Maspeth: a community in uproar over a homeless shelter exposes issues with New York City policies

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[Image credit: Gothamist.com]

Note: I this article wrote some months ago regarding the dicey situation surrounding a rising homeless population in the city of New York, beleaguered state and city housing policies, and a homeless shelter that raised the ire of a community in Queens. Although I didn’t get around to publishing it at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed reporting on this story, and so I thought I would share it on this blog. For a more recent update on what’s going on in with the shelter in Maspeth, click here.

December 13, 2016

By Tara Yarlagadda

It’s a dreary day; rain floods the sidewalks and slides down the neon signs along Queens Boulevard. Yet, the gloomy weather does nothing to dampen the spirited cries of middle-class residents in Maspeth, Queens.

A heated community board meeting is underway at Our Lady of Hope Catholic Academy in Middle Village – a residential neighborhood bordering Maspeth, Queens. The topic of debate: a proposed homeless shelter that nearly made the town of Maspeth lose its mind, and in the process, underscored a city-wide crisis with policy failures at all levels of government.

According to Lauren Gray, Senior Advisor for Communication for the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS), the DHS notified Council Member Elizabeth Crowley in May regarding plans to convert the newly constructed Holiday Inn Express Queens–Maspeth into a homeless shelter for adult families. Council Member Crowley is the elected representative on the New York City Council for Community Board 5, which includes Maspeth.

Despite vociferous complaints from Maspeth residents, Gray insists that there has been ample community engagement in the process: “The Department of Homeless Services also hosted two community forums, which were attended by Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks to personally listen to community concerns and respond to questions.”

But those breadcrumbs were not enough to satisfy Maspeth. Residents protested in a nightly vigil at the Holiday Inn Express and even once outside of the home of Commissioner Banks, who heads the DHS. Protestors wielded posters with slogans like “Solutions not shelters” and images of Banks with the phrase: “Fire the liar.” For residents of Maspeth, this might as well be the controversy of the century.

The Juniper Park Civic Association in Middle Village criticizes Council Member Crowley for not being adequately supportive of the residents protesting the shelter. Manuel Caruana is a member of the Executive Board of the Juniper Park Civic Association. Of Crowley, Caruana says: She’s a liar. She should have been thrown out of office years ago. …This is her modus operandi. I’ve seen her do it over and over again. She’ll cut a deal and then she’ll make believe she’s fighting for you while her deal is cut.”

Still, Crowley’s Communications Director, Maggie Hayes, insists that Crowley has supported Maspeth’s opposition to the homeless shelter from the very beginning. Moreover, she states: “Elizabeth remains compassionate to the homeless…and is more concerned on creating a stable, productive environment to help them get back on their feet…”

Despite her tenuous support, Council Member Crowley, along with other elected officials, filed a lawsuit in August in the New York State Supreme Court, alleging that the proposed shelter violated New York City Administrative Code 21-124b. The code states that “no homeless shelter shall be established which does not provide…cooking facilities.” The Holiday Inn does not have cooking facilities.

The defendants, the city of New York and Commissioner Banks, quickly launched a counterattack, mounting a defense that only adult families will be placed in the Holiday Inn shelter, and cooking facilities are only required in shelters with families with children.

In addition to the lawsuit, concerns have erupted over the shelter potentially becoming what New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer referred to at the community board meeting as a “roach hotel.” The Comptroller’s office conducted a city audit in 2015 of homeless shelters for families with children, finding that conditions in many homeless shelters across the city were deplorable due to lax security and an utter lack of regulation on the part of the city.

Ironically, both homeless advocates and residents disapprove of the use of hotels for homeless shelters. Giselle Routhier is Policy Director for the Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy organization and the court-appointed monitor of the single adult shelter system in New York. Routhier says that although the city has made use of hotels for shelters, hotels are “…definitely not the most optimal location,” stating that there are generally issues with providing services – such as mental health and employment assistance – in these facilities.

Caruano insists that his opposition to the shelter stems not from a hatred of homeless individuals, but rather, the moral quandary of housing families in a single hotel room, which he decries as “unconscionable.”

So, the ethics of housing individuals in hotels is indeed a dicey matter that raises broader policy questions for a city struggling to find sufficient space to shelter its homeless population. However, the actual conflict in Maspeth might be more primal: outsiders versus insiders.

While chatting about the people who might reside in the shelter, Caruana says something that belies his prior goodwill: “There’s no public transportation. There’s no way these people are going to go out and get jobs. There’s nothing to do but for them to wander through the streets of Maspeth causing problems. People don’t know who they are – this is a very tight-knit community. They see a stranger walking around the neighborhood, they’re going to get scared. Why are you scaring the community this way? There’s no need for that.”

In that sense, what’s going on in Maspeth is a time-old dilemma: residents that want to be left in peace, and outside forces that are determined to break their idyllic bubble for the greater good.

There are currently no homeless shelters in Community Board 5, where Maspeth is located, but the de Blasio administration is trying to change that, perhaps futilely so.

According to a press release by the New York City Department of Homeless Services (DHS) in September, the de Blasio administration has “implemented an unprecedented array of programs designed to prevent homelessness and move adults and children out of shelter,” thereby preventing 7,000 New Yorkers from becoming homeless.

Among these new policies is a borough-based approach, in which homeless individuals and families should be given temporary shelter in their home boroughs, so as to better foster community ties and ease the transition into permanent housing.

As a result, Mayor de Blasio has made pronounced efforts to establish more homeless shelters in Queens, including the proposed shelter in Maspeth. Many Queens locals take issue with this new policy. Karla Leone, a resident of Jackson Heights, speaks to the increase in shelters:

“We already have two shelters and going on a third [in Jackson Heights]. It’s terrible. They’re like one hotel that my dad used to work in. They fired my dad, they fired a whole bunch of workers, and they opened a homeless shelter…Not only does it devalue the houses, but it makes our neighborhood dangerous.”

In spite of the glowing statistics published by the DHS, the situation is pretty bleak. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, as of August 2016, there were more than 60,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. This is up from 38,000 individuals in 2010 – a shocking increase in just six years.

The average length of stay for a family with children also increased over the past decade to 412 days in August. And it seems the city is largely unable to meet the growing demands on the shelter system. During the week of September 5, according to a document filed by the city in the lawsuit, the vacancy rate in the city shelter system was below zero.

Yet, why is there such a growing demand for homeless shelter services? According to Caruana, the current situation is a result of New York State’s right to shelter policies, which require New York to provide emergency shelter to homeless individuals.

Caruana alleges that this has caused thousands from across the country to flock to New York, overwhelming the city’s homeless shelters: He says: “New York taxpayers are carrying the burden for all the states in this country that are sending their homeless to us. Prior administrations gave them a bus ticket back to where they came from. [Mayor de Blasio] is welcoming them…I tell you what: my grandson could do a better job.”

It’s a common myth, and one that the Coalition for the Homeless roundly disputes. According to the Coalition, less than one-half of one percent of all families placed in the New York City shelter system is from out-of-town. Many of them are from neighboring Long Island or New Jersey.

Routhier offers a more nuanced explanation, rooted in city policies and state and federal disinvestment from affordable housing over the past decade. It starts with then-Mayor Bloomberg’s slashing of priority affordable housing for the homeless in 2005, and becomes more pronounced when the state cuts funding for the Advantage program – which provides subsidies for up to two years to assist people in renting housing – in 2011. Routhier adds: “…. there was essentially no way for families to move out of the shelter system. A huge spike in homelessness followed.”

There are some positives: Routhier lauds the de Blasio administration for reinstating priority access for homeless individuals to section 8 public housing, which provides assistance to low-income families to rent in the private housing market. She also praises the administration for introducing “city-initiated periods of rent subsidies that have thus far been absent” among previous administration’s homeless policies.

The city could allocate a larger portion of public housing for homeless individuals. Yet the blame doesn’t rest solely on the city’s shoulders, said Routhier: “Both the state and federal [government] also need to step up” in providing resources for homeless services and affordable housing. According to Routhier, two billion dollars allocated for affordable housing have been left unused in Governor Cuomo’s budget.

In this citywide housing crisis, advocates on both sides pressure the city for the need to transition people out of the shelter system and into permanent, more affordable housing. The culmination of these policies ties back to Maspeth.

Ultimately, the initial legal fight over the proposed shelter has seemingly ended in a stalemate with a press statement from Commissioner Banks in October: “The owner of the Maspeth Holiday Inn refused to allow the city to convert the hotel into a shelter. Instead, the hotel owner agreed to rent rooms to help keep homeless New Yorkers off the street, and the city has done so.”

But wrinkles continued to develop as reports emerge that the proposed homeless shelter is under attack by a second lawsuit – this time by the holding company that owns the land on which the Holiday Inn Express sits – which could hinder the city’s efforts to house homeless individuals there.

Still, without conversion into a formal homeless shelter, the social services that such a hotel could provide to the homeless individuals that it houses is undoubtedly limited. And so, no one wins – the administration, Maspeth, and especially not the homeless.

Real Talk Book Review: Why Wuthering Heights is one of the most messed up books I’ve read…ever. But it’s worse in this political climate.

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[Image credit: Wuthering-heights.co.uk]

Happy 200th death-i-versary, Jane Austen! I feel my high school erred in adequately prepping me to become a Jane-ite. I read not one, not two, but FIVE Shakespeare plays in the course of my high school education, yet not a single Austen or Brontë novel. Come to think of it, most of the other esteemed, literary books I read in K-12 (with a few exceptions, like the iconic Toni Morrison) were written by old and/or dead white men. Hopefully high school curriculum has diversified since then, though I wouldn’t hold my breath. Anyway, I came to love Austen in my early twenties, in addition to other fantastic writers of the 1800s such as Charlotte Brontë, the well-regarded author of Jane Eyre.

Having long been a Jane Eyre fan, I thought it only fair that I give the other famous Brontë sister, Emily, a chance and read her most famous (and only novel) to-date: Wuthering Heights.

Oh boy. I’m not sure I regret reading Wuthering Heights, but this might be one of the most messed-up books I’ve read of all time. Upon finishing the book, I actually sat silent in bed for several minutes, trying to process the gravity of all that I’d read.

Heathcliff, the leading male character and “love interest” of leading lady Catherine Earnshaw, AKA Cathy, is one of the most disturbing characters I’ve ever glimpsed on the page. And I’m a fan of the true crime genre and have read up on the likes of H.H Holmes (read Devil in the White City), so I know what I’m talking about. He is evil embodied in human form. Sure, he was abused severely as a child, and I know Brontë is trying to make a point about how our environment molds us into the terrifying adults we grow up to be, yada, yada, yada but that doesn’t make it any more enjoyable to read. Take a look at the quote below, when Heathcliff refers to his new wife, Isabella Linton, a woman he not only does not love, but hates with an intensity that shocks the senses.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered were a wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she has an innate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury!…If she desired to go, she might: the nuisance of her presence outweighs the gratification to be derived from tormenting her!”

Now, Heathcliff hates Isabella primarily because she has the misfortune of being the wrong person. Her only crime is that she is not the only person he has ever cared about or desired in this world: his supposed soulmate and once-upon-a-time childhood friend, Catherine. Catherine similarly loves Heathcliff, for reasons I cannot fathom other than he is apparently her ‘soulmate.’ God. Now I get why all the Twilight kids used to love Wuthering Heights. Edward and Bella are the modern day version of Heathcliff and Catherine, though unfortunately, unlike their English predecessors, they do not meet an untimely death. Young adult literature would be so much better for it if they had.

Twilight cover image

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

Normally, my motto is that truth is stranger than fiction, but in the case of Wuthering Heights, I’m prepared to throw that slogan out the window. How Brontë, a sheltered clergyman’s daughter, came up with this shockingly abusive, demented character is beyond me. Moreover, she decided to pair him with Catherine, a wholly selfish young woman who had little regard for anyone’s feelings but her own. Despite loving Heathcliff, she says that marrying him would bring her status down in society, causing him to run away for three years before he returns to her — at which point, she is already married to her other childhood friend, Edward Linton (and also pregnant with his child). Most of the time she regards her husband as a nuisance, if an unfailingly kind one. Here is how she speaks to him after he rightfully criticizes his wife for receiving Heathcliff into their home:

“Have you been listening at the door, Edgar?” asked the mistress, in a tone particularly calculated to provoke her husband, implying both carelessness and contempt of his irritation.

Catherine was not merely someone who had no hope of inspiring Heathcliff to better himself, but also someone who would only impel him to give in to his most violent vices. It was a match made in hell. See how Heathcliff refers to his ‘beloved’ after he’s gotten into an altercation with her “lamb” of a husband:

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. ‘I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering, thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

I digress. There are too many ‘Heathcliff is a sadistic asshole’ quotes for me to list them all for you.

Wuthering Heights_Heathcliff Cathy

[Image credit: IMDB.com]

But I have to give Bronte credit for creating incredibly unlikeable characters and sticking to her guns in following their miserable stories through to the end. As an aspiring novelist, I’m definitely taking notes. I mean, can you imagine the kind of shocked reception this book must have received in seventeenth-century England? I’m sure the editing world was shocked and scandalized by the “immoral” nature of the book and its inhabitants. I figure that Brontë imagined such a reaction, and so she actually initially published the book under a male pseudonym (though a lot of that was probably because discrimination against female authors was still very prevalent at the time — and still is to this day, in some literary circles).

And also, Bronte perfected the literary device of using weather and geography to mirror the turbulent human condition. Pretty sure they teach Brontë in all those fancy creative writing classes in college that I never took. Check out the great paragraph below:

“It was a very dark evening for summer: the clouds appeared inclined to thunder, and I said we had better all sit down; the approaching rain would be certain to bring him home without further trouble. However, Catherine would not be persuaded into tranquility. She kept wandering to and fro, from the gate to the door, in a state of agitation which permitted no repose; and at length took up a permanent situation on one side of the wall, near the road: where, heedless of my expostulations and the growling thunder, and the great drops that began to plash around her, she remained, calling at intervals, and then listening, and then crying outright.”

But more than the actual story, I find it interesting to read Wuthering Heights during this political climate. I know, eyeroll. “You can’t link everything to Trump!” I know you can’t, but I’m sure going to try.

Seriously though, it’s hard not to find parallels everywhere. We have a man that openly bragged about sexual assault who is now our president. Heathcliff, a violently abusive blowhard (and likely rapist), is considered in some circles to be merely a tormented, tragically romantic soul. Give me a break. There is a whole set of characters in Wuthering Heights, too many characters with the same first and last names, and a very confusing family tree that may or may bear some traces of incest (?). I’ll spare you all that, but just to know that pretty much every single one of these characters is mercilessly tormented by Heathcliff throughout the course of the book, including his own beloved’s daughter, who is also named Catherine. Heathcliff forces her to marry his son under a series of very spurious, and most likely, illegal conditions. Thankfully, Heathcliff ultimately passes into the netherworld to join his dear Cathy in death, leaving some semblance of peace for the souls who he tortured for so long on these dark and gloomy moors.

Beyond the fact that misogynistic men can rise to influential positions, whether those be in the White House or in the moors of rural England, violence against women is nothing new.  But it seems like every day, I see articles on my Facebook newsfeed about women being stalked, raped, bludgeoned and killed, often by their spouses or partners. The summer before I moved to New York, three female joggers were killed in the span of a few weeks while running near their homes. I read just an article today about a woman whose ex-boyfriend progressively stalked her before hiring a third party to dump toxic acid all over her body, leaving her permanently scarred. It’s enough to make a modern lady dump all dating apps in the garbage and live the life of a solitary hermit.

Normally, I don’t mind bleak literature. Hell, the darker, the better. I’m a Game of Thrones fan, after all. But when I’m reminded day in and day out of how being a woman in this world is a frightening thing, sometimes I just need a respite from that in my literature and television. True, Heathcliff torments men and women alike. But in Wuthering Heights, the women are held captive — in one case, literally — to particularly violent fates at the hands of this tormentor. With all this being said, I’d sooner place Wuthering Heights in the horror category than the romance aisle.

For that reason — and also, because to be honest I find Emily Bronte’s writing style exhausting and dull — I’m not sure if I’ll pick up Wuthering Heights anytime soon. But what the story reveals about the depravity of the human condition — that will stick me for a long time. The soulmate thing? Ehh, not so much.

Review: 3/5 stars

Real Talk Book Review: ‘Hunger’ made me think deeply about the world as Roxane Gay lives in it – and about my own fatphobia

Roxane Gay Hunger

(Image credit: Amazon.com)

“I do not know why I turned to food. Or I do. I was lonely and scared and food offered an immediate satisfaction. Food offered comfort when I needed to be comforted and did not know how to ask for what I needed from those who loved me. Food tasted good and made me feel better. Food was the one thing within my reach.”

There was a lot I couldn’t relate to in renowned author Roxane Gay’s new book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. As it well should be.  I have never lived in Gay’s body — only she has. But the paragraph above hit the nail on the head for me, in a way that I didn’t expect.

I have been fat on and off for the better part of my life, and I still struggle with my weight to this day. As a child, I would gaze down at my thunder thighs with their running lines of cellulite, and imagine what it would be like if a meat cleaver could somehow bloodlessly slice my jiggling fat away. I would huff and puff as I struggled to finish the summary one mile run in gym class clocking in at eleven minutes or more when most classmates finished around eight minutes or fewer. I would be tormented endlessly for my weight, sometimes by other schoolkids, sometimes by friends, and oftentimes by my own relatives.  I loved food, and it loved me back. But it was (some days, still is) also my worst enemy.

Because as a 5’0 woman (or 4’11 + 3/4 inch, according to my last official measurement), I’m always a meal at Chilis away from descending into the danger zone on the BMI chart.  It just takes two days of stress eating, a few extra slices of pizza here and there before my waistband starts tightening, and the dreaded muffin top of fat bursts from the sides of my jeans. And my shoddy metabolism doesn’t exactly help. (Thanks, genetics!)

And please note, when I’m using the term ‘fat’ here, it’s not as a pejorative. I think of it as classification of one’s body type, and should be no more considered an insult than words like thin, skinny, tall, short, etc. Although I realize that that’s far from the case in the real world, though movements centered around fat positivity are trying to re-embrace the word.

And I only just now realized that the narratives of short fat people — women, more specifically — are rarely, if ever shown on TV. Now, part of this has to do with the fact that Hollywood is comprised of tall people, so the narratives of larger women like Melissa McCarthy and Amy Schumer tend to be those of tall people. Almost always white, cis women too, but Roxane tackles that issue of representation of fat people far better in Hunger than I could do in this short blog post.

Anyway, this book review is more than just a critical analysis of Hunger: it’s also a time for me to take stock of my own internalized fatphobia.

I think the latter half of the book’s title (A Memoir of [My] Body) is so key. My Body. Because Gay’s perspective truly is her own. She doesn’t represent all fat people — nor does she claim to do so. I’ve never been termed ‘morbidly obese’ by the medical community. I’ve never sat in a chair and worried that it would break under my weight. And although I’ve ridden on planes as a child with my now-deceased, obese grandmother, and witnessed the ridicule she bore when she required seat belt extensions, I’ve never borne the brunt of that gaze myself. All of these are the small, everyday humiliations that Gay endures and speaks to in Hunger.

And when I put aside my own reflections, I was able to see Gay’s perspective as one that was totally separate, heartbreaking and utterly unrelatable to my own. I was able to see how different someone’s relationship to food could be from my own. Although Gay and I both sought comfort in food, mine was borne primarily of a hearty appetite and perhaps, earlier on in my life, some low self-esteem issues. I had never thought about how a deep-seated trauma like that Gay endured — she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his friends at the age of twelve and kept that secret close to her chest — could lead someone to seek solace in food. She associated being pretty with being thin, and thus, being susceptible to the unwanted advance of young men like those who sexually assaulted her. And so, she built a cage out of her body in order to keep the touch of men like those who raped her far, far away.

I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe. I buried the girl I was because she ran into all kinds of trouble. I tried to erase every memory of her, but she is still there, somewhere. . . . I was trapped in my body, one that I barely recognized or understood, but at least I was safe.

She writes poignantly about the sexual assault in a way that makes your heart ache and want to hug teenage Gay. But really,  it’s the aftereffects of the rape and everything that followed which makes Hunger so powerful.

And part of its power was in forcing me to resist my own impulses as a (formerly) fat person to talk back when Gay narrates parts of her experience that are foreign to me. When she mentions doctors who dismiss her other valid health concerns and just tell her to lose weight. When she mentions strangers taking items out of her grocery cart. When she talks about how chairs with arm rests painfully constrict her form. When she rolls her eyes at women like me who are have only ever been twenty or thirty pounds overweight. When she mentions that staff at Housing Works — a local New York bookstore where I occasionally volunteer, in full disclosure, though I was not working there when Gay spoke — failed to take into account her physical needs for an event at which she was speaking, thereby forcing her to struggle to climb onto a stage and then hover above a chair that could not accommodate her body.

I learn to bite my tongue. I learn to listen. I learn to accept that the narratives of other fat people are different from my own. I understand my own internalized fatphobia and reluctance to embrace the fat-positive movement better.

But most importantly, I understand Roxane Gay’s story.  She has made her readership — which I presume is includes many thin women who have never known what it is like to be mocked for their body weight — understand what is like to be large in a society that deems her to be the Other. A thing to be ridiculed and mocked. She does this through sparse writing that sings. And that’s a powerful thing.

Book Review: 4/5 stars

The sunshine state: a week long sojourn along the coast and among the swamps of South Florida

Days 1-2: Fort Lauderdale

We touch down on the runway at Fort Lauderdale at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day, and spend upwards of half an hour waiting for the rental car guy to pick us up and take us to the offsite facility. One of the joys of traveling anywhere on Christmas, the only day in America when everything is well and truly closed, even McDonalds.

We emerge from the rental facility with the small silver car that will be our mobile home for the next seven days, and arrive at Lauderdale by the Sea – a series of vacation condos minutes from the seashore – with the whole day ahead of us, though it’s too early to check-in to our rooms. Hastily changing into our shorts in the bathroom of a Walgreens, we step into the sunshine and onto the beach, cool grains of sand slipping through our toes. Impressive beachfront condos line the shores, and a long boardwalk extends into the ocean. The water is cool, but not chilly, and with the sun beaming it’s nothing short of heavenly – okay, at 85 degrees, it’s a little warm. But having fled from 30 degree weather in NYC only to be met with the same in California, I’ll take this heat any day. It’s a public beach, but located so far from downtown Fort Lauderdale, it practically feels like we have the whole beach to ourselves.

Around eleven, the tourists start pouring in, and we break for lunch. Luckily, the restaurants in this area are geared for tourist season, and are mercifully open to feed hungry beachgoers, even on Christmas. After a few mimosas, we check-in to our room, freshen up, and decide to check out the more touristy parts of Fort Lauderdale with a trip to Las Olas Beach (“The Waves” in Spanish). Oh boy. We’ve definitely left the geriatric, retiree community behind. Here, youngins’ flock to cheesy beachside saloons and Hooters.

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After a day of beach fun, we decide to check out the Fort Lauderdale Riverwalk. Along the way, we spot Millionaire’s Row, a bed of grand homes along the waterfront. It was a haven for the well-heeled and wealthy back in the ‘70s, when becoming a millionaire was actually a notable accomplishment.

But it’s after getting lost while driving that we become aware of some of the massive wealth inequality in this Florida beach town. Just blocks away from the glitzy riverfront and million-dollar condos are hospitals and housing for very low-income communities and homeless individuals wandering the streets. While the weather here may be warm year-round, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way for economic or municipal support for those in need.

We descend upon the river for a pleasant evening boat ride – although it turns out to be far from that. Our boat operator, let’s just say, is neither of a fan of our California origins and an ardent Trump supporter. He proceeds to rail against Governor Jerry Brown and champion the soon-to-be-president. The man’s smug tone is enough to drive Mom and Dad into a tizzy, and before I know, we’ve launched in a full-on debate. Now, I may have my political inclinations, but I don’t think it’s a smart idea to get into a heated discussion with the guy manning your boat! Oh well…we survived.

The following day, we wake up bright and early to catch the sun peeking up over the blue horizon while we wait on the beach, wind gently whipping through our hair. It’s a lovely sight. Walking along the beach, we hunt for seashells in the frothy waves and tiptoe around colorful jellyfish that have washed ashore. Then, we head off to more glamorous shores. Our destination: Palm Beach. Trump territory. We decide to avoid Mar-a-Lago. But Palm Beach is pleasantly absent of any orange looking politicians. The waves ambush you from the left and right all at once. Mom and I take turns giggling as the waves rush in and out over our calves.

Day 3: Miami

Little did I know that I would be returning to Miami for the second time in a year. Don’t get me wrong, I love the great weather, impeccably clean beaches and friendly vibes, but it’s not the kind of city I want to go back to frequently. South Beach is still, well, South Beach. Hordes of inebriated twenty-somethings and spring breakers descend upon the main thoroughfare along the beach, giant margarita cups the size of my head in hand. Unsurprisingly, it only took a matter of minutes before my dear parents grumbled about the madness of young hooligans. Going to Miami with one’s parents is like venturing to Las Vegas before you’ve turned twenty-one – which, I have also done, funnily enough. It’s not something I would recommend. We managed to make a fun time of it though and reveled temporarily in the South Beach madness.

While walking along the beach, I saw a scruffy-looking, shirtless older man leading a group of avid runners down a long stretch of the beach. A friend of mine recently published a book called Running with Raven about a man named Raven who has run eight miles every day in Miami for the past few decades, amassing hundreds of followers or “Raven Runners” along the way. I thought: “Could it be him?” And as they passed by, I heard the words “Raven Runners.” It was! It was one of those moments that made me realize what a small world we live in. Anyway, I encourage all running, beach, Miami, and human interest story enthusiasts to check out Running with Raven. It’s a terrific summer read.

We cap off the night with some traditional Cuban fare and head to the hotel.

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Days 4-5: The Keys

For the third day in a row, we wake up early enough to see the sunrise. How on earth am I managing to do this while fueled by the three-hour time difference between California and Florida? I should still be in bed. Oh well. The ethereal pink, blue and yellow rays over the horizon make up for it. Central Beach is a little calmer than South Beach, to say the least, and less of a tourist trap, though no less charming. The cleanup crew and a few other odd beachgoers are the only ones with us to greet the rising sun.

After that, we spend a lazy few hours in the hotel room before checkout, stopping by a shopping mall en route to the Keys – a set of islands connected only by U.S Route 1 off the coast of Florida – for lunch. And funnily enough, as I discover while perusing in the roadside tourist shops, the Keys were once the site of a dramatically unsuccessful secession effort. They have their own flag and everything. I imagine the ongoing ballot effort for California to secede will be similarly fruitless – if it ever takes off the ground – but hey, in this political climate, who knows what will happen?

But unbeknownst to us, all the tourists in South Florida are heading down to the Keys today for the New Year’s Eve festivities. There are also two cruises taking off from Key West the following day, and what’s normally a three hour drive winds up taking six hours. Not good.

Stress levels are rising in the car and we stop by for some therapeutic treats at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen in Key Largo, which reportedly has the world’s best key lime pie, according to Travel & Leisure. It doesn’t disappoint. Tangy and sweet all at once, coated with a crumbly but firm graham cracker crust, it’s definitely a dessert designed by the gods. But what might be even better than the pie is the lively décor of the place; license plates donated by guests from all over the country and the world coat the walls, and foreign currency from Venezuela to India dots the ceiling.

We make another pit stop in Key Largo at the John Pennekamp State Park for a glass-bottom tour. Dozens of different kinds of colorful fish and coral pass beneath our feet. The Keys, as it turns out, is one of the few places in the world where you can view coral beds like this. One of the others is the Great Barrier Reef, which sadly, is not faring too well.

Before we departed on our boat ride, our tour guide had only rule: don’t drop anything. Of course, I promptly break this rule. Leaning over the guardrail to catch a better view of a school of blue fish, I watch as my sunglasses drop to the glass with a dramatic clink, and I swear, everyone turns and looks straight at me. The tour guide guffaws over the microphone: “Those are a goner!” Good thing I bought them on discount.

In between the harried drive through the Keys – thanks Dad for being the designated driver throughout this trip! – we find some time to appreciate the sun setting over the famous Seven Mile Bridge, with deep royal blue seas flanking us on both sides. Simply majestic.

By the time we finally arrive in Key West and deal with the ridiculous parking situation and drunk tourists on the island, we’re all fed-up and cranky, and a few tears are shed. But we make up in time to head to Sloppy Joe’s, a bar that the famous writer Ernest Hemingway famously frequently during his many years on the island. Being a literary geek, I couldn’t pass this up. Apparently, Key West also has a “Papa” contest – “Papa” being Hemingway’s nickname – where people vie for the title of best Hemingway look-a-like, beard and all? Oh my. Alas, I don’t have a chance to sample a Hemingway dacquiri, as the rowdy crowds at Sloppy Joe’s are a little too much for my parents – and frankly, for me too.

So we depart on a walking tour down Duval Street, the main thoroughfare in Key West. One of our first sightings is the giant red high heel monument hanging from the top of the Bourbon Street Pub, and in which celebrity drag queen Sushi sits every New Years as the shoe slowly lowers at midnight (Key West’s version of the NYC ball drop). Helpful signs along the street indicate historic sites of rum-runner gangs during the Prohibition era, and places that were rebuilt after a devastating fire in the late 1800s.

At the end of the street is a large statue of a water marker with the words ‘Southernmost Point of USA, Cuba – 90 Miles.’ Next to that is another statue of a man who supposedly peddled his wares at this exact spot and greeted approximately 11 million visitors to the southern shores of Florida over the years, reportedly by blowing into a conch shell. Something tells me this is an urban legend, but it warms my heart. If only immigrants received such a hearty welcome today.

It’s a welcome respite when my head hits the pillow. Sleep comes quickly after a long, long day.

The next morning, I continue to bask in the literary nerdiness of Key West with a guided tour at the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum. A curious white cat perched atop the gate greets us. It’s one of 53 cats presently residing at the Hemingway House; the museum employs a full-time veterinarian to care for them. These cats are the descendants of one original six-toed matriarch, spawning generations of furballs with extraneous digits.

But while the cats may be fun to pet, the real fun comes from hearing tales of Hemingway’s eccentric genius in the home where he created 70% of his novels, including famous works like The Old Man and the Sea. That covers the genius part. As for the eccentricity…well. Throughout his life, Ernest Hemingway suffered from nine concussions – one which he incurred by accidentally pulling on a chandelier rather than a toilet chain – three divorces, four wives, numerous affairs rampant alcoholism and depression, electroshock therapy that left him bereft of his memories, and finally, a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It’s the sobering story behind the creative madness that Hemingway espoused.

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Days 6-7: The Everglades

Alligators. So. Many. Alligators.

It’s a short drive from Homestead to the Eastern side of the Everglades National Park, where we’ll be spending the entire day. Upon entering the park, tourists typically head to the Ernest Coe Visitor Center – the park’s main entrance of it six visitor centers. A National Park nerd, this part of the trip is mainly for my benefit, but Mom and Dad cheerfully trudge along.

We start off the day with a 10:30 a.m. guided tour at the Anhinga Trail, named for the spectacular black-bodied bird that shows off by extending its wings for passerby. But first, an educational presentation by a feisty, middle-aged park ranger with a blonde ponytail. Gesturing towards a mostly bored-looking group of teenagers, couples and families with small toddlers, the park ranger illuminates the difference between crocodiles and alligators by holding up some scary-looking skulls with sharp teeth.

After that, we walk over a ½ mile loop of raised boardwalk over swampy marshes and lily pads, stopping to gawk whenever we catch an alligator peeking its head out of the water, or sunbathing on a patch of grass. On our way out of the park, we spot two alligators gamboling in the water, playing a watery game. Mom has a field day with that, and leaves with a beaming smile on her face.

Following a long drive down the coast, we end up at the Flamingo Visitor Center, where the temperature has suddenly plummeted and the wind sharply escalated, and we start shivering in our think jacket. We can only snag two tickets for the sunset boat cruise, so Mom and I sheepishly embark on the tour. Sorry, Dad!

While we don’t spot any playful dolphins, the view of the sun descending over the watery ocean horizon in vibrant hues of red, orange and purple truly takes your breath away. I couldn’t imagine someone I’d rather share this moment with than with my lovely Mom – and the dozens of other Asian tourists onboard. Oh, and how could I forget the giddy manatees – gentle gray giants that are often referred to as sea cows – palling around near the boat docks of the visitor center. While we only glimpse their backs heaving in and out of the waters, it’s evident they’re having a blast.

The second day: We hop into the multi-car tram and are greeted by a delightful elderly couple and tour guide duo, with the husband driving the tram and the wife narrating. Within minutes, I know it’s going to be a good ride when they refer to themselves as the “Bad Couple” with a reputation for leading tours that run notoriously over time. Their upbeat narration spans the history of Pangea to the evolution of the Everglades over time.

The park is a bird-lovers paradise. Pale ospreys, beautiful egrets, white ibis, great blue herons, black anhingas and pink spoonbills are just some of the birds that we encounter in the Everglades. Avian lovers, beware.

But of course, the real star of the show: the alligators. Apparently, late December, the start of the dry season, is the sweet spot to catch prime views of alligators. Although we saw a respectable four or five alligators yesterday, that’s nothing compared to what we witness today. Dozens – yes, dozens of alligators amble in the waters on the edges of the thin concrete road, mere feet from the tram. As bikers drive by, the female tour guide jollily refers to them as “Meals on Wheels.” Oh boy.

And yet, it seems that the Everglades have somehow managed to avoid any human fatalities due to alligators, which I find to be a small miracle in itself, given the number of foolish people that have perished by wandering into the hot springs of Yellowstone. Still, better put that selfie stick away and keep a respectable five foot distance between yourself and the alligator. Although they’re pretty unfazed by the humans passing by since they view us tall beasts as a threat, if you crouch down to their level, all bets are off.

After that, we decide on a spur of the moment to stop by the Micosukee Village, an Indian reservation located within the Everglades. They’re hosting an arts and crafts festival and we watch a dance performed by Micosukee youths. I’m a little wary of the alligator wrestling area – it seems almost like the animals have been injured and sedated for viewer entertainment, and I can’t get on board with that.

It’s a sobering history lesson when we come to Micosukee. I enjoyed the performance of traditional Micosukee dances and explanation of the tribe’s history in the small museum, and I’m glad that the festival provides a likely much-needed source of income to many native communities in the Everglades. Still, I’m a little conflicted: all the commercialization of culture in the form of free Micosukee T-shirts and peddling of wares seems a little exploitative. I only hope that people come away from these festivals with a more nuanced understanding and appreciation for the culture of indigenous peoples, instead of viewing them as bizarre customs of the “Other.”

Our last stop is the Oasis Valley Visitor Center, where we ask a woman about this rad-looking, old-school camera that appeared in one of the visitor center brochures. “Oh, that’s Clyde Butcher,” she says. “Drive down the road not ½ mile, and you’ll see his place. He’s the only one in this area that uses that kind of camera.” Following our instructions, we make our way to Clyde’s photo shop, only to find that it’s perched on a gorgeous cypress swamp. After a few selfies with the old camera, we bid adieu to the Everglades and to the warm, swampy gaze of the sunshine state.

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Smiley (An Audio Story in NYC)

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Last semester, I started getting getting more interested in audio stories — podcasts, radio, you name it.

For our first audio assignment, we had to go around and interview strangers on the streets of New York about their summer (yes, I know it’s hard to contemplate blissfully sunny days in the midst of this winter chill, but bear with me). As you can imagine, drawing a coherent story out of a complete stranger was not an easy task. It was the usual midst of angst, rejection, and bizarrely inappropriate encounters.

But then, I met a wonderful stranger on a park bench named Smiley. He told me about his love affair over the summer with Chelsea Piers. Here’s Smiley’s story:

https://soundcloud.com/podforum/yarlagadda-tara-smiley

A New Era, a New Resistance: Reflections on the Inauguration & the Women’s March on Washington, From Me to You

Gloom and doom. For many Washingtonians, this was the unpleasant sentiment that had descended on their capital, much like the clouds that had begun to settle above the city. I had arrived the day before the inauguration of President Trump, hoping to catch up with a few friends before the Women’s March on Washington. But I wasn’t prepared for how the city had changed since I left it last May — what seems like an eternity ago. At that time, it seemed all but assured that we would soon have the first female president of the United States sitting in the Oval Office. How very quickly the tables turn.

Many old friends and colleagues had already hightailed it out of DC, hoping to escape the wave of Trump fanfare that had besieged the city. For those that remained, I asked friends how they planned to spend the inauguration, given that most of them were decidedly not fans of the new administration. Most planned to hunker down as if a tornado was descending on the capital, turning their cozy pads into bunkers that they’d use to ride out the inauguration with the comfort of food and booze. If much of liberal America was in mourning, nowhere was this more evident than in DC.

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Attendees of the inauguration gathered on the South Lawn of the White House.

I thought I would spend part of the day wishing Obama a farewell in front of the White House on his last full day in office. I wasn’t exactly President Obama’s biggest fan when it came to some policies like mass deportation and going after journalists under the Espionage Act, and thought that he could have done a better job of rallying Congress to get its act together, but I do think that ultimately, he did some great things that benefited some of the most vulnerable people in our country, and did it with dignity and aplomb — a measure of reserve that is unlikely in the next four years given Trump’s tendency for bombastic comments. For that, Obama deserves a strong measure of gratitude.

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A display posted inside the window of store in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington, DC.

And yet, I didn’t get that opportunity. ‘Make America Great Again’ had hit the capital in anticipation of the inauguration with a sea of crimson MAGA hats, ‘Welcome President Trump’ signs, and misogynistic anti-Hillary buttons peddled by street vendors. Obama’s presence had already been vanquished from the capital. Most inaugural attendees were respectful (apart from a few misplaced yells of ‘Good riddance Obama’), but it was still a still strange spectacle to behold in a city that I once though I knew very well. Wealthy and elite Republicans — the kind who find MAGA hats tacky but attending inaugural balls glorious — muttered ‘rednecks’ at the newcomers who came to Washington on motorbikes and in jeans to welcome their new president.

And then, now former-President Obama was whisked away to St. Andrews Air Force base, and President Trump was sworn in. Much has already been said about the inauguration, from Trump’s post-apocalyptic speech to the minimal number of attendees compared to the throngs that attended both of Obama’s inaugurations — a number which Trump later decried as spin doctoring on the part of the media — to the administration’s wiping of civil rights pages on whitehouse.gov to the anarchists that shattered windows to former President George W. Bush’s inability to handle a poncho.

All in all though, by Trump standards, the number of bellicose comments made were kept to an expected dozen or so, and his first day got underway with as little hubbub as could be expected for such an unorthodox and polarizing president. I watched Trump being sworn in on Spanish television while eating pupusas at a restaurant where Salvadorian music was blaring over loudspeakers and hardly anyone spoke English. It was a glorious contradiction of everything Donald Trump has claimed to stand for, and the dramatic irony was almost too strong for me to handle.

It wasn’t all bad, those first few days. I caught up with friends and sought comfort in Georgetown cupcakes, a talk with fabulous females authors at the beloved Politics & Prose bookstore and a solidarity beer at Comet Ping Pong (the place which sadly became a site of unwarranted infamy when a man followed a trail of fake news to the restaurant, armed with a gun). These were just a few of my old haunts when I lived in DC and nostalgia was a wonderful coping mechanism as we entered the new, uncertain era.

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But then, it happened. 1.21.17: the Women’s March on Washington. Overnight, the city had transformed from crimson red caps to vivid pink hats in the shape of cats. It was a brilliant symbolic effort to take back a term that the-then presidential nominee Trump had made vulgar — to say the least — through a now-infamous Hollywood Access video.

The phrase ‘pussy grabs back’ was boldly playing out not only through these iconic knit hats, but also in the signs that plastered the streets of DC. The signs ran the gamut of emotions, from virulent rage to punderful slogans to empowering feminist iconography. The signs also reflected the diversity of issues and interests of women all over the country: climate change, immigrants’ rights, criminal justice reform, you name it. Intersectionality was in full speed at the march, and it was a welcome sight to behold.

My sign of choice? “Journalists rights are human rights.” I’ll confess that I just found it in a set of pre-made signs that some of my Amnesty International friends had made, but I knew the sign was meant for me. Photojournalists shouted in solidarity as I passed by them during the march, and I never felt more at home in defending the need for freedom of the press. Some might say that a journalist should not participate in a march of this scale. I couldn’t disagree more. Journalism is under attack, even though it is needed more than ever, and female journalists particularly so under this new era. We need look no further than what happened to Megyn Kelly to offer proof of that danger. It’s great to have activists on board in solidarity, but if members of the press — especially female journalists — don’t stand up for our rights, no one will.

I had gathered with friends at the start of the march not far from the National Mall — along with the 500,000 some estimated other women and men from across the country that had gathered in the nation’s capital. We waited with bated breath for the speeches to commence, but we didn’t have to wait long. America Ferrera. Gloria Steinem. Janelle Monae. The mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and other young black men lost too soon to police brutality. California Senator Kamala Harris. Representative Maxine Waters. Angela Davis. Michael Moore. Scarlet Johannson. And the march’s main co-organizers Linda Sarsour, Tameka Mallory, and Carmen Perez — along with countless other activists, organizers and celebrities who helped make the march possible — were some of the fierce ladies who spoke at this historic gathering. They agitated, they united, they inspired us. All of us.

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My favorite speaker though might have been young Sophie Cruz, who was wise beyond her years when she boldly got up on stage with her family to encourage — in both English and Spanish — children to stay strong in these frightening and uncertain times for immigrants: “Fight with love, faith and courage so our families won’t be destroyed…I am here to tell the children, please do not be afraid. We are not alone.”

Was the rally perfect? No, there were some pretty big logistical issues, the primary one being that since there was no designated lane for emergency vehicles, we had to part like Moses and the Red Sea every single time an ambulance or police car passed through the crowd, pressing up against each other like sardines. But then again, the march’s undoing was in its own success. The main organizers had been hoping for 250,000 attendees, and got more than twice as many participants as expected. That’s a very, very good problem to have.

But eventually, after three hours of robust speeches and performances and exhausted cries of ‘Start the March! Start the March,’ we did just that. We took off in all directions, and I got separated from my friends at some point along the way, but we women converged on downtown DC like no other force in recent history, chanting down Constitution Avenue, gathering in unity circles on the National Mall, and finally, culminating in peaceful protests outside of the White House. The message to Donald Trump was loud, clear and beautiful. And despite the enormous number of participants, not a single person was arrested. That’s an incredible testament to the power of peaceful protest, and the wonderful cooperation of DC law enforcement. I was never more proud of DC than I was that day.

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And it wasn’t just DC. 250,000 showed up in Chicago, between 500,000-750,000 in Los Angeles, and countless thousands more in sister cities across the nation. In total, an estimated 1 in 100 Americans showed up to march across the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more across the globe in Paris, London, Mexico City, Delhi, and more. And with a small contingent in Antarctica, the women’s march came to every single continent on the world. Now that is empowering.

But, in Donald Trump’s belittling of the march the very next day (though perhaps recognizing his mistake, he quickly turned around and expressed his support for the right to peacefully protest…though how genuine that subsequent tweet was, I cannot say), I was reminded of the very important work that needs to be done to turn the goodwill and camaraderie of the march into concrete action.

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For some, that next step is running for elected office as a local school board or city council member. For me, it’s rolling up my sleeves as a reporter and tackling hard-hitting issues to inform the public at a time when the administration openly lampoons and derides the media. Journalists will need to be more ethical, more representative, more accurate, and more bold than ever before. It’s certainly not going to be easy for any of us, especially in this climate, but there’s no time like the present to get to work.

In sum: we are loud, we are nasty and we will not go quietly into the night.

 

 

 

 

And Here We Are Now: Looking Back on the Media’s Coverage of the 2016 Election with Michael Calderone

Editor’s note: With less than ten days to go until the inauguration of President Donald Trump, I thought that I would share an interview that I did with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, looking back on the media’s – oftentimes deeply conflicted – role in the 2016 election. You can read some of Calderone’s articles here, or find him on Twitter @mlcalderone

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The Smith restaurant, where I met with Michael Calderone, Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post. Photo courtesy of thesmithrestaurant.com

I’m huffing and puffing as I rush over to The Smith, a restaurant in the East Village. I’ve just committed one of the rookie mistakes of a journalist, which is arriving five minutes late to a pre-scheduled meeting – a meeting in which you only have an hour to spare because the interviewee has to jet to another rendezvous. I attempt to fix my tousled hair, hoping I don’t look like a train wreck, before spotting Michael Calderone casually waving at me through the glass doors opening into the restaurant.

Calderone is the Senior Media Reporter for The Huffington Post, and before that, he worked at the New York Observer, Politico, and Yahoo News. “Media reporting” is a broad term that covers everything from the robber barons of media like Jeff Bezos to the press’ coverage of trending topics, namely, politics. He’s also been honored with the National Press Club’s Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism for writing about the media’s treatment of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We had met a few weeks beforehand at a conference hosted by the New York Press Club, where he participated in a panel on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election. He was just a friendly reporter and NYU adjunct professor and I, a confused NYU graduate student eager to make contacts in the media world. Then, the election – otherwise known as the Apocalypse of 2016 – happened, and the media world threw itself into a frenzy. And here we are now.

Like many other journalists, I was reeling after the election, and in need of answers. How did the media get it so completely, arrogantly, wrong? New York Times column “The Upshot” reported at 10:20 p.m. on election night that Hillary Clinton had an 85% chance of winning. The Huffington Post practically laughed in Nate Silver’s face, even though his calculations were rather conservative, predicting that Trump had a 35% chance of winning. For all of its incessant, 24-7 election coverage, the media had failed to anticipate the very real possibility of Donald Trump becoming president, had failed to cover him with this in mind, and had failed to take him seriously. I was hoping Calderone might have some thoughts on what went wrong and the future of journalism after this divisive election.

Calderone sports a relaxed look, a boyish grin, and a pair of dark, round librarian style glasses. He’s cheerful, despite my tardiness. He dons a grey sports jacket and a button-down shirt with no tie – a traditional look for many male journalists in the city.

For all his coverage of the intersection of media and politics, Calderone started off on a different beat: real estate. He was an intern at the New York Observer – before it came under the ownership of Donald Trump’s famous son-in-law, Jared Kushner. At the time, the Observer was known for its in-depth forthright coverage of politics, real estate and New York society at-large. Calderone describes it as: “Really covering the power elites of Manhattan in a weekly chronicle. The late Peter Kaplan, who used to be an editor there, used to describe it [as] almost a nineteenth century novel, where you’re covering these powerful figures.”

There aren’t many media reporters now, and there were even fewer in the mid-2000s when Calderone began writing about the industry for New York Observer’s storied “Off the Record” column. Calderone was the first media reporter at Politico, Yahoo News and The Huffington Post. He says as we receive our meals: “One of the upsides of being the first media reporter was that you can’t really screw it up.”

We dive right into the election madness with Calderone’s forays at the Observer. Despite president-elect Trump’s deep chagrin towards the press now, at the time, Calderone wryly notes, Trump was more than cozy with the media: “He was – in my view – the most accessible famous person in New York City. He called me back numerous times at the New York Observer – I don’t think he had any idea who I was.” For Calderone, Trump is an “interesting figure” that “simultaneously attacks the media and also craves the adulation and the coverage that comes along with being a media and entertainment star.”

But was it more than ego – was it also creative genius? Did Donald Trump manipulate the media through his self-adulation, thereby scoring himself some sweet coverage during the election? Calderone characterizes it as more of a “symbiotic relationship” between Trump and the media, but says that Trump took advantage of the media’s desire for titillating stories, calling in to stations three or four times a day from Trump Tower.

In turn, the media would generate a dozen roundtable discussions about the latest outlandish thing that he’d said. Calderone puts it bluntly: “…[Trump] recognized early on that he could dominate the media conversation from his apartment.”

The news media used to be reluctant to allow presidential candidates to conduct interviews from their home – until Donald Trump came along. Calderone is careful to note that these same news outlets also extended the courtesy to Hillary Clinton, but she was never interested in having such a direct line of communication with the media. He continues: “And so he got significantly more attention than anyone on the Republican field, and that helped elevate him throughout the primaries.”

So that’s strike one against the media: its excessive coverage of Donald Trump. Okay, but with a confused look on my face, I ask, don’t we already knew all of this? Isn’t there more to it? Oh, there is. Calderone is more than happy to give me his take between forkfuls of an egg-white omelet.

“If you want to put him on air a lot, that’s fine, but you need to treat him like a presidential candidate.”

Over clashing forks and knives, we talk about how the media for far too long enabled Donald Trump’s dog-and-pony show – all the while treating his candidacy like some big joke. It wasn’t until later, when it became clear that Donald Trump was a frontrunner in the Republican primary, that reporters realized the error of their ways. They started producing more serious coverage, doing exposés in The New York Times about what building a wall along the U.S-Mexico border might entail, and fact-checked him more than possibly any other presidential candidate to-date.

And yet, the media persisted in the idea that there was no way that this man could possibly ascend to the highest office in the land, given his track record of crass, misogynistic, and racist statements that sounded abhorrent to many Americans. A lack of imagination – or childish blindness, perhaps – in part, doomed the press.

But does part of the blindness stem from the much-maligned “liberal” bubbles that the media and Trump supporters have pointed out again and again? It was supposedly from their newsrooms in New York and DC that members of the mainstream media mocked, and thus, fundamentally failed to understand the Rust Belt Trump supporter. Wiping his mouth with a napkin, Calderone shakes his head, firmly concluding that it would be wrong to say that the media didn’t try to cover the Trump voter, given that news outlets sent countless staffers to report on his rallies and supporters.

But he does concede that there is a risk in “sending a reporter out to Appalachia for three days, and them coming back with some report that looks as if they’re a stranger in a strange land, sort of they’re visiting a foreign country, and what are these weird customs? And that could be a problem with not having reporters based in some of these areas, or not having the experience of growing up there …”

Part of the problem, Calderone says as he lowers his fork, stems from the shuttering of local newspapers across the country, leaving large swathes of the country without solid reporters from those areas. Back in the good old days, newbie reporters would write for a local newspaper as a way to work their way up the ladder. But now, journalists come straight out of J-school and go work for The New York Times, thus furthering the divide between mainstream media in the major cities and the rest of the country.

The last, and perhaps most important issue, that Calderone brings up as we scrape off the last bits of egg from our plates is the “normalizing” of Trump’s views “as if they’re acceptable policies” – such as the proposed Muslim ban – in the pursuit of journalistic principles like neutrality and fairness. For Calderone, that was a huge failure in reporting – something that outlets like The Huffington Post repudiated, unlike many legacy news organizations. He says animatedly: “…there’s this idea that…by saying that [it] isn’t an acceptable position, somehow you’re being partisan. My view is – that’s not partisan. We always said that – The Huffington Post always said that. ”

But too often, not enough legacy news organizations did the same, according to Calderone. The reality was that this election was like no other before it. The news media just didn’t grasp how they couldn’t cover Trump’s campaign as politics as usual. And here we are now, with the general public’s trust in the media shattered.

As Trump appoints Steve Bannon, formerly the head of Breitbart News – a haven for the growing alt-right movement – as his chief advisor; ditches the protective press pool that normally accompanies president-elects to grab a steak dinner with his family; and berates journalists in official meetings for doing their jobs, what does the future of press freedom look like? Pretty bleak, according to Calderone. In addition to having questionable actors like Bannon “whispering in the president’s ear” there are significant First Amendment concerns for journalists:

“…what’s being taken for granted by journalists is not law – it’s precedent. It requires a White House that is committed to First Amendment principles to believe that the press has a reason to be in the White House…and if Donald Trump has shown throughout the campaign, he hasn’t respected that role at all.”

His parting words do nothing to soothe my fretful mind: “I think journalists have a lot to fear over the next four years.”

As we get the bill and reach for our credit cards, I realize that there’s something that bothers me. For all his scorn for the media coverage writ-large, Calderone tiptoes around any direct criticism of The Huffington Post. I want to push back on this – weren’t they also guilty of many of the media’s failings?

After all, The Huffington Post announced in 2015 that it would no longer display articles covering Donald Trump in the political section, but rather, in its entertainment coverage. Their reasoning? “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

Ouch. I wonder if the editors at The Huffington Post are regretting that statement now.

But alas, Calderone has to head to another meeting at The Huffington Post’s office. Drat. Saved by the bell.

Looking back on the conversation afterwards, I wonder if The Huffington Post will modify its editor’s note at the bottom of its Trump articles, given that Trump is no longer a buffoonish nominee that could be dismissed, but the person who would soon be in charge of running the most powerful country in the world?

For context: early in 2016, The Huffington Post began adding a not-so-subtle anti-Trump disclaimer at the bottom of all of its coverage of the then Republican nominee. It was a bold move by The Huffington Post, one that surely did not improve its blacklisted status in the eyes of Trump and his supporters. The postscript read:

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistmisogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

As I was writing this article, I looked up Calderone’s latest piece on Trump. Sure enough: the editor’s note had completely vanished. And here we are now.