Flying the Stars

My Four Pillars chart is weighted heavily toward Fire. Anyone schooled in feng shui would be alarmed at its extreme skew after performing the requisite set of calculations with my gender and date and time of birth. Fire is associated with red, green, triangles, and rectangles. These colors and shapes in my environment will bring out Fire. Being “born of Fire,” as it’s called, I am susceptible to ailments of the heart and tongue and might seek to improve my health by consuming mushrooms and apricots. I’m likely to become a great musician, artist, actor, or writer. I may also have a passion for antiques or electronics. However, experts consider a chart so consumed by one element to be undesirable and dangerous, and I should surround myself with representations of Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal for balance.

I learned some of this from special guidebooks and some of it from Gregg Nodelman, a feng shui consultant who says he has a karmic responsibility not to use his privileged knowledge to tell fortunes. He worries that people may unconsciously work to fulfill negative as well as positive prophecies and he would prefer not to mess around with that. He calculates Four Pillars charts, which are also called Pillars of Destiny, but applies them only to his clients’ physical surroundings. He used to do this by hand but now uses special software.

“The way I work is, I’m really literal,” Nodelman says.

Nodelman is a Metal, so his lungs, nose, and large intestine are prone to sickness. He is slim and tallish, with neat, close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. When I first met Nodelman, he was wearing a forest-green shirt and striped button-down with skillfully matched dark green slacks. Nodelman strives for balance by surrounding himself with Earth tones like these. He does not smoke. He wears hexagonal spectacles with transitional lenses that are clear inside and shaded outdoors so his eyes are at home anywhere.

Officially, Dancing Dragon Feng Shui is based in Nodelman’s home office in Branford, Connecticut. There, he calculates Four Pillars charts, which determine clients’ mingua, or favorable directions independent of their domiciles. Feng shui is an ancient Chinese system for determining auspicious arrangements of manmade space. It deals not only with rooms, but also with their inhabitants, whose individual needs—as revealed by their Four Pillars charts—require differently arranged environments. Nodelman also can pin down lucky spots in a particular building using its location and age, a process he calls “flying the stars.”

Most of Nodelman’s work happens on-site, at homes and businesses to which people have summoned him. He shuffles around seats at businesses—a town hall, a hair salon—to manipulate the firms’ power dynamics. He has found that people who ask him to rearrange their homes often have bigger problems they wish he would solve. Clients break down. They tell him about infidelities and impending foreclosures. Nodelman was once asked to rearrange a family’s home and wound up intuiting that one son had a drug problem. He later found the son’s stash in the ceiling of his bedroom.

Nodelman always asks clients for their specific goals in seeking his services. When I asked him to view my apartment, I wasn’t entirely sure what to tell him. I was curious to hear his recommendations but couldn’t rationally conceive of a problem that flown stars could solve. I don’t believe in feng shui—or even, really, in interior decorating. I have a high clutter threshold. I never unpack suitcases and tend to leave papers and jackets and plates strewn about my space. After my parents divorced, I grew up stuffing clothes into a navy blue duffel bag in one temporary bedroom on Friday evenings and emptying them onto the floor of another, even more temporary bedroom, only to restuff them two days later. Nodelman wonders of his clients, “Does their room look like this as a manifestation of their life, or is their life like this because of the way their room is arranged?” I think, “I just live here.”

But this was no reason not to see what Nodelman would do to my apartment. I gave him my time, date, and place of birth, as he requested. I managed to come up with a worry about my future career. He said that was enough to go on. “The feng shui leaves people with their own to-do lists,” he added. “Whatever changes I suggest would have to be done by you. I’m not going to move your desk.” It’s sometimes necessary to move desks because poorly placed objects can affect the energy, or chi, of a space. A few days before he visited my apartment, as Nodelman and I were taking a walk around the New Haven Green, he stopped and told me to point my pen at my eye.

I maneuvered my pen and looked at him.

Nodelman corrected me, pulling out his own pen to demonstrate. I had to really point it. I placed the pen’s business end a few inches from my right eye and stared it down.

He asked me how I felt.

“Bad,” I said.

“That’s a poison arrow,” he said triumphantly. “That’s what’s coming off your pen. You know you’re not going to stab yourself in the eye. It’s energetic.” He gestured expansively at a building overhanging Chapel Street. “You know that building’s not going to collapse,” he said, “but standing under all that concrete and glass, you’re going to feel a little bit off-balance.”

I pocketed my pen and looked slightly askance at Nodelman. He was standing with his back to a blinding mid-afternoon sun. I had trouble looking directly at him. “I take things really literally,” he said finally.

Under the Shang dynasty, which ruled China from 1600 to 1050 BCE, diviners burned luminous, prophetic oracle bones; under the Sung dynasty, which reigned from 960 to 1126 AD, they practiced the first professional feng shui; over the intervening two thousand years, a series of sages yoked the common wisdom for choosing sanitary burial grounds to the aggregated beliefs of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, ancestor worship, and elemental and yin and yang energies—and came out with feng shui, which means “wind water.” Many Chinese homeowners and businessmen still seriously consult its rules.

When feng shui attained fad status in the West during the 1990s and 2000s, its focus shifted from exterior space to interior design and from placating ancestor spirits to solving personal problems. Practitioners in the West have generally exaggerated the astrological component of feng shui because of their clients’ seemingly bottomless need to control what lies ahead. Western feng shui guidebooks promise that expertly arranged homes guarantee love, fulfillment, and financial success. Initiates write letters like this to the agony-aunt column on World of Feng Shui, a British online magazine founded in 1998:

I have placed a raw amethyst crystal geode under the marital bed and I am sleeping on the right side of the bed and my husband should sleep on the left. I have also placed mandarin ducks and a couple of married toys on the table next to my bed too with red table lamp on each side. But my husband is still committing infidelity. He asked for divorce and is ill-treating our children. He is a Rabbit and I am a Dragon. He is planning to see the lady in July, Aunt Agga, please help, I need your advice on how I can bring his heart back. I have also placed a Rooster with Fan and Amethyst in the North of the living room. Please reply soonest possible, as my husband is planning to see the lady very soon. Please help, I am very sad and desperate for help and advice to mend the situation. Thank you.

Aunt Agga replied with horror, sympathy, and the suggestion that the writer double-check that the crystal geode under the bed was clean and tied to the bed with red thread.

In some ways, Nodelman and Dancing Dragon Feng Shui are products of this craze. Nodelman studied feng shui at the Metropolitan Institute of Design in Syosset, New York, whose Universal Feng Shui Practitioner Certification Program was the first in the country to be accredited. However, Nodelman found the program too “watered-down” and “Westernized.” He notes that feng shui was not yet wildly popular when he founded Dancing Dragon in 1992. While many Western practitioners orient a house using its front door, Nodelman insists on using the lo pan, the traditional Chinese compass with dozens of numerals, characters, and I Ching symbols ringing its magnetic needle. He considers many Western feng shui consultants to be quacks. He says that some carry suitcases filled with wind chimes, crystals, and mirrors to sell to gullible clients. “There’s a certain practitioner where everyone, whether they need it or not, gets a bamboo flute over the doorway,” he said.

“We Westerners, we like a quick fix. We like that sort of magic pill. ‘I need a job; tell me where to hang the crystal,’ ” he said. “Some people say crystals and mirrors are the aspirin of feng shui… I mean, look, I’ll use crystals or mirrors as cures, but I just won’t use them every time, and I’ll be cautious about it.”

As a boy, Nodelman tried to hypnotize his friends on the playground at recess. He would spin in circles to make himself dizzy, developing an interest in “altered perceptions and how your environment affects that.” He found kits for strobe lights at RadioShack and assembled them in complex patterns of light and sound. “I’d fairly regularly blow fuses in my parents’ house as a kid,” he said. When he got a little older, Nodelman began to experiment seriously with meditation. Decades later, he still can’t help scrutinizing the world around him and imagining it differently composed. He never sees anything whole without also grasping how its parts could combine more elegantly.

Nodelman grew up in New Haven, like his father, Stewart, and grandfather, Otto, who founded the New Haven Chair Company in the 1950s. Nodelman worked there summers in high school. After Otto died in 1967, Stewart bought the business. Nodelman says he inherited his father’s eye for design and aptitude for construction, though Stewart is skeptical of feng shui. Nodelman doesn’t blame him. “Some people are seekers, and they’re always looking for a new awareness,” he said. “Some people are just happy with the awareness they have.” Nodelman considers himself a seeker. After studying industrial design for a couple years at Syracuse University, he transferred to Southern Connecticut State University to be nearer the factory. He dropped out of college halfway through his junior year in order to work there full-time, secretly relishing the act of rebellion.

By then, the business had moved to a new factory. Nodelman told me the original factory near Fair Haven was demolished by Richard Lee, an ambitious New Haven mayor who sought to renew the city by manipulating its spatial arrangements in the sixties. As Nodelman remembers, his family was told that the land was needed for a new school, which was never built. Dick Lee’s infamous failed experiment in spatial planning was the Richard C. Lee Highway, also called the Oak Street Connector. The low-income Oak Street neighborhood was razed to make way for this highway. The displacement of an estimated two thousand five hundred eighty-seven people and two hundred fifty businesses haunted their former community, which sank further into decay. The highway was never completed.

As his hometown absorbed these structural dissonances, Nodelman developed an interest in harmonious design. He eventually started his own business repairing furniture. His wife, Sandra, an engineer with an open mind, introduced Nodelman to various alternative practices—t’ai chi, acupuncture, herbology—and these experiences led him to feng shui. He felt an immediate affinity for the trends his wife had tested; he has used a naturopathic healer whom Sandra once visited as his general practitioner for more than twenty years. “I had this hot moment,” he explained, “when I realized that the chi that you’re working with in your body is the same as the chi that you’re working with in a space.” When the interior designers Nodelman knew through his business learned about his interest in feng shui, they began to solicit his opinion. He decided to seek more training and charge for his services. Nodelman is now certified to perform space clearing and clutter clearing ceremonies in which he uses candles, incense, and special rites to exorcise lingering, negative “predecessor chi.”

“The earth has energy,” he told me. “The earth has memories.”

Nodelman has always lived around New Haven. He says he has hometown pride for this city, which has always been peculiar in its physical space. While other colonial cities like Boston grew organically around geographic features—streets twisting crazily to follow the course of rivers—its original nine square blocks made New Haven the first planned city in the colonies. The ancient Chinese used feng shui to plan cities that would fit into the existing natural landscape, but nothing in nature takes the shape of a three-by-three grid. Chi tends naturally to spiral—as in seashells, or tornadoes.

Westerners usually expect feng shui consultants simply to shuffle sofas and mutter mysticisms, but in fact practitioners have always applied their art to larger canvasses than interior design. Beijing, Nanjing, Luoyang, and Xian, four major ancient Chinese cities, were chosen for their lucky locations and laid out carefully along axes that run north to south. Rules for auspiciously arranging cities were so well codified that a Chinese emperor ignored them at his own risk. Planned cities are often the places where the human desire to control the environment reaches its fullest potential for success and for failure.

The Air Rights Garage on York and North Frontage Streets is a gargantuan parking garage built to straddle the Oak Street Connector. Instead, the highway dead-ends right before it. A section of York Street lined by a bodega and a couple of fast-food places bisects the garage. It is always dark there because of the cement mountain overhead. Nodelman and I recently walked to the Air Rights Garage and looked down into the cavernous pit underneath, where the highway was supposed to run. I wanted to know how Nodelman could account for his hometown’s predicament. “They weren’t thinking about people and nature when they were doing this,” he said. “They were thinking of engineering and construction and traffic flow.”

Dick Lee began to raze the Oak Street neighborhood in 1957, three years before Nodelman was born. Nodelman recalled that this area—past the parking garage, beyond the unfinished highway’s premature end—remained an unused no-man’s land for decades, wracked by sha chi, or negative energy. Now, the area between North Frontage and Legion Streets is a parking lot that seems to stretch from Dwight Street to the horizon. I had the sense that the massive lot is never completely filled.

Residents of the former Oak Street neighborhood reunited years after its dismemberment at Anthony’s Oceanview Restaurant on Lighthouse Road. City lore considers the area a battlefield where a residential culture was mowed down by a mayor’s unthinking hubris. As Nodelman and I stood at the brink of the great paved-over expanse, I asked him whether the parking lot between Dwight and Orchard Streets could use a space clearing ceremony. “I would say it does,” he said, “but that’s called earth clearing, and I don’t do that. I have a friend in Seattle who does earth clearing, and I usually refer people to him. He can do it on-site or remotely.”

I knew before he rang my doorbell that I was not Nodelman’s ideal client. He likes to help people who are desperate for his help. “I actually appreciate that they’re as open as they are,” he said of these clients. “I tell people, the more you tell me, the more I can help you. If you tell me your most innermost desires, then that’s what we can work on.” Nodelman recently graduated from a program in marriage and family therapy at Southern Connecticut State University and is licensed as a drug and alcohol counselor by the state of Connecticut. He works as a counselor a few hours a week at West Haven and Milford Youth and Family Services.

Unlike some of Nodelman’s clients, I dislike talking to strangers about my problems. He told me not to clean before his visit, but I couldn’t resist kicking a heap of dirty laundry into my closet. Still, it’s hard to get my apartment entirely neat. My roommate is similarly cavalier about our living space. At the time, she and I were flummoxed by our kitchen sink’s failure to drain. A mud-colored liquid speckled by coffee grounds had welled up there for a few days. (Later, I rolled up my sleeves and plunged in an arm to loose debris from the drain. My roommate came home and shrieked with joy. “What did you do?” she asked.)

I sat Nodelman at my kitchen table, so he could not see the liquid in the sink. He found my kitchen to have good chi, although he recommended that I move the toaster next to the microwave in order to bundle together the Fire energy. Its current position next to the fridge created an undesirable juxtaposition of Water and Fire elements.

Along with my completed Four Pillars chart, Nodelman brought along the tools of his trade. He keeps the colorful lo pan tucked under his arm, in a soft brown leather case. He also has a small black box that detects electromagnetic fields in volts per meter. He uses two metal dowsing rods, L-shaped and about a foot long, to trace geopathic stress lines. He holds them loosely in front of his hips and watches them bend apart or inch closer together. After he’s finished, he tucks the rods into a pouch of crushed red velvet. Nodelman said he can often intuit the needs of a space without any instruments. He was born with a cleft palate and retains a cut in his mouth that never completely healed. He said this slit is sensitive to air quality and smoke. “It’s like my built-in meter,” he said.

Nodelman can spend three or four hours on a consultation. Because we were short on time, he focused on my bedroom. He checked for electromagnetic fields around my pillow and recommended that I unplug a nearby lamp. “You can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep,” he said. He turned next to my overstuffed bookshelves and recommended that I thin the books until someone with two glasses of water could set them down. “This can be a cure for allowing new possibilities to come in,” he said. “The bookshelves are bowing from the weight of the books, so you could feel like there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders.” Taking in the stacked tomes that loomed like thunderclouds over my bed, I felt as though I’d caught myself complaining about a particularly arduous homework assignment.

Before he left, Nodelman told me that he once consulted a massage therapist who couldn’t work because her hands were red with eczema. He discovered moss growing up an exterior wall and recommended she power-wash the house. “It cleared right up,” he recalled.

Nodelman’s faith in small changes was catching. Not long after he visited my kitchen, I decided to move the toaster next to the microwave. I needed to shuffle around a few things, squishing the olive oil, vinegar, and knives closer together. I wedged in the toaster. Its sides were sticky. It occurred to me that the sides of our toaster—like the strip of floor under our couch—are a part of our apartment that my roommate and I have neither touched nor cleaned in the year and a half we’ve lived here. I wiped my hands and looked at the toaster and the microwave for several minutes. The larger, sleeker microwave reclined powerfully, leonine in its corner. The toaster stared back at me, small, white, and spunky. Eventually, my roommate came home.

“Do you notice anything different about the kitchen?” I asked finally.

“The toaster is in a different place,” she said.

“Do you like it?” I asked.

“I like it,” she said.

I asked her if she felt anything more.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “Is there something else different that I missed? It looks very nice. Is there something else?”

I recently returned without Nodelman to the Air Rights Garage and made my way to its roof, nine stories up. It was warmer there than at street level. I took off my jacket. There was nothing between me and the sun.

The rooftop parking lot is concrete, and the few pebbles lying around are concrete, and a pockmarked concrete wall about four feet high rims the whole space. I stepped over crusty old snow to the edge. I looked downtown, over the cardboard-colored AT&T building, over the Walgreens where once I overheard a man say in Spanish that he got his black eye in a fight. I could read the time on the clock atop Harkness Tower, the Gothic icon of Yale University, but the tower was very far away. My apartment was blocked by one of the twin high-rises on Crown Street. It seemed far away, too. Ambulances wailed on their way to the nearby hospital. A breeze was chasing away the smell of car exhaust. Dust-colored birds alighted on the perimeter wall, chirping shrilly. I looked down on the spot where the Oak Street Connector pools into a roundabout planted with unflowering shrubs. This complicated mess of roads is always clogged with traffic. I thought some more about a people’s continuous efforts to control the land I was looking at. I imagined the primordial New Haven, a low, silky swamp. I wondered whether the city was doomed to failure, or whether its leaders simply needed to be more thoughtful and meticulous in planning their space.

Through the tall buildings of the Yale School of Medicine, past a few smokestacks that billowed chemical steam, I could make out a sliver of blue. I once asked Nodelman about the damage this city incurred by cutting itself off from the sea. “Water is a really strong life force,” he said. “If you cut off the water energy for people, it’s going to create a problem for them.” I asked him how he would fix New Haven. “For something this major, you could hang all the mirrors and talismans in the world and it wouldn’t do a thing,” he said.

I braced myself against the low wall, letting the unfinished cement scratch my palms, and looked straight down. I knew I wasn’t going to fall, but I still felt queasy from the height.

A string of multi-colored Christmas lights and the blue-green glow of sunlight filtered through tarp illuminate the food tent at Occupy New Haven. Several cardboard signs bluntly demand that occupants clean up after themselves. The food tent is known more officially as the Food/Library Tent. Half is for food, and half is called the lounge, according to demonstrator Jim Ferrara, a construction worker by day. “This is us basically,” he said, waving a hand at four mismatched chairs, a makeshift bookcase crammed with paperbacks, a bulletin board marred with memos, a battered bass drum, and a generous bouquet of fresh red roses.

On an unusually temperate November day,  protesters ranged outside, some preparing the tents for anticipated rain. Between sixty and eighty-five people sleep here regularly, depending on whom you ask, but many more gather for General Assembly planning meetings on Sunday afternoons. Demonstrators assemble not only to articulate their movement’s objections—to the roles of major banks and corporations in the democratic process and in the current recession—but also to govern this new, tiny, self-contained and well-regulated city on the New Haven Green. At the heart of this operation stands the food tent.

“We were going to have set meal times, but it’s too hard to get someone to cook,” Ferrara told me. The protesters rely instead on frequent spontaneous acts of cooperation. Early-rising protesters often make pots of oatmeal for the group. Some prepare vegan soups to be eaten communally after returning to the encampment from a day of work. Veganism and vegetarianism are common here, though perhaps not as rampant as at other Occupy protests. Dakota Ellingsworth, a physics student on a leave of absence from Carnegie Mellon, eats meat and was pleased to discover that Occupy New Haven also caters to the occasional omnivore. He arrived here after some time at Occupy Pittsburgh, where the meals were hot and regular but contained no meat.

Ellingsworth admires New Haven’s protest. “They’re a good bit more organized than Pittsburgh,” he mused as he gazed upon the Food/Library Tent. While Occupy Pittsburgh is a larger protest, it’s squeezed into a tiny corner of downtown, not sprawled comfortably over a grassy expanse. Richard Riley, a handyman who had been here since three days after Occupy New Haven began October 15, told me that the demonstrators’ rapport with the New Haven Police Department also makes their encampment a model of orderliness among similar protests nationally.

Bread, peanut butter, grape jelly, muffins, paper plates, napkins, and three pump bottles of Purell hand sanitizer were laid out at lunchtime that day. “I only want half a muffin,” Riley said, using a pocketknife to slice a fat blueberry one. He grabbed a cruller from a cardboard box of sticky donuts and a paper towel and stooped to exit the tent into the sun.

A steady stream of donations to the tent shows the demonstrators enjoy support from the community more broadly. The sleek Occupy New Haven Web site provides a streamlined conduit for donations to feed the protesters. Specific needs—canned goods, tarps, socks, bug spray—are listed there like demands for a new world order. Mediterranea Café on Orange Street took after New York restaurants in offering a special vegetarian “Occu-pie,” which sympathizers could pay to have delivered in bulk to protesters. Est Est Est and other pizzerias have also donated pies.

“We get it together,” Ferrara said. “Everybody pitches in.”

Book Trader donates bread to the protest. Atticus donates bread by default, to occupiers who requisition the bags of day-old baguette the store dumps on Chapel Street. Currently, the protesters have a surplus of bread. Ferrara worried aloud that their other supplies were getting low, though it certainly didn’t look that way to me. A cadre of bookcases contained canned vegetables and beans and pasta—and confectioner’s sugar, instant coffee, an economy-sized bottle of Vitamin C. A crate of pears, apples, carrots, and red potatoes rested on a makeshift bench. The potato peelings were destined for a special bin nearby. Occupy New Haven, like other Occupy protests, composts.

The occupiers don’t have a refrigerator, but they do have a camping stove for cooking, a five-gallon water cooler that could have been borrowed from an office break room, and a fire extinguisher close at hand. Smoking is prohibited inside the food tent. Matt Smith, a construction worker with tattoos encircling his left bicep, chastised and chased away another occupier with a lit cigarette. Smith has spent every night on the Green for the past week and a half and hopes everyone will stay into the spring. “Hopefully through the winter, at least.”

Riley was also thinking ahead to the first frost. When I met him, he had just finished raking leaves. He said his freelance repair work usually slows down in the winter. “So I’ll be able to concentrate, make this my job, help people winterize their tents.” A few days later, demonstrators would line the food tent with insulating foamboard and lay linoleum to keep it clean. They plan to install a solar-powered heater. The Occupy movement’s long-term demands may be expansive, but the immediate goals of this village are clear and sensible. Prepare the tents for rain or snow. Cook a pot of soup and clean up the mess. Wait.

Graffitti outside High School in the Community. Photo by Jacque Feldman

The long mid-morning class period, which lasts from 10:05 to 11:35, can be tedious if you’re a student at Wilbur Cross, a public high school in New Haven. On a rainy day in early April, class was especially tedious for one student, whom I will call Shawn. He was working in the school library’s computer room with his junior English classmates, and he was supposed to be researching a presentation on “Battle Royal,” the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel, Invisible Man.

It was a long period, the day was dreary, and Shawn hadn’t done the reading. Worse, his teacher, Michael Robin, was pushing him awfully hard, even though few others seemed to have done the reading either, and even though Shawn was one of five students in a class of eleven to have arrived in the classroom before the late bell rang. As the class period began, Robin explained that he wanted students to fill in gridded worksheets with information about the story’s author, quotations from the text, and their own analysis.

By 10:38, the students had settled in the library with their Web browsers open. A few minutes earlier, Robin’s goal for the class had dropped to recording and analyzing four quotations apiece, but even that much seemed insufferably boring to Shawn. He copied and pasted the story he was reading from a Web site to a Word document, fiddling with the font. By 11:22, Robin was begging Shawn to find just two quotations, but Shawn was still reluctant.

By 11:30, having tried every trick he could muster, having been called a racist by Shawn, who is black, Robin, who is white, settled on a pep talk. “You’re way too talented to just blow it off,” he told Shawn. Dropping to his knees beside Shawn’s chair, he asked Shawn to spend two minutes finding just one quotation. “Can you do that?”

In the end, Shawn threw up his hands, saying impassively to his friend beside him that he didn’t care. It didn’t matter. After class, his mood was markedly low, quiet. Shouldering his backpack, he told me he wasn’t on his A-game.

The sign outside Wilbur Cross High School. Photo by Jacque Feldman

While Shawn left the library as quickly as he could, I asked his classmates whether they had ever heard of something called New Haven Promise. Yes, they had. But they didn’t think that many people they knew would actually qualify for the scholarship program, which will begin this September to fund tuition at any in-state public university for graduates of New Haven’s high schools who meet its requirements for good behavior, academics, and residency in New Haven. Most people, they told me, weren’t focused on their grades—only on passing enough classes to graduate high school.

Students who spoke to me at four of New Haven’s high schools said some of their classmates find it hard to understand why they should work at all in high school when they can’t afford college anyway. “Some of these kids are slipping,” said Diana Hernandez-Degroat, a guidance counselor at High School in the Community. “The cost of college, some of them think it’s too expensive and they can’t go.” Those behind New Haven Promise plan to change this. They have stated a goal to halve New Haven’s high school dropout rate in five years by allowing all students to think of college as a possibility.

Any student who lives in New Haven and attends one of the city’s public schools is eligible to receive Promise funds, scaled according to how long they’ve studied in-district—and so long as they have an attendance rate of 90 percent, complete forty hours of community service, and maintain a 3.0 GPA. The program will be phased in gradually, with current high school seniors receiving 25 percent of tuition and current freshmen, 100 percent. (It will take into account current seniors’ senior-year GPA only and only the hours of community service they’ve completed since last fall.) The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven has taken on the program’s operation from a small office with a handful of staff and a busy whiteboard, and Yale University will guarantee the scholarship’s funding for four classes of students, for up to four million dollars each year, after which the program will be reviewed. The program aims not only to provide students with college funding, but also to revitalize the city’s economy.

The greatest hope for Promise is that it will create a college-going culture in New Haven’s schools, explained Emily Byrne, the program’s director. She believes that the program’s requirements will incentivize students to stay in school and strive for a B average. “We’re like the golden carrot for these kids,” she said.

A New Haven Promise sign hangs outside High School in the Community. Photo by Jacque Feldman

In the field of education, creating incentives can be tricky. Recently, Harvard economist Roland Fryer tested what happens when children are paid to learn. When Fryer’s team paid Dallas second graders two dollars for each book they read, students read many more books, and their reading comprehension scores increased measurably when tested. In New York and Chicago, however, where Fryer’s team told students they’d pay them for good grades or test scores, students didn’t do any better on standardized tests (though their grades did go up because they attended class more regularly).

“If students lack the structural resources or knowledge to convert effort to measurable achievement,” the study concluded, “or if the production function has important complementarities out of their control (effective teachers, engaged parents, or peer dynamics, e.g.) then incentives will have very little impact.”

If you’re a student at one of New Haven’s public high schools, you might be able to rise to the challenge set by New Haven Promise, but you might not. Even if earning Promise funds seems an attractive enough incentive to tug you through 13 years of schooling, you’ll still need to be helped along the way.

It was hard for me to tell what exactly made Shawn so resistant to work that April morning. Similarly, what it will take to create a true college-going culture in New Haven is a riddle—the one that those behind New Haven Promise hope to solve. As its first students to benefit from Promise prepare to go off to college this fall, New Haven is poised to test their answer.

“THIS WILL BE THE MOST SIGNIFICANT ANNOUNCEMENT EVER MADE IN NEW HAVEN,” wrote Jessica Mayorga, then New Haven’s director of communications, in a press release before the program was announced last November.

“Who’s that district that people look to, to be a model? We think that it’s New Haven,” Byrne told me. “With this program, with Promise added to it, it becomes a beautiful example of what education reform can be.” She referred to School Change, the package of reforms rolled out by Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. in February 2009. The mayor has repeatedly stated a goal to make New Haven the nation’s best urban school district—a tall order, given that the city’s public schools have long rested at the bottom of the achievement gap between rich and poor school districts in Connecticut, which has the widest such gap of any state. The state’s neighbors—New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island—all won funds in 2010 from the federal Race to the Top initiative, but Connecticut was not even a finalist.

This is where the district stands. 89 percent of its tenth-graders scored below the goal level in Science on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test in 2009, with only 6 percent of school districts statewide scoring the same or worse. 83 percent of a representative group of New Haven students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared to 30 percent statewide. (The percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches is often used as an indicator of economic need in a district.) New Haven’s schools have a dropout rate of 27.5 percent, meaning that of all the freshmen who matriculate at one of the city’s high schools, about a quarter won’t graduate.

It was as he was beginning his campaign for reelection to an unprecedented ninth term that DeStefano, who sent his own sons to Wilbur Cross, first described what’s become his signature education reform initiative. New Haven Promise is only one aspect of School Change, which also includes strategies for ranking schools into tiers, evaluating teachers and administrators, and engaging parents and members of the community in education reform. DeStefano’s administration succeeded in reaching a new, reform-minded labor contract with the teachers’ union in 2009—a victory when in other districts across the country, and famously in Washington, D.C., disagreement between teachers’ unions and cities has caused standstill in reform efforts.

“New Haven Promise, to me, could really only be a meaningful and optimal program if it occurred in the context of a set of investments, efforts, and energy,” DeStefano told me at his office. When the success of Promise is brought up for review in four years, its funders will also evaluate the success of School Change, knowing that one cannot succeed without the other.

For now, before anything has been reviewed, proponents of School Change and Promise are hopeful. “There’s no question that we are a national example right now,” said Garth Harries ’96, assistant superintendent for portfolio and performance management and a recent hire to New Haven. “In many ways, we think we are leading the state, and leading the country.”

This is not the first time in its history that the leaders of New Haven have considered their city a model for the nation. In the 1960s, Mayor Richard Lee wanted to rejuvenate a city that was stuck after the war with decreased industrial production and no place to put its newly swollen population, many of them blacks recently arrived from the South, seeking work. Lee’s projects to clear so-called slums and make the city more accessible by cars won New Haven more federal funds for urban renewal per capita than any other city—and a nickname, the “model city.” But as the twentieth century wore on, New Haven declined further. Mayor Lee’s highway, the Oak Street Connector, had sliced through preexisting communities and fragmented them. Manufacturing fell off nationally, doing away with jobs the city had once relied on. New Haven reached a nadir of crime and poverty from which it’s since only partially recovered. New Haven Promise and School Change can be seen as the latest in a long line of measures intended to remedy the mistakes of the city’s past.


Students in Peter Loffredo's class at ECA rehearse scripts they wrote about their schooling. Photo by Susannah Shattuck

On Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday afternoons, sunlight falls in long rectangles onto an array of music stands, two grand pianos, and a smooth hardwood floor in the recital room at the Neighborhood Music School on Audubon Street. The space comes alive when students spill in. Having completed the half-days they spend at various public high schools in the New Haven area, they assemble for meetings of a class called The Education Project. It’s the most recent in a string of classes on social justice theater taught at the Educational Center for the Arts, a half-day arts magnet school. The class, led by Peter Loffredo, a teacher at ECA for 14 years, teaches students to use hip-hop theater to examine education. Over the course of the semester, they create and perform a full-length play on the theme.

Loffredo has taught other classes on social justice theater, with themes ranging from hepatitis C to homelessness, but he’s never seen a topic provoke more passion in students than this one. “They’re more enthusiastic about this because it speaks to their immediate needs and issues that they’re facing on a daily basis,” he told me, leaning on one of the pianos. Loffredo is an energetic man with a booming voice, a graying beard, and a guffawing laugh. To his students, he is Peter. When they call him Mr. Loffredo, he likes to shout theatrically, “Did my father come in here?”

“They see the flaws in the structure,” Loffredo said, serious now as he told me what his students have said to him about uninspired teaching, shoddy classroom environments, and failing figures of authority. “They may not be able to do it in schools, but they want to call the system on depriving them. And they get frustrated when they can’t.”

Loffredo and ECA have provided a place where they can. When I visited in early spring, the class had compiled an initial draft of their play, and they were at work revising it. They began class by clustering their chairs in a circle and reading aloud an outline of the script they’d composed jointly. Bullet points represented scenes, groups of scenes, or monologues in the form of raps. Bolded phrases were to-dos for the session.

“c. Obama/Bush debate- Satire- Race to My Left Behind. Leah revise for comedy.

“a. Security profiling (my school is different)… Security Guard stops student”

“b. We become monsters. Paola shorten, cut to point: we used to fear imaginary monsters; now we become them (foreshadow “I don’t like my school” creatures).

“Fight with Teacher Taking Bets.”

One student, Esther Rose-Wilen, who goes to Wilbur Cross, explained to another student her idea behind a scene she’d written. “If they did treat us like humans, we would be more motivated and stay in school.” The student listening, Tavist Jones, a senior at High School in the Community, told her he understood and wouldn’t cut too much from her scene—he would just try to make that point “less vague.”

Tavist Jones, a student at ECA, rehearses a rap he wrote. Photo by Susannah Shattuck

Later, Jones stood behind a grand piano wrapped in a quilted cloth cover, quietly testing the lyrics of a rap he’d written for the play, a beat issuing steadily from his open computer, one hand poised alertly on the keyboard. Jones was one of several seniors I spoke with who are on track to be among the first to receive funds from New Haven Promise in a few months. Jones has been accepted to the University of Connecticut and other state schools, but he plans to attend DePaul University in Chicago if he is accepted. Like some of his peers, Jones does not think that 25 percent of in-state tuition will be enough to influence his college decision. Then again, his financial situation is special. As he is a ward of the state, his tuition will be paid for completely at in-state colleges and up to $21,000 at colleges out of state.

“I hate school,” he muttered offhandedly, showing me the rap, which described his experience taking the SAT in a Yale classroom. His face softened, and he added with irony, “I mean, life’s a giant test anyway, so you never really get out of school.”

“I think everyone here is excited that we get a chance to speak our minds,” he said. “This is our chance to rant about it. School is our life right now, and we don’t get much of a chance to talk about it. Whatever is good, we’re going to blow it up to the extreme, because there isn’t much good, we feel. Whatever’s bad, we’re going to kill it.”

Characters in the working version of The Education Project script include “bored, uncaring teacher,” “racially profiled black girl trying to escape special ed,” and “Megan, 13, cries a lot, disabled, has panic attacks.” Jones told me he hopes the Board of Education will be in the audience when he and his classmates perform their play—not so that the board members will be embarrassed, but so that “maybe if they feel what we say is good, they can bring it up” and bring about change.

“To me, Promise is very much a wealth-creation strategy,” Mayor DeStefano told me at his office, “and ultimately, a middle-class creation strategy.” Not only is the program a long-term investment in the economic potential of New Haven students, it could also stimulate property demand in the city.

It is based on an initiative launched five years ago in Kalamazoo, Michigan, which has since inspired similar programs in eighteen other cities cross-country. Unlike New Haven Promise, the Kalamazoo Promise stipulates no cutoff GPA. Students need only live in-district to receive the scholarship, which can be put toward vocational school as well as college. “In Kalamazoo, it’s about transforming the entire community, so we believe it should go to all students,” said Bob Jorth, director of Kalamazoo Promise.

The Kalamazoo Promise is intended to transform its host community mostly by encouraging parents of schoolchildren to move in. Census data showed an increase of five percent in the population of Kalamazoo County from 2000 to 2010, and an increase of 22 percent in enrollment in Kalamazoo Public Schools since the Promise program began in 2006. These initial data are hopeful, but it remains to be seen whether what worked in Kalamazoo will work in bigger, grittier New Haven.

DeStefano first read about Kalamazoo Promise in a Wall Street Journal article in 2007, though it had generated chatter in the city’s offices prior to that. When Byrne first considered pushing for a Promise program in 2008, she and her colleagues surveyed New Haven students who had dropped out of college and found that financial difficulty was often the reason they were no longer in school.

The proliferation of Promise programs also reflects a national paradigm shift in thinking about education reform. Rather than simply aiming to graduate students from high school, educators must instead focus on preparing them for college so they can succeed in an economy where a college degree matters more than ever. President Barack Obama has reminded the country that over the next ten years, nearly half of all new jobs will require some post-secondary education, and he awarded $125,000 of his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize award to College Summit, a nonprofit that seeks to bring curricula about post-secondary planning into public high schools.

At a Chubb Fellowship lecture at Yale shortly after New Haven Promise was announced, DeStefano described “a new way of life in New Haven where our children are born knowing that they can go to college and that it is expected that they go to college.”

That dream is spreading. “I haven’t seen this community react as enthusiastically to anything else I’ve seen in New Haven,” said Will Ginsberg, president and CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, which administers New Haven Promise.

At the center of public enthusiasm, Ginsberg said, is Yale University’s agreement to underwrite the program. But it’s created a mild controversy among some Yale students, especially those who were participants in the Teacher Prep program that was cut by coincidence in the same week Promise was announced. “If this were an example of Yale caring about education, this is a very odd way to show their priorities,” said Brian Bills ’12. Bills heads the Ulysses S. Grant program, which places Yale students as teachers in New Haven during the summer, and he believes that the University should be using the money instead to fund research on education or professors who will turn more Yale students into teachers.

Yet the people I interviewed were less concerned with whether Yale decided to fund Promise with an eye toward its public image and more excited about the program’s potential impact on the students it will help. Yale’s investment in New Haven has grown since Yale President Richard Levin took office simultaneously with DeStefano—New Haven Promise being a sign of the times—and most are happy about the opportunity this has presented to New Haven’s youth, especially if the University decides to fund Promise past these first four graduating classes.

“There’s a lot of obstacles here,” Ginsberg added. “No one’s pretending school change will be easy.” These obstacles include the slowness of state-level education reform, according to Ginsberg; the difficulty of publicizing Promise among a community not entirely used to focusing on college, according to Byrne—and what to do when even a Promise worth thousands of dollars isn’t enough to get some students to earn B’s.

“The problem—why I didn’t make the requirements—is I got lazy,” said Jerell Emery, a senior at Wilbur Cross High School who hopes to earn a degree in sociology and become a social worker. He wants to go to college in-state, is waiting to hear from Westerm and Southern Connecticut State University, and says that Promise would be a great help to his family, but Emery’s 2.2 GPA will bar him from receiving Promise funds unless he is able to improve it before the end of the year.

We were sitting in the Career Center, an open room dotted with computer clusters, students gossiping about college acceptances, books titled School to Work, and UConn Huskies paraphernalia. It was the same day the Class of 2015 learned of its acceptance to Yale, but Emery was still unsure of his plans.

“I started being distracted too easy, to roam around the halls a little too much—I was going through things a little bit. It’s a phase a lot of people go through. But I think that if somebody were to really, like, stick on me, and really be in my hair a lot, then I would meet the requirements.” In the parlance of Fryer’s study, Emery lacked the tools necessary to convert his effort to achievement. Byrne and her team hope to create support systems and build on plans for systemic reform in order to make the requirements of New Haven Promise simple and accessible, but until that happens, they may have on their hands a case like that of Fryer’s students in New York and Chicago.

Emery transferred to Cross before his junior year in order to play on its basketball team. He remembered having trouble with the transition to Cross, which is one of two high schools ranked in the lowest tier, Tier III. Students at Cross who spoke to me were coolly aware of this classification, but they also had their own ways to describe the barriers that environment posed to their success. “In this school there’s a lot of peer pressure,” said Emery. “A lot of people make you try things, do things that you really don’t want to. A lot of kids in my classes are immature, and they talk over the teachers, and the teachers sometimes give up, and stop explaining the stuff, which I don’t like, because I want to learn and it affects my grade.”

Promise would serve as a good incentive for Emery, if only he could figure out how to earn it. “When people talk to me about college, I really listen, because I really want to go to college.” For his classmates who are slipping the fastest, however, Promise may not matter at all. “People who really don’t care about school don’t really care about going to college. When they hear about this New Haven Promise thing, they’re just like, ‘Whatever. It is what it is. I ain’t really looking forward to going to college.’”

Emery would not place himself in that group. “I know a lot of people that are trying to turn their whole lives around, trying to get their GPA up, and trying to really get this Promise thing, or a scholarship to go to college, but they can’t because their GPA was a little bit too low, and they kind of messed up their first two years of high school.” He told me that he’ll try to work as hard as he can to earn Promise funding before the school year is out—and that it will be the biggest challenge he’s ever faced.

Students at Cross face many challenges, most of which are rooted in poverty, said Michael Robin, a second-year teacher of the lowest track of English at Cross. “You can rattle off a laundry list. Drugs, and pregnancy, and gangs, and taking care of your siblings, and taking care of your children…”

“These may be challenges, but we cannot allow them to be excuses for underachievement,” Robin clarified in a subsequent e-mail. “Many of my highest achieving students have been through significant struggles in their lives.”

He estimated his classes have only 60 to 70 percent attendance on any given day. A 2007 study by Johns Hopkins University labeled Cross a “dropout factory,” one of 14 in the state, because it found that only 50 percent of the students in the classes of 2004, 2005, and 2006 who entered Cross as freshmen graduated four years later. (New Haven Superintendent Dr. Reginald Mayo disputed the finding, saying that it didn’t account for students transferring out of Cross into different high schools. Even generously corrected for that, the dropout rate is quite high—about a quarter of students—and the city has been criticized for artificially inflating its schools’ reported graduation rates.)

“The problem with New Haven Promise,” Robin said, “is that the people who need this the most aren’t going to get this money. This money will go to good kids, don’t get me wrong…The kids who need this the most are the kids who are way below the poverty line, and the vast majority of those kids won’t see a dime of this money, because they won’t be able to meet the standards this program asks for.” He emphasized the importance of attracting good, new teachers to the district to help students reach their goals.

The people behind New Haven Promise are aware of the hurdles they face, and alongside the scholarship they’ve unveiled a detailed plan to support students in reaching the program’s requirements. They plan to begin talk of college with students and parents in the elementary schools, and flag each year students who have slipped below Promise standards. They plan to create a College Corps of community adults who will go door-to-door explaining what students need for college to parents who may not even have finished high school. They have partnered with College Summit to bring a pilot curriculum about applying to college into the classroom at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School, and will extend this program to two more high schools next year.

Still, sometimes sorely needed changes have nothing to do with volunteers or curricula. A teacher at Cross who asked not to be named told me that the most effective recent change at the school was reducing its size. Over the past five years, the population of Cross has been reduced by about four hundred students transferring to recently opened magnet schools. Now, the hallways at Cross are less crowded, so there are fewer fights.

The teacher showed me a cell phone video taken by a student of a fight between two other students. One male student lunges at another, sending the pair spinning noisily against the orange, red, and yellow lockers. At least one more cell phone recording the fight is visible in the frame, and onlookers are shouting. Afterward, the teacher said, the attacked student suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, and his attacker was expelled. “Our job in fights is just to ignore them,” the teacher told me. Instead, fights fall under the purview of security guards. “Kids are very used to it.”

If you’re a student at one of New Haven’s public schools, by this point in the school year, you may have given a bit of thought to what you’d like to do after you graduate. You might be among the 42 percent of seniors living in-district who have applied for funding from New Haven Promise. Or, your plans might not involve college at all. Brian Flanagan, a guidance counselor at Cross, was careful to say that he’s happy to point his students toward vocational schools or employment if that’s what is right for them. (Of New Haven Promise, he said, “Sure, they’ll pay for college, but you’ll have a lot of families where the student will just need to go to work after graduating school to support their family.”)

You might be one of the lucky ones. You might be like Donald Walker, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy who this September will become a first-generation college student, thanks in part to the funds he’ll receive from Promise. He wants to earn a degree in history and become a teacher. For now, he has a job at the Peabody Museum, pushing the fossil cart and explaining the museum’s exhibits to visitors. Walker described his 27- and 25-year-old brothers as “rebellious,” saying, “I saw from both my brothers’ mistakes.”

You might be like Victoria Ortiz, also a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, whose grandmother immigrated to New Haven from Puerto Rico, long ago. Ortiz feels deep loyalty to the city. “When you grow up in a community,” she told me, “you should want to give back.” She wants to study to become a nurse because after her hospitalization during a bout of sickness her freshman year, Ortiz felt indebted to her nurses’ kindness. Her mother, who is single, lost her job after taking off time to care for Ortiz, so New Haven Promise will be important in helping Ortiz to become a first-generation college student this fall.

You might be like Maria Arnold, a senior at High School in the Community who is also about to receive Promise funds and become another first-generation college student. Arnold has been accepted to Trinity College, where she hopes to engage in a genomics research program. After college, she wants to pursue research in cancer and diabetes—and has “since fifth grade,” she said. “Now, even more so. The guidance counselor’s daughter has leukemia, and my grandfather died from cancer.”

For her birthday, a friend gave Arnold a dorm-room sized fridge, and over the next few weeks, Arnold plans to tour Trinity and the other schools she’s been accepted to. She is quiet, with long brown hair, and is an enthusiastic reader. She recently read Hamlet with her AP English class and made it a personal project to commit to memory the prince’s most famous speech.

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…”

Meanwhile, the staff of New Haven Promise has been touring the city in order to inform students and parents about what’s possible. At a meeting in the community room of Quinnipiac Terrace, a public housing project on the river in Fair Haven, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the eastern part of the city, Adriana Arreola, who works in the Promise office, said, “New Haven Promise is a scholarship and support program. We’re not about just giving out money.”

The handful of people assembled included a few members of the community who started an after-school homework club for the neighborhood because many of the children there live with grandparents who may not speak English or be able to help them. They were quiet, attentive, nodding. They took the glossy pamphlets—“School Change Begins With Me,” “Making the Promise of College a Reality”—and asked only how they could best help get the word out to parents and students.

“We have at least five seniors I can think of. Very bright,” said Demetria McMillian, one of the residents. But none of them were there yet. “We wish they would have come out tonight. We were really trying to connect them with you.”

“It’s like expanding their world to show them the choice,” said Mary Anne Moran, another resident, of New Haven Promise.

Finally, after several minutes, one of the parents whom McMillian was awaiting arrived, his teenage daughter in tow. “That’s my sunshine,” he said proudly, in accented English, as she took a pamphlet. She had to get going to choir rehearsal soon, he said, but in the meantime, he wanted her to hear about New Haven Promise. There was, after all, the chance she’d be among the first few generations of scholarship recipients. And then there was the chance she would not, the possibility that she’d end up someplace besides college, the cards stacked against her by history and circumstance.

For the time being, however, Arreola switched to Spanish as she, the father, and the student opened the door to an adjacent room, where they’d talk over the details.

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”—Henry David Thoreau

Freshly picked pumpkins. Jacque Feldman

In line at Bishop’s Orchards, sticky-fingered kids tugged at their parents’ pants, demanding more caramel apples. Outside, more children roamed, trying to pick up pumpkins too heavy for them to lift. It was a sunny afternoon, the first Saturday in October, and crowds had gathered to celebrate the apple harvest at the farm and market in Guilford, Connecticut. Two little girls sang to the tune of Frère Jacques, as their father pushed them in a wheelbarrow: “We are pumpkins, we are pumpkins, eat us quick! Eat us quick!” Other families stood at long tables, stuffing old clothes with straw and decorating them with bits of yarn to make scarecrows. An older woman walked by, singing softly: “You are the apple of my eye.”

Arriving at Bishop’s that October afternoon, I felt at home. A Connecticut native, I spent my childhood among the trees of Applegate of Avon, an orchard owned and operated by my onetime babysitter, Nancy Hanelius, and her husband, Ray in Avon, Connecticut. I can still remember the dark, cool, cavernous room where apples were stored. The Hanelius family has since sold their farm, and uniform, colonial-style houses now stand where apples once grew. Their story is not unusual. Since 2000, Connecticut’s annual apple production has dropped by 2 million pounds. Bishop’s Orchards, however, has managed to continue operating.

The famous red sign at Bishop's Orchards in Guilford.

“It’s a neat place,” said Jim Plunkett, a Guilford native who attended the town’s high school with Bishop’s current CEO, Keith Bishop. “They have been around forever. They are a Guilford fixture.”

The Bishops have owned and operated Bishop’s Orchards for six generations, since 1871. They steered the farm through the Great Depression and the construction of Interstate 95 in the 1950s through a swath of what had been Bishop land. The small children making scarecrows that day owed their fun to a long tradition that now rests on the shoulders of Keith’s four children, the youngest members of the Bishop family: Ryan, Carrie, Allison, and Sarah, his oldest.

Sixth Generation

Sarah Bishop-Dellaventura.

Sarah Bishop-Dellaventura loves apples. For her October wedding—“I had to get married during prime-time foliage”—her centerpieces were apples. Her party favors were two hundred jars of applesauce, homemade by her grandmother. Her place settings were colored leaves, and her decorations included mums and pumpkins. She would have held the ceremony in the apple orchard, if it weren’t for the potential problems a Porta-potty poses to a wedding gown.

When I asked Sarah her favorite type of apple, she didn’t think twice. “My favorite, and probably everybody else’s,” she said, “is Macoun.” We were standing just inside the entrance of the grocery store at Bishop’s Orchards, which stocks grass-fed beef, gluten-free cookies, local vegetables, and organic frozen foods alongside the bakery breads, fudge, pies, fruit wines, apple cider, and, of course, the fruit. Sarah explained that the produce section is here, at the front, because this store started as a farmer’s market and produce remains at its heart.

An apple in the orchard.

At the forefront of the produce section are the apples. All grown at Bishops’ Orchards, they come in rows, in big white sacks, and in every variety. Copies of a green Xeroxed sheet, titled “Know your apples,” sit at the ready, categorizing the qualities of 16 varieties of apple and the fitness of each to eating, salad, pie, sauce, baking, and canning. On the reverse are nutritional facts about apples, paragraphs titled “Apples Relieve Tension” and “Nature’s Toothbrush,” and a recipe for applesauce.

Here, at the front of the apple section, are the Macouns. “You bite into it and get that snap right away,” said Sarah. “A great eating apple.” They sell out quickly. “As soon as we start saying we have Macouns,” she continued, “people come out of the woodwork to get them.” With a sharp eye for these trends and a degree in business from Northeastern University, Sarah is poised to handle the booming business behind these apples.

She is the oldest of the four siblings. The others are Allison, a teacher; Carrie, an accountant; and Ryan, still a student. When it became apparent that neither of her sisters who had come of age was eager to take on the farm’s operation, Sarah left the career she’d begun in marketing for Bishop’s. “I think everyone says, ‘What if,’” she says now. “No matter what industry you’re in. I may be wrong, but I think everyone has that side of them that says, Hey, I wish I could have been something else…There’s just not enough time in a short life.”

Without training in spraying, pest management, or any of the other day-to-day tasks of a farm’s operation, it’s possible that Sarah may not be able to run the farm alone, as her great-uncle later told me. Watching Sarah handle the day’s tasks, however, I never would have guessed. Periodically, her cell phone beeped—always a crisis. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she said, as we stood in front of the cider. “I’m having a heart attack as we speak.” She picked up a few bottles, examined them, replaced them, and hung up the phone. “Always something.” This time, she had been informed that the bar code on the redesigned cider label was incorrect. The last time, the grill near the apple trees, which had been turning out hot dogs for customers picking apples, was out of propane. To solve that problem, she found her father, Keith Bishop. Keith is one of the current CEOs of Bishop’s Orchards, in charge of its business operation. His cousin Jonathan, who presides over planting, harvesting, and spraying crops, is the other.

There are blood Bishops, Sarah explained, as we sat on straw bales, readying ourselves for a hayride around the apple orchard, and then there are spouses, like Sarah’s mother and uncle. Besides Sarah, her father, and his cousin, blood Bishops currently involved in the farm’s operation include her aunt, the bakery manager. It is Sarah’s grandfather Albert Bishop and her great-uncle Gene Bishop, however, who remain the Bishops’ reigning patriarchs.

Fourth Generation

“This is the kind of weather we dream about,” crowed Gene when I joined him in his office one October day. “These are the days that make or break the business. A good weekend like this goes a long way.” From the lines of customers and cars parked close on the grass, I could see what he meant. I could see how the farm’s success might hinge on a single perfect day.

Gene had just come from home, but, like all the other Bishops and Bishop employees, he wore a forest-green polo shirt with the company’s logo over his heart. He lives next to Bishop’s Orchards, and always has. “I can walk up that hill up the street over there,” he said, “and I can see all three houses I’ve ever lived in.” Gene drove a tractor for the first time in 1938, when he was five years old, eight years after a Connecticut agricultural report noted the Bishops’ own New Haven County as the largest apple producer in the state.

Growing up during the Great Depression, Gene graduated from Guilford High School with a class of only 32. “It was a small class,” he quipped, “because anyone born in 1933 was not planned.” After a few years at the University of Connecticut, Gene returned to Bishop’s Orchards, married his wife at 21, and went about beginning his life as a farmer, working with his father and his uncle. He sold life insurance on the side for the first few years, but after that, he restricted his activities to farming and farm management. He enlisted during the Korean War, and then delayed his service in order to farm.

“It’s been a very rewarding life,” Gene said. “The longer I’ve been here, the more I like it.”

He has been here long enough to remember peddling “second”-quality apples door-to-door around town. He can remember 1957, when Bishop’s Orchards was incorporated as a business, with Gene’s father as president, Gene as vice president, Gene’s cousin Albert as secretary, and Albert’s father as treasurer. Gene continued to work for the farm until his son Jonathan and Albert’s son Keith took over. After that, Gene ran the town. He served ten years on Guilford’s Board of Selectmen, two of them as First Selectman, and he currently serves as the Chairman of Guilford’s Public Works Commission.

When Gene showed me the map hanging on the Bishop’s Orchards’ office’s wall, I could see that here in Guilford, his leap from farm management to town management was logical. Bishop’s Orchards occupies a large patch of town. In fact, when this map was made in 1970, even more of Guilford was covered in farmland. Gene stood and pointed out places where three other orchards once stood, all within a stone’s throw of Bishop’s.

Sullivan’s Orchards is all grown over, he said, because after Don Sullivan retired twenty years ago, none of his family would resume its operation, and “the farm just sat there.” Hilltop Orchards, too, “stopped growing anything” a long time ago. Desperate for funds after he couldn’t find anyone to inherit its operation, Hilltop’s last owner-operator sold all the topsoil. “He doesn’t have anything left to grow on,” said Gene. “He sold the land to the YMCA.” Until recently, Guilford’s only active farm and farmer’s market besides Bishop’s was Fanicello’s, but its youngest generation showed no interest in their inheritance, and now, the land lies fallow.

“We’ve been fortunate so far,” Gene said of his family, whose way of life depends on the willingness of the sixth generation of Bishops to continue the farm’s operation.

An Inheritance for Generations

The Bishops usually employ about one hundred non-Bishops, Sarah explained, as we clambered aboard the hayride. This time of year there are closer to 120, or 140. Non-Bishop employees include a man whom Sarah called “Crazy John,” the man driving our hayride. Kids wait for his tractor, she explained, because they know he gives the fastest ride. “Most kids do end up crying,” joked Crazy John, as he latched the hayride’s railing behind us, “so I know I’m doing a good job.” Sarah and I sat on the straw as Crazy John went into the tractor and started up the hayride.

When we reached the top of the hill, the ride stopped with a shudder, and more passengers boarded. An hour later, people would line up twenty deep to take the ride to the best apple trees in this 220-acre section of land—the largest continuous piece of the 313-acre farm, where rows of apple-freckled trees are clearly labeled so the orchard’s patrons can know whether they’re harvesting Ida Red or Macintosh, Golden Delicious or Stayman. After all, some pickers are quite picky.

“Get the reddest, most beautiful,” said one mother to her three small girls. “And this is how you do it. Listen to me before you pick an apple. Twist, twist—and then pull.” The family lives in Guilford and comes here, the mother told me, “just about every year.” Her daughters toddled at her feet, holding buckets, and their father explained today’s strategy. “My wife wants to make applesauce and pies,” he said, “and I want some for eating. We tried to pick the ones that were good for all of those categories. Jonagold, Mutsu, and—what was the other kind we were looking for?”

“Cortland,” supplied his wife.

“Oh,” he said, “I see some over there, girls!” And the girls ran off, buckets in hand, between the rows, the early afternoon sun shining off their white-blond heads. It was that time of year.

“Something about apple-picking and fall foliage—it screams New England,” Sarah said. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else this time of year.” In fact, the American tradition of apples is rooted in New England, where early English settlers first introduced the fruit. By 1641, representatives of the king of England had decreed that settlers claiming more than 100 acres of land in the colonies must use some of that acreage to plant apple trees. Apple seeds and seedlings later found their way from New England into wagons of settlers headed westward. Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman, the legendary outdoorsman who took sacks of apple seeds down the Mississippi and deep into the frontier, was from Massachusetts.

Today, Yale students frequently visit nearby Bishop’s Orchards on field trips subsidized by their residential college masters, who want to give all their students the chance to acquaint themselves with the autumn harvest. “The fall trip to Bishop’s Orchards for apple picking is a decade-long Pierson tradition,” proclaimed the “Pierson Sun,” a newsletter of Pierson College, in October. For these new Connecticut residents, it’s an important introduction to their home.

Unlike the Hanelius family, who owned the Connecticut apple orchard of my childhood, the Bishops feel no economic pressure to sell their land, Sarah reassured me. The only pressure comes from loyal customers who want to make sure the Bishops keep the land they have farmed for 139 years. To Guilford residents, what Sarah is poised to inherit is nothing short of a legend. She told me that growing up a Bishop was hard, because everyone in town recognized her and her siblings—and knew their parents, whom they’d notify when Sarah so much as ran a red light. “I grew up living in a glass house,” she said. “Everywhere you went,” her sister Allison Pasquier added in an e-mail, “people would ask if you were a Bishop like the apple Bishops.” In Guilford, the Bishops are an institution—one whose maintenance requires work, perseverance, and a certain steely attitude.

Fifth Generation

Keith Bishop, Sarah’s father, wears many hats. His business card reads, “Co-CEO, Treasurer & Winemaker.” Also the Vice Chairman of the Guilford Board of Education, he told me he doesn’t take lightly his status as community leader. “To me, Bishop’s Orchards is synonymous with my family,” wrote Allison, “especially my father, who has lived his entire life in the context of the farm.” Keith’s e-mail signature includes a quotation from Richard Brinsley Sheridan, a nineteenth-century British politician: “The surest way not to fail is to determine to succeed.”

Keith is a businessman. When I asked him about Bishop’s Orchards, he leapt quickly to “services we’re offering,” “product lines,” and maintaining the building’s “historical look.” The Bishops are active in lobbying for agricultural initiatives, and they are charter members of the University of New Haven Center for Family Business, where they learn to stay on top of trends, Keith said. He began cutting cabbage and lettuce in the farm’s vegetable beds as a boy, and he returned to work immediately after graduating from Cornell. He has been CEO for 12 years, and he spoke fluently of trends in apple picking that vary with the traffic of New Yorkers to their houses on Cape Cod.

Keith is the man to run this farm, but he plans to retire sometime over the next ten years, passing along his title to one of “those in the next generation who are interested in the business.”

“Whoever that is,” he added.

The Last Generation

Jonathan, Keith’s cousin, has no children, but Keith has four, all of whom grew up with Bishop’s Orchards in mind. “The most memorable moments from my childhood would be the Guilford Fair Parade, which was always in September,” wrote Carrie Bishop, the youngest daughter, in an e-mail. “We would stay up almost all night the day before the parade to build a float that represented the farm, and would ride on the float in the parade as my Dad drove the tractor. We are a pretty tight family brought up with good traditions and values.”

Carrie now lives in Boston, working as an auditor at KPMG, an audit, tax, and advisory services firm. Recently engaged, she plans to settle in Massachusetts. “Currently, I do not have any hobbies that bring me closer to the farm,” she wrote, “besides being very picky about the fruit and produce I buy.”

Allison, the middle daughter, is living with her husband in Brussels, teaching preschool at an international school there. She wrote from Belgium that she loves shopping at the farm market when she’s home, but can’t see leaving what she does to take a more active role in its success. “As for her future,” said her father, “she’s doing her thing.”

That leaves Sarah—and the youngest sibling, Ryan Bishop, who was out hiking with a Bishop cousin at twelve years old when he first realized that he and the other boy were the last two Bishops capable of passing on the family name. “Some people think my dad kept having kids until he had a son,” he’ll say now, recollecting that hike from his dorm room at Cornell University, his father’s alma mater, where he’s studying agricultural sciences and plant sciences with double minors in modern business and viticulture.

“At this point, I’m pretty sure I’m going back,” said Ryan, after listing his majors and minors. He would fill Jonathan’s shoes as farm manager while his sister, like his father, keeps the books. Like Sarah, he’d like to enact certain changes to the farm; like Sarah, Ryan anticipates resistance from the conservative older generations, who continue to hold stock in the business after they retire. He’d especially like to put in grapevines.

“In middle school, people associated me with apples and gave me relevant nicknames,” Ryan said. Even so, Ryan’s future as a farmer was never a foregone conclusion. He entered Cornell as a pre-med student, shifting majors around the same time Sarah left her career in marketing. Ryan’s hobbies include playing saxophone and guitar, rock climbing, ice climbing, and whitewater kayaking. However, though he’ll join friends on a rock-climbing trip to Nevada over spring break, pruning work at Bishop’s Orchards was his destination in December.

Yet before he returns permanently, Ryan has two years left at college. In compliance with a Bishop family rule that young Bishops of his generation must work for two years outside the orchard before returning to the family business, he’ll then take more time away—at another farm, he offered, in order to learn new techniques, or perhaps pursuing travel coordinated through WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. He also plans to apply to the Peace Corps. Those mandatory two years away from the farm, he said, might turn into five or ten.

His uncle, Keith’s brother, abandoned Bishop’s Orchards to start his own farm in Pennsylvania. Ryan plans to return to the farm, but how long he’ll take “would depend on where I land when I get out of college, how much I enjoy what I’m doing,” Ryan explained, all too aware of the sacrifices he would make. “My free time would be cut down significantly if I were running the farm myself. Once Jonathan takes off, it’s on my back.” About the possibility of return to the farm, Ryan speaks dutifully and carefully, the sharp focus of this picture of the rest of his life giving an edge to his voice as well.

For Now

When Sarah and I disembarked the hayride, she found a comfortable picnic table, got us some cider, and we sat and talked business. Sarah told me to watch out for the bees that our opened bottles of cider attracted. She seemed to have inherited her father’s savoir-faire, mentioning renovation projects and trends that affect the grocery store (acai berries, gluten-free, the movie Food Inc). It’s a large-scale operation: this time of year, the Bishops receive deliveries of twenty to thirty tons of pumpkins weekly. Bishop’s Orchards closes only seven days out of the year.

And yet Sarah seems up for anything. Her father emphasized to me that Sarah keeps too busy with her young children and the farm, but in person, she doesn’t show it. Tucking her blonde hair behind her ear, smiling when she talks, she is bright, efficient, and bubbly. The hayride was her idea.

Growing up, Sarah never thought she’d take over the family business. For a long time, in fact, she thought she might be a teacher. Then, after graduating from Northeastern, she worked for three years as marketing manager at Moffly Media in Greenwich, Connecticut. This job happened to comply with the Bishop family rule—but, that mandate notwithstanding, Sarah had her own goals. She had planned on living in New York and “working for some big magazine or ad industry.”

“I envy her,” Sarah said of her sister Allison, the one who lives in Brussels. “I think in my next life, maybe I’ll do what she does.” But for now, Sarah has prioritized Bishop’s Orchards. “I decided as the years went on that I wanted to see the business continue,” she said. In her sisters’ absence, Sarah has decided to take on the farm, with all its limitations. “As frustrating as it can be to work with family,” she says, “you do it.” You do it if you love the farm as much as Sarah does.

“This is what I grew up doing,” she continued, batting a bee away from her hair. “It’s what I love. I’m hap—pretty happy. I’m pretty happy…I feel stressed about it at times, but I never have any remorse.” She persists in the hope that her brother will grow up to join her—in whatever hope has kept this business afloat through 139 years of modernization. The strongest guarantor of Bishop’s Orchards’ survival is to keep it in the family. “I can’t picture this all being houses up here,” Sarah said, imagining what might happen eventually if the farm were sold to an outside party. “I don’t know if I’d forgive myself.” Apples themselves are cultivated by the grafting of branches onto trees already growing, but this farm’s roots run deep.

Not Far From the Tree

After parting ways with the Bishops, I couldn’t resist buying one of the big white bags of apples—specifically, Macouns. I tried my first Macoun on the way home. The apple was small, filling my palm only partially, and bright red. When I took a bite, its skin gave way with a crunch, revealing a white, sweet interior. It was as crisp and hard as Sarah had promised. I ate the whole thing, quickly, and remembered joyfully that my bag of apples, the smallest size available, still held four quarts. The face of the bag told the apples’ story: APPLES & CIDER – BISHOP’S ORCHARDS – CONNECTICUT GROWN.

This story has been passed on through generations and culminates in that sharp, bright taste. In the end, that’s what all the effort is for. It’s the taste of my childhood and, for one Guilford family, something more important—something else entirely.

But that’s comparing oranges and you-know-what.

Before I met David Koskoff ’61 LAW ’64 and his wife Charlotte Koskoff, I sat behind them during an undergraduate performance of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead this October. Mr. Koskoff was the one leaning over and explaining a joke to his wife, loud enough for me to hear, too. I had seen the pair in many Yale audiences, but they were no one’s parents or professors that I knew. When I found them after the play, Mr. Koskoff confirmed proudly that he and his wife see between one and three undergraduate shows every weekend. Eager to share his thoughts on these shows, he invited me to dinner at their apartment on York Street in New Haven.

David and Charlotte Koskoff in their York Street Apartment. Susannah Shattuck

Though the Koskoffs’ interest is in Yale theater, I’ve never appeared on a Yale stage, so when I emailed, hoping to establish my credentials, I dropped the name of the play I was directing that opened in December. “We are definitely looking forward to your show,” Mr. Koskoff wrote back cordially. “Though I don’t think we have prior familiarity with your work…”

The Koskoffs spend only weekends at their York Street apartment, where they’ve lived since September 2009. The other five days, they live in Plainville, Connecticut, where Mr. Koskoff recently retired from his law firm. Also a writer, he has published three nonfiction books. One, Joseph P. Kennedy: A Life and Times (1974), made the front page of the New York Times Book Review. He still has the clip. He is currently at work on a biography of Tom Dodd, the former U.S. Senator from Connecticut. Mrs. Koskoff, also a lawyer, teaches at Central Connecticut State University, serves on the Plainville Board of Education, and has run for U.S. Congress twice. They have no children, and shouting through the house, they call each other “love.”

As Mr. Koskoff tells the story, he and his wife were just “casual theater consumers” until a 1989 production of Sweeney Todd converted the pair to self-described “Sondheads,” traveling cross-country to see productions of Stephen Sondheim’s work in Chicago and San Francisco. By 1998, they were meeting a devoted group of fellow Sondheads for dinner before a production of Sondheim’s Follies in New Jersey. Today, Mr. Koskoff bemoans Sondheim’s popularity, saying, “the public has snatched him away from us,” but he still dates his and his wife’s passion for theatergoing to this period.

Now, according to Mr. Koskoff, “living on York Street, at the edge of the Yale bubble, is the very best place for a theater buff to be.” He and his wife prefer the intimacy of Yale’s undergraduate theater to professional plays at the Yale Repertory Theater or the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. In every student show, he says, they find at least one actor’s performance worthwhile—sometimes breathtaking. Mr. Koskoff rattled off a list of names of stars to watch.

However, before I arrived at their apartment for dinner, I knew none of this. I knew only that the couple I’d seen were faithful followers of Yale’s undergraduate theater—a scene often considered insular. Undergraduate theatergoers tend to be theater people themselves, and while some plays generate considerable excitement within their community, that buzz rarely spreads across campus. True audience members—people who see plays not out of obligation to friends, but to be entertained—are rare, too.

“Oh, you didn’t have to bring flowers!” Mr. Koskoff shouted, as he opened the door to his apartment that night. But his wife would love them, he added. “Would you like a glass of bad white wine?” It’s truly awful, he said, but Mr. Koskoff used to own a bar, and when it closed, he was stuck with this. “I inherited it,” he said, sweeping me into a side room he called his study, past a spacious living room with a crowded bookcase, a massive potted rosemary plant, and coffee tables topped with David Sedaris books—and then Mr. Koskoff cut to the chase. From his tall desk chair, wine glass in hand, he looked me in the eye and said:

“I largely select shows based on people that I know, and here’s a question for you. In Dead Man’s Cell Phone, you have Allison Collins [’11]—who is the best among her crop—and Hunter Wolk [’12]—and Jeremy Lloyd [’12]—how is it that someone like you, who doesn’t have many credits to your name, got such good people?”

I started to squirm and stammer out some answers: they’re my friends, it’s a fun play. But from the way he talked about Yale undergraduate theater, I knew Mr. Koskoff wouldn’t be so easily convinced of my authority. When his wife arrived, his monologue turned to the play they saw last weekend, in the theater in the basement of Morse College.

“You know,” said Mr. Koskoff, “I’d never seen Will Smith [’12] before last weekend in Julius Caesar.”

“No,” called his wife from the kitchen, “we’ve seen him in lots of things.”

The Koskoffs see plays every weekend with the help of the Web site of the Yale Drama Coalition, which offers showtimes and tickets for all undergraduate performances. “I told two or three people about it,” said Mr. Koskoff of the site, “and then thought, no, no, if all the AARP people come, they’ll have to close the shows except to Yale and Yale family. So we don’t talk much about it, but we bring people—once in a while.” They also show guests a DVD of the 2009 production of Cabaret directed by Kate Berman ’11, which Mr. Koskoff said he obtained through Berman’s mother. It’s a perennial favorite. “Everything about it is wonderful,” he said. “And Jason Perlman [’11] plays the spymaster.”

“It’s like going to Yale without the papers,” said Mrs. Koskoff, who makes a habit of seeing undergraduate singing performances as well. Mr. Koskoff occasionally sits in on movie screenings for introductory film courses, but comedy shows, he complained, are too late at night. “We still haven’t made the masters’ teas,” said his wife, “and I want to do that.”

They tried renting an apartment in New York, Mr. Koskoff explained, then settled instead for this pied-à-terre in New Haven precisely because it offers everything the big city does—except here, he crowed, they can walk everywhere. The Koskoffs used to go to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe each year, but now that they’re in New Haven, “every weekend is the Edinburgh Fringe!” Mr. Koskoff and his wife can readily recall dozens of plays they’ve seen; a favorite, Amadeus, “was such a wonderful production that they could have lifted it up and taken it straight to Broadway.”

“We’ve seen such wonderful things,” cooed Mrs. Koskoff, “Only every fourth show, or fifth show is disappointing.”

“That’s not true,” interrupted Mr. Koskoff. “We’re often disappointed.” After all, his standards are quite high. He frequently emails student directors about their projects, often to complain that the plays they’ve chosen are too depressing. “For some reason, a lot of these Yale undergrads like these real downers,” he puzzled. “Did you see the play with Cooper Lewis [’11] a month ago? A virtuoso performance,” he said of Lewis—but the play, Home Free, about an incestuous brother and sister, was another downer.

Recently, Mr. Koskoff emailed Michael Knowles ’12 to ask about Phantoms Go Down, a play by Ariel Sheperd-Oppenheim ’10, which Knowles directed. “What’s the plot line of Phantoms?” Mr. Koskoff wrote simply. To Knowles’ response, Mr. Koskoff wrote: “I am a great admirer of Julie Shain’s [’13] and also of Jeremy Lloyd [’12], but my wife and I are still depressed from Cornered and Home Free, and as your show sounds like a real downer, I’ll probably pass on it.” Mr. Koskoff explained that he finds it easy to contact Yale students because of our formulaic email addresses. Last year, he emailed Elizabeth Sutton-Stone ’10, who was directing a production of Measure for Measure, to demand a reason to see yet another Shakespeare play.

Knowles’ play was one of the shows Mr. Koskoff turned down the night I had dinner with him. Instead, he chose War in Times of Love, a play directed by Danielle Tomson ’12, saying he always enjoys actors Peter Kaufman ’12 and Timmia Feldman ’12, “that little girl with the same name as you.” As Mrs. Koskoff readied herself for the Yale-Princeton Glee Club concert, Mr. Koskoff and I left to get good seats.

“When I go to Sudler shows, it’s like crashing a wonderful party,” confided Mr. Koskoff, as we walked down York Street. We entered Morse College, passing three girls in costume, and Mr. Koskoff shouted, “Are you in the play?” He found two middle-aged women outside the theater and approached them, asking: “Got someone in the show?” In fact, Mr. Koskoff was delighted to learn, one was the mother of the director, Danielle Tomson ’12. He complimented The History Boys, the last play Tomson directed, gushing: “It was the high point of last year’s theater!”

I excused myself for a moment and returned to find Mr. Koskoff rubbing elbows with another adult couple—one actor’s parents, he had discovered. We were still five minutes early, and the doors hadn’t opened. “The students always get here late,” said Mr. Koskoff, “but I always get there right on time, so they don’t give my seat away.” (Normally, house managers of Yale shows don’t close the theater’s doors until 10 or 15 minutes after the play’s scheduled start.)

As Mr. Koskoff had learned from the Yale Drama Coalition site, this was the North American premiere of a Kosovar playwright’s work—and even by Yale standards, the play, billed as a comedy, was weird. Some scenes occurred with the lights completely off. An actor dressed as a bride ran up an aisle screaming; later, she married a snake-man. There was nudity, murder, waxing of hair. Always, a television flickered in the background, showing singers, war footage, burning film. It was a typical example of the undergraduate theater that Mr. Koskoff called “too cutting-edge” for his tastes. 

At one point, an actor addressed the audience, and coming close to where we were sitting, she looked directly at Mr. Koskoff. I snuck a glance at his face. While another watcher might have looked away uncomfortably, Mr. Koskoff was holding her gaze contentedly—unfazed. He had seen it all before.

As the play ended, Mr. Koskoff turned to me. “I don’t know where they get off calling it a comedy,” he said. A true critic, Mr. Koskoff respects the efforts of these undergraduates enough to expect professionalism, while parents and friends will simply smile unconditionally and congratulate the cast. Audience members with an understanding and appreciation as acute as Mr. Koskoff’s are unusual at these plays. As he and I stood to go, the producer asked the audience to recycle our programs, returning them to a bin for use the next night.

In spite of his critique, Mr. Koskoff ignored the producer’s request. When we left, he was still holding his program. I asked if he would keep it. “I always keep them,” he said, and we walked out of the Morse College basement, programs in hand.

Six biomes. Jacque Feldman

The thing to do in my hometown, if it was a weekend and you weren’t old enough to drive, was a movie at the local mall. You might grab a slice of pizza first, but in any case, you needed a ride. Usually, the responsibility for my friends and me fell to Julia’s dad, a quiet guy with a moustache and thick glasses. Over the course of many ten-minute drives, he became privy to all the conspiracy theories and crushes that plague fourteen-year-old girls. It never occurred to us that he could hear from the front seat.

Three years later, if anyone’s dad had suggested driving us to prom, we would have been mortified. There were times and places for our dads and their cars—and far fewer of them, as soon as we learned how to drive ourselves. Then, we could come and go as we pleased. I kept the garage-door opener for my dad’s house in the console of my car, its shape distinctive enough to find by fishing in the pile of loose receipts and CDs.

Get your kicks...

Now, travel, by car or otherwise, with either parent leaves me nostalgic. This summer, when I flew to Arizona for a week of hiking with my dad, he held my boarding pass as he had when I was ten. When it was time to return from Grand Canyon National Park to the airport in Phoenix, he drove us across the state in a rental car whose cupholders we filled with trail mix. I put my feet up on the dash and napped. Later in the summer, as we took out our boots for a hike, my dad would turn to me and say, that’s Grand Canyon dust.

Because its terrain varies so much in elevation, Arizona is home to at least six biomes. My dad and I drove through desert scrub, where Saguaro cactuses stand like traffic cops. We drove through charparral, long plains studded with low bushes and houses visible miles before we reached them. Higher up, we drove through forests of fir and pine. It was like driving across the world.

It was like driving across the world.

I inherit two things from my dad: driving, and insomnia. On my sixteenth birthday, he surprised me by pulling around the car after breakfast and telling me to get in. I was terrified. He made me drive to a nearby parking lot and back. That year, before I was ready to try my mother’s manual-transmission car, teaching me to drive was my dad’s job. We made time for lessons when I was at his place. Our long Sunday drives traced tree-shaded roads in rural western Connecticut, out past the spot on the river where people go tubing.

“Lots of stupid and untalented people make perfectly good drivers,” my dad reassured me, when I despaired of ever learning how to drive. “Anyone can drive.” When I attempted parallel parking, he’d recite Woody Allen: “It’s O.K., I can walk to the curb from here.”

Now, both of us can drive, but neither of us has ever been able to sleep. I stay up too late, and my dad wakes up too early. When I was twelve and my parents separated, my dad wouldn’t give me the basement room at his house, because it is two flights of stairs away from his, and he didn’t want me to be lonely—to have trouble falling asleep.

When I was very young, my dad would wrap me in coats and put me in the car and drive me all over town until the rhythm of wheels on road put me to sleep. The year I was six and afraid of fireworks, he did this on the fourth of July, being careful to avoid the routes closest to the shows’ noise.

On and on into the night.

In Arizona my dad and I drove all day and night—into Flagstaff, “World’s First International Dark Sky City;” out of Flagstaff, down a stretch of highway adopted by the Flagstaff Optimists’ Club and another by the Baha’i Faith. We drove in the direction of the San Francisco Peaks. Massive, white-capped, the range would be celebrated in any other state, but in Grand Canyon country, it’s given short shrift. We drove into Sedona at sunset, when its red rocks glow like heat lamps. “Crystal Castles Metaphysical Department Store,” said a sign there. Late, we saw signs for a river called Big Bug Creek and a town named Bumble Bee.

In the middle of nowhere, before we got to Phoenix, my dad pulled off the road. “I’m going to close my eyes for just a minute,” he said. “And when I awake, you can remind me to tell you the story of the Death Valley real estate opportunity.” On the road there was time for stories. My dad, being my dad, knows everything about me, but I hadn’t known why he didn’t serve in Vietnam (his December birthday was late in the lottery) or the five American cities he would choose to show a tourist (Seattle made his list). My dad believes that Oreos and oranges are the best snacks for hiking, and that Gatorade is important. My dad’s ex-girlfriend was not a good travel companion, too fussy but—my dad told me—I am good to travel with, because I’m always game.

We were still an hour out of Phoenix when we saw six javelinas, hairy Southwestern pigs, in the light of our headlamps. By this time of night, long stretches of highway were empty—except for the pigs. We waited for them to nose their way across the road and then pulled off for gas. Besides Coke and cigarettes, the convenience store sold antiques, marijuana paraphernalia, and a broad array of magazines. Outside, a sign on the door read, “100’S OF KNIVES.”

Let’s stop and poke around, I suggested. Why not, said my dad, resigned, laughing. It was so late already. Together we peered at the weirdest merchandise. Behind the counter stood a greasy-haired teenage boy and, next to him, something labeled “Fully Functional Umbrella/Sword $36.99.”

Umbrella-sword.

We paid for our drinks and got back in the car. We were flying out of Phoenix the next day, very early. We were going to use our hotel room there for four, maybe five, hours of sleep. “If I was your age,” my dad told me, “I would just sleep in the car. Cancel the hotel room.”

“Let’s do it!” I said, but he shook his head and drove on. There is a difference between being twenty and your daughter being twenty. He wasn’t about to let me sleep on the side of the road.

When we got to the hotel in Phoenix the desert night was still warm. It took us a few minutes to find parking—desperate minutes: we couldn’t believe that after such a long drive, there was going to be no parking at the end. Toting duffel bags, we spilled into the florescent lobby, where there were two men dressed business-casual with two women whose short skirts and high heels and makeup were all wrong. I had never seen a prostitute before. We went upstairs to our room, and I spent some time on the balcony, green light drifting up from the hotel pool, as my dad inside tried to sleep. The next morning, we turned in the rental and flew home.

Back home, late in the summer, my dad and I were in the car again, and he remembered the story of the thousand frogs. He had never told me this story before. One night when I was two, he was driving me down an empty road in New Hampshire, after a rainstorm. He was trying to help me fall asleep. The road was wet, slick, and the frogs were out because of the weather. There were thousands of them, my dad told me, hopping all over the road. He must have crushed dozens of frogs as I slept in the passenger seat, the road ribboned beneath us, and he drove me, smoothly, on and on into the night.

The first ingredient of a good sandwich. Jacque Feldman

Inside the cheese truck, I am sweating like a wedge of parmesan in the sun – it’s just a quarter past twelve, but already, a line has formed outside. Caseus, the three-year-old bistro and fromagerie at 93 Whitney Avenue, officially owns the vehicle, but Jeff, a Caseus chef and self-identified “cheese truck dude,” calls it his “current baby.” Jeff’s helpers today are Krystle, whose favorite topping is guacamole, a new trainee named Raven, and me.

The four of us are packed so tightly that only I can reach the fridge, so they let me serve Perrier, Coke, and Diet Coke to customers. Krystle explains that the soda—in glass bottles, made with real sugar, not corn syrup—comes from Mexico. The sandwich du jour is a grass-fed beef patty, and today’s tomatoes hail from a farm in Washington, Connecticut. “I know the farmer,” says Jeff, who likes his ingredients to be as local as possible.

Besides four people and a fridge, the small van contains a grill (Jeff’s hands deftly feel out the hottest zones), a vat of tomato soup, a stack of sliced sourdough, coolers of vegetables, a prep surface for salad, and a big box of grated cheese: comte, cheddar, swiss, gruyere, gouda, and provolone. The walls are clean, shiny metal, and the skylight is propped open. Caseus found this specially outfitted vehicle through a Craigslist post from New Jersey.

When business is slow, customers take time to chat, usually to express happiness at stumbling upon the truck: “I was just walking by and I was like, wait, Caseus truck! Awesome.” When the line grows long, Krystle begins to yell orders—“Tomato!”—to Jeff, who stands just two feet from her and confirms, “Tomato!”

“The challenge of trying to hustle sandwiches as fast as possible”—Krystle pauses to confess—“is a lot of fun.”

Within minutes of each other, two young men ask us about The Challenge. To rise to The Challenge, customers must design a sandwich and down ten within an hour. Survivors win a t-shirt, naming rights, and free sandwiches for life. “If you don’t make it,” the truck’s menu cautions, “you must pay in full and you get nothing but full of cheese sandwiches.”

“Does it say without vomiting?” asks one curious customer. (It does.) “Don’t come overly hungry,” Raven warns. “Your stomach shrinks.” Another customer asks whether it is enough to add just one topping to the sandwich. “Yeah,” shouts Jeff from the grill, “but you don’t want to be that arugula guy.”

The man who came closest to meeting the challenge inhaled seven guacamole and onion cheese sandwiches before throwing in the napkin. Only one other person has attempted, and he topped out at only four. Will anyone ever succeed? “I hope so,” says Jeff. “Somebody has to.”

Caseus owner Jason Sobochinski and his brother, Tommy introduced the cheese truck in February. The truck brings publicity to the restaurant, but Jeff describes its main mission as bringing sandwiches to the masses. “Everybody,” he says, “loves grilled cheese. I see people smile because they eat grilled cheese. That makes me happy.”

Many Yalies are familiar with the truck’s Tuesday and Friday visits to York Street and its Wednesdays on Cross Campus. Other regular stops include Yale-New Haven Hospital on Thursdays and the Wooster Square Farmers’ Market on Saturdays. The truck also made an appearance at the September 10th Train concert in Trumbull, Connecticut. “It’s the first concert we’ve done,” Jeff says. That same weekend, the truck served customers at the Fall Festival and Green Expo in Edgerton Park.

The cheese truck may be going places, but at its heart will always remain a good grilled cheese sandwich. I ask Jeff for tips. “The trick is butter,” he replies, dipping a ladle into a Tupperware container and splashing it on the grill. One ounce per sandwich. “Let the bread swim in the butter.” Then, add cheese, “squish it together,” and fry. Perfect, every time.

It's not easy being green.

Pete Digenerro can still remember when the venerable Maha Ghosanda of Cambodia paid a visit to his two-story, white-shuttered house on Mansfield Street in New Haven. “He was one of those people you meet and they just have light come out of them,” he recalls. “He was like a big, huge sun.” Digenerro lives in the oldest continuously operating center of the Kwan Um School of Zen Buddhism, first founded by Zen Master Seung Sahn in Rhode Island in the 1970s and now practiced in centers everywhere from Latvia to Israel. In his mid-thirties, he has lived at the New Haven Zen Center four years. “There’s a lot of history here,” he says. “You can really feel the presence of the house.”

But when I arrive at the Center on a dark, windy October night, it’s tough to sense any presence, house or human. There’s no one around—not even at the Center, I worry, when my doorbell rings go unanswered for ten minutes. I know almost nothing about Zen, and even this setting seems mysterious: only a small paper sign posted inside a front window marks the blue house as my destination. Getting closer, I read a weekly meditation schedule and a phone number, but no other clues tell me what to expect when the door is finally answered.

Keith, who greets me at the door, barefoot and in loose sweatpants, apologizes: It’s difficult to hear the doorbell throughout the house. I should leave my shoes here, just inside the door. A golf course superintendent, Keith tells me he came across Zen Buddhism in 1991, in a college religious studies class, but it took him years to begin Zen practice—as he puts it, “to find out that this was the only way I was going to be happy.” I am early for the meditation session, and he has time to show me around beforehand.

The house balances meditation space—the Dharma room, where a golden Buddha presides—with living space. The shopping list posted on the fridge downstairs supplements the staples of a healthy vegetarian diet with a few Eastern specialty items, like miso, udon and soba noodles, and something called “ko chi chang.” Above it hangs a photo of a crowd of men and women, robed and smiling, underlined with the inscription: “Happy Holidays from the Kwan Um School of Zen.”

In a living area, two huge bookcases contain books on spirituality from every branch of Buddhism and most world religions. One title reads, Wanting Enlightenment is a BIG MISTAKE. On another shelf rests a signed photograph of a hockey player, inscribed: “To NHZC, Thanks for showing me the PATH!” Soft rugs cover dark wood floors, and rooms are lined with comfy couches for when you’re not meditating.

When you are meditating, you sit on the floor. My leg will likely fall asleep, Keith tells me, briefing me on Zen practice before the session. In that case, he says, I should bow and stand without disrupting the roomful of people in light blue robes identical to the one I’m wearing now. “People think we’re a little goofy with these things,” Keith had said, laughing as he tied mine. The special square of cloth over Keith’s robe indicates that he has completed training in the five basic precepts needed for membership in this school of Zen.

When you are meditating, you sit with your legs crossed in any of four different ways. Keith demonstrates each position except the hardest one, saying “If I were to take this leg and put it up here, it would break—but that would be full lotus.” He tells me to stare at the floor in front of me and mentally repeat a mantra to get “in question mode.” He suggests I repeat “clear head” as I inhale and “don’t know” as I exhale, but I am free to choose something else: “You could do ‘coca-cola’ and it would be all right, as long as you meant it sincerely. The words aren’t so important—it’s how you’re holding your mind.”

Besides the technical details of “sitting,” Keith summarizes the story of Buddha and, very basically, a few principles of Zen Buddhism, whose precepts boil down, he says, to “being a decent human being.” As Ken Kessel, the center’s guiding teacher, will tell me later, the Korean words Kwan Um translate to “perceive sound,” and “perceiving the sound of the world draws you to that sound,” like a baby’s cries draw a mother.

Listening leads to compassion. But Kessel is quick to clarify that he doesn’t see compassion as a goal to work toward; rather, compassion is “our original nature”—roots that Zen practice can help us rediscover. Keith also emphasizes that the wisdom Zen practice brings must be used to help others, not just for personal betterment: “This isn’t the spiritual Olympics.”

Thirty minutes of sitting and doing nothing may sound simple enough, but Keith’s words have left me a little apprehensive. “We get a lot of people here wanting to chill out,” who think sitting will be easy, he says, but “it’s really difficult. You’re stuck with you.” Others in the room will follow the first sitting with a brief interlude of “walking meditation” and then another full session—but as a beginner, Keith says, I won’t continue past thirty minutes.

I have trouble clearing my head and focusing on my mantra: clearhead clearhead clearhead, don’t knowwww. After many minutes, I dare to look up from the floor. Across from me are a couple of young men with ties visible above their robes. I guess they are grad students, maybe stressed-out, over-competitive medical students needing to relax—the one on the left, with glasses, has that look to him. Next to them, a middle-aged man sits in a wooden chair, and I guess he has a bad back or knees too weak to sit on the floor. Brush paintings hang on the walls, and far to my right is the golden Buddha. It is customary, Keith told me, to bow when passing before it.

All the people here seem deeply focused, but what if someone looks up and makes eye contact with me? I concentrate on the floor. I memorize the grain of the wood and then try again to stop my thoughts. I breathe in and then out, a long sigh: don’t knowwww. Clearhead clearhead clearhead, don’t knowww. I feel pins-and-needles, and I pull my leg out from under me—and my mind wanders again. “The sitting is the key,” Keith had said, and I feel a little guilty. I can understand why Keith likened training a mind in Zen practice to training a puppy to sit.

Every few minutes, a bell rings from another room, and one of the experienced students leaves for an “interview” with Ken Kessel, the Center’s guiding teacher. As a first-timer, I won’t be called for an interview, and clueless of what that would mean, I’m as relieved as I am intrigued. Viewed from the Dharma room, the procedure seems a little eerie, as each student stands, bows, and exits the room soundlessly.

Kessel lives in New Jersey and comes into town monthly to conduct these interviews, which consist largely of kong-ans, short Zen stories or puzzles. “Like ‘The sound of one hand clapping,’” Kessel will offer, by way of explanation. “The original kong-an is, ‘What are you?’”

After the meditation, Pete tells me he first came to the center looking for “a spiritual home.” We have put our meditation robes away, and he has made himself a mugful of protein shake in the kitchen, where I notice two teakettles. Pete is now the center’s only full-time resident, but other students sometimes join him for his morning ritual, which begins with a 5:30am wake-up bell followed by bows, a chant, and finally, a sitting. Pete considers Zen practice everyday maintenance, like tooth-brushing or gym-going, but even more crucial: it’s “part of my job on the planet.” In fact, if he stops practicing, “it’s just a matter of time before I misstep. It feels like a race, sometimes, between my clear mind and my discursive mind.” Zen is powerful stuff.

During the second thirty-minute session, sitting alone in the upstairs kitchen, I can hear sounds from the interview room. I’m surprised to hear mostly low chuckles—that’s characteristic Kessel, as I find out when I speak with him—returned by giggles from the students. The process had seemed utterly mysterious to me, but now one thing is clear: they’re having fun in there. When I ask Kessel at the end of our talk if all the students have left, he says no at first—and then corrects himself: “I think some people may be sticking around to watch the World Series.” I forget to ask if they’re Yankee fans.