had even noticed I was gone.

“Yo what ever happened to Mr. Calise?” Jenri would say. “Who?” Jenri’s friend would ask. “You know,” Jenri would reply, “the cool sub.”

This story was also published on Medium.com.

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