An Angel Among Us

Final piece for a Profiles class at New York University

It took Tom “Redneck” Clark 46 years to utter the nine words that would change his life forever. “Hi, my name is Red and I’m an addict.”

The first time he said it, he was in a meeting room at Hampton House, an inpatient rehab center in southern New Jersey. That was more than four years ago, when the days of hiding his heroin addiction caught up to him and he was faced with two options: get clean or die.

It was hard to admit at first. Tears streamed down his face as he murmured the words. He was a shell of a man—ashamed, embarrassed, lost. After all, announcing your biggest secret, confessing your failures and acknowledging your fatal flaw to a room full of strangers isn’t exactly easy, but Clark got used to it. Now he says it up to 10 times a week when he leads Narcotics Anonymous meetings at a community center in Yardville, N.J. The words come much easier now and he says them proudly, as if admitting his wrongs serves as a badge of honor signifying what he’s overcome.

With those nine words, Clark, now 50, went from a drug-addicted member of The Pagans motorcycle gang to a respected interventionist and trained addiction counselor who helps hundreds of young people get the support they need.

Those nine words changed everything.

*** Continue reading


The Birdman

A mini profile of Paul Zig, a New Yorker who has spent the better part of the last 10 years feeding the pigeons in Washington Square Park.

By Allie Ward

“They call me the Birdman,” says Paul Zig. It’s a chilly October day and the 50-year-old is sitting cross-legged on a bench on the west end of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, his normal spot. Zig has a thick moustache and wire-rimmed glasses, and his salt-and-pepper hair is disguised by black hair dye, though not totally successfully. Hoards of pigeons surround him, spilling off his shoulders, standing on his head and pecking around his feet. A group of tourists form a semicircle around him, snapping pictures and taking videos on their iPhones. He takes a handful of birdseed and extends his arm to them. “You wanna feed one?” A young girl takes him up on the offer. Zig enjoys this and laughs heartily. “It’s the little things in life that make you happy,” he says to no one in particular.

Six days a week for nearly 10 years, Zig has come to the park to feed his pigeons. He comes in the snowy cold of winter and the scorching days of summer. He comes to be with his “friends,” those who know and rely on him. “I like animals better than human beings,” he says quietly. “They trust me because I know their mothers and their fathers and I will tell on them.” Continue reading

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Q&A with Author Jennifer Miller

This Q&A originally appeared on the website Critics & Writers. 

Jennifer Miller’s new literary mystery, “Year of the Gadfly,” follows aspiring teenage journalist Iris Dupont as she seeks to uncover a secret society at her school, following the guidance of her only friend, the ghost of Edward R. Murrow. We caught up with Miller to discuss her debut novel, life as a newlywed and how she got Dan Rather, Brian Williams and a few other big shots to plug her book.

By Alexandra Ward

Tell me a little about yourself. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be a writer from the time I was a kid. Creative writing was always a passion for me. I didn’t get into journalism until I was in my 20s. It kind of took me awhile to get interested in real-world events as opposed to fictionalized events I was creating. But once I got into journalism, I realized that journalism and fiction writing really go hand in hand because, being a reporter, you’re out in the world and you meet really interesting, different people, you visit places you’d never go and it just gives you a lot of material.

You wrote your first book, “Inheriting The Holy Land,” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when you were just 23. That’s impressive.

Thanks. I was really excited. I was a year out of college and I had been working at a nonprofit in New York when I sold the book so I quit that job because I knew I would have to go to the Middle East and start reporting. In a way, it’s just moving from one job to another job. I had a deadline. I had a year to basically report and write the whole thing. But it was what I wanted to do so I was just really thrilled to be able to be starting in the career that I was passionate about. It was a lot of hard work.

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A night in court

This color piece illustrates a night sitting in at arraignment court at the New York County District Attorney’s Office, including a description of the people involved and the process. 

By Allie Ward

The glare of the lights reflects off the dark wood-paneled walls that flank the elevated judge’s bench. The high ceilings and police officers with guns give the room an imposing air, the way a courtroom ought to feel. People file in and out. Papers shuffle. A man yawns.

A uniformed officer controls access to the front half of the room with a black rope, similar to a bouncer in a nightclub. Those on one side—the law clerks, assistant district attorneys, defense lawyers, police and court officers—laugh and chat, some waving hello to their colleagues across the way. Those on the other side of the rope—people in handcuffs waiting to be arraigned, their family members and spectators—sit in the rows of benches and do not laugh.

A white woman in a jean miniskirt, strappy heels and a Hello Kitty T-shirt sits handcuffed, waiting her turn. She sums up the mutual feeling of all who find themselves on the wrong side of the law, saying to no one in particular: “I’m f**ked.”

It’s Tuesday evening at the arraignment courts housed in the New York City criminal court complex in downtown Manhattan. In New York, a person must be arraigned within roughly 24 hours of their arrest, causing the courts to operate in upwards of 18 hours a day. On this particular evening, the docket is littered with drug charges, disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct arrests stemming from a bust of the Occupy Wall Street protest in nearby Zuccotti Park early this morning. Continue reading

Best friends from Montgomery take on NY Marathon

Published in the Nov. 12, 2011 issue of The Trenton Times. 

By Allie Ward

The message on the big screen at Mile 22 of last Sunday’s New York City Marathon brought at least two of the participants to tears.

“Friends like sisters,” it read. “I couldn’t do this without you.”

Best friends Laurie Zydel and Lisa Licata LaVake finished the ING New York City Marathon Nov. 6 with a time of 3:53:50.

The two runners, best friends Lisa LaVake and Laurie Zydel of Montgomery, sped past the sign in matching black lululemon athletica running skirts and purple visors embroidered with their names. They soon crossed the finish line, achieving their goal of finishing the 26.2-mile race in less than four hours.

For LaVake, an avid runner and founder of the Facebook page Run Around Princeton, it was a familiar feeling — last week’s marathon was her 10th, and her second in New York. But it was the first full marathon for her friend, whom she had helped coach for the New York run.

“It was probably a better experience doing it with someone you care about and love, and I wanted to make her proud,” Zydel, 45, said after the race. “That probably pushed me further than I would have gone. I didn’t want to let her down.”

LaVake, 42, is an advocate of group running. She created the Facebook group where members can post good running routes, schedule meeting times to trains, and encourage and support each other. Many of them were on the sidelines in New York to cheer LaVake and Zydel, the women said. Continue reading

Halloween popups offer temporary employment and little competition

Every September, dozens of seasonal Halloween stores pop-up nationwide. Owned by corporate businesses, these shops cater to the booming Halloween consumer base and offer high school and college students temporary employment. This story takes an inside look at three Halloween pop-ups all situated within three miles of each other on a stretch of Route 1 in Lawrence, N.J. 

By Allie Ward

Halloween City sits in an abandoned strip mall on Route 1 South in Lawrence, N.J.

For 10 months out of the year, a strip of commercial properties lining the south edge of the Mercer Mall in Lawrence, N.J., sits vacant. Then comes September, along with two tractor-trailers brimming with all things Halloween. From candy corn to Hershey’s chocolates, false lashes to tubes of fake blood, ballerina princess costumes to zombie corpses, Halloween City hoists up its neon orange and green signage and sets up shop. And by the first week of November, it all disappears.

Seasonal Halloween pop-up stores are a growing industry, especially with the rising cost of celebrating the holiday. Spirit Halloween, owned by Spencer Gifts LLC, debuted its first seasonal shop in 1983 and, this year, opened an estimated 900 branches throughout the country. Halloween City, a close competitor backed by Party City, operates about 390 branches nationwide.

Two Spirit Halloweens and a Halloween City vie for sales along a three-mile span of Route 1 in Lawrence Township. Though all three offer the same basic Halloween amenities and accessories—fantasy vixen all-in-one costumes, faux front lawn massacre props, vampire fangs and more—the managers contend there is no competition among the stores, for business or for attracting the temporary employees.

Spirit Halloween opened Sept. 25 in a vacant furniture store in Lawrence Shopping Center.

Alan Wells, 33, of Princeton, manages the Spirit Halloween that opened Sept. 25 at Lawrence Shopping Center’s old Oskar Huber Furniture site, and says there is plenty of business to go around.

“We’re always busy because of the extent the company spends on decorations and the in-store experience,” he says, gesturing to the rigged up ghouls and lanterns in the entranceway. “Just take a look around; there’re 40 people here at 1 o’clock in the afternoon.” Continue reading

Small-town girl pursues her dreams in the Big Apple

A mini profile of Katie Grimmer, a New York University graduate student and a transplanted West Coaster now living in New York City. 

By Allie Ward

It only takes a few seconds of talking with Katie Grimmer to realize she’s not from New York. Her flowered blouse and jean skirt stand out in the midst of the city’s seemingly all-black uniform, her smile prominent within the sea of scowls.

Grimmer, 23, graduated from Arizona State University in 2010 and, armed with a bachelor’s degree in print journalism, left the suburban Tempe, Ariz., for New York City.

Though she has moved cross-country, Grimmer’s easygoing demeanor and hunger for life still resonate a decidedly West Coast spirit. Her unassuming nature and bubbly disposition, like her bouncy red curls, deep blue eyes and fair skin, are refreshing in a city known for its attitude.

“She’s one of the friendliest, non-threatening people I know,” said Pam Eberhardt, 27, one of Grimmer’s roommates.

A graduate student in journalism at New York University, Grimmer dreams of one day becoming a profile writer for a magazine. For now, she works at Alice’s Tea Cup, a whimsical tea and pastry shop on 64th and Lexington, and lives in Woodside, Queens, with her two roommates. Continue reading

Fashionistas flock to NYC’s Dash

A color piece on Fashion’s Night Out 2011. 

By Allie Ward

A mass of people gather in front of Dash in New York City’s SoHo for Fashion’s Night Out 2011.

The SoHo streets are overflowing with people on this mild September evening, some walking with purpose as New Yorkers often do, others leisurely strolling. It’s busy, even by city standards. Businessmen in crisp suits brusquely work their way through the crowd, wondering what’s going on and trying to get home after a long day at the office. “Excuse me, I gotta get somewhere,” one said, his voice tinged with annoyance. “This is ridiculous.”

But tonight is not for them.

It’s Fashion’s Night Out, a worldwide, annual after-hours shopping event featuring sales, giveaways and celebrity appearances. Tonight the ordinary person becomes the fashionista and the sidewalk becomes the runway.

And on the corner of Greene and Spring streets in the heart of this trendy SoHo neighborhood sits Dash, the East Coast branch of the Kardashian sisters’ clothing boutique and the reason the streets are so packed. Publicized by the reality show “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and spearheaded by mega celeb Kim Kardashian who is said to be making an appearance, the store has drawn hundreds of fans hoping to catch a glimpse of fame. Still more flock to Dash tonight to see DJ Pauly D, a cast member form MTV’s “Jersey Shore” who’s rumored to be DJing the event.

Some hold onto the last few days of summer with bright-colored rompers and miniskirts while others long for fall in chunky boots and leggings. Young women teeter in sky-high stilettos as they smile through the pain of throbbing feet, their arms laden with designer shopping bags. Teens in Converse sneakers, multi-colored jeans and Ray-Bans squeal and giggle, snapping photos of anything and everything. A couple boys with baseball caps and Nike sneakers lean against a brick wall down the block, so as not to appear too interested. Continue reading

Robbinsville first responders reflect on World Trade Center 10 years later

Published in the September 2011 issue of the Robbinsville Advance.

By Allie Ward

Every time he catches a glimpse of the sun shining through a window, the light bouncing off the glass and illuminating dust particles, Erik Eitel remembers. He remembers the feelings of terror and uncertainty. He remembers the sound of the fighter jets overhead. He remembers Sept. 11, 2001.

“We were stuck in the lobby of a building and the sun would shine through the windows and all you could see was the dust,” Eitel, 38, said. “To me, it’s almost like every day I see something that reminds me. It’s not like the 10-year mark is a time for me to look back; every day I see something that takes me back.”

For Jason Palmer, 34, it was those five little words from a senior fire captain that he can’t forget.

“Come on kid, let’s go.”

Eitel, a career firefighter with the Robbinsville Township Fire Department who was working in West Windsor at the time, and RTFD Captain Jason Palmer—both members of New Jersey Urban Search and Rescue Task Force—are two of the many 9/11 first responders who risked their lives to carry out the job they’d promised to do.

On the anniversary of the terror attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives, Eitel and Palmer reflect on the experiences that have both haunted and changed them over the last 10 years. Continue reading

Mercer County’s last video rental store outlasts modern competition

Published in the August 2011 issue of the Hamilton Post.

By Allie Ward

First it was Choices in Foxmoor Shopping Center. The Blockbuster on Route 33 and South Broad Street’s Hollywood Video eventually followed and closed up shop, to be replaced by the new wave of vending-machine and mail-order movies.

One business, however, billed as Mercer County’s last video rental store, has outlasted the chains and the opposition of Redbox, Netflix and On Demand: Video Express and Game Exchange. It has been thriving at its Yardville Dover Park Plaza location for close to 20 years.

Owner Ben Pasqua, who took over the store in 2000, said Video Express’s main goal is to provide exactly what got him interested in the business in the first place.

“One day, I happened to be up at Video Barn on Clarksville Road and the customer service was excellent,” he said. “So I started driving all the way up to Clarksville Road. I would bypass all five video stores in Trenton and Hamilton because the service was unbelievable. When you came in, you weren’t just another person. It was ‘Hey, Ben.’ They knew you after the first visit.”

Pasqua struck up a friendship with Video Barn’s owner, helping him sell games and filling in when needed at the store and at its other location in Allentown (called Video Express). Quickly realizing his passion for games and interacting with the customers, Pasqua offered to buy Video Express, including its other branch in Dover Plaza. Continue reading