Adam Purple and His Guerilla Garden of Eden

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Long before the Lower East Side became the land of cafes and condos, it was a blank canvass for the city’s most determined squatter and his ever-expanding community garden.

Adam Purple is a cantankerous old man who refuses to become a martyr. He was born eighty-two years ago in the farmlands of Independence, Missouri, but if you ask him where he is from, he has been known to say: “the seventh planet, Uranus, and if you don’t know where your anus is, you are definitely part of The Problem.” He is thin, slightly hunched, with a long white beard reaching nearly to his navel and pale, wrinkled skin. He is fond of wearing purple clothing, but there was a period in his life where he refused to wear the color as a personal protest against the city of New York. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and has taught at high schools, junior colleges, and Purdue University. At the Gazette and Daily in York, Pennsylvania, he once worked the police beat before seeing things that soured him on both the police and mainstream life. In the mid ’60s, he took drugs and joined the migrant hippie culture, traveling to places like Santa Cruz, Big Sur and Dixon, New Mexico. Since moving to New York City in 1968, he has gone by many names, including Rev. Les Ego, General Zen of Headquarters Intergalactic Psychic Police, and John Peter Zenger II. Most people, however, know him as Adam — the man who built The Garden of Eden and lived there with Eve on the Lower East Side.

* * *

Part One: Genesis

“You start by assuming that they must be wrong, judging them by the very code you reject. ”
-Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Between Forsyth and Eldridge Street, just south of Stanton Street, in an area of New York City that was sick, grey and crumbling, there was once a brightly blooming oasis known as The Garden of Eden. It seemed impossible for a garden to exist in a place like that, the soil poisoned by chemicals, the neighborhood littered with rubble and trash, yet there it was, by something of a miracle. Spring, summer and fall, Adam and Eve tended to The Garden, planting and trimming various flowers, fruits and vegetables, occasionally taking a break to enjoy the shade of a black walnut tree or to pluck a plump red strawberry. Neighbors passing on the street would often stop to puzzle over the odd couple, dressed head-to-toe in tie-dyed purple clothing and wearing mirrored, violet-tinted sunglasses — aviators for Adam, circular John Lennon-style frames for Eve. The couple encouraged the onlookers to come into the garden and help themselves to a fresh cucumber or a handful of black raspberries or just take a moment to sit and find enlightenment amongst the sweetly scented flowers. For many of these neighbors, time in the garden was a reprieve from the chaos and filth of their surroundings. But for others, suspicions were high about what it was, exactly, that Adam and Eve were up to.

If you ask people who knew Adam during the roughly decade-long existence of The Garden — from the mid-’70s to mid-’80s — most remember a kind man intent on providing a better quality of life, not just for those living on the Lower East Side, but for all mankind. When engaged in conversation, he would often begin espousing a hybrid religion-philosophy he called General [Z]enlightenment — a mix of Zen Buddhism, the science-fiction writing of Robert Heinlein, and the philosophies of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Adam claimed to hold the role of Chief Biocybernetic Reprogramer from the Headquarters, Intergalatic Psychic Police (HIPP) of Uranus, sent for the purpose of L.E.A.R.N (Let’s Erase Everything and Reprogram Now) for SpecieSurvival by the year 1984. It was his contention that society was fouling itself with pollution, radiation, plastic toxins and sewage from the flush toilet, and that if we didn’t undergo something he called R(apid)Evolution to change the way we interact with ourselves and our environment, extinction was a very real possibility.

While his teachings were certainly cryptic, they were, perhaps, not entirely crazy. His call for a reorganization of society for the purpose of environmental preservation was pretty much the party line for the radical environmentalist movement still riding the psychic tsunami of LSD and late ’60s spirituality. A study of Adam’s notes, collected by him along with nearly every article written about The Garden in a self-published book called Life with Les(s) Ego, suggests the mind of a highly read scholar, a horticultural savant, and an obsessive personality dedicated to his cause. However, there are also signs that Adam’s distrust of society existed at a level far beneath that of cultural zeitgeist, almost like he had intimate knowledge that despite his best efforts, those he shared the earth with would one day turn against him.

The difficulty in really getting to know Adam as a person was that when he wasn’t talking about The Garden or SpecieSurvival, he would rarely give a straight answer to a question. One of the many names he acquired over the years, though one of the only ones he didn’t give to himself, was “The Riddle Man.” When someone would approach him while he was at work in The Garden to ask what his name was or to inquire about his age, Adam would respond by saying that he didn’t have a name and that his age was currently three, but next year he would be two. When reporter John Lewis from the New York Sunday News attempted to find out where Adam was born, the Riddle Man replied, simply: “In a bed. I was really too young to remember.”

Due to Adam’s insistence on living in the present and his general refusal to discuss the past, there are only bits and pieces of information that connect the man born David Wilkie in Independence, Missouri, to Adam from The Garden of Eden. He was the middle child of seven born to Richard and Juanita Wilkie. Richard was a master machinist, a carpenter and a blacksmith, among other things. Juanita was a seamstress, gardener and bookkeeper. Adam revered his parents’ do-it-yourself attitude and has noted the import of being raised in a town called Independence.

There were no indications that Adam would live anything other than a traditional American childhood until his brother’s appendix ruptured and he was rushed to the hospital. Adam, only nine at the time, had to stand by as his eleven-year-old brother died, because, as he told a New York Times reporter, “the doctors wouldn’t operate on him until my father got there with the money.”

Three years later, Adam’s world was again irreparably altered when he witnessed his father die of electrocution while trying to put out a fire at his machine shop.

The seeds for rebellion against a society that would let a young boy die for lack of money and in which a modern reliance like electricity could take away your father in the blink of an eye were likely planted during these traumatic childhood experiences. But for years, Adam appeared to maintain a normal life. His transcripts from Kansas State Teachers College show that he received mostly A’s and excelled in subjects like English literature and advanced calculus. He went on to receive a master’s degree in journalism, and taught at schools and colleges throughout the country. However, his job at the Gazette and Daily — where he witnessed cops siccing dogs on black people when he worked the police beat — would be the last time he entertained thoughts of leading a mainstream life.

In the mid ’60s, when Adam was in his thirties, he followed the transient counterculture, traveling up and down the West Coast dropping acid and writing. He privately published three editions of a manifesto dubbed the International Peace/Disarmament Directory. In 1967, he moved to Matraville, Australia, calling himself a “nuclear mignorant” and active opponent of U.S.-France nuclear testing in the South Pacific and U.S. war crimes in Vietnam. While there, he began working on what he called “an accidental inquiry, perhaps mystical, into the non-Aristotelian (non-linear) structure of semantic ‘truth.’” The result was a tiny book — approximately one inch by one inch — titled Zentences. The pages of the book were split in half horizontally, Dutch-door style, so that words or phrases at the top of one page could be matched to those at the bottom of another to create — similar to Gutenberg’s movable type — an exponential number of movable thought units. For example, “Reality” might be paired with “is uttered nonsense!” while “Nudity” could be matched to “is divine expression.” The book, credited to his pseudonym Les Ego, would become the first step toward General [Z]enlightenment for R(apid) Evolution and SpecieSurvival, and would bring Adam to New York City in search of a publisher.

It was a random book, so Adam zeroed in on the publisher who seemed to specialize in such things: Random House. They wavered and Adam was forced to pursue other methods of distribution. He rented a month-to-month apartment at 184 Forsyth Street and would ride his bike to Central Park each morning to hand out his book to anyone enlightened enough to not wear leather clothing. He had taken to dressing himself entirely in purple—the color of royalty, invisibility and magic mushrooms—and was gaining a reputation as an eccentric for walking through the park offering to put people on his back so he could “straighten their spines and blow their minds.”

It was in Central Park, while he was handing out books, straightening spines and blowing minds, that Adam met Eve. While little is known of Adam’s past, almost nothing is known about Eve’s — not even her real name. All we know is that she was born in Brooklyn and was sixteen years old when she and Adam first met. Adam must have succeeded in blowing her mind, however, for it wasn’t long after that first meeting that she moved in with him on Forsyth Street.

184 Forsyth was a six-story tenement building in what was known in the early twentieth century as the “immigrant ghetto,” and which was still, in the 1970s, one of the most run-down neighborhoods in the city. Adam and Eve shared a first-floor apartment and would often encounter junkies moving back and forth between the abandoned tenements on Eldridge Street searching for a quiet place to shoot up. The lot between the tenements on Eldridge and Adam and Eve’s rear window on Forsyth — officially recognized as Block 421 of Manhattan by the City of New York — was testament to the neglect plaguing the neighborhood. Garbage was piled up in the backyard from tenants tossing their trash from the upper windows, rusty fire escapes hung limp from the backs of the buildings and lurid graffiti covered the soot-coated brick. The children of the tenements were forced to play in the trash-strewn basement pits while their mothers’ poppy-glazed eyes stared aimlessly through dirty windows. Almost no sunlight entered Block 421. It was a dark and hopeless place.

In the second half of 1973, the city tore down the two abandoned tenements fronting Eldridge Street, and morning sunlight came cascading into Adam and Eve’s backyard. The buildings collapsed in a cloud of brick dust and Adam stood at his rear window watching it settle. When the demolition team had finished and vacated the area, he went out to survey the rubble.

A key element in Adam’s call for conservation and radical environmental transformation was the idea that “a society’s wealth is measured in what it throws away.” Nearly all of Adam and Eve’s meager belongings were things they had lifted from dumpsters or found abandoned. Their apartment was cluttered with bike parts, sheet metal, lumber, glass jars filled with hinges and screws. The thousands of books they had collected were stacked against an exposed brick wall. Even the purple clothes they wore were made from discarded articles Eve had stitched together.

Standing amongst the remains of the demolition — whole bricks, brickbats, brick sand, foundation stones, wood, gravel, sheets of galvanized iron, window lintels and pieces of porcelain tub tops — it wasn’t immediately clear what purpose these waste items could serve. With the back of their apartment now exposed to the street on the east side, one of Adam’s first thoughts was their safety. He had read about an ancient Chinese security system by which crickets were used to alert residents of intruders, but in order to attract crickets, there would need to be plants. His thoughts then turned to the children with nowhere to play but the garbage heaps. He studied the rubble once more and a vision began to crystallize in his head. With the brick sand and wood, he had nearly everything he needed to make soil. If he had soil, he could plant a garden.

An experienced journeyman, Adam understood better than most the ancient folk saying that “the longest journey starts with a single step,” and work on The Garden began with the simple process of sorting through the rubble. Brick is composed primarily of clay, and clay is elemental in creating soil. So he gathered brick sand to filter and turn into topsoil. Unpainted wood could be burned to produce potash, another key ingredient in making soil. This was also collected and put into piles. Little of the inorganic debris served a purpose in soil production but, nevertheless, everything was sifted through and organized for a variety of future uses.

Adam and Eve considered power tools or petrol-fueled vehicles of any kind counterrevolutionary and refused to use them. This greatly increased the time and manpower necessary to remove the debris. Using only basic tools like rakes, hoes, shovels, a wheelbarrow, a sledgehammer, a hacksaw, a crowbar and a common railroad pick — along with, Adam liked to joke, “cast-iron backs with hinges in ‘em’” — in one day, one person could clear approximately twenty-five square feet of rubble. The rubble left from the tenements on Eldridge Street covered roughly five thousand square feet. With winter approaching, it would be many months before they were ready to plant.

Despite being a time-consuming and labor-intensive process, removing the rubble was only the initial step in growing a garden. Clay and potash alone do not make soil — Adam would need to find fertilizer. Having spent many pleasant afternoons in Central Park, he was familiar with the large quantities of manure left by the horse-drawn carriages. Not able to let even fecal matter go to waste, he decided to transport the horse manure from the park to use as fertilizer in The Garden.

In the spring of 1974, Adam and Eve began their daily ritual of biking the three and half miles from the garden to the park and back again to scoop up horse shit. Adam had modified a bike trailer by adding a shopping cart handle and a plastic milk crate to make it easier to transport the free fertilizer. The trailer could support a typical day’s load of about sixty pounds.

Back at Forsyth Street, Adam mixed the horse manure with the potash and the brick sand to produce highly fertile, homemade topsoil. With the rubble cleared, the next step was to shovel a foot and a half beneath street level to sift out nails, scrap metal and loose change. Once this was done, the “instant super topsoil” was layered on top of a gravel subsoil to produce arable land about a foot deep. Adam called this process the “maxi-method,” not to be confused with the “mini-method” where he would dig a square-foot hole in the ground, fill it with sand, weeds, food scraps and his own vegetarian feces, to produce what the Chinese called “night soil.” But due to the limitations of human bowel function, “night soil” was only producible in small quantities.

Just about the time Adam and Eve had finished converting the first two tenement lots into farmable land — approximately a year after the buildings had been demolished — another tenement was razed to the north of The Garden. Again, the pair began the process of clearing away and organizing the debris, but with the buildings collapsing around them and the neighborhood deteriorating rapidly, it wasn’t long before questions arose about the future stability of their home at 184 Forsyth.

There were no plans to demolish the building. Structurally speaking, 184 Forsyth was sound enough to stand for many more years. Few tenants, however, shared Adam and Eve’s commitment to upkeep, and the inside of the building suffered from serious neglect. The landlord, a survivor of the death camps in Germany, knew when to get out of a bad situation. He abandoned the property before the end of the year and appointed Adam the new superintendent. Many of the residents followed the landlord out, but a few stayed now that they were no longer required to pay the $50 a month for rent. Ownership of the building shifted over to the City of New York, which was suffering from a severe recession and, for the time being, appeared uninterested in the property.

During the winter, Adam read books on gardening and radical city planning while also helping Eve renovate sections of the building. In the spring of 1975, the first seeds were planted in the Garden. By 1976, flowers bloomed, vegetables sprouted and crickets rubbed their wings together outside the couple’s rear window.

Using the salvaged scraps of sheet metal to shape the flowerbeds and whole bricks and gravel to make paths between them, Adam had designed The Garden to expand out from a double yin-yang pattern at the center into a series of broken concentric circles. He planted purple basil for the two yins and sweet alyssum for the two yangs. In the surrounding flowerbeds, he planted an array of colorful flowers — tulips, roses, crocuses, and hyacinths — along with plants producing cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, beans, strawberries and asparagus. Corn grew around the edge of The Garden to a height of more than six feet. Black raspberry bushes looped through carefully placed mattress springs and hung over a waist-high stone wall. Fruit and nut trees broke up through the ground, as did one rare Chinese Empress tree that had just appeared one day, quite mysteriously.

Each year, more buildings collapsed or were torn down, and The Garden expanded to take their place. Adam had chosen to build The Garden in the shape of a circle in continuity with his obsession of exponential expansion — a circle’s area increases with the square of its radius. It was almost eerie how when The Garden would push up against the edge of a building, the next year the building would be gone and The Garden would have added another couple of rings. In total, the city demolished four buildings adjacent to 184 Forsyth. From an initial size of 5,000 square feet in 1975, The Garden grew by approximately 2,500 square feet per year, reaching a final size of just over 15,000 square feet. It appeared poised to take over the city, knocking down whatever buildings stood in its path.

Citywide expansion of The Garden was, indeed, Adam and Eve’s goal. It was their intention to continue working on the project until it could be seen from outer space. If you were to stand on the roof of 184 Forsyth and look down on The Garden, you could see that sections of it spelled out the words “SpecieSurvival” and “R(apid)evolution.” The Garden of Eden was another step toward General [Z]enlightenment.

To further explain the role it would play, Adam crafted—in his trademark mix of clever wordplay and unusual symbols—an informational scroll that he and Eve handed out in Central Park. The scroll stated:

     Without waiting another 2,000 years for institutionalized Christianity or Judaism to build or rebuild the Garden of Eden (Paradise of Pleasures), we have taken psychic inspiration from General Zenlightenme(a)nt to ‘plug into’organic communication from Uranus, to wit:
     SpecieSurvival is more and more a race ‘twixt Zenlightenme(a)t and Extinction….”
      The Garden of Eden is one aspect of Biocybernetic Fun & Games to L.E.A.R.N (Let’s Erase Everything and Reprogram Now) for SpecieSurvival by 1984—from the Seventh Planet, Uranus. And if you do not know where your anus is, you are definitely part of the Problem.

Uranus was Adam’s winking metaphor to the fact the most people had no idea of the whereabouts of either the seventh planet or the Earth’s anus — i.e. where our society’s pollution, radiation, sewage, etc. originate. Politicians and bureaucrats were “ignoranuses” suffering from total ignorance of the anus. But perhaps there was still hope for the rest of us.

With the expansion of The Garden, Adam and Eve’s workload increased to the point where they needed to solicit help. The couple wrote an article for the Yipster Times requesting, “at least 30 full-time vegetarian gardeners.” Those with skills useful in renovating the building at 184 Forsyth were also asked to join, and rooms were available to those who wanted them. Initially, several people responded to the article and a few moved in to the rooms above Adam and Eve. None of them stayed for very long. Eve admitted to New York magazine’s Norman Green that for the most part, “people aren’t interested in vegetarian urban farming.” It was also rumored that Adam could be a difficult person to live with and that few could follow his stringent rules and strict daily regiment.

Just because the community didn’t want to help in The Garden didn’t mean they couldn’t enjoy it. During the spring and summer months — when Adam could be found pushing a wheelbarrow around with his shirt off, revealing the sun-browned, sinewy upper body of a healthy fifty-year-old man — he had plenty of visitors. Neighbors would come by to pick fresh fruits and vegetables. Teachers would bring classes of young immigrant students who had grown up on the Lower East Side and had never seen things like butterflies, earthworms and fruiting plants. Passersby would just wander in to have a look around.

That something so beautiful could exist in a neighborhood so inundated with crime, drugs, poverty and neglect continued to amaze those who lived there. A convicted felon who goes by the name Rambo Sloane explained in a letter to Adam written from the Auburn Correctional Facility that when he first stumbled into The Garden, he had been in a shootout with a Puerto Rican gang and “thought [he] got hit and went to heaven.” A resident of a rundown tenement adjacent to The Garden told a reporter from the Daily News: “We look out these windows, man, and we see a rainbow.”

There were also those who distrusted The Garden’s apparent ability to convert building rubble into leafy plants. They watched the strange man with his long grey beard and electric purple clothing work The Garden with his equally strange wife and determined, as journalist Norman Green put it, “supernatural forces [were] at work.”

In particular, it was the peculiar double ying-yang symbol at the center of The Garden that spooked them. The way the sweet alyssum reflected moon rays on a dark summer’s night, it was like The Garden was sending a signal into space.

In fact, the double ying-yang did represent an aspect of Adam and Eve’s life that few were familiar with. Where a single ying-yang represents the balance and union of man and woman, the double ying-yang represented the interconnection of two men and two women. It was the symbol for a group Adam had begun in the back of a school bus in Santa Cruz, California during the late ’60s known as the Catholic Union Mission, or C.U.M.

The Catholic Union Mission’s goal was to stage World Orgies I, II, and III to counteract the damage done by the first two World Wars and to avoid a third. In preparation for the World Orgies, the group held smaller sessions where two-person sex was swapped out for group sex and meaningful fucking could result in a mystical or transcendental experience. Group members were encouraged to confront and release all sexual hang-ups. LSD was often involved. Sexual combinations included man-woman, woman-woman, but not man-man. Strangers, capitalists, drug dealers and those with the clap were not invited to join. The orgies were another aspect of General [Z]enlightenment.

In November of 1978, Eve gave birth to a girl named Nova Dawn. That winter, the three of them huddled together on a large bed in a room with a wood stove, Adam reading and writing and Eve nursing the newborn. The last few years had brought significant media attention to the couple and their work in The Garden. While pleased that people were noticing, it irritated Adam that many journalists couldn’t seem to get the facts right. Inventing the pseudonym John Peter Zenger II — a tribute to the famous American journalist whose landmark case allowed that truth was defense against charges of libel — Adam perused the articles written about him before sending back a copy to the author annotated with the appropriate corrections. These corrections would often be small or seemingly insignificant, but it was important to Adam that there be no mistakes. For General [Z]enlightenment, people needed to receive the right message.

In a contracting universe, the light spectrum shifts toward violet. Adam knew this. For years, he had felt the universe shrinking. R(apid)Evolution for SpecieSurvival by 1984: the date was likely a reference to what he felt was a movement toward an Orwellian society, but if he was speaking of the deadline by which the city and his community needed to come around to his way of thinking for the sake of the Garden, he was surprisingly prescient. The “ignoranuses” in government had started to take an interest in the Garden. That interest was about to increase exponentially.

* * *

Part Two: Exodus

“Thoughtcrime does not entail death: thoughtcrime is death.”
-George Orwell, 1984

In 1979, when there were trees in The Garden tall enough for songbirds to flit between their branches, four million dollars were appropriated to build low-and-moderate income housing on Block 421. Initiated by city councilmember Miriam Friedlander and executed under the auspices of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the so-called “Esperenza Project” called for the construction of 189 housing units and the destruction of The Garden of Eden.

An old-fashioned anarchist, Adam was fond of paraphrasing Thoreau’s call to “let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.” It appeared that Adam had created enough counter-friction that the machine found it necessary to grind him out.

Faced with what would become a seven-year battle to save The Garden, Adam would no longer have the help of Eve. During that same year, the remaining tenants at 184 Forsyth Street had banded together to protest Adam’s request that each of them supply $40 to heat the building — a service the city no longer provided. Other factors may have been involved, but regardless, the protest resulted in the tenants vacating the building. Eve joined them, taking Nova Dawn with her.

In October 1981, HUD formally approved the project and a deadline of May 1984 was set for its implementation. In March of 1982, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs certified Adam as an artist, and he sued the city for two million dollars for violating a law that made it illegal to destroy works of art—subsequently delaying construction. In August of 1984, Justice Bruce Wright of New York’s Supreme Court in Manhattan dismissed the suit, rejecting Adam’s claim that he was denied “due process.” On February 14, 1985, Adam received a memo from the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development notifying him that he had intruded into property that he did not own and advised him that he would be required to quit the area known as The Garden of Eden on or before February 25th. It was signed by an official from the Division of Relocation Operations.

Adam refused to abandon The Garden and the controversy consumed the community. “People not Petunias” was the rally cry for those in favor of housing. Adam and his supporters countered by saying that the city council was employing a technique of “divide and conquer.” When the case went to a deciding trial near the end of August, 1985, the chairwoman of the Joint Planning Council, Margarita Lopez, testified in reference to The Garden that, “our people don’t go there,” because, “they was scared of the drug dealers there and they don’t want to be killed.” Adam accused Ms. Lopez of lying under oath—a claim that appears to be supported by the numerous letters written to Councilmember Friedlander and Mayor Koch by neighborhood residents on behalf of Adam and The Garden.

Over a thousand people signed a petition to stave off The Garden’s destruction. Politicians, professors, students, artists, government workers, television reporters, and the beat poet Allen Ginsberg all wrote letters asking that The Garden be saved. It wouldn’t matter. The city had made up its mind.

On January 8, 1986, Adam watched from the sixth floor fire escape of his building as bulldozers and trucks razed The Garden of Eden. When they were finished, all that remained was the singular Chinese Empress tree.

In the weeks following the destruction of The Garden, purple footprints began popping up all over Manhattan. The footprints wove a trail as far south as Wall Street and as far north as Columbus Circle. They lead back to the site where The Garden once bloomed and many people assumed the Purple Man was up to his old tricks. However, when a reporter for People Weekly tracked down the mysterious footprint maker, he discovered a supporter of The Garden named George who had attached foam footprints to the side of a purple paint drum and was rolling it around the city. Adam was nowhere to be seen.

Between 1979 and 1999, Adam was the only resident at 184 Forsyth. Con Edison had disconnected the building in 1981, and the city no longer provided any services. For eighteen years, Adam had to live without easy access to heat, water or electricity. He spent most of this time collecting articles written about The Garden and annotating them with his own account to create a book. His role in the public eye greatly diminished and, for a while, he even stopped wearing the color purple.

In 1999, the City of New York dealt Adam a final blow by evicting him and demolishing 184 Forsyth to construct a housing project sponsored by the New York Society for the Deaf. The city had been billing Adam since 1980 for all twenty-four rooms in the building, and it was estimated that at the time of his eviction, he owed over $300,000 in back rent.

Without a home, Adam bounced around a few tenements before going to stay with a friend in New Jersey. While there, he finished off the last strain of black raspberries from The Garden in a cup of tea. Then, it seemed, he disappeared entirely.

* * *

Part Three: Revelations

“Don’t judge half-done work.”
-Folk saying quoted by Adam’s father, the late Richard Wilkie, Sr.

The chain that locks together the double refrigerator doors guarding Adam’s room in a two-story building next to the Williamsburg Bridge was undone. Through the thin space between the doors, I could see that the light was off. I hesitated for a moment before giving few gentle knocks. There was rustling from inside. I announced my name through the door and said that I had been reading his book, Life With Les(s) Ego, and was hoping to talk with him about it. After a long pause, he informed me that he was listening to the news, but if I waited, I could speak with him when it had finished.

I was standing in the back room of a workshop, surrounded by milk crates full of tools and spare bike parts. The workshop is run by a bicycle co-op with ties to the squat houses that populated the Lower East Side during the ’80s and ’90s. When I’d first moved to New York City in the fall of 2012, I had rented a room on the second floor of the co-op. The room had a sloping floor and was built behind a brick chimney that had been eaten away by mice. There was enough space for a double bed, a bookshelf and a desk. While living there, I would occasionally run into the enigmatic old man who lived on the first floor but, for reasons I couldn’t quite place, there was something about him that made me nervous and I had never ventured a conversation.

The first time I had heard Adam talk about The Garden of Eden was at the opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Spaces (MoRUS) on Avenue C between 9th and 10th street in December of 2012. Wearing purple plaid and a purple ski hat, he sat on the stage in the basement of the notorious C Squat — a dimly lit room famous for punk shows in the ’80s and decorated with graffiti murals—while a movie about The Garden made by photographer Harvey Wang played on a giant projector behind him. Adam would stop the movie occasionally to clarify a detail or identify someone who had double-crossed him. When the movie had finished, he fielded a few questions from the audience and was then hurried offstage, a somewhat unceremonious departure considering the event was put on, at least in part, to celebrate his life’s work. He marched slowly through the crowd carrying a tall flagpole with a neon-orange bicycle flag at the top, up the stairs, and out onto the street where a group of squatters were gathered around a fire burning in a charcoal grill. He took a moment to attach the flag to the bike, then rode off into the darkness.

* * *

After about twenty minutes, when the news had finished, Adam opened the door. His room was small, about the size of a jail cell, containing a single window at the back covered by a black curtain. On the floor were plastic bottles full of water and along the right wall was a shelf stacked with canned food. On the left side, just inside the door, a steep set of stairs led up to a lofted single bed. A beat-up silver Macintosh laptop was plugged in and resting on a low table.

The space was too small for two people to sit comfortably so we moved to an office space in the back of the building. Adam was dressed in a pair of worn black slacks, a faded plaid shirt and a pair of two-toned blue sneakers. On his head he wore a black baseball cap covered with a dirty purple ski hat. A long white beard fell from his hollow cheeks in a series of delicate waves. His blue eyes studied me with an intensity that hinted at a former brightness, but they were now pale and cloudy like two tiny pieces of sea glass. He lowered himself carefully into a swivel chair and asked me what was on my mind.

“I’ve been reading your book,” I said, pulling from my bag a thick stack of 8-and-½-by-11-inch photocopied pages bound with a plastic binding comb. Before I could finish the sentence, Adam took the book from me and began examining the cover.

“Where did you get this?” he asked. “It’s a rare book you know. Only made about a hundred of them.”

I told him I had gotten it from a library in Manhattan.

“Now that’s a good library,” he said, leafing through the pages. Most of the print was too small for him to read so he went back to his room to retrieve a pair of reading glasses and a piece of magnifying glass. When he returned, he again immersed himself in the pages of the book, occasionally chuckling at his own wordplay and clever acronyms.

“Prove to me that there is no such thing as the Psychic Police,” he said. “You can’t. You can’t prove the nonexistence of anything.”

When he got to pictures of The Garden, he paused, then said: “This took a lot of work, you know.”

As he started to tell me stories of The Garden’s creation, I could sense his mind getting lost in a happier time. I asked him if, when he started The Garden, he had any idea the city would eventually take it away from him.

“I always had a feeling. In the back of my mind, I knew,” he said softly, with just a hint of Midwestern twang in his voice.

“Why do you think they did it?” I asked.

“For not bowing to their omnipotence. Not bowing to their authority. They didn’t own those lots.” His voice grew louder and more definitive. I asked him if he had committed any crime. He waited a moment before answering.

“No. I didn’t do anything wrong. Let me show you something.”

He flipped to a page in the book containing an article written by the famous environmentalist Bill McKibben for 7 Days magazine. In the article, McKibben questions the precedent Adam was setting in creating a garden without asking the city. McKibben wondered if there was really a conscious conspiracy against Adam. Along the side of the article, Adam had handwritten a scathing response to Bill. He asked me to read it aloud to him.

In the response, Adam calls McKibben “a puppy-dog press lackey” and questions his character. It finishes by stating: “If Bill would just once bury his shit in the ground instead of selling it to 7 Days, he would achieve some spiritual integrity AND wisdom!”

Adam laughed as I read. “Bill probably wasn’t too happy with me,” he hypothesized.

I found Adam more agreeable than I had expected, and was starting to enjoy spending time with him, but he had a masterful way of turning the conversation away from introspection. I asked how it felt to watch something you loved get destroyed.

“What they did was a human rights violation,” he said indignantly. “By what rights does anyone have to do that? I tried to contact the United Nations. And bullshit. You know who gave the land for the United Nations building? Take a wild guess. Rockefeller. You know who built the Knesset in Israel? The Rothschilds.”

He asked if I was aware that the Japanese have an Orwellian-style Thought Police. I wasn’t. He told me that sometime I should look up the book Shadows of Hiroshima and turn to chapter three, paragraph one.

His ability to reference particular books was remarkable for an eighty-two-year-old man. He admitted with sadness that he doesn’t have his library anymore, but that he had started a group on Yahoo called SpecieSurvivaLibrary where there is a record of all the books he had ever owned and read.

When 184 Forsyth was destroyed, Adam was forced into a somewhat nomadic lifestyle and couldn’t very well carry thousands of books with him. “One thing leads to another,” he said, and then told me that after leaving his friend’s home in New Jersey, he had traveled down to Maryland. He paid a thousand dollars up front for five months’ rent, but was kicked out before the payment period ended. He claims he was conned by the landlord, since all he received in return for the money was five hand-written receipts.

He returned to New York and worked on a crop farm upstate that he considered “a disorganized mess,” and “probably some sort of scam.” Eventually making his way back to the city, he moved from place to place until the painter Allen Hirsch helped him find a room at the bike co-op.

I questioned whether he ever saw Eve or Nova Dawn anymore. He stared at the floor for a while. When he looked up, his eyes betrayed contemplative remorse.

“It’s painful to live with someone for five years and just have her leave,” he said. “Her family, they’re Catholic. I’m not. They aren’t religiously intolerant, but they won’t tolerate me. They come to New York saying that they are here to see family. Well, I’m family.”

I asked him what Eve’s real name was and he couldn’t remember.

Despite no mention of it in any of the articles or writing collected in Life With Les(s) Ego, it came out that Adam had been married before meeting Eve. His mood lifting, he informed me that there was a Facebook page for The Garden, and that his daughter from his first marriage had posted on the page that she was proud to have him as a father.

“I wrote back that I am proud to be her dad. I don’t know, maybe one day that pride will manifest itself,” he said, in a way that suggested that it was his daughter’s pride he was talking about.

Reverting back to his more antagonist nature, he put an end to the topic by saying, “If someone thinks you’re the scum of the Earth and doesn’t want to talk to you, at some point you just have to say fuck it and move on.”

In Harvey Wang’s movie, Adam admits to wishing the city had killed him and left The Garden. When I asked him what the Garden would look like without him, he replied, simply, “It wouldn’t.”

“Do you still think it would be better if you were dead?” I asked.

“I wouldn’t commit suicide,” he offered. I have too much fun doing what I’m doing.”

He flipped to the back page of Life with Les(s) Ego and showed me a flyer calling for a World General Strike on January 2nd. “I’ve moved the date to May 1st,” he said, “but if people can take one day to stop doing all the things they’re used to doing that hurt the environment, how many days would it take to put an end to the system?”

“There’s a big-time crash coming,” he said somberly. “I don’t know if it’s going to be next year, or the year after that, or the year after that, but I won’t live long enough to see it all, but I’ll live to see some of it.”

I had noticed a bathroom next to his room when I was waiting for him to finish listening to the news. I asked if he had adapted to using the flush toilet.

“I have to,” he said. “There’s nowhere for me to bury my shit anymore.”

It was approaching eight p.m., and the spring twilight outside the open office door was darkening rapidly. He informed me that soon it would be time to take his vitamins. Turning over the page calling for a General Strike, he said with a puzzled expression that the last page was missing. Somebody had apparently removed it.

Before handing me back the book, he invited me to join the SpecieSurvivaLibrary.

“If you think this book is interesting,” he said with a sly smile. “Wait until you see what’s in the library. That will really blow your mind.”

* * *

Derick Dirmaier is a writer and interactive media producer living in Brooklyn, NY. Follow his new project into Inner Mongolia this summer at yankeeadler.tumblr.com or on Twitter @derickdirmaier.

Sam von Mayrhauser began drawing when he was 2, studied studio art at Skidmore College and now does portraits, tattoo designs, logo designs, cartoons and live caricaturing at a local amusement park in Bristol, Connecticut.

When Young Muslims Want to Stop Masturbating, They Turn to Reddit

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Inside the makeshift online support groups where devout men go to break their taboo sex habits.

This story is republished from MEL Magazine, a new men’s digital magazine that understands that there’s no playbook for how to be a guy. Sign up for their newsletter here.

On a Friday night a few weeks ago, Ibrahim “Ibby” Mamood was frantically typing on his laptop, shaking, with droplets of sweat dripping from his forehead. Every so often, he peered over his shoulder, just in case someone was still awake and could come into his room. “I did it again,” he typed to the members of a private Facebook group. “I lost control of myself. May Allah, the greatest, the most kind, the most merciful, forgive me.”

Mamood, 27, lives in Birmingham, one of Britain’s largest cities and home to the country’s largest Muslim population outside of London. He’s a practicing Muslim who prays five times a day and teaches children in madrassa (Islamic school). He lives in a neighborhood almost entirely filled with Muslim families, all of whom know each other, attend the same social events and congregate at the same mosque.

This makes what he calls an “addiction” to masturbation even harder to talk about. Calling me from a cafe in central Birmingham, far away from his home, he says that he started masturbating in his late teens “without really knowing what I was doing.”

“It started, like most boys, with wet dreams. I thought I was wetting the bed. And it really developed from there. Later, I looked at pornographic images. Not because of a sinful sexual attraction. I wanted to figure out what was happening to my body.”

Mamood tells me that as he grew older — and with Islamic marriage on his mind — he attempted to become a more devout Muslim. As he was doing so, however, he continued looking at pornography. “I knew what I was doing was wrong… I’ve always known that. But we live in a society where pornography is widespread, so even when I wasn’t looking for porn, it was just there.”

Like many Muslim men in Mamood’s situation — i.e., finding themselves unable to talk about sex, masturbation or porn in deeply religious communities, where such things are considered taboo — he turned to the internet for help. In addition to private groups on Facebook (Mamood’s has more than two hundred members) and WhatsApp, the biggest support network is on Reddit, where the MuslimNoFap subreddit has about two thousand followers.

On the surface, it might seem like the normal Reddit No Fap community, a group of men whose choice of abstinence is largely driven by a desire for self-improvement. But according to members of MuslimNoFap, who all wished to remain anonymous, their community is much different. As one told me, “The main NoFap community is largely aiming to somehow assert their masculinity through control of themselves, with the hope of sleeping with women outside of marriage.” Conversely, the MuslimNoFap community is designed to uphold the sanctity of Nikah (marriage), which also means that “any form of sexual activity is prohibited until made permissible by Allah.”

“All we’re trying to do is serve Allah, and to do what he commanded us to do,” the MuslimNoFapper adds.

While the men I spoke to had joined the group for different reasons — some wanted to stop watching porn; others used to the group to manage depression and anxiety — nearly all of them wanted to get married in a halal (Islamically permissible) way, and were worried that their affinity for porn and masturbation would nullify their marriages in the eyes of God. It also was clear that despite thinking about marriage for much of their lives, none of these men had been prepared for what would happen on their wedding nights.

“There’s no way we can talk about sex, or anything to do with sex inside a mosque. It’s impossible,” a Canadian man by the username Abu Khadeer says. “Most of the people in these groups had a strict Islamic upbringing. They didn’t learn about sex education in the madrassa, where they were prohibited from having girlfriends. Some date and have sex outside of marriage, but [most] other men are truly devoted to their religion. They end up giving into temptation … usually because they’re afraid they won’t be competent when they finally get married.”

“Most mentions of sex in the [mosque] are usually associated with sin,” he adds. The attitude that the imams take is that any sort of deliberate extramarital sex is a severe sin — one that results in punishment in the akhira [afterlife].”

Islamic scholars differ in their opinions of this interpretation. The mainstream view among some world-famous preachers, including Zakir Naik, is that anyone engaging in extramarital sexual activities without repentance (in the form of fasting and prayer) will be sent to hell on Judgment Day. Others say that because the Qu’ran doesn’t specifically call masturbation zina (a major sin), severe punishments don’t apply.

Still, most devout Muslim men grow up being told to stay away from any type of sexual activity until marriage. As Abu Khadeer says, “A lot of us are told to be celibate up to the point of marriage. And then when we get married, we’re just expected to know what to do. One of the guys on the forum had to divorce his wife because he couldn’t consummate his marriage. He literally didn’t know how to have sex with her on his wedding night.”

It’s difficult to quantify the problem, but most of the imams I spoke to recognized that this is an issue that is often kept secret. Imams from progressive Imams Online network say Islamic leaders hadn’t really dealt with situations involving men and sex education, beyond very extreme situations — ones where the men believed they’d been possessed by evil spirits, in which case, the imams recommend long periods of praying and fasting, or sometimes ruqyah, an Islamic exorcism ritual.

“Things like sexual etiquette aren’t taught in Islamic schools, because there’s an aversion by teachers who believe it’s a parent’s duty to teach their children about sex, but many parents don’t feel confident talking to their sons about sex either,” says London-based imam Muhammad Jafer. “As a result, you have young men who reach their 20s knowing next to nothing about intimacy, or worse, they’ve learned about it by looking at sinful websites or talking to people about sex in haram [forbidden] environments.”

Plus, as Mamood points out, “Most [imams] are older men, who grew up at a time when getting married young was something everyone did, so they don’t understand the world we’re in now. [They] don’t understand how much our society is sexualized now. To say that we should abstain from pornography is impossible.”

“The problem begins when you say abstinence is the only option,” adds Imtiaz Ayub, a social worker based in Derby, a small city in the north of England. Ayub isn’t an imam, but much of his work involves working with Muslim teenagers, including getting them to open up about sex. “There’s a wider problem here — one where in Muslim communities this idea of a very macho masculinity is imposed,” he explains. “More and more young Muslim men are obsessed with how they look, how muscular they are, as a way to prove they’re manly. But at the same time, they’re not encouraged to talk about their own sexuality. That can be very confusing for [them].”

In Ayub’s opinion, communities that have told young men to disregard their sexuality are “basically waiting for a volcano to erupt.”

“Muslim boys aren’t different to any other type of male — they’re going to be sexually curious when they reach a certain age, and if communities care about them, they need to provide spaces where they can openly talk about sex without the taboos. You can’t expect young Muslim boys to grow up and become men unless they’re able to manage the period when they grow up to become men.”

His attitude is shared by others who are trying to offer better resources for Muslim men to talk about sex. In the U.S., a website called “Purify Your Gaze” provides interactive sessions via Skype — usually involving a mentor — and other specially designed programs, consisting of physical activities and Islamic prayers, to aid men throughout their “healing” processes from porn and masturbation. Others, like U.K. imam Alyas Karmani, take a more modern approach — one that disregards notions of personal sexual gratification as a major sin, earning him the title of the “Muslim Sex Doctor.” Same for Mufti Abu Layth, another British imam who caused controversy when he used his weekly advice session on Facebook Live to say that masturbation wasn’t prohibited in Islam at all. Instead, he believes past Muslim scholars had suggested that masturbation could be used to safely manage one’s sexual desires.

To Ayub, Mufti Abu Layth’s statements were a positive first step. “The Mufti has a big public platform, and it was important for him to say that. Even if there are Muslim men who want to be celibate, who want to abstain until marriage, it’s still important for them to understand that masturbation is a natural human thing.”

A few days ago, I spoke to Mamood again. He was in better spirits. He’d put blocks on the porn sites he’d visited, and following the advice and encouragement of the other members of his anti-masturbation support group on Facebook, he’s trying to combat his sexual urges through studying Islamic books. That said: “I’m fine during the day, when I can control my temptations. It’s moments at night when I’m alone…,” he admits.

He takes a long pause, and then mutters a short prayer in Arabic asking for God’s forgiveness. “Those are the times I’m worried about. It’s at night time, when the devil likes to tempt us, especially on the internet.”

How Cleaning Out My Hoarder Mother-in-Law’s Junk Caused My Own Marriage to Crumble

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As we plowed through decades of her extreme clutter, I began to notice similar tendencies in my husband. And once I saw the hoarder in him, there was no turning back.

There’s a snapshot Aiden took of me a few days after our wedding on Christmas Eve, 2009. I’m standing outside his mother’s house wearing disposable coveralls, gloves, and a particulate mask. In the background is a dumpster. The ground is thick with dead, brown palm fronds. I am beaming at the camera.

I wished so much that I could have met Ruth, my mother in law. I knew she was a bright, adventurous woman who never found work to suit her lively intelligence. She was a 1960’s housewife fascinated by history and art and ideas. She loved dogs. She suffered from untreated depression and agoraphobia.

The day Ruth died, her family just locked up the house and walked away. Now, five years later, it’s still standing empty. Aiden worries about it. I worry about him. No one, I think, should have to clear out a parent’s house alone. His brothers are no help at all.

“You and I can do it together,” I say. “It’ll be our honeymoon. We’ll take a month and just get it done.”

And now we’re here.

The front door opens into the living room — an ironic name for such an uninhabitable place. I’ve never seen anything like this. There are LPs, stained mattresses, mountains of canned food, ripped cushions, dog crates, and hundreds upon hundreds of boxes. All fading back into the darkness. The smell is beyond staleness or rot. It’s the stench of sickness, of time lost.

I’d fantasized about meeting my mother in law. Now I’m getting my wish, but in the most macabre way. As I dig through her belongings, I feel I’m excavating Ruth herself. Every room in that house — every pile of garbage, every broken sofa, every packed closet — seems saturated with her spirit. Each stratum we uncover reveals more of the woman who raised my husband — a woman whom I will otherwise never know.

I haven’t yet heard of obsessive-compulsive hoarding. I have no idea that there’s a clinical name for what I’m looking at. I only know that Ruth’s house feels like a map of a disturbed mind.

Why, I wonder, is the floor of the den covered in newspapers three feet deep?

“That’s for the dogs,” Aiden explains, as if it makes perfect sense. We start hacking the newspaper out, a job that requires pickaxes and shovels. Clouds of powdered filth fill the air. The whole thing is a petrified matt of paper, urine and excrement. Decades ago, Ruth crammed her ever-growing collection of dogs — eighteen? twenty? — into this single modest-sized room and left them to do their thing. When the floor got bad, she simply added another layer of paper.

In another room, I find notebooks. Boxes of them, all densely crammed with faint, microscopic handwriting. They’re lists of words.

“Oh, Mom was always learning languages,” Aiden tells me. Some of the word-lists are in English. Others are in Spanish, German, Polish, Norwegian. Clearly the work of an intelligent and gifted person. The thing is, I can’t see anyone actually using them for anything. They’re barely legible. It’s as if Ruth was collecting words just for the sake of having them.

Further in, there’s a stack of maybe thirty cardboard boxes, wrapped in paper and swathed in packing tape. What was Ruth storing with such special care? Even with my mat knife, it takes a long time to get the first one open. I tear off the paper. Underneath there’s more tape. Then tissue paper. Gently, I turn back the layers.

Palm fronds. The box is full of dead palm fronds from the yard outside, carefully folded and packed.

I spend the next hour cutting open more boxes. They all contain more of the same. As I work, I keep twisting to glance behind me.

Back in the den I find Aiden crouched down, frowning at the heaps of crud that we’ve hacked out of the floor.

“We need to go through all this by hand,” he says earnestly.

I stare. “You mean the whole room? All of it?”

“There could be something important buried here,” he says. “Get a bag.”

I get a bag. As I start sifting, I try to think of something to say. We can’t do this. We’ll never get through it all. This is crazy.

I pry up a wad of rat-chewed newsprint. Underneath, gazing up at me, are Aiden’s eyes.

It’s a photograph, half buried in the muck. It can’t be Aiden, though.

The picture is old, taken maybe around 1920. But the resemblance is eerie. Same curly brown hair, same beautiful eyes. The guy is obviously a relative. Aiden has no idea who he is.

Later on, we show the picture to Aiden’s dad. “That’s your Great Uncle Norman,” he says. “He had some problems.” Problems? Apparently, Ruth’s uncle committed suicide sometime before the Second World War.

I’m sorry to hear it. But what really disturbs me is the vision of my sweetie buried under a pile of garbage in that house. Those eyes, hidden down there for decades. Sad eyes. A genetic heritage.

At the end of January, after about a month of excavation, we run out of time. The whole process has been traumatic for Aiden, and to what end? We’ve filled one corner of the dumpster, which means we’ve thrown away the equivalent of about one closet’s worth of stuff. The rest of the house we leave as it was, relocking the door behind us. I feel defeated. Aiden is silent.

Back in London, our cluttered apartment is starting to worry me.

“I’m remodeling, so everything’s kind of up in the air,” Aiden had told me months before, the first time I saw where he lived: before it became where we lived. I’d been impressed to learn that he was doing all the work himself. Naturally the place was messy now, I thought. I could see it was going to be beautiful when it was done.

But time passed, and the remodel began to seem like the labor of Sisyphus: a project that could absorb any amount of time and work without ever reaching completion.

Now we’ve returned from California and moved into a construction site. It’s uncomfortable. There’s no room for my stuff. Aiden urges patience as he keeps accumulating tools and crates and building materials salvaged from neighborhood trash cans. One night, I come home and am bewildered to see what looks like a pile of car parts in the living room.

I’m starting to understand that, for my husband, the chaos of the remodel is not a temporary stage on the way to a cozy shared living space. It’s the way he lives.

When I shake out a blanket, clouds of dust and mold fly up. We have fleabites. Without consulting me, Aiden adopts two dogs, which are never housebroken. Now I have to wear clogs all day, stepping over puddles on my way to the kitchen.

I offer to do all the cleaning myself. “This is not your project,” Aiden responds. I try to negotiate for one clutter-free room. For the first time, I see my husband truly furious. Once, I rearrange a couple of pictures on the wall. After that, Aiden doesn’t speak to me for a week. He feels that I’m a feckless control freak. I feel unwelcome and unvalued. Much as I love him, I’m sliding into chronic depression. Angry depression.

Through it all I can’t get Ruth, or her house, out of my mind.

Finally, two years later, our marriage ends. I’ve been fighting hard to clear away the obstacles — physical and emotional — that stand between us. To Aiden, I’ve realized at last, my efforts feel like an attack on the core of his being.

The hoarder crowds his life with rubbish in an effort to keep other things out of his life. Things like spontaneity, and the spiritual intimacy reflected in a shared living space. Love and friendship don’t stand a chance. The need to barricade oneself — literally and psychologically — overrides everything else.

I grieved our loss for a long time. But today I’m sitting in a tranquil room full of clean surfaces. There’s open space. There’s sunlight. I luxuriate in having exactly what I need and no more — my books, my teakwood desk, my glass pen jar. Best of all, my thoughts have room to spread and blossom.

This “Old Guy With a Sign” Protests Trump Every Single Day

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Gale McCray has never been politically active, but since the election he’s become a fixture at a Fort Worth, Texas, intersection.

Most days, 74-year-old Gale McCray putters around Fort Worth, Texas, doing odd jobs and errands – like delivering cookie bouquets – for extra cash. He also spends his time standing at a busy intersection with a homemade anti-Trump sign that simply says, “Trump, that boy don’t act right.”

For 21 years, McCray worked as a mailman for the United States Post Office. He admits he was just as the stereotype suggests: disgruntled. Unhappy and unfulfilled for the better part of his career, he finally quit and took out his entire retirement fund. After blowing through the money over a period of two years on marijuana and “craziness,” McCray was left with $500 to his name. It was then he realized he had a “problem” and he wanted to address it.

“The best thing about America is that you get multiple chances at life,” McCray chuckles. “So, I took another chance.”

McCray went back to school and got a degree at the age of 43, then worked for ten years as a recreation therapist, working with alcoholics and addicts – something he felt called to do. He would teach leisure education classes for patients in treatment centers, and talk to them about participating in activities and how to be out in the world, such as going to a movie or engaging in swimming exercises. Then he drove a school bus for six years before officially retiring in 2008. Over the past nine years, McCray has become more vocal about his political views though he says they aren’t based on politics, per se, but on common sense, human decency, and kindness.

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

Now, the sign he holds for at least two hours per day in front of passing cars and curious eyes is the result of a tipping point. One that McCray didn’t even know was coming. The downhome, country phrase written in big, black letters on the sign just popped into his head, McCray says. He heard it often while growing up in a working-class household in Oklahoma during the forties and fifties.

“It’s country talk, that’s all it is. The full phrase is, ‘That boy just don’t act right. God bless him,’” McCray explains. “Like, I’m a big baseball fan so I’d say this about a player: ‘That right there is a really good ball player, but the fact is that boy just don’t act right. God bless him.’”

Once he found a piece of cardboard large enough to fit his message, McCray focused on the destination. He says he didn’t put a whole lot of thought into it, but ideally had two specific requirements: within walking distance of his home, and a lot of traffic. So, he chose an intersection that fit the bill, with a four-way stop and an island off to the side for him to stand on.

“A few years ago, I made a different sign,” McCray says. “It said, ‘Help, I watch too much Fox News. Can’t tell truth from lies. Need therapy.’ But I was just being silly. This right here is different.”

When asked why it was different, McCray pauses. He speaks in a heavier and much more somber tone than the lighthearted, jovial one he’s been using.

“After the election I was just amazed, I couldn’t believe [Donald Trump] got elected,” he says. “I remembered seeing a guy with a sign once shortly after Bush took us into Iraq. And he was a Middle Eastern guy. He had such resolve on his face, like he knew he wasn’t going to change anything but that he had to get out there and do something. And that’s kind of how I felt.”

McCray stands with his sign at his preferred intersection in Fort Worth.

McCray maintains that he isn’t political. He isn’t angry and he isn’t trying to make a grandiose statement. He’s just “an old guy with a sign.” But the motivation seems deeper than that. After the recent election, McCray became politically active for the first time. He called Congresswoman Kay Grange, visited her office and spoke with one of her representatives about the travel ban. But it just didn’t feel like enough. Then protests broke out all over the country, including the Dallas Fort Worth Airport. And it affected him deeply.

“I saw mothers and grandparents on the news getting separated from their families and I got kind of emotional thinking about it and thinking about my own family,” he says. “There just wasn’t any compassion as to how it was implemented. So, I don’t know. It was all of that, really. I mean, this isn’t the America that I know.”

While standing alone on the cement-lined, grassy island, McCray has heard it all – boos, car horns, cheers and, of course, his fair share of ‘fuck you.’” According to the New York Times, 51.7 percent of Forth Worth residents voted for Donald Trump, which isn’t an overwhelming number, but enough to garner some unpleasant reactions to his sign.

Some people have called the cops on him, others hold up the peace sign. One person shouted at him to “get a job” while another asked, “Who’s paying you to do that?” An older woman even slowed down traffic just enough to roll down her window and tell McCray with all sincerity, “You’re stupid.”

“What I notice the most is how a lot of the people are just so angry,” he says. “It makes me sad to see them get so angry at me. I don’t feel anger towards them. And they look like they’re going to have a heart attack over this. You can’t take it so seriously. If I took what people said seriously, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”

McCray waves at passersby.

McCray says he often thinks back to that Middle Eastern man that he saw with a sign all those years ago. No one beeped at him. No one slowed down. They just saw him standing there and wondered what he was doing out there with that sign.

“That man had a big effect on me,” McCray says. “I made up my own story about him, about who he was and why he was doing what he was doing, and how he had to get out there and just do something – anything. It has stuck with me. I imagine people are doing the same with me. And maybe it will stick with them.”

McCray has since started taking the sign with him on his travels. He’s recently been to Oklahoma, Florida and South Carolina. A musician he met in Oklahoma even wrote a song based on the sign’s catchphrase. It’s called, you guessed it: “That Boy Don’t Act Right.” And on more than a few occasions, McCray has struck up conversations with people just to hear their thoughts and views no matter who they voted for. He’s not trying to change anyone’s mind, he says, or convert political beliefs. But he hopes that some people will feel motivated to go out and do something – anything – to make them feel as if they are doing their part. Maybe they’ll see the sign and think about voting or taking their own course of action. In the end, that’s really what McCray says he’s trying to do – inspire action.

“I still don’t feel like I’m doing enough,” he says. “Like I said, I’m just an old man with a sign. But at least, for me, it’s something. At least I’m doing something.”

I Went to the Hospital to Give Birth…And Tested Positive for Meth

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When the nurse first told me, mid-labor, that there were methamphetamines in my system, I cracked up laughing at the absurdity. When child services showed up, it stopped being funny.

It’s the birth of my first child, and I’m seven, maybe eight hours into labor. Whatever time it is, I’m well past the point of caring about modesty, so I don’t even think it’s strange when a nurse follows me into the bathroom.

“Just so you know, you’ve tested positive…” The nurse pauses there, and shifts her eyes to the floor. My anxiety fills the silence. I expect she’s going to say something about the whirring machines that have been measuring the baby’s heartbeat, my contractions, my blood pressure, any of those things.

“For methamphetamine.”

Relief floods me, and I explode with laughter. Meth? I didn’t even take Tylenol during my pregnancy.

“Well, I’ve always been a positive person,” I say, because cracking awful jokes is what I do to pave over uncomfortable situations. I smile, and the nurse seems relieved. Clearly, this is a mistake. I offer to give another sample.

The nurse crosses her arms in front of her chest while I squat over the toilet, one hand hoisting my hospital gown up toward my enormous belly, the other dangling the plastic cup in an area I can’t even see. Remarkably, my aim is true.

If there’s one thing I’ve mastered during pregnancy, it’s peeing into cups. My obstetrician’s office required a urine sample at most every visit to check hormone levels. At this point I’m 42 weeks, so I’ve peed into dozens, maybe scores, of sample cups. That’s probably why I wasn’t even aware the hospital administered a drug test when I checked in to give birth. My everyday routine as a pregnant lady involves peeing on demand.

The nurse sends the sample to the hospital’s lab.

When I imagined labor, I expected to pass the time by stretching on an exercise ball or pacing the hospital’s long white hallways. But my doctor is concerned about the baby’s heartbeat – it drops dramatically every time I have a contraction – and so I am confined to a labor bed, an IV of fluids in my arm, an oxygen mask on my face, and belts stretched across my belly to monitor the baby.

So I make do. My doula rubs lavender essential oil on my temples, and my husband plays “Push It,” the Spotify playlist I created for labor and delivery. I have a photo of Beyoncé propped up on the over-bed table, because if anything can inspire me, it’s Queen Bey. Also on the table is my birth plan, which is kind of like a wish list for delivery. That includes modest requests, like keeping the door to my room closed, as well as more imperative things, like, “Please delay all routine procedures on the baby until after the bonding and breastfeeding period.”

Occasionally I convince the staff to unhook the machines and let me move around the room for a few minutes. It’s better that way. Movement helps distract from the contractions, allowing my body to muscle through each wicked snap. But when I’m in bed, I’m hit with the full force of every punch, my vision blurring and sparkling along the edges. It’s like a migraine, but rippling through the entirety of me, and I just have to lie there and take it.

I’ve just done a few stretches and heaved myself back into bed when another nurse enters the room. I snap the oxygen mask back on my face as she delivers her news.

My drug sample is positive for meth. Again. The nurse ticks off a list of everything that’s about to happen: The baby will be tested for drugs. The hospital social worker will meet with me before I can be discharged. Child Protective Services will be contacted to evaluate my fitness as a parent.

“And of course, you cannot breastfeed the baby,” the nurse finishes.

I rip the oxygen mask away. This isn’t a joke anymore.

“Can they do that?” I ask my doula.

“I don’t know.” She looks grim.

“This isn’t right!” My husband is angry. He knows me, he’s seen the way I’ve nurtured and cared for the fragile bud inside me. His voice deepens into a growl as he stabs a finger toward the nurse. “You tell them. I don’t care who you have to call. The lab, the social worker, the doctors. You tell them they’re wrong.”

The nurse only shrugs and leaves the room.

My husband and I have experienced loss through miscarriage, so I’ve been especially careful this pregnancy, almost to the point of superstition. No alcohol, no deli foods, nothing raw, undercooked or smoked. The bulk of my produce was organic, my drinking water purified through a reverse-osmosis system. I used clove oil on a persistent toothache instead of visiting the dentist, because I didn’t want any anesthetic to pass through my body and into the placenta. During all 42 weeks, the hardest drugs that entered my body were prenatal vitamins and puffs from my prescription asthma inhaler.

“My inhaler,” I say. My hands shake.

“Your inhaler.”

The contractions are furious. I am furious. I am scared. My husband and my doula both hunch over their smartphones, searching for facts about asthma inhalers and drug tests. In the background, my labor mix plays “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross. My birth plan is on the floor, wrinkled, footprints stamped onto the white paper. I want to run away, but I’m belted down to a labor bed and attached to a bunch of machinery, caught somewhere between a sob and a scream.

The nurses, who begin to look alike, are no longer friendly, and we have a lot of conversations that don’t make sense. It’s four, possibly five a.m., but who’s to say? Labor runs on Salvador Dalí time, and I’ve hit that point of sleeplessness where the world doesn’t feel real anymore.

My husband scrolls through pages of information about albuterol inhalers and drug tests. He shows his phone to every nurse who steps foot in the room.

“See,” he points at a page from Drugs.com, then flips to CBS News stories about false positives, archives of reports, message boards with anecdotal evidence.

“Just give me one more test,” I plead. “I’ll prove it.”

I realize how much we sound like the prisoners who argue their innocence or patients in a mental institution who say they’re not crazy. The more I insist I’m not on drugs, the more I sound like I am.

“You can take this up with CPS,” a stone-faced nurse says.

Child Protective Services. A bolt of dread shoots through me as I remember the pregnancy announcement I sent to my loved ones and posted on Facebook six months ago. It seemed innocent enough. Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” owns a movie theater in my town. When I ran into him at a film screening, I thought a photo with him would be the perfect way to announce my pregnancy and declare my love for the show, which is about a teacher-turned-methamphetamine dealer.

On the announcement, Bryan Cranston has one hand on my belly. “Breaking Baby,” the card reads in the style of the show’s logo, like elements in the periodic table. The bottom of the card modifies a memorable quote from the show: “I am the one who knocks up.”

The author's pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)
The author’s pregnancy announcement card featuring actor Bryan Cranston (left). (Image courtesy Maggie Downs)

In the shadow of my failed drug tests, a card celebrating a morally questionable meth cooker has become one of my most misguided ideas. If the folks at CPS want proof I’m an unfit parent, I’m handing it to them on quality card stock, stuffed inside a pretty envelope.

Eventually the long desert night becomes a smoldering July morning. The baby’s heartbeat drops until it almost stops, and my doctor is summoned. My son is born via emergency C-section at 9:56 a.m. He is whisked away to another room, my husband follows, and for the first time in ten months, I am alone.

* * *

When I change my son’s diaper for the very first time, there is a plastic bag covering his genitals, a band of tape cinching it tight. It doesn’t strike me as abnormal until the nurse peering over my shoulder shakes her head no.

“I don’t think that’s enough urine for a sample,” she says. “We’ll have to do it again.”

Of course. They have to test my child for drugs, and this is how it’s done. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, this tiny baby part wrapped in plastic, this uncomfortable, squawking child. His skin is so silky and new, the plastic so crinkly and manufactured.

Three days pass with me in the hospital bed, recovering from surgery. For three days I nestle my son in my arms, and I encourage him to breastfeed. All three days, the nurses are reluctant to hand over the baby, saying my actions are irresponsible. I feel like a wounded dog. I fight the urge to bark and snap at their hands.

Every shift change, two nurses stand by my bed and inform another two nurses of my status as a combative patient. “This woman tested positive for methamphetamine,” they say. “She has been briefed on the risks associated with breastfeeding, and she refused our advice. She is breastfeeding at her own risk.”

On my last day in the hospital, the social worker makes a visit. He is the first person to offer me a sliver of kindness and the benefit of doubt.

“I don’t think you’re on meth,” he says. “But my hands are tied.”

He says my son’s drug test was negative. Mine, however, has been sent to an outside lab for additional testing. I should receive the results in two to three weeks. In the meantime, he will try to hold off on contacting CPS.

“Just expect them to show up at any moment, is all I’m saying,” he adds.

spot-1

A part of me recognizes the hospital is acting in the interests of my child. But even if I were a drug user, does that justify turning delivery into something criminal? At what point do the rights of my child outweigh my own?

As soon as I signed a waiver and checked in to the labor ward, this birth belonged to the hospital. All sense of agency was stolen from me – from how I was forced to labor in an unnatural position, flat on my back, to the way I was treated like a drug addict when I was at my most vulnerable. Now my future feels like it’s in their hands too.

We live in the desert, where the only things that thrive are rugged and prickly, and it’s 112 degrees the day I bring my child home. Prior to giving birth, I pictured this as my Hallmark moment – sitting in the rocking chair that belonged to my mother, a cooing baby in my arms, the soft, yeasty smell of his skin. Instead, my son hollers until he’s purple, and I exhaust myself trying to make him stop. Every time the clanky air conditioner kicks on, my son cries with renewed energy. We are sweaty and sticky and unhappy. I finally place him in a bassinet next to the couch, where I collapse. Let him scream.

Lemon, my blind and deaf dachshund, settles in by the bassinet, as though she’s guarding it. Every so often Lemon leaps to her feet and pokes her nose into the bassinet, sniffs the baby, then curls up on the floor again. After a little while of this, my son calms. My dog is already proving to be a better mother than I am.

The weeks that follow are dark. I don’t know if I would have experienced the same level of postpartum depression without failing those drug tests. But I do know most other mothers don’t spend their first few weeks with baby the way I do – the shades drawn, peeking out from behind the blinds, examining each car that drives past. Every phone call, every knock at the door, every pop of gravel in the driveway sets my heart racing. Every night shreds me to pieces, wondering if my son will be whisked away by morning. I am suddenly a stickler for housework. What if CPS comes and sees all the laundry? What will they think of our dishes in the sink? It seems insane to think someone could take my child away, yet testing positive for meth once seemed insane too.

Sometimes while my son sleeps, I curl up on the floor of his yellow nursery, too afraid to be separated by a room or a wall. I am tired, but I don’t sleep. This isn’t how it was supposed to be, I think. This child was so wanted, so desired, but now that he’s here, I’m unable to protect him. I fall short.

I stay awake long enough to hear the coyotes scream in the empty lot next to my house. Out there is a desert, a place of harsh conditions and vast unknowns, and our home isn’t an oasis anymore. That’s when I mentally plot the route from Palm Springs to Mexico and imagine our lives in a seaside town. We could start over. We could be happy.

spot-2The days pass, and the air conditioner continues to chug. The blinds are drawn, and the house is gloomy despite the burning sun outside. I don’t run off to Mexico, of course. I’m still hopped up on painkillers for my angry C-section incision, and I’m fuzzy from insomnia. I can’t even make it to the mailbox.

Three weeks after I give birth, the hospital social worker phones and speaks to my husband. The results are in. I’m not on drugs. The call lasts less than a minute; it only takes a few seconds to apologize.

After the call, I suppress the urge to cry.

“What do we do now?” I ask my husband.

He shrugs. He looks sad and scared and relieved, and I’m all of those things too. I don’t quite believe it’s over, that we can just be parents who love and laugh and enjoy the comfort that comes from being in a safe space. But here we are.

My son is asleep against my shoulder, and I don’t want to disrupt him. Instead I walk over to the patio door, pull open the blinds, and for the first time in weeks, let the light in.

* * *

Maggie Downs Answers Your Questions: For more on what really happened at the hospital, read a Q&A with the author on Narratively’s Facebook page.

Maggie Downs is a writer, mother, and adventurer based in Palm Springs, California. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Today.com, and Racked, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside-Palm Desert. Find her on Twitter @downsanddirty.

Cornelia Li is an illustrator based in Toronto. Her works often explore human emotions via storytelling. See her more experimental scribbles on Instagram @cornelia_illo.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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