What I Saw This Week: Observations From the Wonder City #1

Life moves much faster in New York City than it does anywhere else in the entire world. The world passes through this grid of gritty, grimy and glistening streets and as it does so it leaves behind sprinkles of other lands, cultures and ideas.

Every morning as I wake up, I look out my bedroom window in Harlem (which faces east towards the Bronx) and remember how fortunate I am to live in such a place where there is something for everyone and everyone is accepted for who they are and what they believe. When you go to Rome, you get the Italians. When you go to Dublin, you get the Irish. When you go to Rio, you get the Brazilians. When you go to New York, you get everyone.

Each morning, as I ride the Brooklyn-bound 2 or 3 train to work, I casually glance around the car and notice a variety of life that simply couldn’t be replicated on any mass transit system in any other city in the world. I have never seen the same people twice on the train, even though I take the subway at exactly the same time each morning.

It’s impossible to document every single moment you notice in a city such as New York. It’s insanity to try to remember every interesting thing that happened to you on any given day. Everything is interesting and something is always happening. What I intend to do with this new series, “What I Saw This Week: Observations From the Wonder City,” is give you flickers of moments I experienced during the past week to give you a taste of what life is really like in the center of the universe. Think of it as a flip book of sorts as I’ll be saturating your curiosity through photos I take.

Here are this week’s observations:

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This is less than a block from Penn Station and a scene from my daily commute.

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I saw Selma last weekend, and it made me realize how the civil rights movement and African Americans’ push for voting rights wasn’t long ago, especially with recent events in New York City, Ferguson and elsewhere. As someone who saw the movie, I’m surprised it didn’t receive more Oscar nominations as there’s some excellent acting and the cast is pretty impressive.

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A diner I often walk by when I’m in the Upper West Side.

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I went to a roundtable dinner at Keen’s Steakhouse in Manhattan this week to discuss 2015 travel trends with other travel writers. Keen’s is considered one of the best steakhouses in New York City and I agree with that claim. It’s a Victorian steakhouse and you feel like you’re stepping into the Civil War era as soon as you step through its doors. Of course, prices are reflective of modern-day Manhattan and can tip the scale at hundreds of dollars per entrée.

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The steak I had at Keen’s, one of the best I’ve ever tasted by far.

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Caught this distant view of Times Square and the Bank of America tower (skyscraper with slanted roof) walking home from work one night.

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I attended a conference for young travel professionals at the Park Hyatt New York last week and aspire to stay there even for one night some day. To give you an idea of how upscale a typical guest room suite is, there’s a TV built into each bathroom mirror (like something out of the Jetsons) and the toilet seat automatically lifts up as soon as you open the bathroom door. Oh, and the floors are heated throughout each suite.

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Saturday was a semi snow storm for the NYC area so the only way to deal with that is warm up inside with a delicious cup of green mint tea.

5 Things I’ve Learned From Living In New York

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve lived in New York for almost two months now, and while I’m eons away from becoming a New Yorker tried and true, I feel that I’ve been here long enough to let some preliminary lessons sink in. Every day I remind myself how lucky I am to be here, in the capital of the world. The place that everyone dreams of coming to launch their careers, but few actually get here to do that. The closest they get is in the movies, which don’t even begin to show you what the true New York is like. Here are five things that I’ve discovered about the real New York:

  1. New York isn’t for everyone. Everyone thinks that this is the place to be and where they should be if they want to make it. While it is the epicenter of so many industries, it takes decent amount of toughness and confidence. Sounds obvious, but it’s not. This city is fast, and if you don’t know where you’re going or what you want, step aside because there’s thousands of others that do. Unless you’re really driven and have a five year plan, New York isn’t for you.
  2. Getting anywhere takes a considerable amount of time, although the subway becomes one of your closest companions, especially if there’s no traffic and the train is running at regular speed.
  3. New York isn’t the scary place it once was. The New York of the 70s, 80s and 90s is long gone, and here to stay is gentrification and lots of money. Taking the subway no longer involves praying to the Virgin Mary that you’ll make it out alive. Don’t discount any neighborhood until you’ve actually visited in person, and completely disregard what the Internet has to say about it.
  4. Don’t be afraid of running out of money. There are likely thousands of other people in your shoes who are somehow making it work with what they have and probably having a lot of fun as well. You can to!
  5. Never, ever be afraid to ask for help. Every New Yorker is in his or her own bubble, often furiously pacing to and from their day jobs trying to imagine being anywhere but midtown Manhattan. But if you’re a tourist or unfamiliar with where to go or how to get somewhere, just ask someone. If you slow a New Yorker down, provided they don’t look like they’re on the way to witness the birth of their child, you’ll usually find that they can be quite friendly and offer some fantastic advice. And make sure to get their top three favorite restaurants, everyone loves talking about food!

P.S. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @djpeltier and on Instagram @danpeltier20 to keep up with all of my adventures in NYC!

 

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“An American-Made Disaster?” The Issues with Interviewing Benny Villanova

Sometimes as reporters, we think that we’ve struck gold. We find a subject who ebbs against the tide and is someone who we never imagined we would encounter.

Sometimes these subjects turn out to be successful interviews that become well-received pieces, and others are destined for imminent failure. Then, there are some who fall somewhere in between-subjects who some people might see as worthy of having their story told, and subjects who some will think should never have been approached in the first place.

Benny Villanova is one of these “in between” subjects. MediaStorm, an award-winning film production and design studio, chose to profile Villanova and show the struggles that this man has faced, and possibly the struggles that those close to him face as well as a result of knowing him. In a 25 minute video, Villanova is depicted both as a hero and villain of sorts, a martyr and a tyrant.

Benny Villanova

Benny Villanova

In the video, Villanova is the chief source of information for how viewers discover his life story. There are a few other minor sources who are interviewed, but none provide answers that get to the heart of who this man is.

Villanova’s life can best be described as a roller coaster with large drops and small-inclining hills. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to the U.S. at a young age after his mother was able to secure a firm financial footing and provide a better life for her children. In 1968, Villanova was drafted for the Vietnam War and from there his troubled beginnings would only be exacerbated.

He would eventually become a trash-collector for two decades in-order to pay the bills for his family, with reports on his part of domestic abuse, drug, and alcohol offenses in the mean time. He eventually alienated himself from his entire family. His wife, who still lives in the same New York City house as he does, has stopped communicating with Villanova and has repeatedly threatened him with divorce papers.

A couple of years ago, Villanova was told that he had cancer but is now in remission, and today is a “certified” garbologist.  He essentially collects and attempts to sell items that other people throw away. He sets up shop in his own garage and tries to draw in passerby by invading their personal space or being loud enough to make avoiding him impossible. Young ladies who walk by this daily garbage sale are usually cat-called, making Villanova’s past of domestic abuse charges more plausible.

He is playful with his grandson who he watches from time-to-time, but uses profanity around him and continues to smoke pot and often drink excessively.

There are as many good reasons as there are bad for why Villanova’s life should be shown to the world. Let’s start with the bad.

Because he is generally under the influence of some kind of drug, be it pot or alcohol, readers and viewers are cautioned to take what he says and believe it to be true. Not to mention that this is usually considered unethical, under the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics. Combine this with the fact that Villanova’s immediately family is non-existent throughout the video and a recipe for deceit is created.

Sure, Villanova does not deny that he was arrested for domestic abuse, or that he may not have been the best father or wife. He even candidly drinks and smokes and curses in front of his grandson, clearly showing that he lives his life as an open book and has nothing to hide.

But while he may have nothing to hide, his family definitely does if they refused to be interviewed for this video. With their voices missing, they are not giving themselves the opportunity to respond to Villanova’s claims.  His wife cannot explain what kind of husband he is, and his children cannot explain what kind of parenting they received from him.

The good reasons for showing Benny to the world? There are thousands, maybe even millions of Bennys out there with similar stories of hardship and occasional triumph. Perhaps those masses could be inspired or comforted in some way from Villanova’s story. Maybe this could continue the dialogue about domestic abuse, alcoholism, or the economy in some positive way.

While there are good aspects to introducing Villanova to Internet users everywhere, I personally would not have made this video without interviewing his family. This decision is situation-based for me, since sometimes it is feasible to interview a subject and have them as the only voice in your profile.

But with Villanova, his behavior and use of drugs and his possible suffering from PTSD, I would not have published the video unless I had other reliable sources close to him who were in the right frame of mind to be interviewed. Not only would this be the ethical thing to do, it would also help better capture who Villanova really is besides the portrait that he paints of himself, by himself.