Esther Cohen’s All of Us – Stories and Poems Along Route 17

I’ve been trying to write life down forever, in what I’ve overheard: in stories, in novels, and in poems. I’ve worked with labor unions and many non-profits, curated exhibits, and taught many writing classes about stories and what makes them good. Esther Cohen

Esther Cohen arrives for our lunch date carrying a bottle of water from her taxi driver, a Sikh. Esther has an insatiable appetite to learn about people, and that short ride from her apartment on the west side to the restaurant on the east side of Manhattan, gave her another opportunity to carry on a conversation with someone she had just met. They talked about reading and writing and Esther, who writes a poem a day which she posts on her website, gave the driver her card and encouraged him to send her his poetry. 

“I hope he does,” she tells me, after settling in and ordering a cappuccino. 

I had finished reading Esther’s latest book, her seventh, All of Us – Stories and Poems Along Route 17, and was eager to learn more about the people featured in the book. Were they based on real men and women she met in the upstate town where she and her husband, filmmaker, Peter Odabashian, have a home? 

Being from upstate New York myself, I know all about the quirky, interesting characters one can meet regularly or just in a passing encounter. But few writers can describe these individuals with such insight and yes, humanity, as Esther always does. That’s another part of Esther, her genuine ability to see the good in others. At a time when our country is so divided, with people being unable to talk to each other without shouting, Esther believes we need to learn how to listen and to have conversations that can lead to empathy and understanding. “We have to talk to each other or we’re screwed forever,” she tells me.

Esther and Peter bought their upstate home (in the book the town is called Middlefield) with two other people 37 years ago. “It’s an old house,” she says, adding that it was once a stop on the underground railroad used to help enslaved African Americans escape to free states. Since Esther always seeks out an opportunity to teach writing, she approached the owner of Slater’s, a supermarket in the town. “He told me I could set up a class in the bean aisle, the least trafficked aisle in the store,” she says, laughing. The only requirement was that those attending had to be Slater’s customers. The owner set up chairs, provided paper and pens, and even served pizza after each class. “I got to hear stories of people who lived in upstate New York,” Esther says. The class, which started with a dozen people, became so popular, Esther had to move it to the town library. 

There are 52 stories and poems in the book. They are, of course, well written, but they are also thought-provoking,  insightful, poignant, and, in many cases, humorous. They tell the tales about ordinary people who, on occasion, can be extraordinary. While we may not identify with the small town life they live, we do connect with the everyday situations they encounter – a bad breakup, a difficult spouse, a loud neighbor. Some have a happy ending, like the one about Arlette, a young woman from El Salvador, who has an affair with a married man that doesn’t end well, but manages to find love anyway. There’s the couple – Sheldon and Leila – who are not alike, but bond together over her poems and his puzzles. A favorite poem is about a woman who is looking for a real estate agent and meets someone in a grocery store, who points out her dress is bunched up. (That’s happened to me several times, so totally related.)

Painting of Esther and her husband, Peter, by Paulette Licitra

When I encountered the name “Trump” in several stories – “Made in Russia,” “Tom and Jane,” and “Frank” – I wondered what would happen. But Esther uses these stories to bring home her point that we need to talk to each other. Another story, “Don’t Come Here Now You’re Not Welcome,” is harsh, but with the same theme. 

During our lunch, Esther talked about the real life encounters with the small town people whose stories continue to fascinate her. “We went to a pot luck dinner hosted by a farmer’s wife,” she says. “There were 150 people there. It’s important to connect with people who are different from me.”

Esther will continue to make those connections, whether in the classes she teaches, the non-profits she supports, or in a taxi ride that produces an interesting conversation. And we will continue to benefit from and enjoy the stories and poems she writes.

All of Us – Stories and Poems Along Route 17
Esther Cohen

All photos courtesy of Esther Cohen

For more information about Esther, and to read her poems, go to her website and Overheardec@substack.com.

About Charlene Giannetti (690 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. The film is now available to view on Amazon Prime, YouTube, and other services. Charlene and her husband live in Manhattan.