Writing for the New York Times Magazine

gina greenlee .comIntroduction

On June 10, 2001, my essay, No Tears for Frankie was published on the Lives Page of The New York Times Magazine:

I was in the fifth grade when Frankie died.  It was 1971.  My whole class planned to attend the funeral, since we knew him.  My father thought going might give me nightmares, but I insisted.  I had never seen a dead person before.  Most of all, I wanted to be sure that the little creep would never touch me again.

Frankie lived in Lower Manhattan, where run-down tenements along Avenues A, B and C were on the verge of becoming the crack houses of the 80’s.  At the time, I lived nearby.  Then in 1970 my family moved into an apartment in Coop Village on Grand Street and F.D.R. Drive.  It was only three blocks – and a world – away from the projects to a predominantly white, middle-class community on the East River.  Overnight at school, I became “that black girl who lives in the rich Jew buildings.”  Or at least that’s what Frankie and my other African-American classmates thought I was.  It became a familiar chant of theirs as I made my way through my old neighborhood to get to school.

Frankie and I were in the same grade but I was 10 and he was 12 because he had been left back twice.  He tormented all of the girls in our class.  But Frankie relished in singling me out – the only black girl in a sea of Jewish girls dotted with Latinas – and he had done so since I first arrived from another school in third grade.

He never did any schoolwork.  Instead, for the first three periods Frankie’s curriculum was mayhem; by fourth period he was usually in the principal’s office; and by the fifth, he was back in class unremorseful and pumped to do it again.  He only got worse in that working-class, urban-blight panacea, the after-school program.  It was a nice idea: children, whose parents were unavailable at 3 o’clock because they were working, stayed after school to study, improve skills and tackle extra credit projects.  I spent those afternoons trying to stay alive.

Frankie and his crew would grab my breasts, genitals and buttocks when the teachers weren’t looking.  Their hands, quick as filthy street rats, darted across my private parts in assembly line, during dance rehearsals and yard processions.  They would leave scrawled notes in my book bag that read, “I’m gonna beat you up after school,” or “I’ll get you in the stairwell.”

One spring afternoon, I had made it through another harrowing two hours after school, only to be cornered on the stairs by the whole nasty lot.  They taunted me to walk down ahead of them.  I managed each step as if were my first, balancing myself on the chalk-blue shellacked handrail as I peered through the landing divider reminiscent of a wire cage, hoping to see another student, teacher, anyone. Frankie shoved me, and I tumbled one full flight, landing on my knees, my favorite brown plaid dress above my ears, easy pickings for the tiny vultures who cackled obscenities while snatching at my body, punching and kicking me.  That day, I understood the depth of Frankie’s perversity.

When I told a friend that our classroom emptied out at 3 p.m., leaving me alone with Frankie’s boys, without my having to share another detail, she said, “Come to my house after school.”  I had enjoyed two afternoons of baking cookies and doll playing when I let slip that my parents thought I was in class.  My friend’s mother welcomed me to play at her home anytime as long as my parents knew.  “Why were you at Amy’s and not in the after-school program?” my father asked me later that night.  I didn’t tell him because I didn’t think he could help me.  His interventions would only inspire retaliations and spiral me deeper into the mess.

I told my teachers, but nobody believed me.  They chuckled and said, “Frankie just has a crush on you.”  That’s what I told my father 15 years after the attacks, when he asked me if I had told my teachers.  I guess in their world, 12-year-old boys don’t sexually attack 10-year-old girls.  What world did they come from, anyway?  What world was I in, and how could I fix it so Frankie would disappear?

One morning when my teachers had stepped away from the classroom, Frankie and his boys shoved me into the coat closet and held the door shut while I was alone with Frankie.  It was dark.  As he kept touching me, I tried to push him away and screamed to be let out.  But Frankie’s friends held steadfast until the teachers arrived; then they scrambled to their seats.  None of the other kids said a word.  But in front of them all, I told Frankie that I hated his guts and hoped he would die.

Quite accommodating, he lay in a casket later that year.  I didn’t shed a tear.  My heart was hardened, though.  As usual, Frankie was up to no good – tampering with public property with the boys – when he got himself electrocuted.  I was 10, and I was glad.

* * *

How I Sold No Tears For Frankie to The New York Times Magazine

Before blogging and eBooks, the wisdom for scoring publishing credentials went like this: pitch to your hometown newspaper.  Why? The paper is more likely to publish your articles because you have a relationship with its market; your ideas will have a more saleable hook.

Made sense to me.

I’m native to Manhattan.  So when I began my writing career I targeted The New York Times.

I mailed queries to three sections of my hometown paper that I believed to be a good match for my style and preferred subjects: Travel, the Connecticut section (I was living there at the time) and the Lives page in the magazine.

One of my mentors advised following up with phone calls if I hadn’t heard anything within six weeks. I didn’t. And so with dread, I made the calls.

No success with Travel or the Connecticut sections – an unpleasant conversation and black hole voicemail, respectively. But the Lives page editor picked up on the first ring.

“Uh, oh, hi, I’m Gina Greenlee, and I’m following up on a query I sent you for the Lives page.”

“What?”

Breathe. Breathe.

“I’m a Connecticut freelancer, and I sent you a query about six weeks ago, for an essay for the Lives page.”

“Oh. The best way to send me queries is by email.”

Good to know.

“What was it about?”

In that moment I knew I had a 10-second window to make my pitch, something I had not been prepared to do with a live human being.

“As I said, I’m a Connecticut writer but I grew up in Manhattan on the Lower East Side. From age eight to 10 a gang of boys repeatedly sexually assaulted me in my elementary school. The ringleader died when I was in the fifth grade. I attended his funeral along with my class, and I didn’t shed a tear.”

“Oh. Here’s my email. Send it to me.”

I emailed my essay on a Thursday. When Monday rolled around and I had not heard anything, I was in tears. I had already suffered a week of rejections. To get so close to my Times clip yet still be so far, was more than I could stand.

Settling at my computer on Tuesday afternoon, I perused my e-mail inbox expecting to see the usual.  Nestled in the morass of mail was an address that ended in “nytimes.com.” The subject line: “Let’s talk.”

I began screaming. I just sat and stared at the email and screamed. Once composed, I carefully opened the mail and printed it out straight away.

“This is quite good,” it read. “My top editor really liked it. It just needs some fleshing out here and there. Call me today or tomorrow to discuss.”

I screamed some more.

Tips on submitting an essay to the
Lives page of The New York Times Magazine