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Throughout everyplace I went in Africa and several places in India, a common request from the small kids is “school pens! school pens!” Some legitimately need them, and some don’t. But they ask anyways because a lot of times the plea works.

I, however, never parted with a pen. I only had four and one mechanical pencil with me for the year, and, given the difficulty or near impossibility of replacing them in many places, I coveted these as if they were priceless.

But of course the plea works when there are superfluous pens to be had. With so much poverty, there is a lot of hope wrapped up in giving away a pen. Giving away something so utilitarian and yet at the same time so trivial but which signifies so much opportunity seems less like charity than just handing someone a crumpled bill or a few coins. Even I tend to keep a piece of fruit in my bag while traveling, just in case.

But now, months later I find myself in a new dilemma. I am the unemployed one with no disposable income, in the middle of a busy city, and I am suddenly in dire need of a pen. Since I am not ready to start asking people on the street for one, into Staples I go. My objective is clear: find a pen and don’t spend more than a dollar. Anything more than that is a waste as I have my four pens tucked away in a bookbag an hour’s subway ride away.

I scour the aisles, looking and looking for one inexpensive pen. After 15 futile minutes I come up with a box of 20 pens because it is the cheapest option. Cheaper to buy 20 then just one packaged up all alone.

20 pens! I only need one but I now have 20 pens because, more important than worrying about how those other 19 pens are going to go to waste, I need my dollars in my wallet. One whole year with no pens to give away and now I find myself in a place where I could stand on the street all day trying to give away my box of pens one at a time with no one wanting to take one. Because who in central Manhattan needs something as trivial and utilitarian as a pen?

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N/R/QIf there was any doubt that New York City is a place all to itself – I just watched the man sitting across from me on the subway, who, mind you, had been sitting there completely normal for the past 5 minutes, pull a bottle of purple berry juice out of his white athletic sock. Just when I thought that was weird enough, he proceeded to pull up his other pant leg where a small bottle of almond milk had been tucked away for safe keeping in his other sock.

If this were JFK airport, he would have so been arrested by now.

When a man from the Middle East comes to visit and brings sweets from his favorite Middle Eastern sweet shop, and that sweet shop happens to be right around the corner from your house, you have to take note. That is how I found Al Sham.

Nestled among a street full of hooka bars and Halal grocers, this unpretentious little shop offers melt-in-your mouth baklava, delicious date cookies, and creamy chocolate dipped cashew straws. Trust me, it is worth the ride to Queens.