Auld Friends

S hould auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, we’d regret it. So, as this remarkable year draws blessedly to a close, I thought I’d check in with some past Daily Nutmeg writers who’ve left New Haven and see what they’re up to now.

“I miss everything about New Haven,” says Uma Ramiah, one of our earliest contributors, who wrote and photographed stories from 2012 to 2014. After leaving the city, Ramiah and her husband, Kevin Russell, lived in Indonesia and traveled throughout Southeast Asia, Mexico and South America before settling down in Durham, North Carolina, where Ramiah works as a freelance writer and media consultant. Having seen so much of the world, she still uses words like “magic” and “warmth” to describe a city that, outside its own borders, often gets a bad rap. In spite of recalling urban issues and divisions that aren’t unique to New Haven, Ramiah remembers most a “really beautiful, interconnected web of support that happens across the city.”

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She cites as her favorite assignment a story on Stetson Library and librarian Diane Brown: “a support, a guide, a friend, a mother looking straight at you from behind sleek, librarian-appropriate glasses, alternately kind, stern, and stomach-clutchingly hilarious,” Ramiah wrote in 2012. As it turned out, that was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. Ramiah spent “more time at Stetson over my years in New Haven than I could have imagined.” Together, she and Brown threw an international block party in 2014 for Yale’s contingent of President Barack Obama’s Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders—a party that was apparently so epic the president gave it a nod in a speech later that year.

Like Ramiah, Daniel Shkolnik, who wrote for Daily Nutmeg from 2015 to 2016, most remembers the people he met along the way, among them Frederick David Watts, a New Haven street poet. Watts was homeless when Shkolnik first met him. Known to many simply as “The Professor,” Watts had earned a degree from Yale in 1972, then began a graduate program at Harvard that was interrupted by his struggles with mental illness. “For the past forty years, he’s bounced between street, court and asylum, writing poetry all the while,” Shkolnik wrote in 2015. “His stylistic skill is accompanied by genuine insight and heartfelt confession. Watts writes compellingly, at times self-critically, about the subjects of love, fate, authenticity and poetry, among others.”

“It’s a friendship that I actually maintain to this day,” Shkolnik says, reporting that Watts now has his own apartment in New Haven. Shkolnik, in the meantime, has relocated to New Orleans, where he produces Reenchantment, a podcast “about secular spirituality… about giving people a way of finding wonder in a secular world.” He also works as a freelance journalist and runs a small poetry business on the side, writing commissioned poems on old typewriters. “A lot of things that I really loved about New Haven I have found in New Orleans,” Shkolnik says, noting the diversity of both cities and the opportunity to wander through different neighborhoods, to play pool, to swing dance. “All those things I do and can find here in New Orleans,” he says, admitting to a bias toward his current home, but New Haven “was the first place that I really got to experience [them].”

Anne Ewbank was sitting in the sun outside her mother’s California home when I caught up with her on Zoom. The New Haven afternoon was gray and cold, but Ewbank assured me it was cold in California, too, and she was wearing three layers including ski pants. She wrote for Daily Nutmeg in 2017 after earning a master’s degree in East Asian Studies at Yale, leaving in October of that year for New York City and a job writing and editing for the travel publication Atlas Obscura, where she still works today, albeit remotely.

A history buff, Ewbank says some of her fondest memories of New Haven are tied to its long history. “I lived very close to the New Haven Green,” she says. “It always felt really cool just to walk across this huge space that’s been in use for hundreds of years.” Stories about the city’s history were her favorite assignments. She recalls in particular a “duology of stories” about “incredible town-and-gown beefs between Yale students and the residents of New Haven.” In one case, a theater brawl spilled into the streets. “Townsfolk threw stones. Students pulled out knives and guns,” Ewbank wrote. “In the melee that followed, one of the townies fell to the ground in agony. Patrick O’Neil, a longshoreman, had been fatally stabbed in the chest. Seeking retribution, a crowd of hundreds grabbed a pair of cannons out of the city armory… The cannons were stuffed to bursting with rocks and chains, and if not for local police chief Lyman Bissell, it’s possible the building—and no few of the Yalies sheltering inside—would have been destroyed.”

When asked what she misses about New Haven, Sorrel Westbrook, who wrote for Daily Nutmeg from 2016 to 2018 and now teaches English at a private secondary school in Houston, waxed poetic about New England winters: the cold air, the icy trees. In Houston, “people say it’s cold, but it’s not cold,” she says, sounding like a Yankee even though she grew up in California. “I was never a homeowner, so I never had to shovel my own snow,” she admits, “which went a long way toward my nostalgia.” Other fond memories? Hanging out at Three Sheets (her neighborhood bar), listening to the Harkness Tower bells and “walking through the city—just how kind of available and open it always seemed.”

As for her favorite story, Westbrook cites a May 2017 profile on Peels & Wheels, a composting business in Fair Haven. Owner Domingo Medina took her through the whole process, “from raw trash to compost.” In the story, she laid out the steps: Medina picked up “organic refuse” from local homes and businesses, hauled it to James Street by bike, made some calculations, laid down base materials on a tarp. “Then come the contents of the bins: peels, leaves, cobs, coffee grounds, rinds, pulp and something that can best be called slop come gushing out onto the pile,” Westbrook wrote. “The smell is shocking—rancid enough to send me running upwind.” The story, as she remembers it today, had all the elements of a Daily Nutmeg “greatest hit”: “a part of the city I had no idea existed,” a couple of quirky characters doing “extremely intense hard work 100% to benefit the community” and a generous helping of “rich weirdness.”

Ramiah concurs. “What I loved about the Nutmeg was that every story I wrote made me love New Haven even more,” she says. In fact, Westbrook loves the city so much she still reads Daily Nutmeg every day from Texas. “It’s like the opposite of homesickness,” she says. “It makes me feel like I’m still in New Haven.”

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photos provided courtesy of Uma Ramiah, Daniel Schkolnik, Sorrel Westbrook and Anne Ewbank.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is a writer and communications pro whose perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the Green and a coffee milkshake. She posts twice-weekly content for book clubs in her Substack newsletter, Better Book Clubs.

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