Arms dealing. Corruption. Family drama. All in Yiddish—and the only person on call to translate it is one spritely 71-year-old woman in Queens.
In 2007, Moses “Mark” Stern borrowed $126 million dollars from the investment firm Citigroup. Stern is a father of eight, who has a full beard and wears a yarmulke in the center of a ring of frizzy unclipped brown hair. As a young man, he emigrated from his birth country of Argentina, where he belonged to the Orthodox Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism, to live in the Hasidic community in Monsey, New York.
Stern was a real estate developer who, according to the New York Post, had a taste for Maseratis and Ferraris. He borrowed the money with the intention of buying eleven shopping malls. Through his business connections, Stern had become a longtime backroom political player in New York State politics. The ambitious deal failed, Stern’s company went bankrupt, Citigroup sued him, and the court ruled against Stern. The FBI approached him with a deal: wear a wire and get a reduced sentence.
Wearing a wire, Stern met the mayor of Spring Valley, New York at a hotel and asked the mayor to use her political power to purchase a piece of land in the town under eminent domain and then sell it to him, so he could develop it into a community center. She agreed and over the next few months, the two met frequently, with Stern occasionally handing her a bribe.
Several months later, Stern met with Malcolm Smith, a state senator from New York, in a restaurant in Rockland County. During that meeting, Stern gave Smith $10,000 and discussed giving him another $100,000, to distribute to a small cohort of US senators in support of Smith’s run for Mayor of New York, according to court documents.
Over the next year, Stern met with several other New York politicians in restaurants and hotels, handing over thousands of dollars to push his community center project forward. He introduced Senator Smith to “Raj,” an undercover FBI agent. According to court documents, Raj bribed Smith repeatedly for the promise of future political favors. “We’re going to play golf somewhere,” Raj said to Smith. “Your golf bag will be a little heavier when you leave the course.”
Smith was indicted in April 2014 when the FBI filed its substantial body of evidence against him. In June the case was declared a mistrial. The FBI revealed that they had 28 hours of recorded conversation that hadn’t been translated yet, which they hoped would contain the evidence necessary to reopen the case, and put Smith away. The problem was, the conversations were recorded in Yiddish, a language that UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural protection arm, designates as “definitely endangered.” When the judge declared the case a mistrial, both the defense and the DA office raced to find Yiddish translators. Because of the rarity of the language, there is only one Yiddish courtroom translator on call in the Southern District of New York City, a 71-year-old woman named Ruth Kohn.
Kohn has straight blond bobbed hair and was wearing a bright red blazer with a glittering penguin broach on her lapel when I met her in downtown Manhattan. She speaks with a geographically unplaceable old-world Jewish accent and peppers her conversations with Yiddish words. Kohn is plain spoken when she talks about the tabloid-worthy details of some of her cases and has a dry sense of humor. As one of the only Yiddish translators in the New York Court system, Kohn’s work serves as a physical record of a language that has been quickly disappearing over the last century. Her translations have helped put a serial rapist, a thuggish Rabbi and countless others behind bars.
The work of a courtroom translator is painstaking and poorly paid. State court pays $140 for half a day and $250 for a full day. The federal court pays $418 a day and $226 dollars for half a day. Kohn has to make a record of every single word spoken inside the courtroom, which can sometimes be dozens of hours of recordings. She does live simultaneous translation for courtroom testimony and translates conversations recorded with wiretaps. She started by translating documents, later moving on to courtroom work, where she became enthralled by watching the daily dramas unfolding before her.
“I began staying after my part was done,” she says. “It was like theatre…even better.”
Kohn was born in Chelyabinsk, a small town in the Ural Mountains, during the Second World War. Her parents were refugees from Poland. Five months after the war, her family returned to Poland, where they remained until Ruth was eleven, when they moved to Tel Aviv, Israel. As a young woman, Ruth “studied journalism for a little bit in Tel Aviv,” but she “never got into it. You need strong elbows and chutzpah.”
She learned Polish when she was living in Poland; Hebrew in Israel; and Yiddish from her parents speaking it at home. She went to New York on a vacation in 1972, and met her husband there the same year.
“I stayed but I was supposed to go,” she says. “It dragged out.”
Her marriage soured, ending in a divorce. But Kohn didn’t want to separate her children from their father, so she stayed in New York. In the early 1970s, Kohn’s neighbor was getting some documents translated at Globe Language services, a translation company in Queens. While he was there, a secretary at the company asked him if he knew anyone who could translate from Hebrew to English. Kohn began working there shortly after.
For Kohn, Yiddish translation jobs are relatively rare. The majority of her work is Hebrew and Polish and her employers can be either the prosecution or the defense. In the case of the Malcolm Smith trial, defense attorneys hired her after the FBI revealed it had the extra recordings. Kohn worked to translate the tapes for his lawyers, so they could sculpt a defense around Smith. But in the end, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, as were many others involved in his trial.
Before the Second World War there were twelve million Yiddish speakers worldwide, about two thirds of the Jewish population. During the Holocaust, five million Yiddish speakers were killed. “When Israel was formed, Hebrew was chosen as the language of the state,” says Agnieszka Legutko, director of the Yiddish program at Columbia University. “The only group that kept speaking Yiddish without a break were the Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox Jews who still use [Yiddish] as the language of everyday life.” A study by the UJA Federation found that there are roughly 500,000 Orthodox Jews in New York City. They mostly live in Brooklyn and small cities across Upstate New York. In the 2009-2013 American Community Survey, 155,582 people reported primarily speaking Yiddish at home, with 53,116 of those people speaking English “less than very well.”
Jews escaping the Holocaust settled around the world. Many lost their Yiddish while assimilating into the local culture, Legutko explains. Now, the few remaining secular Yiddish speakers are largely Holocaust survivors and academics. But Yiddish is undergoing an academic revival in the United States, with 25 different universities nationwide offering programs. Universities teach standard Yiddish, a version of the language developed by the Judaism academic institute YIVO in the 1920s.
“The Yiddish that Hasidim speak is 75 percent German, 15 percent Hebrew, and 15 percent American English,” Legutko says.
Most of Kohn’s work is mundane. Her last Yiddish case involved mediating a disagreement about patents between two partners of a tableware business. “I now know more about napkin holders than I ever thought I would,” she says. Sometimes, however, Kohn is involved in sweeping crime dramas that touch on the unique cultural currents of New York’s Hasidic enclaves.
In 2013 an FBI agent posing as an Orthodox Jewish woman approached Rabbi Mendel Epstein of Lakewood, New Jersey and told him that her husband was unwilling to consent to a divorce. This was Epstein’s area of expertise. In ultra-Orthodox Judaism, only men are allowed to grant their wives the “get” — a divorce contract — and Epstein specialized in forcing their hands using violence.
The court documents of the Epstein case describe the rabbi assembling a crew of “tough guys,” to kidnap and torture the husband, while forcing him to write the marriage contract. Epstein’s specialty was using a cattle prod on the men he was extorting.
“If it can get a bull that weighs five tons to move,” he said to the agent, “you put it in certain parts of his body and in one minute the guy will know.” He charged the FBI agents $10,000 for the “beth din,” a document produced by the rabbinical court, which would grant a religious seal of approval for the kidnapping and torture, and an additional $60,000 for the rabbi’s crew of “tough guys.”
The day of the kidnapping, the crew arrived at the warehouse the FBI agents had established as the kidnapping site in two dark minivans. They put on Halloween masks and bandannas. One member was wearing a Metallica t-shirt over his clothes and another, a garbage bag. They carried rope, surgical blades, a screwdriver, plastic bags, and items used to produce the get according to Jewish tradition: a board with string attached, feather quills and ink bottles. They were arrested at the warehouse and Epstein was caught elsewhere.
Kohn translated statements given by a father of one of the women who hired Epstein. His daughter felt trapped by her husband, who refused to divorce her and spent most of her days at home alone, crying, Kohn explains. They felt hiring Epstein was their only choice. The court documents describe these women as “Agounah,” Hebrew for a woman who is chained to her husband.
Another witness in the Epstein case, who Kohn translated for, was a roommate to one of the offending husbands. In a case of mistaken identity, he was caught and beaten severely. He wanted to testify against the Rabbi and his hired muscle.
“He tried to speak English and it was clear he had no idea what he was doing,” she says.
The two built a friendly rapport over the course of the trial and he began opening up to Kohn. “I remember he told me, ‘Who is that girl wearing the pearls? I like her.’ He was talking about someone working on the defense,” she said. Later, the two went to a local production of a Yiddish play — “The Dybbuk.” It was his testimony, alongside others, that allowed the jury to sentence Rabbi Mendel Epstein to ten years in prison.
“It all happened without planning; I didn’t design my life,” says Kohn. She cut our interview short, because she had a new case — the deposition of a Hasidic Israeli arms dealer named Eliyahu Cohen. The United States government alleges that he, alongside two accomplices, bought parts for F-14, F-4, and F-5 fighter jets as well as ten klystron oscillators for a Hawk missile system. Using a succession of companies in the United States, Israel and Greece, the three men rerouted the jet pieces and weapons in crates labeled “parts for plumbing repair” from their warehouse in northern Israel, to Greece and later Iran. Lieb Kohn, Cohen’s Brooklyn connection, was caught earlier and received 30 days in jail for his role. The United States was seeking extradition with Israel and needed to solidify it in court. It was a matter of national security, and no one could settle it but the 71-year-old Ruth Kohn.
Two decades after NYC sought to relocate its infamous tunnel-dwelling denizens, a years-long investigation reveals a few hardy souls still toiling and thriving beneath the city.
The mouth of the tunnel is wide and dark, swallowing the light and all that breathes. Rubble is scattered along the train tracks, bordered by retaining walls covered in numerous layers of graffiti.
This is where it all started.
Here by the parkway with the blasting trucks and the roaring cars, near the filigree arches of the Riverside Drive viaduct, here with the gravel crunching under my feet as I run down the railroad into this hollow mouth.
This is where they live, deep into the depths of the city, way underground, lying in the dirt. Sure, you know about them. Of course you know about them. They’ve always been there, resting low below the rowdy streets and the carving avenues, gulping the air from inside the earth, crawling through holes and cracks, living off the grid and off the books.
Here in the tunnels.
You’ve heard the rumors. Their eyes have adapted to the constant night that cloaks them from the topside world. Don’t you know they’re eating rats and human flesh? Don’t you know they want us dead? And one day they will spill outside and burn us all alive, and they will reign over our flatscreen joys and our organic delights.
Of course you know about them. The lost ones, the hidden ones. The broken and the ill, the wandering, the gone. The Mole People.
“Jon,” I call, looking up. Jon has been homeless for more than fifteen years. Like many of the people interviewed for this article, he did not want to give his full name. He has been living here for a while now, in a small space between two support beams that can only be reached with a ladder. A plywood roof protects his hoarded belongings from seeping water. The place is crammed full. There is an old mattress on the floor, and cookware, blankets and electronics stacked on makeshift shelves.
“Jon,” I repeat, and he appears, his head cautiously peaking up from his house, a relieved smile on his face when he sees me.
“I thought it was the Amtrak police,” he later says while opening a beer, his legs dangling off the edge of the wall. “They been coming less, lately, but you never know. Regular police ain’t bothering me, but Amtrak, they can be nasty.”
Jon says he did prison time. He is bipolar and suffers from major substance dependence. He used to be a gang member in the Bronx. He used to be a family man until he got disowned. He was a furniture salesman. The FBI is looking for him. He used to know Donald Trump. It doesn’t matter which version is true. His real story has been buried long ago under thick layers of improvised memories that grew more detailed by the years, the man slowly becoming a collage of himself.
“I’m good here,” he says. “No taxes, no rent, no nothing. There’s no hassle compared to the streets, you know what I’m saying? Here I don’t get bugged by kids. It’s a safe place. I can do what I wanna and I don’t have to take nothing from nobody.”
Today is a good day for Jon, despite the rain and the cool weather.
“You’re the first person to visit this week,” he says. “People don’t want to speak to me when they come here. I don’t know, man. They’re scared or something. I can get why, it’s a spooky place when you don’t know it. But people, they like it when it’s scary. They like it when it’s dirty, right? It makes them feel alive. That’s why they make up these stories about cannibalism and stuff. Like alligators in the sewers.”
Jon offers me a sip of vodka. We drink together. He tells me to stay safe and to watch out for trains when I go back walking into the tunnel. I hear him talk to himself as I go away from the entrance and from the white sky.
The smell down here is the one of brake dust and mold. I can see rats scouring for food and drinking from brown puddles in the tracks ballast. EXISTENCE IS FLAWED, a graffiti inscription reads.
The city growls over my head — a distant growl muffled by the concrete, almost a snarl, like something cold and foul spreading over the long stretches of stained walls, like a dark and wild beast curling up around me and breathing on my neck. A dark and wild beast silently trailing me.
* * *
Stories about underground dwellers were already flourishing when the first New York City subway line opened in 1904. The expansion of extensive sewers and steam pipes systems had brought a newfound fascination with what laid below the streets. From Jules Verne’s 1864 novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” to George Gissing’s 1889 book “The Nether World,” literature was brimming with tales of people living in isolation or trapped under the surface, peaking in 1895 with “The Time Machine,” in which H. G. Wells described a fictional subterranean species called the “Morlocks.”
But it was only in the 1990s that the first widespread depictions of real-world tunnel residents appeared in New York. A 1990 New York Timesarticle by John Tierney was the earliest to outline the phenomenon, looking at people living in an abandoned train tunnel beneath Riverside Park, along the banks of the Hudson River.
Collective imagination took over quickly.
In 1993, Jennifer Toth published her essay “The Mole People,” documenting hidden communities residing in a network of forsaken caverns, holes and shafts across Manhattan. An instant hit, it chronicled the organization of those underground societies, describing compounds of several thousands where babies were born and regular lives were lived, with elected officials, hot water and even electricity.
However, the book was promptly criticized for its inconsistencies. Joseph Brennan, a New York rail buff, wrote an extensive and detailed critique in 1996, exposing many discrepancies in Toth’s reporting, such as places that couldn’t exist, exaggerated numbers and contradictory claims. According to Brennan, the whole notion of secret passages was implausible and “reminiscent of scenes in the TV series ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”
A 2004 article by Cecil Adams further demonstrated that many accounts were perhaps more sensationalism than truth. Adams pointed out unverifiable or incorrect facts in Toth’s work, and her skepticism peaked during her interview of Cindy Fletcher, a former tunnel dweller who challenged important points of the narration. “I’m not saying the book is not true, I just never experienced the things [she] said she saw,” Fletcher explained to Adams. I was unable to reach Toth for comment, but when Adams talked to her, the journalist said she couldn’t remember how to access certain places described in her essay — possibly not to disclose the whereabouts of trespassing squatters.
Still, while the essay might have been inflated or romanticized, it was nonetheless true that the homeless begging in the streets of New York were merely the tip of the iceberg. Photojournalists Margaret Morton and Andrea Star Reese have both extensively documented communities spread in underground hideouts since Toth’s book. Dutch anthropologist Teun Voeten’s 1996 diary “Tunnel People” provided an incredible account of the months he spent with the Riverside Park Amtrak tunnel inhabitants before they were evicted and moved to Section 8 housing units. In 2000, director Marc Singer released his acclaimed documentary “Dark Days,” filming the same people followed by Voeten and Toth in their respective books.
“There were definitely people living in tunnels, but not a lot,” Norman Diederich, a former MTA maintenance inspector, told me. “If there are still any, they’re very discreet. This period is gone.”
“There were talks that the moles were cannibals,” Diederich continued. “That they could see in the dark. That they spoke their own language. Creepy stuff, straight out of a horror movie… Most was made-up. I personally never witnessed unusual stuff. Santa Claus, the Boogeyman, the Mole People, it’s all the same. We need to label things we don’t understand. It’s human nature.”
“Just cause you can’t see don’t mean ain’t nothing there,” begins Anthony Horton’s 2008 graphic novel “Pitch Black,” relating the author’s own struggles as a homeless man. Written in an abandoned crew room of the F subway line, these words were the reason I ventured into the tunnels in the first place, looking for the invisible, guided by local dwellers along the years to seek foundations of humanity in the foundations of the city.
All the stories I had read about the Mole People before descending myself had two things in common.
They all showed simple human beings who were in no way comparable to the legends that had been told, and they all included a man named Bernard Isaac.
* * *
I met Bernard Isaac for the first time in 2009. “This is not a place of perdition,” he often said about the Riverside Park tunnel when we talked together during his shifts as a maintenance worker in Central Park. “This is a sanctuary. A place to find peace and take a break from the chaos.” He would then reminisce about his old life, his eyes would light up and there would be the crack of a smile, and whatever place we were in would be filled by his presence.
Isaac was at the very center of the Mole People legend. His BA in journalism and his studies in philosophy had somehow led him to work as a model, then as a TV crew member, then as a tour guide in the Caribbean where he began smuggling cocaine to the States. The father of two sons with two different women, he never cared much for family life, preferring to spend his smuggling profits on parties thrown at his Upper West Side penthouse. Soon he was broke, friendless and on his own. By the late 1980s, he was sleeping in the Riverside Park tunnel.
The tunnel was known by homeless people since its inception in the 1930s, when it was used by trains to bring cattle to the city before the freight operations ended. Its population, limited at first to about three or four individuals, quickly grew at the time Isaac settled in, evolving into small tribes of vagrants who built thriving shantytowns in the newly abandoned space.
Few risked getting down into the tunnel. “It often scared grown men easily,” recounted Isaac in 2010 as he showed me his old hangout places. But those who did go down called it home, and it became a haven for the destitute to unwind without fear of getting arrested or attacked like people on the streets often were.
One day, three men asked Isaac for a toll as he came by the 125th Street entrance to the tunnel. He laughed at them and said “Do you know who you’re talking to? I’m the fucking lord of this tunnel!” The three men never bothered him again, and Isaac’s nickname “The Lord of the Tunnel” was born.
Though there never was any real leader in the shantytown, Isaac became the community’s de facto spokesman, interacting with outreach groups and journalists to explain how living there was better than dealing with shelter curfews, senseless laws and indifferent social workers. Soon interest came from all around the world.
Ironically, the tunnel’s community support was in many ways more efficient than the one offered by municipal programs. In the encampment, the dwellers had a familiar place to be, watch TV, read or smoke. They had autonomy. Rules were simple but strictly enforced. Respect for privacy. No yelling. No stealing. No stupid behavior or you’d be kicked out. Some, like Isaac, were at home in the darkness, and would not have lived anywhere else. Most who lived here did not consider themselves homeless.
As word spread of the tunnel, a growing number of graffiti artists came to paint the seemingly endless walls that flanked the train tracks. One of them, Chris “Freedom” Pape, had known the place for quite a while before. He became friends with Isaac and his community, teaming up with local tagger Roger Smith — known to most as just “Smith” — to paint pieces narrating their stories. “I hadpainted in the tunnel for six years before the homeless moved in, so they were curious about me,” said Pape in a 2014 interview for “Untapped Cities.” “I became friendly with most of them and my visits to the tunnel were much safer and even relaxing.”
In a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, Isaac explained that the small community lived as well, if not better, than the average people “up top,” as they commonly refer to the streets. “I’ve had the opportunity to get jobs,” he said. “I don’t choose to be a robot within the system… We’ve done something that one out of every 1,000 men in creation in their lifetimes will do. We dared to be ourselves.”
Some residents were still eager to leave, only to come back later.
John Kovacs, one of Isaac’s neighbors in the tunnel, was once given a $50,000 offer to turn his story into a feature movie and left in 1991 after sixteen years in the tunnel. He was back less than seven months later, the $50,000 Hollywood deal gone sour and Kovacs unable to adjust to life in larger society.
Another who attempted to go to the surface was Bob Kalinski, a speed addict known as the fastest cook east of the Mississippi, who could fry twenty eggs at a time when on amphetamines. A heart attack forced him to try his luck with the public housing system in 1994. He too returned in the following months. The sense of belonging simply was too strong. The tunnel was a better place for him to be alone in freedom.
“After so many years in the streets, they kind of lose faith in humanity,” said Audrey Lombardi, a volunteer at the Holy Apostles soup kitchen in Manhattan.
“They can’t help it, it’s so deeply ingrained in their lives, it’s like they want to go back to the only thing they know,” she explained, noting that hurt and loneliness often became the steadiest part of a homeless person’s existence after hitting bottom and going further under.
“If I had to do it all over again?” Isaac said in a video interview, one of his last ones, a year before his death in 2014. “Unquestionably.”
* * *
I keep walking along the tracks. Jon must have passed out drunk, now, somewhere behind me. Every noise is threatening in the tunnel, and I find myself constantly looking over my shoulder, ready to face something too awful to name. Was that a train I heard? A cough? The metallic vibration of a dragged chain?
It smells like death here. The pungent stench of rotting meat.
“Anyone here?” I ask, stopping near an old KUMA tag.
The smell of death all over now. Are those eyes glowing nearby?
I lean against the wall and try to breathe calmly, reminding myself this place is only populated by old memories and the occasional homeless person looking for a safe place to be.
The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.
I see rats scurrying by, racing into the obscurity. Then I see the charred remains of an animal in the corner of an alcove — a raccoon maybe, a big rodent with liquefied flesh, burnt fur and missing limbs. Was it eaten? By what? By whom?
I walk away holding my breath.
The ground is littered with discarded books and magazines. A broken crack pipe has been left on a cinder block. There is a garden chair, and overturned crates and buckets. A mangled teddy bear. Death everywhere.
“Hey man, how you doing?” says a voice behind me, making me jump with fright. “I’m sorry,” the voice immediately adds. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I recognize Raúl, an undocumented Dominican immigrant of about thirty who has been living in the tunnel for a year. Raúl shaves every morning with great care. His clothes are spotless, regularly washed at a nearby laundromat. His badly decayed teeth and scrawny figure are the only hints he’s a drug addict.
“I didn’t hear you coming,” I say with my heart pounding like it wants out of my chest. “I came to see Bernard’s old place. Maybe talk to some people.”
“Brooklyn is there. She’s always singing out loud, it’s annoying.”
Raúl still has family out there. An ex-girlfriend and a kid. He rents an apartment from a friend when his kid comes to visit, a clean studio in a gray Washington Heights building.
“I don’t want him to think of me as a bum,” he says. “I won’t be here long enough anyway. You want coffee?”
I nod and he goes into an abandoned service room, returning with two mugs.
“I made a lot of bad choices in my life. I hurt a lot of people. That’s why I don’t ask for nothing, you feel me? I don’t blame anyone but myself. I collect cans, it keeps me busy. I do it all week long. It gets me $140 a week, more in summer.”
The coffee is nice and strong. It feels good in the tunnel’s cold.
Raúl uses a Fairway Market cart to bring empty soda and beer containers to various stores in the neighborhood, where he will redeem them for five cents each. The legal limit of returnable cans is 240 per person per day, so Raúl has to go to several supermarkets to earn more.
“You can actually make a good life here when you’re broke,” he says. “I never got a problem eating what I wanted. The streets are full of opportunities if you know where to look. I deal with what I have.” He shows me a box of cupcakes he found in a garbage can, almost untouched. His dessert tonight.
Finding drugs has never been a problem either for Raúl, who tells me he once spent $150 on crack each day to feed his “pizzo” — his pipe — with “cheap McDonald meals in-between the smokes, and hard fucks with Puerto Rican whores because crack makes me horny as shit.” Heroin prices have gone down lately, so that means Raúl’s consumption has gone up. It’s $10 for a deck of brown heroin, making it cheaper than most other drugs.
“It makes me feel good for a moment. As soon as I find a real job, I’ll stop, no doubt,” he says. In the buildings he helps maintain, he occasionally sells the tenants K2 — a form of synthetic marijuana that recently boomed across the city, especially in East Harlem where a homeless encampment was recently dismantled.
“I do what I got to do, you know what I’m saying? I’m just a normal guy who minds his own business. This is who I am. And I never ate no fucking rats,” he jokes.
Raúl insists we share the cupcakes he found. We both eat in silence.
* * *
New York’s homeless shelters are a lucrative business. The incentives paid by the Department of Homeless Services to landlords renting out shelter units far exceed the ones given for providing tenants with permanent single room occupancy lodging. In 2014, the average stay was 352 days at the Freedom House, a homeless shelter on West 95th Street managed by private company Aguila Inc. The city paid Aguila $3,735 per month for each 100-square-foot room occupied by a homeless person.
Conditions are appalling inside the Freedom House. Garbage piles up in the courtyard for rodents to feed on. Aggressive panhandling, drug dealing and violent outbursts are commonplace in the shelter’s vicinity. Sometimes a TV is hurled out a window, or the police close the street after someone is stabbed in a fight. The NYPD regularly raids the place looking for people with outstanding warrants, targeting domestic abusers and failing to arrest the major dealers or car thieves roaming the area. Aguila Inc. didn’t comment on the situation when I reached out to the company, but one of their security officers, who wished to remain anonymous because he feared reprisal from his employer, told me that the lack of resources, upkeep and care were the biggest issues in the facilities.
“Why would anyone want to stay [at Freedom House]?” asks Jessica, a former resident. “I can’t count the times my stuff was stolen from me. One day I was assaulted in my own room and the guards didn’t do anything!” she adds, sitting on a rug in her new spot, inside a man-made cave near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance.
Jessica was evicted from Freedom House in late 2014, after DHS came to an agreement with community boards and nonprofit organizations to cut the shelter’s capacity in two from 400 beds to 200 — a step toward its conversion to a meaningful permanent affordable housing facility.
The 23-year-old knows enough about shelters. She will never go back. She was sixteen when she got pregnant with her daughter Alyssa. She briefly lived with the baby’s father until he tired of dealing with a needy toddler, leaving never to be seen again. Jessica was then diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and admitted to transitional housing in Brooklyn. She says that within a month, social services was badgering her to place her three-year-old in foster care.
“The thing is, single mothers who go to shelters with their kids never keep their kids for long,” she says. “I was devastated. I called my sister and begged her to take care of Alyssa until I found a place of my own. This was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, leaving my baby. But it was the right thing to do. At least she is with family. When she grows up I will explain it all to her.”
She looks away, tears rolling down her face.
Once her daughter was in the hands of her sister, Jessica was sent to the Freedom House where she stayed for seven months until Aguila notified her of her imminent relocation. She began sleeping in a subway tunnel after transit authorities made her leave her spot in the Herald Square station corridor on 34th Street, dragging her by her feet when she refused to stand up from her mat. “At first I was like ‘I’m never going down there.’ But then Hurricane Sandy came and I had no place to stay, and I didn’t want to go to a shelter again with all the crackheads.”
She spent about two months living in a recess by the subway tracks of a Midtown station, protected from the elements and from harassment. She wrote a long letter to her daughter there. She never sent it. “I hope you think of me sometimes in your dreams,” the letter ends. “You are the light of my life. I miss you everyday. I love you so much.”
Jessica then moved to her current place, closer to the McDonald’s restaurant where she works. The subterranean area she’s living in is part of the same railway system as the one going through the Riverside Park tunnel, and is home to a couple of other homeless people trying to avoid shelters.
“I obviously don’t tell my colleagues I stay here. But it’s better than anywhere I’ve been before. Here I can have my dog,” Jessica says, petting a small mutt snuggled on her lap. “Plus it’s a temporary situation. I’m eligible for Section 8 housing. In less than a year I’ll be in a real apartment and I’ll have my baby with me again.”
On the floor of her makeshift house is a plastic box full of donated kid’s clothes.
Soon she will give them to her daughter.
“I have to keep faith,” she says in the half-light.
* * *
Trash as far as the eye can see. Clothes, glass, bike parts and Styrofoam boxes, plastic toys and rotting food carpeting the dirt ground, all frozen in the tunnel’s perpetual dusk. Brooklyn’s voice echoes in the room as she starts singing Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” I accompany her with a beatbox rhythm, hands cupped around my mouth. “You good, man!” she says enthusiastically, snapping her fingers along.
I catch myself wondering if Raúl can hear us from his place, cursing at us for breaking the no-noise rule of the premises.
Brooklyn might be the oldest resident of the Riverside Park tunnel. Now fifty-four, she has been living here since 1982, when she discovered the place by following feral cats. Like Bernard Isaac, she appeared in various films and documentaries. “I’m a celebrity, you know?” she says with a hint of pride in her voice.
She has perfected her story for journalists along the years. Everything she relates is recited like a school lesson. Her stint in the Marines. The death of her parents and the loss of her family house. The kids lighting her cardboard shack on fire in the park. Her boyfriend BK and their issues. The food bowls left at her door for the forty-nine cats she feeds.
She is a tough woman who speaks her mind, and she has the unyielding attitude of someone who has trudged through life. Her bandana and dreadlocks make her look younger than she is. People in the area know her, but she doesn’t socialize much anymore. She’s been lucky enough to avoid the Amtrak police. “I’ve been here all this time because I keep to myself,” she says. “The cops let me be. I don’t pose no threat!”
It’s already dinnertime. Tunnel stew today, a meal made of anything available — chicken soup, microwave mixes or thrown-away vegetables cooked over a crackling wood fire. “I wish I had a big kitchen with all kinds of cutlery and equipment,” she says.
“I’d cook all day long, man. That would be nice.” The food smells good and draws cats inside Brooklyn’s house. “You want some?” she asks, motioning at me to sit with her. The stew is surprisingly tasty.
“We’re just people,” she says after a while. “It’s hard, living here. You never get used to it. If you accept it, if you stop fighting, you’re done, okay? If you give up…you just die, you know what I’m saying?”
After she finishes eating, Brooklyn shows me a pile of recycling bags filled with countless Poland Spring water bottles collected at a nearby bodega. “This is my savings account for when I need extra money. You gotta be creative here,” she says as she gestures to the posters and pictures pinned on her walls.
Brooklyn is disappointed when I tell her I have to go. She calls one of her cats as I keep walking to the south end of the tunnel.
I soon reach Bernard Isaac’s old den, where I will spend the night, as I sometimes do when I want to taste the solitude he liked so much. The whole place feels like a grave. A cathedral for the dead and the fallen. Nothing is left from the former shacks. Even the smallest pieces of debris are gone.
I try to imagine how it was sitting here with him, watching the flames dancing in front of Pape and Smith’s reproduction of Goya’s “The Third of May.” I realize there is a certain power of being nameless and buried. A raw, burning power that some, like Isaac, will seek their whole life.
“Modern society is guilty of intellectual terrorism,” he once said while talking about Nietzsche’s philosophy with graffiti artist David “Sane” Smith, the younger brother of Roger Smith. Sane immediately sprayed the quote on the wall.
It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.
A train rushes by, almost silent with its unbearably bright lights, the air swelling around me as the cars dash past.
I’m rolled in my blanket, quiet in my alcove. I’m not sure I exist anymore. This place is not for anyone to be, I think.
I wait for dreams to come. Sleeping in the tunnel is an alien experience, but the sight of rain falling down the ventilation grates and streaking the chiaroscuro light is worth it alone, definite proof that poetry can endure anywhere.
This is the final byproduct of the city. This is civilization pushed to its foremost edge, a harsh place if any, dangerous and unforgiving, but a peaceful place at the same time, welcoming in its grimness. This is a dark and wild beast inviting you to come closer because nothing will ever be all right, but she will always be at your side to keep you warm.
* * *
When Amtrak decided to reactivate the Riverside Park tunnel’s train tracks in 1991, about fifty residents were evicted from the shantytown and received vouchers for temporary housing. This first round of evictions wound up largely ineffective and the population quickly grew back to its initial size, as people from up top encampments went straight to the tunnel when they were swept up by police during Mayor Giuliani’s effort to clean up the streets.
The Empire Line trains rushing through didn’t stop them from coming down here.
Amtrak Police Captain Doris Comb started calling for more enforcement, effectively pushing the homeless out of the active railway. Different times were looming ahead. Safer times. Sterilized. Hygienic. “We try to offer the homeless a variety of social services,” Comb would explain in 1994. “The problem is that most homeless are completely isolated. They feel rejected and decline assistance.”
Bernard Isaac still held a grudge against Comb eighteen years later, for having seized the #102 universal key to the exit gates an Amtrak employee had given him. “It was clear in my head that I didn’t want to go,” he told me in 2012, sipping a tea on the Hudson River Greenway. “We were ready to brick up the entrances if needed. We knew that we would have to leave eventually, but we didn’t want to accept it just yet.”
The tunnel residents weren’t quick to fill the multitude of forms requested by the Social Security Administration. Some flatly refused to cooperate and gave up all hope of being granted Section 8 apartments.
It wasn’t until Mary Brosnahan, director at the Coalition for the Homeless, negotiated with Amtrak to temporarily delay the evictions, that the vouchers were distributed to the tunnel community. The dwellers eventually received permanent housing, leaving the tunnel mostly empty for the first time since the mid-1970’s.
Margaret Morton would later write in a 1995 New York Times article that this solution had been by far the most economical for the city. “It costs more than $20,000 a year to keep a person in a cot on an armory floor,” she wrote. “It costs about $12,000 to keep that person in the kind of supported housing being made available to the tunnel people.”
As the photojournalist Teun Voeten would discover in 2010, some of the former squatters later achieved normal lives again. There would even be success stories. Ralph, one of the subjects of “Dark Days,” became manager of an Upstate New York hotel and owner of a cleaning company.
Then there were the others.
One would commit suicide, sitting in front of a running train. Another was found dead in his apartment. Another succumbed to AIDS. Another simply vanished. Isaac’s friend Bob Kalinski, the speed cook, moved to a 42nd Street SRO building where he still lives at this time, in a wheelchair and with a serious heart condition.
Bernard Isaac passed away in late 2014, closing a chapter of an old New York legend. His ashes were sprinkled across a creek in his native Florida.
The legend was gone, but homelessness was more real than ever.
“As liberal as New Yorkers want to be known, I think there’s a class war at work in this city,” Jeanne Newman, the founder of outreach group SHARE and a dear friend of Bernard Isaac, explained during a phone conversation.
Eighty percent of New York’s shelter population is currently made up of families — many working multiple jobs to make ends meet. There were 42,000 homeless children across the five boroughs in 2014.
“Do you know what the major cause of homelessness is in this country?” Newman asked. “It’s the lack of affordable housing. End of story. Everything else becomes a symptom. Drug issues, domestic violence issues, they’re all symptoms, as opposed to being a cause. The cause is lack of affordable housing.”
“We’re the wealthiest country in the world, why are we not fixing this problem?” Newman asked.
“Amtrak Police Department now does inspections on a regular basis for signs of homeless persons and encampments,” Cliff Cole, Amtrak’s New York manager of media relations, told the Wall Street Journal in 2011. At the time of his declaration, only five people had been found living in the Riverside Park tunnel, but a different community was already growing on a nearby dead-end street dubbed the Batcave.
Today, Chris Pape’s murals are slowly vanishing, painted over in 2009 to discourage urban explorers from visiting the tunnel. His “Buy American” masterpiece, dedicated to the tunnel’s former residents and featuring portraits of Isaac and Kalinski, doesn’t exist anymore. His Goya reproduction has been damaged by water. In a few years from now, it will be completely gone, washed away by the elements.
* * *
Morning light is different in the tunnel — colder maybe, and whiter, casting long straight beams onto the rails. Wind gusts make dust rise up in whirlpools. A blue jay flies past a grate. I wake up and New York slowly comes to life.
“God will save me, and it will save you, and it will save all these people too. Soon, we will all be saved,” Carlos says later, as we watch a basketball game in Riverside Park, the overpass casting its shade over our heads.
Carlos lives holed up in an old sewer pipe of about six feet high by five feet wide near the south entrance to the Riverside Park tunnel. He is one of the few original dwellers who stayed. His house is small but very practical, entirely concealed by a metal lid he takes great care of pulling on every time he gets inside. “It’s a good hideout,” he explains in a thick Spanish accent.
His electricity is tapped from an outlet further down the tunnel, allowing him to store his food in a refrigerator and have heat during winter. “Insulation is pretty good. I’m comfortable and no one can see me. I’m used to it now. It’s good for reading. I read a lot. All kinds of books. I read them and I sell them.”
The increased police patrols make his life less simple than it was a few years ago, but he keeps an upbeat attitude about it. “They don’t give me trouble too much. Sometimes they try to make me leave. It’s my home, I tell them. Maybe I live like a mole, but I’m not an animal.” He just wants to be left alone.
Carlos shows me where a decomposing body was found by Amtrak workers in 2006, months after taggers had discovered it. Two femurs bundled in cargo pants, neatly laid into an old child stroller, with pieces of leathered skin still attached to them, and a skull standing on top of a nearby pole.
This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.
We walk around together to go check on Terry, an older alcoholic man who has been staying here since his wife threw him out of their apartment in Harlem’s Lincoln Houses public housing complex. Carlos is concerned about Terry’s health.
“He’s been drinking too much,” he says. “Last week I had to call 911 on him again.”
We find the old man sleeping on a couch behind a safety wall. A copy of Steinbeck’s novel “Of Mice and Men” rests on the sofa. Inside, a sentence is underlined in blue ink. “Guys like us got nothing to look ahead to.”
We stay a moment at his side before I finally leave the tunnel, emerging from the wet ground behind a grove of trees. The streets seem slower than usual. The clouds heavier.
“What does not kill me makes me stronger,” Nietzsche wrote. But hurt doesn’t make us stronger. Hurt just makes us hurt. And hurt lives in the land of the lost, and unites them in missing love and broken homes, for five cents a can, 240 cans per day.
The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.
They are relics of a New York that was, and witnesses of a world so estranged that nobody truly remembers it anymore. Most are too late for the topside life.
How easy it would be to go away and never come back.
But this is their city. This is their home.
These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.
Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.
Away — to a place made of birches and wet leaves and blue afternoons and muddy clothes, a place where dark days would be foreign — a place for them and all the unseen, warm as liquor, where hurt would be sweet and love would be real.
My high school boyfriend and I made a bet: he'd learn about my religion, Mormonism, if I took up his religion, running. Neither of us was ready for what came next.
The day my doctor released me from in-patient psych, he said, “Allison, I’ll make you a deal. You can go home on the following conditions: 1) You will take Prozac, the high dose, and you won’t even think about getting off it for an entire year, and 2) You will make yourself run, every day, for at least 20 minutes. Because your life depends on it.”
I agreed, and stood behind the Plexiglass window by the nursing station, waiting for the bin that held all the belongings I had been required to hand over the day I checked in: my wallet, my keys, and the laces from my running shoes. As I threaded my sneakers and prepared to keep my promise by jogging home to the apartment I shared with four other Yale grad students, I remembered another deal, the one that started this whole mess. The one I had made about a decade earlier with my high school boyfriend. A deal about sex, running and the Mormon Church.
I fell for my first boyfriend when I was 15, arriving home from church on one of those sticky, Upstate New York, summer afternoons. After a morning of trying to be a good Latter-day Saint by skipping breakfast, putting on a dress, and spending three hours reading scripture and singing songs about how my body is a temple (and the only person I should ever let inside it was my wedded husband), all I could think about was peeling off my sweaty pantyhose and stuffing my face with Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Then I saw him, running by my house. Up until that moment, I had ignored this boy, who had moved to our neighborhood the year before from Maine. But what I was seeing as I felt my stomach growl and my nylons riding down my crotch was a puberty miracle. He had transformed from a skinny, seemingly weak, invisible kid to a lithe, powerful athlete who ran with the joy and abandon of Pheidippides and the irresistible style and charisma of Prefontaine. I was a goner.
His natural, fluid, effortless laps over the rolling hills surrounding our neighborhood awed me. At that point I was getting clobbered as a field hockey fullback, desperately defending the goal against an onslaught of veteran hoss players. I was in the lineup because the team was short-handed that year and took anyone who would wear a skirt and hold a stick. Unlike my new crush, who ran for love of the sport, I used athletics as an outlet — a way to deal with the teenage sexual energy I urgently needed to suppress. I was skinny, muscular and scrappy, but this never translated to excellence in any of my athletic pursuits. By my teen years, I had bounced around, a few seasons here and there, on every team imaginable: basketball, softball, soccer, gymnastics, volleyball, even one tragically desperate year in cheerleading. Though I’d tried, I still hadn’t found a sport at which I possessed even a moderate level of physical prowess.
The insta-crush I had on my neighbor was mutual, and we quickly became obsessed with each other. I learned that, aside from running, my new boyfriend loved jazz and kissing. He taught me to french while listening to hours and hours of John Lee Hooker records. One night he put “Boogie Chillen’” on a loop in the background while he told me to just open my mouth and let him figure out what I tasted like.
I remember lying on his bed, stiff and resistant, a hair-trigger of curiosity, puberty and guilty self-loathing. His first lick — barely touching the inside of my lips and the tip of my teeth — was infused with the knowledge, beyond his years, that his only job was to keep me from bolting, to stay, and want just a little more. It didn’t take long for John Lee Hooker’s lyrics to become my own mantra:
One night I was layin’ down…
I didn’t care what she didn’t allow
I would boogie-woogie anyhow
What a terrible, wonderful moment — to realize what I wanted was not to run away, but to stop and be still, to taste and be tasted, and to let someone know this secret about me that I was supposed to keep to myself for many virginal years to come. It wasn’t long before I wanted to lick his entire body, though it would take years of battling deeply entrenched sexual shame for that fantasy to come true. I settled for his armpits — the only other place, besides his mouth, I could possibly justify as not being explicitly forbidden, and the one spot I could reach without actually undressing him. Taking his shirt off felt too wrong, so I pulled and stretched the collar of his v-neck t-shirt down to access what I wanted, chafing his neck and strangling him a little in the process.
Our “Boogie Chillen’” nights repeated on an endless dreamy loop those first few months. When our lips got worn out, he’d tell me mine were so swollen I could pass for Steven Tyler or some other insulting dig that would get me mad enough to hit him or wrestle him to the floor — which is what he really wanted more than anything. We’d fall asleep spooned together, waking up just in time for me to scramble out of his room at dawn, and for him to drag himself to early morning practice. We swam in Lake Ontario every chance we got because it was the one permissible activity that allowed us to gaze at and lie next to each other with the least amount of clothing on our bodies as possible. John Lee’s refrain: “And it felt so good…It felt so good” populated the doodles I penned in the margins of my lecture notes. Though he continued to win races, and I aced my AP courses, we cared about little else than the next time we could wear our mouths out on each other. The two of us, together, mattered more than food. Sleep. School. Anything.
But what can matter more than sex? The first time my boyfriend tried to lift my shirt, asking me if he could just touch the places my modest one-piece bathing suit concealed, I shut him down and explained the rules governing my morality and chastity. I was the first Mormon he’d ever dated — and he was the first “non-member” (the term Latter-day Saints use to identify those not of their faith) I’d ever dared try out as a boyfriend. I had to explain that, as a true believer and follower of the faith, I was 100 percent committed to: no drinking, no smoking, no coffee, no tea, church for three hours every Sunday, and, of course, no premarital sex.
“And when I say no premarital sex, what I mean is…I think kissing is fine. But you can’t touch any of my body above my knee. Or below my collarbone.”
Making sure he understood me, he asked, “So, wait. That means you can’t touch me either? And are you saying like…even no…premarital fingering? Dry humping? No going down action at all?”
I blushed, and admitted I didn’t even know what those words meant; at that point in my life I hadn’t even watched an R-rated movie.
He was devastated and incredulous. The only rules about sex his hippie parents had taught him to live by were to always give a girl more pleasure first than he ever expected to get in return; never give her any reason to fear or distrust him; and, most importantly, take every means necessary to avoid STDs and pregnancy.
But my boyfriend somehow loved and cared about me more than he loved sex, so he respected my rules. He just could not confine his competitive streak to running — he wanted to win my body over so bad. He worked every angle, came up to the edge of every line I had designated as “off limits,” trying to turn me on as much as I would possibly let myself.
His creativity paid off. I began to cross my own boundaries, and try things my church had never explicitly stated were wrong, but felt so good I knew they must be. I was thrilled to discover dry humping — how had my bishop not thought to scream from the pulpit that this was basically sex and should be totally forbidden?! But these momentary, forbidden pleasures always morphed into aching guilt. My boyfriend started to see how tortured I was, getting excited, then disconnecting and withdrawing, over and over and over again.
We started to fight. He’d ask me, “Why? Why are you putting yourself through this suffering and denial of every urge and instinct? Why do you shut the juices down just as they are getting going?! What kind of crazy, dogmatic, cultish system would make you want to do such a thing?” Our worlds, up to that point, had been too different. I told him we should break up. That he would never understand.
But instead of breaking up, he made me a deal: He would learn about my religion, if I would learn about running. Running was his church, the dogma behind his discipline, self-sacrifice and denial. He promised to try to understand Mormonism if I would learn to run.
So began my relationship with running, and my boyfriend’s with organized religion. I’d like to say everything turned out as romantically as our high school love affair, but it did not.
* * *
I joined the track team for the first time as a high school senior. It was one of the few teams I had never tried; running was the hardest, least enjoyable part of every other sport I had played. An athletic activity consisting solely of running felt like suffering, distilled to its most concentrated form. And unlike the mostly mediocre-with-random-lucky-moments-of-stellar-performance I managed in other sports, I was a terrible runner. Practices were torture sessions. Unlike almost everyone else on my team who had been doing this crazy shit since junior high, I had never run for more than a mile in my entire life. During the usual seven-milers we cranked out each day after school, my heart beat so hard I thought it would explode. Though the girls on my team ran together in a tight unit, making sure to pace so that no one was left behind, my experience was not of comradery, but of loneliness. With my pulse rushing through my ears, my face splotchy and beet-red from the blood pounding in my head, I felt totally closed off, trapped, and almost deaf. My own sensory experience was so intense I couldn’t even hear my teammates chatting casually in the pack around me.
Meets were worse. When I raced, I always crossed the finish line at the end of the pack, usually dead last. I barfed afterward several times. It took me days to recover from each competition. The real deal I had made with my boyfriend was to be tortured and publicly humiliated by the worst sport ever invented.
Why didn’t I just quit? I had started running because of a boy, youthful naivety, and religious zeal — a self-torture trifecta. But running got into me, somehow, in a way I couldn’t shake; the understanding that my physical ability to finish the practice or the race didn’t really matter. Self-will and mental determination ruled this sport. If I believed I could put one foot in front of the other, just one more time, and one more time after that, I would.
Though I never experienced anything like my boyfriend’s rapture for the sport, I came to deeply believe in the power it held in my life — in a way I’d only ever previously experienced with religion.
Simultaneously, the Mormon church got into my boyfriend in a way that he couldn’t shake. Over a period of a few years, I watched his disdain and barely-masked tolerance of the woo-woo ways of Mormonism turn into tentative respect, and then full-fledged, brainwashed belief.
Many fateful stars aligned. Though he went to a Catholic university in the Midwest on a running scholarship, his academic mentor, the chair of the geology department, happened to be Mormon. My boyfriend was contacted by some amazingly handsome and charismatic Latter-day Saints missionaries. The local congregation surrounding his college became a welcoming and supportive family structure during the long, desolate Midwestern winters. Eventually, he got baptized and left his running prospects behind to go on a two-year proselytizing mission to Thailand. When he came back, he was a completely different person — a boring, judgmental, and self-righteous young man. He gave away all his jazz records. The parasites he got on his mission ruined him for running forever. Our relationship, which had transformed over the years from high-school infatuation to deep adult love, did not survive the years of separation. By the time he returned from his cloistered, celibate life, I didn’t know who he was anymore. He didn’t want to touch me. We had both changed too much. I was heartbroken.
While he was off baptizing in Thailand, I went to college in Utah and became very depressed. I knew that Mormonism made me deeply unhappy but I wasn’t quitting that race, to what I thought was heaven, anytime soon. The religion ran in me, and my family’s history, way too deep. What I didn’t know then was that leaving the church would not be a sprint, as it is for some who leave their faith, but an ultramarathon that would take my 20s and most of my 30s to finish. Running became my lifeline.
I ran alone in the foothills of the high Uinta Mountains as a physical means of out-running the psychic and spiritual crisis of my everyday existence. It was a way to stave off the pain and doubt underlying my efforts to keep believing the mantra I had been hearing my entire life: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church upon the face of the Earth. Once, out of desperation to just get away from the crush of coeds who seemed so much happier living a life that was making me miserable, I signed up for a half-marathon, a day’s drive away from campus in southern Utah. The race course wove through the desert surrounding the majestic Colorado River, and seemed like the perfect place for a respite from the hordes of happy Mormons surrounding me on a daily basis. The vast, unpeopled landscape suggested a world into which I might escape. Someday.
The race was a disaster. I hadn’t really trained. In the weeks prior, I ran as far as I could make myself, every day thinking, “My best will be good enough, right?” Wrong. I felt like shit after the first five miles, and started to realize I was in real trouble about mile ten. I chafed between my thighs, which bled down my legs unabated until another runner threw me a jar of Vaseline as he jogged past yelling, “Honey, please help yourself. It’s just too pitiful to watch!” I drank almost no water, not understanding the toll the desert heat would take on my body. During the last few miles, I could feel my legs seizing up, but I was determined to finish. Apparently, my best was good enough to finish, but not without paying a price worse than the most embarrassing moment of my childhood — so excited as a kindergartener to be first in line for school-lunch, I hadn’t paid attention to the pressing ache of my five-year-old bladder. Twenty years later, I cried and peed through the entire last mile of the 1993 Moab Half Marathon; my chafed thighs burned more fiercely than the humiliation of urinating in front of my entire class while paying for tater-tots.
You’d think I’d be done with running after that. But somehow, I wasn’t.
Eventually, I managed to complete college in Utah, and pursue a master’s degree in public health at Yale University. Ironically, while trying to ace courses in how to protect the bodies and minds of everyone else on the planet, I failed to take care of my own. I cracked. I hadn’t anticipated how insanely fucking hard grad school at Yale would be — I felt like an imbecile compared to my classmates. I was also plagued by debilitating self-loathing: I had come to hate my body and the forbidden things it wanted. My high school boyfriend was just the tip (pun intended) of my sexual awakening; with each successive relationship, I pushed my Mormon boundaries into even more illicit territory, and was wracked with guilt about every erotic thing I’d ever done. I remember trying to run and literally stopping in my tracks after just a few steps — I couldn’t make myself do it. I hated myself for that weakness too. I knew it was time to check myself in when I realized I’d literally prefer death over being too stupid for Yale, and feeling so tortured and disgusted with myself, for even one more day.
Looking out the window of the ambulance that drove me straight from the student counseling center to in-patient psych, I watched students on the sidewalk walking briskly, some breaking out in a trot, anxious to get somewhere they wanted to be, on time. I remember thinking I’d never have the will to do that — to put one foot in front of the other — for any reason, ever again.
* * *
The week I spent at Yale Psychiatric Institute was one of the longest of my entire life. It was the place I started to realize that I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore. The running deal I struck almost a decade before with my boyfriend had left me a triple-loser: 1) It had ruined, what I thought, was the greatest love of my life; 2) I was losing my entire belief system; and 3) I was so far down in the bell jar I couldn’t will myself to walk down the hospital hallway to eat lunch, much less run, ever again.
My only consolation was that my roommate had some brain chemistry problems that were actually worse than mine. Afflicted with Munchausen syndrome, she was in there because she pretended, or was possibly convinced, that she literally couldn’t walk. Laying in my bed, day-in and day-out, listening to her threaten anyone who walked past our open door, “I swear I will shit this bed unless somebody brings me a wheelchair!” I knew I had to find some way to will myself back out there, even if there wasn’t a heaven anymore, no finish line to cross, no reward to be won from all that self-denial and sacrifice to live a “good” life. Anything was better than watching a hospital orderly hand my roommate a diaper, and trying not to watch what was going to happen next.
And so, when they discharged me from the psych ward, a very wise but somewhat manipulative therapist preyed on my tenacious respect for God and promises, making me swear to take my Prozac and run every day. I agreed to the Prozac because I was desperate, but I balked at the idea that 20 minutes of running would do anything at all for me.
“You don’t know how much I hate running,” I said. “I don’t think I can do it. I can take a pill but I don’t think I can torture myself with running ever again.”
He took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and considered me. It seemed like he was trying to decide if he should scare me, appeal to my sense of reason, or maybe lie to me about why I should do what he was asking. He had bigger problems, like my diaper-wearing roommate, to deal with. I was surprised when he said, “I predict you’re the kind of person who won’t like how life feels on Prozac…that something about you is a little addicted to suffering. I think if you need to suffer, you might as well try to get some adrenaline and endorphins into your brain while you’re doing it. I’m telling you to run because I’m thinking I’ll be lucky if I can get you to stay on Prozac for a year. And I’m hoping that running will carry you through after that. And I’m saying 20 minutes because I hope that number will stick in your brain as something you’ll feel really pathetic trying to talk yourself out of.”
I ran home in the freezing rain. I ran all winter in that wet, stinging, snow that Connecticut winters spit down. Sometimes I jogged in my jeans and Birkenstocks, too depressed to muster the strength to change into workout gear. But I did it. I took the pills. I ran the daily 20. My brain chemistry slowly recovered. The prescription healed me.
I have been running, 20 minutes every day, for over 15 years because that therapist was right: I made it 11 months and three days before I felt like I needed to feel the suffering of real life again. But like anyone who has reached the edge and gone over it, I live with a nagging, constant fear that my next breakdown is never far away. This desperation to titrate the delicate balance of serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and glutamate that my brain needs keeps me putting on my shoes and hitting the pavement or the treadmill. I never get the legendary runner’s high. I never manage a Zen-like meditative state, not even for a few seconds. It’s purely a time of tedious physical discomfort and what’s probably worse: racing, unhealthy inner-thoughts. I set my stopwatch for 20:00 and my mind immediately takes over in a self-destructive process something like this: “O.K., don’t look at the watch. Fuck. I looked. 19 minutes and 58 seconds left. Jesus Fucking Christ Allison, don’t look again for at least five minutes. O.K.? O.K. I really need a bikini wax. But I shouldn’t do it. I should stop getting them altogether. It’s so anti-feminist. But so is feeling disgusting when I put on a bathing suit. Why can’t I be one of those women that sprouts out of my bikini bottoms like I’ve got a worn-out Brillo Pad stuck in there and be O.K. with it? It also hurts like a MOTHERFUCKER. I could go right after this, but I think I am getting my period, like right now. And those poor Asian ladies have seen my bloody underpants too many times. They are probably so grossed out by me at this point they will lie and say they can’t squeeze me in. FUCK! 19 minutes, 40 seconds left!? UGH!!!”
Sometimes I run in street clothes. There are days I just know that if I go into my bedroom after work to find a sports bra, change into sweatpants, and sit on my bed, just for a few minutes, I might not make it up and out again. As I trot down the street, wearing my linen dress pants, a button-up shirt and sneakers, I don’t look like I’m running, I look like I’m late for work or trying to catch the bus.
Before I die, I’d like to run another race where I don’t cry, or pee, or bleed across the finish line, or come in dead last. But now the only race that really counts is this one I’m running, every day, 20 minutes at a time, as people shout from their porches, with a hint of concern, “Hey! You late for something? Need a ride?” I smile, wave, and keep shuffling along. And try to tell myself, as I realize I’m sweating through my silk blouse, and still have 18 minutes and 2 seconds to go, that this might be my personal best.
Eighty years ago today, a four-year-old girl vanished into the Pennsylvania woods. The search captivated people across the nation — and some have never stopped looking.
On a damp Thursday morning in May 1938, hundreds of workers from Western Pennsylvania oil fields, given the day off to look for a missing girl, walked through the Allegheny Forest at arms’ length. They traversed the tangled underbrush alongside police with bloodhounds, World War I veterans, Cornplanter Indians, coal miners, and assorted others who’d responded to the local mayor’s call for 1,000 volunteers. They killed rattlesnakes and were careful not to drop a foot down into one of the hundreds of oil wells dug during the area’s petroleum boom in the 1870s.
But by nightfall, the “haggard, sleep-robbed faces of scores of men,” as the Bradford Era newspaper described them, told onlookers the grim truth: another day had passed without finding the little red-haired four-year-old, Marjorie West.
Eighty years ago today, Marjorie vanished while at a Mother’s Day picnic in the forest with her family. To this day she is the subject of one of the oldest unsolved cases recorded by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Her search was one of the largest for a child since the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping six years earlier. Residents of Western Pennsylvania and Marjorie’s surviving relatives still hold out hope she’s alive. If she is, she may yet celebrate her 85th birthday next month.
“She could still be living,” said Marjorie’s cousin, Jack Covert, in an interview shortly before he passed away in March. “But she’s probably not around here.”
Marjorie was lost four decades before the nationwide “stranger danger” panic over kidnappings, set off when the son of eventual “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh disappeared from a Florida mall in 1981. After the much-publicized Adam Walsh abduction, parents became more fearful about where their children went and who they were with, and government agencies instituted safety programs including taking fingerprints of kids to keep on file. More recently, the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things,” about a fictional 12-year-old named Will Byers who’s snatched into another dimension, prompted renewed discussion about the idyllic times when children roamed free and parents rarely worried. In a New York Times op-ed, Ana North wrote, “‘Stranger Things’ is a reminder of a kind of unstructured childhood wandering that [now] seems less possible.”
But the Marjorie West case reminds us that decades before mass media coverage of child kidnappings, there were hazards that terrified parents. The dangers (Depression-era vagrants, illicit adoption rings) were just different. How free children should be to roam, and how cautious parents should be about young children’s activities, is a debate that still rages today.
* * *
On Sunday, May 8, 1938, the West family – father Shirley; mother Cecilia; and children Dorothea, 11, Allan, 7, and Marjorie – attended church in Bradford, a small city 90 minutes south of Buffalo, New York, and 90 minutes east of Titusville, Pennsylvania, the site of the country’s first oil boom in 1859. Bradford enjoyed its own rush for liquid gold a dozen years later, providing a steady living for families like the Wests – Shirley was an assistant engineer at Kendall Refining, located just a few blocks from his home.
After church, the Wests drove 13 miles along Highway 219 to a clearing in the Allegheny Forest that was popular with hunters and fishermen. They joined family friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Akerlind.
Around three p.m. Cecilia headed to the road to rest in the car. Her husband, Shirley, prepared to go trout fishing in the stream with Lloyd. The girls, Dorothea and Marjorie, wanted to pick wildflowers. Shirley warned them to watch for rattlesnakes behind the boulder nearby.
The girls gathered a bouquet of violets. Dorothea headed to the car to deliver them to their mother. When she turned around, her sister was gone.
The family drove to the nearest phone seven miles away to contact police in the town of Kane.
What followed was a grueling search that spanned months and saw more than 3,000 local people hunting for Marjorie, with countless others locked into the national newspaper coverage.
When police couldn’t find Marjorie that Sunday afternoon, 200 men joined in, including the Citizen Conservation Corps and the Moose and Elks lodges. As darkness fell, oilmen brought headlamps. “All available flash-lights in the city were pressed into service,” noted the Era. The effort slowed when a cold rain fell at one a.m.
On Monday, the search party grew to 500. They waded through the stream and stood 25 yards apart in a mile-long line, ultimately combing four square miles. Police interviewed motorists across an area spanning 300 square miles.
By Tuesday, May 10, police brought bloodhounds from New York State. That evening, they found clues, but accounts vary.
Two newspaper articles say the dogs followed Marjorie’s trail “half a mile up a mountain” to a cabin with its door nailed shut. Nothing of interest was found inside. Other media accounts, as well as those from Marjorie’s descendants in online blogs and discussion threads, say the dogs followed Marjorie’s scent to the road alongside the clearing.
“The searches found the crushed bouquet of violets, picked for her mother for Mother’s Day, lying on the ground not far from the rock,” close to where the flowers were pulled, wrote Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s cousin Joyce, on her genealogy blog in 2006.
Many people believed in 1938, as they do now, that Marjorie was picked up at the road. Witnesses told police of three cars that had passed through the area around three p.m. The drivers of two were identified by Tuesday night. The third – whom witnesses said was a man – was seen fleeing in his Plymouth sedan so fast an oncoming motorist told police he had to pull into a ditch.
On Wednesday afternoon, Bradford’s mayor Hugh Ryan issued his plea for 1,000 volunteers for the next day’s search. He got 2,500.
The search was praised for its organization, thanks in part to the men who, like Shirley, had served in the Great War. At 5:30 a.m., surveyors mapped out the land, and by eight a.m. a “line of men, standing shoulder to shoulder several miles long, grew impatient in the Chappel Fork road until leaders gave the [bugle] signal for them to enter the forest,” recounted the Era. “Refinery workers rubbed elbows with professional men.” Women doled out 1,600 cups of coffee, prepared in “wash boilers” for hot laundry.
By the end of the week, the search had covered 35 square miles with Marjorie still out of sight. There were discoveries: a swath of lace near the boulder, and a fresh hole a few miles away. But Marjorie’s aunt told police she hadn’t worn lace that day, and two men admitted using the hole to hide casks of cherry wine.
Engineers pumped out a muddy well and Native Americans tracked “she bears” – mother bears they believed were prone to carrying off small children – to no avail.
Shirley did not leave the forest for a week until, according to the May 16th Era, he “consented to come to Bradford. He ate his evening meal at home and then returned.”
On May 13, 1938, State Police Commissioner P.W. Foote told the Associated Press that West’s disappearance probably began with her liking to “play hide and seek.”
A detail of four police searched the area for five months.
* * *
Snakes and “she bears” were not the only dangers in the woods.
Newspapers covering the disappearance linked it with a 1910 mystery in which two boys vanished near the forest within a few hours of each other. On April 16 of that year, Edward Adams, nine, was fishing with buddies near Lamont, Pennsylvania, and heard a “wild man” cursing in the woods. The boys ran, but when the group stopped, Eddie was gone. Thirteen miles away, in the town of Ludlow, Michael Steffan, seven, fished with a friend. Walking home, the other boy looked back and Michael had vanished. Newspapers at the time reported that a Mr. Arrowsmith said his “mentally unbalanced” son, Harry, 32, had wandered off the same day, near Lamont. But Harry returned a week later with no knowledge of the boys, police said. Thirteen days after the disappearances, a mail carrier discovered a handwritten note on a Lamont railroad trestle: “Will return boy for $10,000.” That was the last clue found.
Two years later, Buffalo police captured the “Postcard Killer,” J. Frank Hickey, who admitted to murdering two other boys in Buffalo and Manhattan, nine years apart. Many suspected he’d killed other boys in the region, and Edward Adams’s mother wrote to Buffalo police to ask whether Hickey ever mentioned her son. When Mrs. Adams passed away in 1933, the Associated Press reported that she’d kept a light in her window for 23 years, waiting for Eddie.
Those disappearances were 11 and 19 miles from Marjorie’s picnic, respectively. It’s hard to believe the same “wildman” could have been lurking in the woods 28 years later, but the cases were a testament to the fact that anyone could have been in the forest. In fact, The Era reported on Sept. 14, 1938 that a 55-year-old “woodsman” was arrested for assaulting another man “with a double-bladed ax during an argument while they were working on a woods operation in the Chappel Fork area,” near where Marjorie disappeared. The story said the woodsman had been questioned about Marjorie at one point, but was released.
If Marjorie was snatched, it could have been for profit. During the Great Depression, child kidnappings became a popular, low-tech way to make a buck. “Kidnapping wave sweeps the nation,” blared a New York Times headline on March 3, 1932, two days after the abduction of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh. At the time, some feared that cars, still a relatively new technology, were going to cause an increase in kidnappings, and they weren’t wrong. Abductions did increase with the use of automobiles and with greater highway usage. Still, many of those who believed Marjorie was abducted thought it was not for ransom, but for a different type of moneymaking enterprise.
On Sept. 12, 1950, Tennessee authorities announced allegations that Georgia Tann, executive director of the Memphis branch of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, had adopted out more than 1,000 babies for $1 million since the 1930s,tricking poor couples into giving them up. Tann died three days after the investigation became public. Many of the children never knew their birth parents (including famed professional wrestler Ric Flair, born in 1949, who wrote of the circumstance in his autobiography). And presumably, the wealthy clients who adopted through Tann’s agency (including actress Joan “Mommie Dearest” Crawford) never knew of her methods.
The Tann theory was bolstered by a clue. A few days after Marjorie disappeared, a taxi driver in Thomas, West Virginia, told police that late at night on Mother’s Day, a man and weeping young girl checked into the town’s Imperial Hotel. Could they have been stopping midway to Tennessee?
But news stories from five months later render the Tann theory unlikely. In October 1938, Pennsylvania state police tracked down merchant Conrad Fridley of Ridgely, West Virginia. He said that on that evening, he and daughter Lois, five, were returning home from a visit to Parsons, West Virginia, and had to stop because of fog. Lois became frustrated and cried. They left the hotel early the next morning to open his shop.
Census records from 1940 show a Conrad Fridley, 31, of Ridgeley, who in 1940 had a daughter, eight.
As spring turned to summer, national media focused on Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the suffering United States economy. But Western Pennsylvania press continued following Marjorie’s case.
“The state police investigation continued off and on for six years,” reported the Era in 1955, noting that Shirley and Cecilia West had separated around 1953.
Family members say Marjorie’s closest relatives went to their grave believing she was alive.
* * *
Tammy Dittman, a longtime teacher in Bradford, took a class of hers to the Allegheny Forest in 2008 to learn about archeology. During the trip, two men from the Civil Conservation Corps discussed their search, as youths, for Marjorie.
“They talked about how hard they searched,” Dittman says. “They searched shoulder to shoulder constantly.”
The class undertook a project to research the case and speak with young kids about safety.
The man told Dittman, “‘There was no way the little girl could have been in the woods,’” she says. “The fact that he contacted me practically on his deathbed shows how sad it was. Maybe he had a little hope we’d find out more.”
Dittman, who has hiked near Chappel Fork, acknowledged the hazards nearby, including hundreds of old wells that are hard to notice. “You can step right into them and go down,” she says. Yet she believes the most likely explanation is that Marjorie was kidnapped.
“I hope she was at least in a good family,” Dittman says.
* * *
Two of Marjorie’s descendants have written online about the case.
Catherine, the daughter of Marjorie’s first cousin, Joyce, explained on her family genealogy blog: “My grandfather searched for weeks, long after the manhunt was called off, returning home late into the night. Three small children sat on the porch steps waiting for him, but they knew each night from the slope of his shoulders, he didn’t find the little girl with the bouncing red curls.”
The granddaughter of Dorothea West, Angel, wrote in 2009: “I remember listening to my grandmother tell me stories about Marjorie and the sadness she felt for leaving her sister alone for those few moments. My grandmother held on to her feeling of responsibility until her passing two years ago.”
But both agencies get tips. Gausman says that in 2014, an employee of a hospital in Rochester, New York, read about the case online and called to say they had a patient named Marjorie who rarely had visitors. But the woman’s niece had seen immigration records and confirmed she’d been born in 1922.
However, one Bradford native believes he knows the answer to the mystery.
* * *
Harold Thomas “Bud” Beck, a writer, raconteur, and college professor with a Ph.D. in linguistics, researched the case after he heard about it in a bar he used to run. Around 1998, when internet access was becoming more widespread, he posted a $10,000 reward for information about Marjorie. He included up-to-date photos of Dorothea, figuring Marjorie would resemble her.
One woman contacted him to say she’d worked at a company in Florida with a nurse who looked similar.
Beck took a trip south to meet several people about whom he’d gotten tips. The nurse did look like Dorothea, but denied being Marjorie.
Around 2005, Beck says, he heard from her again and went to meet her. By then she had returned to her childhood farm in North Carolina.
When he caught up with her there, she related a story that her mother told her when she was nearing the end of her life: In 1938, the nurse’s father left that very farm and drove north to work in Bradford’s refineries for the winter. Come spring, it was time to return to his crops. Driving south past the Allegheny Forest on Mother’s Day, he hit a little girl.
“There wasn’t anybody there,” Beck recounts. “He was going to take her to the hospital in Kane. He was afraid she was dead.”
But as he was driving with the unconscious girl in the car, she woke up, seemingly unharmed. He and his wife had lost their only daughter that winter. The delivery had been difficult and they didn’t think they could have more children.
The man brought Marjorie to the farm and raised her there.
A few years later, he lost an arm on board an aircraft carrier in World War II, Beck says. The man told his wife he thought it was “God’s way of punishing him for what he’d done.”
The nurse used to tell her parents that she remembered another family, but they dismissed it. She also remembered a place with “snow way over her head,” Beck says.
After World War II, her parents had four more children, according to Beck.
The nurse only told Beck the story after he made two promises: one, he couldn’t tell anyone about her identity – except for Dorothea, whom she wanted to meet – and two, Beck could only publish her story after she died.
By that time, Dorothea was in ill health and couldn’t meet “Marjorie,” Beck says.
The nurse died about a decade ago. Beck kept his promise and self-published Finding Marjorie West in 2010.
“There’s no question” it’s her, Beck says.
People have pressed him to notify the authorities, Beck adds, but he ponders, “What is it going to accomplish? One family is dead, and the other has been living under a set of circumstances they believe to be true. The mother and father were considered good people in the community.”
Locals who’ve read the book have debated its conclusions on Facebook. Marjorie’s cousin’s daughter Catherine discounted the story on a 2012 discussion thread on Websleuths.com, a site on which people try to solve missing persons cases. Catherine wrote that the state trooper she talked to didn’t take Beck’s narrative seriously.
Beck says he understands why people are frustrated, particularly those involved in the search. But he won’t betray a confidence.
Bob Lowery, a vice president at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, hadn’t heard of Beck’s book, but says Beck or anyone else with information about Marjorie should come forward. He notes the case is the third-oldest in their files. “I would think that anyone alive today who was living at that time would have vivid memories of this,” he says. “When something happens to a child of four, there’s a need to have the truth shared so that everyone knows.”
If Beck’s tale is true, it would explain how Marjorie disappeared so quickly and without a trace, as well as the speeding Plymouth. But the story begs questions: How were two people able to keep the secret so long? Did the sorrow they felt on Mother’s Day drive them to rationalize the act?
Perhaps the tale is just too good to be true. In Beck’s book, the nurse claims she was the sobbing girl spotted in West Virginia on Mother’s Day night. But according to an article from October 1938, the police and Wests went to meet Conrad Fridley, the merchant who said he was there. Police told the press that his daughter resembled Marjorie, but wasn’t her, and the girl spotted that night had different clothes than Marjorie.
Beck dismissed the newspaper accounts, saying he stands by his story.
Relatives remain wary. In 2015, an anonymous reviewer on Amazon, presumably a member of the family, wrote that she was shocked Beck was selling the book after “making false promises and leading my grandmother on wild goose chases for YEARS.”
So what if the nurse wasn’t Marjorie? Where did she go?
One cannot discount the rough terrain in the woods. In 1962, two boys died while exploring an abandoned clay mine in Western Pennsylvania, prompting Bradford officials to finally start closing all old mines, caves, and wells.
* * *
“The effects of that day,” Catherine wrote on her blog, “lasted long into mom’s adulthood, and when she had children, made her extra cautious about where we were and who we were with.”
Marjorie West’s case, like other child disappearances of the time, had a ripple effect on families long before mass media attention was ever trained on Adam Walsh. Responding to recent newspaper essays in the last few years about parents becoming overprotective due to modern media coverage of tragedies, senior citizens have responded that their parents became more protective after the Lindbergh Baby case. There was a similar effect in Western Pennsylvania in 1938. “This [West case] was the very very sad object lesson of my childhood…not to wander away, not to go anywhere with ‘strangers,’” recalled an elderly woman on a Bradford community Facebook group.
Regardless of the statistics of “stranger danger,” parents will always have to negotiate their own comfort level about being protective.
Tammy Dittman, the Bradford teacher, says kids should be wary and vigilant.
“Some [children] need to be scared,” says Dittman. “They think nothing can happen to them.”
Sometimes acting like a teenage rebel is the only way to feel in control.
On a hot and humid night last June, I steered my car over twisting country roads toward a small lakeside town for a romantic rendezvous. I had spent the day at a funeral, reflecting on the fact that at fifty, I had more miles behind me than ahead. Oddly, my paramour had also spent the day at a funeral, and as the summer sun disappeared we made plans to meet halfway between our towns for a drink.
It was nearly eleven when I turned my car onto Main Street, and James was growing impatient. We were speaking on the phone when I caught a glimpse of him. Strikingly handsome, he looked at least a decade younger than his 61 years. Running and doing chores on his rural property kept his body lean and muscular, and his face betrayed few traces of the anguish I knew lay in his heart.
James met me at my car, and as we walked toward the restaurant he put his arm around me. I felt a shudder of excitement run down my spine and I pushed in closer to feel his body. When we sat at the bar he swiveled his chair, pushed his knees against mine, and leaned in close to talk. Our faces were pressed within whispering distance and I inhaled his scent. The drinks we ordered were superfluous; this was all a graceful dance of foreplay.
The bar was teeming with a coarse-looking crowd of men and women who had deeply lined faces and leather jackets. The fact that we were completely out of place only heightened our excitement. We huddled and made witty comments about the antics of other patrons, parting only to fling our heads back in hysterics. We sat at the bar laughing and kissing, and before long James ran his hand up my leg and under my skirt. On previous dates he had teased me about being a Puritan in public, but X-rated in private, but that night I made no attempt to be discreet.
It felt mischievous to be strangers in a raucous tavern far from home in the middle of the night. We reveled in escaping the constricting bonds of our everyday lives – him a lawyer, me a divorced single mother. Our behavior was an unspoken act of defiance against the taunt of age, and the gloom of funerals that had become a common part of our lives.
Outside the restaurant James kissed me deeply and with a new fervency. We were passionately entangled while patrons passed by, and I whispered that we needed to go somewhere private. James began walking me to my car, and I assumed I would follow him to the adjacent hotel, or to his house an hour away.
When we got to my car he told me to get in the back seat. I refused, saying that my kids had left a mess in my car. James took my hand and led me across the lot to his immaculately clean Mercedes.
“Get in,” he said again.
“I’m not having sex with you in a car,” I replied laughing, while thinking of how improper it would be for a middle-aged mother to do so.
“Just get in,” he repeated, smiling mischievously as he opened the rear door.
There was no point in arguing; I knew I’d get in, so I slid onto the back seat. James was right behind, and before I heard the click of the door closing he was kissing me. It was futile to fight the longing we had been feeling for the past hours. Soon, all thoughts of motherhood and what was proper disappeared. We had been together many times before, but that night we devoured each other.
“I can’t believe I just had sex in a car in a public parking lot,” I said afterward, as I searched for my bra in the front seat.
“It was exciting, like in high school,” James replied, looking flushed and exhilarated.
As I drove home in the wee hours of the morning I felt furtive pride that James and I had taken a rebellious stand against the inevitability of age, and society’s expectation that we go gently into the night. In the days and weeks that followed we frequently reminisced about our romp in the car, and how it brought us back to our adolescence; a time of freedom and endless promise, a time before responsibilities and painful regrets.
Countless couples have tackled the taboo subject of racy videos and illicit orgasms. What happens when it’s the woman who can’t stop watching?
This story features explicit situations that may not be suitable for all audiences.
It’s past two a.m. and my husband’s breathing has become long and even. An opportunity presents itself. I slip my right hand down my pajama pants and move slowly, careful not to bump my elbow into his side rib, or bring my hips into it. Too much movement or sound will wake him, and to be found out for something like this is not just embarrassing but potentially destructive. He’ll think he doesn’t satisfy me, and men do not like feeling inadequate, especially when it comes to matters of the bedroom. Or maybe he’ll feel sorry for me. And who wants to fuck someone they pity?
Even worse, maybe he’ll finally say the words I’ve been waiting for him to say since I first told him that I am a sex addict. That he’s bored with it. He’s disgusted. He’s had enough.
I lift my wrist away from my body. I’m careful to keep my breath from becoming a pant, even as my pulse quickens, but this takes much concentration. The body desires the convulsion the mind denies. There is no letting go here though. This orgasm is a controlled, measured, calculated experience.
I have masturbated in this way next to the sleeping bodies of all my serious, committed partners who came before my husband. In some cases, as expected, it was because I wanted more sex than they could give me. I’ve been called “insatiable” and “demanding” one too many times. But this has not always been the story. Yes, I have an incredibly high sex drive, but even in relationships where I have great sex multiple times a week my nighttime stealth for self-pleasure has persisted.
My college boyfriend, burgundy haired and tattooed, had the high sex drive typical of most nineteen-year-old males. We fucked all the time, but even still, I wanted more, something only I could give me. One afternoon, after he’d fallen into a deep post-sex slumber, I serviced myself with my second, third, and fourth orgasm beside him. That was the first time I’d experienced such a level of both secrecy and shame.
I made a promise to my husband and to myself, long before we were even wed, to be austerely honest. He knows I’ve been a compulsive masturbator since I was twelve years old. He knows about my extensive fluency in the hardcore categories of various porn sites. He knows about the bad habit I used to have of hooking up with not-so-nice men because they were available and I was bored — and that I rarely used protection with any of them. And that I believed, for a really long time, that my addiction made me a broken person, a disgusting person, a person unworthy of love. I told him these things from the start because I met him at a time in my life where I was ready and open for change. Because I liked him so much that I wanted to love him. Because I knew that the only way to love him, and be loved by him, was to be myself.
* * *
“What’s your favorite porn scene?”
The man who will become my husband in less than a year asks me this question as he lies naked and vulnerable beside me. We’ve just had sex and although I am naked too, it isn’t until this moment that I feel just as vulnerable as him. While it might seem absurd to some, I know immediately this is a moment of great significance for us. It is an opportunity to finally do things differently.
The possibilities run through my head.
I can describe something vanilla: This one where a busty blonde gets banged by her personal trainer. Or perhaps something a little more racy: These two hot teens swap their math teacher’s cum after he made them stay late in the classroom. Chances are he’ll get hard again and we’ll end up abandoning the conversation for a second round. These are harmless answers. Expected answers.
They’re also lies.
The possibility of revealing the actual truth not only makes me nervous, but also physically sick. I feel a constriction in the back of my throat, a flutter in my belly, a tremble in my extremities. After all, we’ve only been dating a couple of months and he doesn’t love me yet. If I tell him, will he ever?
“Why do you ask?” I reach for the sheet, damp with sweat, a tangle of 300-thread-count cotton across our limbs, and yank it up to cover my breasts.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Curiosity?” He turns over on his side and props his head up on his left hand. His green eyes are wide with wonder.
“Seems like a weird question.” I tuck the sheet into my armpits and scoot my body a little to the left so we’re no longer touching. The tone of my voice has become defensive and he can tell.
“It’s just that I usually pick the porn,” he explains. “Do you like what I choose?”
I see what he’s doing. He’s trying to be considerate since we just had sex while staring at the laptop screen after searching terms of his choosing: Latina, real tits, blow job, threesome.
Maybe he feels guilty for getting off to them instead of me, even though I’m the one who suggested we watch porn in the first place. Even though I’m always the one who suggests we watch porn while we have sex.
“Yeah, sure.” I look up at the ceiling. “They’re fine.”
“Are you sure?”
I wish he’d stop prying, but I realize something else is happening here. Not only is he trying to be considerate; he’s also trying to get to know me. The past couple of months has allowed us to cover most of the basics — what ended each of our most recent relationships, what our parents are like, what we hope to do with our lives in the next few years — but there’s still a longing for something deeper, and I can’t think of anything deeper than knowing a person’s favorite porn scene.
It can speak volumes. For one scene to stand out amongst the rest, when so many others are available, there has to be something below the surface. What maintains its appeal? What keeps a person returning in the deep, dark recesses of a lonely night? Perhaps the answers to these questions are a great source of shame. I never thought of revealing such answers to anybody, and especially not somebody like him, somebody I could really like. It seems far too risky, preposterous even.
It also seems necessary. Too many of my past relationships were doomed by my inability to tell the whole truth, to fully be myself. Now I have the opportunity to go there, and to say to a person, “This is who I am. Do you accept me?”
“Well, there’s this one gang bang,” I start, looking over at his face to see a reaction of surprise and interest register at once.
I take a deep breath and proceed to tell him, first slowly, then progressively faster about the scene. Like a busted dam, I can hardly hold back the rush of descriptors fumbling from my mouth: “Two women in a warehouse. One dangling from a harness. The other just below her. Both are waiting to take on fifty horny men…” and on and on.
I watch his face the whole time, not pausing when his smile becomes a frown and his eyes squint as if it hurts to look at me.
“Afterward, the women exit the warehouse through a back door while the men applaud.”
For a long moment after I’ve finished talking, there is silence between us, but there is also a sense of relief on my part. I have revealed something so dark, so upsetting, so impacted in shame, and he hasn’t immediately disappeared. He is still here beside me, propped up on his left hand, naked and vulnerable, and so am I. He sees me and I see him seeing me and we are in new territory.
But then he says, “I kind of wish I hadn’t asked.” It’s all I need to hear to send me into tears. Not just tiny, embarrassed sobs, but humiliated wails. I have myself a tantrum. He is confused now as he pulls me close to him, laughing nervously at my abrupt shift in disposition. I try to pull the sheet completely over my head, but he pulls it back down and covers my face with apologetic kisses. He can’t possibly understand why I’m crying. He can’t possibly know what I’ve just revealed to him. “What’s going on? Baby, what’s wrong?”
And so I tell him.
* * *
Addiction to porn and masturbation is often grouped under general sex addiction because they all have to do with escape via titillation, pursuit and orgasm, but I’ve always felt more pathetic about my predilections. Going out and fucking — even someone you don’t really like — is wild, dangerous, but essentially social and shared. Though I had periods of promiscuity throughout my twenties, my biggest issue has always been with what I do alone.
There’s something so sad and humiliating in imagining a person locked away in a dark room, hot laptop balanced on chest, turning the volume down low, scrolling, scrolling, choosing, watching, escaping, coming.
And then realizing that person is me.
But my proclivity for solo pleasure has strong, stubborn roots. I lost my virginity to a water faucet when I was twelve years old. I have Adam Corolla and Dr. Drew to thank for this life-shaking experience; it was their late-night radio show “Loveline” on L.A.’s KROQ that served as my primary means of sex ed during my pre-teen years. This technique is one of the many things I learned, but I had a whole other kind of education going on, which had long filled my head with other ideas — sex is something that happens between a man and woman who love each other; masturbation is a sin. You know, your typical run-of-the-mill Catholic guilt stuff.
Just as oppressive as the Catholic guilt was my femininity. Girls weren’t talking about masturbation and sex. I had no company with whom to share my new activities and interests. And so this silence morphed into shame. I became a pervert, a loser, a sinner.
I tried to stop myself from taking long baths, from late-night undercover activities, from being alone too long, but the more I obsessed about stopping, the more I could not. I joined shame, secrecy and pleasure in a daily orgy, whether I was tired, bored, angry or sad. Whether I was single or coupled, it didn’t matter. Getting off required all of these components and I needed new, more extreme methods to stay engaged — more hours sucked away watching progressively harder porn like the warehouse video, complemented with dabbles in strip clubs, peep shows and shady massage parlors. It became impossible to get off during sex without fantasy, my body over-stimulated to numbness. I was irritable unless I was fucking or masturbating or planning to do either of these things. Life revolved around orgasm to the detriment of any kind of real progress in my professional or social existence.
I was out of control.
* * *
Little did I know that describing my favorite porn scene would be the first of many future admissions that would help peel back, layer by layer, a long and exhausting history of self loathing. My future husband and I quickly learned that watching porn during sex wasn’t a harmless kink for us; it was a method I’d long used to remain disconnected from my partners. It took much discipline and patience for us to expel it from our relationship altogether, though every now and then we slip up.
Talking about my habits led me to examine them, which ultimately led to my desire for change. Holding a secret for too long is like being unable to take a full breath. I didn’t want to feel this way anymore. I needed to share — often and fully — what had for too long been silenced in order to reclaim who I was underneath my addiction. I needed to breathe again.
I found relief in Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings, seeing a therapist I trusted, attending personal development courses like the Hoffman Process and writing about my journey. I’ve managed to move away from porn for the most part, but when it comes to this addiction — to something I don’t have to seek out or purchase — control is like a wayward horse and my ass is always slipping off the saddle.
I constantly struggle with whether or not I should give up porn completely, but until I find a way to have some moderation with it, I avoid it as best I can. I wish I could just watch it occasionally, as some sort of supplement to my active sex life, but the whole ritual of watching porn is tangled up in too many other negative emotions. Watching porn takes me back to being that little girl alone in her bedroom, feeling ashamed and helpless to stop it. I can’t just watch one clip without needing to watch another after that, and another, until hours have passed and I’m back to binging every night.
If my husband leaves me alone all day and idleness leads me to watching porn, it’s the first thing I confess upon his return. Sometimes I don’t even have to say it. He can tell by my downturned eyes and my noticeable exhaustion. He shakes his head and takes me in his arms as I make another promise to try to leave it alone. When I visited a peep show on a recent work trip out of town, he seemed more amused than upset about the whole thing.
Unfortunately, I have yet to be as generous. If I find he’s been watching porn without me, when I’ve struggled to abstain for a stretch of time, I react with what might seem like unjustified rage. This frustration is only rooted in envy.
* * *
Masturbating beside my husband while he sleeps is the last secret I’ve kept from him. Although I’m beginning to fear that it’s actually just the latest secret. My resistance in telling him only proves how fragile recovery is. This week it’s masturbation. But maybe next week it’s back to porn binging. Or obsessive scrolling through Craigslist personals. Or lying about my whereabouts. And so forth. Abstaining from these habits, when so readily available, without abstaining from sexual pleasure completely, or the shame I’ve long bound to it, is a challenge I face daily.
That’s why I need to tell my husband.
Not because I need his permission, his forgiveness or to offer him some act of contrition. But because I need him to see me. To witness. The act of telling the truth, especially about something that makes us ache, is often the only absolution we need.