It’s The Anniversary Of My Twitterstorm

A year ago, I wrote a controversial article about noise pollution that triggered a Twitterstorm.

Outrage roared through my Inwood neighborhood and onto all of my social media accounts. I became a trending Uptown horror show. Like in the Black Mirror episode called “Hated in the Nation,” I faced a virtual jury that seemed to wish me dead. These digital adversaries — some of whom I knew — erected a stock character of me: “a Gentrifying Becky from Wisconsin.” No matter that I’m from Indiana and moved to New York 15 years ago from the large town of Chicago, I was rebranded as a blonde bumpkin, earning much-needed advertising dollars for several online publications.

For a freelancer who has often struggled to get published, the reaction devastated me. Waiters gave me strange looks. Receptionists gossiped about me at places where I received health care. With national stress related to police violence and a traumatic presidential campaign, I became a caricature representing rent increases, white privilege and ignorant racism originating from the cornfields of the Midwest. A fellow writer, who is sometimes trolled by the Russian government, thought I was exaggerating. Then he googled me and said that given the choice between Putin or a whole neighborhood, he would chose Putin as his punisher.

For all of the vigorous communication, there was a moment when opposing sides could have seen each other and shared common goals of respect on our streets. But those delicate seconds dithered away in the march to create clever hashtags and collect screenshots as “evidence” to my supposed racism. Twitter sent me reports telling me I had a 72 percent negativity rating. On top of being a monster, I failed Twitter. To an overachiever like myself, this was just another wound.

I did write the article. I put it out there. But I tried to be understood, like so many of us who participate in online forums. What happened to me could happen to anyone in twitterland.

Last summer, gymnast Gabby Douglas received abuse when she was photographed not putting her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. This after helping her team win an Olympic medal. In January, Monica Lewinsky defended 10-year-old Barron Trump against vicious trolls. Days later, she stood up for SNL writer Katie Rich for joking that Barron would be America’s “first homeschool shooter.” Lewinsky tweeted that “online mobs are not the answer” and that “comedy is an imperfect science.”

Looking back, I think I deserved debate instead of debasement issued by peers with their own flaws. Fortunately, I didn’t get the same treatment as Justine Sacco, a publicist whose life turned upside down with a badly constructed tweet to her 170 followers. I consider myself lucky.

Before my piece appeared in the Daily News, I tried to sell it to other publications and was told noise stories were common. Fellow writers thought my original version was too scientific and unemotional. So, I amped up my beginning until I could no longer see it. Since you’ve come this far with me, I used phrases most humans can’t string together without wanting to blow something up. These choice words included “dick,” “stereo boy,” and “possible criminal.” Yep. I did that.

An editor at the Daily News accepted my article that went from more than 1,000 words to 600, tightening the tension. He chose that piece instead of a sleepier one I wrote about the ethical treatment of medical cadavers. My impression of him was that of an old-school journalist, who — in a shrinking newsroom — felt pressured to deliver clickable content to an insatiable audience. (He may have been more overwhelmed than I was.) The photo of Jay-Z further sensationalized my story, the final package of which I didn’t see until it hit the net. When I asked to take the photo and some language down soon after it appeared, I was told the Daily News couldn’t find another picture of La Marina, the club I mentioned by name. The language stayed for days. I prepared to die.

I didn’t die, although I did lose weight. In shock, I sat in a cafe and projectile vomited across the room, not once but twice on an empty stomach. I still have nightmares. I probably have PTSD. 

Pals keep reassuring me that “things have quieted down” and that I should forgive myself. After all, I no longer open my Facebook to find messages telling me I am the lowest piece of human garbage or that I should kill myself. But the damage of a digital attack continues long after the storm. A representative from an online reputation company estimated that I would have to pay $6,000 once a month for eight months to clean up my google search results with positive and neutral blogs. Without that kind of money, I’m forced to inhabit my soul rather than my image.

I’m tougher than I thought. Also, I’m neither good nor bad but something in between, which may be more interesting. I hate hurting people’s feelings, even though I still despise the inconsiderate noise blasting into my apartment from the clubs and traffic that clog my residential area. I want other people to respect my rights and feelings too, regardless of my skin color or how long I’ve lived here. Noise pollution is still pollution, even in New York City.

Do I regret writing the article? Every day, although I learned a lot and now consider myself a wisdom keeper. In the future, I believe every job candidate will have a tattoo, a piercing and an online disaster that may or may not represent the whole person. I have a head start into this likely reality.

Obviously, I would have written the beginning with more sensitivity to my neighbors of color. When the first negative comments appeared on Facebook, I slapped my forehead with the realization that I wrote my op-ed in a bubble. I assumed I would be congratulated. Instead, I enraged five continents in the first three sentences. Even though my intention steered toward noise pollution and not race, I could see why folks were upset. What was I thinking? (By the way, the “kid” I wrote about was between the ages of 25 and 30 and had a beard. I’m 42. To me, he was a kid.)

My neighborhood is changing. As I sit here well fed in modern Manna-hata, I worry about being displaced by high rents and unkind people. I must remember the Lenape, the area’s true natives, who sold Manhattan to the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for goods valued at 60 guilders. I have choices that don’t include decimation.

But I’m not so sure. Centuries ago, this island’s inhabitants struggled to survive. Today, we have smartphones and talent to waste.

Timecard: Unemployed American Vet Sells D.R. Flags On Street Corner

INWOOD, NEW YORK — Two days before the Aug. 9 Dominican Day Parade, Dyckman Street had kicked into high gear — higher than usual for this lively block of restaurants and hot spots in northern Manhattan. I took a Happy Hour seat at Park View Diner to watch trucks unload plastic chairs and beer.

As I witnessed the action, a man selling Dominican flags walked over to my table to hand me one. I offered $2, the cost of the flag, but the gentleman refused to take my money. Instead, we talked for almost an hour. I learned that he is an Army veteran who lost his job in construction and has been unemployed since January 2014. He’s been a freelance street vendor ever since. Although this well-dressed man would not provide his name for my blog, he allowed me to interview him for Timecard, as long as I called him F.G.

Ann Votaw: So you grew up here?

F.G. I’m from the Dominican Republic. I moved here when I was 9. I grew up in the neighborhood on Academy Street. After high school, I joined the Army. I was in 3/2 Cav as a specialist. I signed on for six years. Four of those years were active. I spent the first two active years oversees in Germany during the Cold War in 1982-1984. We worked on the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia. I did the last two active years in Fort Hood, Tex. Then I stayed in Texas for 25 years. 

AV: Why did you stay in Texas?

F.G.: I liked Texas. I worked with high tech equipment, like scanning electron microscope diffusers. I was a supervisor with Motorola overseeing technicians. My job was outsourced to China. After Motorola, I got into construction and became a general contractor with my own business.

AV: What was the name of your business?

F.G.: [Smiling] No way. You already know too much.

AV: Okay. Okay.

F.G.: In 2008, the economy tanked. By 2009, I had to liquidate my assets, including tools and vehicles. I moved back here. Never in my wildest dreams would I believe I would be back here.

AV: So after you moved back, what did you do?

F.G.: I was doing construction safety for bridges and highways. I was the guy who would say, “Make sure to wear your helmet or a harness.” I taught safety to personnel. Then I got laid off.

AV: Can I ask how old you are?

F.G.: [Smiling] Come on. How old do I look?

AV: You gotta be in your 50s if you were in the Army in ’82.

F.G.: I’m 53. I haven’t had a full-time job since Jan. 2014. Thousands of applications. One interview. It stinks. I’ve been told I have too much experience, but what that means is that I’m too old. So I’ve been doing freelance street vending. I sell mostly apparel. I’ve got my licenses and tax code. I renew my license every year.

AV: Will you be back selling flags here during the weekend?

F.G.: I will. I’m hoping to make money off of the craziness of the parade.

AV: I’ll see you then.

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer and editor who is a recreational therapist in New York City. Inspired by Working by Studs Terkel, “Timecard” is a Friday blog on how people earn money. If you like this post, see also “Timecard: Moises Estrella Makes Your Milkshake, Pharmacy Delivery.” For other must-read articles on spirit and thought, follow Ann on Twitter @AnnVotaw or her blog at AnnVotaw.com.

Timecard: Anina Young Appreciates Transgender Clients, Bra Fittings For All

braAnina Young, owner of Inwood’s Brazen Lingerie, detects baggy bras faster than a radiologist can spot a herniated disc. For years, her instincts have steered women and transgender clients toward perfect balance, online and in the dressing room.

10985311_10152844864475698_8020954347980187694_n“Just like I get female customers at different stages of their lives — from boyfriends to marriage to pregnancy and beyond — I get transgender clients at various points in their transition,” Young said. “My transgender guests are similar to my female customers in that they want a solution. They want shapewear because they’re interested in having a waist. So are women. They also want a bra in the right size that will work with a piece of clothing, like a backless dress.”

Tall and slim with a shock of purple curls, Young, 50, is the sprightly mom of an eight-year-old son. She’s been serious about intimate apparel since her 20s, establishing Brazen as an online retailer in 2003. Recently, she experienced her own conversion. On June 27, Young closed her 5000 Broadway store in northern Manhattan. Like her first shop on Dyckman Street, which shut down in 2012, the Broadway location did not generate profitable foot traffic.

A lifelong New Yorker, Young (who is camera shy) said patrons valued the fitting room, an old-fashioned luxury that provides education and encouragement to people with special needs, including breast cancer survivors with recent mastectomies.

“More people are buying online,” said Young, whose business still operates through its website. “What’s important to me is fit. I also love the socialness and the chit chat, but it’s not important enough to other people. We attracted those who didn’t want to go to Victoria’s Secret and the department stores because they wanted hard-to-find sizes and personal attention. But the trend is internet shopping.”

Young is so passionate about individual service that she leads bra-fitting parties. Additionally, she is considering a mobile retail truck that could visit pregnant women and nightclubs. Like her female guests, her transitioning clients prefer expert advice to guessing online.

“I’m sometimes referred to as the panty therapist,” said Young, who double majored in psychology and sociology at Hunter College. “What’s interesting is they don’t shop like other women,” she said. “They see something. They try it on. They buy it. I tell them, ‘I try on six pairs of panties in the same color. Then I try them all on again before I make a decision.’ It makes them laugh. They’ve seen lingerie from afar, but they don’t know what is necessary and what is for fun, just like when you held a smartphone for the first time and didn’t know how to use the apps. They’ll ask, ‘Where does this go? Do I need a garter belt, or is it just pretty? Do other women wear garter belts?’ All the pieces and parts are a curiosity.”

Young said these customers, who were born male, know about her because of referrals through friends and special websites. They appreciate her sense of humor and willingness to adjust store hours, just for them.1935671_152433120697_2473633_n

“They’ll be on the phone saying, ‘My name is Jeff but I want to be called Jan,’” she said. “I call them whatever they want. It makes me sad that many businesses don’t let them try things on. I don’t see that happening so much in New York, but I do go to trade shows and know of vendors who are set in their ways. I don’t know what that’s about.”

Young said she aspires to treat all customers with respect and compassion.

“If it were George Clooney buying lingerie for his wife or Halle Berry, most stores would accommodate,” Young said. “If it were Kim Kardashian, well, don’t even get me started on her. She wears the wrong size. It drives me crazy that she has all these people telling her how great she is and no one tells her that her bra is too small.”

[Note: The first posting of this article had one instance of the word “transgender” as a noun instead of an adjective. “Transgender” by itself can be offensive to many people. “Transgender person” is better. A reader kindly corrected me. For more information on proper terms and etiquette, readIamtransgendered.com]

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer and editor who is a recreational therapist in New York City. Inspired by Working by Studs Terkel, “Timecard” is a blog on how people earn money. If you like this post, see also “Timecard: Helaine DeSilva Looks Back At NYC Tourism.” For other must-read articles on spirit and thought, follow Ann on Twitter @AnnVotaw.

Coach surfing and reflecting

by Ann Votaw, C.H.E.S., M.A. in Health Education

Like the two-headed Roman God Janus – January’s namesake – I am looking forward and back, embracing my shiny graduate degree and new apartment while remembering a loveseat I abandoned in March, a piece of furniture inherited from my grandparents.

I named her Mary because she deserved a secure name. Having lived through two Iraq Wars and at least one potty training accident back in Indiana, Mary was made of solid materials: square cushions, embroidered upholstery, and a no-nonsense dust ruffle.

After nine years in New York City, shuffling dance jobs and sublets, I compare myself to Mary, made of all the right stuff but involved with all the wrong people.

One roommate, an actor, punched two holes through his door in Queens, angry he wasn’t on Broadway at age 23. Another roommate married the neighbor for a Green Card and staged wedding photos in our Washington Heights living room. In the Bronx, my super’s extended family lived, illegally, in the boiler room, near my roach-infested ground floor apartment.

But Mary anchored me, like one impressive line on a resume. While I had moved to New York to reinvent myself, Mary’s presence reminded me of my family whose help was near. From the spirit world, my beloved Grandpa Votaw sat on Mary’s right arm, offering his rural critique. “That person is a such and such,” he would say about an abusive manager or fair weather friend.

In 2011, after a long winter of no hot water in the Bronx, I found my current apartment overlooking a stretch of Northern Manhattan woods. Inwood is perfect, but Mary didn’t fit into the moving van or anyone’s Craigslist dreams.

As a last ditch effort, I called my old super who wanted her for free. It was Mary’s best offer. I returned to spot clean the floors and photograph Mary, who resembled the subject of a Victorian funeral portrait. The room, that had been my universe, appeared small and hungry in the light of a single light bulb. Its decayed baseboards had the shadowy look of a battered child with Mary as a responsible aunt. I swept the floor around her, took one last look, and locked the door.