Keeping Sean Cononie Alive

One of the pieces I wrote this weekend for The Homeless Voice!

Will Write For Food 2015

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By Loan Le

You’re not supposed to stick antibiotic capsules up your butt. You’re not supposed to drink eight to 10 cans of Monster Energy drink every day. And you’re definitely not supposed to pee 1 1/2 gallons of urine during a four-hour power sleep.

But Sean Cononie, owner of the Stay Plus Inn homeless complex, gets away with this because he says he has more important things to worry about.

The ashtray on Cononie’s desk is rimmed with six burning cigarettes – all his. In between alternating drags of those cigarettes, he gulps from a 20-ounce Monster energy drink, one of many he’ll consume in a day. Recently, he went through 20 cans in a day. Like a revolving door, his staff members walk in, sit down across from him, and tell him what’s new in their lives. Then they leave when the walkie-talkie starts chirping, but not before…

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Fleeting thoughts: Bullies

c3422ad3-6ef0-4325-83c2-14d54f1b40fdMy mind’s a time machine at night. With only darkness as my company, I revisit moments of my past that I think about only when I don’t have anything else to think about.

Fourth grade. Waterbury, Connecticut. I’m back at my old school. Construction paper animal cutouts pinned to the hallway walls. Stinky multi-color cubbies. Cafeteria tables stained with grape juice spills. I’m in the bathroom, peeing, when I hear a door slam against a wall, the squelch of my usual tormentors’ Mary Janes as they find their way towards me.

The lights are off. Loney. Loney. Loney, they sing. I quietly rip off a tissue of toilet paper, wipe myself, and wait. They begin banging on my door, a steady rhythm that escalates to rabid chaotic beats. I know I am safe in the locked stall, but my mind sees a different scenario: the door falling down, me facing death while sitting on the toilet with my pants down. But, eventually, when they don’t hear me cry, the girls grow tired, and they file out, leaving me alone, breathing heavily, still in the dark.

I return to the class and sit down, my legs trembling. I sit across from the pack leader who often liked to kick me underneath our desks. I don’t look at her face, but I watch her hands, folded innocently on the desk. One hand goes up when the teacher calls on her.

I am fascinated by bullies. What leads them to hurt others. Even today, when I know how to stand up for myself, I tell myself to feel sorry for them, because it’s most likely that they act in such a way because they have witnessed it, or they have had it happen to them. Sometimes, bullies just want to fit in, too.

Then again, it would make them a better (stronger) person if they resisted such a temptation.

Back then, I couldn’t stop my bullies by myself. I was quiet and friendless, and often wanted to melt into the walls whenever I was around people. Depending on the company today, I still have the feeling. So I didn’t say anything back then, not until I was almost attacked at recess, not until my sister stepped in to confront my most-feared bully, whose name escapes me now. Next, it was the principal’s office. Then our mom had to come in. The next day, I talked to my teacher after that, just the two of us in the classroom. She knelt down beside me, asked why I didn’t come to her. As I stared at her lipstick-stained teeth, I lied and said I did. I did tell her. But she just shook her head, because she knew that all of this could have been prevented.

It sounds a bit odd, but I credit my love for books and writing to these days of torment. I turned to books to find refuge. In these books, I delved into the minds of characters good and bad. I tried to find reason in these imaginary characters. Most of all, from these times of being a victim, I understood, and still understand, that actions speak the loudest. Their impact can stay with you long after.

If I was honest about the things I did during lunch break . . .

On Facebook

  • Mentally disliking so many statuses. Unfollowing people, but still staying friends with them
  • Sobbing at vacation pictures

On YouTube

  • Babies laughing
  • Bloopers of Law & Order and Criminal Minds
  • Matthew Gray Gubler
  • Powderpuff cheerleading dance routines. Seriously.
  • Matthew Gray Gubler
  • Epic trap music to abate my mid-day slump
  • Novak Djokovic

Outside

  • Checking my phone to see if I have any friends
  • Spying on other people’s reading choices
  • Deciding whether or not I should go to the gym after work or eat a doughnut
  • Checking out guys

A True Story, Part 1

A True Story

W. sits alone at a table near the kitchen, and the flurry of cooks, French expletives, pots and pans in the background brings him and his stillness into sharp focus. Our eyes meet and I smother the pinprick shock I feel. I can see, even from my spot, the curl of his bottom lip that causes his chin to jut out ever so slightly, making me clench my fist. The sight of this little crease, the attitude it exudes, the silent judgement … If not for this spike of annoyance, I would have kissed him to erase that pout. But as I bridge the gap between us in the cafe where we’d met just yesterday, where he requested that we meet again today, I remind myself that I shouldn’t criticize what and whom I don’t know. Not yet, at least.

I answer when he inquires about my morning so far, as if I care to tell him, as if we are simply two friends catching up, rather than odd strangers. His voice is slow molasses, and the pauses between every clothes-line sentence is like a sudden breeze from nowhere amidst a stiff-hot summer day. I feel my irritation disappearing. Finally, he thanks me for meeting him here and I nod, wary.

He waits patiently, hands clasped, as I place my messenger bag against the table’s legs, dig through my mess  for a decently sharp pencil and a clean, unwrinkled piece of paper. I feel as if my every move is being tucked away in some mind palace. I stiffen my spine and clear my throat to sway authority in my favor. I am the one telling his story.

But then he said, opening his palms to feel the weight of the air: “Let’s begin.”


“I have a story for you,” the note had said. At first, I didn’t notice the hastily scrawled words, just saw the folded-in-half notepad paper that was dropped in front of me, one corner dipping itself into my cup of jam, and the rest of it soaking in the oil from my croissant. I glanced up from my morning read – a New Yorker – and prepared an indignant Excuse Me. But I stopped when I saw a man about my age, looming over me. Tall, lean, and handsome, with black hair that curled along his forehead, still slightly damp from a shower or from summer sweat. Impatient, too, I gathered from his dancing fingers atop my two-seat table at Manny’s.

It was my Summer Friday, and I had allowed myself to read for pleasure, rather than participate in the search for The Next Big Book, that everlasting pressure an editorial assistant like myself would feel on a daily basis. I already disliked what I was reading, a pretentious essay that overused semicolons, which always need to be treated delicately.

I picked up the note and read it. “What?”

“I see you writing here, all the time.”

“Okay. Creepy?” What an odd way to flirt.

He only laughed. “I have a story. For you.”

“What makes you think I need a story.” And what would he be able to give me?

“Every writer needs a story.”

“Well, every writer lives in Brooklyn. Why are you giving me a story?”

He shrugged, which frustrated me but also made me place down my New Yorker. I wanted to hear his answer, I realized. “I belong to a group called The Saints. We deliver punishment to those who deserve it.”

And I felt it suddenly, a great familiar pang of disappointment, what I seemed to feel every time I fell in love with smart-looking and meticulously dressed men on the subway. This guy was crazy.

“Right,” I said.

“No, look,” he said, a cutting edge now in his voice, which caused me to look around uneasily. No one seemed to noticed this strange man. “I’m serious. I want to tell my story, but I haven’t met the right person to help me with that.”

“Okay. What’s the story?”

The clerk, Hector, called out an order. Crazy Guy got up. He said, looking at me, “W.”

“W?”

“That’s my name–for the story.”

But I just heard it clearly, didn’t I? “But your name’s –”

“No, W.” He reached for his food, in a brown bag, still not looking at me, and would have grabbed Hector’s shirt if only he hadn’t taken a step back. In another hand W. accepted the outstretched cup of coffee. He pointed at me with a finger. “I need to keep quiet about my identity. I’m telling you, it’ll ruin The Saints.”

“What the fuck’s The Saints?” I cried out.

Then W. grinned. “What’s your name?”

I snorted. Why the fuck would I tell him?

“It’s Loan,” Hector, still behind the counter, said.

“Jesus.”

“No, I’m Hector. Jesús is in the kitchen,” Hector said, pointing a thumb in the kitchen’s direction.

W. looked at me, amused. “Great, Loan. Saturday. Same time.” He walked backwards, until he was at the front door. Over the cafe’s din, he yelled, “My number’s on the back. Text me if you’re running late.”

To Be Continued As The Story Is Told To Me.

An editorial assistant’s rejection letter to assholes online

Dear hugecock145:

Thank you so much for messaging me on Tinder/Hinge/OKCupid. I’ve now had the chance to review your pick-up line/sexist comment/racist remark.

I’m impressed by the time that you’d taken to relay your crude thoughts about my physical appearance. Your audacity to list the disappointing measurements of your dick is astounding. However, it is clear that you have not read my dating profile, and I cannot quite understand how you failed to follow the most basic writing conventions. I also feel as if you lacked any cultural and racial sensitivity. That said, I’m afraid I will have to pass.

Thank you again for letting me read. I wish you the best of luck burning in hell.

Sincerely,

Loan Le

How to win at everything

If you’re walking home by yourself in the dark, and get cat-called by a group of men, stop. Place one hand against your ear like you’re talking into a small microphone, and say: “We got him. Send in backup.” Watch them scatter.

Do you have a problem with people crowding the poles on the subway? Whisper “gonorrhea.” Press up against them. Sneeze or cough on them. Breathe, heavily, on their necks. They’ll love that.

Always give up your subway seat to expectant mothers and mothers with small children (notice I didn’t say tall). Smile, and say, “Your kids look delicious.”

There is nothing better than leaving a psychiatric hospital, breathing in the polluted air, meeting new people to scream at, and jumping in front of cars on purpose. #namaste

Nazis matter. They’re beautiful, too. #stopNazishaming

They should have let Hussein live.

Never trust anyone named Nancy.

Your whole life is a lie. You’re Asian. That’s the only thing you can be. When people ask what language you speak, say Asian. And when they suggest that you look this rather than that, say, “No, sir, I’m Asian.” Or Alien.

Say “Shank you,” rather than “Thank you.” It’s the right way to do it.

When people tell you about their bad day, interrupt them to tell them how badly yours had gone. Override them if they try to interrupt.

If someone says, “Not to be racist,” kick them in the balls or punch them in the boobs or both, and make a run for it.

Foreclosure is good. Foreplay is bad.

Guys love it when you whisper “Schweaty balls” in their ears, then walk away backwards, making sure to maintain eye contact.

Stay close to your loved ones. They’d love to see how much of an asshole you’ve become.

A foreign experience

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Since freshman year ❤

I told myself I’d write about my Italy trip immediately upon my return. (I also promised that I’d update this blog more frequently. Total fail). I wanted to capture the memories before they disappeared. Every time I travel to another place, I come back feeling as if I’d fallen out of a dream—a wondrous sort of existence filled with freedom and possibilities. It’s been more than two weeks, but I think I needed the time to let the experience sink in.

Let me tell you, I am so jealous of people who’ve had the chance to study abroad. I had an opportunity in junior year, but due to concerns about security in my country choice, I couldn’t go. And though I made the best of that year, I have regrets. The opportunity to learn another language? Be immersed in a different culture? Have the freedom to explore? EAT THE FOOD?!? Again: so freaking jealous.

In Italy, I was with one of my best friends, Ali, (oh and Eric, too, I guess) and she was an amazing tour guide. I was able to get a taste of what she sees every day. We stayed in Florence for most of the time, touring the Boboli Gardens, hanging out by the Ponte Vecchio, and climbing the Duomo. I bargained my way through the San Lorenzo leather market. We took a day trip around the Chianti region where we learned about terracotta and the politics of growing grapes. I saw countless rolling hills and majestic castles. I tried eight different types of wine and didn’t fall asleep (right away! #asianwin). I ate prosciutto, salami, cheese, and other things that I’m trying to burn off now. We stayed overnight in Rome and saw the Colosseum and the Vatican (no pope). We even got to see Ali’s office in Florence.

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Santa Croce

Okay, that was a bit of an eh moment, compared to the other activities, but I still felt excited.

I really loved the churches. Ali joked that I’d return to the States as a Catholic. I couldn’t get enough of them! It’s funny, since I’m shuffling between agnosticism and atheism. What I mean by that is that I don’t usually step into churches (not that I devalue these places in any way). Churches are hallowed grounds. While I admired the artwork and statues, people prayed in the pews. Have you ever watched people pray? Their earnestness allured me: the wrinkles between their brows, their lips moving silently, their hands tightly intertwined. Occasionally I felt as if I had to look away, like I was intruding.

One of my favorite church experiences happened in Ognissanti. A flute player and a pianist were just hanging in the front with the Franciscan friar (who was surfing the web on his phone!), and they started playing. I felt as if I was transported to a different time.

What I also loved about Florence was the energy. New York is always bustling. It’s a constant stream of noise and grit — naturally, as an introvert,  I usually get tired of being in crowds. Although Florence was certainly crowded, the rush felt different. People walked along the cobblestone roads freely and leisurely, only to move aside when they realized a taxi was trailing behind them. I didn’t mind the tourists so much as I was too busy looking everywhere. All of the buildings seem to have a history. The scenery, untouched by sewage smog so common in New York, made my heart skip.

During our last hours in Italy we sat in the Piazzale Michelangelo among couples sharing a bottle of cheap wine, families winding down, and friends catching up after a long day. A very talented singer belted her heart out just below us. We watched the sun set slowly. I said my goodbyes to this beautiful city.

IMG_5160I can see why people like to travel, why people make a big deal out of it. I met many Americans who moved to Italy because they fell in love with the country and felt a sense of belonging. My time in Italy only lasted a week, but I felt moved by it. I needed this vacation to sort out concerns and anxiety, which have been with me since graduating college. This trip has given me a lot to re-consider. It’s given me, again, a slither of life away from what’s familiar (something I consciously wanted when I first moved to Brooklyn and started my job). Florence has renewed me.

Thanks, Ali, for hosting us! We had a great time. I’ll always remember this experience.

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

ConversationsI’m not that good at starting them. Some people might think I’m odd, but one of the questions I might ask a stranger is what she or he is reading. I was at a writing group one time, and met a girl who was close to my age. She had just read an excerpt from her fiction short story. Asking for her reading preference didn’t seem unusual to me, especially because we were in a writing environment, but then she laughed shortly and answered:

“Yeah, um, I don’t like to read.”

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I tried hiding my shock, but I’m told that my emotions show.

In general I’m not bothered by people who don’t like to read. It’s perfectly fine for people to consume information through a different medium. But it doesn’t make sense to me when I hear that a writer dislikes reading. For my entire life, reading and writing have always gone hand in hand.

Let me explain how I started writing. I read the Harry Potter series over and over again, and in between each book release I created elaborate stories involving Rowling’s characters (aka, fanfiction). Eventually, I realized that my plots involved little to no magic, and my characters were unlike the characters within Rowling’s pages, so I knew that I’d outgrown the Harry Potter world, and needed to create my own. I started writing because I liked reading so much and I wanted different things to read.

I can say that one of my main sources of inspiration stems from the books I read (Harry Potter is only one example). When I can’t think of anything to write, I find refuge in books. True, there have been times when I purposely stopped reading. I foolishly convinced myself that I should focus on my own writing, that I should create sentences and stories, not absorb them. I also worried that by reading and writing at the same time I might accidentally compose a sentence that sounds good, only to realize I had read it in someone else’s work. However, I’ve learned that inspiration doesn’t mean plagiarism (well, to Shia LaBeouf it might). It’s taking one small, compressed detail in an existing work and expanding it into a completely different piece.

Take postmodern literature for example. Wide Sargasso Sea explores the life of a character who later becomes the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre. You can also consider more irreverent titles like Jane Slayre, which re-imagines the title character as a demon-slaying heroine. While still relying on the bare bones of Jane Eyre, Jean Rhys and Sherri Browning Erwin‘s novels created something different from the original story.

Additionally, writers who read have a better sense of their place in the spectrum of existing writers, and this awareness helps when you’re trying to establish your writing career. In publishing, there’s something called a Hollywood formula. When pitching a book in a letter, sometimes it’s easiest to write, “This book is such and such meets such and such.” Inception meets 10 Things I Hate About You. Um, well, that might be a weird description. I don’t even know how to make sense of that . . . I hope you get my point. Just one sentence can help an editor understand the content of your work, but it’s near impossible to make comparisons without possessing knowledge of those who are deemed great writers in your genre.

By reading, writers also gain literary aspirations. Be jealous of great writers! I’m constantly envious of today’s writers; I’ve read works from storytellers like Kate Milliken and Denis Johnson, and I think, “Damn. These people are unbelievably good.” I endeavor to be like them one daynot for the fame, but for the ability to evoke powerful, lasting emotions in strangers. People often say that you learn a lot from life, but I’ve learned so much from writers. (I guess what I’m saying is redundant because writers essentially mold life and its peculiarities into plausible words and sentences). I learned about the economy in writing from Raymond Carver, the unnecessary existence of form and punctuation from José Saramago, and the art of writing fascinating disturbed characters from Vladimir Nabokov, Ian McEwan, and Bret Easton Ellis.

If I could meet this non-reader writer againdespite the size of New York, it’s still a possibilityI’d encourage her to read more and read well, and perhaps leave her with this quote from Stephen King regarding the synergy between reading and writing:

“The real importance of reading is that it creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing; one comes to the country of the writer with one’s papers and identification pretty much in order. Constant reading will pull you into a place (a mind-set, if you like the phrase) where you can write eagerly and without self-consciousness. It also offers you a constantly growing knowledge of what has been done and what hasn’t, what is trite and what is fresh, what works and what just lies there dying (or dead) on the page. The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself with your pen or word processor. . . .” (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)

I’m interested to see which books have influenced writers the most. I’m starting a page called A Writer’s Toolbox, and would love to hear your suggestions. Comment or answer the poll below!

Excerpt from a short story that might never come to life

IMG_4857.JPGOn violence

Growing up, Rebecca’s family settled things court style with her mother presiding as the impartial judge. Who had whose boyfriend over for too long? Mary. Who stole Marcia’s blouse? Mary or April. Who gets the car this Friday night? Rebecca. Her father, being second in power, was required to be at these meetings, but he would sit with his hands folded on his lap, watching the women squabble like a kid stuck between two warring parents.

Only once had her father ever raised a hand to her mother. He was with his friends at Damon’s Grill, a town favorite on South Main Street where everyone celebrated graduations, birthdays, and deaths. He came home late one night inebriated, and knocked an uppity tune against their door. Her mother went to answer, and he met her severe frown with a smile that Rebecca thought was charming—but didn’t suit the man who raised her. She and her sisters, ages eight to fifteen, huddled at the top step, giggling at their father’s strange behavior.

They exchanged words: her mother tried whispering while her father blabbed loudly, and this caused the girls’ smiles to gradually fade and disappear once they heard a resounding slap. What followed was a cloak of silence. Her mother raised a shaking hand to her cheek, but did not cry. Her father collapsed slightly at the knees, his hand catching the offending one like a mother would do to a child stealing from the cookie jar.

The next thing she knew, she and her sisters were being shuffled into her parents’ bedroom. Her mother made the oldest, Mary, keep the door shut. But for what? Rebecca had wondered. Her mother brought out a large beige suitcase, which her father used for his business trips, and she started packing all the contents of his drawers. Her mother’s face was mighty fury. Back and forth she went, her hair flying back astray from its usual tight bun. Rebecca sat fascinated on her father’s side of the bed. They soon heard him banging on the door.

“Sandy! Please. I didn’t mean to do that,” he pleaded. 

It’d gotten to the point where her mother could no longer fit anything else in the suitcase, and that was when she decided to open the door. It seemed as if her father had aged years, and he had to beg for forgiveness for the rest of his life.

Obligatory New Year’s Resolutions

Yeah, I’m unique because I posted this on Jan. 2 and not Jan. 1.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope everyone finds what they’re looking for, and I hope everyone experiences the joy of stumbling across something unexpected.

2014 was hectic. I graduated from college, got a job in Manhattan, and moved way out of my comfort zone to a place in Brooklyn. I’m ready for more surprises! Here are a few of my hopes for 2015:

Continue writing. That includes updating this blog more often. I feel as if I’ve been editing instead of writing, stripping away the emotional nuances in my stories and leaving behind coarse, but grammatically correct sentences. I also want to finish at least one story and have it proofread, before sending it off to a journal or a magazine (and accepted!).

Read more. I’ve read books, of course, but not as many as I want to read. First book for me to finish in 2015? “Why I Read?” by Wendy Lesser. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve missed my subway stop because of this book. It’s rare for a nonfiction book to have that effect on me. Reading it really strengthens my love for the written word.

Now I just have to resist Netflix, but they tease me:

Netflix

Make friends and cherish the ones I have. What I’ve realized is that you make friends without knowing it. One day, you think about someone and they think about you, and you gradually see each other more and more, and a nice friendship forms. The other day, I looked around the room, and found myself feeling grateful for each and every person surrounding me, who’ve affected me in more ways than one.

One of my worries after graduating college was losing touch with friends, but I feel even closer to them now that they are far away. Being able to keep in touch with them—via text, phone, or email—proves that our friendship goes beyond Stag Nation, and has love and respect as its foundation. #Gurls, you’re the best.

Be healthy. In my defense, I signed up for my gym membership way before New Year’s Day, so exercising is not my main resolution. I’ll try eating healthier, which means cutting down my consumption of desserts and fried food (though I started off the new year by eating fried chicken from Amy Ruth’s. Shhh!!!).

What’s your New Year’s resolution?