Dr. Patricia Matthew is an associate professor of English at Montclair State University. She lives and writes in Brooklyn and is a spectacular tour guide and hostess.
Preparing for a month of travel to locations with temperatures ranging from 10 to 80 degrees is hard. Add in the unknown activity factor and my terrible packing skills and I’m weirdly well covered for workouts, errand days, and job interviews (here’s my resume—call me). So I’ve pretty much worn jeans and a rotation of three sweaters for the past month.
But I’m dressing up for Tricia Matthew. She’s proposed a day of activities in Brooklyn and Manhattan, so jeans are probably the smartest option, but there is something about Tricia that makes me want to rise up from my typical lack of effort.
So I wear my favorite thrift store skirt, black tights and boots, and one of the three sweaters of course. I haven’t been to Brooklyn in 18 years, so I leave in time (shocker) to take the earlier train option that Hop Stop offers me from the Upper West Side, but at some point realize I’ve either missed my stop or am on the wrong train altogether. The next 30 minutes can best be summed up as, “The Keystone Cops navigate Brooklyn with GPS and an insufficient funds Metrocard.” When I finally bungle my way into the Nero Doro Café, the place where Tricia often begins her days off, all I get is a beautiful smile, a hug, and the best suggestion I’ve heard all morning—“You look like you could use a Mimosa.”
Here’s an excerpt from the email I sent asking Tricia to participate: “There is a light about you that I can’t necessarily describe. You stand very graciously at an intersection of intellect and humanity.” One of the things I’m learning through this project is that you really can get a sense about people who are authentically themselves on Twitter, but until you see someone face to face, it’s nothing more than that – a sense.
She’s an associate professor of English, specializing in the history of the novel, specifically during the Romantic period, but she tweets about everything from her neighborhood and World Cup soccer, to complex race matters. Lots of experts will tell you that to be a successful Twitter user, you must have a niche, but I disagree. Tricia is proof that curiosity and a rich interest in the world and its people make it possible to talk about a lot of things.
We toast when the Mimosas arrive, order breakfast and talk about the day ahead. I’d asked about attending one of the classes at her university, but she’d emailed in advance to let me know that wasn’t going to work. The reason is further evidence of the thoughtfulness I’ve described.
“There was really only one class that would have worked, but a lot of my students are shy. These are not the outspoken participants you might be imagining, so I felt like I needed to protect them a little bit. I told them they could vote anonymously and if anyone wasn’t comfortable we wouldn’t do it. “
They voted me down. But her kindness and gentle defense of the decision only makes me more of a fan.
She describes some of the history of the neighborhood, having lived two places in Brooklyn since 2009. Her current apartment is in Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy for you Spike Lee fans) or Clinton Hill, depending on who you ask. These are neighborhoods that still feel like old New York, where you can see the sky. This love of NYC is one of the first things we had in common, so I’m delighted to hear the story of her arrival, the initial difficult residency in the Garden State (#thestruggleisreal) and her first forays into the city, which took her into my old neighborhood.
“My colleague lived near Riverside Drive, so I would take the train to Penn Station and then take the subway to visit her. Basically I just took the 1 Train up and down,” she says, and I remember the rush that comes from learning how to use a subway when you’ve dreamed about it your whole life, even if all you can do is go up and down the west side of Manhattan.
An only child, she saw the world through her father’s career in the Air Force; born in Oklahoma and moved to Holland with her mother during his tour of duty in Vietnam. Her elementary school years were mostly spent in Okinawa, with high school in the Philippines. But as she prepared to go to college, New York City was the only place she wanted to be. Her dad, A NATIVE NEW YORKER, was having none of it, however, so she attended Centenary College, a small school near her parents’ home in Louisiana. My introduction to Tricia via Twitter was because of a something that happened when she was there, the time she decided to invite the writer Maya Angelou to come and speak at a southern liberal arts college that was 94% white. Tricia was not part of that majority.
You can read Tricia’s blog post about that visit here and you can read the New York Times account of it here. And when you do, I wonder if the thing that stands out to you is the same thing that stood out to me–the knowledge that if I was a college junior, spending the day with a literary icon and feeling pretty good about bringing her to campus, whether I would have noticed the elderly woman hesitating under the awning of a mall because it was raining so hard. Tricia noticed. She got out and escorted the woman to her car, only to return to a Maya Angelou so touched that she gave her the scarf she’d bought that day.
Twenty-four years later, we’re eating eggs and french toast in a café in Brooklyn and she still radiates that same care and authenticity. Her friend Siri who’s recently finished her PhD at Columbia, joins us for a bit. They met at a gallery opening, doing their best to maintain poker faces around a woman who looked to be wearing an enormous diaper. Their decorum held and a friendship was born. I watch them talk and see the rich life of an academic, years and years of study in pursuit of knowledge and ideas—discipline I never dreamed of having, though Tricia and I both have an undergraduate degree in English.
It’s easy to look at the life that effort created and idealize it. And it’s also easy to allow such idealization, to present the image to a stranger of someone whose life is picture perfect. But when Tricia mentions that she’d like to stop by her apartment to pick up her iPad and put on some socks with her fabulous olive colored Chuck Taylors, she tells me about the recent makeover that her friends gave it.
“I just needed to reorganize my office so that it would be easier for guests to stay there,” she says with a laugh, “So I called some friends and asked for help. They were so disappointed with the way my apartment looked that they told me to leave them alone because their heads might explode. They wound up reorganizing most of it, including my closet.”
This last bit is important because they also culled her shoe collection in a way that could only be described as ruthless. “These are lesbian shoes,” she says, imitating their voices of disapproval, and lest you think her Achilles heel is homophobia, the couple in question…are lesbians. We have a good laugh over this and I express some relief that they let her keep the Chucks which perfectly match the navy and green plaid pants she is wearing. Combos like that don’t come along every day.
The scenic route we follow to her apartment takes us through the Pratt Institute’s sculpture garden, a collection that makes me homesick for the outdoor spaces of the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City. The day is cloudy and cold, but this walk is a spectacular trip through beauty and color.
We arrive at her apartment building, right next to a school. It’s recess and the energy of children surrounds us and then dissipates as the front door shuts and we head upstairs. The feng shui in her apartment is fabulous, and just for effect, she tells me how it looked before the makeover. While she’s putting on a coat and gloves, I ask if she has any lotion because two days of cold have made my hands feel like a they’re about to dry up and fall off, and as she says yes and reaches for one of the three bottles on the kitchen counter, she says the phrase that I’ve turned over in my head for the past week. I hear it a few more times before the day is over, “I am my mother’s daughter.”
I hear it a few more times before the day is over, ‘I am my mother’s daughter.’
We take the subway into Manhattan and I’m happy to turn off my brain and let someone else navigate the map. There’s a bit of drizzle when we emerge and walk to the Kinokuniya Bookstore, the second stop of this truly IRL day. When Tricia emailed with her ideas, I was especially delighted with this sentence: I think you’ll get to know me better if we go buy pens together. It’s a thing for me. Every year or so I go to the Kinokuniya bookstore and buy pens and drool over their stationary supplies.
I think you’ll get to know me better if we go buy pens together. It’s a thing for me.
The place is an explosion of words, color and the tools of a writing life, plus Hello Kitty on steroids. Though we both mostly write on computers, we agree wholeheartedly that the quality of a pen drastically affects one’s mental state when writing by hand – scratchy pen and rough paper being all you need to kill a good idea. We discuss the merits of the 0.5 vs the 0.7 (Tricia favors the former while I’m team Medium Point), make our choices and then wander the store before heading upstairs. At the checkout line Tricia takes my pens out of my hand and says, “I want to buy your pens today.” I could protest, but in that moment I know every time I use them, I will think about this act of kindness.
Bryant Park is filled with holiday vendors and we zig zag through it on our way to the New York Public Library. Tricia tells me about doing research in the iconic building and notes its democratic nature. “If you present your reason for needing to see a historic book or document, you can see it. You don’t have to be someone special.” We peer into research rooms with books and furniture from the likes of Mary Shelley and Charles Dickens and feel the delight of their presence here in our age.
Our final destination is Harney and Sons, a tea shop in SoHo, a neighborhood we both love. We order two vanilla and two cheddar chive scones and the pots of tea are long gone by the time we finish talking and finally leave. In the dark Tricia double checks that I know where I’m going and as we hug, I thank her for a day I never could have planned. A day full of grace notes in a city that doesn’t always feel gracious.
This project redefines itself daily, but when I began I had an idea that still holds true. The digital space means that we really do live in a global village. And if we are to be the kind of citizens who build community rather than gated neighborhoods, we have only to reach out and listen – each of us doing our part to make change. Some of us must be at the front of the protest line, some of us building bridges one new friend at a time, while others are called to be firebrands demanding justice. The problems and pain of humanity demand multiple tactics and personalities if we are to find lasting change. Tricia is part of this movement, but I still can’t put my finger on exactly why her contribution feels so important.
And then I hear her saying it again, “I am my mother’s daughter.” I pull up the playlist she shared with me which contains the Beatles’ song, I Will. It made the cut, she tells me because it was on a mixtape that her dad made her a long time ago. And as Paul sings,
Love you forever and forever
Love you with all my heart
Love you whenever we’re together
Love you when we’re apart
And when at last I find you
Your song will fill the air
Sing it loud so I can hear you
Make it easy to be near you
For the things you do endear you to me
I look at Tricia’s new Twitter profile picture and finally see it – the exuberant joy of an adolescent girl who knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is loved – and instantly realize I’ve figured it out. In the fight against evil and injustice, great love is the strongest weapon we can give our children, particularly those who must fight hardest to preserve their humanity. Tricia Matthew knows she is loved and the strength of this knowledge informs her entire life.
During our day together Tricia told me about a department meeting when one of her colleagues questioned the use of the word “ethnic” in a job description because it might cause “those other people” to apply. Heads swiveled around to look for Tricia’s response, but the best one they got was the email she sent later with this signature line:
Dr. Patricia Matthew
National Association for the Advancement of Other People
Twice a week she calls her mother to check in on the long drive home from work. That day I’d like to have listened in.