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2012 Essay Contest Winners

2012 Essay Contest Winners

Congratulations to the ten young authors of this year’s winning essays and poems—they inspire us all with their writing—and their hard work.

The name of the contest has evolved—from “Making Labor’s History Visible,” to “Making Work Visible”—in no small part due to lessons learned from entries submitted in the previous two years. CUNY undergraduate student writers saw clearly that their own lives could provide a wealth of first hand experiences that add insight to analytical and creative writing about the issues of labor history.

Surprises abound in these works—one author commissioned a piece of art to accompany his story Fire; another carefully addresses the question of how Zora Neal Hurston could write about black Americans and not write about oppression; a third analyzes her own work in the restaurant industry; and another composed his gripping story of a dystopia in an English as a second language class.

Read them all—you will be moved, surprised, impressed.

We sincerely hope that these young authors continue to write—their voices demand to be heard.

Photographs by Gary Schoichet.

Emma Rock

First Prize, Essays
Emma Rock  Storytelling, Brooklyn College

Zora Neale Hurston:
Her Work, Politics and Life View

Zora Neale Hurston worked hard throughout her life for a cause that was largely unappreciated: recording the doings and sayings of rural black Southerners and black Caribbeans. It is sad that she only achieved widespread respect and canonization after her death, rather than during her life. While she has been characterized by some as an enemy of black rights, her vision dug deeper than politics: she was a champion of black humanity. An artist’s job is to tell stories that need to be told, and to explore what life and humanity are. Hurston has succeeded on both counts. By showing her characters to be real people with all the feelings and flaws that real people have, rather than stereotypes that would seek to prove a political point, Hurston accomplished groundbreaking work for humanity in America.

The main reason Hurston’s work was left buried for years after her death was her political estrangement from the black intelligentsia of her time. She felt that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the like showed black life as a “problem” in order to advance their cause; that they consistently showed the worst aspects of black life to force action regarding civil rights. Hurston had two problems with this line of thought: first, that the image of a miserable, poor, struggling sharecropper was not the whole picture of black life in America or even the whole picture of an individual sharecropper’s life; and second, that this approach was not effective because it did not establish the common humanity that blacks share with all other people.

She was an individualist, and strongly so. Thus she favored the individual approach to understanding people. As she says, “Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole. God made them duck by duck and that was the only way I could see them. I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people” (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing 171). Hurston’s politics ring of post-racism here, a position that is both admirable and out of sync with the time. Since she was raised in the all-black town of Eatonville, she experienced a life that seemed to be without racist oppression. She did not acknowledge the forces at work preventing other black neighborhoods from becoming incorporated, somewhat self-sufficient towns like her Eatonville. Most black communities could not escape dependence on whites for their livelihoods. Eatonville was a rare exception.

However, the unique quality of her experience is no reason to discount it. Indeed, Hurston did not seek to speak for the group as such; she sought to speak for herself, and to collect many individual voices and characters that were not acknowledged in American discourse at the time. The head of the themes Hurston explored was not the standard subject of how blacks react to white people, but rather how blacks interact with each other. This approach did not present a united front against the whites, but it told the truth as Hurston saw it: that no matter what anyone said, blacks were full human beings and as such, they had all the joys and problems with dealing with each other that all humans had. The writer George Lamming said that “if… silence was the only common language, politics, for Negroes, was the only common ground” (Baldwin 43), which is to say that skin color does not unify people in reality—that it could only unify people in a politically motivated vision of reality, just as Hurston thought.

In fact, Hurston makes the argument that what unifies black people is their inability to agree with each other: “Wait until you see a congregation of more than two dark-complected people. If they can’t agree on a single, solitary thing, then you can go off satisfied. Those are My People. It’s just against nature for us to agree with each other” (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing 217). In this description of blacks, Hurston portrays them foremost as individuals—as people who disagree with each other. Consistent with her literary descriptions of black cultural life in the south, its focus is on the subjects’ personalities. The stereotype constantly referred to by both civil rights champions trying to make a point, and white supremacists trying to make a point—the stereotype of the “poor nigger”—is nowhere to be found. To further civil rights legislation, the NAACP and individual activists consistently paraded the portrait of a poor, disenfranchised sharecropper. To emphasize the point, they would portray this poor black person as having a life ruined by racism. Hurston was offended by this portrayal as she did not feel her life was “ruined” at all; on the contrary, she loved the cultural richness of black folk life. Her stance—contrary to the mood of the times—was based on a defense of this richness, which she felt was attacked by the aspiring-to-be-white black intelligentsia. She found it ironic that the character of the “poor nigger” that activists brought up to demonstrate the effects of racism was the same character white supremacists brought up—in their case to demonstrate the necessity of racism. Blacks, they said, were naturally poor, ignorant criminals, and that was why they should be kept away from power, and from intermingling with white society.

Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, shows black people not as poor and miserable people waiting for freedom to be granted by the whites so they can live whole lives, but as people whole already, who experience joy, pain, anger, majesty, silliness, and most importantly, romance.

As Hurston explained in her essay “What White Publishers Won’t Print,”

Until [the commonality of feeling] is thoroughly established in respect to Negroes in America, as well as of other minorities, it will remain impossible for the majority to conceive of a Negro experiencing a deep and abiding love and not just the passion of sex. That a great mass of Negroes can be stirred by the pageants of Spring and Fall; the extravaganza of summer, and the majesty of winter. That they can and do experience discovery of the numerous subtle faces as a foundation for a great and selfless love, and the diverse nuances that go to destroy that love as with others. As it is now, this capacity, this evidence of high and complicated emotions, is ruled out. Hence the lack of interest in a romance uncomplicated by the race struggle has no appeal [emphasis mine] (I Love Myself When I Am Laughing 172).

Her artistic reports on the inner life of Florida blacks were ideologically motivated. She saw that no one was telling the story of a romance between black people, so she told it herself. She saw that no one was telling the story of black people’s strength, their culture, and their lives apart and away from white people and oppression, and she told that story too.

A problem, however, is that since Hurston felt others to be telling only the story of black oppression, she avoided that story completely in her work for years in order to balance things out. Thus, she too told a skewed story, of blacks living without oppression and without having to deal with whites. Similarly, in her autobiography, every white character is presented as benevolent, which does not seem plausible.

Perhaps this was done to appease white readers, like her patron, Mrs. “Godmother” Mason (who received a few tributary paragraphs in Hurston’s autobiography). If so, this falseness begs the question: was Zora Neale Hurston an Uncle Tom? As a matter of fact, she thinks it is an integral part of being black! “[I do not] complain of ‘Tomming’ if it’s done right. ‘Tomming’ is not an aggressive act, it is true, but it has its uses like feinting in the prize ring (Dust Tracks 216). In Hurston’s writing, subtle clues like this one shed a light on the fawning compliments she paid to her white patrons and friends, and to white people in general throughout her autobiography. Her later essays like “The ‘Pet’ Negro System,” “Crazy for This Democracy,” and “What White Publishers Won’t Print” show much more incisive criticism than do her earlier works like “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” and her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. The evidence of her writing suggests that Hurston consciously told the white folks what they wanted to hear, or “Tommed” with them, so that she could get her work done. Hurston’s was a time that it was generally not considered possible for a black woman to be a writer. It certainly was not easy for a black person of rural, non-affluent beginnings to attend both Howard University and Barnard, and to continue on to become a prolific folklorist and author. Connections are everything when rising to the top (or even simply out of poverty, as Hurston constantly attempted to do throughout her life); it was only through her social connections with the wealthy—a group almost entirely composed of whites at the time—that she managed to achieve a career at all. Sadly, even her extremely active social life (some of which was surely “Tomming”), her scholarships, and later her credentials, experience, and prodigious skills—could not keep her in a pair of shoes. She was strapped for cash her entire life, even during times when she received donations from wealthy white friends. Grants and royalty checks from her books were simply too small and too few.

When we consider the gift Zora Hurston gave to American literature, anthropology, and black art, does it matter that she did not toe the party line? Hurston has been unduly criticized both for her erratic politics and for her private life. As Mary Helen Washington points out, “Langston Hughes, who for years was supported by the same white woman as Hurston, said that ‘In her youth she was always getting scholarships and things from wealthy white people, some of whom simply paid her just to sit around and represent the Negro race for them, she did it in such a racy fashion. . . . To many of her white friends, no doubt, she was a perfect ‘darkie’’” (Washington 10). But Hurston used the money she collected to tell black stories that nobody else would tell. As a woman, her private life and personality were subject to greater scrutiny than those of her male contemporaries. Yet another reason she fell out of favor with the black intelligentsia of the time was her literary and personal style—her black style.

The fashion among black intellectuals was to act educated, or in other words, white. There was, among educated blacks, a consensus against Hurston’s dialect-filled books, which they felt made the Race look bad. Hurston, on the other hand, felt it was neither “an honor nor a shame” (Dust Tracks 171) to be black, or to be mixed-blood. It was what it was. She celebrated her culture as she experienced it, and seems to have loved her blackness. It is important that not only was she unembarrassed by uneducated black people, she accepted them for who and what they were. As Alice Walker says, “Zora Neale Hurston . . . rescued and recreated a world which she labored to hand us whole, never underestimating the value of her gift, if at times doubting the good sense of its recipients. She appreciated us, in any case, as we fashioned ourselves” (Walker 4).

Her politics too, were not anti-black (as they were slandered to be). Her arguments having to do with accuracy in politics were often grossly misunderstood. Annette Trefzer points out that “By publicly highlighting racism in the South, many politicians carefully deflected attention from the lack of democratic equality on the national scene at a time when the US was fighting a war for democracy in the international arena” (Trefzer 76). Hurston argued against the hypocrisy and diversionary tactics that were involved in blaming the South for racism. Though Hurston’s writings on white people varied in tone, included among her writings were the selfsame depictions of whites’ racism that Hurston was accused of not presenting. While railing against the hypocrisy of America’s imperialism and simultaneous denunciation of Japan’s, she compares America to Southern white racists: We are like the southern planter’s bride when he kissed her the first time.

“Darling,” she fretted, “do niggers hug and kiss like this?”

“Why, I reckon they do, honey, Fact is, I’m sure of it. Why do you ask?”

“You go right out and kill the last one of ‘em tomorrow morning. Things like this is much too good for niggers” (Dust Tracks 249–250).

This quote was not published during her lifetime, however. It appeared in the manuscript of Dust Tracks on a Road, but we can assume her publishers deemed it too incendiary to print. It is a sad fact that censorship and misrepresentation of Hurston by others have often been regarded as her own doings.

Though, according to her autobiography, her childhood contained no notable instances of racism, the inclusion of one particular incident suggests that she did not entirely edit racism out of her life story. When one of Eatonville’s men was missing one night during Hurston’s childhood, and cries of pain were heard off in the woods, the town’s men went out in a group with their guns while the women stayed home, barred the doors, turned off the lights and kept the children absolutely quiet. But the men found out that it was a fight between white men, with no black men involved. Had Hurston sought to excise racism from her autobiography, she would not have included this episode, complete with the terror felt by her mother who expected a pogrom-style reprise from the whites. Hurston hints at the horror that the adults of Eatonville had experienced elsewhere, but it is clear that she herself does not experience it, and therefore does not give much weight to the very real horror and terror of institutionalized violence. As per her usual take on things, Hurston sees in this episode the relations black people have with each other. For her, it was a clarifying moment regarding the alternating pride and self-mockery that the adults of her town displayed:

They had gone out to rescue a neighbor or die in the attempt, and they were back with their families… The men who spoke of members of their race as monkeys had gone out to die for one. So I could see that what looked like ridicule was really the Negro poking a little fun at himself. At the same time, just like other people, hoping and wishing he was what the orators said he was (Dust Tracks 168).

The yearning to be something admirable and beautiful that she describes in the last sentence is that same yearning for greatness in oneself common to all humanity. Like all of Zora Hurston’s work, this passage draws attention to the humanity of black people, and points out that they are absolutely the same inside as people of all other races.

Political thinking can get in the way of the truth, no matter who is doing the thinking. The black intelligentsia of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, valued “protest literature” over Hurston’s fiction and folklore collections. They had an important political point to prove. The problem with their sublimation of Hurston’s work, however, is that her stories were not only true but essential catalogs of black life, culture, and emotions. She revealed in her books the realities that others ignored for their political quest, and while she may have “tommed” with white folks in order to achieve her work, the work itself was genuine. She did not write black lives for whites. If that was her aim, one-dimensional stereotypes would surely have sufficed. Her complex, utterly human characters were her statement to the world, and more importantly, her gift. Who else would write Janie Stark’s story? Who would give her a happy and fulfilled ending? Who wrote story after story without any monster or boogeyman character to fight against? Zora Neale Hurston did. Her special gift was to portray accurately the humanity of every character she penned. Had she heeded the opinion of the black intelligentsia, ample white boogeymen would have graced her pages, as would their counterparts—downtrodden and deprived black men. Instead, Hurston gave the gift of recording what she saw, heard, and felt—sensations that would otherwise have gone unrecorded, for not a thing had been done for Southern American black women’s literature of the early twentieth century.

More is expected of a black author than of a white author in America. Specifically, a black author is required to be an artist/politician, as Alice Walker says. Hurston characteristically refused to do what was expected or required of her, and instead did whatever was necessary to make things go her way, and to record the stories she knew must be recorded. Therefore she does not tell the same story of disenfranchisement and unfairness that Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and others of the day told. In her early years, she went so far as to refuse to admit that she was disenfranchised as a black woman. She chose to see herself as a grand gift to the world, both in her personality and in her works. It is this hearty egotism which gave her the power to preserve an entire culture, write some excellent original works, and of course, to survive at all.

In her achievement of the nearly impossible—becoming a successful writer as a black woman in the early twentieth century—Hurston was a powerhouse of energy, intelligence, and skill. But among her remarkable qualities, it was her guts that got her through the difficulty of her life. Her self-promotion and egotism, which go hand-in-hand with guts, gave her the power and resources to produce her work, but they have also proved fodder for criticism from her detractors. In fact, many of her critics neglected to mention her work at all. Hurston’s personality was loud and outrageous enough to provide an excuse for these critics to ignore her work. No real excuse exists of course, as these same critics did not focus on or insult the personal lives or personalities of Hurston’s male literary contemporaries.

Hurston’s will to survive and triumph over the many obstacles she faced, however, was forever shadowed by one great tragedy she refused to complain of or even admit—that of poverty. Despite the occasional contributions she received from rich benefactors, she was forced to beg for a new pair of shoes, to ignore her chronic and painful stomach condition, and to work as a maid in her later years, despite her successful writing career and endless efforts to save money. Sadly, she had to beg publishers to even look at her work when she was already an established writer. She did not live with money, and she did not die with it either. And money, in America, is the measurement of the esteem society has for a person.

Though she was viciously slandered by the black intelligentsia of her own time, she has been embraced by the black intelligentsia of today. Her works have been rediscovered and finally appreciated for the gift that they are: a truthful telling of black lives, black longing, and black love. Champion of black humanity as she was, it was a shame she was not canonized in her own time.


  • Baldwin, James. Nobody Knows My Name. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks On a Road. New York: Harper Collins, 1991. Print.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. Print.
  • Trefzer, Annette. ““Let Us All Be Kissing-Friends?”: Zora Neale Hurston and Race Politics in Dixie.” Journal of American Studies 31.1 (1997): 69-78. Print.
  • Walker, Alice. “On Refusing to Be Humbled.” Dedication to I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. Print.
  • Washington, Mary Helen. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow.” Introduction to I Love Myself When I Am Laughing… And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979. Print.

Emma Rock

Second Prize, Essays
Zachary Amendt  Communications and Cutlure, CUNY Online BA

Speed is Thrilling:
The Impairment of American Intellectual Labor in the Internet Age

Former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee issued a prophetic warning regarding the alarming speed of news generation—and the consequent premature opinion-making of consumers—in his 1996 memoir A Good Life.1 In the years that have elapsed since its publication, the swiftness with which world news is digested has increased at rate unfathomable two decades ago. Bradlee’s news cycle of 1996 was liturgical, and readers’ opinions were formed with greater patience;1 it was inconceivable to read tomorrow's paper in bed on an electronic device. Because news was slower, feature stories and hard news had a longer shelf life. Computers were cumbersome; the Internet was a fad. Contrast 1996 with today, an era of vast surpluses of e-tablets2 upon which we compulsively consult others’ social media profiles to get a sense of what's going on in the world. I hold that immediate information and swift news transmission impairs reading habits and is detrimental to quality opinion- and decision-making. It has also allowed us to shallowly steep ourselves in ‘culture’ as we stumble toward the inevitable globalized world.

I concede that technology equips us to pursue a better understanding of world events. However, we—and the political and profit systems to which we belong—are not using this equipment to our full advantage. For instance, comprehensive journalism has yet to mature to the new electronic mediums. Reporters lament the pressures from editors and publishers to design stories which can be broken up into slideshows, or feature captions, to improve page views and advertising revenue. News delivery is being tailored to the aforementioned e-readers—see the promulgation of Internet content on evening news (and even sports) broadcasts—and the manner in which people are reading (not just news, but literary fiction) is changing rapidly. Large paragraphs are discouraged on e-readers. Sadly, consumers of e-media are largely scanners with shortening attention spans. As well, consumers are not roundly enthusiastic about the latest in e-tablet news delivery, as evidenced by the critical debacle of The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s tablet-only newspaper.3

Who wins? Not newspapers, who are struggling to adapt a broken business model to an e-world. Not manufacturers, who are struggling to slacken Apple's opiate-like grip on e-consumers. Not consumers, whose actual and world literacy is declining as a result of e-text. We are, in effect, reeling from the impact of fast news. Worse yet, we are not learning our lessons. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, an eminent historian, scandalized a police department as he tried to break into his own home. The initial news coverage was abominable in that it was skewed coverage primarily of Gates' righteous indignation, not objective balanced analysis of the situation.4 (America later, thanks to Andrew Brietbart, suffered a similar imbalance in coverage of the Shirley Sherrod affair.5) Had one only learned of the “break-in” from a friend’s Twitter feed, one would presume that the professor had been racially profiled. This feeling—too new, one hopes, to mature into an opinion—was confirmed by none other than President Obama, who, before consulting the police officer in question, deemed he had “acted stupidly.”6 But Obama’s preface to his judgement of the officer is emblematic of the sort of opinion-making that Bradlee cautioned against: “Now, I don’t know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts…”6 And then we are told—in lieu of ombudsmen criticizing the knee-jerk coverage of the incident—that a few beers at a picnic table on the White House lawn fixes everything.

When Budweiser is the salve to this nation's racial scars, we’ve already lost.

Internet: The Anti-Culture Mechanism (or, the Bias of Ignorance)

By 2020, the Internet will cease to be a destination, or a salve to boredom. It will (and must) evolve instead into a portal, with access to dimensions of existence (temporal, not supernatural) that we may not presently apprehend. It is evident (see: Jeopardy’s Watson) that we aim to make computers smarter than ourselves for its sheer entertainment value (the classic film ‘Desk Set’ with Hepburn and Tracy establishes, on the contrary, technology’s promise to streamline human operations); and once even the “dumbest” computer eclipses the “smartest” man, technology will have gone farther than men dare. And we will doubtless tune in and laugh like idiots at this, the capitulation of our autonomy.

We are at the behest of the Internet. Oft is the lamentation that our productivity (as people, employees, even as family members) is wholly contingent on the speed of the Internet. A reliable connection is now the litmus test for efficiency. Today, when one is online, s/he is nowhere else. It was sold to us as the “world at our fingertips,” but it turns out that we have confused images of the world for the world. However, the Internet will soon no longer suffice as a frontier. The love affair will, in effect, run its course. Our tolerance for “cool” social media that is actually a publicly traded commodity (Facebook’s destiny) or another 60% eyebrow wax discount at your local spa (the pitfalls of Groupon) will ebb. When it does, there will be an exodus from the Internet, and a scramble to finance that which would save the online ‘world.’ In order to advance, and to inspire us to advance with it, the Internet must not just operate faster—until we can no longer accurately define ‘fast’—it must radically improve lives. It must make professional, unequivocal diagnoses of people’s ailments, for instance. It must not continue to expand just for its own sake. It is well to ask: how does the Internet mature, or move laterally, or regress? Has the Internet been subject to a proper identity examination? How would it characterize (because it certainly is smart enough to do so) its own virtual identity? History books are rife with instances of idle technologies which, without an aim, are dead-end ventures. Once the steam engine and horseless carriage were perfected (after comprising, during their respective rollouts, a kind of frontier in themselves) folks began to lose fascination in the technology and focused instead on pursuing the limitations that the technology (either expressly or inadvertently) eliminated. I’m not confident the Internet can help us surmount the challenges we face.

It is what is beyond our sight and apprehension that fascinates us. Inevitably the Internet must turn to space and the ocean depths to continue to captivate audiences. Our attention spans will doubtless grow shorter and shorter, and so the Internet must simultaneously improve the depth and the superficiality of its content. What happens, say, if a fit of gardening catches on as a fad? I dispute the Internet’s ability to deal with adversities as complex as a new homestead movement, wherein we become closer to the earth, which, with food cooperatives and farmer’s markets on the rise, is a likely change in the prevailing cultural winds.

While most will likely suggest that we are the cusp of a thrilling era of vision and investment in the Internet, I hold that it is dying and will inevitably fail if it continues, in the next decade, to stay the course of shallow content and fast money.

Journalists as Anti-Culture Standard-Bearers

Literature and media are in a curious place. I’ve studied journalists’ alternating fascination and indifference to our greatest writers, and it’s hard to believe that forty years ago, Robert Lowell was on the cover of Time Magazine, and gossip columns were filled with sordid details about his divorce from Elizabeth Hardwick. And way back to the 1920s, when the Fitzgeralds were tramping about Manhattan with a Lady Gaga-like following. It used to be that the popularity of an author of some promise suggested a shift in larger culture, not just in the narrow purview of the book world. Nowadays, with the advent of the Internet and technology encouraging brevity and economy of words—and perhaps even economy of ideas—journalists are less likely to explore writers as deep people with relevant commentary on world events.

Communications have impacted literature, not the other way around. Literature no longer informs or improves news coverage. We cannot presume any longer that journalists are interested in mining writers for compelling human interest stories. Nor, as the audience has changed, with apathy on the warpath, can we presume that writers are interested in promoting anything except themselves. Out of nowhere, page views became significant. Bloggers were, by virtue of traffic, suddenly touted as the next great American scribblers. The Internet has encouraged young writers to talk cleverly, in short witty repartee, as if they wanted on the Daily Show. We know (from a previous discussion section) that too many of our young people are turning to The Daily Show for their ration of objective political news, but so too is The Daily Show furnishing the young people with hip new books without long shelf-lives, such as Shop Class as Soulcraft (which I have to admit I read at Jon Stewart’s prompting), which is at best the modern-day rehash of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Online literary weblogs are populated largely with the book reviews that most metropolitan newspapers no longer give any space to. There is a divide between those with works of fiction available exclusively online (full disclosure: I’m one of them) and those who hold to the traditional-publishing-house-as-bosom-and-arbiter-of-good-taste-despite-its-broken-business-model. The divide is alike a civil war in publishing, except nobody knows how to forge ahead. And ultimately the American novel suffers.

How authors communicate is interesting, yes, but subordinate to the content and power of their work. Now it seems that publishing is the message, and that the message is populated with keywords, and adulterated by sociopolitical pressures (see the recent edit job on Mark Twain, wherein racial slurs were omitted. a move whose absurdity is on par with Keith Gessen’s decision to, in one copy of All the Sad Young Literary Men for charity, cross out all references to Harvard and replaced them with Florida State7). If simply putting a book out there is the sole point of writing, then the writing itself becomes irrelevant. Even thinking about this is incredibly distressing.


The young will continue to stand in line for the newest iteration(s) of the fastest, most efficient electronics. The effect of the pursuit and cost of this speed is, ironically, a diminishment of one's understanding of the world, along with the mechanisms behind the speed itself. Our global world is one in which individuals and institutions communicate rapidly toward ends that stand on constantly shifting ground. Just as the speed of communication may cloud any future concept of ‘fast,’ so too will the quality of our opinions be contingent on well-composed headlines, instead of longer stories with probity. In conclusion, what is disappearing—what has been relegated to the ash-heap of the news liturgy—is the luxury of time we once had to develop informed opinions.


  1. Ben Bradlee. A Good Life. Simon and Schuster; 1996
  2. Heather Maclean. Smart Gorillas. “Tablet surplus to hit 33 million in 2011”
  3. Shane Richmond. The Telegraph. “The Daily iPad app review: a complete failure of imagination”
  4. Boston Globe. July 20, 2009
  5. Washington Post. Sherrod vs. Brietbart: Speech Wars. February 15, 2011
  6. K. Seelye. New York Times. “Obama Wades Into a Volatile Racial Issue”

Justin Keslowitz

Third Prize, Essays
Justin Keslowitz  History, Brooklyn College

The Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895

The Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895 was no ordinary strike and concerned no ordinary group of workers. It began on January 14, 1895 when 5000 men walked off their jobs at four separately owned trolley companies, and ended on February 24, 1895. As stated by the committee investigating the causes of the strike, “It was a culmination of negotiations that had been going on between employer and employee for a period of eight years.” The strike was not rashly brought about by a small group of disorganized workers. Rather, the seeds for the strike had been brewing for some time and when the organized union workers (most from the Knights of Labor) walked off, “… operation of the surface railroads… more or less [was] completely paralyzed.” While workers went without pay for the duration of the strike and lost about $350,000 collectively during the period, the railroad companies attempted to ease their own financial pain by advertising for replacements or “scabs” in cities such as Brooklyn, Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Chicago, as well as others. According to the investigating committee, “… as a result, the railroad companies were able to entirely reorganize their working staffs [for after the strike]… ”1

While actions familiar to most American strikes took place in Brooklyn, including violence on the part of the workers, police, and militia, and employers attempting to find replacement workers, this again was no ordinary strike. It involved different levels of workers, all of whom came together under one uniformed union name. All decided to use the strike, albeit for different reasons, against four different companies.2 This essay will not only examine the causes of the strike and the actions involved by examining the investigative committee’s report, but will also place the strike in the context of the greater industrial landscape and economy of the country in the last decades of the 19th century in order to gain a better understanding about the positions of both workers and company owners when the strike occurred.

In analyzing this strike, it is first important to understand how it took place and why. Such was the task of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Causes of the Strike of the Surface Railroads in the City of Brooklyn, led by Assemblymen Friday, Donnelly, Tuttle, Stanchfield, and Smith. These men were charged with interviewing different people who were involved in any way with the Brooklyn Trolley Strike, and through these hearings attempted to figure out exactly what the circumstances were that led up to the strike, how it proceeded, and what allowed it to end. The most concise, though hardly detailed summation of how the ordeal began was given to the committee by Andrew Best, one of the executive board members of Brooklyn’s 75th District Assembly of the Knights of Labor (which was the union organization representing most of the trolley workers, but not all, as will be explained later). Best argued that the workers had agreed upon conditions of wages and hours of work, these proposals were given to the different companies, and the companies refused many of the important points. When asked whether all of the men generally desired the strike, he replied that “about 98 percent of all men voted in favor of it.” While so many workers supported going on strike, they did not all have the same reasons for wanting it.3

Before getting into the specific demands of the workers and the opposing arguments of the company owners, and the events that occurred during the strike, it is important to understand a little about the people who operated the trolleys. In Trolley Wars, Scott Molloy describes some of the workers who operated trolleys in post-Civil War Rhode Island. One such worker, Benjamin R. Jepson, had worked for 55 years on the Union Railroad line which passed by his home twenty times a day. On the day he retired in 1927, “… he inadvertently showed up for work, unable to break the habit of a lifetime.” There were thousands of workers like Jepson, who had worked on trolley lines their entire lives and who felt a sense of loyalty to their jobs. One reason for this was that compared to other workers, they were well off. According to Molloy, their “status and salary nudged them ahead of others on the working-class circuit.” Trolley workers were often called “Knights of the Road” in the press, and “were [considered] urban aristocrats in a nation of laborers, farmers, and mill hands.” Not only were these workers better paid and more respected than their peers, but they were also such an important part of the city’s everyday life that any vacation they took would be reported by the local newspapers.4

The Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895 occurred during a terrible economic time that not even the slightly better-off trolley workers could avoid. The effects of the Panic of 1893 were still being felt in 1895, and workers were struggling to make ends meet. During December 1893, the President of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, figured that there were about 3 million workers unemployed and millions more facing reduced work and wages. He blamed the panic on “production… faster, greater… the thought and motive of the capitalist class,” and claimed that no heed was given to the workers’ long-held demands for shorter working hours. Had employers listened to them, he argued, “it is safe to say that the Panic of 1893 would have been averted, deferred, and certainly less intense.”5 Whatever the cause of this economic depression, its effects were felt across the nation. Governor Flower of New York, talking at the state fair in 1893 claimed that “it is hard to realize that in other parts of our state men and women, deprived of work, see destitution and misery confronting them… This is one of the results of our recent panic. Its effects on the rich are bad enough… But… they… are not to be compared to the effects upon the thousands of persons who have been thrown out of employment… ” Because of this destitution, workers felt compelled to fight for shorter working hours and better wages in order to feed their families.6

Although the working class took the sharpest hit during the Panic of 1893, as Governor Flower had argued, the rich were also affected. While American workers struggled through unemployment, the “wealthy” owners hardly felt secured. According to Melvyn Dobovsky, “Industrialists… scarcely felt omnipotent [during this turbulent time]. The same technological and economic forces that vexed workers, also perplexed employers.” Deciding how much to invest in infrastructure that was always evolving and improving was one such challenge. Figuring out the “proper” pay for workers (one which must be low enough to still make a profit and quell workers’ anger at the same time) amid growing labor unionization was another such problem. Furthermore, the depressions from the 1870s to the 1890s, in which millions of workers’ jobs were lost, “brought business failure to thousands of enterprises.” To say that large business owners had reveled in workers losing jobs would be completely wrong. They suffered economically alongside the working class, and indeed had to find ways to cut costs in order to compete and stay afloat in the market economy.7

Not only did the owners of the four trolley companies have to deal with the economic downturn of the 1890s, but they also had to contend with governmental interference. Trolley companies around the country not only had to provide their customers with reliable and cheap service to beat the competition, but they were also under immense pressure from city governments to keep prices at a certain level. If they did not run their businesses according to government dictates, their leases might not be renewed. In Detroit, for instance, a franchise held by the Detroit Citizens’ Street Railway Company expired in January of 1894. After litigation concerning the legality of a local government deciding on franchising issues of railway lines, the court found in favor of the city. The old company attempted to renew its franchise, but was unable to meet the financial terms of the city, and the franchise was given to a new company. The Detroit government issued certain guidelines for the new company, including rules that limited fare prices to five cents and put limitations on the rate of ticket sales.8 Such limitations and leasing control were not uncommon throughout the rest of the country. In Ohio for instance, a law was passed that stated, “Street railway franchises in Ohio can only be granted for twenty-five years… ” Such a limitation did not exist for most other businesses, and therefore owners of the railways were working under a huge disadvantage.9

Almost every action that the railway companies took had to meet either the approval of the people or the government, and oftentimes both. Another example of this pressure by the government can be seen specifically in Cleveland where, “The city in its early grants to two of the lines had reserved the right to regulate fares, and almost everyone supposed that it still retained this right.”10 Had workers wanted fewer working hours and higher wages, they might have more aptly taken up their anger (and strike) against the governments that placed barriers upon railway companies in actually giving into these demands. In not agreeing to the terms of the Brooklyn trolley workers, the four companies were not just acting greedily to make as much as they could. Again, they were under tremendous pressure from the government to keep prices low, and if they wanted to keep or extend their leases, not to mention profits, they could not afford to acquiesce to all of the workers demands.

Now that we have analyzed the struggles that workers and owners faced at the time, it is time to examine the exact differences that existed between employee and employer which caused the strike. As previously mentioned, the workers from the four companies had different reasons for calling for strike. The workers of the Brooklyn City Railroad Company, specifically, voted for the strike because they disagreed with management over the details of how many hours they must work each day. According to the investigating committee, in previous contracts such as the one that had been valid in 1894, “It had always been understood that a 10-hours day’s work meant 10 hours work while the cars were actually in motion,” and “shall not include any other time, such as stand time [and] meal time.” However, the workers’ demand for the next contract was that their stand time (waiting to be deployed for work) and meal time should be included in the ten hours that they worked. In other words, the workers believed it was fair to be paid for the time they were waiting to be sent to work, and for their lunch breaks, like workers at other types of jobs were. No longer did they want, for instance, to be at their jobs for ten hours, only to be paid for nine because their meal time and stand time had been deducted from those hours of work. The President of the company, Mr. Lewis, would not accept this and believed that “free” time should not be counted as work time.11

The issue that caused the workers of the Atlantic Avenue Railroad Company to call for a strike was the wage proportion and running proportion of regular to tripper cars. Regular cars were trolleys that ran throughout the day, while tripper cars ran at the discretion of the company. While regular cars had a set amount of trips and hours allocated to them (each day), and the workers on these cars earned more money, tripper cars were used at intermittent times and the salaries of these workers depended on how often their cars ran. When there was great demand in some part of the city for more trolleys, than the tripper cars would run more often. However, if this demand decreased, then the tripper cars would not be sent out as frequently. As with most strikes, the workers wanted higher wages for those who worked on both types of cars. However, they demanded something else that proved to be a sticking point to management also. Since the workers on regular cars earned higher wages than those working on tripper cars, all of the workers wanted a greater proportion of regular to tripper cars to be run everyday, so they would have a better chance at being placed on one of the regular cars. This would give all workers an opportunity to make more money, and they therefore demanded that the proportion should be ¾ to ¼ of regular to tripper cars respectively. President Norton, of the Atlantic Company, rejected such demands and deemed it “an abandonment… of the rights of the company to maintain and control and operate its own properties in its own way.” Not only did workers at these companies want fewer hours and more pay (like had been demanded by most labor unions at the time), but many wanted a direct say in how their companies were being run and how company property should be used. Such a demand can be deemed unique (at least for most company owners who never experienced many demands beyond higher pay and less hours), in an unusual and unordinary strike.12 This demand, however, for workers to have a say in how their companies operated did not come out of thin air. Samuel Gompers, former president of the American Federation of Labor, argued that workers had a right to some control in terms of how their places of employment handled business. He believed that, “a wage-worker has some property rights in his employment [because] he has contributed towards the production, or the value of the product… [and that] wages [therefore are] never full payment for work performed.” The worker-employer relationship had changed or needed to change, as Gompers’ argument shows, because no longer was a simple paycheck enough (even one in which the workers won through strikes) to quell the desire of workers to play a larger role in the companies they worked for.13

The President of the Brooklyn, Queens County and Suburban Railroad Company, Mr. Wicker, objected to both the hours issue and the proportion of regular to tripper car issue. However, it was the latter demand that really gave him much pause about coming to any type of agreement with the workers. According to Mr. Wicker, testifying before the investigative committee, had this demand of ¾ to ¼ been followed, “It would have crowded the streets with an unnecessary number of cars during the day when there was little demand for such service, and it would have increased [the company] expenses very materially.” Not only would the workers be given too much control over company policy, like Mr. Norton had argued, but such a change in proportion would have cost the companies money that they could not afford to spend in such horrible economic times. Wicker later agreed to give into the rest of the worker demands, once they came to an agreement of 2/3 regular cars to 1/3 tripper cars, and this specific strike would have ended, according to Wicker, had the striking workers not demanded their jobs back.14 The issue of workers getting their jobs back (in the mind of any outside observer), is one that would seem to have been more anger and resentment based (on the part of Wicker) than anything else. When workers strike it is reasonable to assume, that the owner would be enraged and would not want to give them their jobs back. Rather, according to Wicker, the decision to not bring these old workers back was based on sheer statistics and proper business management. He claimed that in order to get his company’s line of service running again during the strike, his company had hired about 150 new workers. When the proposal to end the strike was sent by Wicker to the Knights of Labor for approval, Wicker claimed that it detailed a plan to keep about 100 of the new workers. If the union would accept to allow these new workers to take about 100 of the old workers’ jobs, then the strike would have been settled. Mr. Connolly, Master Workman, and the presiding officer of District Assembly of the Knights of Labor reported back, according to Wicker that, “he could not accept that condition [of allowing old workers to be replaced and] that all his men must go back or none.” The contract was then given to the new workers, and they agreed to it while the union strike continued on.15

Had only workers in these three companies gone on strike, the strike would not have been totally unusual because they were only stuck on the three main issues of hours, regular and tripper car proportions, and wages. However, when workers of the Brooklyn City and Newton Company entered the strike, their issues complicated the strike and gave it a unique twist. The workers from the Brooklyn City and Newton Company had yet to reach an agreement over certain issues and when the strike started were not members of the Knights of Labor like the workers from the other three companies. According to the investigating committee, the workers from this company “went out sympathetically pending the negotiations for a contract for the year 1895, which had not been concluded.”16 The idea of a sympathetic strike was something that many union officials around the country supported at the time, and according to David Montgomery in Workers’ Control in America, “the practice of sympathetic strikes was actually defended by the AFL in the 1890s.” Even at the AFL’s 1895 convention the executive council was told not to “tie themselves up with contracts so that they cannot help each other when able.” Furthermore, Eugene Debs, president of the Industrial Workers of the World had called such sympathy strikes a “Christ-like virtue.”17 While the workers of the Brooklyn City and Newton Company could find support from many union leaders and workers at the time for leaving their jobs and striking sympathetically with their fellow Brooklyn trolley workers from other companies, these workers still had issues that needed to be worked out. The main sticking point between the Brooklyn City and Newton Company workers and the company was over wages. Brooklyn City and Newton Company workers had demanded to be paid by the day, while the president of the company, Mr. Partridge, argued that “the system of paying by the day was unfair,” because workers might work different amounts of hours each day and accordingly had, “proposed an arrangement by which [the workers] would be paid in proportion of the number of miles run.” Partridge argued that he had tried to convince workers that they would end up receiving more money if they accepted his proposal. The proposal was not fully accepted by all of the old workers, because some feared that if they were paid in proportion to the miles they ran, then on certain days (when there was less need for trolley service) they would not receive ample pay for being at their jobs. Three days after the strike had begun, the Brooklyn City and Newton lines were running again with a combination of new and old workers.18

Although this was no ordinary strike, involving neither ordinary workers, nor ordinary issues, and occurred during a uniquely horrible economic time in which both workers and employers suffered, Brooklyn’s experience included certain standard elements of strikes. One element was violence on the part of both the strikers and the police and militia. As with most other points regarding the causes and actions of the strike, people on each side told very different stories about the violence that took place. James Connelly, intimately involved in the negotiation process as a representative of the Knights of Labor, argued that he saw violence and crimes, “committed by the militia and the police department,” but no one else. He claimed that he had direct knowledge of a situation in which, “the police entered one of the meeting places… and while the [strikers] were sitting there peaceably reading their papers… the police went in and clubbed them.” When asked by the investigating committee whether such acts of violence had intensified and prolonged the strike, Connelly answered, that he did not know, but knew of none large-scale acts of violence, “prior to the militia coming into the city.” Connelly’s story, one given by a prominent union-man, was dispelled entirely by members of the police and militia, some of whom had their own take of the violence during the strike.19

In addition to keeping strikers in line, the police were in charge of safely reopening the trolley lines quickly. According to Leonard Wells, Brooklyn Commissioner of Police, for example, many lines had been successfully reopened almost immediately after the strike began (within the same day in some cases). To get these lines moving, one or two police were put onto each car, and at the terminals, to preserve order. According to Wells, “obstruction of the track and… throwing missiles at the cars and, in some cases, assaulting new motormen and conductors,” made the stationing of police on the trolleys necessary. He also claimed to have seen many trolley cars with broken windows and large gatherings at various locations throughout the city. He estimated that he had seen a crowd of about 5,000 to 10,000 men gathered in East New York alone. While police were worn thin with only about 1000-1100 officers available in Brooklyn, Wells claimed that it was “absolutely necessary” for the militia to be sent to Brooklyn in order to protect the trolleys from further damage and make sure that the picketers were kept in order. He argued that as long as “cars were attacked, imperiling the safety of the public, and the peaceful travel of the public,” the intervention of the police and militia was absolutely vital. Had the workers’ riots really not been large or dangerous, then it would seem unlikely for the Commissioner of Police, someone who most likely takes great pride in his line of duty and in his men’s work, to support being joined and at times supplanted by the militia. Undoubtedly, a man in the position of Commissioner Wells would have been more apt to attempt to quell workers’ violence on his own with his own men in order to gain notoriety and support in the city, if it was at all possible for him to do so without the militia coming in. Obviously, this was not the case as the scale of worker violence must have been too large, and the militia was needed. Finally, as any “good” member of the police force would do, he denied knowing anything about Mr. Connelly’s claim that the police had acted violently to the strikers during peaceful meetings.20

While it may be reasonable to assume that the militia and the strikers shared no personal or “special” bond as employees of the same city, the same cannot be said for the relationship between the police and the strikers. As employees of a city in which they were both relatively ranked higher on the working class social ladder and who oftentimes socialized together, the police and the strikers felt a mutual understanding of each other’s problems. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that according to the Superintendent of police, Patrick Campbell, the police were sympathetic to the workers “to some extent… in not protecting the conductors and drivers of motormen who were on the cars,” and he believed that such actions “must have been [caused by] personal sympathy.” Some of the police officers were accused of neglecting their duties (although the actual number cannot be known) and about 25 of them were tried in court by the commissioner.21 Not only did members of the police force report instances of sympathy to the strikers, but these reports were also told to members of the militia. According to Charles F. Roe, commander of Troop “A” of the National Guard, of the City of New York, who was stationed in Brooklyn during the strike, he had been told of the police acting sympathetically towards the workers. He claimed that it was reported to him that, “undoubtedly the police sympathized with the crowd, and were not doing their duty.” Generally speaking about the work that the policemen did during the duration of the strike, he argued that “they did not do good service.” While the extent of this sympathy of the police force to the workers cannot be determined, there was no doubt an effect on the ability of the militia and police to quell the workers’ violence because of this sympathy.22

Although the workers vandalized the trolley companies’ property by breaking windows and such, the actions they took against the new workers or “scabs” brought in to replace them needs to also be examined. As claimed by both Commissioner Wells and Superintendent Campbell of the police force, striking workers had acted violently towards these new workers, while much of the police force did a sub-par job in protecting them. This violence had not only been noticed by members of the militia and police, but also by trolley company executives. According to Mr. Partridge, president of the Brooklyn City and Newton Company, this violence against new workers in addition to the actions of the “problematic” Knights of Labor executive committee lengthened the strike. Partridge argued that he had “the full belief that the majority of our men were opposed to the strike;… and that they were led into it by the executive committee, and that they were afraid to go to work… the only thing that deterred [many] of them from going to work was the fear of violence.” While the first two points of Partridge’s argument can be debated, the latter argument concerning the dangers of violence that potential scabs or returning workers faced cannot be.23 Furthermore, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, in an article published during the strike, not only were old workers wary of going back to work for fear of being deemed “scabs” and in turn being attacked, but so were new workers that the trolley companies attempted to bring in. In the article entitled, “Recruiting in Washington,” the report claimed it was not very easy to find new workers in other cities around the country for this very same reason. An unnamed trolley company had sent two men (who kept changing their names to the reporter for fear of being found out amongst sympathetic citizens in the surrounding area) to Washington D.C. to scout for potential new employees (who were oftentimes taken from other trolley companies) to bring back to Brooklyn to work on the trolleys. Potential workers had been offered a salary of two dollars per day, protection from the striking mob, and the guarantee that they would keep their jobs after the strike, but such promises were not enough for many of the recruited men. Many men who agreed to the job had planned to get a free ride to New York (which was provided by the secretive men) and then escape without ever working for a trolley company. One recruited worker, who was on such a shuttle to Brooklyn gave his reason for not living up to his agreement with the company scouts when he said, “I’ll be blanked it I go over there to take the place of the strikers. One reason is sympathy with the strikers and another because I am not going to run one of those Brooklyn cars and get my block knocked off.” Not only were some of the police sympathetic to the plight of the striking trolley workers, but so were many people around the country (including those who had worked on trolleys in other states). The fear of violence from striking workers is also evident in the voice of this out of town worker, who would not risk his safety by taking a job in such dangerous conditions. Whether it was because the police sympathized with the strikers or because the police and militia were undermanned, violence definitely occurred, was aimed towards returning or “scab” workers during the strike, and made it more difficult for the trolley companies to recruit new employees.24

While the Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895 might not be as well-known as other famous worker-employer battles, it is not because it was ordinary. Rather, the circumstances surrounding the strike, the issues involved, the quantity of workers striking, the number of companies being struck against, and the sympathy of some of the police toward the strikers made this event quite unusual. The economic depression of 1893 had rattled the entire nation, and nobody could escape its wrath. Trolley workers who might have earned more than the average worker were affected equally if not more than large company owners. The “common” man found it difficult to feed his family at times, while the “wealthy” owners found it difficult to keep their companies afloat and remain successful. Amidst these hard times, it is no wonder that workers fought to improve their lot, while owners fought back to make sure that they would not be swallowed up by the market economy, and such were the circumstances surrounding the Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895. The trolley workers argued on the three main issues of hours, wages, and regular to tripper car proportions, with variances in demands at each of the four particular companies. The regular to tripper car issue was the most unusual, as workers deemed it appropriate to have some property rights over the trolleys. This demand went far beyond the simple request for less hours and more pay that most other types of workers argued for, and showed the changing nature of workers at the time, as a paycheck was no longer enough for them to feel a true part of the company they worked for. While the four company owners pushed back these demands as long as they could, their refusal to give into worker demands came not only out of their possible financial problems that resulted from the depression, but also from government regulations which they had to abide by. Government regulations forced trolley companies to do such things as keep their prices at certain levels, and the government would not extend their leases if such regulations were not met. Therefore, owners not only had to concentrate on making money, but they had to do so with the government on top of them and regulating how exactly this money could be made. Such circumstances made it very difficult for companies to give into worker demands, and by not giving into these demands they faced much wrath from the workers. The police force was insufficient in putting down worker protests and riots, and the militia had to come in. Not only were the police outnumbered, but their ability to quell worker violence was lessened because some of the police sympathized with the workers and did not do their duty. The Brooklyn Trolley Strike of 1895 should be viewed as an example of what can happen when both worker and employer find it difficult to keep pace in a market economy during tough economic times. While the strike was bred out of the unusual and horrific Depression of 1893, the strike soon became unique and unordinary on its own because of the issues argued over and the events that transpired.


  1. “Proceedings of the Special Committee of the Legislature to Inquire Into the Causes of the Recent Brooklyn Strike, Held at the City Hall, Brooklyn, NY.,” in State of New York, Report of the Special Committee of the Assembly Appointed to Investigate the Causes of the Strike of the Surface Railroads in the City of Brooklyn (Albany, NY: James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1895), 5-10, Box 01, Folder 1A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter “Proceedings,” 1A]
  2. “Proceedings,” 104-105, Box 01, Folder 2A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter “Proceedings,” 2A]
  3. “Proceedings,” 1A, 9-10.
  4. Scott Molloy, Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line (Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press, 2007): 20-26, Box 01, Folder 20A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  5. Samuel Rezneck, “Unemployment, Unrest, and Relief in the United States during the Depression of 1893-97,” The Journal of Political Economy 61:4 (August, 1953): 327, Box 01, Folder 29A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter Rezneck]
  6. Rezneck, 327.
  7. Melvyn Dubovsky, Industrialization and the American Worker (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983): 38, Box 01, Folder 23, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  8. “Notes on Municipal Government,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (July, 1895): 177, Box 01, Folder 30A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  9. E.W. Bemis, “The Street Railway Settlement in Cleveland,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 22:4 (August, 1908): 543-545, Box 01, Folder 27A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter Bemis]
  10. Bemis, 543-545.
  11. “Proceedings,” 1A, 25-26.
  12. “Proceedings,” 1A, 24-26.
  13. “Proceedings,” 449, Box 01, Folder 11A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  14. “Proceedings,” 1A, 27.
  15. “Proceedings,” 211-212, Box 01, Folder 4A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn NY.
  16. “Proceedings,” 1A, 29.
  17. David Montgomery, Workers’ Control in America (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980): 22-23, Box 01, Folder 25A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  18. “Proceedings,” 330-334, Box 01, Folder 8A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter “Proceedings,” 8A]
  19. “Proceedings,” 2A, 104-105.
  20. “Proceedings,” 289-293, Box 01, Folder 7A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY. [hereafter “Proceedings,” 7A]
  21. “Proceedings,” 7A, 306.
  22. “Proceedings,” 8A, 344.
  23. “Proceedings,” 8A, 337.
  24. “Recruiting in Washington: Brooklyn Trolley Agents Said to be Causing an Exodus,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 23, 1895): Box 01, Folder 19A, Brooklyn Daily Eagle Clipping File, item 69, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.

  • Bemis, E.W. “The Street Railway Settlement in Cleveland.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 22:4 (August, 1908), 543-575, Box 01, Folder 27A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • Dubovsky, Melvin. Industrialization and the American Worker. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983, Box 01, Folder 23, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • Molly, Scott. Trolley Wars: Streetcar Workers on the Line. Lebanon: University of New Hampshire Press, 2007, 20-26, Box 01, Folder 20A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • Montgomery, David. Workers’ Control in America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980, 22-23, Box 01, Folder 25A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • Rezneck, Samuel. “Unemployment, Unrest, and Relief in the United States during the Depression of 1893-97,” The Journal of Political Economy 61:4 (August, 1953): 324-345, Box 01, Folder 29A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • “Notes on Municipal Government,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (July, 1895), 165-180, Box 01, Folder 30A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • Proceedings of the Special Committee of the Legislature to Inquire Into the Causes of the Recent Brooklyn Strike, Held at the City Hall, Brooklyn, NY.,” in State of New York, Report of the Special Committee of the Assembly Appointed to Investigate the Causes of the Strike of the Surface Railroads in the City of Brooklyn (Albany, NY: James B. Lyon, State Printer, 1895), Box 01, Folders 1A, 2A, 4A, 7A, 8A, 11A, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.
  • “Recruiting in Washington: Brooklyn Trolley Agents Said to be Causing an Exodus,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (January 23, 1895): Box 01, Folder 19A, Brooklyn Daily Eagle Clipping File, item 69, 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections, Brooklyn, NY.

Meagan De La Cruz

Honorable Mention, Essays
Meagean De La Cruz  Social Work, Lehman College

Overworked and Underpaid

Growing up my mother, a single parent of three children, continuously struggled to put a roof over mine and my brother’s heads. She worked long hours, and juggled two jobs. My brother’s and I always wore hand me down clothes, used food stamps to buy milk and bread and holidays weren’t as fruitful for us as it was for our friends. I never understood why it was so hard for my mother to provide for us; she was a beautiful woman with a good heart and just as hard working as people who were financially stable.

It wasn’t until I had my first job, that I realized just how unfairly my paychecks by no means reflected my hard work. Through reading, Changing Contours of Work: Jobs and Opportunities in the New Economy by Stephen Sweet and Peter Meiskins, I was able to gain more knowledge as why the work force isn’t as “fair” as employees would like it to be. Employees are often overworked and underpaid, the way I have been throughout my work history. There were many words in this book that I could relate to pertaining to my past and my present work experience.

I began working at the age of 16 years old to gain experience, responsibilities and financially contribute to the expenses my later high school years required my mother to pay. If I wanted a car, a high school yearbook, a dress for prom etc. I had to come up with the money because my mother was not financially able to do so. I went into a local fast food restaurant called Rally’s to apply for part-time work. I worked approximately 20 hours week for $7.25 on top of going to school full-time, participating in afterschool activities such as Volleyball, Softball, the National Honor Society, the Yearbook Club, the History Club and the Beta Club. In our culture, it is our role to juggle the many responsibilities that we hold as well as work hard for little pay.

According to Sweet and Meiksins, Frederick Winslow Taylor introduced this managerial philosophy, also known as Taylorism, at the beginning of the 20th century to increase the productivity of workers laboring in factories. What Taylor did was place “thought” behind laboring in the hands of managers and employees were only required to execute the manager’s instructions. Taylorism was designed to “increase worker speed and accuracy,” (9). This has remained in the job atmosphere and has become the main structure that many employers follow.

In my first job, Rally’s, I was only to follow the instructions given by my supervisor and/or manager. The position I was working that day such as cashier, food prep, grill etc. was delegated by the supervisor and/or manager on duty. The manager had complete control over the responsibilities that the employees were given to perform. The managers also kept close eye to ensure that you were producing efficiently. I worked at a very busy fast food restaurant so we were constantly being supervised to guarantee we were making the orders correctly, getting the orders out is a timely manner and keeping our area of work neat and stocked.

At the end of the shift, it was our manager’s job to check that we did our closing duties properly. They investigated to make sure we stocked the ketchup, pickles, cups, cleaned out the food prep areas etc. If we were the cashier for the day, the manager counted our drawer to see that all money was accounted for. It was their job to make sure that as employees we did the job that was expected of us to do. Taylorism implies that a worker is not necessarily capable of being efficient so they need someone who has knowledge to supervise them and this will guarantee that the job is done correctly.

With the enforcement of Taylorism, the consequential aftermath is Alienation. Alienation is the process where an employee loses control of labor. Work for an employee becomes meaningless and they are powerless. Taylorism takes away the voice of an employee meaning that we no longer have free will in our place of employment; we are told what to do and when to do it. Alienation is the feeling employees are left with because we have no control over our day to day responsibilities in our place of employment.

At Rally’s I was never given an option on the duties that I was assigned. Every day I was told what position I was working and how efficient I needed to be based on the pace of business. I specifically loved being in the cashier position. I enjoyed interacting with customers and it made me a much happier person at the end of the shift. However I was very good a preparing orders. I was able to get an entire order out to the window in two minutes and this was a skill that my managers often took advantage of. I hated being in the back of the restaurant having no interaction with the outside world and standing next to a hot grill. I was completely powerless over my day to day work and this alienated me from being able to enjoy my day at work.

My job at Rally’s also became very meaningless. It was never a job that I imagined myself progressing in. Most of the managers in this particular restaurant only moved up in position because they were all related in some way. It only became a job that I maintained to guarantee that I would be able to pay for my car insurance and other expenses I had acquired. I went to work every day anxious for the work day to end so that I could leave and enjoy my time with friends. Rally’s was not a job I found satisfaction in; I only worked to receive a paycheck and this alienated me from the productivity of the product and the enjoyment of working with fellow employees.

Having a meaningless job can also stem from not being paid for the amount of work you put into the company. I am currently working as a Hostess in Hard Rock Café Times Square, an increasingly high volume restaurant right in the heart of Manhattan. I give a 100% every time I am on the clock simply because of the high volume and my need to commit completely to any task I perform. I am often exploited in this restaurant, just as I was when working in Rally’s. Exploitation is simply being over worked and not having your pay reflect the responsibilities you have as an employee. Throughout Sweet and Meiksins book, they describe how employees are overworked and underpaid.

I worked at Rally’s for two years, worked every position in the restaurant, passed all “secret shoppers” with 100% scores, always on time, went above and beyond to ensure teamwork and only received a twenty five cent raise. I was making $7.25 when leaving Rally’s and believed that I did just as much work, if not more, than the supervisors and managers in the restaurant. Even though I was in school, I worked long hours and was always dependable. I was very diligent and never the appreciation never reflected in my paycheck.

Hard Rock has become another place of employment where I have been exploited. I had been working at Hard Rock for three years and on each evaluation, I was never given a raise. I was constantly going above and beyond and became very effective at maintaining the entire flow of the restaurant. It is a very high volume restaurant and we often encounter wait times of two hours. It is a restaurant that seats over 600 people and a kitchen only sufficient enough for half that amount.

Hard Rock has a position what is called “Host Rocker,” this is a position also known as a shift leader. The Rocker is responsible for overseeing the entire shift, ensuring the hosts are doing the duties they are assigned, delegated break times, and most importantly keeping the flow of the restaurant and keeping the managers satisfied. Each shift has Rocker and you are obviously given more responsibility than the other host. On a Sunday I came in to check my schedule and under my name it had said I was scheduled as a Rocker. I was a bit confused. I never agreed to this position and more importantly I was given more work but for the same pay. I approached the managers about this and they said “You should be feel lucky, we gave you the position because we know you are capable of doing it, now let’s see if you deserve a raise”. I was beyond furious and more importantly I felt exploited. I had the “ability” to be given the position but yet I didn’t deserve the pay increase that should have coincided with the higher position.

In Sweet and Meiksins text, they use a term called work-poor. According to Sweet and Meiksins, a work-poor labor force is one that lacks sufficient work opportunities and compensation and compels some workers to perform the jobs of two workers (151). By working at Hard Rock, I fit very well into this definition of “work-poor”. In a normal 6 hour shift at the Hard Rock, I often do the job of several employees. I have become a very dependable worker according to my managers. When I am on the shift the managers have gained confidence in me and this results in them slacking off on their duties as managers. On many shifts, I take control of the floor informing host that they can leave early or when to eliminate certain sections of the restaurant if we become slow. I also am very capable of handling guest who are unsatisfied, changing their orders in the kitchen, calming them down if they are getting out of control; these are all duties of the manager.

I have taken on the many duties of a manager in my restaurant however my paycheck still remains the same and I am unable to receive the full-time hours I am qualified to work. The term work-poor addresses the problem that workers aren’t given enough time at their jobs to work. They are faced with increased responsibilities in a short period of work hours. Despite their capability of working more and receiving more money they aren’t given the opportunity to be beneficial to a company. Hard Rock will even write an employee up if they go into over-time and will only schedule an employee no more than three shifts a week. An employee will only get extra shifts if they are given one by another employee and they have to take into consideration that they must not go into over-time or they will be penalized.

My social, family and work life today is arranged by the hours, days, weeks etc. Every hour of mine is accounted for, Sweet and Meiksins addressed a term called time-orientated labor. According to the text, time-oriented labor led to the development of hourly wages and shift work and reoriented the rhythms of work and family lives around clocks and calendars, (142). This has become the culture of our society. Our day to day routines and time spent with others is all according to time-oriented labor. I am given a particular wage by the hour. I know that if I work thirty hours a week and with my pay of $12 an hour, I will receive approximately $360 a week. I am able to calculate a general idea of what my paycheck will look like based on how many hours I worked that week. If I need $400 for the week and I was only scheduled thirty hours, I will need to pick up an extra shift from another host. Time-oriented labor gave employers the opportunity to clearly determine what hours we will and how much we will get paid.

Our lives often revolve around our work schedule. We know to schedule social encounters, school, doctor appointments, trips to the grocery store, and even when to sleep all around the times we are scheduled to work. At the beginning of the semester, I knew that I could only register for classes around my work schedule. The lack of employers willingness to be flexible forced me to arrange my class schedule around work. The days that I do work I knew to schedule my classes according to the time it takes me to commute to school after leaving work at 5pm.

My work schedule also plays a big part in the time I am able to spend with my daughter. The days that I am working late, I lose valuable time with her however it is not something I have much control over. I am forced to work to financially support her by myself despite my desire to spend as much free time with her as possible. Due to time-oriented labor, I am forced to schedule her ballet classes and other activities around my work schedule. Time-orientated labor has its pros and cons; I am able to map out the days and times of work however I know that if I want a more fruitful paycheck, I need to work longer hours.

The two terms that fascinated me the most in Sweet and Meiksins text, were human capital and social capital. The human capital theory which is a perspective that focuses on the value of the skills different employees apply to their jobs, (98). It is about “what you know” that will determine your worth as an employee and will earn you higher wages and possibly give you opportunity to move up in a company. I picked this term because I am unhappy with the fact that my place of employment finds no value or appreciation in the employee despite their contribution.

As I have explained, I am very knowledgeable and capable of doing the work of a manager. I have worked with this company for five years and have received a dollar raise. I take on the job responsibilities of many others including busing tables, preparing food, assisting guest, cleaning duties etc. During the busiest times of the years, my managers can count on me to keep the restaurant full, keep the kitchen from being too overloaded with food orders, and making sure the other employees in my division are doing their job. However I still continue to get paid the same rate that other employees who aren’t capable of the responsibilities that I am given to perform.

I apply this term to my work experience in a sense that my company lacks the value of human capital. You are exploited and alienated despite your resource of human capital. I have expressed with the company numerous times that I want to be considered for the manager position. I am constantly given the runaround and told to pretty much jump through hoops to even be considered. Even though I have obtained, human capital, the skills and experience to become a manager, I lack the social capital resource that could give me the opportunity for upward mobility.

According to Sweet and Meiksins, social capital is all about “who you know,” and social connections to wealth and opportunity are important to the process of getting a job and moving up in the labor market. In my case my lack of the resource social capital is what is keeping from moving up in the company. It isn’t about the skills and experience that I have obtained throughout the five years at Hard Rock; it is the fact that I don’t “brown nose” the men in the corporate office.

Each of the managers in my company have all come from the corporate restaurant in Orlando, Florida. They have all worked closely with the men in the corporate office and that is why they were given the opportunity to become managers of the busiest Hard Rock Café in the world. Despite the fact that my managers know how hard I work, they are unable to put in a good word for me because the men in corporate could care less about a host wanting to obtain upward mobility. Their employees are not seen as real people just workers. Hard Rock Café does offer great upward mobility and other opportunities such as traveling around the world however your social capital is imperative to receiving these opportunities.

For every worker we believe that we are entitled to receive particular benefits simply because we work hard for them. Sweet and Meiksins address a term called entitlements which are “rights and resources available to all citizens independent of attachment to the labor force,” (122). These entitlements can include unemployment, sickness, family leave, child care etc. Unfortunately, my company lacks to the opportunity to meet the requirements of particular entitlements. In order to receive things such as vacation time, sick days, and even insurance, you are required to work a minimum of thirty hours a week. How can you get these entitlements when your job is a work-poor labor force?

My job doesn’t schedule workers for more than twenty-five hours a week; any additional hours are based upon if you can get a shift from another employer. However everyone is in need of the money so picking up a shift from someone else becomes very difficult. If you don’t work more than thirty hours a week, you lose out on the entitlements you should receive as an employee. It is as if they say “sure we give them entitlements however let’s make it as difficult as possible for them to receive these entitlements.”

In my short period of only nine years of employment, I have become greatly appreciative for the hard work my mother put in just to keep food on the table. I often wondered why it was so hard for her to provide but I see now the barriers people face in the labor force. We are not all given the same opportunity to get paid more. We are often overworked and underpaid and unfortunately my mother was a victim to this. My mother lacked beneficial resources such as human and social capital mostly because she did not advance her education. I work hard every day as a single mother to ensure that I obtain the knowledge and experience that is essential for my daughter to have a better life.


  • Sweet, Stephen and Meiskins, Peter (2007) Changing Contours of Work: Jobs and Opportunities in the New Economy, Pine Forge

Laquann Jenkins

First Prize, Poetry
Laquann Jenkins  English/Creative Writing, Lehman College

Bitter Chocolate

Nine years old—
in the treacherous ivory coast,

sunrise to melt him away
with layers of chocolate rocks,

branches piercing his feet.
his frail body barely stands.

he’s skin and bones.
his legs sore with blisters on his feet.

cutting cocoa fruit from the trees
a machete and the weight of the world in his hands.

his sack can’t fall short two hundred weight.
one of many sons dipped in bitter chocolate,

centuries of deep cotton rooted in the dirt.
with watching eyes, he say goodbye—

he’s one of traveling sons unleashed into bondage.
bent over, picking, carrying bitter

chocolate that taste so sweet.
melted rich into a square bars with tainted blood of children—

no other reliable source of income.
he has to keep going,

before the whip kisses his back
and his light flickers out.

Renisha Pierre

Second Prize, Poetry
Renisha Pierre  Social Work and Sociology, Lehman College

Corner Talk

I came in ’98.
On a plane.
With one bag.
Never left since.

Arrived to the coast.
The white “natives” turned their nose at my scent.
Who knew oil and spices weren’t holy in this land?

Last time I saw my father,
He was on a porch on an empty sugar plantation
With hands that knew nothing but the whip of a machete
And the break
Snap of sugar cane.
Last time we spoke,
He called me Americano.
It sounded like sucio.

When I dropped my accent
Like a wedding band on a kitchen counter,
My family named me Big Time Yankee.
My boss finally remembered my name.

You might wonder why I came.
Since ’87 my back has been bent,
My knees threadbare.
But my children walk

I once heard someone say
Everything and everyone has 2 deaths.
The first, when it takes its last breath.
The second comes a bit later,
When someone says its name for the last time,
The last time it is spoken of and remembered.
What if we say freedom for the last time?
Or liberty?
Or justice?
Or rights?
What if we stop gathering around the fires,
And speaking through the dust of the ashes?
What happens when our stories stop being told?
When our words stop moving,
We do.
When they burn the flesh of the revolution
And fire is the only light,
Are you breathing a stanza?
Are you telling your story,
Your banana boat
Labor tale?
Whose mob are you lightening torches for with your words?
Or your silence?
Who is speaking?
Who is listening?
Who is dancing their history,
Or singing their grandfather’s song?
The push and pull of his arms,
The callousness taking room on his palms.

Keep pushing the wind.
Keeping humming and changing the currents
With your tongue and hands against the tide.
Open your lips for something that matters.
Find the language,
Affected and meaningful.
Give the context of your life,
Of what is it to live
On the margin of a world
That sees nothing but the fruits you bear.
Tell me of the lights that flicker
In the neighborhoods you were locked out of,
The offices you sat in,
Knowing no one wants to hear your corner avenue English
Or smell the rude paint on your boots.
Still, tell.
Sing the melody of your labor,
Your migration.
Don’t let them forget the bricks you laid.

Cause if they take my voice
Who’s gon push for me?
And if they take your lips
Who’s gon scream for us?

I am no alien
Don’t call me that.

My grandmother packed my bags.
She put a feather in the pocket
And a picture of my mother in my hands.
Told me never forget my wings
And the tight curve of my mother’s lips
With the picket in her hands.

My story is not as romantic.
I just wanted other options.

There was war in the Congo.
I would have been mutilated or dead.
But I don’t really want to talk about it.

I’m here now.
That’s all that matters.
But this really isn’t about immigrants
Or labor.
It’s about oppression.
And the least protected
Always meets the target’s bulls-eye.
But I want this
                             like a      spinning      hat.

My children are still waiting for me to come back.
Sometimes I forgot my youngest likes
The burnt bottoms of my banana bread.
I hope they still remember my name.
I do it for them.

Allison Dillon

Third Prize, Poetry
Allison Dillon  English/Literature, Lehman College

The Lunch Ladies Went on Strike that Day

The day the lunch ladies went on strike
Was the beginning of a long hike
That set the teens up for the rest of life.

Little Wendy lost her only meal
And with only so much to steal
She got a picture of how hunger feels.

Couldn’t even find a slice of bread
Didn’t take long to learn open legs get fed
Began to trust every word the pimp said

He taught her to escape the pain
By sticking needles in her veins.
The innocent became inhumane.

As she grew, she began to know
Where she’d land as a hoe
But it wasn’t enough for her to let go

Until her pregnancy struck a chord.
She made a promise in the maternity ward
To change when they snipped the umbilical cord.

Five custodians took off that day,
Scheduled a time to play.
The rest is very hard to say.

A nervous six year old puked in the hall.
While the only janitor cleaned a bathroom stall
And the nurse began to call

“This baby won’t make it out at all!”
The doctor rushed, but couldn’t catch her fall.
Wendy’s child never got a chance to crawl.

Wendy couldn’t help but cry.
It should have been her to die.
So she went back to getting high.

The day the lunch ladies went on strike
Was the beginning of a long hike
That began the ride of life.

A woman sped up to where they stood
And slammed on the breaks as hard as she could.
No strikers were hurt, but she wasn’t good.

Billy the tough guy lost his mom that day.
In his mind, the picketers got their way,
All over a dollar’s pay.

When Billy found out, he was no longer tough.
This had to be a horrible bluff.
He got to the scene. This was real stuff.

Billy’s family decided to sue.
They took it to court for judicial review.
The jury’s verdict was far from true.

It was ruled as nothing but an accident.
For Billy this was inadequate.
So he found a way to never quit.

For those strikers he felt no remorse.
In less than a year, joined the police force
For him, this was just a matter of course.

The day the lunch ladies went on strike
Was the beginning of a long hike
That set them up for the rest of life.

Little Lindsay’s mom was not around.
She always worked out of town.
So Lindsay cooked what she found.

Luckily, Lindsay’s mom was rich
So she could make whatever she wished.
All alone she cooked shellfish.

Without parents, she had no clue
And with the fish her throat grew,
So, she made her hospital debut.

The doctor asked for an explanation.
Lindsay responded with frustration,
“I don’t know. My mom’s on vacation!”

Lindsay overheard a nurse
Say “CPS is the worst!”
Goddamn shellfish is a curse.

Lindsay was sent away that day.
Her entire world was turning grey.
Without delay, she ran away.

They got hold of her mom on the phone.
“My daughter’s fine on her own
She’s seventeen that’s fully grown!”

“Listen, ma’am, you’ve got a lot to lose.
No matter how hard—you have to choose.
It’s either your daughter or your cruise.”

All the while, Lindsay roamed
Struggling to find a home,
Searched for a job up and down Jerome

Until she met a man named Ben
Who asked if she’d like to bartend.
It was just enough to pay the rent.

The day the lunch ladies went on strike
Was the beginning of a long hike
That began the ride of life.

Years went by, but the effects were lasting
Some of them may call for gasping,
While others far from needing masking.

Surprisingly, Wendy’s still alive
Trying hard to survive,
But from bad habits has yet to revive.

Billy’s now the chief of police
Trying hard to keep the peace.
Married a doctor named Denise

Lindsay’s now a great bartender
Trying hard to convey splendor
To get big tips from big spenders.

But she fell into bad habits too
A lot of drug dealers in her crew
From just alcohol, her selling grew.

Today the three will be together,
All facing major pressure
With no idea whatsoever

Of the strike that caused their connection.
Wendy just wants her injection
While Lindsay wants her collection.

Billy and Denise go out on a date
She notices a girl who’s way underweight
The girl turns, changing Denise’s state.

Denise would never forget who she was
She’s tried so many times but still never does.
The girl lost her child. Denise was the cause.

The second Billy turns around
He sees a bag drop to the ground
Says, “That’s a drug deal—hands down.”

“Can’t you just forget about work?
You’re constantly acting like a jerk!”
But Billy can’t help it. He needs to lurk.

He gets up to head outside,
But doesn’t make it before he is eyed
Wendy and Lindsay begin to stride.

“Who was that?” asks Lindsay.
“The fuckin’ chief of NYPD!”
The girls run like dogs from fleas.

Denise follows Billy, begging him to let it go,
But he will not stop and she is too slow.
A tear falls from her eyes. What a low blow!

Wendy’s pimp and gang wait down the block
In case the girl’s are in need of a flock.
He sees them run and pulls out a glock.

The day the lunch ladies went on strike
Was the beginning of a long hike
That set them up for this night.

Rukma Dhakal

Honorable Mention, Poetry
Rukma Dhakal  History and Engineering, City College

Child Fight the Fight

Seven scurved jags slashed on chest with soiled nails,
Splattered maroons drowned by tears off the temples,
Harsh Hails snap, ticking through tornado gales,
Billed masses shrouded dead via shrapnelled shackles.

I’m just half a score, though five’s in the mob,
Lost in inceptioned dreams’ dream, gruesome plight,
Besmirched, so seldom supper’s a corn cob,
Nonstop regret since dwelled off the oceans’ might.

Burnt stray small pockets, yet deep down us basks,
Rotund felines curling its own whiskers,
To each its own, armed tanks on top of banks,
Heed all, and bear rise as change freethinkers.

Feigned pure angels, but hell sure acting none,
Vile jingo rat race, burn like the sheen sun!

Zachary Amendt

First Prize, Narrative

Remington Silent

Note: This story is excerpted from a novella of the same name.

Close to the earth, the four of them—four-and-a-half, counting Mirella—wedded to it. A life that is pastoral, freewheeling. Friday nights they fuel up the lanterns and, guzzling Calvados, stumble in the rows, singing. (For our part, we don’t marvel at the stars, because we know what they are, and that we’ll never be among them.) Kerosene. Gaping at the moon and braying. Delia’s hair, unkempt, growing to the middle of her back, long as her daughter’s secondhand dolls’; Stafford’s beard in patches. Liselotte, his betrothed, visiting to relay letters to his parents in Dublin. Loren learning his rhythms on the acoustic steel guitar.

These girls were more motherly than anyone they’d ever known. Together, they relish the ends of days, the waning light; hands worn, lower backs convulsing, they share the television, the battered paperbacks. Ground rules on the refrigerator that no-one obeys. Coins strewn about the floor, visages of Lincoln. They attend to the chores like peasants, reveling in the backbreak. The dishes are greasy, the coffee cups rims’ from Delia’s gloss.

Armistice Day. In her bunk, Mirella curled beside her—her daughter, tomorrow turning six, learning to bicycle, the convulsions of epic tantrums—Delia listens close to the cadence of Stafford’s footsteps, pacing about in the parlor, loud and postulating. Muffling his curses, for Mirella’s sake. Chain-smoking. His vice grip on oratory: coarse, and coughing to punctuate his points. He and Loren go shooting occasionally in the arroyo that runs behind the house, where the water’s sweet and cool this time of year, trickling. Or, they hunt near the reservoir, jackrabbits congregating under the beached canoes, overturned and rotting, with Stafford’s .22 that’s the same brand, Remington, as Loren’s typewriter—on which he entreats the water authority to please, please send a man out to examine the taps.

Intense, irrational young men, for whom doors always seem to open. They’re farmhands at the conservancy, established last year to buck the trend of fallowing fields, the exodus of yeoman farmers to the Scarsdales, the Lauderdales out east. When this year’s apple yield matured a week late, the boys kept warm in bunks and near bonfires, waiting, then labored for hours unto exhaustion. Fortified by a flask hidden in Loren’s overalls. And, when they were hungry, sneaking several tart ones into their sleeves. It’s a habit Delia imported from finishing school: from the pace, the gait, the cleat, she can guess with some precision the weight and attitude of the walker in question. (How a man will walk to a lover, for instance: striding, and often on tiptoe.) They took her in two months ago, Loren crushing hard on her, a fondness that has lately cooled. She is just his height, so she can never wear heels when they go out, when they dance. Nor will she tell who Mirella’s father is, much as he implores her to.

Cabot is situated on Highway 278, the historic grade to Chiriaco. Its names are set in its ways—the Rincon Norteno, the Arandas. La Palapa—“a place by the sea.” The grocery, Gerrard’s, with birds nesting in the rafters. Until 1912 it was Cabotville, a Burlington Northern town, dropping the suffix at the magnates’ insistence. While the town has few merits, a lending library, a high water table, it is at least picturesque, outside the reach of trends and, best of all, what is fashionable.

With the bed pushed against the wall she feels less vulnerable, with enough room in the center of the room for Mirella to put her arms out and, if she wishes, twirl. If she wants to be a helicopter, let her. Her mother has stacked Loren’s books around her bed, Wolfe, Breslin, to ward off the malevolent spirits.

Twice a week she bicycles herself home with packages from the bodega, canned food and loaves, with Mirella in tow, pedaling furiously on training wheels that need tightening. She makes the boys thick brown-bag lunches, excessively layered with meat and cheese, the thermoses filled with fresh beer, frothing, or on some days soup, hearty and slicked with butter. If they’re lucky, fresh milk. Ritually, she staggered down the hallway to kiss them both good-night, Loren first and on the lips, then Stafford behind the ear.

“You smoke too much,” she said. “Try and cut back.”

“I can’t breathe without cigarettes,” Stafford said. It’s how he closed his days—stomping, obliterating the butts into the floor, and collecting into paper bags the bottles they’d emptied for Delia to pedal into town with and redeem. If only Loren had his height. His bravado.

“I saw Joardan in town today,” she said.

In the center of the den are Loren’s boots, a sirocco cactus embroidered up the leg, the soles nailed in and smeared with ash.

“Isn’t that troublesome?” she asked.

“Could be,” Loren said.

“Don’t you think he’ll start something?” she said. “He won’t dare try,” Stafford said. “Not tomorrow, with all the kids around.”

“Unless he was mounting a gun-rack on his back window,” she said. “But I’m sure it was nothing.”

“Quail are in season,” Stafford said. “The happiest hunting.”

[ II ]

She met Loren three months ago, the middle of his and Stafford’s second week in Cabot. They came as they were—city sophisticates, disaffected by city life—tired of sleeping till noon, carousing no end, walking the promenades of bridges, the morning’s jousting on the subways and trolleys. In August, his interest piqued, Stafford told Loren about a profile of a growers’ conservancy in Cabot, seven hours south and inaccessible by passenger train … that night, after a little deliberation, they bolted in Loren’s Dodge, arriving the next morning at the ranch tousled, unfed, haggard—dressing down, as Cavafy put it, to more effectively beg.

All around, the roads were gravel, pocked by hard weather, disuse. Staggering vistas. River washes, lined with granite boulders and long run dry. Obsolescent farm equipment, idle for decades. The conservancy’s proprietor, Juan Tyler, was forty-seven, Nicaraguan, settled here twenty years and still thickly accented. (To better assimilate, he had taken the surname of a customs agent, and bought language cassettes that inclined him to talk in platitudes.) The boys signed on for a fifty dollar a day stipend, five extra on weekends, and an option to bunk on the premises if they were “keen on farmhanding,” as Tyler put it. Keen. His verbosity, his rotundity endeared him immediately to Loren, whom he called “Lorn”— and later, when he arrived at work one morning hung-over, “Forlorn.” Worse for wine.

At the outset, Tyler let to the boys for two-hundred-a-month a dilapidated shanty crafted out of cob and surplus rail ties, its planked floor torn from the old Air Corps barracks outside of town. It had been vacant for almost a decade— still, there were impressions on the floor where the preceding tenants’ furnishings once were: ornate vases, box-springs, console televisions.

It was not without its drawbacks. The water was brackish. The septic after years of neglect was failing. The circulation was poor. They called it The Ponderosa. With verve in their spare hours they set at makeshift repairs, bailing wire and twine, duct tape, reinforcing the porch and roof where it sagged. Afterwards they would draw a bath and, limbs soaking, tend to tears in the burlap sacks they wore around their waists, for Tyler grew no less than ten acres of strawberries, ten of vineyards, four of alfalfa, four of maize, with the balance halved between apples and pears of experimental lineage, or fallow. And they were to know every inch of it, how it was irrigated, where the problem insects congregated, so forth. Much of the work was unsupervised, though at times Tyler would emerge from under the mulberry (where he, methodically, as if sifting for ore, ground figs and pomegranates for packaging and sale—a business venture that never seemed to pan out) to check their progress on driving the motorized plow he had mortgaged his home to purchase.

“Just touch the brake,” he told Loren. “Whoa, there. Easy.”

“How does one step off it?”

“No stepping. You leap off,” Tyler said.

“It’s dizzying, this work. My body’s not used to the abuse.”

“But soon,” Tyler said. “I see it in your shoulders. You’re filling your shirts, both of you.”

“What’s next,” Stafford said, removing his gloves.

“Spend the next two days razing the vines. ‘Doze them into piles, stakes and all. Watch you don’t run and scrape the bank there.”

“Then what?”

Tyler motioned as if striking a match. “Torch it,” he said. “Don’t worry, the air quality man is miles away.”

[ III ]

Adversaries the first year, inseparables thereafter, seducing the girls in their sessions, leaping the steps of Bancroft two at a time to study hall, buried in Berryman, in Salter, passing the flask between them when the proctors turned away. Confederates. Sometimes, walking, they would even link arms.

In Tyler’s fields, harvesting, Stafford would take the ladder’s top rung, to sit more above his work, so that his hands fell naturally. Whereas Loren liked to reach. It was characteristic of him not to talk about how easily he exhausted, his strains and aches from driving the thresher, scraping the troughs—but he was shirking his chores of late, shut in by the vistas, wondering what Delia Crain was saying to him when she parked next to him at work.

“She parks next to us,” Stafford said. “This jalopy of yours.” “Junk,” Loren said, kicking the tire. “What was I thinking.”

“I know,” Stafford said. “I know what it was. You were enchanted by its color, where these wheels would carry you.”

“It needs a new filter,” Loren said, running his foot along the floorboard, “some body work. Its days are numbered. I was wary I bought it. I mean, you never know the previous owner’s luck. But Pops was quite certain.”

Loren was, these weeks, tense with the worry, the paranoia, of comporting himself honorably in front of Delia each morning as he punched his and Stafford’s timecards. She collected dues for Tyler, distributing bags of fruit, bindings of celery and homemade wines, the mouths on the bottles waxed shut with an image of Tyler on the label, when he still had his moustache.

The toughest thing, he said to Stafford, was biding his time.

“It’s like this,” Loren said. “She’s collecting for needy families. I go the grocery for diapers, formula, cans of peas. Non-perishables. I drop them off. Slowly, I make the case for myself. What do you think?”

“Okay, but let’s not lose our focus,” Stafford said. “The whole reason for our coming here.”

When the conversation flagged, they discussed world news until, aggrieved, they piled into the Dodge, letting it fire up and warm. (Otherwise the transmission would stick.) Whoever is soberest takes the wheel.

“I hear there’s a new agricultural college going up in Merced,” Loren said, amplifying his voice over the engine.

“You’re thinking of going?”

“Some day, maybe. Go and get some real farming lessons.”

“I know how you can win her,” Stafford said. “Be clever. Ask her if she’d ever consider dating a white man.”

“Only if I can put away my nerves,” Loren said.

“Don’t let your talking do too much of the talking,” Stafford advised. “Tell her with gestures. With your hands. Those eyes.”

Finally he screwed up the courage to ask her over for supper. Beneath her desk were rolls of coins, the week’s revenue, the pleats in her pant-suit. The large accounting ledgers.

She showed that evening a half-hour late, in trousers and a checkered blouse, her hair tied back into braids.

“Stafford thinks all this sunshine is depressing,” Loren said. “What can I say,” Stafford said. “I like a little cloud cover.”

“Wait until winter sets in,” she said. “It’s even worse.” The usual at-dinner banter. Weather, politics. Last week’s issue of Metro. The peculiarities of theirs and Delia’s lodging, an apartment across from Arandas, without circulation or sunlight.

“I was irritable an hour ago,” Loren said. “Now, I feel so placid.” “Your heartstrings are in your stomach,” Delia said.

“We ought to make this a regular thing,” said Loren.

“I have a daughter,” she said, taking up the dishes.

“The more the merrier,” Stafford said. “Hell, you might even want to move in.”

[ IV ]

She had a few bags with her, luggage tied with bungee cords, laundry baskets filled with vinyls, a record collection the size of four estate sales. Mirella, she assured Loren, was quiet ninety percent of the time.

“Not glamorously furnished, I know,” Loren said, flipping on the lights, leaning in the doorsills, narrating. “But there are compensations. The television for amusement, magazines. Here’s your room. The hinges need oiling, but the bed’s good and firm. We really lucked out. We keep our library in here. The electric blanket’s yours.”

“Somehow,” she said, kicking up the rug, “I thought you’d have more books.”

Delia is a fanatic of proportion: the tables at right angles to the lines in the floor, the couches square to the foyer, the placemats just so, the aprons corrected if askew on the pegs. Yet she does several things with inordinate grace. Vaccuming, for one, hinging her wrist, careful to always go under the cord.

What she lacks in intellect she makes up in devotion. It is possible that she does not want Mirella to grow up with the misfortune of poetry. The child is something of a bore, expressionless, bereft of joy. Her teeth are finally starting to come in, her eyes are a little offset, and one nostril is larger than the other. Impertinent, she cheats on the playground—she boasts about it—and steals crayons from class, chalk, glue tins, laying out the plunder on the dinner table and applauding herself, little leaps and claps. Delia’s quite attentive to her, maddeningly conscious of the girl’s posture and maudlin when her mood is low.

Accustomed as they are to one another’s moods—Stoddard’s emotional variances, the invisible friends Mirella will bring in like strays, Loren’s vast clear-liquor thirst—Delia cannot overcome her daughter’s aversion to Liselotte on her visits—envy, even at Mirella’s age—evening the score by sidling up against Stafford, plopped on his stomach and squealing.

Every other weekend she will load up her parents’ towncar and, intoxicated by speed, make the five-hour trip in four. Delia has made overtures to befriend her, but Lise is only concerned, it seems, with her wounds and those of her loved ones’: her thin wrists, her brothers’ broken bones. Her wardrobe’s fit for an heiress—in Lafayette she often considered locking her garments in a safe, she prized them so. Stafford’s parents favored her over all other comers, for her table manners and looting of jewelry boxes for evenings out. Still, she’s quite unkempt. Her maxim was to clean her teeth after every meal, and, because she had once punctured a tire on the Interstate, to drive only in daylight.

Defiant of the telephone, her letters, edifying, have overtures, entr’actes—a few flattering words, a wad of $40, forty seven cents of excess postage. Always she ends them with, “Loaves and fishes, Lise…”

I can hardly stand it, she wrote, this remote, in absentia loving of you. It’s as if nothing good came of your leaving—or nothing but good, because I feel at each visit the old easiness with you—a letting down of my guard, a loosening of my tongue—and then, seeing my weakness for you, in true fashion you pounce.

“Your spelling is much better,” Stafford said between swallows of shredded wheat. “Much improved. But what did the first part of this letter say? The part that you scratched out? I feel like that’s against the rules.”

In the interests of transparency Stafford will share with her excerpts from his—written on Loren’s Remington, its irreparably stuck keys—so she is prepared when her in-laws-to-be pepper her with questions (“Is he in good spirits? Is he keeping his weight up?”), sections such as:

Pa, you’d get a kick out of these mountains—puncturing the sky—how blue it is here—the sunsets are like a poke in the eye with a pencil.

I appreciate your concern for my welfare, and your offer to finance my travels, but I haven’t the faintest notion of when I’ll return, and I’ve sworn off international travel entirely.

Dusk. The boys are in their flannel, institutional wear, slouching in lawn-chairs, eventually rising to assemble Mirella’s tetherball set, a gift of Tyler’s. The transistor’s on, broken crates about them, makeshift ottomans, drinking framboise, sangria, of fruit which they themselves had picked, in the hides of wineskins which Delia skinned and dried, back along the easement where the fencing runs on and on.

“What are these?” Loren asked.

“Gifts from the union men,” said Tyler. “One for each man I employ. They put them in small stockings, gold dollar coins for the workers, cubes of charcoal for the growers.” “Clever,” Stafford said. “Is it just to antagonize you?”

“Everyone thinks I had something to do with the Joardan place going under.”

“You never told us,” said Loren.

“An old neighbor of mine,” Tyler said. “You know over to the south, over where the wash goes through? That was the Joardan spread. He had seven children, two alimony payments, and he started falling behind—you know, the bank knocking on his mailbox. We grew the same product, but mine were always maturing before his. And it’s curious because—that soil of his. When he combed it before seeding, I could have cried tears of envy.”

Tyler said, “You both know by now that it’s no good farming here. Land’s—even land as good as mine and Joardan’s—only appreciated by a fraction. After all I’ve sunk into it. That, and the prices-per-bushel plummeting. There aren’t any small growers anymore. It’s these companies, seizing up all the good land. Then there’s the cost of tractors, tillers. Seeding. I had a granary on the side that went under. Shipping prices, sky high. I have no, what would you call it, business acumen. I look at a lease, a contract… look, it’s a jumble of words. I came here with these grand ideas—the supervisor sat me down and sold me a bill of goods.” He re-lit his pipe. “But not before I wrested water rights from that son-of-a-bitch.”

Moths congregating near the porchlights. Shoes piled outside the door. Inside, Mirella’s screaming at the television. In her filthy clothes that are stamped out and shapeless. (“She was unintended,” Delia had once told Loren, firmly. “Not unwanted.”)

The child is simply unable to observe quietude.

Allison Dillon

Second Prize, Narrative
Allison Dillon  English/Literature, Lehman College

You Can’t Succeed Unless You Try

Street shrine to bicycle messengers near Ground Zero in the months after the disaster, Photograph by Martha Cooper, Lower Broadway, NYC, January 14, 2002.

Marco couldn’t believe it was only Tuesday as he walked out of the steakhouse where he worked as a busboy. He dragged his feet at a sluggish pace past the restaurants on 46th Street. He couldn’t wait for the weekend to arrive. All he wanted to do was relax with Gina. Although Marco’s head was down, the cigarette smoke slowly drifting up his nose indicated that he was getting close to the nightclub on the corner and therefore, close to the subway station. Once he made it down the stairs to the D Train, he swiped his metro card three times before reading “insufficient funds”. He hadn’t even gotten one tip that night. “Great,” he said aloud as he hopped over the bar. A woman behind him clicked her tongue in disgust, but Marco pretended not to hear it and kept moving.

Within an hour, Marco was in Sunset Park and quickly strode by the barred windows and steel doors of stark apartments. He fumbled through his pockets and finally grasped the thick key that he was looking for. He let himself into the dimly lit lobby of his apartment and checked his mailbox, finding nothing but bills. His cable had been shut off last week and with more bills to pay, it looked like he’d have to go the month without TV, not that he had time for it anyway.

The next morning, Marco’s first sight was the stack of bills that he couldn’t afford to pay. He sighed and took his bike from the corner of his studio apartment and rode six miles to work at the café. He got there before 6, but even at that hour, New Yorkers had to eat. About half of the bright red booths that lined the windows were full of people. The Spanish and English chitchat created a loud droning sound like that of a high school cafeteria. Marco looked around for Jose who, of course, wasn’t there yet. He walked over to Maria who was behind the long counter trying to figure out how to work the new lotto machine. “Buenos dias, Maria! Any deliveries yet?”

“There was one earlier, but it was way before delivery hour began. Other than that no and thank God because now you could help me figure this damn thing out!” Marco laughed out loud. Maria was like a second mother to him. He and her son, Jose, had been best friends since they were children in Mexico. When Marco moved to New York, about three years after Jose and Maria did, they gave him a place to stay and a job. Together, Marco and Maria figured out the lotto machine, just as the phone’s nonstop ringing began.

Marco took about four deliveries at a time because it was as much as the small basket on his bike could carry. The hot August sun beating down on the back of his neck reminded him of his childhood when he rode around on his bike for fun. Around lunchtime, the amount of deliveries was sliced in half. The second half of the day went by incredibly slowly. Once it was done, he was so happy to get out of there that he forgot to grab lunch before leaving. He got home to find his cabinets empty. He’d have to wait until he got to the restaurant to eat.

Later that night, beads of sweat trickled down Marco’s back as he removed dirty dishes from an outdoor table that sat twelve. The sight of rich, white customers was making him unusually angry. He made his way through the large dining room that led to the kitchen. He held the big blue bin full of dishes on his shoulder and almost knocked over a waitress. “Coño,” he whispered, as he scooted by her.

“What is it?” asked Felipe, the cook who had snuck up behind him. Felipe was twenty years older than Marco, but their common Mexican heritage gave Marco reason to confide in him. He turned to face the fat, bald man and explained his stress and his unpaid bills.

“Mi hijo, why you stressin’ it? Ask Gina to help you out. You know she will.”

As Marco began to explain that it was his job to take care of Gina, one of the quiet busboys, whose name Marco did not know, chimed in, “I could get you a job, but it won’t pay much. My Tío needs extra workers for weekends at his landscaping place.” Marco readily accepted the job and the busboy told him he could start this weekend.

“Can’t wait to hear what Gina has to say about that,” Felipe chuckled. They both knew Gina’s reaction would be frightful. She always complained that Marco worked too much. Now, a weekend job would take up the only time Marco had to spend with her.

The next day, Marco woke up to the obnoxious screaming coming from the apartment next door, not a rare occurrence. Soon it would be Gina’s tantrum to which he’d have to listen. He could hear her already, “Really Marco? Another fucking job? Like two isn’t enough? I’d probably see you more if you moved! Why can’t you just get ONE real job?”

The only time Marco and Gina saw each other was on weekends. Marco had to break it to her that this weekend he’d be unable to see her. He dreaded the phone call and wished he could just tell her in person, but even if he was able to manage a couple of free hours, she probably couldn’t. Before calling Gina, Marco reached into his night stand and took out his Abuela’s wedding ring. She had given it to him on her deathbed with instructions, “Whenever you need luck hold onto the ring. One day, give it to the girl you love and when you need luck, hold onto her hand.”

As Marco moved the ring from one hand to the other, his thoughts were interrupted by the phone. It was Gina. She sounded rushed and asked if he was free the next day. “Eh, my shift at the café ends at 3. Why?” It was not often that Gina wanted to see him in the middle of a week. “Anything bad?”

“No, not at all, I just miss you, but I gotta go to work. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.”

Marco hung up the phone and placed the ring back in the drawer. “Talk about luck.” He could tell her in person after all! His Abuela was still always there for him.

The next day, Marco told Jose about the new job and explained that he’d have to tell Gina. He begged Jose to cover for him so that he could skip out a little early. Jose and Marco were complete opposites. Jose had greasy, slicked back hair and wore a big fake diamond stud in his ear. He had a musky smell of fake cologne which he most likely purchased in China Town. He was constantly late or not there at all and Marco couldn’t count the amount of times he covered for him. Jose agreed to help Marco out. “Oh and one more thing,” Marco smiled, “I need your Metro Card.” Marco stood in the subway’s tunnel for less than five minutes before he felt a gust of wind and the ground vibrated. He propped his bike up onto his shoulder and carried it into the least packed car. As the train got closer uptown, Marco’s palms began to sweat. He tried to calm himself down and reached into his pocket. He crazily removed tissues and keys, searching for his Abuela’s ring. He had left it at home; this was not going to go well. It immediately hit him that Gina didn’t just miss him. What’d she need to see him for? He pondered aloud. “What if she’s pregnant? I can’t afford a baby. What if she found someone else? No! Maybe she really just misses me. But what if it is something bad? How do I tell her about this job after she gives me bad news?” A teenage girl dressed in a plaid skirt and navy sweater with the letters “SJS” stitched in the corner, shot him a dirty look. She whispered something to the young, black man whose hand was on her lap, but Marco was too preoccupied to care.

Marco exited the subway on the Upper East Side and rode his bike a block to Gina’s apartment. He chained the bike to a meter outside and greeted the doorman with a smile as he walked through the spotless glass doors. The air conditioning was beyond refreshing until Marco realized that he smelled like a mixture of sweat and deodorant. He suddenly wished that he had Jose’s disgusting cologne. The sight of himself in the mirror-walled lobby stopped him in his tracks. He had bags under his eyes, and his hair was a mess. He got into the elevator, attempting to fix his hair that desperately needed to be cut. Before the elevator even made it to Gina’s floor, Marco got a whiff of chorizo and homemade tortillas. Gina was making the queso flameado that he had taught her to make a couple of years ago. He couldn’t believe she remembered the recipe.

The second Marco saw Gina, he completely forgot about everything —the ring, his hair, his stench. Even in jeans she looked great. Her red sweater and white apron, with what looked like tomato juice on it, complemented her reddish brown curls and pale complexion. Marco couldn’t help but laugh at the sight. “Shut up!” She giggled in her raspy voice and slapped his arm before bringing her plump lips to his face. Even with the overpowering smell of the food, he caught a hint of her lavender-vanilla perfume.

“Giving cooking another try, I see,” he smiled as they walked past the gorgeous hand-carved mantel in her living room. This was Marco’s favorite room in the apartment. Atop the mantel were pictures of Gina with her Italian family, a few pictures of Gina and Marco, and, in the middle, was her college graduation photo. Unlit, scented candles were scattered around the pictures. The walls were a light, greenish-aqua color, but everything else was white. She had a white, marble coffee table bordered by two white, leather sofas, and a white carpet without a stain on it. Marco followed Gina to her huge kitchen, which was messier than he’d ever seen it. The door to the stainless steel refrigerator was wide open. Dishes were piled up in the sink, and the counter was full of leftover ingredients.

Gina popped open a bottle of wine, “I figured for a celebration, I’d give it another go!”

“Oh yeah, what are we celebrating?” He thought back to his ridiculous freak-out on the train and laughed at himself in his head. It wasn’t bad after all!

“You are looking at the newest bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald!” Before Marco could run over to hug her, she continued, “Let’s eat! There’s more.”

“More?” Marco carried the food to the dining room. The knot returned to his stomach. He put a hearty amount on his plate and gave Gina a look that said, “Come on… tell me!”

“Be patient!” Gina squeezed her earlobe so hard that it matched her naturally red cheeks. She stared at her food and swirled cheese around her fork. “I want you to move in with me.”

“Oh,” was all Marco could think to say. Gina turned her face like she always did when she didn’t want someone to see her disappointment. Marco knew he had crushed her and his mind snapped back to reality. “Gina, I can’t afford to live here. You know that…” He swallowed hard and slipped in, “…even with my new job.”

“Your what?!”

Marco told her about the new job and explained that it would only be for a little while. She asked why he needed another job so he was forced to explain the bills. His face burned as he told Gina about how he was a failure.

“That’s an even better reason to move in here. I know you want to pay your share, but you work your ass off. That’s enough for me.”

“Gina, your rent’s triple mine. I can’t afford it and I don’t want you paying for me to live. It’s my job to be there for you.” Gina stopped eating and her cheeks flushed a darker red.

“So work 10 ten dead end jobs? Because you think I need taking care of?! You’ll make it really far doing that! You make no fucking sense. I’m trying to help. Why can’t you go after what you came here for? Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and think about what’s best for yourself, what’s best for both of us. You haven’t applied for any jobs as a cook. You know you can’t succeed unless you try.”

Gina kept yelling, but Marco did not hear a word she said after that. His mind raced back to the day his grandmother died. Right after she had given him the ring, she had given him one last piece of advice. In Spanish she explained to Marco that one failure was not enough to give up on his dreams. Her last words to him had been “no puedes tener èxito si no lo intentas (you can’t succeed unless you try).” These words had given him enough strength to come to America.

Marco rarely raised his voice to Gina, but the similarity between Gina’s advice and his Abuela’s hit home. He began screaming in Spanish and then in English. “I can’t get a fucking cooking job for more than five dollars an hour. You think I’m gonna do my dream job for that? I’d rather get spit in my face.” He took a deep breath and his voice softened a little, “Gina, why don’t you understand? The only skill I have is in the kitchen.”

“Marco, you’re more than just skilled in the kitchen. You’re a master. Something’s gotta change. I don’t deserve to be the one you take your misery out on. I do nothing but help, but you’re too proud to even let me. I can’t do this for much longer. You won’t even tell me what you want. Just leave, Marco. Seriously, just go. Don’t call me until you figure shit out.”

Marco left without a word. Gina was just like his Abuela and they were both wrong. He had tried! Did Gina forget all about what attracted her to him in the first place? Five years beforehand, Marco had met Gina at Jose’s friend’s party. He had gotten so drunk that he told her, a stranger at the time, all about the restaurant he started in Mexico. She had been beyond impressed even when he told her the restaurant had been a bust. He had put all his work and emotion into it for disappointment and learned his lesson. He wouldn’t try that again.

Marco got no sleep that night and the next morning, he arrived at the café an hour late. The second he walked in, Jose questioned him. Marco told him about the fight and how Gina wanted him to move in with her, but he left out the part about cooking. Marco had never told Jose about his dreams to open another restaurant. He wasn’t going to fail and embarrass himself again.

“My friend, Gina es muy rica. You’re an idiot. Tell her I’ll move in with her.” He laughed. This was the exact response Marco expected. If he moved in with Gina everyone would think it was because she was rich. Marco did not want to argue with Jose about it. Three bags were lined up on the edge of the counter. He saw that the handwritten receipts stapled to them had addresses. He grabbed the bags and left without another word.

That night, Felipe asked Marco about how Gina took the news. Marco decided to tell Felipe everything, including the part about cooking. Felipe explained to Marco that Gina does not base success on money, “Mi hijo, all you gotta do is show her you’re thinking differently. You gotta go after your dreams. She’s right. Besides, the two of you are practically married already. If you love to cook and want to cook accept her help.”

“Felipe, as a Mexican, I’ll make nothing. I’ll risk everything. No offense, but you don’t make much.” Felipe was one of Marco’s best friends, but the last thing he wanted to do was turn out like Felipe.

“Cooking is art. It’s more than a job. I want you to fill in for me on Monday nights. Just try it out. Do it for the same amount as you make now. You will see. It isn’t about money.”

Days went by without a word from Gina. Marco stood in his apartment and paced back and forth from the bicycle in the corner of the bedroom to the end of the narrow kitchen. Their fights never lasted this long. He replayed the argument in his head. “She didn’t say anything bad about me. She just wants to help because she’s moving on without me. She just got a promotion and I’m still bussing tables. Jose’s right. I’m fucking stupid. Why’s she even with me? She deserves better, but I can’t move in with her. What kind of loser gives their girl less than minimum wage to chip in for a home that costs ten times more? That’s a joke.”

On Saturday, Marco began the landscaping job. He took the D train all the way down to Bedford Park, where three other Mexicans picked him up. They drove about twenty-five minutes north to Scarsdale, a residential neighborhood full of enormous houses. The air up there was cleaner, but it gave Marco an eerie feeling. He liked the greasy aroma of hotdogs and sausages on the city streets. It wasn’t until he saw residential neighborhoods that he realized how much he enjoyed the city life, the chaotic mess of people running around, the click-clack of heels on the pavement, the bright yellow cabs mixed in with the traffic on every block, and even the gangs of teens hanging out on the street corners in Brooklyn. Maybe, it wasn’t so much that he loved the city as it was that he hated Westchester. He had been there only once before and that was to meet Gina’s father, an incredibly rich, short, fat Italian man who did not care for Marco at all. The thought gave him chills.

Finally, the four of them pulled up to a house made of stone. The windows had small diamond shapes of stained glass within brown frames. Marco was assigned the tough job of removing all the weeds from the backyard. By the time the day was up, the job still wasn’t finished. The next day they went back to the same house and got the job done.

When Monday rolled around the corner, Marco still had not heard from Gina. His anger turned to sadness and eventually to disappointment. When the time came to fill in for Felipe, Marco was surprised to be nervous. It had been years since he cooked for paying customers. At first, he prepared each dish exactly how Felipe had told him to, down to the radish and carrot garnishes. However, not long into the night, someone ordered grilled pork chops. Marco couldn’t stand pork except for when he made it with his signature dry rub. He decided to give it a go and thought aloud, “What’s the worst that could happen? I get fired from a job that’s not mine?” Soon after, one of the waiters entered the kitchen and told Marco that a customer wanted to personally thank the chef. Marco followed the waiter through the large dining room into one of the smaller, more vintage dining areas. The walls were lined with old books and the table cloths were forest green. The waiter led him to a table of four women. They all praised him for the excellent food, especially the pork. “My friend Lynda here made us all take a bite of her pork chops. They were amazing! The best meal I’ve ever had here by far!” Marco wholeheartedly thanked them for such compliments. His adrenaline rushed from the feeling of pride that came with every dish he sent out. He had forgotten what that felt like. That night, good thoughts kept him from sleep.

As the week went by, Marco began looking forward to working at the restaurant. Whenever Felipe wasn’t looking, he added all sorts of spices and flavors to meals. Of course, he wouldn’t tell Gina that, so she could go on for an hour about how she was right again. Plus, she would say it didn’t prove anything until he quit the other jobs, which he couldn’t afford to do.

That weekend, Marco and the guys pulled up in front of another huge house in Westchester. Marco’s mood was much better than the previous weekend. The driver told Marco to work on cleaning out the gutters. The earthy scent, along with the song that the birds were chirping relaxed him. Under a layer of leaves, Marco found a thin wire with bulbs attached. “Christmas lights? In September? White people are loco!” Marco whispered. He climbed down the ladder, walked up to the open front door, and rang the doorbell.

He heard a man’s voice from the back of the house, “Who is it?”

“Marco, I’m one of your landscapers. I just have a question.” Marco responded.

“Okay, come on back. I’m just cooking, can’t leave the stove.”

Marco followed the mouthwatering smell of roasting chicken through the long, narrow hallway until he reached the kitchen. He watched from the doorway as the tall white man carefully removed a lemon from the chicken’s cavity and added some of the juice to the pan’s juices. Marco felt like a K9; he was able to smell the fennel, the scallops, the lemon, and the chicken, separately. He and his Abuela had made a similar dish when he was a child; however, there was one major difference—no apples! “It’s a beautiful bird,” said Marco. The man flinched a little. He quickly turned around to look at Marco.

“Scared me!” he exclaimed, with his hand on his heart, “What can I do for you?”

“Oh, eh, I was cleaning the gutters and noticed some lights…”

“My wife loves the lights for the holidays. Guess who the lucky one to put them up is. You could leave ‘em,” he smiled putting out his hand, “By the way, Marco, I’m Dennis. I didn’t have a chance to introduce myself.”

Marco was surprised that Dennis remembered his name. He shook his hand, “Nice to meet you. Before I get back to work, can I make a suggestion?” Marco couldn’t believe that he had actually said it out loud, “If you chop up a few apples and add them with some apple juice to that, it’ll make all the difference.” Dennis explained that the dish has been in his family for years and was great the way it was. Marco looked defeated as he turned and walked away.

When the job was finished, Marco was sent to collect the money. This time Dennis came to the door, “Marco, I added the apples! For some reason, your face told me I should. I usually don’t trust advice, but boy were you right! Have you ever considered cooking instead of cleaning gutters?”

Marco was in shock. He thought his proposal had been thrown in the garbage the second it reached Dennis’ ears. “Thank you so much my friend. That means more than you know. I used to own a restaurant in Mexico, but it tanked. When I got here, I kept cooking, but just for fun.”

“Well, if you decide you ever want to cook for more than fun, you could be very successful. Here…” Dennis handed Marco a folded piece of paper. “It’s my brother’s number. He owns three restaurants in the city and two in L.A. Call him if you’re interested in a job.” Marco stuffed the paper into his pocket and felt the ring. He had forgotten that he left it in those pants the night he had filled in for Felipe. That explained his sudden luck.

The second Marco got home he called Chris, Dennis’ brother, but the call went to voicemail. He didn’t leave a message due to his accent. Although Dennis was far from a racist man, Marco didn’t know about his brother. What if he didn’t want a Mexican working in his restaurant? About a half hour later, the phone rang; it was Chris. Marco explained that he was looking for a job as a cook. Chris sounded beyond annoyed as he explained that he wasn’t currently hiring. As Marco thanked him for his time, Chris cut him off, “How’d you get my personal number?” Marco began to explain that he had no idea it was a personal number and that Dennis gave it to him. Chris cut him off again. “Dennis? My brother? Why didn’t you say so? Let’s meet for an interview next Monday? Uh, that’s the 10th.”

The day of the interview came around more quickly than Marco had anticipated. He dressed in a pair of black Dickies and a blue button down shirt. Even though the restaurant was only forty five minutes away by bus, he left his house two hours before he needed to be there. He stood outside of the restaurant, staring in through the window. It looked much nicer than the steakhouse where he worked. The tables were set with white table cloths and each place setting had a fancy rose colored napkin folded into a shape. Even the stools placed around the bar in the corner were more elegant than most. They looked lavish, yet comfortable, with fluffy, black leather cushions and silver legs.

When Marco finally entered the restaurant, he was instantly able to point out Chris. He looked exactly like Dennis, tall with a long, oval face and an oddly small nose. Marco’s palms felt like he had soaked them in vegetable oil that he couldn’t get off no matter how many times he rubbed them on his pants. He breathed in and out slowly as he walked toward Chris. They introduced themselves and Chris immediately explained how his interviews worked. “This will be based on your food and your ability to work with other cooks. I spoke to Dennis and he thinks I should consider hiring you as a head chef.” Chris directed Marco to the kitchen which was stocked full of food and gave him instructions. “Make me a three course dinner. One course fish and one beef. Do it as if I were a customer.” He introduced Marco to two other cooks that would be helping him.

Once Marco began cooking, his nerves relaxed and he even started to have fun. He made an appetizer of garlic stuffed clams that tasted amazing. The texture was almost like mashed potatoes; however the seafood flavor was still there. Next, he made a rare prime rib with gravy and asparagus. Finally, he made his signature New York apple-pie cheesecake. He used hot pretzels as the crust because the salty outside and warm inside scared the taste buds before the sweetness hit them. Marco tasted everything before sending it out to Chris. All of the food was excellent and Marco was confident that he would get the job.

Chris reentered the kitchen about ten minutes after Marco finished cooking. He gave no feedback on the food and told Marco he could leave. Marco felt like he got punched in the gut. He shook Chris’ hand and thanked him. As he walked out the doors of the restaurant, he wondered over and over again what went wrong. It couldn’t have been the food; the food was great. The timing was perfect too. He began to believe he was right the whole time. Nobody wanted a Mexican in their restaurant. He walked to the bus stop, already thanking God that he did not tell anyone about the interview. At least he saved himself the embarrassment.

When he got home, the stairs leading to his apartment reeked of weed and rotten towels, only reminding him of the fact that he’d probably be stuck living in this hell-hole forever. His first sight upon entering the room was the gold band on his counter, next to the bills that he still had yet to pay. He cursed himself for not bringing the ring. He sat home that night missing Gina more than ever, when the phone rang. Without even a hello, Chris said, “You start in two weeks kiddo.” Marco felt like his brain was going to jump out of his head. He ran back and forth, squatted in the corner and jumped as high as he could. He didn’t even need the ring after all! He was talented enough on his own!

He sprinted back toward the kitchen and picked the phone back up to call Gina. He thought back to the day before their fight when she had been calling him about her new job. Marco decided he would tell her in person like she had for him. Unfortunately, Marco was not as mysterious, “Babe, the greatest thing happened to me, but I can’t tell you yet. All I could say is you’re gonna be happy.” Gina begged him to tell her, but he refused and they set up a date for the next night. They continued to talk for an hour and Marco listened to Gina’s stories about her new job. As Gina finished a story, her husky voice turned to silence. She quietly sniffled, but Marco heard it.

“Gina, why are you crying? Are you ok?”

Gina was not upset at all. “I just haven’t felt like myself lately. This is the first time since our fight that I’ve told a story or even smiled. I missed you so much, baby. Hearing your voice is the greatest gift in the world.” As they continued talking, Gina begged multiple times to hear the good news, but Marco would not give it up. He stayed on the phone talking to Gina until she fell asleep. When he hung up the phone, he realized that he was actually happy.

Before heading to work the next day, Marco slipped his Abuela’s ring into his pocket. He would need it for his date with Gina. At the café, he was assigned a delivery to 1 World Trade Center. That’s where Gina worked! He instantly checked the address, the 94th floor. It wasn’t Gina. She worked 10 floors up. Marco unchained his bike from the meter and tied the bag of food to his handle bar. The smell of toasted bagels and bacon ran up his nose. As he rode, he spoke to himself. “Should I tell her now? No, I should wait until dinner. But no! This must be a sign! Coño! I don’t know what to do!”

Marco took the packed elevator up to the 94th floor and dropped off the food. He headed back toward the elevator, and heard the steady tapping of a woman walking in heels behind him. He was still debating whether to go up or down, when suddenly he heard an unsettling crash above him. The floor vibrated and sort of shifted as if standing on a bus making a turn. The woman clacking of heels behind him went from steady to more of a stumble as she caught her balance on the wall. What felt like a horrible earthquake was followed by a man’s terrorizing shriek, as smoke and flames poured from everywhere. Without even thinking, Marco ran toward the stairs. They were much hotter than the hallway and flooded with people hurrying down them. Marco was the only one running up. What the fuck was going on? Someone yelled, “A bomb went off like ten floors up!” Marco increased his speed. Gina was up there! The higher up he went, the hotter it got, but he continued moving.

Marco made it to Gina’s floor where people scurried in every direction. As he rushed around looking for Gina’s office, he asked every single person he saw if they knew her. Everyone was in a panic and most were willing to help. A young woman pointed Marco in the direction of Gina’s office. He darted down the hall and swung the door open. Two men occupied the office. The taller man was having a nervous breakdown in the corner. He called 911. “There’s a fire,” he screamed into the phone. Marco interrogated them about Gina’s whereabouts and the short man stepped forward, “We ran outta coffee. She’s new so we sent her to get it about twenty minutes ago. She said she knew of a little café not too far. She even offered to work through her lunch in case she took a while to get it. I don’t think she’s back yet. I guess it’s her lucky day!” Tears of relief fell from Marco’s face. With the mention of luck, he subconsciously remembered the ring and silently thanked his Abuela. Gina was fine!

The man on the phone began cursing and yelling. “I have a family. What the fuck do you mean everything will be fine, we’re suffocating.” He paused for a second and sat on the floor. “If you have the best goddamn fire departments here, why aren’t we being saved?” The other man went into a coughing fit. Marco could see the fear in both men’s eyes. “I… I have asthma,” the man managed to get out through his coughs.

Black smoke was filling the room very quickly. Suddenly, part of the ceiling along with a filing cabinet collapsed directly on top of the man on the phone. The short man started to shake violently and threw up. “I can’t breathe. We have to find a way out.” The man’s sobbing and crying was causing him to lose breath. Marco had never seen a grown man cry and had never known fear until this moment. The man tried to run out of the office, but the filing cabinet blocked the only exit. He wasted all his energy trying to move the heavy furniture and screamed at Marco to help him. Marco knew better than to follow. He was forced to the opposite wall toward the window and could not even see through the smoke anymore. The man’s screams ceased and Marco called to him, but got no answer.

Marco crouched down in the corner of the office and couldn’t help but ask himself, “Why me?” Marco yelled at himself. “That whole time I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to make it to America and I didn’t make anything of it. I could have done things. If it weren’t for Gina and our fight I wouldn’t have even tried.” He sat and sobbed until he couldn’t breathe. He was dizzy and the smoke was choking him.

He was losing his breath and getting dizzier every second. He suddenly remembered the ring was in his pocket. He stood up and for a second and he knew he would make it out. All he needed was his Abuela’s luck. He punched through the window and stuck his head out for air. The one gulp of fresh air was enough to give him some strength, but the sight took his breath away. Thousands of colorful dots gathered around the building. There must have been hundreds of huge red fire trucks and NYPD cars with their blue and red lights flashing. For a second, Marco thought debris was falling from the building, but in a flash realized people were jumping. He took a final gulp of air and turned back into the building.

Marco knew the smoke was lighter when crouching so he lay on the prickly carpet and crawled to the door. He still heard some voices outside of the door so he screamed for help. Someone shouted back at him, “Help is a lost cause! People are dying out here and no one can help! I just had to tell my wife and kid goodbye. There’s no cell phone service anymore. We are all doomed, buddy.” His tone was condescending.

“There’s a filing cabinet in front of the door.” Marco panted to catch his breath before continuing. “I just need you to push the door so I can move it. I’ll find us a way out. I promise!”

“Promise?” The man scowled and laughed an evil laugh. “None of us can get out. Don’t make a promise you can’t keep.” Marco continued to plea with the man and started begging, but got no answers. He managed to knock the filing cabinet onto its side and wedge the door open a crack, but smoke began to pour into the office. He slammed it shut immediately.

Marco whined as he crawled back to the window. “There’s no way out. I’m gonna die and I couldn’t even make anyone proud. Abuela was right and so was Gina. I never succeeded cuz I never tried. If I tried earlier, I wouldn’t even be here right now. Where’s my luck now?” I have to make it out. I can’t die with Abuela’s ring.” Marco thought back to last night; he had said he didn’t need the ring after all. “Ay dios mio!” Marco whispered. “I do need the ring. I still need you Abuela!” He stuck his head out the window and got another gulp of air along with another glimpse at the terrorizing sight.

Marco thought about his grandmother and about Gina. He kept his head out the window with his eyes closed. Tears fell from his eyes, but he couldn’t stop them. No one would ever know of his success. He tried and he made it. Gina would never be proud of him. She would never even know. “Abuela, do you know?”

Marco thought to the last piece of advice he had gotten from both his grandmother and Gina. Of course no one would know about his success if he didn’t try to tell them. He knew the black smolder had the power to choke him to death, but he had an idea. “I’ll tell Gina after all.” He made it about half of the 5 feet to the desk before collapsing. He lay on the floor for a second gasping for air, and crawled the rest of the way to the desk. In less than 30 seconds, Marco found what he was looking for, paper and a pen. He began writing.

Gina mi amor im gnna die i was gonna surprise u with my good news and now i cnt i need u to know u were rite the whole time u told me the exact same thing as my abuela did on her deathbed. You cant succeed unless u try! and u were right I was wrong about everything the second I took ur advice opportunity came all I had to do was try i hope u don’t think I died as a nobody u were the only one who had faith in me. U just wanted me to see it now I know u wanted me to have tht faith it started with ur advice i filled in for felipe and my passion to cook returned. If u ever get this please thank Felipe for me too. Today I was proud of myself like ur always proud of urself and it felt great, u wanted me to see what tht felt like nd i cnt thx u enuf I love you so much forever and ever. Oh one last thing. i was gonna propose to u today im gnna put abuelas wedding ring in this letter. She told me to give it to the one I love it brings luck. I love u I love u so much gina never forget me u changed my life.

Marco frantically searched for an envelope, but couldn’t find one. The flailing around was making him dizzier. He reached into his pocket, took out the ring, and folded it into the paper, trying not to let his tears stain the page. On the corner, he wrote Gina’s address with a short note, If anyone finds this, mail here! He slipped the paper into his pocket and trooped back to the window, but did not jump right away. He wanted to jump as far away from the building as possible so that someone would find him. He squinted at the fire truck directly beneath him and decided to aim for it. He propped himself onto the window sill and put his feet out first. His palms were sweating worse than ever. He began sliding further off the window sill. “You can’t succeed unless you try. At least I’m trying to reach Gina one last time,” he whispered as he let his butt slide off the window sill. Before hitting the ground, he had the worst feeling of regret. Why didn’t he try harder to survive for Gina and for himself? His life just began and it was over.

Edgar Mendez

Third Prize, Narrative
Edgar Mendez  English/Creative Writing, City College


The neighborhood was unnaturally quiet for a summer day. The first week of school had come to a close. Daniel sat in his backyard putting rocks together in a circle. It had been fifteen days since the last one and that was far too long. The hunger had become insatiable.

He fiddled with the match over the neat pile of dry leave and sticks. He looked through the glass sliding door. His mother hovered over the sink with her headphones on calmly singing and washing dishes. It was almost too perfect.

“Goddammit!” his father shouted in vain. Sounds cluttered echoed from the shed as he continued to shuffle, frustrated, looking for something he couldn’t find.

Almost too perfect he thought. Daniel thoroughly kicked the mound scattering sticks, rocks and dust around him. He slid the match into his back pocket. It would have to wait.


Daniel stared at the ceiling fan in his room. He traced the footsteps from the adjacent room. The door opened and closed. They thundered down the steps and out the door. He heard the black Civic door close and the engine start. His father was gone and would not return for the next two days. His father worked two day shifts at Ladder 37. When he returned he would be off for the next three days. Daniel waited for those two days. After school he would march through the front door head straight to his room. He would finish his homework in an hour or two. At this time most kids his age would go outside and play basketball or the latest videogame at each other’s house. But not Daniel. This was his special time, away from his parents, friends and the rest of the world. He would stuff a towel under his door. Keep his window opened with a fan pointed outside to maximize the ventilation. He had exactly two and half hours to work. At six his mother would be home.

The process was three steps: the build, the burn and the sweep. The first was the most time consuming. He looked in his closet and pondered. What should it be this week. He stared at the green plastic tool box he kept in his closet. It had a lot of craft materials: threads, glue, scissors, Popsicle sticks etc. It was a tempting choice for next week but he was far too lazy today. He wanted something simple. He grabbed the silver folder on the rack above his hanging clothes. Origami. It was perfect; simple, yet just as intricate.

He grabbed three sheets of paper from the folder and opened up the instruction booklet. He knew what he wanted. Frogs. It took about ten minutes for each one. He labeled them, M, G and D. He placed them on the desk. He took out the SD card he kept in behind a framed photo of himself and his parents they took last year on his 11th birthday. He placed it in his camera and snapped the photo. The build was complete.

He lit one of the long candles he kept in his room. His father hated having candles in the house but after convincing his mother of the therapeutic properties they became a permanent member of his room. They were the perfect excuse. If they ever smelled the smoke they would always write it off as the candles.

The tempo of his heart accelerated. Like a king knighting his subject, with utmost honor and respect, he lightly touched each one of the frogs with the candle. They slowly lit up. His nose instantly picked up the burning scent. The black carbon saturated smoke slowly drifted up. He watched the flames dance. They moved rhythmically back and forth like a woman shaking her hips in dance. Around the flame ashy black lines began to form and spread on the three little frogs like a metastasizing tumor. Their shape distorted as the molecular bonds holding everything together broke apart and dispersed. The three frogs were fully consumed. Daniel sat there mesmerized by its dance. With each diffusing breath of smoke his heart slowly found its normal pace. He watched the embers take there last burning breath. When the flames ceased his mind went completely blank. All the pent up tension of his routine life was released. At that moment he was no longer the model student, obedient son or reliable friend. He was simply himself.

The sweep was simple this time. The pieces were small, so there was hardly any ash to pick up. The smoky smell dispersed relatively quickly. With the help of Febreeze By the time his mother returned there was no trace at all.

His Dad returned home the following Wednesday. His mother began to set the table. They were having chicken parmesan, a rare meal in their household. Mother always tried to surprise him somehow each week he returned, usually in the form of dessert, occasionally a change in the homes décor. It got to the point where it would be uncommon if nothing eventful happened on that day. When playing her role as the wife of a firefighter his mother always said “every week day he returns is a blessing.” She always exaggerated a bit. On fire awareness they always mentioned how over a hundred firefighters die each year. When put into mathematical terms the number is relatively low. His father was a clever man. Daniel had the upmost confidence that if somehow lost his life on the job it would most likely be due to miscommunication within the team’s infrastructure.

“How was school?” father asked as he poured soda into his cup

“Pretty boring. We had a math quiz today. I got 96.”

“Keep it up”

“Did anything happen on your shift?” Daniels father never talked about his job. He made a habit of asking. Depending on his father’s mood he’d tell him. When he was younger his dad loved telling him tales of his job. All of them heroic, evacuating buildings before they collapsed, putting out burning buildings, reviving a woman from death. All of them had happy endings.

“Met this guy who had the worst day of his life. He parks his car in front of a restaurant, right. He gets out and goes take care of some business, he’s meeting someone or something. He’s gone for about a half hour. When he gets back his car is ruined. Turns out there was a problem with his fuel lines. While he was gone the front of his car, down to the tries, caught fire. We get a call from some workers at the restaurant and put it out. The worst part he’s only got liability, so the insurance won’t even cover it.”

“So what then?”

“He has to buy a new car, or take the bus.”

“That’s terrible!” his mother said.

At this point Daniel picked up his food and brought it to his room. Outside from those regular inquiries there was nothing else he had left to say. He aimlessly flipped through channels while he ate. While his physical hunger began to subside he could feel the other beginning to grow.


Eight days. It had been eight days since the last burn. The hunger felt like a festering mosquito bite. With the house empty, the moment was ripe. He grabbed the toolbox from his closet. It had been on his mind the whole day. It would be his greatest masterpiece. He had to stop at the store on his way from school to get the most important material: Playing cards. He glued the edge of each card and laid them down in alternating colors. Each wall was four cards wide and five cards high. The rest put together the triangle roof.

It stood at almost two feet high. It covered most of the open space provided by the window. He hesitated for a moment. This was by far the largest build. If by some chance the flames got out of control it would put everything in jeopardy. The neighbors would see it. The repercussions from his pa rents would be a nightmare. He could see it now. They would sit him down. It’d start with talking. He wouldn’t give them what they want. The yelling would begin. In the end, no matter what, they would seek professional help. Could you imagine visiting a psychologist, drinking pills for the rest of your life to rewire your brain?

He snapped the photo and lit the candle. He carefully touched the top of the roof. He couldn’t let himself hesitate. He came this far, it would be a complete and utter waste to stop there. It was simple. He would just have to light the structure from the top. The flames would then slowly burn to the base. Once the flames burned A third of the way he would put the fire out with the extinguisher his dad kept next to trash can in the kitchen. Everything would be under control.

It slowly spread until the entire roof was covered in bright orange flames. Daniel had never witnessed anything so frightening. The house collapsed. The entire desk was ablaze. He stood there, eyes wide and heart pounding. He saw a fire he never in his life witnessed before, the spontaneous fire which garnered the respect of all men. It was the fire that civilizations across the land once worshipped. The fire men like his father made there bread from. The fire men died and killed with. The fan empowered the two foot flame. Its movement violent, the embers spread on to the curtains tied in the corner of the window. The smoke which once brought calm and peace to Daniel made him cough violently.

The flames shone like a beacon to the outside world. The neighborhood began to stir. Parents gathered outside, many of them holding cellphones. Some dialed the police. Others took photos. Some called friends. The neighborhood children pointed as Daniel emerged from the house.

“What happened?”

“Are you alright?”

“Is anyone else inside?”

His head down, not meeting any of their glaring eyes, he walked past them to the end of the block. He sat on the corner and watched. The flames fought their way out of the window and were attempting to climb onto the walls and the side of the house. He watched his greatest work proudly wave and salute to all who were willing to stare. The anxiety of being discovered seemed to disappear. The consequences, his future, uncertain. He was sure of one thing, the alternative left behind in that room was far worse.

Sirens echoed closer and closer.

Gwan Sing Au

Honorable Mention, Narrative
Gwan Sing Au  Economics, Sociology and Mathematics, Lehman College

The City, My Youth, and Her Trick

I live in a City, THE CITY.

You probably would want to ask, which city?

Then I would smile, as I would know that you haven't been there before. Everyone knows it, everyone knows which city I refer to if they have been there once. Your curiosity shows me that you are a clueless foreigner.

Oh, I say, imagine it. Imagine that I am here to take you around, and let me introduce you the wonder of THE CITY.

When you open your eyes, the first thing you see is the city wall. It is so shining and clean that you can see your face like it is a mirror. It also is so enormous large that it is full of your eyes. You look up and you can't see its top; you look left and right, and you can't see its end either. You will soon discover that people in THE CITY like big. They want everything to be big, top tier, and superior.

Then you will be led to the door, the only way you, or everyone, can be in and out of THE CITY. You will be disappointed as you expected something more dramatic. It is just a small wooden door. 3 meters high, and 1 meter wide. It at most allows one person goes in or out at a time. You will probably ask, is it very inconvenient if people want to go outside? I will shake my head like I have heard something from a silly child. Why would we want to leave THE CITY? It is supposed to have everything we want. At least it is the what I want to tell every outsider.

You walk behind me, and listen to me how I introduce those famous places, the places designed for tourists, around THE CITY. I introduce them in the same way those tourists books would tell you. You show you are interested modestly, as you don't want to offend me. You probably want me to shut up, but somehow I don't want to. I have to talk, or I would start to think otherwise. Thinking too much is bad. Everyone in THE CITY knows it. I would start to think about something not related to the glory of THE CITY, something too personal to tell a stranger, like you, I have just met first time.

Because you haven't been here before, you will not realize that I actively avoid bringing you to the central point of THE CITY. I don't even turn my head to that direction as if something invisible forces me not to. You are led like a sheep, and your facial expression like a sheep too. Suddenly I am angry inside, as the only place I want to go is exactly the central point of THE CITY. Why wouldn't you suggest it? Why wouldn't you suspect that everything good I tell you about THE CITY is not what I would want to tell you, if you were my close friend?

Suddenly, I stop to walk along the street, and look at the direction leading to the central point. I will be silent, and it makes you wonder why. A minute later, you can't stand and ask, "What is the matter?” I will not answer you, but I will not be able to hold myself to be silent anymore.

“Do you have a lover?” I ask.

“Huh?” You are surprised, but soon you realize that I want to go outside the usual conversation between a tour and a tourist. You have a kind heart, and glad to comply.

“Yes, I once had someone I really loved.” You smile.

“Me too. She is…well, I am not sure if she considered me as her lover. You know, I am a Chinese, and we usually keep our feeling at heart.” Sure I understand you know I am a Chinese, or at least an Asian. But I still mention it because I want you to know what it means to my behavior.

“Do you see that building?” I point to the direction, and your head follows.

“It is quite tall.” You reply, and look up in in order to meet its top. It is unsuccessful because it is buried inside the cloud under the blue sky.

“Yes, it is very tall, and it is exactly sitting in the middle of THE CITY.”

“How tall is it?” You ask.

“No one knows. People stop to count it 70 years ago.”

“How come? You mean it is still being built?” You are surprised.

“Yes, at least for a while after that time.” I take out a cigarette from my pocket, and try to figure out how to explain it to an outsider like you. THE CITY has many rules, and we are civilized and organized that we never break them.

>Once in the past, there was a very rich man. He wanted to build a very tall building in honor of… well, something. It doesn't matter what a rich man wants to honor as long as he has the money to honor it; rich men always have something to honor in order to spend their wealth.

He made a contact with a building company, and gave them a lot of cash. Unfortunately, He forgot to tell them how high he wanted it to be before he died. It was an enormous mistake, and the company had to keep building it in order to honor the contact; yes, you can say everyone still has something to honor no matter what. Several decades, the grandson of this rich man went bankrupt, and several decades later, the building company went bankrupt too. Since then no one knows how high it is, and people in THE CITY don't bother to know. This building is useless now, and how would people want to know something which is useless? We are clever, and very conscious about time spending. We are gladly to learn what is useful, however. Let me remind you. (I said so because I don't want you to look down on me as an educated illiterate. You know what I think, so you keep your mouth shut and nod your head quietly. )

I lit up my cigarette, and ask you casually, but deeply.

“Do you think people should run away with his or her love?” I ask.

“I am not sure.” You frown as you are thinking, and answer, "Maybe?”

“But where could you run into? There is no place for you to go.”

“Yes, but there must be somewhere outside the wall, right?” Suddenly you realize I am not asking you a question, but telling you something about myself.

“No, there isn't such place. People who claim he has gone outside THE CITY soon discover that there are larger, taller wall in front of him at the far. He IS still in THE CITY. “My face is serious, "No can escape from THE CITY, NO ONE.”

You do not say anything. After all, it is not your business. You can get away from here whenever you want because you are just a tourist. You want to show your sympathy but you are afraid that what you show is your happiness instead; inside you feel fortunate that you are not one of us.

“But when I was a teenager, I didn't think so. I still thought I had a chance to run away.” I sit down in a long, wooden chair in a park. When you look at my back, you feel like you look at an old man who has bend, humpbacked back.

Did I tell you I once knew a Chinese girl named Wai? I must not have been so, because it is my secret. I don't even want to tell you her surname, so I can selfishly keep everything about her to myself. Yes, it is mine. The memory is mine.

I also will not tell you in Chinese, the word "Wai” means "only", so you don't realize how this name would perfectly fit everything about her.

When I met her, I was not more than 17 year old, and she was definitely not as well. I didn’t even have to ask her age. It is because we all knew that in THE CITY every teenager has to go to work when they are 18. It was said that if we went to work, we would be very busy and would not able to hang around aimlessly like teenagers usually do; it was exactly I and she liked to do.

Wai and I were friends because we had similar backgrounds. Our parents were new immigrants, and before that they were illegal ones. (It is kind of funny to know new is something follows “illegal”. Shouldn’t it be “newer” instead?) They have come to THE CITY for the fortune they were promised they would have, and more importantly, for the fortune their children would have in future.

But it didn’t come. The fortune didn’t come.

I always wonder why people would give up that much and come that far to THE CITY. My parents have worked very hard for survival; we can’t even speak the language, English. But I guess it was a good thing. Wai couldn’t speak it either. So sooner or later, we have become friends because we had no one else to talk to.

Wai had a long black hair like silk. She had beautiful eyes, and liked to use them to look at something I didn’t understand why she looked at. She was very skinny, and was silent most of the time. I didn’t know why she liked to talk to me when the desire moved her. Perhaps it is because I was usually silent too. So she could listen clearly what she had said, in her own voice.

We had no money, so the only places we could go were the places tolerant of people have no money. In THE CITY, those kinds of place virtually did not exist. We liked to go to that tall building, as it was abandoned at the time. It served no function for the people in THE CITY, so it was seen as useless as a building could ever be. Since taking it down required money too, it was probably the only reason it was allowed to live. Yeah, it was allowed to live, just as we were.

We often took the elevator to the roof of the building. We liked to stay there because no one else did. We liked to stay there because we could see the night and the sky and star and moon so clearly when we lay down. We liked to stay there because it was the only building tall enough to look past the city wall. We often dreamed of what was there, what was behind thick fogs which always floating around the top of the city wall.

“Why do we have to grow up?” she asked when we were alone. She often liked to ask difficult questions.

I didn’t know the answer, but I didn’t want her to know I didn’t know. So I tried to come up with one.

“Because we have to work?”

“But why do we have to work?”

“So we have food, clothes, and a place to live?” I suggested.

“That is it?”

“We can have a newer and bigger TV.”

“And?” She asked.

“We can have a tongue surgery.”

“Why would we want a tongue surgery?”

“People say we Chinese speak English in a funny way. So if one day we learn to speak English, we can speak it without any accent.” I explained.

“Oh.” It didn’t look like she was impressed.

“And our parents could retire earlier?”

She didn’t reply, and looked at the sky as if she already was told the answer from above.

After a long silence, she said, “Yesterday, my father said he wanted me to have the best education I could possibly have.”

“You mean go to college?”

She look annoyed, “Don’t be silly, Gwan.”

In THE CITY, when people mention schools, it means schools. But when people mention education, what they usually mean is brain surgery.

It has been long rumored that every traditional education we have received is useless, and the only way we can get a job is have our brain properly ‘redesigned’.

“Do you believe it?” she asked.


“The rumor. People say the old education is useless. “She was annoyed again, as if she felt I should have understood every bit of her mind.

“I don’t know. It must be some usages, right? If it is useless, why do teachers insist we should learn it?” At the time, in my heart, it was unthinkable that everything, which includes algebra, trigonometry, the year Columbus came to America, or how many states the U.S has, would be useless for our future. I just didn’t believe the world could be that ridiculous.

“So, maybe, just maybe… we don’t need education to have a job?” She sounded relieved.

“Perhaps. What do you ask so?”

“You know, my family is poor. The only way they could support me to have the best education is… to make some sacrifices.” Again, when we say sacrifice, it does mean sacrifice but not the meaning of sacrifice in general. It means selling our body organs.

People say the rich usually have too much fun in their lives, so sometimes they don’t know how to take care of their bodies. When an organ ceases to work, a rich man has to find a replacement, and he is willing to pay a lot of money for it. I don’t really like the idea, but people everywhere assure it is fair, it is “economics”, “supply and demand”, ‘free market” or something like that.

“My father told me that the factory owner called his name when he was working.” She continued, “My father followed him to his office.”


“He suggested my father should sell his brain.”


“The owner said he would be easier to ‘optimize’ my father’s working output if he had no brain. He went on to explain that devoted worker and brain are two words which never can be mixed.” Her voice was little bit sad, “So it would be best for all of us. I can have the best education, and my father can keep his job.”

“But how can a man live without his brain?” I was worried.

“The owner said it would be no problem. His memory will be held in a small memory drive which would be buried inside his skull.”

“What does your father think?”

“He isn’t sure. But the owner insisted it would only help my father’s ‘productivity’, as a worker who has a brain will only be ‘detrimental’ to the factory.” She asked, “What does detrimental mean?”

“It means bad.” I explained.

“Then why don’t they use the word bad instead?”

“Because bad is a simple word? Adults don’t like to use simple words.”

“Adults are weird.” She said.

Yes, they are weird, I agree. But we can’t stop becoming one of them. At 18, every teenager has to have their brain ‘redesigned’, and have some crucial specific knowledge injected into our brains to help us get a job.

Richer teenagers are different, as they would be treated better. The education, I mean the brain surgery, would be higher rated. It would help them find better jobs, get better salaries, and keep them to be rich. At the end, their children would have the education too, so the cycle will go on and on.

“You are worried about the future?”

“A little bit.”


“People say after the brain surgery, we will ‘grow up’, and we will be ‘mature’.” She stopped a moment, and went on, “we will laugh on the days we are still teenagers. We will make fun of what we try to do now. We will refuse to believe what we believe… at last we will forget the one we now love deeply.”

She turned her eyes my way, “and I don’t want to forget you.”

Before I could say anything, she kissed me. The kiss was so gentle, so light that it looked like a dream. And it was because it seemed like a dream, I didn’t dare to move. I was afraid of waking myself up. I just wanted to hold that moment as long as I possibly could. However, before I realized, she had already run away.

We never mentioned that day again, as if in case we did, the meaning of it would be lost forever. Sometimes, we hold each other’s hand. Sometimes, if no one looked our way, we kissed.

One day, she asked me something I didn’t expect.

“How about we run away from THE CITY together?” she said it so casually, and so suddenly.

“But why?” I was shocked.

She was silent.

I held her hand gently, and she smiled, “You know, sometimes I just don’t want to grow up. I just… ” When she was smiling, tears were running down her face but she quickly wiped them away with her fingers, “I just want to hold everything I have now as tight as I can. I… I don’t want to get the brain surgery. I don’t want to forget anything. We don’t need that education, do we? We still can have good jobs, am I right?” She asked me in a way that looked like she was not asking a question, but just wanted to hear the word ‘yes’.

So I replied, “Yes.”

The plan was that we would run away at night without our parents noticing, and would go outside of THE CITY through the wooden door. The hardest part is not running away, but finding a job after that. At the time, we were naïve enough to believe that somewhere in the world would appreciate what we know about algebra, trigonometry, the year Columbus came to America, or how many states U.S have, and would give us a job because of them. We dreamed that a grocery owner would be in awe if we remembered the name of every state in U.S, and thus would hire us. Yeah, it was our dream, and it was beautiful.

When the date we decided to run away was approaching, she was more and more happy, and I was more and more the opposite. I was deeply worried, and anxious. The more I thought about it, the more I could be sure it was not possible. Without that education, I mean the brain surgery, no one would hire us. Why would a sales manager care if we know trigonometry, or algebra, or geometry? We would be jobless, we would be hungry, and eventually we would die pathetically somewhere. Yeah, I was sure.

So, I didn’t go.

I made believe I just forgot the date. I forgot the promise. I didn’t break it. I just forgot it… you know. I didn’t break it, really. I was just being realistic.

The next day, I didn’t return the phone call either. On the day after that I still didn’t. I knew too well. Maybe she was angry with me. She would need time to settle her temper. I mean, I was still thinking of the reason why I didn’t go. It must be a real good reason to convince her. A real reason. It takes time to think of one. All I asked for was just a little bit of time.

And then one day, the phone didn’t ring anymore, and I had a feeling probably it never would ring again. People said she died, jumping right off from the roof of “that useless building”, and showed me the newspaper. Of course I didn’t believe this nonsense. Probably she just disappeared, and maybe she had successfully found the way out, and left for good. It doesn’t matter. I know she is alive.

And you, how about you? Do you believe she is dead?

You hesitate. You don’t want to make me angry, as you still need someone to get you out of THE CITY.

“Huh, has it ever occurred to you that… well, you might have… well, betrayed her?” You choose your words carefully.

“Betrayed her?” I answer you with a blank look. “I have never betrayed anyone.”

Suddenly, you realize I am not listening to you. From the moment before you asked your question, I have not listened to you, or everyone for the matter. You find it that I have my answer, and will only listen if your answer is the same as mine. You use an excuse, and say farewell to me. After all, you assume, you can find someone else who can give you the direction to go outside. Indeed you are right. For everyone who is living in THE CITY, every way he goes leads him back to THE CITY; for everyone who is not living here, every way he goes will only be the way out.

And me? Actually I am glad you are leaving too, as I have a place to go alone. A place I would not want to tell you, an outsider. I call it the fountain of happiness. There I can drown in the middle of ecstasy. At there I can see her face again.

After your back disappeared at the other side of horizons, I look left and right, and make sure no one is paying attention to me. I walk into a small, dark street, and stand in front of a vending machine. If you were here, you might think I was going to buy some drugs, or cocaine. No, I am not. People of THE CITY are so civilized and advanced, we don’t do drugs. It is just a perfectly legal store. As far as I know, it is fair, ‘economics’, ‘supply and demand’, ‘free market’ or something like that.

“Welcome to E-Mart. We are very happy that you choose to use our service.” On the top half of the vending machine, there is screen showing an image of a very beautiful female who is talking to me, “My name is Susan Fox. How may I help you please?” Several years ago, every single vending machine in THE CITY has a name, and the one I am using now is called ‘Susan Fox’.

“I am unhappy. Why would you suggest me to do?’

‘Let me see’, the vending machine is beaming a red light straight to my eye in order to identify my ID. “Oh, hello Gwan.” It continued, “According to the financial information we got from your bank account, I suggest you the best and economic way is to take a lot of alcohol to soften your sadness.”

“After the brain surgery I still have sadness?” I am surprised.

“Yes, my emotion detector indicates you have.”

“That god damn doctor!” I am angry, and kick on the vending machine. It doesn’t seem to care. For one, it is just a machine, for another, its body is much tougher than my foot.

If you were here, probably you would wonder why I am so angry. Yes, it is because you don’t know what happened after the part I told you. Eventually, I was 18 and went on to get my education. When I was laying on the table, I asked the surgeon, “Is there any way I can escape sadness?”

The surgeon nodded, “How about trying ‘Removal of Sadness’?”

“So I will not be sad anymore?”

“Yes, the surgery is minor. I can do it at the same time when I give you the education.”

“It sounds good.” I said.

At the time, I was still a teenager. I didn’t realize in the world of adults, people usually don’t do thing out of good will. Everything has a price, and every adult assumes you know it and you will pay it. When we got the medical bill from our mailbox, my mother had to sacrifice her right eye to cover the additional cost.

Then I had a job. I worked in a similar factory like her father had, and met a similar factory owner like he di, and was offered the same choice between brain and no brain.

When I am tired, I stop to kick the machine and sit down on the floor, wondering where my life went wrong. I feel like my life is a mistake, but when did it start to go wrong? I did what I was told. I even got that education. Isn’t life supposed to be that way?

“I want to buy something.” I talk to the vending machine. After all, that is why I came here, and that is the only thing it can do for me.

“It is our pleasure to hear this. E-Mart has everything people want to have. Just tell us your wish freely. We will deduct the related payment right from your bank account. Totally safe! No interest! No additional charge!”

“I want… ” I am thinking of different kinds of pleasure, like expensive wines, luxury foods, or pretty prostitutes, but for the reason I don’t understand, I say, “I want Wai.”

“Please tell us your request again.”

“Wai. Her full name is Wai Cheung.” I repeat, as I don’t know what I am saying, and I don’t want to know.

“We are sorry. We cannot find it from our list. Probably it is out of stock currently. Please come back and check… ”

“Never mind.” I quickly interrupted it, “Just give me the most expensive brandy you have.”

“Sure. Which one?”

“I don’t know. A brandy with any French name?” I choose so because people say the French is the best.

The vending machine is silent for a while, and continues, “We are sorry. Your bank account funds are insufficient for your purchase. Do you want to choose something else instead?”

All of a sudden, I feel insulted. I am enraged so that I spit on it, punch it, I kick it, I scratch it, and I even bang my head on it. Why, I shout to the machine, you have taken so much from me and you even refuse to give me a drink? I have worked for 10 years but my saving is not even enough to buy a brandy which rich businessmen or celebrities would drink in a TV show?

At last I cry. I kneel down before the vending machine, and cry. I hug it, not because I want to hug it but because it is the only thing I can hug now. As if it can understand what I am saying, it replies with sympathy, “According to our medical record, you still can sell your liver and two kidneys to cover the difference of the cost.”

“I have already sold my brain and my heart, and now you want more??”

It replies, in a low, charming voice like it is a living being, “Why? It is THE CITY. You can have everything here. Why do you still need those useless things like a liver or kidney? Let them go, just let them go. We have more than enough alcohols to soften your sadness, and lessen your pain.”

Yes, it is exactly what I want. I want them go. Sadness and pain.

“… Deal.” I nod.

“Thanks a lot for the purchase! Our surgeons will come to your home tomorrow at 2PM. Please call us if you are not available and need to reschedule a new visiting time. Do you want me to inject some virtual natural images to your brain now? Our researchers suggest it would amplify your pleasure when you drink.”

“No thanks. Besides, I have no brain.”

“We apologize. E-Mart always respects the diversity, and the unique identity of THE CITY as a melting pot in the world. We don’t discriminate against people because they are brainless, heartless, legless, eyeless etc. We are always thinking forward, and our teams are always legitimate and ethical. So, do you want me to install some natural images into your memory drive please?”

I don’t answer. I grab the brandy and walk away.

I am sitting on the edge of the roof of “that useless building”, like I always did when I was young. After half a bottle of it, I start again to see her floating in the middle of the sky. But this time is different. She looks so gentle and nice. She doesn’t scold me anymore. She even smiles to me. She is so close that I feel like I can hold her hands again if I walk few steps forward. Yes, a few steps forward.

Suddenly, I know her trick now. I finally understand what she has done ten years ago. She has played a trick, a trick which gets her out of THE CITY. It is the only way out and she found it. My heart, or maybe some mechanical parts in my chest, starts to beat again. It beats so hard that I can’t listen to anything else. The kiss, her love, and her gentle touch. Everything now is so close to me, it all depends on if I want to take a few steps forward and hold her hand.

Why? My love, I love you so dearly. Why did you play a trick on me? This time, I finally can catch you, and will not let you go anymore.

Yes, I know now. I know the world is so nice, and sweet. Nice and sweet.


Background & Credits

The CUNY/Labor Arts essay contest is dedicated to expanding and revitalizing the study of work and workers at CUNY, and is open to any undergraduate attending a CUNY college. Begun in 2010, it encourages students to write creatively and analytically about work and workers, and to link their efforts to labor arts. Art by or about working people, including photographs, paintings, buttons, banners, posters and songs are all included in our definition of labor arts.

The contest is funded by The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, and was made possible this year through the efforts of The Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation and Don Rubin and Bruce Payne; Lehman College/CUNY and Dean Timothy Alborn, and Acting Associate Dean Terrence Cheng; and LaborArts and Rachel Bernstein, Henry Foner and Evelyn Jones Rich.

Special thanks go to our judges: Professors Salita Bryant (Narrative, Fiction/non-fiction); Nicole Cooley (Poetry); and Vincent DiGirolamo (Essays).

The photographs of students were all taken by photographer Gary Schoichet at the Awards Ceremony, held at the CUNY Graduate Center on May 8, 2012.



Emma Rock
Harvest. Painting by Jules Smith. Link.

Zachary Amendt
Probably a TV3 newsroom, Cleveland, Ohio, 1962. Link.

Justin Keslowitz
The strike in Brooklyn—Firing at the mob. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly.
Author’s note: This illustration served as the inspiration for my essay.

Meagean De La Cruz
Really Good Career. Cartoon by Barry Deutsch. Link.


Laquann Jenkins
Bitter Chocolate. Photograph by Daniel Rosenthal, Ivory Coast. Link.

Renisha Pierre
Workers lunch break at Warbasse houses, United Housing Foundation. Photograph by Sam Reiss, Manhattan, 1963. Labor Arts link.

Allison Dillon
Striking cafeteria workers listen to a Chanukah message of solidarity from Rabbinical student Ben Greenberg. Photograph by Arieh Lebowitz, Madison Square Park, NYC, December 6, 2011. Courtesy of J.ewish Labor Committee. Link.

Rukma Dhakal
Solidarity Day I Washington, D.C. Photograph by George Cohen, September 19, 1981. LaborArts link.
Author’s note: I love the way the Washington Monument points upward, indicating to us that we all, no matter what age or race or whatever, we the people, with legitimate reasons of course, should reach for the sky whenever fighting forms of injustice.


No Place to Go. Painting by Maynard Dixon, 1935. Link

Allison Dillon
Street shrine to bicycle messengers near Ground Zero in the months after the disaster. Photograph by Martha Cooper, Lower Broadway, NYC, January 14, 2002. Labor Arts link.

Edgar Mendez Fire. Illustration by Richard J. Rodriguez, May, 2012. (Commissioned for this essay.) Link.

Gwan Sing Au
Untitled [Inspired by a quote from A. Philip Randolph]. Painting by Marshall Arisman, 1980. Labor Arts link.
Author’s note: I like his face. It is so broken, as if it is hardly patched together.


Making Work Visible—2013
A Labor Arts Contest

Nina Talbot Open to CUNY undergraduates, this contest offers cash prizes in four categories: poetry, essay, fiction/non-fiction narratives, and art. Click here to read the winning entries from the 2011–12 contest.

Entries should relate to labor arts—visual art about work and workers, and art by working people. Labor arts are broadly construed to include photographs, posters, buttons, banners and flyers, as well as paintings, sculpture and other fine art by or about working people. Funded by the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the contest aims to expand student engagement with the under—appreciated history of work and workers in this country, and to re-vitalize the study of labor history at CUNY.

Guidelines & Entry Procedures

Undergraduates in good standing enrolled at any CUNY institution are eligible to compete. Entries must be submitted by March 1, 2013 to Lehman College Acting Associate Dean Terrence Cheng (School of Arts and Humanities) will serve as contest coordinator.

Garment WorkerEntries will be judged according to originality, content, and style by an impartial panel of CUNY faculty. Students may enter as many of the four categories as they wish (one entry per category), but may only win one prize in one category. Winners from previous years are not eligible. All entries must be the student's original work; winning entries will be published on the Labor Arts website. Prizes will be awarded at a ceremony in Spring 2013.

Think Visually!

Students submitting written work should include an image that is related to the themes in their writing. You may include a link to: a) one of the images below; b) one of the images from this gallery; c) an image from the Labor Arts exhibits or collections; or d) an image from another source. Sample images from the web museum:

  • Sample 1
  • Sample 2
  • Sample 3
  • Sample 4
  • Sample 5
  • Sample 6
  • Sample 7

Students submitting visual artwork should include on their cover sheet a brief paragraph (50–100 words) explaining how their work shares and is a part of the Labor Arts spirit.

Prizes & Categories

Prizes in each category: First Place: $1,000 // Second Place: $500 // Third Place: $250 // Five Honorable Mentions per category @ $100 each.

All entries must be submitted via e-mail. The subject line of your email should include the title of your entry and the category you are submitting to (i.e. "My Contest Entry—Poetry").

Writing Categories: Poetry, Fiction/Non-Fiction Narrative, and Essay
Written entries must be Microsoft Word documents attached to your e-mail. Please save your file according to the following sample format: title_category_laborarts2013; i.e. for a fiction entry it would be mystory_fiction_laborarts2013.docx. The .jpg image associated with your written work may be pasted in to the first page of your document, accompanied by the title, artist or photographer, date, source, and URL for the image.

A separate cover sheet (also a Word document) should include the title of the piece, student name, e-mail, phone number, address, college, and major; if the piece was written for a class please identify the class, department, and instructor.

  • Poetry submissions should be single-spaced, no page limit.
  • Essays should not exceed 25 pages double-spaced (1 inch margins, 12 point font).
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction Narrative submissions should not exceed 25 pages double-spaced (1 inch margins, 12 point font).

Visual Art Category
Entries in Visual Art must be saved in JPEG format and must be 1000 pixels in the longest dimension (at 72 dpi).

  • Please save the file according to the following sample format: myartwork_visualart_laborarts2013.jpg.
  • A separate cover sheet should include title of the work, media, dimensions, and year; plus student name, e-mail, phone number, address, college, and major. If the piece was created for a class please identify the class, department, and instructor.
  • Cover sheet should also include a brief paragraph (50–100 words) explaining how the work shares and is a part of the Labor Arts spirit.

Topics might include, but are not limited to: economic and social problems; issues of immigration; conflicts based on race, class, and ethnic identity; environmental concerns; child labor; women in the labor force; economic justice; globalization and international labor markets; organizing campaigns; crime and corruption; anti-labor campaigns; cultural and artistic visions; ideals and ideologies.

For more information, contact Professor Cheng at