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+.

 

 

Waging War On Rats in Sub-Antarctic South Georgia

A team of ambitious ecologists is trying to rid these freezing South Atlantic islands of vermin to save their rarest bird. But are they attempting the impossible?

This story originally appeared in Avaunt, an award-winning journal dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavor, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.

We were expecting to see three red and yellow specks to come flying over the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the bay where we were sheltering, but there was only one. Something had gone wrong.

Two days earlier we’d left two helicopters tied down in a sheltered spot to see out a storm, but the powerful wind had spun one helicopter, digging it into the ground, and snapped the rotor blade of the other. Both were completely broken. Without the two working helicopters, we couldn’t continue – years of planning and two seasons of spreading bait across the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia would have been for nothing.

One of the many highly crevassed glaciers of South Georgia – an impenetrable barrier to rats.

A forgotten Eden, belonging only to albatrosses, penguins and seals, South Georgia is one of the most remote islands on the planet. The nearest permanent population is over 1,500 kilometers away and the only human residents are British Antarctic Survey staff. Vast snow-capped peaks stand at 3000 meters above the ocean, and rivers of ice flow down to water that teams with krill; an abundant food source for the millions of animal residents. South Georgia takes your breath away.

We were there for a simple purpose – to free South Georgia from the rats that had plagued the island for almost 200 years.  Elimination of the rats would ensure the survival of the most southerly songbird in the world, the endemic South Georgia Pipit, as well as bolstering populations of threatened seabirds.

The three helicopters landing at base camp.

If the purpose was simple, the operation, as is the case when attempting anything on South Georgia, was not. The success of ambitious projects like this rely on tenacity in the face of adversity – and the storm that put our helicopters out of action tested us to the limit. Through determination, hard graft and persistence in incredibly harsh conditions, however, the engineers had two helicopters flying by nightfall.

Captain Cook claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775, returning with tales of vast numbers of seals that filled its shores. This was too much for sealers to resist; just a few years later the fur seals were being decimated and the vermin, stowed away on their boats, were feasting upon ground-nesting seabirds. These birds had evolved without any land-based predators, and it would be over 200 years until the song of the South Georgia Pipit would be heard on mainland South Georgia again.

A Norwegian brown rat finds the bait irresistible.

The history of human influence on South Georgia is a recurring cycle of overexploitation and the eventual collapse of animal populations. In 2007 a small Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, decided the time had come to reverse some of the damage, and began planning the largest eradication project ever attempted.

We were also running out of time. Due to global warming, South Georgia’s glaciers are retreating at a rate of up to one meter a day. Soon beaches would become exposed, allowing rats to cross to previously inaccessible parts of the island and creating areas too extensive to bait. For the project to be a success we had to eliminate all of the rats. Ninety-nine percent wouldn’t be good enough; we had to get every last one.

Achieving this on an island 165 kilometers long, famed for its vicious winds and tempestuous seas, was a huge challenge. But by 2011 a team of eradication experts and individuals experienced in polar conditions had been handpicked to rid South Georgia of rats. It was a logistical nightmare, with three helicopters, 300 tons of bait, 900 drums of fuel, 10,000 teabags and 25 members of Team Rat to be shipped to the island. Resupply was not an option.

Some of the 900 drums of aviation fuel used in the project.

Field camps were erected across the island; we spent months camped amongst the ruins of an abandoned whaling station, with seals and penguins wandering past our tents.  Despite pressure to complete the baiting, we could only fly in calm conditions, which are infrequent at best on South Georgia. We’d spend days cooped up in our tents.

At night our breath formed icicles on the canopies of the tent, which often crashed down, soaking our sleeping bags. The nearby streams would freeze, forcing us to break through the ice to extract drinking water. Such tasks filled our days. The creature comforts of home seemed a long way away.

King penguin colony.

As soon as the wind dropped we’d spring in to action. The helicopters hovered expertly, dangling huge bait buckets, while loaders filled them with bag after bag of bait. Pilots flew along exact GPS lines, ensuring bait fell on every bit of potential rat habitat. If even a tiny area was missed, they did it again; no rat was safe from our skilled pilots.

It took three seasons to bait every last kilometer of the island; the helicopters flew the equivalent distance of three times around the world. Our success was under constant threat from poor flying conditions, mechanical failure, an inaccessible accident or simply a missed rat.

The daily commute across the vast, wild interior of South Georgia.

Poor weather nearly scuppered the second season. Winter came early and huge snow dumps buried our tents and made precision bait dropping impossible. The northern end of the island put up the greatest resistance, and after weeks of waiting to drop the final bait, it went right to the wire; on the last day the weather cleared and the pilots gave it a final push. Our chief pilot Peter Garden warned it would be a close call, and that if anyone felt uncomfortable we could abort. It was tense. Somehow, we dropped the last of the bait successfully and, after a long trying day, we left feeling immense elation.

South Georgia can’t be declared rat free until it has been checked next year, but early indications are promising. South Georgia Pipit song has been heard in some areas for the first time in living memory, and nests have already been located. Project leader Tony Martin was named Conservationist of the Year, and the success of this project paves the way for eradications on other afflicted islands. In an era of increasingly despondent environmental news, this is an example of how we can positively impact the natural world.

* * *

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The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

A residential street in Enid, Oklahoma.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

His Biggest Hit Sold More Copies Than Any of the Beatles’. So Why Haven’t You Heard of Him?

In a life bookended by tragedy, Prince Nico Mbarga poured joy into his music, including the most popular song in African history. But his own story has never been told — until now.

Twenty years ago the man who recorded one of the most successful songs of all time was thrown off a motorbike by a car in Calabar, Nigeria. He hit his head on the road and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay for two weeks, in and out of consciousness, but deteriorating all the time. On June 24, 1997, Prince Nico Mbarga was pronounced dead.

“Sweet Mother,” his 1976 one-hit wonder, had sold at least thirteen million copies across the African continent – more than The Beatles’ bestseller “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But no global media outlet thought to cover the life and death of the artist behind Africa’s most popular song.

 

Today, the only internet accounts of his life reach around four paragraphs and bookend Mbarga’s career with two big political events of the time: the Biafran War in 1967 that saw him, at 17, flee across the border to Cameroon, where he mastered the guitar; and the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983, with his band’s Cameroonian members among the two million West Africans forced to leave the country.

Politics, however, rarely frames lives quite so neatly.

Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.

Twenty years after his death, this is the obituary that never was.

* * *

The first place Mbarga knew, the town of Ikom was the last stop on my journey. In a modest bungalow there I met Esame, his widow, and Ojong, his best friend, on a warm evening on the cusp of the wet season. On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.

The son of a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Nico Mbarga was born in nearby Abakaliki on April 8, 1950, but grew up in Ikom. In the 1950s it was little more than a series of administrative buildings, houses and farms clumped around Cross River, surrounded by tropical rainforest, right on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon. Ojong remembers early mornings with young Nico on the river, fishing for tilapia and catfish, and days spent in the shade of the forests, setting traps for birds. Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated. The only way goods such as bicycles and sewing machines made their way to the village was by lighters on the river from Calabar, more than 100 miles to the south. But even in rural Ikom, all the flux of being in a British colony in Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and the trappings of modernity it entailed – had its effect.

The Cross River in Ikom, Nigeria, the town where Mbarga grew up.

Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time). More exciting for Nico though, his music-loving father bought a Phillips radio. For if anything was to capture the mood of the new country emerging in Nigeria’s faraway and growing cities, it was the highlife music he could now hear from home. From Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver,” to EC Arinze’s “Saturday Night,” to Rex Lawson’s “Yellow Sisi,” highlife was a music of young men in big towns, marveling at cars, dancing at nightclubs, chasing single women. There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too. From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own. Highlife took western instruments – the trumpets and saxophones of big jazz bands – and set them to local, offbeat rhythms. It was a genre well-suited to a country preparing for independence, and its optimistic sound was to suffuse all the music young Nico would go on to create. (Even his later song “Oh Death,” with the opening line “Oh death, everybody hates you,” is impossibly cheery.)

His father, from a long line of xylophone players, taught him the instrument, a handheld version with metal tines plucked by the thumbs. But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark. “It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong recalls.

Nico Mbarga’s best friend Ojong, left, and Mbarga’s widow, Esame, right.

Despite the celebratory mood of the country, however, Nico’s childhood was not easy. His father died of a sudden illness, and the family he left behind – his wife, three sons and a daughter – became reliant on Nico’s mother, a peasant farmer. They downsized, becoming tenants in a compound in the middle of the village, and though Ojong remembers a mother dearly trying her best – caregiver with one hand, breadwinner the other – things were difficult. As a teenager, Nico tried to do his bit, playing sets in nearby small villages, but there was little money in it.

Thus when the Biafran War broke out in 1967, Nico Mbarga wasn’t so much fleeing for his safety – the rest of his family stayed in Ikom – as pursuing his ambitions in music. The civil war put a sharp stop to eastern Nigeria’s vibrant music scene, but the hotel gig economy was still running over the border.

In Mamfe, Cameroon, he met Lucy, who today lives in a half-built mansion ringed by palm trees on the outskirts of Ikom. I had been slightly nervous about meeting Lucy myself, remembering my first call back in London with Esame, Mbarga’s wife: “And I’ve been told about someone called Lucy as well, who is that?”

“Oh that is his concubine,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I will take you to her.” My worries were eased by their laughing and hugging as they greeted each other. Then a smiling Lucy recounted the moment 50 years ago that she met Nico Mbarga: a charming, handsome, if slightly short and dirt-poor 17-year-old. “As I first see him, I love him, eh? Even my mother did no gree, she said, ‘He’s a small boy, he don’t have money,’ but I said, ‘No, that boy is my choice.’”

Indeed, despite the objections of her parents, and their own struggles to buy even “a money for pot” to boil water, she would soon have the first of her two children with Mbarga.

Working as a “band boy” for a Congolese cover group in Mamfe, carrying instruments for concerts at hotels in nearby towns, Mbarga came to learn and love Congolese rumba. With its staccato guitar, spontaneous spoken asides and high-pitched harmonies, it had the whole continent dancing the soukous and the kara-kara. Mbarga, always dedicated, taught himself the conga, the drums, the bass and, most importantly, the finger-picking style of Congolese electric guitar.

When the three hard years of the Biafran War came to an end, he looked to launch his career back in Nigeria. After one failed border-crossing by road, in which Lucy and Mbarga were arrested by officials and sent to prison for three days for not having passports, they successfully made it across a second time, going “the bush way” in 1970. They came to Onitsha, a trading town on the banks of the Niger River, with at its center one of the largest markets on the continent. And while the money this brought has always attracted writers and musicians – today there are shops stacked high with thousands of albums in paper covers, posters for studio rentals everywhere, and music filling the air – the 1970s was Onitsha’s heyday, fuelled by Nigeria’s petrol boom and the good mood of people just relieved to get on with their lives again. It was, as Chinua Achebe wrote, “the esoteric region from which creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself,” and the home of some of Nigeria’s great highlife musicians.

“We loved the place,” Lucy almost shouts. “From there, God blessed him.”

Lucy, Nico Mbarga’s first love.

Mbarga thrived. He formed his group, Rocafil Jazz, signed a contract to play every Sunday at Onitsha’s Plaza Hotel, and began to mix with stars like Stephen Osadebe and Bobby Benson. Then, in 1973 he was picked up by EMI and recorded his first hit “I No Go Marry My Papa,” about a daughter disagreeing with her parents over the choice of her husband, surely inspired by Mbarga’s brush with Lucy’s parents. It sold reasonably well – “I did not know that I would make such an amount in my life,” Mbarga said of the modest success – and in it you can hear the beginnings of something, a mix of influences, that would come to define his music.

Odion Iruoje, then a producer at EMI, recalls working with a 23-year-old Mbarga “who knew what he wanted,” very able at “directing his boys.” By all accounts the non-smoking, non-drinking Mbarga, who studied law on the side in Onitsha, was a man of real self-possession.

He was not to be deterred, therefore, by the stalling of his career after his first single. Mbarga was dropped by EMI for failing to create any other commercial hits. Instead, around 1974, tired of “I love you, you love me, my baby,” he wrote “Sweet Mother.”

It was a love song from a son to a mother that, in its old-fashioned way, never actually once says “I love you.” Instead, it’s a grateful son praising what his mother did for him as a child: drying his tears, putting him to bed, feeding him, praying when he’s ill:

When I dey hungry my mother go run up and down / she dey find me something when I go chop oh! / Sweet Mother a-aah / Sweet Mother oh-e-oh!

And if “Sweet Mother” was dedicated to all mothers and the things they do for children, it was inspired by the loving sacrifices Mbarga saw his own mother, a widowed farmer, make after his father died. The lyrics began, “Sweet Mother, I no go forget you, for dey suffer wey you suffer for me.”

Mbarga sent a tape to Odion Iruoje at EMI, who remembers hearing the song for the first time and knowing that “it was the magic.” On the agreed date for recording, however, Odion had to fly to London to record at Abbey Road, and some other EMI officials told Mbarga that the song was “too childish” for them to record. Affronted, Mbarga did not come back. So it was only two years later when the small, Onitsha-based producer Rogers All Stars heard “Sweet Mother” at the Plaza Hotel, that the song found a label to release it.

Rogers All Stars is now in his 80s, slightly frail and very soft-spoken, still working in his Onitsha studio with which he now shares his name. And though his memories sometimes come to him in a slight haze, he still clearly recalls the day Nico Mbarga came to the producer’s house uninvited early one morning to introduce himself. They bonded over Rogers’s collection of Congolese records, and Mbarga invited the older man to come see him one day at the hotel. “I could see he was a star,” Rogers says.

For six months Mbarga – now calling himself Prince Nico Mbarga – Rocafil and Rogers All Stars worked on “Sweet Mother,” rehearsing daily from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. It was, says Rocafil rhythm guitarist, Cameroonian Jean Duclair, “real every day work,” as they made change after change, turning it from a gentle “cha cha cha” to a more upbeat highlife sound, adding little dance breaks, and crafting a song marked more and more by the drive of Mbarga’s Congolese-style finger-picking lead guitar.

Finally satisfied, the band travelled across the country to record, and after a heavy night in a Lagos hotel, with all but Mbarga drinking and smoking, recorded it live at Decca Studios – hung over for sure, but they had practiced so much it hardly mattered.

It took a few months to really take off. Nigerian radio host Benson Idonije rates the fact that it eventually did as one of his finest achievements. At the time, he explains from his house in Lagos, he had just launched Radio Nigeria Two, the country’s FM station. After shows he would often drop into bars to wind down the night. On one of these evenings in late ’77, he remembers, there was a song released by an obscure label from Onitsha, that got everyone up to dance. With an inkling that his audience might like the song’s message, he found it, undiscovered, in Radio Nigeria’s gramophone library, and played it that evening. “I started getting calls from everywhere,” he says. From then on, for months nearly every request Radio Nigeria received was for “Sweet Mother.”

“You have hit jackpot,” Jean Duclair remembers being told by their producer, with the record suddenly selling out in the shops. On a 20-seater Mercedes bus bought by Rogers, Mbarga and his band toured the country, up north during the wet season, down south when the rains stopped. And though culturally Nigeria can be a divided place, Jean remembers Nigerians everywhere demanding “Sweet Mother” – “it was like a national anthem.”

Album artwork. (Courtesy Mbarga’s producer, Rogers All Stars)

Soon they were touring all across West Africa – Togo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso – and even as far east as Kenya. As Jean Duclair recalls, the band members were scared to leave the plane when they saw the crowds waiting for them at airports, wearing Rocafil Jazz t-shirts, screaming Mbarga’s name.

And what was the reason for its success? Certainly, with its Congolese guitar-picking, its West African highlife beat and its pidgin lyrics, “Sweet Mother” had something for people all over.

Yet even beyond that, perhaps what it really caught was differing shades of Africa at the time. For, by the 1970s, these were societies that – after the profound changes wrought first by colonialism, then by the liberation movements that challenged it, and finally by the mixed records of those same movements once in power – had reason to feel both excited and uneasy at the new continent these encounters had created. It was a creative tension at the heart of “Sweet Mother.” In its style, with its hybrid English and its electric guitars calling its listeners to dance, it was unquestionably modern; but in its content, with its heartfelt praise for the nurturing role of mothers, “Sweet Mother” nodded to a more traditional life. It was a contradiction that Mbarga embodied himself. He was a man who would later, in “Green Revolution,” bemoan the flight of the sons and daughters of the land for the lure of the city – singing, “let’s go farming, and be self-sufficient!” – while he himself performed on stage in Nigeria’s biggest towns in his famous three-inch platform shoes. As his best friend Ojong would say, “He’s a blender.”

Or perhaps it was just a great tune.

Regardless, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz were completely unprepared for the popularity of “Sweet Mother.” While numerous online reports of Mbarga’s career have Rocafil Jazz falling apart when, in 1983, Nigeria’s President Shagari ordered the country’s two million undocumented migrants to leave – amongst them Rocafil’s Cameroonian musicians – no former band member I spoke with recognized that story. Instead, it was something much more mundane: money. On its release, they were a local band that practiced in a small compound in Onitsha, playing Sunday gigs at the Plaza Hotel with instruments that Rogers All Stars himself had bought for them, and with no contracts in place. It was always an issue with the potential to cause problems. After a loss-making and slightly demoralizing tour to London in ’79 – playing at venues like St. Pancras Town Hall and the African Centre to half-empty European crowds – the members of Rocafil Jazz complained to Mbarga that they were underpaid.

Mbarga was, according to Jean Duclair, unwilling to give an inch, and the mood soured. Before a scheduled trip to Japan, unable to agree on their percentages, Rocafil disbanded. Though they later re-formed, changed members, re-formed and disbanded again, the band never quite gained the same momentum – there was even an actual physical altercation, broken up by the police, after a New Year’s Eve hotel show in 1980. Meanwhile, convinced that Rogers All Stars hadn’t given him his share of the royalties, Mbarga unsuccessfully took his producer to court. (Everyone did eventually reconcile – Rogers refers to Mbarga as “like a son.”)

In the end, not much of the money made from “Sweet Mother” ever made it back to any of them. Royalty payments were limited by the hundreds of pirate recordings of the song, as economies across the continent began to suffer and record stores started to make their money by dubbing cassettes.

No one involved with “Sweet Mother” is now living a life that would suggest they were behind one of the top twenty bestselling songs in history. Mbarga’s family live in a pleasant but modest bungalow in Ikom; his former band members like Jean Duclair still struggle to raise funds for their musical projects; and his old producer, Rogers All Stars, though he owns a four-story building in Onitsha, admitted to many mistakes in trying to protect “Sweet Mother” from piracy. “You can see,” he says in his dusty office, exaggerating slightly in a room that still dwarfs his fragile frame, “you can see how poor we are.”

With the money he did receive from “Sweet Mother,” Mbarga moved back to Ikom, built and managed the Sweet Mother Hotel – where he would perform every Sunday – and married a local girl, Esame, the daughter of the owner of the only petrol station in town. He also built the house where she still lives today.

The former Sweet Mother Hotel in Ikom.

Lucy and their two children also moved to Ikom. Indeed, while Mbarga eulogized about mothers on stage, he did not quite show so much respect to the mothers of his own children. “His only weakness was temptation,” says Rogers. For alongside Esame, his wife, and Lucy, his first love, he had numerous other lovers. Even a track on his first album,
“Christiana,” two songs after “Sweet Mother,” is about a girl he was courting in Onitsha. It was an attitude he alluded to in “Sweet Mother” itself, asking before one of its many instrumental breaks: “You fit get another wife / you fit get another husband / but you fit get another mother? No!” Not that, when pressed on it all these years later, neither Lucy nor Esame seem to mind that much.

And if Mbarga disappeared from the music scene, it was not through lack of trying. Esame recalls that he would sing, play air guitar and compose songs even when they were eating. He would go on to produce 17 albums and records after “Sweet Mother,” all with the same highlife beat and Congolese style guitar. In fact, he didn’t even rate “Sweet Mother” as one of his best songs, preferring “Simplicity” instead.

But while the lives of some artists darken as the fame fades, there is no such twist here. Mbarga lived a satisfied life, caring for his own mother, supporting his two “wives” and spoiling his children with gifts. He was, on the accounts of both Lucy and Esame, a loving father, “too sweet” to punish his kids, always willing to dance with them. “He lived a happy life,” Esame says.

It was Mbarga’s desire to carry on his music that saw his end in Calabar 20 years ago. If his childhood witnessed the enthusiasm of early independence, his death seemed a cruel symbol of what the impoverished Nigeria of the 1990s had become. After a ten-year hiatus, the original band was back together for a 50-state tour of the U.S. and Mbarga was on his way to pick up visas. His car ran out of fuel – a scandalously common occurrence in one of the world’s largest oil exporters – so he hopped on an okada (motorbike taxi) to complete the journey and, once in Calabar, was thrown off by a car. In the hospital for two weeks, visited by his band members, his friends, his children and his first love Lucy – who held his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness – he died with Esame at his side. Back home in Ikom, his elderly mother fell down when she heard the news, and did not get back up. She died too shortly afterwards.

It was a fitting end for the two of them. Mbarga never forgot all that his mother did for him when he was a boy – leaving their home every day before dawn to work on a rented plot, growing bananas and yams, trying to raise four children – and he spent his life paying her back for it. She was, by all accounts, delighted with “Sweet Mother,” his timeless dedication to her. When Rocafil Jazz were in Onitsha, she would come down every month to watch them practice, dancing with a broom in her hand, and inviting them all back to Ikom so she could feed them up. As she aged, he took care of her, as Lucy remembers, refusing to eat until she had, and talking to her morning and night. After all, he did say in his bestseller, “If you forget your mother, you’ve lost your life.”

* * *

As I traveled throughout Nigeria, I noticed Nico Mbarga moving from a human being who had lived here on earth to, on a small scale, an icon in the making. The things he touched and made in life were slowly fading away: the Ikom compound where he grew up with his mother had been knocked down, leaving just an empty plot; the multitrack records of his “Sweet Mother” studio session in Lagos had long been thrown away; his Sweet Mother hotel, under different ownership now, was completely rundown.

In their place, in Ikom, Mbarga is newly remembered by a statue erected early this year. It’s a golden Mbarga in his platform shoes, standing his guitar on a plinth, looking out over the traffic of “Mbarga Junction.” Nearby, shaded by Ikom’s many red-blossomed African tulip trees, is Sweet Mother Road. And if it is sad in a sense – Lucy cried the day the statue was put up, as if it were final confirmation of his death – it does at least constitute a well-earned recognition for Mbarga at last.

Which leaves just one final question: Why have Mbarga and “Sweet Mother” been so ignored elsewhere? While the continent’s cultural contributions are generally marginalized, some African music does make it outside, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeats, to Ali Farka Toure’s Malian blues, to Ethiopia’s otherworldly-sounding jazz. The music that makes it to western ears is usually tough and cool, if not explicitly political, reflective of what many perceive must be a dark political mood.

Yet none of this music, brilliant and rich as it is, has proved as popular with Africans themselves as Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz’s ten-minute ode to mothers. It is played at weddings, as newlywed brides about to leave their homes for the first time dance with their mums to say thank you, at birthday parties celebrating the long lives of family grandmothers, and at Mother’s Day church services, the only secular song amongst the hymns, with worshippers swinging in the aisles adding their own “hallelujah!” to Mbarga’s lyrics. The “Sweet Mother” ideal, the all-consuming mother, not eating until her children are fed, not sleeping until they sleep, crying when they are sick, might be a little conservative, but it has deep cultural roots.

The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote that discovering the jubilance of Congolese rumba in the 1980s – a time of impoverishment, of brutal wars, of cruel leaders – taught him to look beyond the mere facts of political life. In Africa, he argued, “music has always been a celebration of the ineradicability of life.” More than anything, it was the genre that articulated “the practice of joy before death.” In the west perhaps, we have only wanted to hear music from the continent about the facts; in its joyful way, “Sweet Mother” captured something else: the suffering, the love, the human relationships between those facts.

Maybe we should listen harder.

* * *

For more on the story of Prince Nico’s life and legendary hit from Sami Kent, listen to the BBC radio documentary, Sweet Mother, here.

 

 

The Secrets in My Mother’s Nightstand

When I was little, nothing made me feel closer to Mom than rifling through her prized possessions.

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Sophia Wiedeman is a comic book artist currently drawing and teaching in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of The Lettuce Girl and Born, Not Raised, which was recently included in the Society of Illustrators 2016 Comic and Cartoon Art Annual. Follow her on Instagram: @sophiadrawsdaily.

 

 

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