Archive for the ‘History’ Category

A NYC firefighter, and his engine

In cities, History, life, men, U.S., urban life, US on October 1, 2016 at 1:20 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


In every city I know, firefighters remain somewhat mythical beasts, people you typically only see — or hope to see! — on television or racing to help someone in distress or trying to save a burning building.

Socially, you might run into many different people, but in 20+ years in New York, I’ve only known one firefighter, married to a friend who was then, like me, a magazine editor.

They’re known as New York’s Bravest.

They also have truly legendary status here because so many of these men — 343 — died in the attacks of September 11, running into the Twin Towers to try to save those trapped within.

This week I happened to pass by Ladder Company 3, on East 13th street, on my way to a store next door.

It’s so often like that here, that I accidentally stumble onto a serious piece of the city’s long and complex history.


Ladder Company Three was one of the worst-hit of  the city’s battalions, losing most of its men. Ironically, it’s one of the city’s oldest, founded — of course — on September 11, 1865. They lost 11 men, and the front of their firehouse is covered in plaques naming the men. Just inside the door is an elegant wooden wall with gallery lighting honoring them, and there’s a comfortable wooden bench in front, where grateful passersby like me can sit for a moment.

Like many people, I’m in awe of the work firefighters do: terrifying, dangerous, often lethal. They run, by choice and by profession, into the worst situations imaginable.

I stared into the firehouse’s open door, mesmerized by the enormity of its ladder truck parked within. I could see a coat rack, with each firefighter’s coat, his name on its back in huge reflective letters and a uniform, with its boots, ready to step into.


A firefighter came to the doorway with two small portable bright orange chainsaws — one with serrated teeth, one with a smooth metal wheel. He fired them up to full strength, a task, he said, he does twice every day. Because so many people here live in apartments, they often need to cut through security gates.

I learned the difference between an engine (whose primary function is to spray water) and a ladder, needed, obviously, to reach the upper stories of taller buildings.

I also learned a new word — “taxpayer” — which refers to a small one or two-storey building in the city, both a real estate term and one used by firefighters.

Then — oh, beating heart keep still! — another truck pulled up, giving me a chance to see it up close. I got into conversation with a young, new firefighter, whose name was Middle Eastern, (many here, traditionally, are Irish), who’d previously served in the British military.


He was super-nice and answered my torrent of questions: the truck carries only enough water to last three (!) minutes, so quick and ready access to a hydrant is essential; the truck carries a crew of five, including a commanding officer and driver; and they have a special set of tools to allow them access to people trapped in a subway tunnel.

I scrambled to take as many photos as I could, knowing the odds of being that close to a New York City firetruck again were slim.


I essentially started my interviewing career — at the age of 12 — when I had to do an oral presentation for school and went to our local firehouse, in Toronto, to ask them about those little red boxes in the wall and all the drills we did, (this was a boarding school.)

I suspect everyone not wearing that uniform is as in awe and wonder as I am at their skill and bravery.



At Rio Olympics, a U.S. fencer in a hijab — go Ibithaj!

In History, life, sports, U.S., women on August 6, 2016 at 11:29 am

By Caitlin Kelly

A Muslim woman named Ibithaj Muhammad, 30, is in Rio now, competing as a saber fencer for the United States. She will the first female fencer to compete while wearing a hijab.

Here’s an NPR interview with her.

For those less familiar with fencing, there are three weapons: foil, epee and saber, each with a different style, in which different body parts are target and, as a result, tend to attract different personalities. Saber is for the hard-core!

In saber, the entire body above the hips, including the head, is fair game, based on the amount of body surface most available when fighting on horseback. Aggression is rewarded.

However unlikely — but true! — her presence in Rio this month is in part due to the first American women to fence saber in national competition, back in the 1990s, back when (yes, really) the governing body for fencing (old European men of course) said, “Noooooo, women can’t fence saber in the Olympics. Too dangerous!”

I was one of them.


Thanks to us breaking ground by fencing at nationals, U.S. women saber fencers have since gone on to win multiple Olympic medals. So damn cool!

When I arrived in New York, with no job, no family, no friends, I needed a place to go to connect with my new home. I’d long wanted to try fencing, as it combined many of my favorite things: French (many terms are French), a long and distinguished history, lots of terrific NYC competition, intellectual and physical challenge.

They say fencing is chess at the speed of boxing. It’s a fantastic sport, and I was lucky enough to find classes at New York University and a two-time Olympian coach, Steve Mormando.

He introduced a small group of women to saber and we soon began training twice a week (two hours each time), taking individual lessons and competing regularly at the local and regional level.

I loved it.


I went to nationals four times, each time getting eliminated just before making the final eight.

I’m thinking of taking it up again. I miss it.


I hope some of you will make time to check out the fencing and keep an eye on Ibithaj — Monday August 8 at 8:00 a.m EDT.


Here’s the NBC Olympic television schedule.

Here’s a profile of her from the Associated Press.


A week in D.C…

In cities, culture, design, History, life, travel, U.S., urban life on June 25, 2016 at 11:04 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

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Union Station, Amtrak station in D.C.

Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.?

I’ve been coming here since I was 12 — even though I grew up in Canada — as I had cousins living near the capital, (whose father ended up being the U.S. ambassador to several countries.)

It’s such a different city from New York!

Manhattan is a grid — avenues and streets. Dead simple!

Not D.C., with its circles (roundabouts) and hub/spoke configurations and sections like NW and streets with letters and streets with numbers…I actually got lost a bit walking only a few blocks and had to use a statue of Hahnemann as my landmark (albeit one of three statues all within the same two blocks!)

A fellow journalist on my fellowship pulled out her phone and said “I’ll use GPS” and the voice said “walk southwest” and we had no idea what southwest was.

I asked the hotel doorman instead.

And, in summer, when the temperature at midnight Saturday was still 74 degrees, walking around in the 88-degree sunshine can be exhausting.

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The scale of the city is meant to awe, and it does, certainly anywhere near the White House, The Capitol, the Library of Congress and its many monuments.

My hotel was a block from 16th street and, as I stared down its length it terminated in a building I was sure had to be a mirage.

But it wasn’t.

It was the White House.

If you’ve ever watched the (great!) Netflix series House of Cards (the American version), the cityscape will be familiar, even eerily so.

But you’ve also seen these iconic buildings in films and on television, possibly for decades. To stand in front of one, let alone walk into it, is both disorienting and amazing.

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I was there a few days after the Orlando attack; this was a memorial service outside the offices of the Campaign for Human Rights


It’s a city filled with men in dark blue suits, white shirts and polished black shoes, all wearing a lanyard or ID badge. The subway cars are filled with soldiers in uniform, a rare sight in other cities. The streets throng with eager young interns, many of them long-legged blondes wearing expensive clothes.

Here, you walk past places you normally only read about — The Brookings Institute or Johns Hopkins University or the National Geographic Society — (where I was lucky enough to meet with two editors and hope to do some writing for their travel magazine.)

The place vibrates with power.

It feels like everyone is either lobbying or being lobbied or about to be.

But it’s also a city filled with serious, intractable poverty.

I got onto the 54 bus heading down rapidly gentrifying 14th Street — now all cafes and bars and high-end furniture stores, (the pawnbroker now closed, the liquor stores still in business) — with a woman clearly homeless, carting all her clothes and belongings with her, even in broiling heat.

A woman with a paper cup held the door at a convenience store two blocks from my hotel (charging $259/night) and Union Station, which is one of the most beautiful, clean and well-organized train stations I’ve seen in the U.S., had many homeless as well. It’s a shocking and strange feeling to be in the center of political power, the gleaming white dome of the Capitol easily visible, and see the effects of the nation’s thin and fraying social safety net.

These are some images of my week here, the longest time I’ve ever spent in the city; (only 3 days of which were leisure, the rest spent in a financial planning fellowship with 19 other journalists.)


IMG_20160618_210328574I attended the 95th annual White House News Photographers Association annual dinner, cheering for my friend Alex Wroblewski, who won Student Photographer of Year


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Love this shop — Goodwood — on U street at 14th. Gorgeous and affordable antiques, furniture and vintage-looking clothing and jewelry. (Sort of like a real-life Anthropologie.)

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Had lunch at the counter at this fun, enormous eatery — Ted’s Bulletin — on 14th street.

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Gorgeous, minimalist men’s and women’s clothing at Redeem on 14th Street


The D.C. Metro is in terrible shape — slow, needing a ton of repairs, but it’s still working. The stations always make me feel like an extra in Blade Runner!


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This was a real thrill for  me — I met with several editors there and hope to write for National Geographic Traveler.


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The Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress


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This is why I went to the Library of Congress — a powerful and moving show about the Danish journalist, photographer and social reformer who received essential political backing from Theodore Roosevelt, first as New York’s mayor, then governor — then U.S. President. Riis, an immigrant, was key to illuminating the appalling poverty in New York City during the Gilded Age (late 1890s.)

Why journalism still matters — go see “Spotlight”

In business, Crime, History, journalism, Media, movies, religion, U.S. on November 20, 2015 at 1:03 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


The late David Carr, NYT media columnist — much missed. Brilliant, no bullshit.

Their clothes are drab, cheap, poorly- fitting.

All they do is sit at desks or talk on the phone or knock on doors.

Their work takes months.

Why on earth would this make a compelling film?

I admit it, I’m biased, having worked as a journalist for more than 20 years. I’ve been doing it since my undergraduate years at university and still enjoy it, even though 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008 and thousands more are losing their jobs every year now.

The film is about the Boston Globe’s investigative team, called Spotlight, and their controversial and much-challenged decision to look into allegations of child abuse within the Catholic church there.


The cast is terrific — fellow Canadian Rachel McAdams, John Slattery (of Mad Men), Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci.

The newsroom looks like every newsroom everywhere, overlit, ugly, standard-issue desks and chairs, glass-walled executive offices. Its power structure,  (interesting how it parallels the church they investigate, and how every senior editor is male), also deeply familiar.

The mix of political cynicism and compassion for the people they’re covering — and the remorse they feel as they realize they knew about the story years before and ignored it — also resonate.

But what left me in tears was how truthful is the portrayal of my work, certainly as part of a daily newspaper staff; I worked at the Globe & Mail, the Montreal Gazette and the New York Daily News.

It takes patience.

It takes persistence.

It takes a ton of tedious-but-essential detail work like reading old directories and chasing down court documents.

It takes a belief that what you’re doing all day, for months, actually might make a substantive difference — at best — in the lives of your readers.

Working as a news or investigative reporter is a weird mix of aggressive digging, pressure to stop digging, (by angry sources, power brokers, bosses worried you won’t bring home the goods), and the growing conviction that you’re on a huge story you have to get, no matter the cost.

Your co-workers may question and resent you — since they’re expected to crank out copy every day, possibly multiple times a day — and your team has yet to show anything in print, even after months of work.

The people you’re investigating will do anything to shut you down, from polite threats over a cocktail to appeals to your civic pride. (It can get much more bare-knuckled than that.)

The film shows reporters doing what no film ever shows — reporting.

That means knocking on door after door, some of them slammed in your face, some of them suddenly opened and a confession spilling out so fast you write it down as you walk away, as McAdams does in one scene.

It can mean sitting with, and witnessing, incredible pain when someone tells you they have been molested or raped, but not hugging them or saying anything — instead, as McAdams does — saying quietly, “We need specific language.”


Me, hard at work on assignment in Bilwi, Nicaragua.

To anyone but a reporter, she sounds shockingly callous and cold. Why isn’t she comforting the man telling her his secrets?

Because that’s not our job. (Even if, and it often is, our social impulse.)

I’ve been in that place, as someone who had been raped told me her story. It’s a delicate moment you’re neither trained or prepared for, like holding a water balloon — one false move and it shatters. You have to be calm, quiet, empathetic and just listen. Your job is to witness, not to emote or react.

I loved that the female reporter is portrayed as dogged and relentless as her two male peers. We are!

I love that her nails are bare, that she wears no jewelery but a plain wedding band and apparently little make-up. In the world of news journalism, that shit really doesn’t matter. It’s one reason I love it and felt comfortable within it.

It was powerful to see the conflict between the reporter’s private feelings — about faith, about the Church, about their own history — and the work they were doing. I know reporters personally who covered this story and what it did to them emotionally. This rang true.

I loved seeing a brief glimpse of a friend’s book, Lead Us Not Into Temptation, and his name in the final credits; Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist, was one of the first to write about this issue. I met Jason in Paris many years ago when we were both chosen to participate in a year-long European journalism fellowship.

When I left the theater to use the bathroom, three women my age there had just seen it as well — and we got into a long, deep, impassioned and personal conversation about the film and why journalists want to do that kind of work. It was an amazing encounter for all of us, one of whom works with Catholic church abuse victims.

I told them about my two books and the kind of interviews I’ve done that were equally soul-searing, and my hope that sharing them with a larger audience would be useful somehow. It made me realize, sadly, how rarely I get to talk to non-journalists about my work and why I believe so deeply in the value of it, still. It moved me to hear from three others that it matters to them as well.

If you care at all about journalism and why, at best, people still want to do it for a living — and I know that many people simply hate journalists and don’t trust us — go see this film!


“Follow the pencil!”…today’s historic Paris unity march

In behavior, cities, Crime, culture, History, journalism, life, news, politics, travel, urban life on January 11, 2015 at 6:39 pm

By Caitlin Kelly


They came in wheelchairs and on crutches.

They came carried in baby slings.


They came — like Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Association Journal who I randomly met this morning at the cafe at St. Pancras Station as we were both about to board the 8:19 Eurostar to Paris — from other countries to show their solidarity. He decided, last-minute and spur of the moment, he had to cross the Channel to lend his support in person.

They came in six-inch stilettos and black leather trousers, teens to seniors, a river of humanity that started flooding across the city by 1pm heading to Place de la Republique.

I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I'm a cop, I'm North African...

I am Charlie, I am Arab but not Muslim, I am Jewish, I’m a cop, I’m North African…

I joined them today — although to say that I marched would be inaccurate. There were far too many people to do anything that energetic or forward-moving.

We shuffled. We stood still.

We sang the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.

I left the Ile St Louis at 2:00 pm with no clear idea where exactly to head — or if there would even be any room for me anywhere near the planned route. I got to the nearest Metro station, (all free for the day), but started to see a river of people streaming east through every narrow street and every wide boulevard.

It was very clear they were all heading for the march, and were heading there en masse.


It was extraordinary to see so many people literally flooding every street with such determination to join one another.

It’s said that 1.5 million people were out on the streets of Paris today.

I believe it! I am so lucky to have been one of them.

I ended up thronged on a boulevard with the Place de la Bastille maybe a mile south of us; we could just barely see its distinctive gold statue gleaming in the sunshine.

It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster

It is ink that should flow, not blood; says this poster

A group of people carrying an enormous fabric pencil, (sagging in the middle a bit), started walking nearby and we all wondered what to do.

“Follow the pencil!” someone shouted.

People clapped.

Mohammed has a fit: "I hate being worshipped by assholes"

Mohammed has a fit: “I hate being worshipped by assholes”

People shouted “Char-lie, Char-lie, Char-lie!”

People stood in their windows looking down on us in amazement, one group of guys unfurling a banner that read “Liberte”, which was greeted by cheers.

People wore French flags and European union flags and one man had painted the French flag on his left cheek.

Many many people wore badges or buttons saying “Je suis Charlie” and many store windows held signs saying “Nous sommes tous Charlie” — we are all Charlie.

Despite the unprecedented volume of people, the mood was calm, quiet, committed.

Even though I avoid all large crowds in the U.S., here, today I never felt scared — security helicopters buzzed low overhead all afternoon and the streets nearby were lined with police and police vans, both local and national.


There were dozens of journalists and photographers, as it was a historic event.



What struck me most was how relaxed and pleasant the crowd was, at least during the time I was in the very midst of it, from about 2:45 to 4:30 p.m. when I peeled off and headed home.

No one pushed and shoved. No one showed rage or fury or any sort of anti-Muslim fervor. We simply wanted to be there.

There seemed to be no organizing principle or bullhorns or leaders.

Just millions of people of every ethnicity and age and sexual preference who cared enough to come out on a cold, sunny January morning to show their solidarity with one another, with the French journalists shot dead this week by terrorists and to remind the world — as many posters said, in French and English:

I am not afraid.

Please crowdfund this young British author — his idea is terrific!

In antiques, art, beauty, books, culture, education, History, journalism on October 29, 2014 at 12:40 am

By Caitlin Kelly


Josh Spero ed pic 2012 crop

If it weren’t for Twitter, I would never have discovered the wit and wisdom of Josh Spero, a 30-year-old London journalist who covers art for Tatler, a glossy British monthly magazine whose primary audience is people with multiply-hyphenated surnames and country houses that make Downton Abbey look shabby.

He also edits Spear’s magazine.

Josh is crowdfunding his lovely and unusual idea for a book — to seek out the previous owners of the books of classics he studied while at Oxford; so far, he’s got one-quarter of his goal amount.

We have yet to meet in person, I hope to do so when I get to London in early January 2015.

A few Spero-isms:

“I’ve never been able to stand rules and regulations”

“My working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama”

“I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it”

Tell us a bit of your personal history….

From six months until 26 years, I lived in Edgware, a barren untroubling suburb of north-west London, whose best escape was books. We used to walk down to the second-hand bookshop the other side of town, near the salt-beef bar, and I would buy half a dozen Hardy Boys novels a week, before I moved on to cheap copies of literary classics. My dad was then – is still – a London black-cab driver, my mum a housewife until I went to private school, when she had to get a job to pay for it.

University College School was in Hampstead, a leafy village within London which had been home to Freud and Daphne du Maurier (not as cohabitants), and it was famously, perhaps notoriously, liberal, which worked for me: I have never been able to stand rules and regulations. And still I read everything I could find.

Where and what did you study at university and why?

At UCS, I was taken by Classics – the Greek and Latin languages and their worlds. I loved the drama of their histories, the great men who kicked the Gauls’ arses (I was never a fan of Asterix) and beat back the Persians. It was a revelation to delve into Vergil’s occultism and Euripides’ mania, so I was desperate to study it at Oxford, the best place in the world for Classics, no doubt.

After passing Magdalen College’s stiff interview and being told I had a decent chance of a decent degree, I spent four glorious years there, half of them locked in the library, the other half arguing my way out of positions I hadn’t meant to argue my way into and doing Oxford Things (punting, politicking, student newspaper, inedible Formal Hall dinners).

Where did you get the idea for this book?

One of my first freelance writing jobs was covering the summer auctions of Contemporary art at Sotheby’s for The Guardian in 2007, those thrilling incomprehensible displays of pills in cabinets and what looked like disassembled crates. There the idea of provenance insinuated itself into my brain: every catalogue listed with delicious rectitude a work of art’s previous owners; soon it occurred to me that the same thing was true for books – and not just expensive books either. That’s where Second-Hand Stories comes from.

Over four years at Oxford, and six years tutoring afterwards, I had accumulated well over a hundred Classics books, from how to write in Greek verse (weirdly pleasurable) to texts of everyone from Plato to Propertius. There had to be curious tales tied to the names inscribed in them, so I sorted out the fifty-odd books in which their owners had recorded their names and set about tracing them, the previous owners of my books. I didn’t mind if they weren’t celebrities or lords or royalty: my working thesis – which my book has borne out, I hope – is that everyone’s life is interesting, worth telling, has some mystery or intrigue or romance or drama.

What was the best part of writing it?

The best part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. While I thought I might uncover some unusual tales from my eleven subjects, I never imagined what I’d find.

Thomas Dunbabin, who owned a thick purple-covered commentary on the historian Herodotus, had led the resistance against the Nazis in Crete in World War Two. Peter Levi was a poet-priest who had a chaste love affair with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Emilie Vleminckx is a student my age who conquered a blow-up at Oxford, a university she had fled to to escape her stifling life in Belgium. There was an actor in Hollywood films, a teacher in fascist Italy, a code-cracker from Bletchley Park and a boy I loved who died too young. To read the full stories, you need to buy the book!

There are, in Second-Hand Stories, some incredible tales, all of which I was lucky enough to come upon.

What surprised you most when you started seeking out the previous owners of your books?

Although I knew Classicists were an interesting bunch – we end up everywhere, from Mayor of London (Boris Johnson) to the darkest recesses of the library – I  had not the slightest inkling so many amazing lives were contained in my library. You’d have to be a great novelist with the broadest imagination to assemble half the characters that reality did. I was also surprised by how willing almost all of them – or their relatives – were to talk to me. Without them, Second-Hand Stories would have been utterly impossible.

What was the most difficult/challenging aspect of writing it?

The most difficult part of writing Second-Hand Stories was, by a long way, discovering the stories of those who had owned my book. Some were somewhat easier, having written their name and Oxford or Cambridge college in them. But others involved detective work, Google work or, frankly, guesswork.

One book was dedicated ‘To Peter, with love and gratitude, from Maurice’, where Maurice was obviously Maurice Bowra, the author of the book, a translation of the odes of Pindar (a vile toady to winners of the Olympian games). But the Peter was mysterious, until a smart suggestion from a former tutor made us look at the introduction, where Bowra had thanked Peter Levi.

Another only had the letters ‘MBMcCB’. It took several solid attacks on Google before I discovered someone else who had the same final three initials and it turned out the owner was his brother.

There was plenty of direction and serendipity in putting the cast of Second-Hand Stories together.

Any thoughts on e-books (which would have made your entire project — sadly! — moot.)

I’m not an e-book man, for a few reasons. I don’t object to the idea, but like celery and exercise, I don’t really see why I should have it. For a start, as you say, my book wouldn’t exist if we only had e-books – owners have no way of writing their names on them (if, by the terms and conditions, they even own them in the first place); they easily disappear or are wiped or become obsolete (we’ll always have the technology to read paper books, ie eyes); and you can’t have any real engagement with them (all those immaterial words on a screen have none of the heft of black ink of white paper). The physicality of books, their beauty and weight and feel, is my ultimate reason for rejecting the functional dullness of e-books.

Were there any other challenges in writing Second-Hand Stories?

Yes: getting it published. I was rejected by a great number of publishers largely with the note that ‘it isn’t commercial’. Good! It doesn’t have to be commercial – it has to be interesting. That’s why I’m thrilled Unbound believe in it. They’re a crowdfunded publisher, which means I need your support.

If you like the sound of my book, please pledge towards it here’s only going to be published with your help. There are rewards at each level too, ranging including signed first-edition copies, invitations to the launch party and even a private tutorial on Classics with me.

I’ve never done this at Broadside before, but love Josh’s idea and his spirit.

I hope you’ll support his book!

My two books — take a look! I also coach and offer webinars

In books, Crime, culture, History, journalism, politics, urban life, US, women on October 15, 2014 at 12:06 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, Broadside adds new followers, now at 11,893. Welcome, and thanks!

Some of you don’t know, though, that I’m also a non-fiction author of two well-reviewed books about national American issues and coach other writers.


The first, published in April 2004, is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, called “groundbreaking and invaluable” by one influential critic.

My goal in writing it was to approach the issue of gun ownership, and use, from both sides of the gun use “debate”.

I traveled across the country — New Orleans, Massachusetts, Ohio, Texas — to interview American women, of all ages, races, income levels and political views, whose lives had been altered forever by gun violence, (by them and/or against them or a loved one),  and those whose firearms are an integral part of their daily lives and identities, whether they work in corrections, law enforcement, the military or choose to hunt or shoot trap, skeet or clays.

Some have also chosen to buy a handgun, some carrying it with them everywhere, as their “protection firearm.”

In rural Texas, I met women who had saved their own lives with a handgun and a woman running a lucrative hunting operation on land she had inherited, land too dry and isolated for any other profitable use.

On 9/11, a woman named Patty Varone saved the life of then-mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani — I was the only reporter she ever spoke to about that horrific day; she was his NYPD bodyguard and her powerful story is in my book as well.

I don’t own a gun nor have any desire to — although I did a lot of shooting and weapons training, firing everything from a .22 to a Magnum 357 to a Glock 9mm. But I now know why so many American women who choose one for self-defense, or for hunting or for sport, make that choice for themselves.

In the years since, I’ve appeared many times on television and radio, from NPR to NRA radio to Al Jazeera America to BBC’s radio program, World Have Your Say, to explain — as best anyone can — the ongoing allure of gun ownership in the U.S., where an estimated 30 percent of homes contain at least one firearm.

malled cover HIGH

My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, came out in April 2011, and is three books in one: my own story of working part-time for $11/hour as a retail associate for The North Face in an upscale suburban New York mall; many stories from other associates, part-time and full-time, and a business analysis of why retail still pays so badly and treats many of its staff so poorly.

Fifty percent of those working in low-wage retail are gone within months of being hired.

They quit in disgust or are fired. No wonder — the work is exhausting emotionally and physically, the pay usually appalling, the number of hours ever-shifting and the odds of a raise or promotion to a better-paid managerial position slim-to-none.

Yet shoppers need and want smart, informed help, and an army of well-paid retail consultants line up at major conferences to yammer on about the “customer experience”. It’s a mess!

I worked the job not with any initial intention to produce a book, as many cynics alleged, but because, in 2007, the American economy fell off a cliff, and by 2009, when I quit, was deep in the throes of recession.

Like millions of scared Americans unable to find better work, I needed steady cash.

The book began with this personal essay I published in The New York Times, for whom I write frequently, and which received 150 emails from all over the world. People were clearly interested in the topic!

It was nominated for the prestigious Hillman Award, given each year to a work of journalism “in the service of the common good.”

I’d love to write more books and am often asked if I’m deep into the next one. Not yet!

These days, I’m teaching writing here in New York where I live, at Pratt Institute and the New York School of Interior Design. My writing clients include The New York Times, Investopedia and WaterAid, a global charity that took me to rural Nicaragua this March.

I also offer other ambitious writers individual coaching at $150/hour, with a one-hour minimum — (that price will rise to $200/hour in January 2015) — and webinars focused on specific topics like:

freelancing, writing personal essays and finding and developing story ideas, whether for digital, print or books.

I schedule the webinars to match your needs, working by phone or Skype, and have helped satisfied writers and bloggers from Germany to New Zealand to D.C. to Rochester, N.Y.

What can I do to help your writing?

Details here.


If you could time travel, where would you go?

In beauty, behavior, culture, entertainment, History, life, movies, television, travel on July 2, 2014 at 3:17 am

By Caitlin Kelly


Time to let go, at last

Of all the super-powers — flight, amazing strength, invisibility — the ability to travel through time has always fascinated me.


My home is filled with items from the past: rush-seated wooden chairs from the 19th century; scraps of early textiles, pieces of porcelain from the 1700s , and I dream of owning an ancient Roman, Greek or Egyptian object — a coin or statue or piece of bronze or glass.

One of the attractions of the HBO series Game of Thrones — despite its gore! — is the feeling of losing myself in a long-ago, far-away world, filled with thrones and knights and huge stone castles.

Of course, time travel to any period deep in our past also means losing cool contemporary stuff like antibiotics, general anesthesia, a woman’s right to vote and own property, reliable, safe contraception…oh, and telephones, television, cars and computers…

But — riding in a sedan chair! A barge down the Nile! Doing the Charleston! Watching the Wright Brothers try out their first aircraft at Kitty Hawk!

(True, I don’t long to be a mud-covered serf in some filthy field. Have to be a little specific about this stuff.)


If I could time-travel, some of the times and places I’d like to (safely!) visit:

Paris, pre/during/post Revolution

medieval England

ancient Egypt

London, circa 1800

Paris, 1920s

Canada, 1700s

The U.S. during World War II when women took over “men’s work” in the factories

I have less curiosity, oddly perhaps, about the future.

I’d also like to go back to Rathmullan, Co. Donegal, and meet my paternal great-grandfather, who taught there in a one-room schoolhouse I visited and where I even saw his handwriting in its ancient ledgers. And to turn-of-the-century Chicago to meet my maternal great-grand-father Louis Stumer, who helped develop a gorgeous white office building in 1912, still standing downtown, the North American Building.

How unlike one another they were, and yet I’ve got bits of both of them, intellectually and genetically.

If you’ve never seen the fantastic film 1981 British film Time Bandits, check it out! So fun.

I enjoyed The Time Traveler’s Wife as a book, less so as a film.

One of my favorite stories by legendary American writer Ray Bradbury is about time travel, A Sound of Thunder. It’s so eerie and so smart, first published in 1952. I read it when I was 12 — decades ago — and have never forgotten it! It’s the most re-published science fiction story ever, according to Wikipedia.

Here’s a fun post by fellow writer Leslie Lang, with links to some great books on the topic.

Where would you go and why?

New York’s 9/11 Museum now open: will you visit?

In behavior, cities, Crime, culture, design, education, entertainment, History, journalism, urban life, US, war on May 15, 2014 at 7:01 pm

By Caitlin Kelly



It has taken a long time — and $700 million in donations and tax dollars — but the museum commemorating the attack on New York City on September 9, 2001 opens to the public this month.

President Obama went to dedicate it today:

The president’s remarks highlighted a somber ceremony at the new institution marking the worst foreign attack on American soil, one that shocked the world and ushered in a new era of fear, war, determination and clashes of values while redefining America’s place in the world. Surrounded by the wreckage of that day, deep underneath the ground where two planes felled the twin towers, the president and the other guests vowed never to forget.


Objects big and small from the greatest terrorist attack on American soil now make up a museum dedicated to that tragedy and the 2,983 people who perished. It is one of America’s largest and most ambitious memorial museums, almost entirely subterranean and erected in the graveyard of Osama bin Laden’s victims.

Construction worker Frank Silecchia found a crossbeam in the rubble that resembled a cross. It became a key exhibit at the new museum.

A police officer found Genni Gambale’s red wallet on the roof of a Marriott hotel, a few blocks south of the Trade Center, days after the attacks. In the wallet were a scorched American Express Corporate card, a $115 coupon for Lenscrafters, a Brooklyn Public Library card, pennies, nickels, dimes.

Now under thick Plexiglass, the wallet tells of a life cut short. Gambale was one of many trapped on the upper floors after American Airlines Flight 11 plowed into the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. She was 27.

I asked a friend if he is going to visit, and his response was swift and furious.

“No! They’re charging $24. The monuments in Washington are free. I think it’s obscene to charge money for this.”

I agree.

(It is free to family members of 9/11 victims, and $18 for seniors.)

I doubt I’ll go, but for additional reasons beyond a very high ticket price. I try to avoid even driving past the site of the former World Trade Center; I find the area frightening, depressing and filled with terrible memories, both visual and olfactory.

For many weeks after the towers fell, you could smell them many long blocks north, like some evil, dark wraith twisting between the skyscrapers. It was oily, chemical, acrid — and unforgettable.

There was no escaping it.

If you were in or near lower Manhattan (or D.C.) the day of those attacks, you likely have no appetite at all to relive the terror, doubt, confusion, grief and sorrow we all experienced.

That morning, I was in Maryland on a journalism fellowship, while my husband Jose, (then a boyfriend about to move, that very day, into my suburban apartment), sat in Brooklyn with all his possessions packed into boxes.

Instead, he heard the distinctive roar of an F-15 fighter jet overhead, a sound he knows, and knew we were at war.

He helped The New York Times to win the Pulitzer Prize that year for photo editing of those awful images. This was no “it’s only a movie” moment.

Instead he ran into a local drugstore, handed off the rolls of film from Times’ photographers — ash-covered from the collapsed towers, traumatized, running as fast they could — to develop it as quickly as possible then transmitting it to the Times’ midtown newsroom from the computer in his otherwise-empty apartment.

I reported the DNA testing of remains story, and it ran in newspapers and magazines in New Zealand, Britain and France. I also interviewed a volunteer morgue worker for Glamour, a women’s magazine.

The details were impossibly grotesque and I cried a lot.

A friend of ours, Richard Drew,  took a photograph that defines the day. It is a terrible, terrible image: Falling Man. These are real events that touched people we know.

The museum includes video and audio of the event — plus intimate artifacts like wallets and ID cards of people who became body parts, some still not recovered.

I listened to some of those audio tapes when I was a reporter at the New York Daily News. Jesus. It was five years after the event, but it might have been yesterday.

No, I can’t hear that again.


So, I’m not going.

Would you?

What do you carry daily?

In beauty, behavior, culture, History, life, Style on April 16, 2014 at 12:27 am

By Caitlin Kelly

Are any of you fans of the HBO series Game of Thrones?


As someone who was for four years a nationally-ranked saber fencer, I do love the idea of a freshly-forged Valyrian steel sword, personally.

How powerful men must have felt in the days when your skills with a rapier, dagger and sword mattered more than…whether you had the latest Ipad or smartphone. When damascene steel or a trusty musket were of highest value.

I’m nostalgic for the days when women carried a chatelaine attached to their clothing; (Canada’s largest and oldest women’s magazine is named for it.)

When men carried, and consulted, a pocket watch or spyglass, a compass or astrolabe.

When a kid’s most prized carry-everywhere item was a set of baseball cards or a bag full of marbles.

Stuff that worked.

Stuff that engaged you with the physical world — even if it was a duel at dawn.

I loved carting my fencing weapons on the Manhattan subway in their big, saggy bag slung over my shoulder. People were always trying to guess what what was in it — an oud? Um, no.

I dislike cellphones and hate carrying much of anything with me even though, instead of sensibly putting things into a purse or bag, I usually leave home with my arms overflowing: magazines, books, the dreaded phone, wallet.

During our recent working trip in Nicaragua, the greatest luxury of all was not carrying a damn thing  — beyond a notebook and pen — for the entire eight days. Meals were provided and we literally didn’t have to touch money until we got back to the U.S.

Such a relief not to have to think about any of it.

As soon as I got home, I promptly lost my driver’s license.

One of the best books ever written about the Viet Nam war is called The Things They Carried.

Now that cellphones are apparently dangerous for us, what status signifier will we substitute?