A Place to Rest

Exploring the convoluted and costly business of where to spend an afterlife in New York City.

If you want to make someone immediately uncomfortable, ask what he plans to do with his body, when his heart has stopped beating and his flesh has gone cold.

A few months ago, I received an envelope from the Pinelawn Memorial Park and Garden Mausoleum in Farmingdale, New York. Inside was a free booklet titled, “Let’s Face It Now” and a letter that explained how taking charge of your death—though the word “death” was never mentioned—offers a sense of accomplishment and peace of mind. I’m 31 years old. Other than mild asthma and the occasional cold, I am healthy. So I was unnerved and even offended that Pinelawn had targeted me as a potential customer.

But maybe the Pinelawn folks had chosen the right person after all. As an incurable procrastinator, one of the things that frightens me most about death is that I won’t be prepared. Death is not accommodating. Don’t I get one phone call? A final meal? One more paragraph in the novel I’m reading? I may never know how it ends.

What’s worse, I might not have achieved my legacy yet—a house with a backyard, grandchildren, a Pulitzer. And as the letter from Pinelawn reminded me, living in a city of eight million people, on the moment of my passing there just might not be room for me. With so many other variables out of my control, I decided it was time I found a place to rest when I’m dead. Feeling very adult—31 is not that young—as well as a touch morbid, I took the train to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, in search of a place to begin my afterlife.

*   *   *

As the name Green-Wood suggests, the cemetery boasts lush grasses and hundred-year-old trees. Rustic signs indicating different paths—Blossom, Berry and Birch—curl around so many hills. On the Sunday after St. Patrick’s Day, I joined the “Eminent Irish Tour.” Green-Wood offers tours most Sunday afternoons and every Wednesday. At one stop, Ruth Edebohls, our tour guide, shared the story of a scrappy Irish immigrant who went from rags to riches, and at another she spoke of a courtesan, Lola Montez, who was famous for her seductive Spanish spider dance. Her admirers included Andre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac.

As we stepped sideways up certain inclines, Edebohls, who has been giving tours for the last fifteen years, explained that her “clomping” was due to two hip replacements and a knee replacement. Clearly, these two hours were a labor of love.

While I listened to her stories of the dead, I was also looking at the newer graves, taking notes on location, and searching for open space. I was looking for my place to rest.

*   *   *

America’s first pioneers kept burial simple—people were interred where they died. Friends of the deceased were unlikely to return to the spot and didn’t want to draw any strangers’ attention to it, so they left the grave unmarked. In time, people began marking the burial spot with wooden slabs carved with the initials of the deceased. In the 1700s, as frontier homes transformed into farming estates, isolated graves became clusters of graves, which were shared with neighbors. Then, for some families, churchyards replaced farm burial. As villages grew into bustling cities, church graveyards became more crowded, and less pleasant to visit; both factors led to the development of today’s rural cemeteries.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick
The Cemetery of the Evergreens in Bushwick

Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838, predating both Central and Prospect Parks. It was built upon the terminal moraine—the rocky debris deposited by glaciers that stretches from Staten Island through Brooklyn and Queens. Rural cemeteries, like Green-Wood at the time, served not only as burial grounds but as garden retreats, following the model of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Massachusetts and Père Lachaise in Paris. In addition to the wealthy deceased residents, its gentle hills, glacial ponds and stunning view of  New York Harbor drew strollers, picnickers, and in the 1850s attracted as many as half-a-million tourists a year. Charles Dickens and the King of Hawaii were among them. As a U.S. travel destination in the 19th century, it was perhaps second only to Niagara Falls, says Jeff Richman, who authored a book about the culture and history of Green-Wood.

Easily one of the finest cemeteries in New York, securing a spot there in advance could cost between $12,000 and $22,000 today. In recent years, the cemetery has reclaimed old paths and a handful of ponds to create more space for graves; however, in ten years, there might not be any lots left to sell.

Edebohls, who has honey blonde hair, favors movie star make-up, and has a love for anything Victorian, is comfortable talking about death, even her own. “It’s just a matter of temperament,” she told me when we met a few weeks after her tour. She believes the dead watch over us. A medium once told Edebohls she could see spirits in the trees along every stretch of her walking tour. Edebohls was delighted.

On a pleasant Tuesday morning, she and I stopped at an open patch of grass, on a hill, backed by a copse of firs. This was the spot Edebohls has chosen for herself and her ex-husband. “It’s hard for a lot of people to understand why I’m so happy to have my burial spot,” she said. But she and her ex-husband are both glad to have that part of their future, or fate, settled. While they aren’t romantically involved, Edebohls said they’ve reconnected “spiritually” and now speak everyday.

A single grave generally holds two to three people. Coffins are stacked one on top of another with two to three feet of dirt in between. Edebohls, whose ex-husband is ten years older, expects she will be on top, but “you never know,” she said.

Edebohls’ pink cheeks sparkled beneath her sunglasses as she spoke about her future neighbor, an Irish woman. “She died in 2007. She gets lots of visitors,” she said, seeming oddly pleased.

Like Edebohls, my mother, an Irish-born Roman Catholic, is unfazed by death—her own or anyone else’s. When she first began her job as a hospice nurse, I was nine. It made me think of death all the time. I spent weeks staring at the ceiling, afraid that I might fall asleep and not wake up. At night, I listed the names of those who had died: my babysitter; my grandfathers and two teenage boys from my town, Yardley Pennsylvania. The list grew. Whether I was praying or deliberately giving myself nightmares I still don’t know.

Reminders of my mother’s former patients were everywhere in our home: A photographer left her a framed picture of the ocean; a woman we called Granny had gifted her a nativity scene entirely made of corn husks; a collector of rare books had given me a favorite novel. These keepsakes haunted me. It wasn’t until I was older, until I had lost friends myself, that I realized how special it was to have that one item—a T-shirt, a mix tape, a photograph—to remember them by.

*   *   *

I returned to Green-Wood several times, allowing myself to get lost inside, dwarfed and distracted by the elegant statues and the bedroom-sized mausoleums. I looked at the graves, read the epitaphs, slid cards to one side so I could better see a photograph. People left more than flowers. They left bracelets, pinwheels, balloons, prayer flags, paperweights, teddy bears, Barbie dolls and tiny bottles of liquor. In front of one headstone—engraved with an image of a young man in a backwards baseball cap—sat a giant birthday cake made of artificial flowers. The banner read “Happy Birthday in Heaven” and the card “love your heartbroken mother.”  As strange as I felt and as troubled as I might have looked to anyone who saw me, I was encouraged by something Edebohls had said about the dead appreciating their visitors. I counted the stones left by others—a Jewish tradition that has been adopted by other faiths—and sat in the chapel.

Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery
Historian Allan Smith at the grave of composer Leonard Bernstein in Green-Wood Cemetery

From the outside, the chapel in Green-Wood is an exquisite triple-domed terra cotta masterpiece. While it was designed by the same firm that built Grand Central, Warren and Wetmore, the chapel is more understated, more delicate, as if the building itself understood the need for restraint. Still, I envision a couple taking wedding photos on the front steps and I’m not wrong. The space is also available for weddings, book talks and gallery exhibits. Once emptied of people, it lends itself to quiet reflection.

I left through the main gates, passing under striking domes, Gothic spires, flying buttresses and a scene of Jesus and his apostles carved from stone. On the grey day I first visited, these gates were ominous, begging for a clash of thunder and spooky disembodied laughter. Gut on a bright spring day the scene is stunning, in just the opposite way—filled with bird song and squirrels, flowering gardens and towering oaks. I wished for more time there.

*   *   *

A few weeks later, I walk through a more modest entrance at The Cemetery of the Evergreens, which straddles Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens. This time, I’m not alone.

“It’s Cemetery of the Evergreens. That is its legal name, not The Evergreens Cemetery,” Allan Smith, a former architect and local historian, tells me for the third time. Smith has written a book about one cemetery and helped restore another. I ignore both the brochure and the website, because the name matters to Smith and because it really does sound nicer. Smith, now in his early seventies, has been visiting this cemetery since the late 1940s. He carries a green bookbag and wears a sullen expression like a scolded eight-year-old boy. He’s not the type to force a smile to ease the strain of a conversation, but he isn’t unfriendly. And when he talks about cemeteries, he gets excited.

Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Allan Smith in Green-Wood Cemetery; Smith has written a book about Cypress Hills Cemetery, and much of his family is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens

In the early 1800s, Smith explains, New York experienced a burial crisis. The population had nearly tripled and in addition to overcrowding, people worried about the spread of diseases such as smallpox. The water table was rising, or at least residents believed it was.

“They thought corpses were mixing with the water,” Smith says. Internments were banned in lower Manhattan, and in 1847 the Rural Cemetery Act was passed. This allowed investors to build commercial cemeteries in the boroughs beyond Manhattan. The Cemetery of the Evergreens was built two years later.

This talk of corpses mixing with water reminded me of the Sundays I spent as an altar server in our small-town church in Pennsylvania, braiding the tassels on my robe, and staring at a bronze plaque that hung between two stained glass windows and paid the following tribute: “Gwendolyn, daughter of Charles and Mary Spong, who died at sea April 27, 1903. Age nine months.”

I wondered whether Gwendolyn was buried under the church, or in the yard? Or if her parents had been pressured by other passengers to leave her body at sea. I pictured a swaddled Gwen, released from her mother’s hands, falling through strata of water, growing darker and colder. Batted about by sharks and dolphins, Gwen becomes an offering for the starfish, sea anemones and eyeless creatures who don’t even realize how dark it is on the ocean floor. At this point, a lay reader would nudge me and point with his chin to the cushions that needed to be laid at the altar gate or at the ushers waiting for communion plates. My daydream was over.

When Smith visited the Cemetery of the Evergreens as a teenager, families came for more than funerals. On weekends, they would promenade in their finery down Bushwick Avenue, which at the time was dotted with mansions—Brooklyn’s own Park Avenue. From there, they’d enter the cemetery.

“This is Brewer’s Row,” Smith says, leading me down a path just inside the cemetery gates, one plot named Hickory Knoll and another called simply The Lawn. These little white houses—some ornate, others simple Art Deco blocks with clean straight lines—are the resting places of some of Brooklyn’s wealthiest residents. The mausoleums line either side of an inclined driveway that curves to the right. Smith then points to a few short marble columns. He explains that a severed column symbolizes a life cut short, as does a broken flower bud or branch. A sculpture of a lamb or an angel often sits at the grave of a young child, representing innocence and purity.

Half of the lots in the Cemetery of the Evergeens are given names like Whispering Grove; the rest are Biblical, like Mount of Olives and Nazareth. Even though the Cemetery of the Evergreens is non-sectarian and non-denominational, groups tend to self-segregate. In an area populated by Chinese graves, families leave paper money and incense, as well as oranges and other food —all things some Chinese believe the dead will need on their journey to the afterlife.

When we reach a plot called Ascension, Smith crouches down before his maternal grandparents’ stone, picks up a tulip pot knocked on its side by the wind, and turns it upright, placing some stones inside. “Very few people visit. I can tell you,” he says. He repeats this process in North Mead, for his great-grandparents, his paternal grandparents and his parents. Along the way, we see only security guards and landscapers drive by. I ask Smith if he ever gets lonely visiting the cemetery.

“That’s why I’m thankful when that green truck goes by,” he says referring to the landscaping and maintenance workers that pass every half-hour or so and wave.

The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade
The Cemetery of the Evergreens; Donato P. Daddario has served as the cemetery’s historian for the past decade

Unless you have a deed, a legal document to show you are related to another family member already buried here, you cannot reserve a plot at the Cemetery of the Evergreens. There isn’t room. The lots are first-come, first-served. Even if I wanted to be buried in this cemetery, I wouldn’t be allowed in.

Smith’s own burial is a matter of logistics. He will either lie with his parents or his grandparents, wherever there is still space, and as a result he won’t need his own headstone. It seems sad to me that Smith, a former architect, won’t get to design his own. As we sit on the L train, having left the cemetery behind, he cranes his neck and draws a grave for himself on the back of the cemetery map. If he weren’t planning to stay in one of the family graves, this is the headstone he would have chosen. It was a simple long rectangle within another slightly smaller rectangle and the name ‘ALLAN BOECHER SMITH’ in all capital letters. “Deep chiseled letters,” he says.

I don’t want Smith to be buried in this flat, desolate graveyard. It’s far too quiet. Of all of the cemeteries I’d visited, the Cemetery of the Evergreens felt the most like a cemetery—sad. While walking through it, even with Smith beside me, everything seemed too still. The graves felt forgotten. I would never expect to have even monthly visitors, but to know that just a few strangers might walk by occasionally would be a comfort. I crossed the Cemetery of the Evergreens off my list.

*   *   *

One Saturday morning in April, I visit Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn. There are at least six cars parked along the drive and several more pass as I walk. The graves are packed more tightly here than at Green-Wood or Cemetery of the Evergreens. The newer headstones are set closer to the driveway in rows, while the older graves lean against each other in the shadow of tall trees and shrubs. Smith had told me on my last visit that cemeteries often leave empty space at their front entrances, for aesthetic reasons. Cypress Hills ignores this convention.

Anthony Desmond, the office manager and family services counselor at Cypress Hills, sits behind his desk in a dark-wood-paneled office. He is thirty-something and bald with sympathetic eyes and a warm smile—which can’t hurt in his line of work. His customers are generally older—much older than me. “Some people feel like if they come in and prearrange for their burial then they’re going to die the next day,” he says.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is situated near East New York, a neighborhood known for high crime and violence. “It keeps us busy,” says Desmond. “Though not in the way that we would prefer.” Desmond went to law enforcement school, where he began training as a police officer, then changed his mind and joined his father in the family business. But his training has been useful; on at least three occasions he has helped catch criminals who had sought asylum in the cemetery.

Because most of his customers live in the surrounding community, Desmond and his family try to engage them with activities unrelated to death care. Last year, they invited a high school marching band to perform on Memorial Day and this past Christmas more than 200 children came to see Santa. The kids were excited about the free gifts and didn’t seem bothered by the tombstones.

After comparing prices for urns and graves—a single burial lot at Cypress Hills costs between $5,000 and $8,000 and an urn costs around $300—I ask Desmond if working with so many grieving families depresses him. He says being able to help people makes him feel good. If a family is struggling Desmond will share a little of his own grief. While they walk through the cemetery he’ll point to the grave of his sister, who died five years ago. “You never fully heal,” he says. “You just try to let them know that things are going to get better.”

When I ask Desmond about his own arrangements, he pauses and for the first time looks uneasy. He says he tries not to think about them. “I would rather just be cremated and left with my family on the mantle. That’s fine by me. After I’m dead it doesn’t really make a difference.”

Desmond has a point. I could have my ashes scattered by the creek in my hometown or flushed down the toilet. I could squeeze into a burial plot at Cypress Hill or spend my life saving up for a $250,000 mausoleum in Green-Wood. And what would it matter?

I walk the grounds at Cypress Hills as a grandmother, mother and son gather beside a lawn pump, collecting water for one grave’s flowers. Across the driveway, an old man kisses his fingers lightly, then bends down, touching his hand to a headstone. While the graves may be crowded, at least there are more visitors. Perhaps it’s a consolation for them to see each other, to know that their pain is shared.

*   *   *

I meet Allan Smith again, when he and his co-author, Stephen Duer, present their book on Cypress Hills Cemetery to a gathering of New York’s death care professionals in Park Slope. At the reading, I discuss my research with Duer, casually listing the cemeteries I’ve visited.

“You have to go to Woodlawn,” he says. The man is adamant. The mausoleums at Green-Wood, he continues, are a joke compared to Woodlawn.

So, on a Tuesday morning, I meet Susan Olsen, the official historian for Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. She wears a cheery pink shirt under a black blazer but she isn’t happy. Her eyes are puffy from an allergic reaction, which she admits is making her grumpy. “Let’s get this over with,” she says, leading me to a tiny room inside the administrative building at the cemetery’s front entrance.  “I’ve got the History Channel coming this afternoon.”

She explains to me what makes Woodlawn unique—lists its selling points since I am, after all, a prospective client. It all comes down to  history, architecture and artistry, Olsen says. And then our conversation takes a detour as she explains the history of embalming. “The best advertising for embalming was Abraham Lincoln’s death,” she tells me. After Lincoln died, his body was taken on a two-week funeral tour before reaching Springfield, Illinois. It was viewed by strangers at every stop along the way. Until that point, embalming was considered experimental, but after that it caught on quickly. Soldiers who died in battle could now be transported for miles on trains and then buried with their families.

Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery
Historian Susan Olsen in Belmont Mausoleum, near the entrance of the 140-year-old Woodlawn Cemetery

At the same time, the role of undertaker developed into that of funeral director. Instead of having to clean house and invite all of your guests over, Olsen explains, people would send them to funeral parlors. “For those who were rich, it made them look good, and if they were poor, it made them look even better.” Olsen is a born storyteller; she feigns apathy, but the more she talks the clearer it becomes that death care actually matters to her.

Asked what her own final wishes are, Olsen waves away the question. “Oh I don’t care,” she says. “Cremation, I guess.”

Olsen gives me an audio guide, a sleek black device that looks like a TV remote, and circles the most critical spots on the tour map: the graves of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis and a few more that she thinks will interest me.

There are 1,300 mausoleums in Woodlawn. “Possibly, more than any other cemetery in the country besides New Orleans,” says a voice from the audio player, not Olsen’s. And they are magnificent. The tallest is seventy feet tall and detailed with cherubs, flames and gargoyles. Many are the size of small chapels.

In any direction I look there are also sculptures—hundreds of them—usually of women with long hair in flowing robes with flower petals between their fingers. Alongside these graceful figures are statues of children and angels.

Woodlawn prides itself on “beauty before permanence,” allowing stones that other cemeteries forbid, such as white marble and limestone, because they erode more quickly in harsh weather. Up close, some of the faces of the sculptures appear to be melting; other sculptures are missing fingers and limbs; one is headless. A privately contracted gardener tells me a groundskeeper who was drunk one night knocked the head off with a shovel.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, bizarre tragedies were usually well documented on the deceased’s gravestone. At Woodlawn, fifteen-year-old George Spencer Millet’s stone reads:

“Lost life by stab in falling on ink eraser, evading six young women trying to give him birthday kisses in office of Metropolitan life building.”

At the Cemetery of the Evergreens, another monument describes how two sets of brothers died playing marbles when a gas tank exploded beside them.

Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Statues at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

If Green-Wood is a park, then Woodlawn is a sculpture garden. In a way, the statues and mausoleums at Woodlawn are stunning, something to ogle, and admire, but this art was man-made and quickly eroding. What felt special about Green-Wood wasn’t the monuments but the atmosphere. True, the chapel and entrance are breathtaking, but it was the winding paths, the hills and the layers upon layers of branches a hundred years away that held me there. On a warm, clear day, it’s paradise. And on a grey afternoon, that cemetery wrapped its sadness around me, making it hard to leave.

*   *   *

On a Thursday afternoon, I stop at a monument store called Century Memorials, on Fifth Avenue not far from Green-Wood, to ask about epitaphs. With its white siding and antiquated lettering, it looks like a post office from a country-western film. I peek in the door, half expecting to see a man in spurs, with a bandanna covering his mouth and nose. Instead, I find an older woman wearing a necklace that says “Grandma.” She smiles up at me from beneath blue eye shadow and painted eyebrows, invites me to sit and introduces herself as Monica Hakola. A banner celebrating the store’s 150th anniversary hangs from the ceiling. “It’s old,” she says. The office explodes with papers, files and pictures of gravestones. I ask her when epitaphs became so generic—so many graves repeat the same thing; “Beloved wife,” “Beloved Husband,” “Beloved Son”—and if she has seen any special ones. “Let’s ask John,” Hakola says. “JOHN!!” A man seated in a cubicle just behind the front desk, John Hakola unfolds himself from his chair and steps to his full height, around six-foot-three. He is nearly seventy with weary blue eyes, but still handsome. He seems less enthused about visitors than Mrs. Hakola, but he is willing to accommodate me to please his wife.

I ask John if he remembers seeing any epitaphs that were memorable. “Memorable or oddball?” he asks.

This wasn’t the first time I’d posed the question; I just hadn’t found an answer. Anthony Desmond of Cypress Hills had told me that his favorite epitaph belonged to Jackie Robinson: “A life is not important except on the impact it has on other’s lives.”  When I asked Olsen why she thought the final expressions on gravestones have gotten less creative, she answered flatly, “Because people have gotten less creative.”

“I know the one you’re thinking of,” says Monica Hakola. She rifles through a few files in a drawer, then hands me a photograph. “This one’s a real comedian,” she says.

The grey stone in the photo belongs to a man named Alfred. The top line reads, “It’s been a wonderful life.” Below that is his name, birth date and death date. Hakola points out that there is still space for two more names. And below the space, in small capital letters, Alfred closes with, “I love you all. Thanks for coming.” Even though I know Hakola called Alfred a comedian ironically, I still picture an old man standing behind a microphone, with a gleam in his eye, saying those last words before taking a bow. It was perfect.

*   *   *

By now, I was leaning towards both a grave and an epitaph, but there were still aspects of ground burial that needed to be resolved. So I asked Melissa Conrad, a friend and PhD candidate in biology at New York University, about decomposition. She told me that “while you’re alive, multiple mechanisms prevent your cells from breaking down.” But when your heart stops beating, your blood isn’t circulating or being cleaned. This causes a chemical change in those cells that are used to receiving clean blood, and these protective mechanisms fail. This chemical change triggers the release of enzymes, which cheat the body by breaking apart high-energy bonds and stealing from its energy stores.

Opportunistic feeders like worms, bacteria, fungus and even starfish—if you’re a body in water, like poor Gwendolyn Spong—speed up this process.  They’re called detritivores. “In the end what you have are the simple building blocks that become available again,” Conrad says. Simply put, the molecules that make up your body are ready to take a different form.

A species of flies called phoridae, but commonly known as  coffin flies, are an eighth of an inch long, brown or grey and drawn to moist, decaying material. They are picky eaters, I learn. Given the choice between steak and potatoes, they will choose the steak. I’m made queasy by the image of tiny monsters devouring my hair, skin and nails, and then laying eggs so their offspring can continue the process.  Cremation starts to look more attractive than before.

Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Gravestones of varying sizes at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

I return to Green-Wood to explore its crematorium. Santos Rivera, who works in sales, leads me through a room with a small raised garden and two cushioned backless benches. It could be the waiting room at a doctor’s office on the Upper East Side, if not for the glass cupboards lined with lidded ornamental vases made of stone, onyx, marble and colored glass. Others hold boxes of cast iron, engraved with names, dates and, frequently, Chinese symbols. Each shelf is lit from above.

Rivera leads me outside the main building to the Tranquility Garden, where the sound of rushing water conjures images of a spa. Urns can also be buried here. Rivera points out a small flat plaque in the grass. Somewhere under the dirt sit two urns. “One on the right and one on the left,” he says tapping a shiny black shoe in each spot.

Just beyond the grass, water swirls in a lily pond. Bamboo plants point skyward in giant pots on either side of a narrow path, which forms an asterisk with other paths crossing the pond. Each path leads to a single glass house, known as a columbarium, and together they form a semi-circle around the pond. Inside the houses are more waiting rooms, and more urns.

We return to the main building and I follow Rivera in his blue dress shirt and shiny shoes. He walks me past a chapel that looks like a giant home theater, with several sofa chairs that curve in view of a lectern. Families often hold a committal service in the chapel, before sending the casket to the crematorium. Services last only fifteen minutes, Rivera told me. “Otherwise, there’s a wait.”

In the back room, two empty biers—moveable frames used to transport caskets—wait in front of vast stainless steel cabinets. The biers look like hospital stretchers, only sturdier and missing the mattresses. The newer ones have built-in scales, so that bodies can be weighed and moved at once. The steel cabinets, I realize, are the ovens.

Two thousand degrees Fahrenheit is the right temperature at which to burn a body. “You put your heaviest bodies on in the morning,” says Rivera. Otherwise, the retorts, the ovens where bodies are sent, are overworked and will break down. Unlike the old models, which workers ran by hand, the newer models, Phoenixes, have timers, buttons to preheat and a light to indicate when the machine has cooled down. “I used to think of it as opening up the doors to hell,” Rivera admits. Now, he  sees things more practically. “Cremations are just a quick way to get ashes,” he says.

While bodies take two hours to be cremated, the retort needs another hour to cool down.  “Then you open it up and take out the handles,” says Rivera, referring to the knobs and bars used by pallbearers to carry coffins.  “Sometimes you get a fancy casket that might have a spring mattress in there, or you could get a cardboard box.”

When the brass and metal bits have been removed, an employee will sweep the ashes into a tray, where they cool for another half-hour. The remains, including larger bone fragments, are poured into a pulverizer, the size of a regular blender. It takes only a few seconds to reduce bone to ash, Rivera told me. The ashes are poured into a black bin, the size of a small book, lined with a plastic bag, and then finally into the urn. Depending on the receptacle, the whole process can last between four and five hours.

The final product, which comprises the corpse and the coffin, weighs between seven and twelve pounds. Sifting, the process of separating the ashes from the wood, used to be standard procedure, but it wasn’t foolproof. “In that process, you would lose some of the remains. So it was outlawed. Now, you give it all back,” says Rivera.

The demand for Rivera’s  services has doubled in the last decade, from 1,200 to nearly 2,500 cremations annually. Green-Wood is building a second chapel and another waiting room.  “This way we can handle two services at once,” he says.

The reason for cremation’s popularity is likely financial. The average funeral costs around $5,000, including a casket. Cremation generally costs around $350. A niche for an urn can cost as little as $700, whereas the average plot for a single burial at Green-Wood is $15,000.

In Green-Wood, a premium spot, which allows for a larger tombstone and plantings, is approximately $22,000, but a private mausoleum can cost as much as $300,000.  This sounds expensive until you compare it to Forest Hills Cemetery in California, where a family mausoleum with an ocean view costs more than $825,000.

Every funeral home has a closet full of unclaimed remains, or cremains, usually inside urns. Rivera confirmed this. “They are required by law to wait 120 days,” he said. Afterward, the homes are legally allowed to dispose of the remains, but they seldom do. Sometimes the families never come back. “They didn’t have a place to put them or couldn’t afford them, ”he says.

As elegant as the urns look, the concept of being made to fit into a smooth square box or vase seems too delicate, too sanitary. I don’t want to be kept like a china dish under an artificial light.

In Rivera’s office I notice a row of scattering urns sitting above his shelves, each one painted differently—with clouds, an American flag, army camouflage or a field of sunflowers. They work like salt shakers, letting a little ash out at a time. I picture my brother and sister, with their future children, and maybe mine, shaking out ashes over a favorite field by a creek back home in Pennsylvania.

Before I leave, Rivera hands me a few brochures about cremation. One is titled, “Explaining Cremation to a Child.” The image on the front shows two models in matching blue sweaters and khakis, looking up at a young girl who is for no apparent reason sitting in a window—which, upon closer examination, is not actually a window, but still has an ethereal light behind it. The brochure reads, “In explaining cremation to your child avoid words that may have a frightening connotation such as ‘fire’ and ‘burn.’” A few paragraphs later it adds, “Be sure to point out that a dead body feels no pain.”  Out of context, the brochure is laughable, but the concept of a parent having to rely on a brochure to explain death, and what happens to dead bodies, is less so.

*   *   *

While the prospect of worms and phoridae flies recycling my flesh still disgusts me, I’m less excited about cremation after seeing the pulverizer. I don’t want to be blended. And as charming as scattering your ashes seems, it’s also very final. Once you’re scattered, you’re gone. Forever.

Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens
Plant life thrives among the dead at the Cemetery of the Evergreens

But not every part of death care has to be so unromantic. Women who work in the funerary business have a less than conventional approach to dying. Ruth Edebohls, the tour guide at Green-Wood, has thought about the dress she’ll be buried in. It’s a long-sleeved turtleneck and it’s velvet. “That would be perfect if it were in the winter,” she said. Although it doesn’t have a zipper, she added, and might be difficult to pull over a corpse. Angela Ragusa, a 21-year-old who grew up in the memorial business, said she wants “something plain” for her gravestone. She chose a black stone with rosary beads on top; even though it’s less natural, it’s trendier. “Everyone wants the black,” she said.

I’ve wrestled with the nightmare of decay, the grotesque sucking of flies and tunneling of worms and the gnawing of rodents, and decided it’s still preferable to cremation. There is something clean, even spiritual, about burial that’s missing from the very sterile and modern process of cremation. Through burial, you are intimately, inextricably part of nature, with a community both living and dead. To me, it’s a way of forever belonging.

I’ve decided I’ll wear a short-sleeved navy dress at my funeral, and earrings that are small and timeless. Choosing an epitaph was much harder. For the moment, I think a quote from Albert Schweitzer comes closest to expressing what I’ve learned in 31 years.  “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.” Put simply, people need other people. It’s both a thank you to friends and strangers and a reminder.

A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens
A simple gravestone at Cemetery of the Evergreens

As for my grave, I chose Green-Wood. I found a spot up a series of winding roads and under a canopy of oaks and maples. It’s far enough from civilization to be peaceful, but it’s $22,000—a premium lot. This is my dream plot. Ten years from now it seems possible, but when I ask about the feasibility of my claiming it, I’m told that Green-Wood could actually fill up in five years, not ten. (I’m assured this is not the case with its urn gardens.) So it seems I’ll need a fallback plan.

Fortunately, I know another place that does have room. Half a mile inside the dreary brown gates and packed front lawn of Cypress Hills Cemetery, I leave the driveway and follow a path that’s cracked and partially embedded in the earth. I eventually abandon that path and cross through a field of graves and up a hill. This cemetery is much more exposed than Green-Wood, with fewer serpentine paths, smaller hills, and none of the man-made ponds and fountains, but it, too, has peaceful corners.

I’m drawn up the hill by a massive, sprawling tree, an elm or an oak, I can’t be sure. Beneath its tremendous shadow stands a brownstone obelisk topped with a cloaked urn; beside it a limestone statue of a woman holding lilies with her one remaining arm.

I look out over the graves in the field below, imagining them through the seasons, speckled with leaves in the fall, draped in snow in the winter and then swirling with muddy puddles in spring. I picture them crisp with dew in the morning, beads of water glistening across epitaphs, and I imagine how cold the air is on a winter night.

Of course, there are crickets, cicadas and birds. A cemetery is never fully quiet. The tree leaves rustle like seashells under water. In the distance, I can hear the purr of cars on the Jackie Robinson Parkway. I sit down and lean my back against my tree—no tour guides, no visitors, no strangers in sight. It’s just me, alone in my sanctuary.

The Truth About New York’s Legendary ‘Mole People’

Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city.

The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.

This is where it all started.

Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.

This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.

Here in the tunnels.

You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.

Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.

“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.

“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.

“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”

Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.

“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”

Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.

“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”

Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.

The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.

The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.

* * *

Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”

But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Times article by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.

Collective imagination took over quickly.

In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.

However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”

A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.

Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.

“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”

“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”

“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.

All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.

They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.

* * *

I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.

Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.

The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.

Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.

One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.

Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.

Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.

As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”

In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”

Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.

John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.

Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.

“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.

“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.

“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”

* * *

I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?

It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.

“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.

The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?

I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.

The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.

I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?

I walk away holding my breath.

The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.

“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.

“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”

“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”

Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.

“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”

I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.

“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”

The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.

Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.

“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.

Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.

Raúl knows the risks. The worsening quality of the local drugs means accidents are now more frequent than ever, with 420 overdose-related deaths in 2013.

“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.

“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.

Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.

* * *

New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.

Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.

“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.

Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.

The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.

“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”

She looks away, tears rolling down her face.

Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”

She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”

Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.

“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”

On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.

Soon she will give them to her daughter.

“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.

* * *

Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.

I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.

Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.

She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.

She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”

It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.

“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.

“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”

After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.

Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.

I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.

I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.

“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.

It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.

I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.

I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.

This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.

* * *

When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.

The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.

Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”

Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”

The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.

In 1994, U.S. Secretary of Housing Henry Cisneros visited the dwellings and, realizing the urgency of the situation, released 250 housing subsidy vouchers and a $9 million grant to help the squatters move to appropriate accommodations. Unfortunately, Department of Housing Preservation and Development policies prevented this from happening immediately; the Mole People were not considered “housing-ready” even though they had already created homes from nothing, complete with furniture and decorations.

It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.

Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”

As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.

Then there were the others.

One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.

Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.

The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.

According to Coalition for the Homeless, between 58,000 and 60,000 persons slept in NYC municipal shelters every month of 2015, an all-time record since the Great Depression, with numbers increasing for the sixth consecutive year.

“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.

Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.

“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”

The median Manhattan rent jumped more than seven percent in August 2015 compared to the same period in 2014, while affordable housing placements fell sixty percent between 2013 and 2014.

“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.

“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.

Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.

* * *

Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.

“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.

Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.

His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”

The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.

Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.

This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.

We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.

“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”

We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”

We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.

“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.

The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.

They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.

How easy it would be to go away and never come back.

But this is their city. This is their home.

These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.

Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.

Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.

How Running Ruined My Relationship, Killed My Faith…and Saved My Life

My high school boyfriend and I made a bet: he'd learn about my religion, Mormonism, if I took up his religion, running. Neither of us was ready for what came next.

The day my doctor released me from in-patient psych, he said, “Allison, I’ll make you a deal. You can go home on the following conditions: 1) You will take Prozac, the high dose, and you won’t even think about getting off it for an entire year, and 2) You will make yourself run, every day, for at least 20 minutes. Because your life depends on it.”

I agreed, and stood behind the Plexiglass window by the nursing station, waiting for the bin that held all the belongings I had been required to hand over the day I checked in: my wallet, my keys, and the laces from my running shoes. As I threaded my sneakers and prepared to keep my promise by jogging home to the apartment I shared with four other Yale grad students, I remembered another deal, the one that started this whole mess. The one I had made about a decade earlier with my high school boyfriend. A deal about sex, running and the Mormon Church.

I fell for my first boyfriend when I was 15, arriving home from church on one of those sticky, Upstate New York, summer afternoons. After a morning of trying to be a good Latter-day Saint by skipping breakfast, putting on a dress, and spending three hours reading scripture and singing songs about how my body is a temple (and the only person I should ever let inside it was my wedded husband), all I could think about was peeling off my sweaty pantyhose and stuffing my face with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then I saw him, running by my house. Up until that moment, I had ignored this boy, who had moved to our neighborhood the year before from Maine. But what I was seeing as I felt my stomach growl and my nylons riding down my crotch was a puberty miracle. He had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine. I was a goner.

His natural, fluid, effortless laps over the rolling hills surrounding our neighborhood awed me. At that point I was getting clobbered as a field hockey fullback, desperately defending the goal against an onslaught of veteran hoss players. I was in the lineup because the team was short-handed that year and took anyone who would wear a skirt and hold a stick. Unlike my new crush, who ran for love of the sport, I used athletics as an outlet — a way to deal with the teenage sexual energy I urgently needed to suppress. I was skinny, muscular and scrappy, but this never translated to excellence in any of my athletic pursuits. By my teen years, I had bounced around, a few seasons here and there, on every team imaginable: basketball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, even one tragically desperate year in cheerleading. Though I’d tried, I still hadn’t found a sport at which I possessed even a moderate level of physical prowess.

The insta-crush I had on my neighbor was mutual, and we quickly became obsessed with each other. I learned that, aside from running, my new boyfriend loved jazz and kissing. He taught me to french while listening to hours and hours of John Lee Hooker records. One night he put “Boogie Chillen’” on a loop in the background while he told me to just open my mouth and let him figure out what I tasted like.

I remember lying on his bed, stiff and resistant, a hair-trigger of curiosity, puberty and guilty self-loathing. His first lick — barely touching the inside of my lips and the tip of my teeth — was infused with the knowledge, beyond his years, that his only job was to keep me from bolting, to stay, and want just a little more. It didn’t take long for John Lee Hooker’s lyrics to become my own mantra:

One night I was layin’ down…

I didn’t care what she didn’t allow

I would boogie-woogie anyhow

What a terrible, wonderful moment — to realize what I wanted was not to run away, but to stop and be still, to taste and be tasted, and to let someone know this secret about me that I was supposed to keep to myself for many virginal years to come. It wasn’t long before I wanted to lick his entire body, though it would take years of battling deeply entrenched sexual shame for that fantasy to come true. I settled for his armpits — the only other place, besides his mouth, I could possibly justify as not being explicitly forbidden, and the one spot I could reach without actually undressing him. Taking his shirt off felt too wrong, so I pulled and stretched the collar of his v-neck t-shirt down to access what I wanted, chafing his neck and strangling him a little in the process.

Our “Boogie Chillen’” nights repeated on an endless dreamy loop those first few months. When our lips got worn out, he’d tell me mine were so swollen I could pass for Steven Tyler or some other insulting dig that would get me mad enough to hit him or wrestle him to the floor — which is what he really wanted more than anything. We’d fall asleep spooned together, waking up just in time for me to scramble out of his room at dawn, and for him to drag himself to early morning practice. We swam in Lake Ontario every chance we got because it was the one permissible activity that allowed us to gaze at and lie next to each other with the least amount of clothing on our bodies as possible. John Lee’s refrain: “And it felt so good…It felt so good” populated the doodles I penned in the margins of my lecture notes. Though he continued to win races, and I aced my AP courses, we cared about little else than the next time we could wear our mouths out on each other. The two of us, together, mattered more than food. Sleep. School. Anything.

But what can matter more than sex? The first time my boyfriend tried to lift my shirt, asking me if he could just touch the places my modest one-piece bathing suit concealed, I shut him down and explained the rules governing my morality and chastity. I was the first Mormon he’d ever dated — and he was the first “non-member” (the term Latter-day Saints use to identify those not of their faith) I’d ever dared try out as a boyfriend. I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.

“And when I say no premarital sex, what I mean is…I think kissing is fine. But you can’t touch any of my body above my knee. Or below my collarbone.”

Making sure he understood me, he asked, “So, wait. That means you can’t touch me either? And are you saying like…even no…premarital fingering? Dry humping? No going down action at all?”

I blushed, and admitted I didn’t even know what those words meant; at that point in my life I hadn’t even watched an R-rated movie.

He was devastated and incredulous. The only rules about sex his hippie parents had taught him to live by were to always give a girl more pleasure first than he ever expected to get in return; never give her any reason to fear or distrust him; and, most importantly, take every means necessary to avoid STDs and pregnancy.

But my boyfriend somehow loved and cared about me more than he loved sex, so he respected my rules. He just could not confine his competitive streak to running — he wanted to win my body over so bad. He worked every angle, came up to the edge of every line I had designated as “off limits,” trying to turn me on as much as I would possibly let myself.

His creativity paid off. I began to cross my own boundaries, and try things my church had never explicitly stated were wrong, but felt so good I knew they must be. I was thrilled to discover dry humping — how had my bishop not thought to scream from the pulpit that this was basically sex and should be totally forbidden?! But these momentary, forbidden pleasures always morphed into aching guilt. My boyfriend started to see how tortured I was, getting excited, then disconnecting and withdrawing, over and over and over again.

We started to fight. He’d ask me, “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this suffering and denial of every urge and instinct? Why do you shut the juices down just as they are getting going?! What kind of crazy, dogmatic, cultish system would make you want to do such a thing?” Our worlds, up to that point, had been too different. I told him we should break up. That he would never understand.

But instead of breaking up, he made me a deal: He would learn about my religion, if I would learn about running. Running was his church, the dogma behind his discipline, self-sacrifice and denial. He promised to try to understand Mormonism if I would learn to run.

So began my relationship with running, and my boyfriend’s with organized religion. I’d like to say everything turned out as romantically as our high school love affair, but it did not.

* * *

I joined the track team for the first time as a high school senior. It was one of the few teams I had never tried; running was the hardest, least enjoyable part of every other sport I had played. An athletic activity consisting solely of running felt like suffering, distilled to its most concentrated form. And unlike the mostly mediocre-with-random-lucky-moments-of-stellar-performance I managed in other sports, I was a terrible runner. Practices were torture sessions. Unlike almost everyone else on my team who had been doing this crazy shit since junior high, I had never run for more than a mile in my entire life. During the usual seven-milers we cranked out each day after school, my heart beat so hard I thought it would explode. Though the girls on my team ran together in a tight unit, making sure to pace so that no one was left behind, my experience was not of comradery, but of loneliness. With my pulse rushing through my ears, my face splotchy and beet-red from the blood pounding in my head, I felt totally closed off, trapped, and almost deaf. My own sensory experience was so intense I couldn’t even hear my teammates chatting casually in the pack around me.

Meets were worse. When I raced, I always crossed the finish line at the end of the pack, usually dead last. I barfed afterward several times. It took me days to recover from each competition. The real deal I had made with my boyfriend was to be tortured and publicly humiliated by the worst sport ever invented.

Why didn’t I just quit? I had started running because of a boy, youthful naivety, and religious zeal — a self-torture trifecta. But running got into me, somehow, in a way I couldn’t shake; the understanding that my physical ability to finish the practice or the race didn’t really matter. Self-will and mental determination ruled this sport. If I believed I could put one foot in front of the other, just one more time, and one more time after that, I would.

Though I never experienced anything like my boyfriend’s rapture for the sport, I came to deeply believe in the power it held in my life — in a way I’d only ever previously experienced with religion.

Simultaneously, the Mormon church got into my boyfriend in a way that he couldn’t shake. Over a period of a few years, I watched his disdain and barely-masked tolerance of the woo-woo ways of Mormonism turn into tentative respect, and then full-fledged, brainwashed belief.

Many fateful stars aligned. Though he went to a Catholic university in the Midwest on a running scholarship, his academic mentor, the chair of the geology department, happened to be Mormon. My boyfriend was contacted by some amazingly handsome and charismatic Latter-day Saints missionaries. The local congregation surrounding his college became a welcoming and supportive family structure during the long, desolate Midwestern winters. Eventually, he got baptized and left his running prospects behind to go on a two-year proselytizing mission to Thailand. When he came back, he was a completely different person — a boring, judgmental, and self-righteous young man. He gave away all his jazz records. The parasites he got on his mission ruined him for running forever. Our relationship, which had transformed over the years from high-school infatuation to deep adult love, did not survive the years of separation. By the time he returned from his cloistered, celibate life, I didn’t know who he was anymore. He didn’t want to touch me. We had both changed too much. I was heartbroken.

While he was off baptizing in Thailand, I went to college in Utah and became very depressed. I knew that Mormonism made me deeply unhappy but I wasn’t quitting that race, to what I thought was heaven, anytime soon. The religion ran in me, and my family’s history, way too deep. What I didn’t know then was that leaving the church would not be a sprint, as it is for some who leave their faith, but an ultramarathon that would take my 20s and most of my 30s to finish. Running became my lifeline.

I ran alone in the foothills of the high Uinta Mountains as a physical means of out-running the psychic and spiritual crisis of my everyday existence. It was a way to stave off the pain and doubt underlying my efforts to keep believing the mantra I had been hearing my entire life: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church upon the face of the Earth. Once, out of desperation to just get away from the crush of coeds who seemed so much happier living a life that was making me miserable, I signed up for a half-marathon, a day’s drive away from campus in southern Utah. The race course wove through the desert surrounding the majestic Colorado River, and seemed like the perfect place for a respite from the hordes of happy Mormons surrounding me on a daily basis. The vast, unpeopled landscape suggested a world into which I might escape. Someday.

The race was a disaster. I hadn’t really trained. In the weeks prior, I ran as far as I could make myself, every day thinking, “My best will be good enough, right?” Wrong. I felt like shit after the first five miles, and started to realize I was in real trouble about mile ten. I chafed between my thighs, which bled down my legs unabated until another runner threw me a jar of Vaseline as he jogged past yelling, “Honey, please help yourself. It’s just too pitiful to watch!” I drank almost no water, not understanding the toll the desert heat would take on my body. During the last few miles, I could feel my legs seizing up, but I was determined to finish. Apparently, my best was good enough to finish, but not without paying a price worse than the most embarrassing moment of my childhood — so excited as a kindergartener to be first in line for school-lunch, I hadn’t paid attention to the pressing ache of my five-year-old bladder. Twenty years later, I cried and peed through the entire last mile of the 1993 Moab Half Marathon; my chafed thighs burned more fiercely than the humiliation of urinating in front of my entire class while paying for tater-tots.

You’d think I’d be done with running after that. But somehow, I wasn’t.

Eventually, I managed to complete college in Utah, and pursue a master’s degree in public health at Yale University. Ironically, while trying to ace courses in how to protect the bodies and minds of everyone else on the planet, I failed to take care of my own. I cracked. I hadn’t anticipated how insanely fucking hard grad school at Yale would be — I felt like an imbecile compared to my classmates. I was also plagued by debilitating self-loathing: I had come to hate my body and the forbidden things it wanted. My high school boyfriend was just the tip (pun intended) of my sexual awakening; with each successive relationship, I pushed my Mormon boundaries into even more illicit territory, and was wracked with guilt about every erotic thing I’d ever done. I remember trying to run and literally stopping in my tracks after just a few steps — I couldn’t make myself do it. I hated myself for that weakness too. I knew it was time to check myself in when I realized I’d literally prefer death over being too stupid for Yale, and feeling so tortured and disgusted with myself, for even one more day.

Looking out the window of the ambulance that drove me straight from the student counseling center to in-patient psych, I watched students on the sidewalk walking briskly, some breaking out in a trot, anxious to get somewhere they wanted to be, on time. I remember thinking I’d never have the will to do that — to put one foot in front of the other — for any reason, ever again.

* * *

The week I spent at Yale Psychiatric Institute was one of the longest of my entire life. It was the place I started to realize that I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore. The running deal I struck almost a decade before with my boyfriend had left me a triple-loser: 1) It had ruined, what I thought, was the greatest love of my life; 2) I was losing my entire belief system; and 3) I was so far down in the bell jar I couldn’t will myself to walk down the hospital hallway to eat lunch, much less run, ever again.

My only consolation was that my roommate had some brain chemistry problems that were actually worse than mine. Afflicted with Munchausen syndrome, she was in there because she pretended, or was possibly convinced, that she literally couldn’t walk. Laying in my bed, day-in and day-out, listening to her threaten anyone who walked past our open door, “I swear I will shit this bed unless somebody brings me a wheelchair!” I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life. Anything was better than watching a hospital orderly hand my roommate a diaper, and trying not to watch what was going to happen next.

And so, when they discharged me from the psych ward, a very wise but somewhat manipulative therapist preyed on my tenacious respect for God and promises, making me swear to take my Prozac and run every day. I agreed to the Prozac because I was desperate, but I balked at the idea that 20 minutes of running would do anything at all for me.

“You don’t know how much I hate running,” I said. “I don’t think I can do it. I can take a pill but I don’t think I can torture myself with running ever again.”

He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and considered me. It seemed like he was trying to decide if he should scare me, appeal to my sense of reason, or maybe lie to me about why I should do what he was asking. He had bigger problems, like my diaper-wearing roommate, to deal with. I was surprised when he said, “I predict you’re the kind of person who won’t like how life feels on Prozac…that something about you is a little addicted to suffering. I think if you need to suffer, you might as well try to get some adrenaline and endorphins into your brain while you’re doing it. I’m telling you to run because I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get you to stay on Prozac for a year. And I’m hoping that running will carry you through after that. And I’m saying 20 minutes because I hope that number will stick in your brain as something you’ll feel really pathetic trying to talk yourself out of.”

I ran home in the freezing rain. I ran all winter in that wet, stinging, snow that Connecticut winters spit down. Sometimes I jogged in my jeans and Birkenstocks, too depressed to muster the strength to change into workout gear. But I did it. I took the pills. I ran the daily 20. My brain chemistry slowly recovered. The prescription healed me.

I have been running, 20 minutes every day, for over 15 years because that therapist was right: I made it 11 months and three days before I felt like I needed to feel the suffering of real life again. But like anyone who has reached the edge and gone over it, I live with a nagging, constant fear that my next breakdown is never far away. This desperation to titrate the delicate balance of serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and glutamate that my brain needs keeps me putting on my shoes and hitting the pavement or the treadmill. I never get the legendary runner’s high. I never manage a Zen-like meditative state, not even for a few seconds. It’s purely a time of tedious physical discomfort and what’s probably worse: racing, unhealthy inner-thoughts. I set my stopwatch for 20:00 and my mind immediately takes over in a self-destructive process something like this: “O.K., don’t look at the watch. Fuck. I looked. 19 minutes and 58 seconds left. Jesus Fucking Christ Allison, don’t look again for at least five minutes. O.K.? O.K. I really need a bikini wax. But I shouldn’t do it. I should stop getting them altogether. It’s so anti-feminist. But so is feeling disgusting when I put on a bathing suit. Why can’t I be one of those women that sprouts out of my bikini bottoms like I’ve got a worn-out Brillo Pad stuck in there and be O.K. with it? It also hurts like a MOTHERFUCKER. I could go right after this, but I think I am getting my period, like right now. And those poor Asian ladies have seen my bloody underpants too many times. They are probably so grossed out by me at this point they will lie and say they can’t squeeze me in. FUCK! 19 minutes, 40 seconds left!? UGH!!!”

Sometimes I run in street clothes. There are days I just know that if I go into my bedroom after work to find a sports bra, change into sweatpants, and sit on my bed, just for a few minutes, I might not make it up and out again. As I trot down the street, wearing my linen dress pants, a button-up shirt and sneakers, I don’t look like I’m running, I look like I’m late for work or trying to catch the bus.

Before I die, I’d like to run another race where I don’t cry, or pee, or bleed across the finish line, or come in dead last. But now the only race that really counts is this one I’m running, every day, 20 minutes at a time, as people shout from their porches, with a hint of concern, “Hey! You late for something? Need a ride?” I smile, wave, and keep shuffling along. And try to tell myself, as I realize I’m sweating through my silk blouse, and still have 18 minutes and 2 seconds to go, that this might be my personal best.

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.”

* * *

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The Great Unsolved Mystery of Missing Marjorie West

Eighty years ago today, a four-year-old girl vanished into the Pennsylvania woods. The search captivated people across the nation — and some have never stopped looking.

On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at arms’ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others who’d responded to the local mayor’s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the area’s petroleum boom in the 1870s.

But by nightfall, the “haggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,” as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.

Newspaper report on Marjorie West’s disappearance. (Photo courtesy Danville Morning News)

Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Mother’s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.

“She could still be living,” said Marjorie’s cousin, Jack Covert, in an interview shortly before he passed away in March. “But she’s probably not around here.”

Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings, set off when the son of eventual “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. After the much-publicized Adam Walsh abduction, parents became more fearful about where their children went and who they were with, and government agencies instituted safety programs including taking fingerprints of kids to keep on file. More recently, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” about a fictional 12-year-old named Will Byers who’s snatched into another dimension, prompted renewed discussion about the idyllic times when children roamed free and parents rarely worried. In a New York Times op-ed, Ana North wrote, “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that [now] seems less possible.”

But the Marjorie West case reminds us that decades before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were hazards that terrified parents. The dangers (Depression-era vagrants, illicit adoption rings) were just different. How free children should be to roam, and how cautious parents should be about young children’s activities, is a debate that still rages today.

* * *

On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the West family – father Shirley; mother Cecilia; and children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie – attended church in Bradford, a small city 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, and 90 minutes east of Titusville, Pennsylvania, the site of the country’s first oil boom in 1859. Bradford enjoyed its own rush for liquid gold a dozen years later, providing a steady living for families like the Wests – Shirley was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, located just a few blocks from his home.

After church, the Wests drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest that was popular with hunters and fishermen. They joined family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Akerlind.

Around three p.m. Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car. Her husband, Shirley, prepared to go trout fishing in the stream with Lloyd. The girls, Dorothea and Marjorie, wanted to pick wildflowers. Shirley warned them to watch for rattlesnakes behind the boulder nearby.

The girls gathered a bouquet of violets. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother. When she turned around, her sister was gone.

The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane.

What followed was a grueling search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people hunting for Marjorie, with countless others locked into the national newspaper coverage.

When police couldn’t find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. As darkness fell, oilmen brought headlamps. “All available flash-lights in the city were pressed into service,” noted the Era. The effort slowed when a cold rain fell at one a.m.

On Monday, the search party grew to 500. They waded through the stream and stood 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately combing four square miles. Police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.

By Tuesday, May 10, police brought bloodhounds from New York State. That evening, they found clues, but accounts vary.

Two newspaper articles say the dogs followed Marjorie’s trail “half a mile up a mountain” to a cabin with its door nailed shut. Nothing of interest was found inside. Other media accounts, as well as those from Marjorie’s descendants in online blogs and discussion threads, say the dogs followed Marjorie’s scent to the road alongside the clearing.

“The searches found the crushed bouquet of violets, picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the rock,” close to where the flowers were pulled, wrote Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin Joyce, on her genealogy blog in 2006.

Many people believed in 1938, as they do now, that Marjorie was picked up at the road. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around three p.m. The drivers of two were identified by Tuesday night. The third – whom witnesses said was a man – was seen fleeing in his Plymouth sedan so fast an oncoming motorist told police he had to pull into a ditch.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bradford’s mayor Hugh Ryan issued his plea for 1,000 volunteers for the next day’s search. He got 2,500.

Newspaper clipping from the Bradford Era on May 11, 1938, showing the search for West. (Photo courtesy the Bradford Era)

The search was praised for its organization, thanks in part to the men who, like Shirley, had served in the Great War. At 5:30 a.m., surveyors mapped out the land, and by eight a.m. a “line of men, standing shoulder to shoulder several miles long, grew impatient in the Chappel Fork road until leaders gave the [bugle] signal for them to enter the forest,” recounted the Era. “Refinery workers rubbed elbows with professional men.” Women doled out 1,600 cups of coffee, prepared in “wash boilers” for hot laundry.

By the end of the week, the search had covered 35 square miles with Marjorie still out of sight. There were discoveries: a swath of lace near the boulder, and a fresh hole a few miles away. But Marjorie’s aunt told police she hadn’t worn lace that day, and two men admitted using the hole to hide casks of cherry wine.

Engineers pumped out a muddy well and Native Americans tracked “she bears” – mother bears they believed were prone to carrying off small children – to no avail.

Shirley did not leave the forest for a week until, according to the May 16th Era, he “consented to come to Bradford. He ate his evening meal at home and then returned.”

Police began circulating a poster describing Marjorie’s “curley” red hair, freckles, red Shirley Temple hat, and patent leather shoes. Cecilia West stayed at home so as not to miss a phone call.

On May 13, 1938, State Police Commissioner P.W. Foote told the Associated Press that West’s disappearance probably began with her liking to “play hide and seek.”

A detail of four police searched the area for five months.

* * *

Snakes and “she bears” were not the only dangers in the woods.

Newspapers covering the disappearance linked it with a 1910 mystery in which two boys vanished near the forest within a few hours of each other. On April 16 of that year, Edward Adams, nine, was fishing with buddies near Lamont, Pennsylvania, and heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods. The boys ran, but when the group stopped, Eddie was gone. Thirteen miles away, in the town of Ludlow, Michael Steffan, seven, fished with a friend. Walking home, the other boy looked back and Michael had vanished. Newspapers at the time reported that a Mr. Arrowsmith said his “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, 32, had wandered off the same day, near Lamont. But Harry returned a week later with no knowledge of the boys, police said. Thirteen days after the disappearances, a mail carrier discovered a handwritten note on a Lamont railroad trestle: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue found.

Two years later, Buffalo police captured the “Postcard Killer,” J. Frank Hickey, who admitted to murdering two other boys in Buffalo and Manhattan, nine years apart. Many suspected he’d killed other boys in the region, and Edward Adams’s mother wrote to Buffalo police to ask whether Hickey ever mentioned her son. When Mrs. Adams passed away in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she’d kept a light in her window for 23 years, waiting for Eddie.

Those disappearances were 11 and 19 miles from Marjorie’s picnic, respectively. It’s hard to believe the same “wildman” could have been lurking in the woods 28 years later, but the cases were a testament to the fact that anyone could have been in the forest. In fact, The Era reported on Sept. 14, 1938 that a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man “with a double-bladed ax during an argument while they were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Fork area,” near where Marjorie disappeared. The story said the woodsman had been questioned about Marjorie at one point, but was released.

If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared a New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.

Reward poster for any information on the disappearance of West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

On Sept. 12, 1950, Tennessee authorities announced allegations that Georgia Tann, executive director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, had adopted out more than 1,000 babies for $1 million since the 1930s, tricking poor couples into giving them up. Tann died three days after the investigation became public. Many of the children never knew their birth parents (including famed professional wrestler Ric Flair, born in 1949, who wrote of the circumstance in his autobiography). And presumably, the wealthy clients who adopted through Tann’s agency (including actress Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford) never knew of her methods.

The Tann theory was bolstered by a clue. A few days after Marjorie disappeared, a taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, told police that late at night on Mother’s Day, a man and weeping young girl checked into the town’s Imperial Hotel. Could they have been stopping midway to Tennessee?

But news stories from five months later render the Tann theory unlikely. In October 1938, Pennsylvania state police tracked down merchant Conrad Fridley of Ridgely, West Virginia. He said that on that evening, he and daughter Lois, five, were returning home from a visit to Parsons, West Virginia, and had to stop because of fog. Lois became frustrated and cried. They left the hotel early the next morning to open his shop.

Census records from 1940 show a Conrad Fridley, 31, of Ridgeley, who in 1940 had a daughter, eight.

As spring turned to summer, national media focused on Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the suffering United States economy. But Western Pennsylvania press continued following Marjorie’s case.

“The state police investigation continued off and on for six years,” reported the Era in 1955, noting that Shirley and Cecilia West had separated around 1953.

Family members say Marjorie’s closest relatives went to their grave believing she was alive.

* * *

Tammy Dittman, a longtime teacher in Bradford, took a class of hers to the Allegheny Forest in 2008 to learn about archeology. During the trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps discussed their search, as youths, for Marjorie.

“They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman says. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.”

The class undertook a project to research the case and speak with young kids about safety.

After the Olean, New York, Times Herald covered the project, Dittman got a call from another elderly man, now blind, who had searched as well.

The man told Dittman, “‘There was no way the little girl could have been in the woods,’” she says. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was. Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.”

Dittman, who has hiked near Chappel Fork, acknowledged the hazards nearby, including hundreds of old wells that are hard to notice. “You can step right into them and go down,” she says. Yet she believes the most likely explanation is that Marjorie was kidnapped.

“I hope she was at least in a good family,” Dittman says.

* * *

Two of Marjorie’s descendants have written online about the case.

Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, Joyce, explained on her family genealogy blog: “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night. Three small children sat on the porch steps waiting for him, but they knew each night from the slope of his shoulders, he didn’t find the little girl with the bouncing red curls.”

The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Angel, wrote in 2009: “I remember listening to my grandmother tell me stories about Marjorie and the sadness she felt for leaving her sister alone for those few moments. My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”

These three descendants of Marjorie did not respond to requests for interviews, so out of respect for their privacy we’ve opted to only use their first names. However, they did reach out to authorities back in 2010, compelling the state police, unable to find old records, to start a new case file. State Police Corporal Mary Gausman says that in 2012 police took cheek swabs for DNA from two cousins in Bradford, sending them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Unfortunately, they produced no clues.

But both agencies get tips. Gausman says that in 2014, an employee of a hospital in Rochester, New York, read about the case online and called to say they had a patient named Marjorie who rarely had visitors. But the woman’s niece had seen immigration records and confirmed she’d been born in 1922.

However, one Bradford native believes he knows the answer to the mystery.

* * *

Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.

One woman contacted him to say she’d worked at a company in Florida with a nurse who looked similar.

Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he’d gotten tips. The nurse did look like Dorothea, but denied being Marjorie.

Around 2005, Beck says, he heard from her again and went to meet her. By then she had returned to her childhood farm in North Carolina.

When he caught up with her there, she related a story that her mother told her when she was nearing the end of her life: In 1938, the nurse’s father left that very farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refineries for the winter. Come spring, it was time to return to his crops. Driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl.

“There wasn’t anybody there,” Beck recounts. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.”

But as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. The delivery had been difficult and they didn’t think they could have more children.

The man brought Marjorie to the farm and raised her there.

A few years later, he lost an arm on board an aircraft carrier in World War II, Beck says. The man told his wife he thought it was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.”

The nurse used to tell her parents that she remembered another family, but they dismissed it. She also remembered a place with “snow way over her head,” Beck says.

After World War II, her parents had four more children, according to Beck.

The nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he couldn’t tell anyone about her identity – except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet – and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died.

By that time, Dorothea was in ill health and couldn’t meet “Marjorie,” Beck says.

The nurse died about a decade ago. Beck kept his promise and self-published Finding Marjorie West in 2010.

“There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says.

Portrait of 4-year-old Marjorie West. (Photo courtesy McKean County Cold Cases)

People have pressed him to notify the authorities, Beck adds, but he ponders, “What is it going to accomplish? One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true. The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”

Locals who’ve read the book have debated its conclusions on Facebook. Marjorie’s cousin’s daughter Catherine discounted the story on a 2012 discussion thread on Websleuths.com, a site on which people try to solve missing persons cases. Catherine wrote that the state trooper she talked to didn’t take Beck’s narrative seriously.

Beck says he understands why people are frustrated, particularly those involved in the search. But he won’t betray a confidence.

Bob Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hadn’t heard of Beck’s book, but says Beck or anyone else with information about Marjorie should come forward. He notes the case is the third-oldest in their files. “I would think that anyone alive today who was living at that time would have vivid memories of this,” he says. “When something happens to a child of four, there’s a need to have the truth shared so that everyone knows.”

If Beck’s tale is true, it would explain how Marjorie disappeared so quickly and without a trace, as well as the speeding Plymouth. But the story begs questions: How were two people able to keep the secret so long? Did the sorrow they felt on Mother’s Day drive them to rationalize the act?

Perhaps the tale is just too good to be true. In Beck’s book, the nurse claims she was the sobbing girl spotted in West Virginia on Mother’s Day night. But according to an article from October 1938, the police and Wests went to meet Conrad Fridley, the merchant who said he was there. Police told the press that his daughter resembled Marjorie, but wasn’t her, and the girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.

Beck dismissed the newspaper accounts, saying he stands by his story.

Relatives remain wary. In 2015, an anonymous reviewer on Amazon, presumably a member of the family, wrote that she was shocked Beck was selling the book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”

So what if the nurse wasn’t Marjorie? Where did she go?

One cannot discount the rough terrain in the woods. In 1962, two boys died while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Western Pennsylvania, prompting Bradford officials to finally start closing all old mines, caves, and wells.

* * *

“The effects of that day,” Catherine wrote on her blog, “lasted long into mom’s adulthood, and when she had children, made her extra cautious about where we were and who we were with.”

Marjorie West’s case, like other child disappearances of the time, had a ripple effect on families long before mass media attention was ever trained on Adam Walsh. Responding to recent newspaper essays in the last few years about parents becoming overprotective due to modern media coverage of tragedies, senior citizens have responded that their parents became more protective after the Lindbergh Baby case. There was a similar effect in Western Pennsylvania in 1938. “This [West case] was the very very sad object lesson of my childhood…not to wander away, not to go anywhere with ‘strangers,’” recalled an elderly woman on a Bradford community Facebook group.

Regardless of the statistics of “stranger danger,” parents will always have to negotiate their own comfort level about being protective.

Tammy Dittman, the Bradford teacher, says kids should be wary and vigilant.

“Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”

My Life as a Public Health Crisis

As a fat woman working in food justice, I see firsthand how even those trying to help continue to spread dangerous stereotypes about obesity and poverty.

We’re at a coffee shop in a “transitional” neighborhood. The shop is new, an ultra-modern storefront that brags about $7 pour-overs. I hate pour-over coffee because it takes forever and if I cared about nuanced flavor I wouldn’t start my day with the most bitter drink imaginable. I reflect on that, and on how much the neighborhood has changed since I grew up here, and how I used to see possums the size of poodles on the roof of this place back before the professional folks sitting around and sipping their lattes showed up.

My mind is whirling because if I let it dwell on the words coming out of this woman’s mouth I might punch her in the face. That wouldn’t do anybody any good.

Probably.

We were discussing the neighborhood, and how we could help people here get healthier food. Creating access to healthy food is my job, but it’s also my passion. It’s how I pay my bills and find an outlet for my frustration with a society that allows the poor to suffer. I was hoping to hear some optimism. Instead I got this:

“Nobody would eat it. Everyone around here is just so… fat.”

I felt the folds of my belly pushing against the table. I felt familiar shame burn the back of my throat, bitter as a $7 coffee.

She went on, “The kids always eat fast food. It’s like nobody loves them.”

I wondered how she could know what the kids around here always eat, and what that has to do with how loved they are.

Growing up here never made me question my family’s love, but it did make me aware of the tension between what we were “supposed” to eat and what was actually available to us. It wasn’t all junk, of course. We had a huge garden in our backyard. We grew so many tomatoes we would beg neighbors to take them off our hands, and I was probably the only eight-year-old hillbilly in Ohio who loved gazpacho. But you can only harvest a garden so many times a year, and you can’t grow milk and meat in the backyard. A food budget is more flexible than a set cost like rent, so it’s often the first place a family looks when trying to save money. Junk food is cheap, it doesn’t spoil quickly, and it’s easy to prepare. Combine pragmatism with a lack of time and money, and the high-calorie, low-nutrition diets of poor people make a lot more sense.

The first meal I ever learned to make wasn’t gazpacho, but “chicken parmesan” — spaghetti covered with a slice of American cheese and a processed hockey puck of chicken that could be heated up in the microwave. We loved that awful chicken, and it was $2 a box at the Save-a-Lot, so we ate it often.

I learned to make it when I was nine years old. One day our sitter left early, called in to cover a shift at her second job. I called Mom to let her know what had happened. Mom was working as a paid hourly intern, trying to meet a practicum requirement for her social worker’s license. She couldn’t afford to leave work, so my two sisters and I would need to feed ourselves. She reminded me to read the instructions on the boxes and said to call her if the smoke detector went off. I set about preparing the meal with grim determination, hoping not to let her down.

When Mom came home, dinner was done. She was pleased until she entered the kitchen. Not only had I made an incredible mess, but I had left the box of chicken pucks on the counter, where they’d melted into a brownish mush.

She dragged me by my wrist into the carnage I had wrought, my heels dragging on the linoleum. She pointed at the box.

“We do NOT waste food. You ruined a week of dinners. Be more careful next time.”

I nodded, trying not to cry. Wasted food was wasted money, and neither of those were things we could afford. Lesson learned.

There were resources to help us, like the government’s SNAP and WIC food-assistance programs that many still refer to as “food stamps.” Dad recently told me how much using WIC embarrassed him. He described taking us to the WIC office as babies, where we were weighed each month before he received our benefits.

“They wanted proof I was feeding you.” I flinched at the anger in his voice, even after all these years. “Nobody trusts poor people. They treat you like a criminal just for trying to feed your kids.”

If you get judged no matter what, eventually you stop listening to the judges. Poverty undeniably affected my childhood – everything we owned was second-hand, all my clothes were hand-me-downs from my cousins, and I once punched a boy in the face for a quarter – but my parents would never deprive us of any happiness they were able to provide. Our diet was a mix of whatever healthy stuff was available and the junk food we loved: the chicken pucks, the Bigfoot pizzas at birthday parties, the $10 meal deal at KFC. When we did well in school, Dad would spring for Old Country Buffet, and we’d eat our weight in ice cream and roast beef you had to soak in ketchup to chew.

In the reality of feeding a struggling family, the food pyramid is irrelevant. Keeping us fed was a source of pride, junk food was a source of joy, and so our diets endured.

I don’t remember parents who didn’t love me. If anything, they loved me too much, and their love language came deep-fried. It may have hurt me in the long run, but that’s never been a sign that something wasn’t borne from love.

A public health expert would draw a line between my childhood and my current size. I am on the “morbid” side of obese, and have been for as long as I can remember. I’ve spent a long time learning to love my body in a world that isn’t kind to it. I can handle the stink eye at the gym, the whispers and giggles at restaurants, the catcalls from passing cars full of (always) young white men. I eat a healthy diet these days and I exercise regularly, but if science is to be believed, it’s unlikely that my body will ever be smaller than it is. And so what? My fat body is still a good body. It’s the body of someone who is loved and worthy of self-esteem, regardless of how much space it takes up.

* * *

Unfortunately, I can’t avoid how my size intersects with my chosen career. I work with some of the most compassionate and dedicated people in the world, but I still struggle with my body and how colleagues perceive it. Whatever else I achieve, I’m still a fat person who grew up in poverty. I’m a walking, talking example of a public health crisis, working to eradicate myself with government funding. It gets awkward.

In every meeting I go to, at every panel I sit on, eventually the conversation turns to obesity. People notice me, because they’re trained to see me as a problem. And so their eyes turn to me, and then I have to breathe through my feelings or I might beat someone to death with my iPad.

Not that I’d feel bad about it, depending on the person. Everybody’s got their limits.

Speaking of limits: One of mine is definitely saying that fat children are unloved. I look my coffee companion right in the eye.

“You’re being unfair. I’m fat, and I grew up here too.”

She tries to jump in, to explain herself. I speak over her.

“I’m not fat because nobody cared about me. People make the best choices they can with what they have. If we can’t give them better options, we can’t blame them for working with what they’ve got.”

We both sense an impasse. What’s professional for her is personal for me.

She shrugs. “I get it. I just feel like something needs to be done.”

And so we change the subject, relaxing as we talk about the thing that must be done. Throughout the rest of the conversation she can’t look me in the eye. And later, when I email a “thank you” for the meeting, I’m not surprised to receive no reply.

It’s frustrating, but these conversations happen far too often for me to ignore. I’ve seen too many well-meaning efforts to help people access healthy food couched in toxic narratives about what a disgusting burden fat people are on society. Conversations about food access are so often tinged with judgment about personal responsibility and time management, as if every poor fat person is spending their time napping and eating Twinkies when they could be preparing quinoa from scratch. And of course, there’s the endless dwelling on the societal expense of obesity. You would think that fat people were Fabergé eggs for how difficult and costly we are to insure.

The fact is that most low-income people don’t have a lot of control over their diets to begin with, and the resources available to them tend to offer little in the way of assistance with the barriers that stand between them and health. I got a first-hand look at this when I got my first job as a task rabbit at a food pantry. I naively imagined smiling faces, neat boxes of food, and good feelings all around. My illusions were shattered when I was asked to sift through boxes of moldy cake and cookies, castoffs from a local grocery chain. I asked where the produce was, and I was met with a sigh. This was what was donated, so this was what we could provide.

Once I finished that, I had to hand out the go-bags. Go-bags were shopping bags full of food for people living in “unstable circumstances” – i.e., homeless. They consisted of anything that could be eaten on the go. They usually had a piece of fruit, but they were also full of slimy restaurant leftovers and cast-off pastries from the donation boxes. Bad food that fills you up and makes you happy, and a healthy snack when available. My family’s food pyramid, packaged to go.

I handed the first go-bag to a man my own age, a guy in a ratty coat who wouldn’t look me in the eye. He may have been ashamed of his situation, but I was ashamed that I couldn’t give him something better than leftover pizza and a cookie I wouldn’t feed my dog.

What angered me then – and angers me still – is that we didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. We weren’t the ones who made fresh food a luxury and junk food an easily obtained comfort. We didn’t chase the grocery store out of his neighborhood, and we didn’t ask the grocery stores in the suburbs to fill the pantry with their uneaten pastries in lieu of real food. We weren’t responsible for the poverty that was eating the neighborhood like a cancer, leaving a generation of people exhausted and malnourished. We weren’t the ones who had broken the systems that punished us. All he’d done was fallen on hard times, and all I’d done was try to help him. Our shame wasn’t earned. It wasn’t fair.

That was when I decided to work my way up to a position where I could help people like him get something they would be proud to eat.

Food justice is complex work. We want to give people healthy food that is relevant to their tastes and needs, but we work in neighborhoods where it hasn’t been readily available in decades. What they want, what they need, and what they know how to prepare varies wildly. Programs based on stereotypes or one-size-fits-all approaches are doomed to fail.

Just a week ago I was at a corner store that was trying to sell healthy food. We set up out front to demonstrate recipes and offer samples to anyone who was willing to stop by. We stood outside for hours, making tiny cups of vegetable stir-fry and offering them to passersby. Residents trickled over from the abandoned houses, the bus stop, anywhere that they could smell the food and get curious about where it came from.

A small boy wandered up. He eyed me suspiciously. He was right to do so. Free stuff in this neighborhood? Unlikely.

But I saw the way he bit his lip when he looked at the food. You can tell when a kid is hungry. I held a cup of stir-fry out to him, smiling encouragingly.

“What’s in it?” he asked in a whisper.

“It’s stir-fry. Like, Chinese food.” I chirped. “Rice and vegetables. It’s good!”

His face collapsed.

“Nah. I don’t fuck with vegetables.”

Fair enough. When I was his age, I didn’t fuck with vegetables either. Food justice is not about forcing people to eat food they don’t want. It’s about changing the world they live in so they can make choices about what they eat, and believing that those choices will lead them to a healthier and more enjoyable diet. It’s measuring success not in shrinking bodies, but in growing appetites for the food that keeps people happy and healthy. It’s trusting people to know what’s best for them and making sure they can access it. It’s the long game, not the quick fix.

I believe that this is the only way we are going to build communities where food isn’t a source of judgement or shame for low-income people, but a human right. So as part of this work I accept that awkward conversations about my past and my size will continue. There will always be another coffee, another would-be ally, another moment of discomfort that I have the option of ignoring or turning into a confrontation. I have climbed my fat ass up this mountain with my past on my back and the world I want to see just out of my reach. I’m not stopping now. I will do what I can to build communities where choice and dignity are a part of the food access picture, and take the chances I get to stand up for people who deserve better. Myself included.

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