The human side of your lawyer.

The People in Your Neighborhood

To the extent that routine is comforting, my morning walk to work is essentially the mashed potatoes of commutes.

Every day is the same. My children and I head to school. They talk about video games, and I worry about them getting mowed down by traffic. I juggle far too many things in my arms–work that I brought home with the best of intentions that lay undone in favor of Nurse Jackie, plastic bags for recycling at the grocery store, a container full of grapes–and yet I try always to have a free hand just in case one of my children feels the urge to grab it, as I know the days of such urges are numbered. We encounter the mom who’s always earlier than us, returning from older-child drop-off with her younger child. We see the funny dad from that video that went viral, looking surprisingly somber as he embarks on a solo run. Those cute dogs, the lady from preschool, the little girl with the purple rain boots, that guy who knows my dad. We get to the school and my children pause mid-conversation to kiss me goodbye. I watch them go in the building, making sure no predators are lurking nearby to snatch them, and then I buy my coffee. I vary the coffee place, but I know all the baristas. The guy at the deli that hands me my no-sugar-extra-half-and-half and deadpans, “Extra sugar.” The lady who knows that I am constantly fighting the temptation to shove a morning bun in my mouth. After getting my coffee, I keep walking to my office and see more familiar faces in the stream of traffic. A mom friend getting wheatgrass juice. A dad friend nodding sympathetically at my morning tiredness. A regular from my Weight Watchers meeting. Here, in Brownstone Brooklyn, the neighborhood of my youth and now my adulthood, I’m reminded of Bob McGrath and friends singing the many variations of “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?”

I wonder how my neighbors think of me. If they think of me. Am I That Lawyer? The Mom of Those Twins? That Guy’s Daughter? My friend Claudia? The curly-haired lady who carries too much stuff all the time? I wonder who thinks what about me, but, ultimately, I guess I’m just happy to be a person in the neighborhood.


Meet me in the middle

I own a KitchenAid stand mixer, received as a gift from a dear friend, and one of my great joys in life is actually using it. Using it 1) means I have the leisure time to bake, 2) indicates that dessert is forthcoming, and 3) provides evidence for my argument to my husband that the mixer deserves to occupy the valuable real estate of our kitchen counter. That said, more often than not, I will remove sticks of unsalted butter from the freezer, leave them on the counter to soften in preparation for creaming with sugar, and then sigh as I’m forced to put them back into the freezer because it’s 11:30 at night and sleep trumps baking every time.

My sons’ recent birthday was one such occasion. I found this fabulous-sounding recipe from Magnolia Bakery that I wanted to try. Alas, I’ve been working really hard lately and just couldn’t set aside enough time to bake it. Being the good little hippie-yuppie locavore and small-shopper that I fancy myself, I headed for a local bakery whose heavenly cupcakes I had sampled. I figured I’d pay through the nose, but I’d be getting a convenient and delicious cake while supporting a small business. I asked whether they sold whole cakes. The woman said they did, but seemed uncertain about what the (hefty) quoted price included, took down my name and e-mail address, and promised me that someone would get back to me. A few days later, an e-mail arrived asking whether I would like to pick up my cake in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I responded Brooklyn, as paying a lot for convenience was pretty much the point of my buying a cake instead of making one. The day after that, a different person e-mailed me, explaining that cake orders could only be picked up in Manhattan.

Now, let me get on my high horse for a minute. Clients ask me all the time to get things done as quickly as possible for them or make life easier for them. Whenever possible, I oblige. I’ve dropped everything to carry things to the printer through snowstorms, hand-delivered documents, postponed dinner to trudge in the freezing cold from one FedEx drop off point to another, taken conference calls in Frontierland, dragged my kids into the office with me, etc., because I am a small businessperson, my clients are my bread and butter, and I genuinely care about them and want to do the best work I can. Here, I encountered a small local shop in the business of selling baked goods, with several days’ notice, that was unwilling either to bake me a cake in a location that, although apparently fully-equipped and used for baking other items, was different from their normal baking location, or have an employee deliver a high-priced custom item to their Brooklyn outpost for customer pickup. This is not consistent with the entrepreneurial spirit that the small-business movement prides itself upon. Unwilling to devote any more precious energy to this endeavor, I picked up a $15 ice cream cake from Key Food and called it a day, figuring that at least Key Food is a local New York business and all I had to do was pay for it and lug it home.

The ice cream cake went over pretty well at the birthday party. I had loaned my big coffeemaker to a friend for her wedding, so I figured I’d head out before dessert to pick up a box of coffee at a good local coffee place. I knew they did boxed coffee because I had previously picked some up for a school event. Two of my guests offered to run the errand for me. I asked them specifically please to stop at the local place. This wasn’t a particularly tough sell: one of these guests has done volunteer work with children afflicted with HIV and also spent a year of his life working at a small hospital in rural Nepal through a charitable organization. Needless to say, sensitivity and do-gooding are not lacking in his personality. About twenty minutes later, he returned with a big ol’ box of Starbucks and a tale to tell.

“Okay, here’s what happened. We walked in and saw shelves full of flat coffee boxes, and we asked the woman behind the counter for one. She told us that she didn’t really know how to put them together, so she couldn’t sell us a box of coffee. There was another guy working there, so we asked if he knew how, and she said no. We asked if she could get one of the boxes down and said maybe we could help her figure it out, and she said no. So we went to Starbucks.”

I imagine that the markup on boxed coffee is something like 3,000%. Even though my friend basically offered to do the job FOR her while still paying, she declined.

Please, small businesses: meet me in the middle. It is very, very, very difficult to muster sympathy for gripes about high rent and chain competition when a bakery won’t sell me a cake and a coffee shop won’t sell me coffee even though I am willing to pay a premium for the local services.

By way of illustrative contrast, I use a wonderful local printer, 7th Avenue Copy & Office Supplies. The proprietor and his employees always have a smile and a kind greeting for me, ask me how quick a turnaround I need, go out of their way to deliver things if needed, and frequently make helpful suggestions. The business appears to be thriving and the shop has been a neighborhood fixture for years. Coincidence? I think not.

On bulk-bin food and cold coffee

Last year, having delved more deeply into the frugal-homemaking-DIY-waste-reduction movement, this blog post (about a Cambodian priest who encouraged his area’s local churches to promote a plastic-free Lent) inspired me to adopt a plastic-and-waste reduction strategy as my own personal Lenten project. It seemed to me a good way to integrate the practical and the spiritual. I am forever working on cultivating an “attitude of gratitude,” and not taking disposables and modern conveniences for granted is, in my opinion, a good way to be a bit more thoughtful about the way I live my life.

How’d I do? Nowhere near perfection. Giving up plastic waste in the modern age is incredibly difficult. That said, with Lent here again, it’s a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned, the long-term changes I’ve implemented, and the ways in which I may be able to improve. I’m going to adopt this same Lenten project again this year, but, as Walt Disney would say, “Plus” it–step out of my comfort zone and go beyond what I think I can do.

Yesterday I went to the Red Hook Fairway for the first time since it reopened after Hurricane Sandy. I was glad to see that the store was in great shape–comfortingly familiar, but with some minor arrangement tweaks. I’m not sure whether it’s new, or whether I only noticed it because I’m now cognizant of such things, but the organic area has a great bulk bin section. Bulk-bin shopping is one of the cornerstones of the waste-reduction movement, and also something that’s traditionally very difficult for a New Yorker to utilize. Without massive supermarkets and automobiles to get you there, it’s 1) hard to find a store with bulk offerings, and 2) hard to bring your own containers in which to place the bulk items, which is necessary in order to reduce one’s use of plastic bags. I hadn’t prepared for the Fairway outing at all, having only stopped there as a post-Ikea afterthought, and so it was necessary for me to use the plastic bags for my bulk items. I had tremendous fun picking out rolled oats, popcorn, pistachios, and dried cherries and using the weighing-and-label-printing machine. I’m going to try to stock up on these relatively non-perishable items in great quantities when I make it to Fairway, and I’m going to try to implement a bulk-container system for when I do so and bring said containers from home.

One of the long-term changes I made last year that has been surprisingly easy to stick to is using my own reusable insulated coffee container. The container is double-walled and does a superior job of keeping the coffee hot, and I haven’t noticed any ill effects from cleaning the container in the dishwasher in spite of the recommendation to hand-wash (which just is never going to happen). I usually brew my own coffee at home in the morning, time permitting, and then refill from local purveyors as my BCC (blood caffeine content) drops throughout the day. No local merchant has ever given me a hard time, or even so much as rolled an eye, upon being asked to fill my container instead of a disposable cup. (Not so inside a Starbucks at Disney World, where I recently vacationed. The barista explained that she wasn’t permitted to fill my personal container for “health reasons,” but that she could give me the coffee in a disposable cup and that I could fill my container myself, which of course defeats the purpose. I asked her if that was a Florida regulation or simply a policy, and she didn’t know. Someday, when I have an iota of free time, I will look into this and write the appropriate letter requesting a change in law/policy. If anyone is reading this and has such time, please feel free to take up this cause as your own.) This morning, I reheated some leftover coffee-box coffee from a family gathering we had on Sunday. In the rush of the morning, I must have underprogrammed the microwave time, as I am now drinking cold coffee in spite of my container’s superior heat-retention abilities. Leave it to me to devise a complicated bulk-food-refilling system and mess up the simple reheating of coffee. Oh well. Two steps forward, one step back.