New York

A Year in Reading

by Jackie D on December 26, 2015

housing works bookstoreI was going to start this off by saying that 2015 was an important year for me in terms of books and reading and writing — but books and reading and writing have been important to me pretty much every single year of my life. I guess the difference is that I really felt it this year. Books and reading and writing weren’t just there in the background like they usually are — I really needed them this year.

2015 has been kind of a solitary year for me (more on that in my upcoming New Years post), and so books have been there to keep my company. There have been a few series I’ve gotten so completely absorbed in that I’ve stayed awake much longer than I should have at night trying to read as much as possible, or I’ve almost missed a subway stop because I was so deeply focused on whatever it was that I was reading. I’m currently deep into the Neopolitan novels (4 books), which follow the friendship/rivalry of two girls throughout their lives; earlier in the year I got completely absorbed in a graphic novel series called Y: The Last Man (about the apocalypse, of course); I also was completely floored by The Last Policeman series (3 books), again about the apocalypse. I’ve listed more of my recommendations at the end of this post.

Monday nights have been the best nights of the week since March, when I started volunteering at Housing Works. It’s one thing to spend one night a week completely surrounded by books and by people who love to read, but it’s an another thing entirely to be part of a place that is such a huge player in the New York literary scene. I’ve watched panels that featured famous writers; I’ve attended book signings, powerpoint presentations about Antarctica or boy bands or the Internet (the last two courtesy of Buzzfeed writers), and comedy shows; I’ve witnessed literary speed dating (editors + agents looking to work together, pretty fun); I’ve been lucky enough to volunteer at the popular MOTH storytelling series multiple times (you can listen to it as a podcast), and so on.

This year for Christmas, I gave everyone books that I bought at Housing Works. This seemed like a really smart and thoughtful idea to me until I had to bring 15 books home with me in a suitcase from New York to Los Angeles. 47.5 pounds later…

But I’ve always liked receiving books as gifts, and I like that there is basically a book out there for everyone, even people who don’t like to read that much. I carried home books from every section of that store: history, science, children’s books, essays, cookbooks, film critique, Bill Bryson (dude needs his own genre), mystery, travel. I genuinely  believe that everyone can find a type of book that will comfort or inspire them.

Anyway, books have really been the shining star of 2015 for me. I’ve barely gone anywhere this year without a book in my bag (probably one of the reasons I have back problems now), and trips to the library have become a regular part of my weekly schedule. I’ve attended amazing literary events and I’ve talked books for hours with people who love to read as much as I do. I volunteered at a book fair on the morning of my 27th birthday; I hunted down a French-English bookstore with a constellation-muraled ceiling on one of 2015’s coldest winter days. I participated in NaNoWriMo this November and finally wrote 30,000 words of a story that has been forming in my head for over five years.

But most importantly: I’ve probably read over 40 books this year — books that have kept me company on trains, in restaurants, in bars, on my lunch breaks, in the park, on the beach, in the middle of the night when I’m too sick or stressed to sleep — and I’ve only spent maybe $15 total on all of them (overdue fees), which is without a doubt the best deal you could get in New York City in a year and a half of living there.

Favorite books of 2015 (Antarctica without a doubt the first; the rest in no particular order):

Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent, by Gabrielle Walker
Y: The Last Man series, by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Girls: An Solved American Mystery, Robert Kolker
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, by Kristin Newman
The Last Policeman series, by Ben Winters
Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Hannah Wolfe Mystery series, Sarah Dunant
The Neopolitan novels, Elena Ferrante


Behind the Scenes Tour of Grand Central!

by Jackie D on December 11, 2015

grand central stationOne of my favorite parts of working in the travel industry is discovering companies who are doing cool, modern things to keep the industry alive. I feel like the travel industry is either seen as old and outdated (travel agents, cruises, fancy tours that younger people can’t afford and that are mostly geared towards retired people) or really young backpackers or travel bloggers who advocate traveling long term for as little money as possible, which is also sometimes polarizing in its own way. So I like finding companies who appeal to a broad audience and people of many different travel interests and budgets, and Untapped Cities is one of them. 

I think by now I’ve made it clear that Grand Central Terminal is one of my favorite places in New York. I pass through it everyday on my commute to work and walking around the corner to see that beautiful turquoise ceiling every morning never gets old, even if I haven’t had my coffee yet/am still grumpy.

I’d been wanting to do a behind the scenes tour of Grand Central for a while and last Sunday I finally got the chance. I found Untapped Cities’ Secrets of Grand Central Tour because of something they posted on Twitter (Twitter is just where I find all my friends and new interests now, pretty much) and I was essentially a kid in a candy store.

Our tour guide first gave us some historical background on the building, and then she got to the juicy part: the fun facts. I’ll share a couple of them here but I’m not going to relate every single thing I wrote down because, you know, I don’t want to steal the tour’s thunder.grand central terminalIn the statue on top of the building, there’s a clock. This clock is the world’s largest example of Tiffany glass — it’s 14 feet in diameter! It does NOT look that big when you are standing outside looking up at it. Not ashamed to admit that I did the thing where you cover the clock with your thumb to marvel at how something so large can look so small. I am but human.

grand central terminalWhen they were renovating the station after it officially became a historical landmark, they tried power-washing the interior walls but that didn’t take away all of the dirt. Gross? So then they essentially gave the walls a facial: they put clay all over them, let it dry, then peeled it off, and the dirt came off with it. Also kind of puts facials in a whole new perspective for me.

grand central terminal750,000 people pass through Grand Central Terminal everyday… which is roughly the population of San Francisco.

grand central ceilingMost people know this one: the constellations painted on that beautiful turquoise ceiling I love so much are actually painted backwards. So next time you mess up on something at work, just be glad you didn’t accidentally paint an entire ceiling backwards. Also, that little black thing is a hole… you’ll hear that story if you take the tour, it’s a pretty good one (involves a missile, as most good stories do).

grand central tennis courtAnd one of my favorite parts… the secret tennis court! I had heard rumors of this secret tennis court and I was so excited that we got to see it during the tour. Not telling any of you where it is (but maybe if you’re visiting and you ask nicely, I’ll show you).

Grand Central shoppingNot related to the tour, just a side note: Grand Central is all decorated for the holidays right now and it’s delightful.

If you’re passing through New York and want to learn even more fun facts about this magical place, Untapped Cities is giving another tour in January. They also post great articles about Paris, San Francisco, London, LA, and more, and they offer tours for other cool places in New York (like the Woolworth Building) and beyond!

*Untapped Cities offered me a discounted rate as a member of the travel industry, because being in the travel industry is the best.


A Stolen Wallet & A Note from Guatemala

by Jackie D on December 9, 2015

My wallet got stolen on the bus ride from New York to Washington DC last month. I was asleep and my purse was on the floor between my feet, and when I woke up as the bus arrived in DC, I knew something was wrong.

Everyone who’s heard this story has asked me how I could know that something was wrong, but I think we’ve all had one of these moments at one time or another – you just know that something feels off.

So my entire wallet was gone and, with it, these few things that I will dearly miss: my $70 in cash, of course; my Illinois driver’s license, in which the photo makes me look like I have a mullet and am constipated; a business card from my late grandmother; a business card from a former fling that read “Professional Kisser;” my old college ID from freshman year; a Bloomingdale’s gift card with like $3 on it that I only kept because it’s hot pink and shiny and fun to look at; a photo booth photo strip; a movie stub from my first date with my high school boyfriend.

I’ve had money stolen from me before during my travels: a debit card and some cash in Guatemala; a couple hundred euro in France. But I’ve never had my entire wallet stolen before (and never a purse or bag, thankfully) and it’s been such a bewildering experience for me. I’m always aware of all strangers around me at all times; I love telling people to “trust no one,” the motto from The X-Files.

When I was pickpocketed in Guatemala, the thief took my debit card and my cash but left my credit card behind. This would have been mostly fine except that you can’t withdraw cash from an ATM with a credit card, obviously, and I was in this tiny Guatemalan town where no one spoke any English and there were only 3 banks. My Spanish was nowhere near advanced enough to explain to anyone what had happened and that what I needed was a cash advance, not a withdrawal or ATM.

I spent almost an entire day trying to get this resolved and at the end of it I was so frustrated and felt so helpless and stupid and American that I sat on the curb outside one of the banks and started crying, and then I felt embarrassed about sitting on a curb crying in public, and of course that made me feel even worse, so then I just started crying even more.

One of the bank employees, a kid who looked like he was maybe 18 at most, came outside and sat down next to me. He started talking to me cheerfully in Spanish and I had no idea what he was saying, but I assumed he was trying to make me feel better, so I tried to stop crying. He stood me up and walked me over to another bank, and then he spent about 20 minutes talking to the employees there, holding out my credit card to them, trying to figure out what had happened and what I needed, until they all finally understood (one of the bank employees was so excited by the sudden breakthrough that she came around the counter and gave me one of the biggest hugs I have ever received).

I couldn’t believe how kind they all were. The guy sat with me and waited until the cash advance had been completed, and then he walked me back to the hostel where I was staying, chatting cheerfully to me in Spanish about who knows what the entire time.

When we got there I thanked him in Spanish, English, French, anything to convey my gratitude to him, and he took out a business card and wrote his name and number on it before handing it to me, and then in very, very broken English, he said something like, “If you need help again.”

That little note was in my wallet, too.