Angela Workoff grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn and graduated from Geneseo in 2006 – she writes about the connection between Geneseo and Red Hook. Read below.
Most native New Yorkers will test out one another’s credentials when we meet in the wild. For the sake of authenticity, I should tell you that I grew up on Carroll Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn. My mom raised me to believe in public education. I went to P.S. 321, M.S. 51, Brooklyn Technical High School, and graduated from Geneseo with a degree in history in 2006.
After almost 10 years of working in technology and finance, I quit my corporate job to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead of working with computer engineers and contractors to build server rooms, I now write short stories, take classes, and teach a literature-based creative writing course to a group of 25 undergraduates at Rutgers University in Newark, NJ.
Before this year, I’d never taught a class in my life. My first day of teaching, I opened the class by telling the students a story about Geneseo.
I was a homesick teenager in the fall of 2002. I’d spent the summer with my friends, hanging out on the beach and boardwalk in Coney Island. We had all graduated from high school and a new experience loomed. Most of my Brooklyn friends were going to college in Long Island. I was going to a school three hundred and thirty miles away. Deciding on Geneseo had been a bit of a gamble. Really, the valley did it. I’d known nothing about Geneseo when I applied. A springtime visit to campus won me immediately. That first look at the valley, rolling west with no end, and I decided to take a leap, leaving New York City.
By the time fall hit, my gamble had become a reality. My parents dropped me off at Monroe Hall. I unpacked my things. I sat on my bed, unsure of what to do. Everyone else in dorm buzzed around, excited about their first day in college. I felt like an outsider, far away from home.
A group of girls rushed down the hall, passing by my door. One of them stopped and doubled back, poking her head into my room. Laura Vasile was from Churchville, NY. She asked me if I wanted to go to South Side and see some music. Shyness compelled me to stay rooted to the bed.
When Laura tells this story now, she makes fun of me a little bit, recalling that I hesitated before saying okay. Fair enough—sometimes the decision-making process of a shy person can be pretty transparent. Really, I was taken aback by her kindness. I had thought I’d be left to mope in my room because I didn’t know anyone. Laura saved me, in a small way, my first day at college. She was my introduction to Western New York and its people. She’s still one of my best friends. I was in her wedding last year. She helped me move this summer, when I was trying to hack it alone.
The students listened to this story, and I told them that even small stories can be significant. I told them that we are all storytellers. People naturally speak in narratives. We are hard wired to tell stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. By telling stories, we are able to convey how people, places, and events cause emotional change in our lives.
Geneseo changed me. I came from Brooklyn, shy and wary and a little prickly. Then I met people from Western New York along with those who had chosen to make the place their home. My friends from Churchville, Webster, and Penfield knocked the Brooklyn-sized chip off my shoulder and did some work to open my heart. My professors did the same for my brain.
Since I graduated almost 10 years ago and moved back to Brooklyn, I try to do as much Geneseo bell-ringing and good-news-spreading as I can. I say that Rochester, NY is a very special place. That the people of Western New York have some of the biggest hearts in the world. I want Geneseo, Rochester, and Western New York to be better known to my countrymen in here Brooklyn and the rest of New York City.
Maddy and I have been talking about bridge-building, and how Brooklyn and Red Hook, specifically, might become better known to you, people from Geneseo and Western New York. Red Hook is a very special place. It has the feel of a small town and that of old New York, with three story buildings and cobblestone streets. The neighborhood keeps its history with the old stories of longshoremen on the docks– Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge (my favorite play) and Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront were both set in Red Hook. Saltwater breathes down the streets.
In a real New York way, Red Hook’s modern stories are those of different kinds of people trying to figure it out in the same place. Gentrification has new and old communities living alongside of one another. The gaps in experience are apparent. In this way, there is some good work that Geneseo people can accomplish in this community. We all took HUMN I. We understand the importance of doing good work in the community.
I’m excited about the idea of Brooklyn and Geneseo, my two favorite places, finding one another. Maddy is already doing great work on building this bridge.
To my comrades in Western New York, I hope you will give Brooklyn a chance. Three hundred and thirty miles is not as far as you’d think. If it helps, I can attest that Brooklynites know a thing or two about building a decent bridge. And at the very least, we’ve got some stories to tell.