A Perishable Business

Five decades after Lower Manhattan’s produce market was relocated to the Bronx to make room for the new World Trade Center, the fate of Hunts Point’s family-owned operations is once again uncertain.

“We’ve got a great view of Manhattan out here,” says Matthew D’Arrigo, first vice president of the Hunts Point Produce Market, the southeast Bronx site that is part of the world’s largest wholesale food distribution center. One bright Tuesday morning twelve years ago, as D’Arrigo climbed onto the market’s roof to take in the vista, the New York City skyline was transformed by heavy swells of smoke that streamed out from the Twin Towers against an otherwise cerulean sky.

Then, they fell.

Before construction of the World Trade Center began in 1966, space had to be cleared, and people and commerce moved. Among them were specialty purveyors of meat, fish and produce, many of them family businesses that had fed New York City from Washington Market in Lower Manhattan for 155 years. But commercial quarters, particularly of the produce trade at Washington Market, had become outmoded and unsanitary and in need of a modern restart. So the city built a new home just for the wholesale produce trade in Hunts Point, and more than a hundred family businesses, including the D’Arrigos’, were obligated to move. As a result, the Hunts Point Produce Market officially opened for business in the Bronx in 1967, and the Twin Towers opened on its former site in 1973.

When the WTC buildings were demolished on 9/11 and subsequently cleared, Ground Zero was formed: a symbolic space in both void and regeneration. D’Arrigo, 54, a third generation owner of D’Arrigo Bros. Co., took it all in atop the Bronx market—the outlying, albeit living memory of the storied New York fruit and vegetables trade. Now a new World Trade Center is rising on the very land upon which the D’Arrigos’ and more than a hundred other businesses—the royal families of produce, as it were—were built. The Hunts Point Produce Market, now 46 years old, remains hot as yearly revenues stampede towards $2.5 billion. But the market has reached a tipping point—one reminiscent of the very conditions that prompted a move to the Bronx in the first place— and family businesses such as the D’Arrigos’ could soon be on the move once again.

A four-lane vehicle entry into NYC Terminal Market in Hunts Point in the Bronx.
A four-lane vehicle entry into NYC Terminal Market in Hunts Point in the Bronx.

In order to match the ravenous demands of the New York metro area’s growing population—which has boomed from 16 million when the market opened to 23 million today—the facility’s round-the-clock operations have put a political and environmental strain on the Hunts Point neighborhood. Freight trucks headed to and from the wholesale markets cause major pollution in the area. According to a 2006 N.Y.U. study, Bronx children are twice as likely to attend a school situated near expressways where they can breathe in soot from diesel exhaust. As a result, the child asthma hospitalization rate is two to three times higher there than in other boroughs, prompting community groups to raise discussions about tearing down the market’s main traffic artery.

Issues remain inside the market as well. Despite its commercial success in the Bronx, the Hunts Point Produce Market, which rents space from the city, is in need of a much larger and more modern facility. A newly minted wholesale produce market in Philadelphia has begun to steal business because of its proximity and advanced facilities, while the nearly half-century old market has worn its current space down to the bone.

“We’ve been bursting for twenty years,” says D’Arrigo, a key cog in negotiations with city officials that will decide the Market’s future: stay put in the Bronx, retrofit and expand, or move—again.

And so, the produce trade in New York City is anxiously staring once again into the eye of change.

*    *    *

Poster image #1 of 3 Andy Boy Broccoli.[courtesy of Matthew D'Arrigo]
Poster image #1 of 3 Andy Boy Broccoli.[courtesy of Matthew D’Arrigo]

Billy Joel croons from above inside the D’Arrigo Bros. offices. The wood paneling in the waiting room is decorated with framed articles about the family business, particularly of Matthew’s father, Stephen D’Arrigo, patriarch, founder and CEO, who passed away at 79 on Independence Day, 2003. He was “first vice president” of the Market, a title his son holds today after stepping down as president this June. On the opposite wall, and protected by glass, are three large-scale print advertisements for the D’Arrigo-owned Andy Boy Broccoli label. The Rockwellian posters, designed by Matthew’s father and Boston advertising guru Harold Cabot, are Americana. In one, a young boy holds a bouquet of broccoli while kissing a girl on the cheek as she looks away, her hands resting at her hips. The tagline reads, “Fresh!”

“Those were [some of] the first advertisements ever on the subway,” says D’Arrigo while we sip morning coffee. “They date back to 1927 and I believe [it] was the first branded vegetable.”

D’Arrigo is of Sicilian descent, an embodiment of a storied lineage of Italian and Jewish families who have long dominated the New York City market scene.

Poster image #2 of 3 for Andy Boy Broccoli.
Poster image #2 of 3 for Andy Boy Broccoli.

“I consider Jews my cousins,” D’Arrigo says with an ear-to-ear smile. “An Italian and a Jew: there’s not enough air in the room for everybody to talk.”

In 1904, Andrea D’Arrigo, Matthew’s grandfather, then 16, emigrated from Messina, Sicily, to Boston via Ellis Island. His younger brother Stefano soon followed. Both learned English, earned engineering degrees and fought for the U.S. during World War I. When they returned stateside the brothers found work at a roadside produce market. In 1925, Stefano traveled to central California during a wine grape-buying trip and observed firsthand the land’s fertility. The brothers came up with an idea to expand business: broccoli. A year later Stefano sent 28 acres worth of broccoli 2,800 miles from San Jose to Boston via train—the first ever cross-country railcar of California fresh vegetables in U.S. history—and the Andy Boy label was born. On July 4, 1948, a third and final location for the D’Arrigo family business was established at 308 Washington Street in lower Manhattan, site of the now defunct Washington Market.

For more than a century and a half, Washington Market, named after the country’s first president, fed New York City. The heart of the market ran along Washington Street on the west side of Lower Manhattan, although its sprawling boundaries ran roughly from Murray Street on the South side, north to Canal Street, and extending from West Broadway at its easternmost point, all the way to West Street along the Hudson River. According to the official market history of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative, the market dates to the turn of the nineteenth century, when food peddlers could be found selling in the Washington Street vicinity. From inside the antiquated stalls that lined the cobblestone streets, and from pushcarts and wagons, merchants sold butter, eggs, game, strawberries, fish, beef and much more.

Long lines of trucks being loaded with produce at Washington Market, New York City. (Photo by Al Ravenna, courtesy of Library of Congress.)
Long lines of trucks being loaded with produce at Washington Market, New York City. (Photo by Al Ravenna, courtesy of Library of Congress.)

By the mid-nineteenth century the area had become a filthy, manic health hazard and struggled to keep pace with growing demands for fresh produce. In the 1877 issue of Scribner’s Monthly, William H. Rideing noted that store owners would burn spoiled produce, such as lettuce leaves and rotten oranges, along with pieces of crating and piles of excelsior in barrels, in order to stay warm throughout the winter.

Congestion was also a major problem. Deliveries made by rail and ship, and intended for Washington Market as a final destination, were scattered at locations throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. Items were then unloaded and re-packed onto delivery trucks headed to Washington Market. Deliveries typically occurred at the fronts of stores, which shared the street and often competed with heavy cross-town traffic, making these exchanges even more hectic. “Miraculously,” writes Gordon, “New York got fed.”

The market was rebuilt in 1880, and again in 1915, which allowed for improved flushing of sewage, storage, air circulation and sunlight. Yet even with these updated facilities, the market remained unsanitary and disorganized. The city continued to take on the market’s yearly deficit of $8,000.

Bronx Terminal Market was erected in 1929, which made deliveries to and from Washington Market easier. In 1941, the Market was modernized yet again, but by 1956, then-City Markets Commissioner Anthony Masciarelli said that shifting produce operations to the Bronx Terminal Market was “a most logical and centrally located point for this industry,” in large part because the Major Deegan and Cross Bronx Expressways provided roadway connections to Queens and New Jersey, and there was direct railroad access for shippers.

The final death knell for Washington Market came in the form of a plan to build a massive center of commerce in Lower Manhattan. To make room for the Twin Towers, 487 produce merchants from Washington Market were offered a new home in Hunts Point, then described by The New York Times as “a marshy no-man’s land on the shores of the Bronx River.”

On August 21, 1965, during a visit to Washington Market, Markets Commissioner Albert S. Pacetta said to a crowd of both supporters and detractors that a move to the Bronx would save the city more than $10 million a year on spoilage alone. A New York Times article printed the next day offers an account of fishmongers and marketers shouting in disagreement at Pacetta as he was leaving the market, warning, “Count your fingers.”

But by then the multi-storied buildings that housed Washington Market’s food businesses were “so decrepit that 80% of their assessed valuation was the value of the land on which they stood,” writes Gordon. It was a foregone conclusion: Washington Market and the area once called “Hell’s Hundred Acres” by deputy mayor Edward F. Cavanagh would give way for the lucrative skyscrapers that would come to symbolize downtown Manhattan.

On March 6, 1967, the New York City Terminal Market was officially opened and America’s largest fresh fruit and vegetable wholesale distribution center was born. The market gave New York’s economy a boost because taxes and employment were anchored to the city, while the new facilities enabled larger and faster trade and less waste. Additionally, competition was fierce: by concentrating the economic forces of supply and demand in one area, quality and price were assured.

“We had 125 people in the beginning,” says D’Arrigo. “The fruit auction didn’t move. They thought they were going to survive without the wholesale market. A year later they moved up here but they had already lost the thread and that went bye-bye. Strength in numbers.”

D’Arrigo speaks with an alternating blend of drawn-out emphases and staccato assertions. He’s fit and bald with a hint of the actor Stanley Tucci and often arrives at his office when nine-to-fivers are just waking up. He dons a headset while operating two landlines, a cell phone and a desktop.

“Hang on Big Al,” he says into the headset, picking up a second line.

Matthew D'Arrigo in his office at the Hunts Point Market.
Matthew D’Arrigo in his office at the Hunts Point Market.

“You’re babysitting the stuff, D’Arrigo says of his product. “It’s cheap, it’s perishable, [and] takes up a lot of room.”

He offers me a pallet of blackberries—that’s one ton—for free. It’s tongue-in-cheek if only for his assumption that I’m not driving a semi. A shipment of strawberries, one with more longevity than the “older” blackberries, was on its way in and he needed the room.

*   *   *

The fresh food supply for 23 million metropolitan New Yorkers depends on three fascinating and goliath facilities: Hunts Point Produce Market, Hunts Point Meat Market—which had spanned Washington Market and Gansevoort Market in the Meatpacking District before moving to the Bronx in 1974—and the New Fulton Fish Market, which relocated to the Bronx in 2005 after 183 years along the East River at South Street Seaport.

The Grand Central Station of Broccoli, as the market was deemed by New York Times reporter McCandlish Phillips shortly after opening, supplies 8.4 million New York City residents with 60% of their daily fruit and vegetables. Typically everything that comes into the wholesale market is moved out within 24 to 48 hours.

“The make-up of a berry,” says D’Arrigo, “is to not let it sit around for more than a day [once] it gets here. You want it in and you want it out.”

For New Yorkers and their food, “local” means “Bronx.” Far from fancy Manhattan bistros, display merchandising and coined marketing, these massive food complexes remain an unseen and unknown commodity for most New Yorkers.

This mystery begins along Food Center Drive. Out the window of an empty and idling Bx6 bus—the necessary transfer from the 6 train in order to arrive at the market—a Delta flight rises from LaGuardia Airport through a peaked sun above the East River. Below it is the Vernon C. Bain Correctional Center, a 100-cell, 800-bed, medium- to maximum-security prison barge, an extension of New York City’s main jail complex on Rikers Island, just a stone’s throw away. The Hunts Point Produce Market remains the largest employer in the Bronx where, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, 28% of residents live below the poverty line, almost double that of New York City’s population as a whole. According to D’Arrigo, around 7,000 people work here, either for the market, for the firms based here, or as part of what he calls “the buying crowd.”

Street signs next to NYC Terminal Market at Hunts Point.
Street signs next to NYC Terminal Market at Hunts Point.

The neighborhood does not have the best of reputations, in part because a bevy of news and entertainment outlets portray the area as ridden with crime, poverty, drugs and prostitution. Beginning in 2002, HBO aired the documentary series “Hookers At The Point,” which depicted the lives of prostitutes, many who were struggling with drug addictions, and their experiences with a range of clientele. HBO ceased its broadcast in 2010 after the Bronx borough president complained to network executives that the series presented an unrealistic and outdated image of an area long in the process of an environmental and cultural revitalization. That recent revitalization has included efforts from organizations such as The Point Community Development Corporation, which aims to empower at-risk youth. Also planned: dedicated clean air and water treatment solutions, and the South Bronx Greenway, a long-reaching series of natural habitats and parks along the East River, several components of which have already been completed, that will link the Hunts Point neighborhood to the waterfront.

As I step down from the bus to approach the produce market compound, the driver wishes me goodbye, aware of my intentions to see what this place is all about. “They see you snoopin’ around in there,” he says, “it’s no good.”

Dunk-height walls encase the market, barricading it from the airy industrial landscape outside. The walls run for miles, lining the market in alternating shades of faded concrete and striated sheet metal. Atop the barriers, thick plastic knots caught in chicken wire ripple in bursts like bugs gasping in futility for attention in a spider web. Across the street the affect of cartoon murals, perhaps painted to enliven the atmosphere, have aged into faded neglect, usurped by graffiti and swallowed into the tarmac surroundings. Junkyards, auto body shops, waste-processing facilities, parking stations, strip clubs, prisons, delis and pizza parlors—neighbors of the produce market—are open for business, many 24/7. I spot “Hoffa 2006” stickers plastered to signs and lampposts.

Graffiti fills the walls across the street from NYC Terminal Market in Hunts Point. Right: A visitor takes the pedestrian entrance into the market.
Graffiti fills the walls across the street from NYC Terminal Market in Hunts Point. Right: A visitor takes the pedestrian entrance into the market.

Next to the pedestrian entrance a mustached man idles, his boot kicked against the wall. His arm rests on a stack of boxes stamped “SWEET FUYU PERSIMMONS” that are branded with an instructional motto: “Eat Hard Like An Apple.” He puffs a cigarette, stamps it out, and loads his take into the back of a friend’s SUV before driving off.

As I approach the access booth, an 18-wheeler zooms by from the Sheridan Expressway, the market’s primary traffic artery. From behind glass, a security officer informs me that there’s no entering the premises unless I know with which wholesaler I’ll be conducting business.

I don’t know. A truck whizzes behind her.

“A & J Produce,” I say.

“A & J?”

“Yep. A & J.”

“I need your ID and three bucks. It’s number two twenty-three.”

And I’m in.

An MTA-like turnstile lets out onto an expanse of sun-bleached asphalt. To the left, a tollbooth serves as a main entrance for motor vehicles. Each year, 130,000 trucks come in and out of the Bronx behemoth. The terminal market was constructed to primarily receive rail and can accommodate 400 railcars at a time. Aged but functional rusty Union Pacific cars can be seen idling. According to Joel Fierman, the sleepy-eyed former president of the co-operative, the market facilitates visits from about 1,000 vans on a large day and 400 on a slower one. Produce arrives by boat and air from 49 states (all but Alaska) and 55 countries.

There’s an ordered chaos to parking, as security vehicles, employee cars, semis and small trucks abut like a transportation melting pot. As a result, the market looks more like a vehicular depot than the urban produce forest I had romantically envisioned.

Employees cleaning up the loading dock area where trucks were lined up just hours before.
Employees cleaning up the loading dock area where trucks were lined up just hours before.

Drivers have complained about ankle-deep puddles that form during rainstorms at the foot of the market’s lots due to uneven surfaces. Along the perimeters, pigeons can be seen waddling in small muddy piles of rotten or spilled produce and the vestiges of morning cigarette fixes. Consequently, the complex is cleaned on a daily basis. Market sanitation involves the picking up of wet waste on the streets, including produce, plastics and pieces of wood. Magnets attached to street sweepers pick up the rest, such as the nails that fall out of pallets during movement to and from the market’s 18,000 pallet positions.

“Years ago flat tires were all the talk of the market,” says Myra Gordon, the executive administrative director for Hunts Point Produce Market. “Not so anymore.”

The terminal produce market sits on 113 acres of land. Wholesale business operations occur within four main buildings—rows A through D—with the produce trade occurring along the platform floors, which run parallel to one another like the tines of a fork. The office corridors are narrow and mostly sunless, and metal doors are painted dark, separated by cool-to-the-touch off-white walls, reminiscent of a plain and impregnable detention ward. Traipsing down the deep, Shining-like hallways is disorientating. I get lost while searching for Gordon, an employee of two-and-a-half decades, who occupies an office above the Row A platform. I’m told she’s the one to go to—about everything.

Fifty yards away, a small woman charges in my direction, her shoes audibly commanding the tiles below. Mrs. Gordon’s eyes beam upward and lock onto mine. “Are you looking for me?”

Gordon runs the administrative duties for the market and has been here 27 years. She reminds me of my grandmother—a person whose eyes communicate wanting-the-best for you; who’s perhaps graying; whose pressed lapels showcase a lineup of shiny brooches; who gracefully  gets it done. Her default expression, as seen during periods of virtuous listening, is an open-mouthed smile. I wonder how long she’ll keep it up.

“At some point, in order to be fair to this place, I would not be able to do this humongous job,” Gordon says. “[It] really should be someone who’s a specialist in workers’ comp, general liability—I do all of that—[and] someone who is a specialist in public relations.”

Gordon’s office, much like the hallways, is stuck in time. It smells of kitty litter and vintage perfume. Papers are strewn this way and that. There’s a typewriter. And resting in the corner is a tan fabric couch fashioned with two pillows, each with its own sewn-on vegetable design—one eggplant, one carrot.

She makes a phone call.

“…[C]orned beef sandwiches with lettuce and tomato. No mayonnaise. Now read that back to me.”

A fourth role, apparently, is taking charge of catering for an upcoming meeting.

“It’s a cacophony out here,” Gordon says as we walk the Row A platform together one afternoon. “The faster you get [produce] in here, the faster you get it sold. It’s like the running of the bulls.”

Indeed it is. Manual pallet cars and forklift trucks own the space. The siding of one is fashioned with a bikini-clad centerfold ripped from a magazine and plastered onto the hard metal. At times it’s ankle-severing traffic. People are everywhere. Signs warn NO JACK RIDING! In places the concrete flooring is relatively clean. In others, where it’s wet and grimy, a dark slime outlines footprints and wheel marks—crisscrossed impressions of the processes at work, of people fed.

In total, Hunts Point Produce Market boasts one million square feet of interior space. Along the four platforms are 270 store units, each 1,500 square feet, the same size they were at Washington Market. According to D’Arrigo, whose family company is the market’s largest lessee, what was originally 125 merchants is now 41.

Produce is everywhere. Most fruits and vegetables look familiar, although I’m reliant on box labeling to identify some, such as rutabaga. The leafy greens are plush-to-the-touch and full of color; strawberries, plump and plentiful; persimmons, interesting and shiny; the Andy Boy-brand broccoli boasts stalks like redwoods trunks.

Employees work around stacks of boxes piled up in in front of an A&J Produce logistics booth.
Employees work around stacks of boxes piled up in in front of an A&J Produce logistics booth.
A small section displaying various items next to a logistics booth for A&J Produce.
A small section displaying various items next to a logistics booth for A&J Produce.
An employee at the A&J Produce section.
An employee at the A&J Produce section.

“New York has a very sophisticated eating population,” says Gordon. “There are 23,000 restaurants in the city but the average consumer doesn’t know. Kids in New York think their produce is grown on the shelf of the supermarket.”

“What’s that?” I ask, pointing to a box of what I would learn are cassavas.

“That’s a root vegetable,” she says. “A poor person’s item.”

Inside the warehouses are remarkable displays of specialized produce and processes. One Fierman Produce Exchange unit contains huge stacks of onion and potato sacks—items referred to as “hardware” because of their long shelf life—climbing nearly to the warehouse ceiling, requiring a forklift to bring them down. Inside the E. Armata tomato facility a long stainless steel machine manned by a handful of employees sorts the fruit based on their size and stage of ripening as they’re conveyed up a ridged metallic ramp. The process of separating the green tomatoes from the orange-pink, and yellows from the reds, enables a wholesaler to provide a more consistent product to match the demands of different types of clients. Delis, for example, require a particular size and color of tomato for slicing.

“Five-six is the [size] of a bigger tomato. Six-six is smaller. Six-seven is small,” says D’Arrigo. We only handle five-sixes here. This market only handles big size fruit. It doesn’t like small fruit.”

In front of the wholesaler warehouses are several logistics booths wherein orders are filled and sales are made in all directions: from suppliers to wholesalers, or from wholesalers to buyers, such as specialty purveyors, supermarkets, restaurants or even the sidewalk merchants who populate intersections across Manhattan. Depending on the size of the load, merchandise is transported from warehouses by hand, or (more commonly) mechanically across the platform, and reared into open-ended vehicles, some of which exhibit tags from NYC’s lower echelon of spray paint talent. From there, it’s marketed and resold amongst the general population.

One of the sales sections at D'Arrigo Bros. Co.
One of the sales sections at D’Arrigo Bros. Co.

“This is a night market,” says Gordon, waving to the rows of workers who greet her along the Row A platform. The healthy pace of the busy afternoon market we walk through pales in comparison to the fervent market activity that occurs from around 10 p.m. to sunrise.

“[It’s] a true marketplace,” says D’Arrigo—pure supply and demand—and there are no posted prices. As a result, it’s buyers versus sellers. Prices are generally higher earlier in the evening, and fall off after the highest-quality produce has been sold.

“You don’t sell your older product at ten at night,” says D’Arrigo. “You’re selling off the fresh stuff cause that’s what they want.”

As night turns to day, vendors look to see what haven’t sold, and why, and prices shift downward. “You’re doing your inventory control,” says D’Arrigo. “You’re troubleshooting, and you’re pushing stuff out. That’s when you see prices drop down, because it didn’t work at the market price so you gotta get it out of the door at a lesser price. Produce doesn’t [just] go from good to bad. It goes from good to not so good and then to average and then to, ‘Oh well we’re in trouble here.’ And then at the end you’re going to the guy at $3 who gets it out and repackages the whole damn thing and it ends up on a pushcart on Madison Avenue.”

“We are the number one salvage seller in America by far…by far,” says D’Arrigo. “People run to New York to get rid of it. They send us the extras. We’re the biggest in terms of selling waste product and cheaper product because of the peddler’s trade that’s in the marketplace. In Detroit or somewhere else—buyer’s markets—they throw it in the garbage. Those are firm price markets. We’re a very gray area market.”

Matthew D'Arrigo goes over sales receipt at one of D'Arrigo Bros. Co. logistics booth.
Matthew D’Arrigo goes over sales receipt at one of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. logistics booth.
Matthew D'Arrigo takes a bite out of an apple from the fruits section of D'Arrigo Bros. Co.
Matthew D’Arrigo takes a bite out of an apple from the fruits section of D’Arrigo Bros. Co.

Much of that overflow goes to local charities like City Harvest and NYC Food Bank, as well as to numerous schools in Hunts Point and around the Bronx.

“There are 250 charities in the Bronx [and] we probably donate to a good percentage of them,” says Gordon as we near the end of the tour. “If a school is having a Christmas party at the end of the year, they’ll come to us.”

“I have a rule of thumb,” D’Arrigo adds. “If I [donated produce] last year, I’m doing it again this year.”

*   *   *

Once again the Hunts Point Produce Market has reached a historic identity crisis, this time fraying at the seams of LBJ-era modernity. The 45-year-old facility has been pushed to the brink for a number of reasons, and the opening of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market, just 100 miles south in January 2011, offering typically-Hunts Point customers a shiny geographic alternative—and a picture of what could be—applies even more pressure.

Neighborhood politicians have continually lobbied to demap the Sheridan Expressway, which, according to D’Arrigo, brings in 90% of the Market’s traffic, in order to build parks, develop real estate, and improve public health. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation gave the city $1.5M to research potential outcomes of tearing down the mile-and-a-quarter long connector. “If we remove the Sheridan [truck drivers] have only one other way to go,” says D’Arrigo. He explains a circuitous route that involves the Major Deegan Expressway, I-87, the GW Bridge, “double-backing” and an extremely difficult ramp turn. “Plus, it’s a bad idea locally.”

In 2004, a study was conducted to assess opportunities for waterborne freight as a major shipping option in Hunts Point—which would shift transportation of food throughout the city from the roads to the rivers.

D’Arrigo says this isn’t a viable option, as it would add another day to shipments. “It can’t be for time-sensitive stuff,” he says. “A boat doesn’t move as fast as a truck.”

The Sheridan handles about 50,000 vehicles on a daily basis, most of which are doing business with the produce market. In 1998, a six-year-old girl was struck dead by what one Hunts Point community member has called, in The New York Times, the “killer trucks.” Last spring, in an apparent negotiating tactic, D’Arrigo inferred that if the Sheridan were razed it would be added incentive to move market operations elsewhere. Shortly thereafter the city nixed the usage of federal money to investigate tearing down the expressway.

There have been some efforts at compromise, such as the Hunts Point Clean Trucks Program, an initiative led by the New York City Department of Transportation. The program aims to replace older trucks that do business with Hunts Point facilities, with more modern, eco-friendly vehicles that adhere to cleaner engine emission standards.

D'Arrigo inspects a box of Tiger Figs
D’Arrigo inspects a box of Tiger Figs

Most pressing that the truck situation, however—at least for those who work at the market— is the fact that the Hunts Point Produce Market quite simply needs more space in order to serve the demands of the ever-growing population of greater New York. There are two apparent choices on the table: stay in the Bronx, where merchants currently pay the city $4.5M in annual rent, or go elsewhere.

To remain in the Bronx, an estimated $320M deal is under discussion that would renovate and retrofit current structures—and build more—but talks between New York City Economic Development Corp. and HPPM officials have continually seesawed.

“I would say we’re in a dormancy,” says D’Arrigo.

Renovations would ameliorate the Market’s current rail system, expand refrigeration operations, and add more pallet spaces to facilitate the movement of produce in and out of the market.

“[We’d] build row E and F,” D’Arrigo said in early 2012, “which would hold about 30,000 new pallet positions (for nearly 50,000 in total).”

The City, which owns the 105-acre plot of land on which the market operates, had originally agreed to put up $150 million from a variety of city, state, and federal sources and in September 2012, pledged another $25M, bringing its contribution to roughly half the cost of the proposed overhaul. In January 2013, the market’s merchants rejected a 10-year deal to remain in Hunts Point, in part because, as D’Arrigo told The Packer in March, “we feel we haven’t had the most crucial issue to us addressed properly by the city, [which is] the future role the Business Integrity Commission will take in regulating our market.”

Following this, New Jersey Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno said in a statement: “I look forward to continuing to work with Hunts Point to persuade them New Jersey is a great alternative to their cramped and outdated facilities in the Bronx.” In 1960, before the move to Hunts Point, New Jersey had attempted to woo New York’s produce vendors to Jersey City, as they faced similar conditions.

“[N]o one knows what the future will bring,” says D’Arrigo.

The Business Integrity Commission (BIC) was created during the Giuliani years as a trade/waste commission and then became an organized crime and control operation. It generally acts as a regulatory watchdog for the market, keeping vigilance on the inner workings of market activity, including employees, but the co-operative has stated that it believes BIC is overreaching on its authority. One point of contention, according to D’Arrigo, is that the commission would like to potentially regulate the market’s hours of operation and, according to a 2012 Times report, produce operators complained the commission was “showering delivery and storage trucks with parking tickets.”

Matthew D'Arrigo in the fruits section managed by his brother, Michael.
Matthew D’Arrigo in the fruits section managed by his brother, Michael.

A 2006 BIC investigation called “Operation Rotten Apple” linked eleven people to a sports betting outfit that generated an estimated $200,000 in profit yearly. The Police Commission, and ultimately the press, pinned the gambling ring to a mob-backed wholesaler at the produce market. This in turned shined a negative light on the market, displaying it in ink as corrupt and chaotic. “It wasn’t even a co-op member,” says D’Arrigo. “[The press] was very misleading. They called this guy ‘one of the largest wholesalers’ up in Hunts Point and he’s not even a wholesaler in the market. He’s a purveyor customer who delivers delicatessens. They slimed us.” He shakes his head and laughs. “I’ve been here 27, 28 years. There are no mobsters here. I always say there’s disorganized crime in the market.”

While BIC has been a thorn in the market’s side, the co-operative can surely appreciate a desire to maintain order. The urgency of the experiences during 9/11 has instilled a deeper need to ensure safety for the food distribution processes at hand. Since then the market has taken precautions, among them the retraining of Department of Public Safety officials who now carry pistols, employing NYC Peace Officers, and instituting a special counsel for building risk management.

“Delivery was a nightmare [on 9/11],” recalls Joel Fierman, a fourth generation owner. “Trucks would get stopped and inspected everywhere [and] come back 12 hours later. Shippers would call and ask, ‘What do you need?’ and I would tell them, ‘I’m not sure I need anything.’”

D’Arrigo calls it “a paradigm shift in thinking.”

Matthew D'Arrigo with his brother, Michael, who handles the Fruits department at D'Arrigo Bros. Co.
Matthew D’Arrigo with his brother, Michael, who handles the Fruits department at D’Arrigo Bros. Co.

The existence of food systems such as Hunts Point means that we don’t have to forage for ourselves anymore. In times of hunger, we shop, not garden. So what would have to happen to change the way we view our eating realities, from a passive standpoint—i.e. how we are fed—to an active, even carnal one, i.e. how we feed? One answer: crisis. The wholesale distribution facilities at Hunts Point are concentrated, more or less abutting each other, so what ills affect one could likely strike its neighbor(s). The lessons of 9/11—here, of the potentiality of the destruction of an entire food complex—are stark. In times of emergency, if the system collapses or the well runs dry because of evils—disasters natural or otherwise—are we prepared to fend for ourselves as a society, a city, a borough, a family, an individual? Gordon guesses that there’s enough food supply in New York City to last anywhere from 2.5 to four days. How will countless New Yorkers be fed after that’s been tapped?

Gordon offers history and a different type of crisis—war—as insight. “During World War we didn’t have the ability to feed a major population because your farmers were off dedicated to the effort,” she says. In turn, families planted “victory gardens” (aka “war gardens”) at home or in public parks to ease the pressure on the public food supply. The Department of Agriculture marketed these self-supported gardens as morale boosters; “green” propaganda for the greater good that today, in a sense, takes on the rhetorical and ethical shape of “sustainability.” The New York metropolitan area, however, is not the farmland it once was. Furthermore, the average New Yorker’s understanding of growing produce extends perhaps just beyond a grade-school ability to place a seed down a Dixie cup and water on occasion.

“The consumer today is not the consumer of yesterday,” says Gordon. “Don’t forget we were very much an agrarian economy a hundred years ago. My father came from a farming family in Farmington, New Jersey. When I first moved into my house [he] came up and was going to tell me how to weed. I was pulling these weeds and he [said], ‘That’s shav!’ and I said, ‘no, it’s a weed, it’s killing my lawn!’ When you were poor you could pick shav, this little green thingie that grew along the roadways, and make soup with it. It’s very nourishing.”

Matthew D'Arrigo at a storage section of D'Arrigo Bros. Co.
Matthew D’Arrigo at a storage section of D’Arrigo Bros. Co.

As D’Arrigo and his coworkers are well aware, crisis could always be just around the corner. During Hurricane Sandy the Market’s parking lots were flooded, but the cement platform and warehouses were protected because the base of the market’s buildings are four feet high and serve as a sort of architectural moor

Perhaps a more pressing issue than flooding is the possibility of a power outage. D’Arrigo says emergency generator power is being discussed as part of the talks with NYCEDC, as losing refrigeration for an extended period could cause tons of produce to spoil.

Poster image # 3 of 3 for "Andy Boy Broccoli" ads.
Poster image # 3 of 3 for “Andy Boy Broccoli” ads.

Despite any disasters that come their way, the Hunts Point Produce Market continues to feed the City That Never Sleeps with consistency. This is in large part because family businesses like the D’Arrigos’ have operated seamlessly in different locales for over one hundred years.

One of the vintage Andy Boy ads in D’Arrigo’s office shows a strawberry-blonde-haired girl in white tights and a flower-print dress watering a potted head of broccoli that comes up to her waist. In her right hand is a dirty trowel. The tagline reads: “The only way you can get it fresher.” Indeed.

D’Arrigo speaks vulnerably of his “quite eccentric” mother who, at 87, still walks five miles a day and recently took her twelve grandchildren on a five-day camping trip along the Colorado River. “After the move to Hunts Point, my mother drove over to the old [D’Arrigo] offices at 308 Washington St. where my dad’s old building was, took bricks from the torn-down building, [and] packed it in the back of [her] station wagon. With a little cement mixture we built this little terrace in the backyard. It’s still there.”

*   *   *

Jonathan Zalman is a New York-based journalist, editor and teacher. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Produce Business and on ESPN.com. Connect with him on Twitter @ZalmanJ, or email him at jonathan.zalman@gmail.com.

Emon Hassan, Narratively’s Director of Video & Multimedia, is a New York-based filmmaker and photographer. He is also a contributor to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook & Google+.

40 Years Ago, an Alabama Jury Proved White Supremacists Could Be Brought to Justice

The long-delayed trial of the KKK bomber meant white southerners like me—and my aunt, who was on the jury—could no longer ignore the evil around us.

Uncle Bobby sat on my grandmother’s couch with a hangdog look and a brown paper sack. I wasn’t used to seeing him this way. Tall, lanky, bearded, and gruff, Uncle Bobby dispensed orders and opinions. On Monday, November 14, 1977, he delivered tampons.

His wife, my Aunt Nell, was sequestered for a jury. A bailiff called with her request: clothes, her Bible, and a large bag of feminine hygiene products.

Searching through the Birmingham Public Library archives 40 years later, I find a photograph of Aunt Nell, Juror 149, leaving the courtroom of the biggest case in the city’s civil rights history. I note first that Uncle Bobby brought her white slacks. Next, in her right hand, I see a crumpled tissue. She’s crying.

Jury members leave the courtroom. Aunt Nell wears white slacks, and in her right hand is a crumpled tissue. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

At 16, I thought only of myself. Nell was the cool aunt, the party aunt who packed a large green Impala full of giggling teenage girls each Friday night and drove to football games, past cute boys’ houses, or to rock concerts. How long was this sequester? Would we miss KISS?

My cousin Tracy, 14, and I pestered her dad with questions. Could we ride downtown with him? Could he drive by Penny Pet Food billboard, so we could watch the dog’s tongue loll and its tail wag?

Maybe we could get on television!

“No!”

Uncle Bobby dashed our hopes with a bark. He wasn’t taking girls to any courthouse where Dynamite Bob was on trial.

* * *

On the morning of September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, each 14, and Denise McNair, 11, were busily primping in the basement ladies’ room of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for a special Youth Day program when a dynamite blast tore out the church’s east side. The explosion’s force blew off their frilly Sunday dresses and sent concrete fragments flying through their skulls. Relatives identified them by their ash-covered patent-leather shoes.

A local Ku Klux Klan faction targeted the church for its visible presence in the civil rights movement. Protestors had gathered at Sixteenth Street multiple times earlier that year for mass meetings of the Birmingham Campaign to confront one of segregation’s most violently defended bastions. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” after his arrest in a downtown march. In May, a protest called the “Children’s Crusade” left from the church to face Jim Crow. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor ordered police to attack the young demonstrators with dogs and firemen to hit them with water cannons. Photographs and video footage shocked the world. Embarrassed civic leaders agreed to hire black workers and desegregate downtown stores and businesses.

But the chaos was not yet over. In early September, not long after the March on Washington and King’s “I Have Dream” speech, a few city schools admitted the first black students. A violent backlash ensued. White students at three high schools rioted. Local civil rights activists’ homes were firebombed. Governor George Wallace did nothing to help. Earlier that summer, he famously blocked the way of two black students trying to integrate the University of Alabama, making good on words from his inaugural address, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

On Tuesday, September 10th, President John F. Kennedy bypassed Wallace, federalizing the Alabama National Guard and sending the troops to schools to keep order.

On Friday the 13th, the city remained awash in hot-rods flying Confederate flags on their radio antennas and hanging signs from their windows that said “Keep Birmingham Schools White.”

On Sunday the church exploded.

The blast resonated across the nation. The “four little girls,” as the victims were collectively known, inspired poetry, fiction, visual art, and music. Their deaths galvanized support for the movement, leading to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Back in Birmingham, the FBI and local police chased each other’s tails around a slipshod investigation that went nowhere. Fourteen years passed before Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, the Sixteenth Street bombing’s ringleader, was brought to trial.

* * *

My grandmother, a recent widow and a newly employed nurse, brought her children to Birmingham in the late 1940s from Alabama’s Appalachian foothills. Granny was excited to find a place to live near her job at Hillman Hospital downtown, in the city’s first housing project for whites. Elyton Village sat on Center Street, ten blocks south of an emerging civil rights showdown.

In 1947, a federal judge ruled Birmingham’s 1926 race-based zoning laws unconstitutional. Middle class black families began purchasing bungalows from white owners along north Center Street. Then their bungalows blew up. Between 1947 and 1965, more than 50 racially motivated bomb attacks occurred.

Neither Aunt Nell nor my mother remembered the explosions that gave Birmingham its nickname, “Bombingham,” although many took place close to where they lived. Perhaps to shield her girls, my grandmother said the rumbling came from “danny-mite,” as she pronounced it, in local coal and iron ore mines.

Down the road from what later became known as “Dynamite Hill,” my mother fought her own battle. One morning, a neighbor girl called her “poor.” After school, Mom waited for her behind a bush. When the girl roller-skated past, Mom jumped out and pummeled her face into the concrete. Not long afterward, my grandmother got a better job and moved her daughters from Elyton Village to East Lake, a working class community five miles east of downtown. Even though Mom got a spanking for her violence, she told the story proudly.

“We fought our way out of nothing,” she said. “Don’t let anyone try to drag you down to their level.”

A group of African Americans view the bomb-damanged home of Arthur Shores, an NAACP attorney in Birmingham, September 5, 1963. Explosions became so frequent that Birmingham earned the nickname, “Bombingham.” (Photo by Trikosko, Marion S., courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress)

I had been a civil rights educator for two decades when Aunt Nell mentioned the little black girl my late mother beat up.

I heard this story all my life and missed the obvious.

“Of course the girl was black, baby.”

Aunt Nell, now in her 70s, is the kind of Southern lady that calls everybody “baby.” The kind that cooks supper for her Baptist church on Wednesdays, prepares the programs for Sunday service on Thursdays, and visits shut-ins on Saturdays. Still the cool aunt, but no longer the party aunt, Nell has silver hair, which complements her steel blue eyes. Her walker, named “Mr. Walker,” goes with her everywhere after Uncle Bobby’s passing.

Aunt Nell and Mr. Walker have been through all Twelve Steps. She does not shy away from honest answers.

“Baby, your momma wouldn’t have hurt a white girl so bad for calling her poor.”

Flashing into my mind: the scene from Spike Lee’s 1997 documentary “4 Little Girls,” where Maxine McNair shows the director the piece of concrete that was embedded in her daughter Denise’s head.

* * *

The news media focused on shoes. The Associated Press circulated a photograph of Maxine McNair’s father, F.L. Pippen, and another man running from the church carrying Denise’s shoe. Pippen had just pulled Denise’s body from the rubble.

Eugene Patterson, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, published a column the next day that used the image to create a sense of empathy – and shame – in his white readership. “A Flower for the Graves,” read later that night on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, argued that the responsibility for the bombing did not lie only with the act’s perpetrators but with all white Southerners who, as Patterson stated, “created a climate for child-killing.” He described a grieving mother holding a shoe that belonged to her dead child. “Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand,” Patterson stated. “Let us see it straight and look at the blood on it. Let us compare it with the unworthy speeches of Southern public men who have traduced the Negro; match it with the spectacle of shrilling children whose parents and teachers turned them free to spit epithets at small huddles of Negro school children for a week before this Sunday in Birmingham; hold up the shoes and look beyond it to the state house in Montgomery where the official attitudes of Alabama have been spoken in heat and anger.”

Patterson urged his readers to do better, to “plant a flower of nobler resolve” on the girls’ graves. “We created the day,” he said. “We bear the judgment.”

* * *

The FBI and local police knew who bombed Sixteenth Street, but the investigation dragged on for years with no prosecution.

Bob Chambliss topped everyone’s suspect list. A craggy faced drinking and fighting man, Chambliss learned the explosives trade in Birmingham’s iron ore mines. In 1963, the 59-year-old Chambliss officially worked in Birmingham’s city garage. Unofficially, he worked for Bull Connor setting fuses on Dynamite Hill.

Robert E. Chambliss’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy the Birmingham Public Library Department of Archives and Manuscripts)

The FBI had been monitoring Chambliss and his KKK cronies through an informant, Gary Thomas Rowe. A black female eyewitness named Gertrude “Kirthus” Glenn reported seeing a 1957 Chevy (later traced to Chambliss’s friend Thomas Blanton, Jr.) near the church the night before the bombing, and a man matching the description of either Chambliss or another suspect, Bobby Frank Cherry, inside the car. But her testimony alone could not be the foundation for a trial against white men, especially considering that another potential eyewitness, the white police officer on duty that night was Floyd Garrett, Chambliss’s nephew. Chambliss and two other men, John Hall and Charles Cagle, were picked up for possessing and transporting dynamite. They paid a $100 fine and received a suspended sentence. No other arrests were made. In 1965, local authorities named Cherry, Blanton, and another man, Herman Cash, as primary suspects, with Chambliss as the ringleader. Yet in 1968, the FBI closed the case, and director J. Edgar Hoover sealed the files.

* * *

My grandmother told me that the Sunday of the church bombing, friends called her from the hospital where she worked, warning her not to come downtown. The dead and wounded had come there, and “they” – meaning black people – were rioting.

Granny said that she gathered me, a toddler, into her arms and headed to the hallway in the middle of her house, where we sheltered during tornadoes, singing hymns while waiting for the storms to pass.

Sixteenth Street Baptist’s minister, John Cross, tried to calm the unrest by reciting Psalms 23, the Lord’s Prayer, from a bullhorn in front of the church.

Two youths died in the day’s violence. A white police officer shot Johnny Robinson, 16, in the back. White teenagers shot Virgil Ware, 13, at random.

Younger activists such as Diane Nash and James Bevel grew so angry over the continuing miscarriage of justice that they challenged King’s stance on non-violence. After much soul-searching debate, a consensus emerged to fight for the right to vote and get men like Bull Connor out of office.

The strategy worked. The tangled emotions—the grief, the shame, the rage—that fueled Eugene Patterson to write “A Flower for the Graves” and thousands to converge on places like Mississippi in 1964 and Selma in 1965, manifested themselves in two pieces of civil rights legislation. Both put Dynamite Bob on a collision course with a Birmingham courtroom.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act changed who voted, which changed who served on juries, and who got elected to judge and prosecutor positions. A young white law student named Bill Baxley vowed in 1963 that he would one day do something about the church bombing. When he became the state’s Attorney General in 1970, he immediately started digging into the church bombing case.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act changed who had access to public space. The church bombing sent a message that black citizens had no rights to public facilities, no rights to stores, no rights to schools, no rights to the most sacred places. Voting shifted the city’s demographic from one that was majority white and dominated by Jim Crow violence to one that was primarily black and ready to tell a new movement story. That storytelling process would start with the 1977 Chambliss prosecution and reach its fruition in 2013 with a monument to the four girls on the fifty-year anniversary of their murder. “Four Spirits,” by locally born artist Elizabeth MacQueen, features bronze statues of each girl – one beckoning visitors, another releasing doves – and a bench for rest and reflection. The monument sits at the center of a large memorial complex that includes the church, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a walking tour, and multiple works of public art in a park that used to be famous for police dogs and fire hoses. Such a space sends a very different message from that of 1963: that the story about the fight for justice, equality, and freedom will occupy a significant portion of the city’s newly defined civic identity.

* * *

The 1977 Chambliss case was shaky, but Baxley pushed ahead because the time was right. Old-guard civil rights warriors tired of justice too long delayed. New Birmingham looked forward to words like “closure” and “healing.”

The trial opened on November 14. The charge was the murder of Denise McNair. Baxley told me in an April 2013 interview, “you can murder someone without knowing them if you set a bomb intending to do harm.” The state made four separate murder indictments, one for each girl. The judge, Wallace Gibson, ruled that the trial would go forward on one indictment only, an odd decision that would prove decisive. The jury was made up of nine white and three black members. Aunt Nell was an unlikely choice. She went to high school with defending attorney Art Hanes, Jr., and Hanes’s secretary Suzy was my mother’s best friend. I asked him in a May 2013 interview about the selection. He said that because his father had been Birmingham’s mayor (from 1961 to 1963) it was hard to find jury members he didn’t know. I asked Baxley also. He did not remember Juror 149 specifically, but he had a definite trial strategy that Aunt Nell fit. She was a Christian, a homemaker, and a mom. Her daughter (my cousin Tracy) was in 1977 about the same age as Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise when they died.

The evidence against Chambliss: he purchased a case of dynamite; he knew how to construct the specific, and rare, kind of fishing-bobber and metal bucket detonator used at Sixteenth Street; he was seen near the church the night before. But more important than any of that was Chambliss himself. Aunt Nell said she based her decision to convict on “his arrogance, his hatred, and his niece.”

For Aunt Nell, the niece Elizabeth Hood Cobbs’ testimony was the trial’s turning point. In 1963, Elizabeth Hood was in her early twenties. By 1977, she was divorced, a mother of one, and a Methodist minister named Elizabeth Cobbs. She stated under oath that she came to Chambliss’s house during the school riots and found him noticeably agitated, cursing, and using racial epithets. “Just wait till after Sunday morning,” he told her. “They will beg us to let them segregate.”He had enough dynamite “to flatten half of Birmingham,” he claimed. Cobbs was at the house after the bombing, when news reports stated that murder charges might possibly be filed. “It wasn’t meant to hurt anybody,” Chambliss told the television. “It didn’t go off when it was supposed to.”

On November 17, 1977, Baxley made his closing argument. He noted that the day would have been Denise McNair’s 26th birthday, and by then she likely would have been a mother herself. He told the jury that it was their “duty” to convict.

At 4:10 pm they went into the jury room to begin deliberations. Five hours went by with no verdict. The judge allowed them to retire for the evening so they could get some sleep and start fresh the next morning. What happened during those five hours?

Aunt Nell told me that she had no doubt how she would vote.

“Baby, that man was guilty as sin,” she says. “You could see it in his face the minute he strolled into that courtroom like he owned it. You could see it in the way he stared at his niece.”

Not all jury members saw what Aunt Nell did. They spent their five hours reviewing the evidence piece by piece: witness testimony, intricate details about bomb building, Chambliss’s whereabouts in September 1963, morgue photos. Then they voted: 11-1. One white man remained unconvinced. The deliberations were exhausting and painful, Aunt Nell remembers, but not acrimonious. The man needed more time. The jury ate dinner: something from room service that Aunt Nell doesn’t remember. She does recall marking her Bible. Jeremiah chapter 29, verse 11: “For I know the thoughts I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, not of evil, to give you an expected end.” Aunt Nell slept well trusting that her Lord had a plan. The jury started up the next day a little after eight a.m. Two hours later they voted again.

On November 18, 1977, at 10:40 a.m. the jury returned a guilty verdict and set the sentence at life in prison. Chambliss served his time in a solitary cell.

The conviction established a new precedent for civil rights era crimes. Cold case prosecutions became increasingly common over the next few decades. In 1994, a Jackson, Mississippi jury convicted Byron de la Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers. In 2005, another Mississippi jury found Edgar Ray Killen guilty for the murder of three voting rights activists during 1964’s Freedom Summer. Such “atonement trials,” as historian Jack Davis calls them, were important to people in places like Birmingham, who wanted to leave a violent past behind.

Some people have a different take on redemption. Chambliss died in 1985, still saying his Klan brothers did it, not him.

Ten years after Chambliss’s death, the F.B.I. reopened their investigation files. With new evidence unavailable to Baxley in 1977, Doug Jones, then the U.S. Attorney for Alabama’s Northern District (and now a candidate in the special election for Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat) successfully prosecuted the co-conspirators who remained alive, Thomas Blanton in 2000, and Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002. The other suspect, Herman Cash, died in 1994. After Cherry’s conviction, news headlines nationally spoke of “healing” and “closure.”

* * *

In “A Flower for the Graves,” Eugene Patterson claimed that the moral responsibility for the church bombing lay not with men like Chambliss who planted the dynamite at Sixteenth Street but with white Southerners who, by their overt actions or their silence, created fertile ground for violence. Both Art Hanes and my Aunt Nell taught me a lot about justice and accountability.

Hanes said that he lost the case in the defense. During the prosecution, Hanes was aggressive, objecting to anything related to the use of words such as “dynamite” or “bomb.” He even got the judge to cut those words out of the coroner’s report with a penknife. During the defense, as Hanes called up one motley character witness after another, his attitude shifted. He stopped pushing. He stopped objecting. He seemed resigned. I asked him what happened. He told me that he had planned to call only one witness: Chambliss himself. When it came time, Chambliss said, “I ain’t gettin’ up there.” Hanes said that was his epiphany.

One needs his backstory to understand. Art Hanes, Jr. was a Princeton educated partner in his father’s law firm. The firm defended the worst of the worst: Chambliss, the white men who killed Selma civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo, and, briefly, James Earl Ray for killing Martin Luther King, Jr. Hanes claimed that he came out of law school “idealistic.” He told me, “Jefferson says that, ‘You judge a society not by how it treats its privileged but how it treats its meanest wretch.’ I came out of law school saying, ‘I can represent the meanest wretch.’” But in that courtroom, he said that he changed his mind: “I was not going to spend the rest of my life bleeding on those counsel tables.” He still worked in murder trials, but when Medgar Evers’s murderer Byron de la Beckwith tried to hire him in 1994, Hanes said no. No more being “on the wrong side of history.”

I asked him if he thought Birmingham had redeemed itself from the wrong side of history. Not nearly enough, he said, despite the prosecutions and the memorials: “We can’t adjust to a new society until all of us who were raised in a segregated America are gone… To me, all those things are current events. You can’t put them behind you and think of them as past.”

* * *

Aunt Nell and I also talk a lot about the past and change. Sometimes we drive past the places she has lived since moving to Birmingham. In 2013, the county just south of Birmingham where much of the city’s white population took flight after integration, received word from the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County v. Holder ruling. The court stated that federal election monitors were no longer necessary in places with a history of Jim Crow, even though voter discrimination might still persist. We could not help but notice the wealthy extravagance of the lavish malls and sprawling gated communities we saw in Shelby County’s northern suburbs compared to the fast food restaurants, pawnshops, and bail bondsmen in predominantly black East Lake and Elyton Village.

Who needs KKK dynamite when you can just turn your back?

Yet Birmingham’s civil rights memorial complex, just west of the city’s central business and shopping district, is lovely – all green space and public art. Aunt Nell and I visited near the church bombing’s 50th anniversary. I asked her what she was doing while the famous “dogs and fire hoses” incidents were taking place downtown. “I cared and I didn’t,” she said, “because it didn’t affect me. I was into my own life, doing my own things. I was a young mother. But when I sat on that jury, it really opened my eyes.”

We stood at the corner where “Four Spirits,” the memorial to Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise now stands, diagonally across from the church. Off to one side, the artist set a small pair of bronze shoes.

Maxine McNair kept the ash-covered patent leather shoe, along with the bloodstained piece of concrete that she showed to Spike Lee, in a box for decades after she lost eleven-year-old Denise.

My cousin Tracy and I survived our teens, went to plenty of rock concerts and football games, had children of our own, enjoying all the rights and privileges Birmingham daughters deserve.

Aunt Nell looked over at the church then out at Birmingham’s sleek skyline and sighed, “It makes you wonder how all that could go on and you just didn’t know. I guess you could call it ignorance.

“But it wasn’t.”

The Elizabeth MacQueen statue, “Four Spirits” statue at Kelly Ingram Park, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. (Photo by Ted Tucker, courtesy the Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau)

I Met My Long-Lost Brother…And I Was Overcome With Lust

I was 34 years old and it was a primal attraction I couldn’t control. But this was before I discovered Johnny’s dark predilections.

My brother Johnny had just been paroled from the Georgia state prison system when I found my birth family. When the train taking me to the reunion pulled into the Savannah station, Johnny was waiting on the platform with my sister Belinda and my brother Mike. Already in tears, I went for my sister first, and then Mike, while Johnny stood quietly and waited his turn to hug me.

Johnny was dark, like me and our mother, who’d died the previous year. His eyes were my eyes, his lips were my lips. He had a dimple on one cheek that appeared when he smiled, just like me. He was a good-looking man, as were all my brothers. He’d just been released from prison; his body was meaty and well-nourished.

Learning I was related to someone with felony convictions didn’t bother me; I was no saint, for one thing, and I’d also been a criminal defense lawyer for ten years by then. Nothing could shock me, I thought.

Riding that train for twenty hours, I swung wildly between worries and hopes about what life inside a new family would mean to me. My mother had been fifteen when I was born, and just three months later she married the man who would be the father of the rest of her children, a daughter and five sons. I’d been adopted as an infant by a family up North. My siblings grew up with my mother and their father. This would be my first time meeting them. Would they be so different from me that I’d be repelled? Or would I snap into place with them? I’d learned a little about them all from letters and phone calls. It sounded like most of my five brothers were a lot like my clients. Unlike some defense lawyers I knew, I liked my clients – and I liked the no-frills, no-bullshit, blue-collar culture of people who were poor and struggling. I liked rule-breakers.

At the train station, and all during the week of my first visit to Savannah, Johnny and I spent long minutes staring into each other’s eyes. I was under a spell of fascination with the resemblance I’d been missing my whole life as an adopted person, and although I looked like all of my siblings in some way, the resemblance was strongest between Johnny and me. He was the sort of man who wouldn’t look away from another person’s gaze; probably, I thought, a habit picked up in prison, where to look away meant weakness. I was 34 then, and he was six years younger than me. I wanted to be literally in touch, as if separating from him physically would tear off a piece of my skin.

A book I’d read before getting on the train, The Adoption Triangle, had prepared me for those sorts of feelings. Of the many stories of adoption reunions, there were a few of brothers and sisters, and mothers and sons, who fell headlong in love, intoxicated by “deep, unrestrained love” and “intense, incestual feelings.” This didn’t surprise or disgust me when I read about it, or even when I experienced it myself. After all, it’s easy to confuse love with sex and sex with love.

I’d devoured stories of brother-sister incest all of my life: Wuthering Heights, Ada, The God of Small Things, Game of Thrones. It wasn’t me who’d turned those stories into bestsellers and critically-acclaimed classics. The attraction I felt wasn’t a sign of deviance, but I didn’t plan to act on it.

* * *

Soon after I got back to New England from that first visit to Savannah, Johnny was arrested on a burglary charge. Confined in the local jail, he charmed the female relative of an employee into helping him escape. He was picked up again within days. A few months later, I traveled to Savannah again, this time with one of my courtroom outfits packed away.

I dressed up like a lawyer to visit my brother in jail, and brought the maximum number of boxes of Marlboros allowed. We sat in an open visitation area at one of fifty tables. We held hands, the only contact allowed. Rules meant to prevent revealing attire were enforced against female visitors. In spite of that, the women visiting their men turned up the heat with the arch of their spines, the curves of their lips. Their heat spread to me, and I caught myself looking down at my breasts, which swelled against the silk blouse I wore, and I felt the same heat from Johnny.

Psychologists will say we repeat our families’ pathologies because we try, as adults, to rebuild the patterns we know. I’d always been attracted to reckless men like my brothers, even though I didn’t grow up with men like that. Once I met my brothers, I decided my desire was simpler and deeper than trying to replicate a childhood pattern; it was blood calling to blood.illo_2 For the next few years, Johnny and I communicated through letters while he was locked up. I learned, partly through his letters from prison, and partly through what others told me, that he’d been institutionalized at seven years old and given shock treatments and anti-psychotic medications. He’d been sexually abused by staff at that institution, and later in juvenile offender facilities and foster homes, where he was called “hyperactive.”

By sixteen, he was living on the streets, and he’d survived by stealing and prostituting himself. “If the price was right,” he wrote in one of his letters, “but as I got older and wiser, I started just robbing them kind of people.” By the time he reached his twenties, he’d spent half of his life incarcerated.

Johnny’s prison terms and deep dives into heavy drug use kept him away from all but one of the series of beach-house reunions I staged in the first ten years after I found my family. I was fixated on having everyone under one roof at the same time, trying to recreate the family-that-would-have-been if my mother hadn’t given me up, and I was oblivious to reasons why that might not be a good idea.

That one he made it to was in the fifth year of my reunion with my family, after I’d left my first husband and sold my law practice, after I’d started teaching college classes. That year, I began drinking with my brothers, and drinking hard, as I had in my teenage years and early twenties.

My uncle’s redheaded wife was the person in our family who most often told it like it was. When Johnny was released, and it looked like he would make it to the fifth beach-house reunion, she took me aside to tell me to watch him around children, and to explain why her husband – my uncle – didn’t want to be around my brother. When their daughter was three years old, they’d left her in then fourteen-year-old Johnny’s care and had come home to him with his pants down, his penis in the little girl’s mouth, and him saying “Just suck on it like it’s a bottle.”

I wondered why my other brothers, or my sister, hadn’t told me Johnny had molested our cousin. Maybe they believed it wasn’t necessary because he was safely locked away so soon after I met him. Maybe they saw that I loved Johnny, and they knew love had been in short supply in his life. Maybe they wanted me to love him, and they were afraid I’d recoil in disgust. But I didn’t.

In that fifth year, in a crowded two-bedroom beach house on holding over a dozen people, where I was hell-bent on recreating the family dynamic I never had, I lay down on the Berber carpet in the room where four of my little nieces were sleeping in a bed. Johnny lay down a few feet away from me. He and I were the last ones up after a night of full-throttle drinking. Other than the time I visited him in jail, this was the first time we’d been together since my first trip to Savannah. I’d been watching him around the children, the youngest of whom at that time were four-year-old Brandon, who was sleeping on a couch with his mother, and six-year-old Candi, who was one of the little girls in the bed. I hadn’t seen anything amiss.

I punched a pillow down under my neck to make the floor more comfortable, and then I reached back and pulled Johnny to me. It was the familial love, the call of blood to blood, and it was sexual.

“Don’t do that, Michele,” he said. “Please, don’t do that.”

I stopped, realizing the wrongness of what I’d just done, and realizing I couldn’t get away with it. I’d just turned forty, and I was informed enough to know better. And then I passed out.

When I woke at dawn, Johnny was a few feet away from me on the floor, snoring heavily. The girls were all still asleep in the bed. Nothing had happened. But what if? And even drunk, how could I have made that move with the children sleeping in the room? In a life full of bad acts, that move is the act I’m most ashamed of, even though it didn’t go any further than a gesture, even though my brother, the convicted felon, stopped me cold and saved me from myself.

* * *

His final conviction was for armed robbery. By that time, I was of two minds about him being in prison: it was violent, dangerous and dehumanizing, but safer than the street, where there was nothing at all to protect him.

At forty, he was no longer young and strong enough to rebound from privations and beatings, no longer quick enough to evade the rage of people he stole from, and on his way to becoming the homeless man who creeps around the edges of a campfire, snatching at scraps, and getting kicked for it.illo_3

He was in prison in 2004 when my brother Rudy and his wife, who were addicts, signed the papers to give me guardianship of their daughter, my niece Candi. She’d just turned thirteen, and over Cherry Coke slushies, she told me Johnny had molested her, too, when she was about three years old. Her parents had gone out to score some drugs and had left him in charge of her and some other children. He brought her into a bedroom and started licking her private parts. He was an adult, not a confused fourteen-year-old kid. His assault on my little cousin wasn’t an isolated incident. I had to admit my brother had a predilection for molesting little girls.

I wrote to tell Johnny I knew what he’d done to Candi, that she was living with me, that I still loved him, and that the next time he got out, I’d try to see him on his own, away from the kids.

Current research leans toward the conclusion that pedophilia is hardwired, a sexual preference like heterosexuality or homosexuality that emerges in adolescence and is pretty much exclusive to men. But only about fifty percent of the men who molest children are actually pedophiles; the other fifty percent are men with histories of violence or personality disorders. Those men tend to molest family members. I wondered which category my brother fell into, and whether it mattered.

Candi is twenty-five now. I messaged her, told her what I was writing about, and asked, does it matter to her? She told me no, the why didn’t matter, but knowing Johnny was also abused helped her to let go of wondering why. And then she added: “Some of the worst things can become our biggest blessings. I’ve decided to heal and to not let that control me, so I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not hiding anymore.” I was reminded of my little cousin, who is now forty years old, and a conversation she and Candi had about Johnny, how my cousin said, “There can’t be any dark secrets if you don’t keep them in the dark.”

One dark afternoon, Candi and I went to the boardwalk near the pier at Jacksonville Beach to see the ocean after a hurricane. The air was still tropical, and the waves still curled like rows of fists, ready to pound the sand. The wind blew her long blond hair around her shoulders, and we both spread our arms wide to feel the uplift, to pretend we could rise up at any moment and fly.

She didn’t notice the man sitting next to the Coast Guard station, the dark man with wild hair and a wild beard and the ruddy look of someone who’d been outdoors and drunk for months. But I saw him. How could I not? He stared back at me with my own eyes. We held each other’s gaze for a few long moments. I tried to figure out a way to distract Candi so I could go over to Johnny and tell him I loved him. But the boardwalk was empty, and the shops were shuttered closed. I turned my face from his, and hustled Candi into the car with the promise of a stop for Chinese food. I looked back, and he was still staring at me. I did not reach out to him. My brother, who’d had so little love in his life, was not my heart. Candi was my heart.

Back at our apartment, the door closed behind us with a little push from the wind. Inside, the air was cool, the lights were bright, and the dining room table was waiting for us, clear except for a bowl of flowers we’d arranged together earlier that day.

The next day, after Candi left for school, I drove back down to the beach, parked my car, and wandered around where the homeless people hung out. Johnny was gone, like a mirage that disappears once you look away, or once you stop believing in it. I never saw him. I never saw him again.

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

My analyst and I grew more intimately connected each week of treatment...but I never saw this indecent proposal coming.

It’s the waning moments of my fourth session with a new therapist. I’m holding back — and she knows it. My entire body feels tense, not ideal for the setting. I try to relax, but the plush leather couch crumples under me when I shift, making the movements extraordinary. I’ve barely looked into my therapist’s blue eyes at all, and yet I think the hour has gone very well. Of course it has. On the surface, when the patient has been highly selective of the discussion topics, therapy always resembles a friendly get-together.

“Well,” my therapist, Lori, says, the millisecond after I become certain our time is up and I might be in the clear. “I don’t think I should let you go until we’ve at least touched on what was put out there at the end of last week’s session.”

I so supremely wanted this not to come up. My eyelids tighten, my mouth puckers to the left, and my head tilts, as though I’m asking her to clarify.

“When you said you’re attracted to me,” she continues.

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

Back in session three Lori was trying to build my self-esteem, the lack of which is one of the reasons I’m in treatment. Within the confines of my family, I’ve always been the biggest target of ridicule. We all throw verbal darts around as though we’re engaged in a massive, drunken tournament at a bar, but the most poisonous ones seem to hit me the most often, admittedly somewhat a consequence of my own sensitivity. I’ve been told it was historically all part of an effort to toughen me up, but instead I was filled with towering doubts about my own worth. And since 2012, when I gave up a stable, tenured teaching career for the wildly inconsistent life of a freelance writer, I’ve had great difficulty trusting my own instincts and capabilities. I told Lori that I wish I was better at dealing with life’s daily struggles instead of constantly wondering if I’ll be able to wade through the thick.

She quickly and convincingly pointed out that I work rather hard and am, ultimately, paying my bills on time, that I have friends, an appreciation for arts and culture, and so on. In short, I am, in fact, strong, responsible and “pretty good at life.”

Then Lori heightened the discussion a bit. “I also feel that it is your sensitivity that makes you a great catch out there in the dating world,” she said, to which I involuntarily smiled, blushed and quickly buried my chin in my chest. I was too insecure and too single to handle such a compliment from a beautiful woman.

“Why are you reacting that way?” Lori asked.

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

“Is it because you’re attracted to me?”

I laughed a little, uncomfortably. “How did you know?”

She gently explained she could tell the day I walked into her office for the first time, after I flashed a bright smile and casually asked where she was from.

Now, a week after dropping that bomb, Lori asks, “So, why haven’t we talked about it?”

“I was hoping to avoid it, I suppose.” I tell her the whole notion of having the hots for a therapist is such a sizable cliché that I was embarrassed to admit it. “For Christ’s sake,” I say, throwing my hands up, “Tony Soprano even fell in love with his therapist.”

Lori snorts, rolls her eyes. “I knew you were going to say that.”

I smile, shake my head and look around the room, denying acceptance of my own ridiculous reality.

“It’s OK,” Lori says, grinning. “We can talk about this in here.”

I look again at her stark blue eyes, prevalent under dark brown bangs, the rest of her hair reaching the top of her chest, which is hugged nicely by a fitted white tee under an open button-down. She jogs often, I’d come to find out, which explains her petite figure and ability to probably pull off just about any outfit of her choosing.

I still can’t speak, so she takes over.

“Do you think you’re the first client that’s been attracted to their therapist?” she asks rhetorically. “I’ve had other clients openly discuss their feelings, even their sexual fantasies involving me.”

“What?” I cackle, beginning to feel as though I’ve moseyed onto the set of a porno.

“It’s true,” she says, acknowledging her desk. “What’s yours? Do you bend me over and take me from behind?”

Nailed it.

“If that’s what you’re thinking, it’s OK,” she goes on, earnestly, explaining that she’s discussed sexual scenarios with her clients before so as to “normalize” the behavior and not have them feel their own thoughts are unnatural. By showing the patient a level of acceptance, she hopes to facilitate a more comfortable atmosphere for “the work” — her painfully accurate pseudonym for psychotherapy.

I take a second to let the red flow out of my face, and ponder what she said. I’m a little unsure about this whole technique, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. So I go home, incredibly turned on and completely unashamed.

* * *

One of the great breakthroughs I’ve had in the thirteen months since I began seeing Lori (who agreed to participate in this article, but requested that her full name not be published) is a new ability to accept the existence of dualities in life. For instance, I’ve always had a tremendous sense of pride that, if it doesn’t straddle the line of arrogance, certainly dives into that hemisphere from time to time. I’m great at seeing flaws in others and propping myself up above them by smugly observing my character strengths. I’ve never liked that about myself, but the harder concept to grasp is the fact that I can be so egotistical while also stricken with such vast quantities of insecurity.

In treatment I came to realize that all people have contradictions to their personalities. There’s the insanely smart guy who can’t remotely begin to navigate a common social situation, the charitable girl who devotes all her time to helping strangers, but won’t confront issues in her own personal relationships. In my case, my extreme sensitivity can make me feel fabulous about the aspects of myself that I somehow know are good (my artistic tastes) and cause deep hatred of those traits I happen to loathe (the thirty pounds I could stand to lose).

My next session with Lori is productive. We speak about relationships I’ve formed with friends and lovers, and how my family may have informed those interactions. One constant is that I put crudely high expectations on others, mirroring those thrown upon me as a kid. I’m angered when people don’t meet those expectations, and absolutely devastated when I don’t reach them. Lori points out that it must be “exhausting trying to be so perfect all the time.” I am much more comfortable than I was the week prior, and can feel myself being more candid. I’m relieved that the whole being-attracted-to-my-therapist thing doesn’t come up.

Then, a week later, Lori mentions it, and I become tense again.

“I thought I’d be able to move past it,” I say, adding, “We aired it out, and it’s fine.”

As definitive as I’m trying to sound, Lori is just as defiant.

“I’m glad you feel that way,” she begins, “but I think you owe yourself some kudos. This kind of therapy,” she shares, “isn’t something just anyone can take on.” Such honest discussion doesn’t simply happen, it takes tremendous guts, and Lori can see that I am dealing with it relatively well, so I should praise my own efforts.

“Shit, we both should be proud of ourselves,” she says. “It’s not easy on the therapist either, you know.”

“Why not?”

“Because talking openly about sex is risky at any time, much less with a client.” She explains that therapists are warned any semblance of intimacy can be easily misconstrued. “We learn in our training to not personally disclose, for example,” she says, but adds that, occasionally, transparency can be helpful.

“Still, with you,” she continues, “until I raised the question, I didn’t know for sure that you would go with it; for all I knew you’d run out of here and never come back to risk being so uncomfortable again.”

She’s building my confidence more, and I’m learning that I play a much bigger role in how my life is conducted than I often realize. My treatment wouldn’t be happening if I weren’t enabling it.

Then she says, “And don’t think it’s not nice for me to hear that a guy like you thinks I’m beautiful.”

Crippled by the eroticism of the moment, and combined with the prevailing notion that no woman this stunning could ever be romantically interested in me, I flounder through words that resemble, “Wait…what?”

“If we were somehow at a bar together, and you came over and talked to me,” she says, then flips her palms up innocently, “who knows?”

I laugh again and tell her there’d be almost no chance of me approaching her because I’d never feel like I had a shot in hell.

“Well, that’s not the circumstances we’re in,” she says. “But you might. Who knows?”

I’m confused — Is she really attracted to me or is this some psychotherapeutic ruse? I’m frustrated — I told her I didn’t really want to talk about it. Shouldn’t she be more sensitive to my wants here? I’m angry — Is she getting an ego boost out of this? Most of all, I don’t know what the next step is — Am I about to experience the hottest thing that’s ever happened to a straight male since the vagina was invented?

There were two ways to find out:

1) Discontinue the therapy, wait for her outside her office every day, follow her to a hypothetical happy hour and ask her out, or

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

A week later, I’m physically in the meeting room with Lori, but mentally I haven’t left the recesses of my mind.

“Where are you today?” she asks, probably noticing my eyes roving around the room.

“I don’t know.”

“Are you still grappling with the sexual tension between us?”

Here we go again.

“Yes,” I say, with a bit of an edge in my voice, “and I don’t know what to do about it.”

Lori, ever intently, peers into my eyes, wrinkles her mouth and slightly shakes her head.

“Do you want to have sex with me?” she asks.

We both know the answer to that question. All I can do is stare back.

“Let’s have sex,” she announces. “Right here, right now.”

“What?” I respond, flustered.

“Let’s go!” she says a little louder, opening up her arms and looking around as if to say the office is now our playground, and, oh, the rollicking fun we’d have mixing bodily fluids.

“No,” I tell her, “You don’t mean that.”

“What if I do?” she shoots back. “Would you have sex with me, now, in this office?”

“Of course not.”

“Why ‘of course not’? How do I know for sure that you won’t take me if I offer myself to you?”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

“That’s what I thought,” she says, and tension in the room decomposes. “Mike, I don’t feel that you would do something that you think is truly not in our best interest, which is exactly why I just gave you the choice.”

Her offer was a lesson in empowerment, helping me prove that I have an innate ability to make the right choices, even if I’d so desperately prefer to make the wrong one.

I see what she means. I’m awfully proud of myself, and it’s OK to be in this instance. I’m gaining trust in myself, and confidence to boot. But, as the dualities of life dictate, I’m successfully doing “the work” with a daring therapist, while at the same time not entirely convinced she isn’t in need of an ethical scrubbing.

* * *

I don’t have another session with Lori for nearly three months, because she took a personal leave from her place of employment. When our sessions finally resumed, I could not wait to tell her about my budding relationship with Shauna.

Ten minutes into my first date with Shauna — right about the time she got up from her bar stool and said she was “going to the can” — I knew she would, at the very least, be someone I was going to invest significant time in. She was as easy to talk to as any girl I’d ever been with, and I found myself at ease. Plans happened magically without anxiety-inducing, twenty-four-hour waits between texts. Her quick wit kept me entertained, and I could tell by the way she so seriously spoke about dancing, her chosen profession, that she is passionate about the art form and mighty talented too. Shauna is beautiful, with flawless hazel eyes and straight dark hair, spunky bangs and a bob that matches her always-upbeat character. She is a snazzy dresser and enjoys a glass of whiskey with a side of fried pickles and good conversation as much as I do.

Things escalated quickly, but very comfortably, and since we’d both been in our fair share of relationships, we knew the true power of honesty and openness. So upon the precipice of my return to therapy I told Shauna about Lori, and admitted to having mixed feelings about what I was getting back into. I told her I was at least moderately uncertain if my mental health was Lori’s number-one concern since she always seemed to find the time to mention my attraction to her.

The first two sessions of my therapeutic reboot had gone great. Lori appeared genuinely thrilled that I was dating Shauna and could see how happy I was. I wasn’t overwhelmed with sexual tension in the new meeting room, though it wasn’t actually spoken about, and in the back of my mind I knew it was just a matter of time before it would start to affect my ability to disclose my thoughts to Lori again.

Then, while attempting to ingratiate myself with my new girlfriend’s cat by spooning food onto his tiny dish on the kitchen floor, I hear my phone ding from inside the living room.

“You got a text, babe,” Shauna says. “It’s from Lori.”

“‘I’m so impressed with you and the work you’re doing…’” Shauna reads off my phone from inside the living room, inquisitively, and not happily. I stuff the cat food back into the Tupperware and toss it into the refrigerator. I make my way into the living room, angry at myself for not changing the settings on my new iPhone to disallow text previews on the locked screen. Shauna’s walking too, and we meet near the kitchen door. “What’s this?” she says, holding up the phone. “Your therapist texts you?”

I take the phone from Shauna and say the most obvious, cliché-sounding thing: “It’s not what it seems.”

As I text back a curt “thanks,” Shauna tells me she’s going to ask her sister, a therapist herself, if it’s OK to text patients.

“Don’t do that.” I say, a little more emphatically. “I promise, this is nothing to be worried about. We’re not doing anything wrong.” I explain that Lori’s just trying to build my self-esteem.

“The only reason I’m even bringing this up is because you said you weren’t sure about her in the first place,” Shauna reminds me. I can tell she regrets looking at my phone without my permission, but I completely understand her feelings.

At my next session I tell Lori that Shauna saw her text and wasn’t thrilled about it.

“She probably feels cheated on to some degree,” Lori says. “A relationship between a therapist and a patient can oftentimes seem much more intimate than the one between a romantic couple.”

Lori goes on to point out that the reason she feels we can exchange texts, blurring the lines between patient/doctor boundaries — a hot topic in the psychotherapy world these days — is because she trusts that I’ll respect her space and privacy. “You’ve proven that much to me,” she says.

On my walk home, instead of being angry at Lori, I understand her thinking behind the text. But I’m also nervous about how Lori and Shauna can ever coexist in my life.

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

A week later, Lori begins our session by handing me a printout explaining the psychotherapeutic term “erotic transference” written by Raymond Lloyd Richmond, PhD. It says that erotic transference is the patient’s sense that love is being exchanged between him or herself and the therapist — the exact sensation I was experiencing with Lori, of which she was astutely aware.

According to Richmond, one of the primary reasons people seek therapy is because “something was lacking in their childhood family life,” perhaps “unconditional nurturing guidance and protection.” Upon feeling “noticed” and “understood” by a qualified therapist, sometimes a patient can be “intoxicated” by their therapist’s approval of them. A patient may in turn contemplate that a love is blossoming between them, and, in fact, it sort of is.

From an ethical standpoint, Richmond argues all therapists are “bound” to love their patients, for therapists are committed to willing “the good of all clients by ensuring that all actions within psychotherapy serve the client’s need to overcome the symptoms” which brought them into treatment. This takes genuine care and acceptance on their part. However, a patient can easily confuse the love they feel with simple “desire.” They’re not quite in love with their therapist, so much as they yearn for acceptance from someone, and in those sessions they just happen to be receiving it from their doctor.

Lori tells me that, all along, she has been “working with what I gave her” and that because I flirted with her a bit, she used that to her advantage in the treatment. In employing countertransference — indicating that she had feelings for me — she was keeping me from feeling rejected and despising my own thoughts and urges.

“There’s two people alone in a room together, and if they’re two attractive people, why wouldn’t they be attracted to each other?” says Dr. Galit Atlas. A psychoanalyst who’s had her own private practice for fifteen years, Dr. Atlas has an upcoming book titled The Enigma of Desire: Sex, Longing and Belonging in Psychoanalysis, and I sought her as an independent source for this essay to help me understand Lori’s therapeutic strategies.

Dr. Atlas explains that there are certain boundaries that cannot be crossed between therapist and patient under any circumstances — like having sex with them, obviously. But many other relationship borders can be mapped out depending on the comfort level of the therapist, as long as they stay within the scope of the profession’s ethics, which complicates the discussion surrounding erotic transference.

“As a therapist, I have a role,” Dr. Atlas says. “My role is to protect you.” She says it is incumbent on the therapist to not exploit the patient for the therapist’s own good, but admits that the presence of erotic transference in therapy brings about many challenges. “[Attraction] is part of the human condition,” she observes. In therapy, “the question then is: What do you do with that? Do you deny it? Do you talk about it? How do you talk about it without seducing the patient and with keeping your professional ability to think and to reflect?”

I ask her about the benefits of exploring intimacy in therapy, and Dr. Atlas quickly points out that emotional intimacy — though not necessarily that of the sexual brand — is almost inevitable and required. “An intimate relationship with a therapist can [be] a reparative experience — repairing childhood wounds — but mostly it’s about helping the patient to experience and tolerate emotional intimacy, analyzing the client’s anxieties about being vulnerable and every mechanism one uses in order to avoid being exposed.”

Dr. Atlas says this topic speaks to every facet of the therapeutic relationship, regardless of gender or even sexual orientation, because intimacy reveals emotional baggage that both the patient and therapist carry with them into the session. But this isn’t a symmetrical relationship, and the therapist is the one who holds the responsibility.

“Freud said that a healthy person should be able to work and to love,” she says. “In some ways therapy practices both, and in order to change the patient will have to be known by the therapist. That is intimacy. In order to be able to be vulnerable, both parties have to feel safe.”

After I briefly explain all that has gone on between me and Lori, Dr. Atlas steadfastly says she does not want to judge too harshly why and how everything came to pass in my therapy. “I don’t know your therapist, and I don’t know your history,” she says. But she offers that I should “explore the possibility” that I might have created and admitted my sexual adoration of Lori because one of my fears is to be ignored, not noticed.

Then I offer: “Maybe this essay is being written for the same reason.”

“Exactly.”

Maybe I wanted to interview Lori about erotic transference in my therapy sessions for that same reason as well…to stand out as the most amazingly understanding patient ever.

* * *

“I want to be very clear that this was never about feeding my own ego,” Lori says about her approach to my treatment. “We were always doing this in your best interest.”

I’m in Lori’s office, a tape recorder rolling and a pad and pen in my hands.

“I felt I was doing a disservice to you if I didn’t ‘out’ what I felt was weighing on us, which, honestly, felt like a heavy secret,” she says, pointing out that she discussed my therapeutic process for many hours in her required supervision meetings.

In order for Lori to advance in her field as a social worker, she has to attend 3,000 conference hours with another professional to go over casework — kind of like therapy quality control.

We talk about all of this during one of my scheduled sessions, for the entire hour — and go over by a few minutes, too.

Lori says that when she began her career as a social worker, she decided she wasn’t going to shy away from any subjects. “It’s typical for a client to [have] a habitual desire to sweep things under the rug,” she observes, especially about taboo topics. It can become a cycle of behavior that Lori seeks to break.

I refer back to the time when, unprovoked, she brought up my attraction to her.

She says she mentioned it to avoid what therapists call “door-knobbing,” which is when a patient will purposely mention some huge reveal right at the end of a session so as to sidestep a lengthy conversation about it.

“My only question for you is, was I wrong for bringing it up?” she asks. “Only you can answer that.”

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

“I guess when I said I was over it and could move on, that was an example of my strict black-and-white thinking,” I say, throwing back some language she’s used often to describe my challenge in accepting dualities. In my mind, I was either attracted to her and shouldn’t see her anymore, or I wasn’t attracted to her and could still have her be my therapist. There was no in between.

I realize now that she wasn’t wrong for mentioning my feelings for her, even when I didn’t want her to. Lori noticed that I was frustrated with myself and wanted me to know that an attraction to a therapist is so normal and happens so frequently that there are technical terms for it.

I turn my attention towards the presence of countertransference in our session. I’m trying to come up with an actual question here, but, really, I just want her to confirm her feelings for me are real. So I say, referring to her feelings, with a great degree of difficulty, “It’s funny that they seem genuine to this day.”

“They are genuine,” Lori says, adding a moment later: “I think it might be a good idea if we explore why our discussing it suggests a lack of authenticity.”

“It doesn’t, necessarily,” I begin, then stammer through a few sentences, worried I might offend her by implying she’s been dishonest. I finally settle on, “I guess it comes back to my self-esteem issues. Why would a beautiful woman think I’m attractive?”

Lying in bed with Shauna a few months into our relationship, I ask her what she thought about me the moment she first saw me. I’m fishing for a compliment. But we met on Tinder and I just hope that seeing me in person wasn’t some kind of letdown for her after swiping right on my hand-picked glamour shots. Obviously she isn’t going to say something so awful after having committed to me for so long. It’s a slam-dunk ego boost.

She says she liked the fact that I was wearing a blazer and a tie on a first date. She adds that I was a little shorter than she anticipated, but was content with the two of us at least being the same exact height.

“What did you think when you first saw me?” she asks, turning it around, naturally.

Staying committed to my honesty-at-all-costs policy, I say, “I thought you were really beautiful, but not to the point where I was intimidated by you, which was very important because if I was, you would have gotten a very unconfident version of me, and we probably wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did.”

Shauna thinks about that for a second, and eventually nods “OK.”

I explain that my insecurity could often get the better of me in dating situations. It was easy to convince myself that I’d be rejected by the girl I was with, especially if I thought she was out of my league. I would then slip into a nervous and reserved state that isn’t at all reflective of my true self.

I’m essentially saying that I was so thrilled to not find Shauna so extraordinarily pretty that I couldn’t accept her being on a date with me. That thought made so much sense at the time I said it, but I’ve since come to realize it is as ridiculous as it is insulting. After ten months of being with Shauna, I’m still completely floored by her, on every level, including a physical one. It gives me great pride to walk into a room with her, and I don’t imagine that changing. Therefore, she actually did meet a confident “version of me.” The way people look doesn’t drastically change in ten months but a person’s perception of self can. It seems my emotional workouts in erotic transference were just beginning to produce results.

* * *

“People fuck up,” Lori informs me during one winter session. “Therapists have slept with clients before, just like politicians have had sex with their interns. But, so you have a full understanding of how this works, we can date.” She explains the parameters as outlined in the social worker’s code of ethics. One of the many stipulations is that we wouldn’t be able to see each other, under any circumstances, for at least two years before dating. She tells me she loves her job, and there’s no way she would ever sacrifice my safety or her career for anything, so she would strictly follow all the dictated rules. “If you truly want to date me, there is the option. But it’s ultimately up to you.”

I know what she’s doing here — putting the onus on me, just like last year when she said we could have sex. The difference this time is the answer I want to give is on par with all of my involuntary urges.

“I don’t want to stop the work we’re doing,” I say. “At this point, it’s far too valuable to me, and, really, I know very little about you.” She’s beautiful, exercises, is smart, funny, professional, enjoys good TV…and that’s about it. Aside from whether or not we’d even both be single in two years, and if we’d be in the correct mind frame to explore a relationship, there are several other things I’m considering here: Would Lori and I really be compatible in every way? Would she ever see me as a lover, a partner, an equal, and not a patient? Could I ever reveal a detail about myself, or even just a shitty day of work, without wondering if she was picking it apart and analyzing it?

Frankly, all those questions could be answered in the positive. But, even if I wasn’t in a happy relationship — Shauna makes this choice much easier, for sure — I wouldn’t go that route. I’d be out a therapist.

* * *

It’s a beautiful spring night in New York and only sidewalk seating will do. Shauna and I are out to dinner at a restaurant near her Queens apartment, and we’re both in good spirits. The weather and the alcohol consumption are partly to blame for that, but, on cue with the season’s change, I feel I’ve turned an emotional corner. Work payments that were past due are finally finding their way into my bank account. As it turns out, my short-term money troubles were not an indication that I had no business being a writer, or that my life changeup was as irresponsible as unprotected sex at fourteen years old.

I’d told Lori as much that afternoon. I took a mental step back from my current situation and realized that in spite of my recent hardships, I was succeeding. I summarize my session for Shauna, who nods in agreement, lovingly pointing out that she’s had the same challenging freelancer experiences as a dancer.

“You’re doing great, babe,” she says matter-of-factly.

“Thank you. That means a lot,” I respond. “I guess if I’m going to be a writer I just have to accept all this and have faith in myself. The way Lori put it was, ‘You just have to go all-in.’”

“Good,” Shauna says. “You should listen to the women in your life.”

* * *

Liked this story? Our editors did too, voting it one of our 20 best untold tales!

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here. 

* *

Michael Stahl is a freelance writer, journalist and editor living in Astoria, New York. He serves as a Narratively features editor as well. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl.

Casey Roonan is a cartoonist and cat person from Connecticut. Follow Casey on Instagram: @caseyroonan

I’m Married. I’m a Woman. I’m Addicted to Porn.

Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?

This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.

It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?

Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.

I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.

I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.

My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.

I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.

* * *

“What’s your favorite porn scene?”

The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.

The possibilities run through my head.

I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.

They’re also lies.

The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?

“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.

“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.

“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”

I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.

Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.

“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”

“Are you sure?”

I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.

It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.

It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”

“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.

“Go on.”

I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.

I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.

“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”

For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.

But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”

And so I tell him.

* * *

Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.

There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.

And then realizing that person is me.

But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.

Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.

I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.

I was out of control.

* * *

Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.

Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.

I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.

I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.

If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.

Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.

* * *

Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.

That’s why I need to tell my husband.

Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.

* * *

Erica Garza is a writer from Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Substance, LA Observed, The Manifest Station and HelloGiggles. She is also a staff writer at Luna Luna Mag. Read more at ericagarza.com and follow her on Twitter @ericadgarza.

Iris Yan is a Brazilian-born Chinese cartoonist who completed a one-year certificate at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont.