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“We came to America when I was two. My father worked as an engineer for a bunch of different tech companies. I’ve always felt like an American. My parents told me that I could be anything I wanted. I do remember them saying I couldn’t get a job when I turned sixteen, but I assumed it was a typical Indian household protecting their daughter. So I focused all my energy into making good grades and getting into college. I finished my applications early. But when I showed them to my mom, she zoned in on one particular part. ‘Be sure to mark that you’re an international student,’ she said. She explained that because of my H4 visa status, the selection process would be much tougher. And I wouldn’t qualify for financial aid. I was devastated. I’d done everything right. I took 14 honors classes. I was 4th in my class. I was even a national champion in artistic roller skating. But none of that seemed to matter. There was a chance I couldn’t even go to college in America. I cried for the entire day, and for the rest of the year my mental health took a really bad hit. I’d wake up in the middle of the night—worried about my future. A lot of those fears didn’t come true. But it has been tough. I was waitlisted at all my top choices. I ended up getting into a good school, but I couldn’t study the arts like I wanted. I couldn’t have the social life I wanted. I’ve had to make every decision based on what gives me the best chance of staying in the country. It’s like I’m always playing a game. And if I mess up once, I’ll need to leave. For a long time I carried a lot of anger. I was jealous of my younger brother for being born here. I was mad at my parents for not telling me. But both of them were born in a village. They gave up so much to be here. They went years at a time without seeing their families. How could I be mad when they sacrificed so much? I think they were afraid of discouraging me. They were focused on me being OK in the moment, and they assumed it would all work out. The American Dream is so well marketed. And when you get here, it feels so close. Like if you just work hard—everything will fall into place. And I think that’s what they always believed for me.”
“My biological mother had three kids at a young age, then dropped us all off with my aunt. It wasn’t even a legal adoption—she just signed a piece of notebook paper. My aunt already had three kids, so it was wild in that house. Summers without air. Winters without heat. I loved her to death. And she tried to keep us clothed and fed, but I can’t say that everything she did was exactly legal. She collected disability for some injury that she never wanted to talk about. And she was a bit of a thief. On the first day of school we’d go to the Salvation Army and switch our old clothes for the ones on the rack. My brothers began to model her behavior at a very young age. They drank a lot. They fought a lot. And they stole a lot. The whole town knew about us. On the first day of high school, our principal Mr. Herring pulled me aside and gave me a stern warning: ‘I know your siblings,’ he said. ‘And I hope you remember that we won’t tolerate the same behavior from you.’ I was absolutely devastated. I’d stayed out of trouble my entire life. I’d been determined to show that ‘I’ was better than ‘we.’ But apparently it hadn’t worked. So I tried even harder. I made good grades. I threw myself into musicals and drama and journalism. I even became the first student from our school to go to nationals for speech and debate. I did notice that some of the fees were waived for my activities and school trips, but I assumed everyone was getting the same treatment. Then three weeks before graduation, I was called into the principal’s office. I was horrified. I’d never been in trouble before. Mr. Herring was silent for fifteen seconds, then he said: ‘I made a huge mistake. The biggest mistake a teacher can ever make. I judged you before I ever knew you. And for that—I apologize.’ Then he got up, gave me a hug, and asked me to give a speech at our graduation ceremony. I felt so seen in that moment. After graduation I ended up going back to the school to work as a speech coach. One day I happened to be chatting with an old teacher, and I joked about how I never had to pay for my activities. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Your teachers all chipped in to pay for them. Along with Roger Herring.’”
“It was my friend’s birthday, and everyone else was twenty-one except for me. So we went to a bar that wouldn’t check ID. It was called ‘The Clif Tavern,’ and it was a total dive. The cash register was from 1948. The owner was an old, weathered guy named Skip. He seemed very excited to have customers. He told us stories all night long. He talked about meditation, and racing cars, and being a black belt. I remember he was really proud that his brother’s dog had been in a movie with Cameron Diaz. By the time we left, all of us were in love with the place. We started coming back every weekend. And I was hanging around so much that Skip offered me a job as a bartender. He didn’t teach me much. He knew very little about business. He kept all his documents in an empty Budweiser box. But he was the spirit of the place. He gave great hugs. He called everyone his ‘kids.’ And he was a total hippie. Whenever he posted on social media, he’d sign it ‘Peace and Love.’ We worked together for ten years. Skip was with me when I met my husband. He witnessed our first kiss. He became like a father figure to me. And his bar became a huge part of my life as well. Skip used to always say that the bar was ‘killing him,’ and he kept threatening to move to Costa Rica. But he could never stay away for long. There were maybe six days in ten years that he didn’t come to the bar. So when he didn’t show up one evening, everyone knew that something was wrong. The police went to his apartment and found him unresponsive. He’d died of a heart attack. None of us knew what to do. I gave the eulogy at his funeral, and then left to go open the bar. All of us assumed it was the end of everything. But one month after the funeral, I got a call from Skip’s brother. He said he couldn’t sell Skip’s legacy to a stranger, so he offered the bar to me and my husband. Over the past few months we’ve renovated everything. We have a new tap system now. We’ve added a modern register. We’ve made a lot of changes, because we know that it needs to be an actual business if it’s going to survive. But we’ve also covered an entire wall with Skip’s photos and notes. Because we always want the place to feel like Skip.”
“Tracey did all the things a big sister would do. She always called me ‘Nut.’ She helped me wash my hands, and brush my teeth. We rode bikes and played in the sandbox. Maybe our parents didn’t punish her as much. But other than that, nothing seemed different. I didn’t have a clue. Then one day a boy in our neighborhood called her ‘a retard.’ I remember running home and asking my dad what that meant. He stared at me for a moment, like he didn’t know where to start. And from that day on life was different. It’s not right to say that we weren’t equal anymore. But I went from innocent and not knowing, to feeling like I needed to protect her. Whenever I got invited to slumber parties, she didn’t. Unless I insisted. And she wasn’t invited to prom, but we got her a dress and brought her anyway. When Tracey got out of school at 21—there wasn’t much else for her to do. We didn’t have many programs in our town. So she stayed at home with Mom and Dad while I moved on with my life. Big changes were hard for her. She’d always say, ‘Why does God make us different? It’s not fair, Nut.’ She cried when I went to college. And I think my wedding was hard for her, even though she was the maid of honor. It’s not jealousy. It’s just that she wants to live a normal life too. When I had my two children, I was thrilled to watch her become their best friend—the same way she’d been mine. I always say that we raised them together. She loved my children more fiercely than a mama ever could. But once again, I watched them outgrow her and graduate through life. But Tracey taught them things I never could. My children never blink when people are different. She’s taught us all so much. She just loves everyone. And she rolls with things better than we give her credit for sometimes. Dad passed away in 2018. It was hard on all of us, but I know it was especially tough on her. I watched her during the entire funeral. She was greeting everyone and shaking their hands. And I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this must be so much for her.’ When the last person had left, I walked over and put my arm around her. And told her how proud I was. She just gave me a hug, and said: ‘Love you Nut.’”
“It was my first year teaching at a new school. Cristina was only an eighth grader, but she was in my enhanced math class. We didn’t bond much that year. Partly because she didn’t need my help. But mainly because I was so frazzled. Being a new teacher is rough. You’re dealing with students from all different backgrounds. You’re trying to teach them the quadratic formula. But also to be a good person, and navigate life. On top of it all you’re having to navigate school politics. So it always seems like there’s a fire to be put out. Sometimes I’d stay late trying to finish extra work, and that’s when Cristina came wandering in. By that time she was a freshman. And she was heartbroken, because she’d just gotten a ‘D’ on a math test. She’d hit a wall. So I gave her practice problems to do on the whiteboard. I enjoyed having her around. It was nice to have someone else in the classroom. And even when she didn’t need my help anymore, she kept coming anyway. We kept up the tradition for four years. We’d put on country music. Then we’d sit on opposite sides of the room and do our work. She went from thirteen to eighteen in my classroom. I watched her grow up. Our conversations matured. We started talking about college. And what she wanted to do with her life. We talked about her first boyfriend. And her first breakup. I got to see it all. Whenever a new class would graduate, it was so sad to see the kids leave. But in the back of my mind, I’d always say: ‘At least Cristina is only in 9th. At least Cristina is only in 10th. At least Cristina is only in 11th.’ But this year her class finally graduated. I knew the moment would come, but it’s still tough. Because they’re the first class that spent all four years with me. They watched me grow. They saw me on my very first day. They saw me come back one summer with a new last name. They were with me when I figured it all out-- and they were so smart that they succeeded anyway. Cristina graduated as the valedictorian. She’ll be going to the University of Pennsylvania next year. She wants to be a nurse. And I’m just so proud of her. It’s been such an honor to watch her grow. And I can’t wait to see what she does next.”
My parents split up when I was seven, so my grandmother was the one stable thing in my life. She’d cook me dinner, tuck me in bed, then put on her nurse’s uniform and go to work. She was already 65 by then, but somehow she’d still find the energy to cook me breakfast when she came home. She understood me. We shared secrets. Both of us tended toward melancholy, and she made me feel OK about that. We also had similar weaknesses. Oma put everyone else before herself. My grandfather was abusive and abandoned her. But when he got cancer in his old age, she told him: ‘Come back home Joe, I’ll take care of you.’ She nursed him until he died. That’s the kind of person she was. Christmas was always a huge deal for her. It was the main reason she kept working. She’d save up all year for it. Each of her grandkids would get twenty presents, and they’d be stacked to the ceiling. Unfortunately her health was never great because she smoked her entire life. And when I visited her in December of 2017, she was in horrible shape. She couldn’t walk more than a few steps without gasping for air. I remember carrying her up the stairs and putting her to bed. I read her books from my childhood. And she hated every minute of it, I’m sure. Because she hated being cared for. When our time was finished, and I was walking out the door, she told me: ‘Nick, I love you so much. And please don’t tell anyone-- but this is the last time you’re going to see me.’ I cried the entire way to the airport. And three days later she died. It was the week before Christmas. My entire family flew to her house for the funeral, and there were tons of presents, for every child and grandchild, perfectly wrapped and placed under the tree. But I was too heartbroken to go. And I think she anticipated that. Because on December 23rd I received a package. It was postmarked the day that she died. Inside was a bottle of holy water, a rosary, and a card that said: ‘Right now you probably feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, and it’s going to come crashing down. But keep going. We all have a purpose in life. And one of the reasons you are here was to bring some happiness into mine.’”
“I was a single mother of two boys. I was working overnights to make ends meet. And I didn’t even have permanent residency, so things were very stressful. Every night I’d drop the boys off with a babysitter on the way to work. On that particular evening, everything seemed normal. Elijah was perfectly healthy. But in the middle of the night, I received a text from the babysitter. She said there was an emergency, and she was taking Elijah to the hospital. By the time I arrived his heart had stopped beating. He was only six months old. The cause of death was listed as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. A few days later I collected the autopsy results from the police station, and I met the lieutenant who had done CPR on Elijah. He seemed very moved by Elijah’s death, but I didn’t think much of it. I was too overwhelmed by my own grief. I felt completely alone. Elijah’s father hadn’t attended the funeral. And there wasn’t even a headstone on the grave. The only thing I could afford was a small wooden cross. So whenever I visited the cemetery, I couldn’t even find where he was buried. It was like I’d lost him completely. For years I felt so guilty about it. It was such a weight on my shoulders. I felt that I was neglecting his memory, and that I would need to make things right if I was ever going to heal. Then one afternoon I received a call from a local reporter. He asked me if I was the mother of Elijah. And he told me that he was working on a story about a police officer who was raising money to buy a headstone. It was Lieutenant Jim Janso. The same officer who’d given Elijah CPR. The reporter arranged for us to meet at Elijah’s grave. Jim comforted me. He told me that all these years he’d thought I moved away. But he never stopped thinking about Elijah. He’d kept visiting his grave: every Christmas, every birthday, and every anniversary of his death. In that moment, I broke down. The weight of the world was lifted off of my shoulders. For the past four years I’d been crying to God. I was convinced that Elijah had been abandoned. But that entire time—all those years I thought he was lost, and forgotten, there had been an angel watching over him.”
“I grew up in a high rise across from Coney Island. It was a great childhood, but the neighborhood started to change-- and my dad didn’t like it. So he bought us a house in Long Island. It had a big backyard, and a porch. I was finally going to have my own room. We were so excited. But the day after we moved in, someone painted a message on our house. It said: ‘KKK – Niggers Move Away.’ I remember my mother started crying. But my father got angry. He said: ‘We’re not moving anywhere.’ And that same day he repainted the wall. There was one other black family on the block. And I think they had a better sense of what was going on, because they never let their kids go outside. But both my parents worked. So my sister and I hung out. Some of the kids were nice. But I started noticing the way their parents looked at me. It was a look that all black people know. The ‘what are you doing here?’ look. We lived on a canal, so a lot of the families had boats. And sometimes the kids would play in them while they were tied to the dock. But one day my friend Donna got called into her house. And when she came back, she told me I needed to leave. Because black people weren’t allowed in the boat. I was only eight years old. I cried the whole way home. Things got even worse when school started. Two boys named Dante and Michael would follow me to the bus stop. It was a quarter mile walk, but it felt like an eternity. They’d kick, and move away. Kick, and move away. Dante had corrective shoes with heavy soles, so his kicks hurt the most. The whole time they’d call me ‘monkey’ and ‘tar baby.’ There was nothing I could say to them. Nothing I could change. These kids were kicking me for no reason, and that’s what hurt the most. Deep down I knew I was a good person, but nobody saw that. And when you’re a kid, you don’t know enough to be mad about it. You just think that’s the way things are. And you sorta move on with your life. But you can’t move on completely. Recently my company held a George Floyd memorial. And my boss asked me to share my story during the video conference. When I told about those kicks, I started crying. So I guess that little girl is still in there somewhere.”
Five years ago I signed a contract for another book. The premise was simple: a collection of stories from around the world. The concept was quite easy to describe. But the creation proved much more difficult than I imagined. Even after fifty weeks of travel, it still didn’t seem like enough. I felt a lot of pressure to represent as many types of people as possible. So I asked my publisher for an extension. And another. Until here we are—two years past deadline, and it’s finally finished. But I think I can safely say: Humans is the best book I’m capable of making. It’s 437 full-color pages. There are hundreds of stories from over forty countries-- about 15% of which are exclusive to the book. And since it’s curated rather than chronological, the book provides a different experience than looking at the blog. I was able to arrange the stories in interesting and surprising ways. My hope is that it feels like a tour of the world through the voices of random people. I also hope that the experience is especially meaningful in this time of restricted travel and increased isolation. Humans officially comes out October 6th. But if you definitely plan on getting a copy—I hope you’ll consider preordering now. Booksellers look closely at preorder numbers, so it always helps to make a strong showing right out of the gate. Thanks for all your support. And I hope you enjoy Humans as much as I enjoyed making it. Link is in the bio.
“He wasn’t exactly the straight and narrow type. He dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. He met my mom while watching the Stanley Cup in a midtown bar. Both of them were pretty big partiers at the time. But when I came along, my dad said: ‘We’re going to settle down. And we’re going to start a family.’ But my mom wasn’t ready to leave it all behind. So I was born into what would become a very turbulent home. It was a two-bedroom apartment next to a busy road in New Jersey. I think it was always meant to be a starter home. But my dad ended up raising three children there. For ten years he slept on a pullout couch in the living room, so that the rest of us could have our own bedroom. He always held multiple jobs to make ends meet. We didn’t get fancy things. But we never went hungry. And even though he dropped out of high school, he always insisted on education. When I was a little girl, he’d squeeze next to me at the kitchen table every Thursday night, still in his mailman’s uniform, so he could prepare me for my spelling test on Friday. He’d treat it like a courtroom cross-examination. He’d go down the list of words, and any time I struggled, he’d say: ‘Are you asking me? Or are you telling me?’ He wouldn’t stop until I had every one correct. Then I’d ask if we could move on to the next subject. But he’d always suggest we take a break first. He’d go off to cook dinner, and somehow we never got back to it. I’d finish the rest of my homework alone. But I was a motivated student. I got accepted into one of the best high schools in the state. And all three of us ended up graduating college. To this day, my dad says: ‘The best thing I ever had was you.’ He was the only one of his siblings who never bought a house. But no house could be worth what he gave us. A few years ago, I was sitting next to him at Thanksgiving dinner. We started talking about childhood memories, and I asked him: ‘What was the deal with the spelling? Why were so intense about it?’ He laughed, and said: ‘I chose spelling because the answers were right in front of me. It’s the only subject I could help you with. But I knew if I pushed you on that, you’d take care of the rest.’”
“It was a rough time for me. I’d been planning on going to law school, but I wasn’t accepted anywhere I applied. I think I needed some kind of lifeboat, so I ended up filling out an application for Peace Corps. They offered me a teaching position in a small Ukrainian mining town. It felt like a huge chance to start over. During my first day on the job, I became an instant celebrity. Not only was I American—I was black. All the kids were staring with their mouths open. One seventh grader ran up to me and gave me a Star Wars pencil. His name was Pasha, and we immediately became friends. He followed me everywhere. He showed an amazing amount of empathy for a thirteen year old. He’d stay after class and ask me questions. Not only about school, but also about how I was doing. Being a black male in Ukraine could be difficult. People would stare, or laugh, or point. During my training some kids followed me on bikes, screaming the ‘N’ word. But I’m a tough New Yorker, so I could handle it. But whenever I tried to discuss it with the administration, it seemed like people were doubting my experience. And that weighed heaviest on me. It felt like I had nowhere to turn. But occasionally I’d share my experiences on Instagram Stories, and Pasha would stay after class to ask me about them. There was one time I was approached by two men on the street. They were hurling racial slurs at me. They followed me all the way home. I was so shaken that I was ready to quit. I even emailed Peace Corps. But the next day we were having our weekly English Club meeting, and Pasha asked me to tell the story. When I was finished, my coworker asked: ‘What should we do with racists?’ And I’ll never forget Pasha’s response. He said: ‘execute them.’ I couldn’t stop laughing. I’d never encourage violence, but it was such a relief to hear. All I’d ever gotten from the adults was: ‘I’m sorry.’ And ‘we hear you.’ This child had given me a stronger show of support than any of them. It gave me the strength to stay for the entire 21 months. Now I look back on the experience with love. Some difficult things happened. But what I remember most are the people who listened, and who spoke up for me.”
“Even though my dad is six-foot-seven, he’s not scary at all. He listens to a lot of Reggae music. And I don’t think I can ever remember him yelling. When I was really young, he used to get on the ground and play Barbies with me. And every morning he’d lift me out of bed, and insist that I carry out my duties as princess. He’d carry me downstairs and make me wave to my ‘royal subjects’-- which was nobody, because it was just an empty living room. He’s always been a really mellow guy. I know his life hasn’t been easy. His brother passed away when he was fourteen. His father drowned at the beach while he stood on the shore. So he’s seen a lot of tragedy, but he’s always been really strong. Growing up I never saw him cry. I was the emotional one. I’d cry during arguments. Or when something sad came on the news. Or during sad movies. But he never lost his composure. I think he enjoyed being the strong one so that he could comfort me. During my senior year of high school, my mom had to work in another state. So it was just me and Dad for awhile. And we became very close. Our bond became more of a friendship. We cooked our meals together. We went shopping together. His mother passed away that year, so I helped him with all the funeral arrangements. I know it was really hard for him, but during the entire process-- I never saw him cry. At the end of the summer I left for college at Florida State. My whole family came down for the weekend to help me move in. We set up my entire apartment. Then Sunday night came around, and it was time for everyone to go. Mom went out to the parking lot first because she didn’t want to get emotional. Dad stayed behind to help me hang some final décor. Then, when everything was in place, he gave me one last hug and started walking down the stairs. I was right behind him. And something about seeing him walk down those stairs felt so final. And everything hit me at once. I stopped and began to cry. He turned around, walked back up the stairs, and gave me the biggest hug. He told me that he loved me. I didn’t look at his face. And we never talked about it. But I could feel his shoulders shaking. And I knew that he was crying too.”