About Five.

Welcome to Five.

Every five weeks, I will share five original true stories, all loosely huddled under one umbrella topic. Some of the details might be changed—I’d say, “to protect the innocent,” but I realize that no one is innocent—but the pieces, people, and places are as true as memory allows.

My name’s Meister; I write sometimes. I’m a published journalist, and I also compose a pretty good e-mail. Real in-the-mailbox letters, too. This is where I share stories culled from life. It’s an exercise in creative vulnerability, and a chance for me to flex my storytelling muscles.

I hope you like ’em—all Five.



Five is one year old. Like a tree, I feel like I’ve earned another ring around my trunk, as well as a passel of new friends in my inbox and in the comments field, and out in the world at large. I’m grateful for all of it—and all of you.

While there’s a whole lifetime’s worth of true stories left to tell—many that haven’t even happened yet—it’s also a good place to stop and look around, to feel the parts of myself and my work that have stretched and changed with this year of growth. I’m going to step away from this project to work on a few other creative things that have been itching at me, but I want to thank you sincerely for giving me the opportunity to share these little pieces with you here, and for helping me face my fears about putting work out into the universe and letting it have its wings.

This year has been incredibly special, and I’m changed by it. I hope you’ll go forward into the world to live and record your own true stories, and that you find fearlessness, adventure, and humor in every day.

With good wishes and much gratitude,


Photo by Flickr user Playingwithbrushes

New York City: Bemelmans

Time travel costs money. Who would expect any less, right? But to do it right and proper, you’ve got to go all out: You want to dress the part, eat the part, walk and talk look the part—whether you’re headed to 1920s Paris or Caesar’s Rome. If there’s sparring, you’d better have a shield, if there’s adventure, you’d better have a raccoon hat and some thick leather pants. If there’s cocktails and dancing—and for me, ideally there would be cocktails and dancing—you’d better know how to drink, and you’d better know how to dance.

If I want to time travel, I go to Bemelmans Bar. I bring a wad of cash thick enough for a coat check, two $30 cocktails, and two very generous tips: one for the bartender in the red jacket with the black bow tie; one for the man at the piano, who always smiles and nods at you when he teases out the first few notes of the song you’ve requested.

The first time I went, it was with my brand-new husband in celebration of our wedding. “We’ve got to go to Bemelmans,” he insisted, straightening his wedding-day tie—the one he bought from New Zealand on a rush order, the replica of Bogie’s tie in the final scene of Casablanca. The one which cost more to ship than my dress cost to buy. The perfect time-traveling tie.

We sat side-by-side in one of the deep banquettes, holding hands tightly under the table, using our free hands to eat too many of the snacks replenished by attentive tuxedoed waiters. Chewing salty roasted almonds, feeling like visitors from a future time, we sank into the leather upholstery and looked around us at a scene straight out of 1942. We requested our song, the one we’d just had a friend sing at our ceremony: “That’s All.” The pianist queued it up and played marvelously, nodding at us with a warm smile. Hands squeezed tighter under the table. More roasted almonds. A $35 glass of red wine. A Pisco Sour. Eliot Spitzer, then governor of New York and on top of the world, walked in and sat near us with some friends, laughing and joking and drinking tonic water. We outstayed him. We outstayed almost everyone.

It was a brilliant evening. It cost more than the whole of our wedding and reception combined. We didn’t care. This was time travel.

Photo by Flickr user arvindgrover

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New York City: Rainy Day BBQ

“That’s going to be the name of our band,” Topher said, nudging his sunglasses up on his nose with the back of a hand holding a Corona. He was standing at the grill flipping burgers, wearing a “No Divorce for Straights” shirt with the sleeves cut off, the late afternoon summer sun warming his shoulders. “Rainy Day BBQ. I love it. We’ll be like a hard-core twee band.”

I was standing beside him, taking long swallows from my own Corona, fished out of the bottom of a cooler now full of half-melted ice from the bodega downstairs. It was my summer of rooftops, of watching the sun set while a cloud of pot smoke floated around me. It was the summer of recovery after the worst heartbreak of my life. It was the kind of summer people dream of—the heat forcing us outside and up, our youth tumbling us into bed with one another, the perfect combination of friends and lovers and hamburgers and New York City for one miraculous but brief collection of weeks.

Topher threw a single portobello cap onto the grill, brushing it with balsamic vinegar and listening to the drips hiss against the burning coals. The mushroom was for David, the vegan of our menagerie. David of the fingernail polish, with whom I would talk about poetry and pigeons. Aden was standing at a far ledge of the roof, smoking a cigarette with his friend Nicco and laughing with wide-open mouths. The two of them looked perfect against that orange-blue sky. Shannon and Jacqui and Damien were sitting in lawn chairs, their heads lolling back in a gentle doze as they waited, pleasantly hungry, for the grilling to be done.

Topher gracefully pinched the mushroom between a set of long metal tongs, flipping it and taking another drink from his beer. “We would totally have a tap dancer as the percussionist.”

Photo by Flickr user Unlisted Sightings

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New York City: Beso

It was more than just a drinking problem; it was a drinking-and-writing-letters problem, and I had it. Bad. Not that there’s anything wrong with either drinking or writing letters, necessarily, but I personally found that combining the two could potentially lead to some awkward long-distance relationships, unnecessary confessions, and a lot of really dreadfully embarrassing misspellings.

(Not to mention those messy little splotches where the condensation from one’s margarita drips onto one’s stationery, requiring one to circle the splotch and indicate, with a pointed arrow, “Margarita spill!” As if that excused anything. As if that didn’t just make everything worse.)

As these things typically go, I can honestly say I don’t remember terribly much about the letters I wrote while drinking mostly free margaritas at the first restaurant-bar at which I’d ever become a regular, but I will never forget the place, though it’s long since been absorbed and dissolved into the fractured collective memory of a thousand pieces of a changing neighborhood, of a Brooklyn I barely recognize since I moved there 12 years ago.

Beso. It means “kiss” in Spanish, and that’s pretty telling, since I think that’s what I did most in the letters: Admit a crush, admit a longing, wax nostalgic, cry and feel maudlin and get greasy stains on the envelope. I also tasted life in that restaurant, realized what it was like to make a connection with a bartender and a waiter the way thousands of people had made connections with me, their barista. The person who saw them at their most vulnerable time; the person who accepted and welcomed them even before their coffee.

Efraim accepted me even after my third margarita. Rarely did he even charge for the privilege.


Photo by me; margarita by Efraim

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New York City: Riding the Subway into the Sky

His puffy red coat pressed close against my ratty corduroy jacket; I could almost believe I heard a sigh coming from his sleeves, as I crowded into the tiny space beside him. It was an early morning on the D train, running express over the bridge to Manhattan; I’d won the daily joust for a seat and was watching others spar for a clear space to stand, for room enough to check their phones as soon as the train went above ground because G-d forbid we miss anything even for a moment. I clutched my backpack on my lap and unzipped it, taking out a mint-green paperback, dog-eared and broken-spined.

The boy beside me glanced.

As the fireman said:
Don’t book a room over the fifth floor
in any hotel in New York.
They have ladders that will reach further
but no one will climb them.

New York is full of these intimate non-intimate moments, these pressings up close against a stranger—maybe closer than you’ve been to a friend in years, maybe closer than you’ve been to a lover. In winter, the barriers of fabric keep us safe from actual skin-on-skin contact, but we take up so much more space: There is no boundary left between me and you, we’re just a single being inside the belly of a moving train, knowing each other’s business for a few minutes without even trying.

I flipped open my book. I put my finger underneath the line I was reading. I dragged it across the page. I read very slowly.

The boy beside me glanced.

As the New York Times said:
The elevator always seeks out
the floor of the fire
and automatically opens
and won’t shut.
These are the warnings
that you must forget
if you’re climbing out of yourself.
If you’re going to smash into the sky.

Photo by Flickr user ny156uk

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New York City: Spiked

“This band better be good,” I said to my girlfriend, even though it had been my idea to go to Tribeca in the rain, to see a band she’d never heard of, to drink stale beer at a cramped bar in front of a tiny stage. The wind whipped around us as we pushed against the wall of icy rain pelting us from all directions. The vacuum of Tribeca swept us along, gusts so strong it almost felt like the wind were a strong hand wrapping around our legs, or pushing us with a hard palm pressed firmly against our backs. Backs which were woefully underdressed for this kind of weather, by the way—soaked through and frozen to the bone, miserable already.

I hated going to rock shows, even though it was my job as a music journalist, and even though we got in for free. Even though I was young and supposed to have fun and feel alive and embody that New York lifestyle. I wanted to be home watching medical dramas and eating cheddar popcorn, not being young or having fun or feeling alive. I hated New York City.

My girlfriend was radiant, practically floating on the rain puddling up in the uneven spots in the sidewalk, the storm drains clogged with crap. She loved live shows, crowds, feeling young and alive; she lived for the energy of a sweaty room full of music. She hated cheddar popcorn.

“I’m really excited,” she said, taking my arm in hers.

We turned down a dark street and walked into the club.


Photo by Flickr user Kevin Labianco


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Five Foods: Clam Chowder

Not every vegetarian has an a-ha moment, but I did: It struck me halfway through a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder. In fact, it struck me smack in the middle of trying my darndest to masticate one of those rubbery little clam-like things, trying to break it down enough to where I could swallow without it being a choking hazard.

(I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder, but the above is not an easy task.)

The self-realization came while I was standing at the kitchen counter, eating the too-hot soup out of a too-small bowl; the tomato-flavored liquid threatened to escape if I wasn’t careful. It was a dish I’d eaten for dinner every night for nearly two weeks, and at first I really appreciated the stubborn texture of the clams—especially in contrast to the starchy crumbiness of the cubed potatoes, and the baby-food mush of tiny carrot half-moons.

I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade, finally feeling myself something of an adult. Largely, that adultiness was due to the fact that I had become responsible for my own dinners, my mother working full-time daytime hours and holding down an evening job as an adjunct Ready Level 1 professor at a local community college.

My older brother’s nightly routine was to make himself three servings of Stove Top Stuffing and call it dinner, and he always forgot it long enough to burn bits black and hard to the bottom of the pan; it took a lot of knuckle-down effort to scrape them off of a night, even after soaking.

I could be trusted at the very least to dilute and heat up a can of condensed soup, and so I had a stash any bomb-shelter interior decorator would envy: An entire shelf of the pantry lined with those perfect red-and-white cans, all the same flavor (on account of a 4-for-$1 sale at the local A&P), and all for me.

Chicken Noodle didn’t cause a moment’s stir, and neither did Beef Barley. Even New England Clam Chowder had been acceptable, though I got sick of it very quickly.

That Manhattan Clam Chowder, though. That’s what pushed me over the veg edge.


Photo by Flickr user Carbon Arc.

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Five Foods: Cake

What’s the first birthday you actually remember? What about it sticks with you, a present? A family friend dressed as a clown, making terrible balloon animals? A crying fight over a piñata or a broken toy or one of those vanilla-chocolate iced-cream cups? Maybe you remember your 16th birthday clearer than all the rest, but why—did you have your first kiss that night? Did you get your driver’s permit? Tell me about the pizza, because I’m sure there was pizza. What the hell kind of a 16th birthday party doesn’t have pizza?

(Mine. My 16th birthday party had zero pizza. My 16th birthday party featured an array of microwaved-frozen hors d’oeuvres acquired from a Sam’s Club in Edison, New Jersey. I distinctly remember there being tiny, soggy egg rolls. My kingdom for a pizza.)

In any event, the first birthday etched forever and ever amen into my memory was the year I turned 5. And the only thing about that birthday that I can even remotely actually recall was the cake.

The most glorious cake. The perfect cake.

I mean, just look at that thing.

Meister, age 5, with cake

Meister, age 5, with cake

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Five Foods: Pasta e Ceci

I thought I was immune to the lure of Italian food because I was on a mission, absolutely passionate to a single focus: a one-track pilgrimage through the streets of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples in search of the true essence of espresso coffee. I was on the hunt for that perfect, can-only-get-it-in-Italy espresso everyone always mythologizes, the unicorn of the caffeinated free world.

I also thought I was immune to Italian food because before I step foot in the country, I hadn’t eaten pasta in nearly two years. Afraid of carbs, afraid of olive oil, afraid of cheese—I had only very recently started to squirm out of the leg-irons of disordered eating, a misery which had kept me on a steady diet of boiled vegetables and coffee (and a daily 11-mile run) for the better part of minus 60 pounds.

The notion of visiting a country where the streets are practically paved with good bread and al dente noodles was a great test of self and recovery. It was a show of trust in and love for myself. I was ready, and I knew could do it.

Plus, when would I have time to think about food in between all those miraculous G-d shots of espresso? Certainly not I.

With that in mind, one of the best things I decided to do on this trip—in addition to trying to limit my caffeine intake to a perfectly reasonable 16 to 18 shots of espresso a day—was to eat exclusively at vegetarian restaurants. Not out of self-flagellation, though I realize there are probably few places in Europe where it’s easier to find plant-based food even in the most mainstream trattoria; rather, I wanted to go where few tourists dare tread, where English menus were unheard of, and where the ingredients would be so fresh as to practically still be alive.

Venice was a nice introduction to the culture and the cuisine of Italy, kind of like how Disney World is a nice introduction to the culture and cuisine of the United States. Italy-lite, I guess: Tourist shops, tourist restaurants, tourists asking other tourists for directions because everyone’s a tourist. Everything printed in English and Japanese; coffee shops advertising “American sizes” and “American breakfast.” The food highlight of my time there was an uninspired dish of curried carrots (because Italians are known for their curry), and a plate of limp and lukewarm grilled eggplant.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “What have I gotten myself into?” I crouched outside the warm glow of the cheesy but popular restaurants, coveting the living hell out of everybody’s meatballs.

But then I went to Florence, and all that changed.

Photo by Meister


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Five Foods: Tiramisu

The tiramisu came frozen, in enormous sheet pans, 18″ x 26″—so deep-chilled that they burned to the touch, and so big my father eventually needed to buy a separate fridge to store them out in the garage. A thin film of cling wrap covered the dusted cocoa top of a single magnificent, uncut cake of sweet, creamy marscapone and fat, coffee-soaked lady fingers.

Tiramisu would arrive two and three pans at a time, slid out of the climate-controlled back cabin of a solid-white catering truck which would pull up into our driveway in reverse—even sometimes half nudging itself into the garage—so that no one would see the covert dessert hand-off. Upon hearing the truck pull up, my father would creep up and signal to me to follow him: I loved watching with wide eyes as he unloaded the delivery, stacking the trays neatly in the tiramisu fridge.

Not every suburban New Jersey garage had a tiramisu fridge. It made my father feel like a rich man.

Photo by Flickr user Bricks Neapolitan Pizza

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