Like many surgeons, when Dr. Thomas Romo III graduated medical school, he hopped on a plane to India and Vietnam in order to fix cleft lips. "We felt like we had time and a reason to give back, " he said of himself and his peers who choose to travel the world doing medical procedures before settling down and developing a practice. Though Dr. Romo operated on numerous lips, he realized after a while that the program he was traveling with was only fixing a quarter of the problem. After the lip healed, the palate still did not close correctly and teeth did not grow straight. Patients would experience chronic Eustachian tube problems, resulting in earaches. Dr. Romo wanted to fix the rest of the palate, but the mission that he was with focused solely on lips. "I wanted to change the paradigm, " Dr. Romo declared. Back in New York, he began developing a plan to help children with facial birth defects through all operation stages, not just cosmetic. Dr. Romo admitted that he did not have any experience putting together a foundation, "I did not go to business school, " he pointed out, and therefore it was challenging for him to lay the groundwork of his new venture. He decided to accept only newborns through age twenty-one who were on Medicaid or required other financial assistance, with emphasis on those from the United States. As he phrased it, "Little Baby Face Foundation helps "children from Harlem to Ethiopia. "With his mission in place, Dr. Romo then recruited thirty doctors, including pediatricians, plastic surgeons, and various specialists. This impressive brain trust assembles each month to discuss fifteen to twenty children whose financial statements have been checked. They ask, "Who does this child need to see? " If they are not sure, they bring them in for a "look-see" with each of the doctors. He then went on to say that when these children come in to meet this large group of doctors, they are experiencing something unique - this number of medical professionals is rarely seen in one room. For the entire stay, including during the operation and recovery time, the child and his or her family are taken care of every step of the way: their flights are paid for, "Mario picks them up in a car service, " and they are welcomed with open arms at the Ronald McDonald House. What most impressed me about the Little Baby Face Foundation is that every doctor volunteers his or her time. It has been worked out so that no one needs to perform more than a handful of procedures each month. Occasionally, when Dr. Romo is met with slight reluctance from one of the doctors, he often responds with a poignant, yet witty response: "How much fat do you want to suck and how many boobs do you want to do? Or do you want to change a child's life? "Dr. Romo performs a significant number of the operations. He sometimes ends up doing as many as ten during the winter holidays. Speaking with him is an enlightening experience, as he is so full of energy, compassion, and joviality. He shared a few stories of patients who had touched his heart. He told me about operations that involved a Texan child with nerve paralysis and another from Harlem who was born deaf and missing an ear on one side. On the latter, Dr. Romo performed a cochlear implant and that the child "heard his name said at graduation. "Speaking about a few other patients from abroad, Dr. Romo continued to touch my own heart as he spoke of a child who came from farther afield - in Ethiopia. The girl had a large mass on her neck that no other doctor would touch. Dr. Romo said, "We had to fly her from a small village to Addis Ababa to Dubai to New York. " Not only did the girl have the mass removed, but she also got to have a New York adventure. As he continued on, I learned about a couple from England who came with their eighteen-month old son, who had a tumor falling over his eye. The parents, who were only nineteen and twenty-one, themselves, were given the opportunity to spend several weeks in Manhattan while their child was having his life changed. Dr. Romo is proud of how far the foundation has come since it began in 1990. He recently experienced a year in which he raised enough money in order to pay a small staff. One of the members of his team is his own wife, Diane Romo, who is the surgical coordinator. She deals directly with the children and has the extreme pleasure of contacting families to tell them, "We're going to bring you to New York. "Now that he has a model and a brand, Dr. Romo hopes to expand. "We can helicopter to Chicago, LA, or San Francisco, " he told me excitedly. But he is also devoted to New York, and emphasizes the concept of "New Yorkers helping New Yorkers. " He wishes that more people knew that the Little Baby Face Foundation existed. He said that a lot of hospitals are in the red, which should not be the case, since there are so many doctors willing to occasionally work for free for the sake of the greater good. His need to give to the community in any way he can is inspiring. As he perfectly phrased it for me, "I'm a surgeon. This is the only way I know how to give back. "
J. D. Merget, the owner of Oslo Coffee Roasters, a company that began in Williamsburg in 2003, noticed a dearth of independent coffee shops on the Upper East Side and decided to fix the problem. Fortunately, J. D. had a friend who owned a garden store that he was looking to sell. Thus, Oslo Coffee Roasters moved into the cozy space in 2011 in order to provide high quality coffee to the neighborhood. After speaking with J. D., it became clear that he knows a lot about coffee. Originally from Seattle, he had his first introduction into the world of coffee at the age of twenty-one, while working for Starbucks. He explained that the company “got [him] very excited about coffee” and that it fueled his need to find out more about the product and introduce people to better brews. He has been in the coffee business ever since, working for different companies from Seattle to Dallas to New York. It was his wife, Kathy, whom he met while working in New York, who encouraged him to venture out on his own, saying, “You know so much about coffee – you’ve got to open your own store. ” And so he did. The name comes from the fact that Kathy's family is from Norway, where they are still known for drinking more coffee per capita than most other countries in the world. J. D. wanted to steer his customers away from the idea that Italian coffee is the only good coffee and highlighting the Northern European coffee tradition seemed to be the best way to do that. They do not specifically feature Scandinavian coffee, preferring to focus on farmers who use sustainable and fair practices, rather than a specific geographic location. The result is a high quality coffee that can be sipped guilt-free. When I asked if there were plans for more locations, JD says he is happy where he is and that he prefers to focus on connecting with customers and selling a better quality product, rather than expanding. He loves the Upper East Side and is so happy to have been embraced by the neighborhood. “The support from the community is outstanding. ” He is very proud of his staff, and is glad that they have received love and recognition from a community that has been waiting for an independent coffee shop. “You become a rockstar, ” he said, telling a story of how he was recognized by customers as far south as China Town. His general manager, Liz Pasqualo, echoed his sentiments. She even added that some people double-park in order to get their coffee. For many of the children that live in the area, they are often on autopilot as they enter Oslo, assuming that their parents will follow for one of their frequent visits. Liz told me, “I am really proud of the sense of community, ” and how comfortable the place has become. “Strangers sit down and chat together about current events. " I was able to witness this sense of camaraderie when a gentleman named Hugh Fremantle, who has been coming to Oslo for the last four years, sat next to Liz while sipping on his coffee to ask how she was doing. “I’m being interviewed! ” she said gleefully. Hugh turned his attention to me and said with a big smile, “In that case, you are talking to a very happy customer. ”
After visiting many century-old synagogues, it was a refreshing change of pace to tour the modern facilities of Temple Israel of the City of New York. Sun shone through the colorful stained glass throughout the 1960s building and a winding spiral staircase occupied the front hall. The Manhattan Sideways team and I were met by Michele Amaro, the Communications Manager, who took the time to guide us through the eight floors. She led us into the sanctuary, which, as she explained, has “that mod curvy look like the Metropolitan Opera. ” The space is enormous, seating 330 people on the first floor and 500 more in the balcony. The congregation was started in Harlem in 1870 and has since been providing a place of worship for many. Today, on East 75th, it is Rabbi David Gelfand - who joined in 2006 - who continues to keep the traditions alive. According to Michelle, it is he who has helped to revitalize the Temple. Cantor Irena Altshul, Rabbi Melissa Buyer, and Rabbi Jim Stoloff round out the clergy team. Michele mentioned some of the more modern programs that Temple Israel offers, including a “Rockin’ Shabbat” (an interactive worship using modern methodologies and technologies) with Sheldon Low, artist-in-residence, , and a Lunch & Learn talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist and clergy. on Fridays, which uses multimedia screens in worship, and a talk on “kosher-style sex” by Logan Levkoff, a sex therapist. “This is an extremely, extremely active synagogue. We have things going on all the time. ”Michele continued showing us around, taking us by multiple display cases full of Judaica, including an exquisite menorah donated by Herbert G. Lane, who was one of the chairman of the board of directors for the temple. We also passed multiple pieces of art, photos of smiling congregants, and teaching tools. On one wall, there is a Visual Torah with cartoon-like drawings so that children can better understand the stories. Michele emphasized that education is deeply important to the Temple before taking us to see the religious school, run by Rabbi Melissa Buyer. I was most impressed by the amount of space dedicated to teaching children, including a lounge for the older ones, and “Mitzvah Gardens” where students can plant food that will later be donated to those in need. The preschool rooms, which are color coded, also sport two terraces with playgrounds. We were impressed by their use of the latest technology complete with Macs and smart boards. Though the school plays a significant role in preparing children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Michele stressed that the school is K-12 and covers every stage of religious instruction, creating a foundation of lifelong Jewish learning. Located underneath the sanctuary, we were amazed by the ballroom, an enormous space, that is in continuous use for various celebrations, including Hanukkah concerts, and Passover seders. When we visited, we observed an early childhood program, headed by director Lisa Samick. The space was filled with toys, and very young children were being rocked to sleep by mothers and nannies in an adjoining room. When I commented to Michele that there was no doubt this is a warm and welcoming community, she beamed, and let me know how proud she was to be a part of Temple Israel.
When we were walking by the firehouse of the Fighting Forty Four, founded in 1881, we were thrilled to find the door wide open. Children on their way home from school were gaping wide-mouthed at the fire engines while smiling firefighters looked on. We joined the ogling children and met the men, Wayne, Kenny, and Bobby, who showed us around the house and spoke about the history of the New York Fire Fighters. Over the course of our conversation, an occasional call would come in to the men. Not knowing what it meant, I asked, “Do you need to run? ” “Oh no, ” Wayne replied, “We don’t need to run. If we’re running, it means you should be running, too. ”One of my first questions was about the number “44. ” I learned that it is essentially arbitrary. It refers to when the squad was formed, long before the Brooklyn and Metropolitan fire departments merged. 44, however, is a designated specialty unit, meaning that only men who have a certain level of experience are assigned. This is because they are a Hazmat division. The men showed us the Hazmat truck, which has a big sticker that says “Zombie Outbreak Response Team. ” It matches a sticker on the main truck that imitates the “Ebola Emergency Outbreak Response Team” symbol, only with zombies. Smiling they said that little children often ask, “Is that for real? Do you really fight zombies? ”Although full of good humor, the men became somber when I commented on a memorial for Michael Lyons, a firefighter who was killed while responding during 9/11. Wayne and Bobby began sharing stories about several of their friends who were present at the World Trade Center that day. One survived by diving under a truck, while The 9th Battalion lost all of its men. Many of the firefighters from 6 Truck in Chinatown also responded that day, but not everyone came back. Men who turned one way coming down the stairs lived, and the men who turned the other way did not. As Bobby said, “If they had yin-ed when they had yang-ed, they would've have made it. ”We continued our tour of the house: There is the old hose tower, painted red, as well as the cubbies where the men keep their uniform. I was like a child, gazing at the two traditional firemen’s poles stretching to the upper floor. When I asked if they still slide down them, the answer was a definitive "yes. " I appreciated the fact that they had photos of men who have retired. I never realized that even though there are about thirty men assigned to 44, they are frequently traded around to different houses. As a rule, this firehouse usually has six men present at any given time, and never fewer than five. Another interesting fact that I never stopped to think about, of which Bobby informed us as he showed us a map, is that on the East Side, there is a firehouse right by every subway stop. Irish history is still deeply woven into the culture of the fire department. I noticed that along with the Leprechaun in the logo for the “Fighting Forty Four, ” there were many other references to Irish heritage scattered around the firehouse, including little Irish flags on the fire engine. Historically, there is a huge Irish connection to many service jobs in the city, including police work. As Bobby explained, “No one else would take the shit jobs. So they’d send in the Irish. ” There are no longer any Irish accents in this firehouse - as Wayne stated, “We’re all Bronx guys. ” Coming from uptown, the men told us that they respect the fact that they can keep their firehouse open and wave to smiling children of the Upper East Side. As if to demonstrate this, Wayne’s daughter ran into the firehouse and skipped upstairs to do her homework before heading to a hockey game with her dad. “It’s a good neighborhood, ” Wayne continued, “So we can keep the door open. ”