Tales from the Night

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In taxicabs and at diners, down dark alleys and on bright stages, ten New Yorkers recall their most memorable dusk-to-dawn stories.

Chasing the Dawn

By Jennifer Mascia

New York in the ‘90s was truly a time apart. The city had licked its crime problem, its crack problem and its graffiti problem just in time to embrace a wave of Clintonian prosperity fueled by a giddy tech boom. The tallest buildings in town were still standing. Newspapers made money. Magazines enjoyed supersized expense accounts. Most of us had jobs.

I arrived smack in the middle of the ‘90s. My parents were raised in Brooklyn and when I was seventeen they wanted to move back. So we schlepped our life in a U-Haul from Southern California, setting foot on New Utrecht Avenue on July 1, 1995. It was humid beyond comprehension. Dirty. There were roaches. I knew no one. My friends were at the beach without me. I was pissed.

I spent a year pissed off on Staten Island, in a seventh-floor apartment on the North Shore, overlooking lower Manhattan. It was breathtaking, but all I saw amidst the glitter was uncertainty. Had I altered my trajectory by leaving California? Was I supposed to be here? Would I ever find a place among those imposing buildings across the bay?

I moped from July to June. That was when my friend from Catholic elementary school came to visit. Maria was a real noodge, as my mother would say. You know the type: never wrong, must control every social interaction, an angry drunk. After eleven months of hours-long phone calls she invited herself to Staten Island.

One night toward the end of her visit she wanted to go out. I had only been to the city a few times at that point, so, at Maria’s urging, I asked my co-worker at Starbucks, Jeff from Bay Ridge, to show us around. He had a car. He invited his friend Carmine, from Staten Island, and off we went in Jeff’s rickety Tercel. First stop was the liquor store, where we got a bottle of Absolut. I was still young enough that I felt I couldn’t turn down a shot, so I ducked down in the backseat and chugged. Once in Manhattan we downed kamikazes at a restaurant at South Street Seaport.

For the next six hours we walked: to the World Trade Center, where we stared up at the towers. “I can’t believe there’s only one security guard here,” Jeff said in his adenoidal Brooklynese. We hopped a train to 8th Street, where we wandered St. Marks. We passed DojoConey Island High—“Is it really a high school?” Maria asked as I scowled—and the big blue Narcotics Anonymous building. A meeting had let out and the addicts congregated on the front steps. It was a Friday night and the sidewalks were bursting. We went west.

“Smoke, smoke,” a guy said near Washington Square Park. It was before the security cameras, when you could still score. “Smoke, smoke.”

“Here you go!” Maria said helpfully, rifling through her purse for a Marlboro Light. She held one out to the man trying to sell us drugs.

“Maria! No!” Jeff said, laughing, grabbing her hand and whipping her away. A block or two later Jeff bought me a rose and kissed me, right there in the street. I perched on my tippy-toes—Jeff was 6’1” to my 5’3”—and I fell right off the sidewalk. I think I may have done it on purpose, to be cute, to get his attention. He laughed. Shit, did I mess it up? I desperately wanted another chance.

“What’s that?” I asked Jeff, pointing to the stretch of sidewalk before us. It was glittering.

“I think they mix glass in with the concrete,” he replied.

“Wow. What’s that?”  I asked, just to keep him talking. I pointed to a phone booth, where, instead of “NYNEX” stamped across the front it said “Lotion.”

“Who knows—it’s the Village,” he said. I’d later discover it was the work of a street artist who manipulated recognizable symbols of the city. Even the mundane had fans here in New York, where everything was interesting.

We made our way north, to the Empire State Building. They hadn’t shut the lights off yet. Someone took a photo of us on the observation deck: Maria has her arm around Carmine; they’d made out a few minutes before that. I’m standing between her and Jeff, my face beaming with contentment. You can see my nails, which I’d painted that evening with Chanel’s Vamp—very on-trend for 1995—and my tight shirt and skirt, which I’d been too self-conscious to wear until Maria convinced me I had a “tiny tummy” and should show it off more. She was really convincing. It makes sense that she became a prosecutor.

What goes up must come down when you live in Staten Island, so we headed downtown on foot. We were going to get Jeff’s car, which was parked by the Seaport, but we got sidetracked by the Brooklyn Bridge. It was begging us to cross it. At three a.m. We hit the walkway, singing to passersby and laughing wildly. I ran ahead to see if Jeff would follow me. He did, and when we kissed he tried to lift my shirt up and get under my bra. I let him. For a minute.

“Stop! We’re in public!” I said, still tipsy, wondering if I’d remember everything. Because I knew I’d relive this night over and over and I wanted to get it right. I faced Brooklyn and the Watchtower kept reminding me what time it was: 3:45. 4:01. I didn’t want it to be dawn, because dawn meant it was over.

We drove back across the Verrazano just as the sky faded to light blue, right before sunrise. As Jeff pulled into the circular driveway of my parents’ apartment building my stomach twisted into a knot. Anxious flutters traveled from my stomach to my arms and into my chest. What was this raw nerve? Was it Jeff, or the night? Or both?

I know what it is now, because I haven’t felt that feeling in years. That balled-up bundle of emotion was my soul awakening: to youth, to possibility, to excitement, to love. And Maria had made this happen. By encouraging me to wear that skirt and paint my nails and drop the scowl and ask out the guy from Starbucks, she was telling me to live.

Today the Narcotics Anonymous building houses a Quiznos. You haven’t been able to buy weed on St. Mark’s Place since 1999. Jeff is married to a man now, something I should have seen coming, but…youth. Carmine is a father. Maria and I don’t speak, and to be honest, I’m not really sure why. I am never afraid to turn down a shot of vodka. But I’ll always be up for chasing the dawn.

Jennifer Mascia is the author of Never Tell Our Business to Strangers. She works in the Op-Ed department of the New York Times.

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Danger Son

By Drew Henkels

If  you frequented the Lower East Side anytime before 2011, it’s possible you set foot in a place called Mars Bar, which was at Second Avenue and First Street. Although, if you had a functional self-preservation instinct and a healthy amount of common sense, it’s more likely you did not. Mars Bar was what you might find if you dove to the very bottom of a dive bar, peeled the scum from its floor, and lifted a trap door to a new dimension of dirt and debauchery. The interior of Mars Bar was long and skinny, with only a foot or two of wiggle room between the jukebox and bar stools, which stretched back to a small supply closet and toilet-paperless bathroom. The only light in the place seemed to come from the lone glowing jukebox and the neon beer signs hanging outside. Seeping through the warped glass cinderblocks, they bathed the graffiti-caked walls and ceiling in a dreary neon wash. Before its doors closed for good in 2011 due to pressures from the Health Department and plans for an icy condo skyrise, it was a true punk rock mecca; one last stronghold of the no-brow art world.

Illustration by Chelsea Mose
Illustration by Chelsea Mose

As a twenty-two-year-old film student in 2007, this was exactly the type of thing I was looking for. On one particularly boozy Wednesday night, I found myself drinking alone in Mars Bar at three a.m. My friend, who was celebrating his birthday that night, had wisely decided to jump ship and go home. I, on the other hand, was content soaking up the spirits and the spirit of the place altogether.

At the far end of the bar was a small cluster of what I assumed to be homeless men (a coat fashioned out of bubble wrap, taped to one grisly man seemed a fair indicator). The female bartender was catering to them intently. Earlier she had shown me, with a sly, proud smirk, the hammer she brings to work to “tame” the late-night crowd. She would pound the bar with it anytime someone did something she didn’t appreciate, like a judge residing over an unruly courtroom with an iron gavel. I was seated at the opposite end of the bar, in a recess dark enough to be forgotten entirely. There to my right, also out of earshot from the rest of the bar, was the only other patron that night: a middle-aged skinhead with bomber jacket and cuffed jeans to boot. As I complemented him on his jukebox song choice, it became clear that this was no punk rocker, fashion skinhead. This was a full-on, I-want-to-talk-Aryan-brotherhood skinhead. I settled in, and prepared to file the experience under my songwriting material bank.

Somewhere between long sips and a short yawn he reached a hand into the pocket of his jacket, then pulled it out and leaned his meaty forearm on the edge of the bar. In his palm was a small puddle of pills. “See! I’ve got enough Adderall to keep me going” he bragged.

When the color of the pills did not match my personal experience, I arrogantly blurted out “Those aren’t Adderall.” He jumped to his feet, so I jumped to mine, startled.

The man was built like a bulldog, with a demeanor to match. He was short and muscular, with a cold, casual violence hiding somewhere in his eyes. When we squared off, my neck was right at his eyeline, maybe reminding him that he did not have a neck (perhaps this was what was making him so angry).

“That’s not you’re fucking kidney…” he barked, digging two stumpy sausage fingers up underneath my ribcage “Do you want to find out?”

I grimaced and backed down immediately, trying to diffuse the situation. “Haha OK! OK! I believe you!”

His eyes let up, almost softened, and he suddenly became apologetic. “Agh I’m sorry, I’m on edge tonight. I’m never going to make up for what I did. All those things, I’m never going to make up for those things. I’m sorry, let me buy you a drink.”

I accepted the offer, mainly out of fear of disagreeing with anything he said. We huddled over another drink, and he continued to tell me about his experiences in what I slowly pieced together to be the Gulf War.

“Do you know they made me skin a man!?” his eyes darted nervously around the space, as he became increasingly agitated. He continued to teeter between gleeful boasts and haunting confessions. Anger and guilt slurred together in every word, and I was becoming more uncomfortable with each tale.

“Wow, that is a crazy story!” I interjected at some point. “I gotta be on my way now, but thanks for the drink.” I stood up and reached for my coat. Again he pounced to his feet, intentionally blocking my path to the exit with his wide frame.

“Sit the fuck down. You’re not going anywhere.”

I sat down. This time he seemed to have even startled himself. “Is she here?” he asked in a surprisingly soft voice, his face now twisted with regret.

“Is who here?” I was stunned.

“She’s here, isn’t she?” he whined, looking somewhere over my shoulder into the empty side of the room. I glanced down to the lit end of the bar, where the disturbance had gone unnoticed, then quickly came up with a new escape plan.

“I’m going to go get a sandwich. Want one? It’s the least I can do since you bought me the drink…” I said with the best casual tone I could squeeze from my shaky voicebox as I stood for a second time and reached for my coat. Once again he shot up.

It must have been a switchblade considering how fast it came out and its length, five inches or so of steel blade pressed to my neck, his watery eyes already stabbing at me from behind it.

What happened next is difficult to explain to the rationally minded. All I can do here is recount it exactly as I remember. Everything slowed and became still and quiet. A laser beam of focus linked the jukebox to my mind. (The only time I have ever experienced anything similar was when I first saw my now wife from across a crowded room.) Then the jukebox, with its warm fire-like glow, spoke directly to me. It was a female voice singing, the record seemed to be skipping, and the message repeated: “Danger son, danger son, danger son.”

“I WILL KILL FOR WHAT I NEED,” he blurted as he pulled a wad of cash from his other pocket and held it in my face. He continued to edge me toward the pitch-black supply closet, where, to this day, I am convinced he was ready cut me up. This was no pragmatic mugger; there before me was a man deep in the throes of a psychotic episode.

Spit sprayed from his chapped lips: “Step into the closet SON!” And it was there, right then with the word “son,” that the warning from the jukebox clicked: he was going to kill me if I went into that closet.

I’m still amazed that the move I pulled next worked. It was almost like out of a cartoon. I lifted my arm, as if on autopilot, pointed over his shoulder and yelled “I would but… LOOK!”

He paused, stunned, still staring into my face.

“LOOK!”

He craned his neck away just long enough for me to duck out from the knife and shove past him. I bolted past the jukebox, knocking over bar stools on my way, and crashed through the drinkers huddled by the door, out onto Second Avenue.

The sky was just turning from black to its deepest shade of purple, and a new calm had entered my mind. As I ran toward the street, I coolly calculated the odds of his knife reaching my back against the risk of darting into four lanes of moving traffic. I found an odd serenity and self-satisfaction as I wove through the moving traffic like a gazelle.

Blocks curled under my feet as I ran, a maniacal grin sprawled across my rosy face. When I lost my breath and couldn’t run anymore, I stopped and took my shirt off, tying it around my head like a do-rag in an attempt to disguise myself from my hunter, then walked the rest of the way home bare-chested.

Back in my freshly painted apartment, I vomited into the new sink. I lifted my head and looked around at the recently installed cabinets, the sterile sconces and other fixtures of a just-flipped piece of real estate. Then my eyes settled on the window, where the city skyline was thawing in the pale light of dawn. I felt the bizarre bubble of false security around me pop, and just stared out at the city, thinking about what else goes on out there in the dark of night.

Drew Henkels is a Brooklyn-born artist and videojournalist. He loves adventure, and specializes in being in the wrong place at the right time

Chelsea Mose is an Australian-born artist and photographer with a passion for neurology, strange behavior and unforeseen circumstances.

*   *   *

A Nickel’s Worth

By Kyle Ayers

People say that Brooklyn has lost its edge (for better or worse, depending on who you ask). A borough once riddled with crime has seen its fedoras shift from gangsters to hipsters, its delis and bodegas vacated in favor of cupcake shops and mustache-themed everything, and a bunch of people who look and dress more or less like I do.

I was standing in line for organic, locally-sourced barbecue at Fette Sau in Williamsburg when a native Brooklynite, a stranger sparking conversation in a lengthy line, told me a story about a drug deal gone bad he had witnessed as a teenager. One person didn’t bring enough money, and apparently drug dealers are sticklers for cash. The dealer stabbed the buyer and fled the scene. No one called the police—it just wasn’t what you did back then, said the man in line.

I wanted this. I wanted some grit in my life. Things had been awfully tame since moving to New York, despite what my mom would believe. I’m all for being safe, all for general well-being, but an occasional “New York movie moment,” would have been nice. Months passed, then finally, one night I got just that. My apartment window faces a fairly well lit alley. I heard people outside talking and went to the window. All of a sudden I was witnessing a drug deal. I was giddy.

Dealer handed Buyer drugs. Buyer handed Dealer money. A moment passed, and I heard the Dealer yell: “Hey man, you shorted me four bucks. Motherfucker this is only forty-six dollars.”

I’m about to see a murder, I thought. My phone was in the other room. I couldn’t chance looking for it just to capture a nice shot for Instagram and risk missing out on my vintage Brooklyn moment.

The Buyer fiddled around in his pockets, then handed the Dealer a nickel. Five cents.

“What the fuck are you—”

The Buyer interrupted with an insane confidence and said, “Look closer at that nickel.”

Illustration by Melissa Raimondi
Illustration by Melissa Raimondi

I’ve never heard someone say that before, in any context. My eyes widened.

“Man, that nickel from 1944. E’erbody KNOWS nickels made between 1942 and 1945 were made with real silver. That’s a wartime nickel, bitch. Worth at LEAST ten bucks melted down!”

I thought, for sure, I was about to see someone get killed. Instead, both guys pulled out their smartphones and proceeded to look up the validity of that statement. They then shook hands, hugged, and walked in opposite directions.

Maybe the city has changed even more than that guy at the restaurant knows. I’ll have to look it up and see.

Kyle Ayers is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, by way of Missouri. He performs all over the city, tweets @kyleayers, and can write concise, simple sentences about himself.

Melissa Raimondi lives in Washington, DC, where she edits for Science magazine.

* * *

We Never See It Coming

By Lawrence Spiegel

The night has many secrets. It means us no harm, yet we are cautious and deliberate, lest we disturb it.  We proceed slowly, taking small steps so as not to stumble and trip. Sometimes we jump in and find out there was no danger at all. The night can provide a new idea, acceptance of a path we missed or perhaps a vision of the future. Sometimes it takes a long time to accept and understand what the night has revealed. As I write this, I am thinking of one particular night long ago. The prelude is my first job as a stage manager in New York, in the late 1960s.

I had grown up in New York, but never really had any interest in the theater. It was at college in Oklahoma, of all places, that I came to it. The other New Yorkers I met there were in the theater department. I followed suit. I also got married in college, and after moved with my wife to Los Angeles, where she was from. I heard a local playhouse was auditioning for the role created by Martin Sheen in “The Subject Was Roses.” I got the role and was received quite well in the local press. I followed up with an acting class, which led to a stage managing gig for the class’s teacher, which in turn led to a summer stock production with a new play being tried out for a possible run in New York. A week in Westport, one in East Hampton, one in Philadelphia, etc…But things did not go well. After four stops there was a week break during which the lead actress and the director were replaced. It didn’t make any difference and after another four weeks it was over. The play would not make it to New York. But, as things weren’t going well with the marriage, I headed back there myself.

We were boarding the train for the ride back to Manhattan from Philadelphia whenMichael, one of the actors, sat down next to me and asked if I had anything lined up. I explained I wasn’t even sure where I would be crashing when the train got in. Michael began talking about a project he and his friend, a young actor named Al Pacino, were planning to do Off-Broadway. He said they had convinced a very successful Broadway director to come on board, and asked if I would be interested in stage managing.

Of course I was interested. Aside from the fact that I had nothing else to do, I had previously seen Pacino in a moving Broadway performance, which netted him a Tony for what one critic called “the choreography of a hood with a poetic soul,” and recognition as the “most promising young actor on Broadway.”

A day later there was a meeting at the theater in the West Village, off Sheridan Square. That part of the village was already chic and emerging as a hotbed of theater. I couldn’t have been in a better spot—never having done a show in New York before, landing this gig, and even getting paid for it. I met with the producer and director, who introduced me to the theater owner and asked her to give me a set of keys to facilitate meetings and rehearsals. The others left, leaving me alone with the theater owner. We talked for a while as she showed me around, chatting about the upcoming play and the actors in it.

“Where do you live?” she asked.

“Well, I just got back and crashed last night with a friend up on Sixty-Eighth Street.”

“I wonder…” she thought out loud. “I have some work that needs to be done around here; nothing big and it would be good to have someone keeping an eye on the place. The boiler man and others need to have access, so if you’re interested you could take one of the dressing rooms, set it up as you wish and stay as long as the show is here.”

I had never heard of anything like this before and wondered if she was setting me up for something, but she seemed sincere about her business and it was the best option I had, so I agreed. She gave me the keys, said she’d stop by the next day with a list of what needed to be done. At first it was kind of spooky, alone in a dark theater at night. But I got used to it. I thought being alone in this haunted house might even be a bit of fun.

The first day of rehearsal was everything I had imagined the theater could be. We sat in a circle: me, the director and the four actors, slowly, methodically exploring and listening to each word, each combination of words, observing the affect on each other and ourselves; stopping, asking questions and going back over it again. The play was about two working-class guys who, somewhat inexplicably, go out and brutalize more successful folks. The writer gave no reason for their acts of violence, nor did he leave any hints. For actors it was ideal. No preconceptions about who your character might turn out to be and certainly no opportunity to prejudge him.

In the coming days it continued like this, each actor trying to find where the truth of the character lay within himself, revealing elements of their own personality they perhaps didn’t know until then. The pace began to quicken as we moved toward the opening. All were satisfied and content that we were on track. Tensions rose, not against each other but characters in conflict tearing down preferences not easy to let go of. We knew the play was going to be a hit.

Word had gotten around. The opening night was all theater pros and they were excited. All went very well and the evening finished with standing curtain calls, after which we went to the local watering hole across Seventh Avenue to wait for the reviews and party. In those days the producer sent friends or aides to each of the dailies to pick up copies of each morning paper with the first reviews and bring them to where we were celebrating.

The wait was long and for the first time in six weeks I sensed something was wrong. They were taking too long to get back. When they did start coming in each one went straight to the producer with their papers, handing him the bad news. There was a hush in the room; all could see from the producer’s response the news was not good. Euphoria subsided, replaced by angry emotions.

The director went from table to table. It seemed as if he was trying to convince himself that these lesser critics meant nothing. “The Times hasn’t come in yet and it’s the only one that counts,” he said. “They sent their top gun tonight, who only does Broadway; never comes downtown. Surely he saw more than these others.”

This was not to be. The number one theater critic in New York began by facetiously thrashing the writer: “It is a half-interesting play, far more remarkable for what it promises then for anything it delivers…Seeing this play we can note something of its violence but we learn nothing of the people.”

He went after Pacino too: “I would like to see what else (he) can do in this world besides scaring babies, old women and me.”

After reading that, the director stormed out. The producer huddled with his partners before saying goodnight, probably resigned to sleep before deciding on the production’s future. Others started to drift out, leaving just a few true believers.

Illustration by Bill O’Rourke
Illustration by Bill O’Rourke

I turned on the stage lights. They talked for a few minutes, then got up on their feet and worked, running through scenes with determination. They couldn’t rewrite without the playwright or make any real changes, but with Voight—who had just finished filming “Midnight Cowboy,” which was destined to garner many awards later that year and make him a big Hollywood star—now guiding them, their enthusiasm was back. He had rekindled the confidence in their talents that had been pouring out of them just hours before.

They worked till three. After they took off I laid down in my makeshift bedroom for hours, thinking, wondering if it would make a difference. Voight had a lot going for him; he was doing interviews every day and had many new connections that might be able to help us out. I also wondered why the critics were so hard on what appeared, at least to me, to be a spectacular work of art. Were they just scared off by the violence? They seemed particularly upset that the violence had no explanation. But does it ever? Experiences, especially recent ones, have shown us that violence can be a force of nature often beyond our ability to comprehend. I went to bed with those thoughts in my head, excited about the new life being breathed into the play.

I fell asleep around six. I was pissed off when the backstage phone rang at ten. It was the director. He was short and to the point. There was going to be a meeting in the theater at four. I needed to be there. The producer is contacting the others, he said.

The meeting began friendly enough, with the director taking the lead, praising everyone for their hard work and personal commitment to truthful standards of creative achievement, and attacking the ignorance of the critics. But one could quickly sense for him it was more a wake than a revival.

My late-night colleagues took over and put forward that they could get commitments that could keep us going as word-of-mouth built and the negative responses of the critics were overcome. The director countered with age and experience. It was like the play coming to life. The emotional, uncontrollable, sometimes very violent young men challenging the established, successful adult.

The producer then stood and announced he and his partners had decided to call it a day.
One of the other actors followed suit and said, “I would do anything if I could change the outcome of what has happened here but it is over. I’m going to pack my things.” He headed backstage and all was silent. A few minutes later he emerged, wished everybody the best and took off.

One by one the others picked up their gear, took one last look at the set and disappeared.

Larry Spiegel was born in the Bronx and presently lives in Manhattan. He spent the first half of his adult life in the theater and the second half teaching and coaching four- to nine-year-olds in New York City public schools. Larry’s “A Child’s History of the Bronx” and his “Through the Front Window” recently appeared on Narratively’s “The Park Bench.”

Bill O’Rourke is an artist who lives and works in the Tri-state area. He has recently finished creating cartoons about the 2012 presidential election, and despite the overflow of material, is glad it is finally over. His latest project “RESTAURANT: 101″ is a cartoon series based on his adventures working in restaurants in New York City.  You can follow Bill’s work and cartoons on Facebook and on Twitter@billartistguy

*   *   *

Breakfast with Bowies

By Gabrielle Sierra

Bowie Ball 2011—a high-spirited night of free glam rock makeovers, gender-bending and live shows from David Bowie tribute bands—was held at Le Poisson Rouge, an artsy lounge in the West Village. My friends and I go every year, honoring the individual childhood crushes we each developed while watching and re-watching the 1986 cult hit Labyrinth.

We arrived early enough to get our hair teased outward and upward by a series of flamboyant stylists, followed by some intense makeup application from chatty young rockers. Glitter was poured over our heads with reckless abandon, leaving us shimmering and shining like three golden disco balls.

The night swam along in a hazy glow from there on out. We drank. We cheered for the performers and danced to the live music. We drank. We clapped for the Bowie impersonator who took off her pants on stage. We drank. And suddenly it was  four a.m.

“Let’s go somewhere else for a nightcap,” my friend said half-heartedly, lacking any real conviction to do anything but go home to bed. She rubbed her eyes sleepily. She reminded me of the babe who our beloved Bowie kidnapped in Labyrinth.

“I simply refuse to leave,” I said. “Just wait a little longer. Jennifer Connelly’s character will come rescue you soon, sweet babe.”

We couldn’t agree, or really understand one another, so I stayed and my friends left. I danced around for a bit to one of the last live bands. It was only once they stopped to switch a guitar that I was suddenly struck with the fleeting sober thought that I was alone at Bowie Ball.

But the Stardust gods heard my fear and sent me Charity: A six-foot-seven transvestite who was dressed as David Bowie circa 1976 when he starred in The Man Who Fell To Earth—white orange hair, pale skin, grey fedora.

“Well aren’t you funny,” Charity said, twirling me like a drunken top.

“Am I?” I asked.

Charity introduced me to Sam (Ziggy Stardust Bowie) and Rick (suit, ruffled shirt Bowie). They bought me another drink. And then we all left to have breakfast at Silver Spurs. As we walked the few blocks to the diner I felt like the luckiest girl in the world. I had three Bowies all to myself.

Crammed into a booth, I was kept warm between Charity and Sam. The diner was empty except for a few other late-night stragglers, most of whom gave our table a quick once-over before going back about their business.

The trio of Bowies talked about some friends I didn’t know, so I ate my ham and cheese omelet in respectful silence. Occasionally I would look up at one of them and gaze with wonder into their heavily made-up faces. Sam was particularly beautiful, with a structured jaw that only slightly moved as he chewed his western omelet.

Charity asked me all these questions about being from New York, as it turns out she was originally from the Midwest. We joked about make-up and tight skirts.

After our plates had been cleared Rick picked up the check, and we all exited the diner together. The sun was coming up but it was a cold morning, and none of us were dressed warmly enough. It vaguely occurred to me that I had lost my scarf somewhere during the journey. Someone suggested that I get the first cab that stopped but I declined. I lived close by and felt the urge to walk home. Sam, Rick and Charity each hugged me, thanking me for joining them.

“Be careful getting home now,” Charity said, “and remember to take your makeup off tonight or you will break out.”

Illustration by Melissa Mendes
Illustration by Melissa Mendes

We all hugged again and then they piled into the cab, driving off to some magical Bowie land that I would never know. Or a shared apartment on the Lower East Side.

I pulled my jacket tightly around me and begun the seven-block walk home, once again aware that I was alone with a massive Mohawked head full of hairspray and a stage-makeup filled face. But it mattered less now.

As I walked through Washington Square Park I thought of my Bowie angels, the three who helped me finish off my night with a warm cup of coffee rather than a dark walk to my apartment. I knew I probably wouldn’t see them again, or that if I did I might not have the courage to approach them and ask if they remembered me. But the night was just so perfect, so New York, that I was happy to have it end just the way it did.

I hummed “Life on Mars?” and trailed gold glitter all the way home.

Gabrielle Sierra is a freelance arts and culture journalist from Brooklyn. She is a writer for Melodysiac and Brooklyn Exposed, and will soon begin a position with The Daily News. She is currently getting her masters degree from the CUNY Graduate Center for Journalism

Melissa Mendes is the author of the Xeric-award winning graphic novel Freddy Stories.  Her current comic series Lou is being published by Oily Comics.  She lives and works in western Massachusetts.  

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Watching the Line

By Rebecca White

New York is the city that never sleeps, but when you’ve been up all night listening to your hospital roommate moan in pain while you yourself are tethered to a nutrition bag via a catheter in your neck, you come to realize that if it’s past midnight and you’re still awake, you better be healthy. If not, the towering buildings, the tightly cramped spaces, the eight million people who are everywhere yet all out of sight, become reminders of your confinement to the physical self. No matter how much moves and shakes in New York’s early hours, this city can also be the loneliest place in the world.

I spent two weeks in the hospital this summer and another five weeks after that bottled up in my apartment, not sleeping at night. Six years ago, when I was twenty-five, I had my gallbladder removed. This summer I needed abdominal surgery to fix a complication that had occurred over time. During recovery I was told I could not eat or drink anything until I healed.

After several days at the hospital, receiving nutrition intravenously through a small vein in my arm, I learned that a catheter would have to be inserted into my neck. The doctors were ready to bring in the big guns so that they could administer a more heavy-duty version of intravenous nutrition. The procedure for getting this catheter into my neck became fodder for many sleepless nights:

Imagine being strapped to a table. You’re in an operating room. You’re lying on your back. You’re wide-awake and the brightest lights you’ve ever seen are directly overhead. Doctors with facemasks surround you; an image straight out of an “X-Files” episode on alien abductions. Just when you feel you can relax, they tilt the operating table downward so that your head is pointing toward the floor and your feet are pointing up to a sky you haven’t seen for days. The doctors are holding long needles, one of which they will use to puncture a hole in your neck, then they’ll spend the next twenty minutes inserting a thick rubber tube inside. The tube will not stop until it reaches your heart.

They’re creating a pathway for what you will refer to as “food” until they remove it after three days and reinsert a similar tube called a PICC line into a large vein in your arm. This new tube will be connected to a TPN bag that you will hook yourself up to for twelve hours per night for the next five weeks while in the relative comfort of your own home. This is not a dream but it is the stuff of nightmares. It is also your life for now and don’t ask why. My life, I mean.

Back home, now a little over ninety pounds and staring down five weeks of virtual starvation, I was weak, tired and afraid. I didn’t have a roommate and was going through a messy breakup.

My doctors recommended I attach the TPN bag at night so that I could sleep through the infusion. During the day, I would disconnect the bag and cover the port in my arm with a white bandage. But sleep was impossible for mounting reasons. During the first few days at home, I would wake in the middle of the night panicked and listening for the nurses and doctors who would no longer be coming in to check on me.

I was alone now, and once I realized this I became a creature of unnatural habit—emphasis on the word ‘creature,’ because I did not feel human. I was being kept alive, after all, by an appendage that was crafted in a warehouse somewhere out of plastic and rubber.

Around ten p.m. each night I would connect myself to the TPN bag. I used hypodermic needles to insert Pepcid and vitamins into the bag. Once I mixed the concoction thoroughly, I hooked the bag up to a pump, which coursed the fluid through my veins while simultaneously alerting me to the presence of air bubbles with a loud beeping noise.

One week into this treatment and the air bubbles became the enemy.

Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn
Illustration by Chelsey Pettyjohn

If you’ve never seen an air bubble one inch long work its way snakelike through a long tube, then slip quietly into your body because you couldn’t pinch the tube closed in time because you couldn’t stop watching the bubble slink closer and closer to your arm because it was two a.m. and you’d been half sleeping, half watching “Parenthood” repeats on Hulu, then you’re missing out on a special kind of torture.

I imagined the air inside my body piling up like soap bubbles in various chambers of my heart, pushing against the sides of this now expanding organ to the point of possible rupture.

So I began to ‘watch the line,’ terminology I created for keeping my eyes on the PICC line, on the lookout for air. This was to protect myself, of course; to make sure that once an air bubble was spotted, I could immediately put pressure on the line, disconnect it, and release the air. I’d been told repeatedly that ‘the air won’t kill you,’ but they weren’t fooling me.

Doctors told me. Nurses told me. “The air won’t kill you,” they all said. That’s the thing about being sick, though. Something will either kill you or it won’t, and the ambiguous middle ground becomes subject to the wilds of your mind.

Three weeks into the fast, I was a verified day-sleeper. I slept while disconnected whenever possible. Because at night, I had to watch the line.

I had to watch the line while in the East Village, summer interns chugged down beers and rejoiced over two-for-one slices. I had to watch the line while in the Meatpacking District, men with too many muscles sidled up behind intoxicated women ‘on the floor.’ I had to watch the line while the elderly woman with whom I’d shared a hospital room still moaned in pain because her intestines were inflamed and her veins were still too small to hold the IVs that would have helped her receive medicine and soothing fluids.

In September, when the PICC line was removed, there was nothing left to watch, so I lay in bed awake and in shock. It was over. I could eat again. I had healed. I was almost back to normal.

As I started to feel safe again, I allowed myself to sleep with the rest of the city, to close my eyes before dawn. Some nights I feel safer than others. But I made sure to type this story after midnight to reconnect, if only for a few hours, to a part of myself I will hopefully only meet again in my nightmares.

Rebecca White is a Narratively contributing editor. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times.

Chelsey Pettyjohn is an artist living and working in Brooklyn. You can see more of her work at hideousthings.com.

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Riding the Green Wave

By Moses Gates

The double-decker tour bus for the night loop doesn’t leave until it’s full up with paying customers. Usually it’s not much of a problem to get people on a nice evening, but for whatever reason when my bus got to be about two-thirds full, the tickets just stopped selling. So we kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until the last few sales finally trickled in. I had been counting on being done with this tour at 9:30, but because of the delay I wasn’t back in Times Square until 10:15. I met my girlfriend, Sara, and her parents at 49th and Seventh at 10:20.

It was Sara’s parents’ first time in New York so of course I, an actual professional tour guide, was also playing amateur tour guide for them. After all, this was about the only card I had to play to impress them–I had no money, lived in a walk-up with a roommate in Crown Heights, and my current career consisted of waiting for work on a Times Square street corner. Earlier I had suggested my go-to, cheap(ish), first-time-in-New-York dining experience: dinner at Lombardi’s. The first pizzeria in the United States, Lombardi’s is still going strong over one hundred years after it was founded at the corner of Spring and Mott–close enough to Little Italy that you can couple the experience with an easy after-dinner stroll down Mulberry Street. New York City pizza, history, and an iconic neighborhood, all in one. Maybe I wasn’t a big shot with a penthouse apartment and fancy job, but I at least knew how to give out-of-towners a memorable night enjoying a lovely little corner of New York. The only problem was that Lombardi’s stopped seating customers at 10:45 on the dot.

Upon meeting Sara and her parents I made a mistake – remembering that the restaurant is only a short walk from an N/R stop, I had us head downstairs to the 49th Street station, thinking I had enough time to save car fare. But as every New Yorker knows, the N/R stands for the “Never” and the “Rarely.” As it approached 10:30, we were still waiting. I knew we would never make it on time, even if by some miracle a train appeared right that minute. Our last shot was to get a cab.

Sara’s parents were leaving the next day, and I was pretty sure I had blown our chance at Lombardi’s—not to mention dented my man-about-town credentials. I’d done the route from Times Square to downtown a million times on the tour bus, and it takes forever: traffic, lights, stops, turns, getting through Times Square, Herald Square, Madison Square, Union Square. Still, it was my last shot before having to find something interesting and edible in Midtown, while trying to play it off like it was only a slight step down from the dinner option I’d been talking up all day. You bet I was going to try.

I hailed a cab. “We’ve got to get to Spring and Mott by 10:45” I said. “You can do that?” I knew no cab driver was about to turn down an easy fare from Midtown to Little Italy, but there was something in the way that this guy gave a shrug and a “yeah, ok” that made me think he actually meant it.

I got my first clue that I was right as we headed down Seventh Avenue into Times Square. This was back in 2007, before Broadway was shut to traffic. The junction between Broadway and Seventh Avenue was a hell of merging cars, jaywalking tourists, and cabs cruising maddeningly slowly for the remnants of the theatre crowd. Most drivers–myself included–would have sighed, muttered a curse, and navigated the bowtie intersection as best we could before finally crossing 42nd Street and continuing on at a normal pace. Our driver snorted, shot effortlessly through the honks across three lanes, and turned left down 48th Street, hardly pausing for the tourists crossing the street.

The asset that a driver brings to the business transaction that is the New York City taxi ride is pretty straightforward–he has a car at the moment and you don’t. It’s a rare person who brings any kind of added value to the action of driving it. But not this time. As we turned right down Fifth Avenue I realized I hadn’t just hired a guy with a car. I was with one of the one percent—this guy was just on a different plane than your average driver. I felt like I was in a movie: on an honest-to-god, crazy New York City cab ride.

For him, lanes were a creation for other people, irrelevant to the physicality of the road. Cruising down Fifth, he stayed straddled between the left-hand and middle lanes, blocking off both of them and allowing himself a huge swath of the road to utilize as he saw fit. This, I soon found out, was so he always had the option of a passing lane whenever he caught the car in front of him, as he inevitably did. He never let any other vehicle dictate his pace–repeatedly passing on the right, quickly swerving to avoid the double-parked cars or left-turning vehicles. Then he’d jerk back hard to cut off whoever he’d just passed and reclaim his personal speedway.

Then there was the matter of the traffic lights. The lights of the avenues of Manhattan are timed, designed so that traffic flows smoothly at a controlled pace. Once you see a light turn yellow in front of you, you might make it through that one, but you know you’ll get caught a block or two later. Not with this guy. Right as he saw a yellow he’d give it something extra, knowing exactly how much he had to push it to make it through the next major cross street, where the lights would reset and the game would start over again.

We made it across 42nd street without hitting a stoplight. Then, barely, across 34th. Then we came into Madison Square, one of those places where Broadway intersects with an avenue at a diagonal and traffic slows down for all the lane changes and merging. It’s almost impossible to make it through without hitting a red.

There was also another problem–we were on the left side of the street. That side doesn’t continue on Fifth Avenue, but instead leads down Broadway into Union Square: a dammed-up mess to be avoided at all costs. I considered pointing this out to the driver, but instead decided to have faith. My faith was rewarded. The driver was using the left lane–marked, of course, with an arrow indicating the proper direction was down Broadway–not in order to actually switch over to Broadway, but simply as a clear path to beat the light while the right lanes became congested from the merging traffic. We made the yellow (well, more like deep orange) light, and the subsequent red stopped the traffic in the right-hand lanes. This enabled the driver to then cross over through the now-clear intersection all the way to the right and continue down Fifth. We made it through 23rd Street and the lights reset again. I was absolutely exhilarated. The driver looked bored.

He saw he was finally going to get caught at a red on Ninth Street, which is one-way the wrong way from where we were going, so he preemptively swung it left onto Tenth. Two blocks and we turned right on Broadway, and the game began again–cruising along, straddling lanes, riding the green wave, speeding up at the first hint of yellow to overtake other drivers and not get caught at the light.

We made it past Houston, he turned left on Spring, and after about thirty seconds of watching pedestrians jump out of our way as we sped down the crowded downtown street, we finally screeched to a stop. We’d hit our first red light–one block from Lombardi’s. It was 10:39.

I gave the guy twice the meter and the parting words “you are an incredible cab driver.” In return, I got a grunt that said “yeah, obviously,” and not even a cursory offer of change—he knew he’d delivered my money’s worth and probably more. We walked through the door of Lombardi’s at 10:41 PM, the hostess happy to seat us, and we happy to enjoy a large pie with meatballs, and another with extra garlic.

Moses Gates is an urban planner, licensed New York City tour guide and visiting assistant professor of demographics at the Pratt Institute. His memoir, Hidden Cities, is in bookstores March 21st. Follow him  @MosesNYC

That One Time a Kid Almost Bled Out in My Arms

By Arvind Dilawar

It was shaping up to be a quiet Saturday night in August of 2009. I was twenty-two and living with my mom in Jackson Heights, Queens, while finishing my last year of college. I had just broken up with my girlfriend and quit my job at H&M, so I had nothing to do and no money to do anything. I was probably settling in to watch TV all night when Daria, a friend from junior high school, called and convinced me to grab a drink with her. (The names of people in this story have been changed to protect their identities; some of them are currently in jail, for reasons unrelated to this story, while others are gearing up to become lawyers.)

After a few rounds at a bar in Elmhurst, we headed across the street to a bodega to buy two Four Lokos, then walked around the corner to a dead end that offered a good vantage and a dumpster to ditch our cans in case NYPD pulled up. The scene wasn’t lost on us: we realized that we were, in fact, sitting between a “DEAD END” sign and a dumpster while drinking highly caffeinated malt liquor in public. The realization brought on a degree of despondency. It wasn’t so much the classlessness of our predicament that was bringing us down—it was the sheer banality of it. We used to have fun. Our nights used to be exciting. We were getting old.

Thus, when my twenty-year-old brother called to invite us to a party his friends were throwing, we decided to go. It can’t be worse than this, we thought.

The party was in East Elmhurst, at the family home of one of my brother’s friends. Upon arriving, we walked through the house and met the host’s mother and father, who were jovial and welcoming—more a part of the festivities than chaperones. With a smile, the host’s father shook my hand and commented on how much my brother and I look alike.

The party itself was in the backyard, where dozens of mostly Hispanic twenty-year-olds were talking, drinking and dancing to a mix of hip hop, R&B and reggaeton. Despite almost everyone being underage, there was a keg and boxes of miniature liquor bottles, which my brother’s friends had stolen from the airport they worked at.

It was a good time. I met my brother’s friends; I chugged tiny bottles of whiskey; I did my first keg stand. We were in the neighborhood where I grew up, so I invited a few more junior high friends, Eric and Omar, who arrived a few hours later with their own friend Dillon in tow. He was a tall, skinny-ish kid who was probably twenty-two or twenty-three. I don’t know how Eric and Omar knew him, but Dillon soon made himself known to everyone at the party.

Dillon, who was abundantly drunk, and the host’s older brother got into an argument about something that was most likely meaningless. When the host’s father attempted to break it up, Dillon punched him—the father—in the face.

The way the wind sweeps up a plastic bag, that was the way it seemed Dillon was forced from the backyard to the dark alley behind it—except that instead of an invisible current of air pressure, it was with the fists of almost every able-bodied young man at the party. Instantly, everyone was in the alley, with a circle of a dozen kids wailing on Dillon. A few people tried to break up the fight, but it was impossible to get through the melee. No one took a swing at me—probably because they mistook me for my brother—but Eric and Omar weren’t so lucky. I remember seeing Eric out of the corner of my eye as he tried to fight off two kids who were hitting him repeatedly. At one point, someone sprang from the torrent with a bottle in hand and shattered it over Dillon’s head, and down he went, beneath the crowd. The stomping didn’t end until someone screamed out “POLICE!” and everyone scattered.

Eric, Omar, Dillon and I were left in the alley with one or two of my brother’s friends who had also tried to break up the fight. Dillon was still laid out on the floor, so I walked over to him, knelt down and propped his head up on my lap. He was unconscious, and as I wrapped my fingers around the back of his head, I could feel a dampness that I hoped was runoff from the broken bottle, but knew it couldn’t be from its warmth and the way it congealed with sediments of alley gravel.

After circling around the block once or twice, an NYPD squad car drove up the alley. Two officers emerged and began questioning us, but we feigned ignorance about the fight.

“You gotta call an ambulance, this kid is bleeding a lot,” I told one of the officers, to which he responded, “What are you, a doctor?” One of my brother’s friends shot back: “Are you doctor? No, you’re a fucking cop, so call an ambulance!”

EMTs finally arrived to take Dillon to a local hospital (where he would get stitches but otherwise be alright). While they were securing him to a stretcher, the police lined the rest of us up against the fence, searched us and questioned us again. Eric, still reeling from either drunkenness or the punches he took, collapsed onto the ground—but it was more comic relief than grave concern, and after laughing about it for a second, we quickly got him back onto his feet.

After the ambulance left and the cops released us, I was able to find my brother, who had ducked back into the house with his friends and was now blackout drunk. I took his car keys and instructed one of his friends to take him home. After scouting the block for lingering squad cars, who would instantly recognize us and pull me over for driving under the influence, I packed Eric and Omar into my brother’s car and we drove off. I dropped Omar off at his mother’s apartment, then decided that Eric, who had passed out, was in no shape to go to his mother’s place.

The sun was begging to rise by the time we got back to my mom’s house. I woke Eric and helped him stagger to my room. He collapsed onto the bed, and I placed a waste bin next to it in case he needed to throw up — which he began doing almost immediately. I was so tired that I laid down on the carpeted floor and fell asleep.

A few hours later, I woke up to check on Eric, who was still out cold. I thought about Daria; I had lost her right before the fight started, and she hadn’t been picking up her phone since. I tried calling her again, but her cellphone went straight to voicemail. I hoped she was OK. I thought about how our night had started, with fears of monotony, weariness, age; I thought about where we were this morning—beaten, frayed, lost. I thought about the unimaginable chasm between then and now, how impossibly those points connect. I don’t know which I prefer, the dull stasis or the chaotic upheaval, the tiredness or the violence. I guess it doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t seem like you get to choose.

That night, I was wearing a light blue Western button-up, which I eventually noticed was speckled with blood. The stains wouldn’t come out in the wash, but I decided to keep it anyway. I still have it.

Arvind Dilawar writes mostly about the dumb things he’s done, but has somehow managed to have his work appear on TheAtlantic.com, The Daily Mail and, of course, Narratively. Go figure.

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In the Morning, Feeling Half Right

By Chris Pomorski

Through the twin living room windows of my Brooklyn apartment, I often watch airplanes dip gently north, toward their berths at LaGuardia. Most days they pass every two minutes or so—close enough to make out the darkened rounds of individual portholes, and yet, by a trick of wind, somehow silent. When the planes appear outside, already low in the sky, tray tables have doubtless been stowed and seatbacks restored to upright positions. Travelers sigh and work their jaws, drain tomato juice from thin plastic cocktail glasses. They have viable agendas or imagine so. One, perhaps, has a line on a no-fee apartment; another hopes for a taxi medallion; a third has come to see about a girl. Some possess no more than vague notions of their destination, yet unruffled by experience. At night, they duck beneath the moon before disappearing from view.

A few months before I arrived in the city, at my college graduation in Boston, a professor told the assembled audience that many of his students knew only enough about their future to say they were too sophisticated for any town but New York. Many of his students, knowing better in the way of people that age, chuckled. What he failed to reveal was that after we’d arrived, we would need to explain to ourselves why we had come, and that until we could, we might well suffer. Sophistication alone, he ought to have mentioned, would not sustain us.

New York, I understood at twenty-two, was a desirable place to live. I could have named many reasons why that was so. Nonetheless, I could not have explained why I wanted to be here. That first year I did not often see concerts or get to the theater. In my cramped office, I took note of readings and performances I would never attend. Bar tabs and cigarettes trumped the bills of restaurants and fashionable grocers, and I subsisted chiefly on jarred tomato sauce and turkey bacon. In taverns that smelled of fraternity house basements, my friends and I drank until closing and remembered little of what was said. We were dropped by college girlfriends and slept with girls a good deal less sensible. We dozed through weekend sunlight or spent it groaning on loungers from Jennifer Convertibles. Come evening we reconvened around bottles of whiskey and gin.

On warm nights, I often selected a tourist’s route home from my job near Radio City, past Rockefeller Center and through Fifth Avenue’s busiest shopping district, where I could shake my head with satisfaction at the confused visitors who clogged the one fragment of town I felt confident navigating. More than any other, the scene outside the Public Library in Bryant Park was devastating. There I watched shimmering young women and bespoke-suited men about my age moving in sunshine with a certainty of purpose I could not imagine. They had, I felt sure, come with something in mind—it mattered not what—beyond merely being in a particular place. Here were strivers to endure the eight years’ residence required to earn the title of New Yorker. Solidity marked their strides. They obtained. They did not wonder: What brought me here? Their apparent surety rendered them alien and increasingly, I could not justify my presence in the city. Yet I never thought to leave.

Illustration by Sara Lautman
Illustration by Sara Lautman

On the narrow section of wall between my living room windows, where I sometimes linger during breaks from writing, hangs a print of a drawing I tried and failed to see early one morning at a midtown exhibition, not long after moving to the city. I do not remember where the previous night began, but it ended with a foggy sunrise over the East River, observed with three friends from a roof deck in Murray Hill. We’d been at one bar or another and returned to drink from tall cans of beer in the warm dark. We smoked Camels or American Spirits, lounging in iron furniture that the building’s management must have acquired decades earlier. We watched the lights change in the tower of the Empire State building and marveled at the quietude of First Avenue, emptied at five a.m. of double-decker buses.

When we arrived, however, art lovers had somehow already crowded the lobby: heavyset women in stonewashed jeans, lithe Europeans, pinched old couples wearing sour expressions. Strolling the exhibit’s first rooms, we discerned how badly out of place we must have looked. Wild-eyed and smelling of liquor, with shirttails hanging from our jeans, we made a succinct portrait of white-collar depravity. For some minutes, we managed to endure stares of disapproval, but as our buzz faded and exhaustion gripped, the crowd’s judgment induced untenable paranoia.

There is a brand of acute and sudden self-awareness very like panic, and before we could see much of what Kentridge had in store, we fled, poorer by the price of admission for our trouble.

Much—too much—has been made of New York’s peculiar allure, of lights and excitement, celebrity and skyline. It was nonetheless perhaps some combination of these notions that drew me otherwise purposeless to the city—an idea of the place rather than any tactile sense of it. The people in the museum that morning, though, had not traveled from faraway homes to bask in any vague glow. They had come to walk particular streets, cross galleries and theaters from lists of destinations. My distaste for sightseeing notwithstanding, they were on to something. For all its myth, New York is no more than a very large collection of small things, and as in any other place, one’s happiness or misery here depends on the specifics, on which details one fastens upon or ignores. A visitor’s connection to New York, though, is equivalent to a fling. Free of a long-term relationships’ difficulties and compromises, it is relatively easy to fixate on the city’s loveliest features. Still, the tourist’s view can be illuminating, even if it finds us wanting. In the looks of censure we received from our fellow museumgoers there lurked a hint of sympathy: “You are so lucky and you don’t even know it,” they seemed to say. “Is there no other way you can make a life here?”

In Goodbye to All That, her seminal essay on leaving New York, Joan Didion laments the youthful indiscretions she had thought would never come due: “It had counted after all,” she writes, “every evasion and every procrastination, every word, all of it.” At twenty-seven, I am a year younger than Didion was when the city’s romance ended for her, and there are moments that her insights seem achingly true. But procrastinations amount, after all, to the deferring of choices—choices that often enough we are not quite ready to make. Didion was right. The early mornings in bars, the cocktail-doused afternoons, the times “we would watch the sky lighten and have a last drink with no ice,” have always counted. They count not merely against us, though, it seems to me, but also toward what follows. Without them, there wouldn’t be any Slouching Towards Bethlehem, any White Album orSalvador. I, for my part, would not stand at a window in Brooklyn, watching planes go by and wondering where the passengers are headed, what they will endure, and what will come of it.

Chris Pomorski recently completed a degree at NYU’s graduate school of journalism; his work has appeared on Indiewire and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood.

Sara Lautman is an illustrator and comics artist from New Jersey. She has drawn for publications like Bitch Magazine, The L Magazine, The Hairpin, Heeb and The Morning News. Her blog is called MACROGROAN!

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Seersucker & Salmon on the Dumbest Morning of My Life

By W.M. Akers

No matter how neatly they rhyme, don’t trust friends who say, “Early flight? Stay up all night!”

Illustration by Laura Baisden
Illustration by Laura Baisden

Leaving New York after my freshman year at NYU, I booked an eight a.m. flight and was foolish enough to let my best friend turn my ordeal into a party. With the graceless vigor of those young enough to still have a metabolism, we threw ourselves into an all-nighter fueled by Talking Heads, lamb gyros and the world’s worst Manhattans—an abominable mix of Canadian whiskey and dry vermouth that only a freshman could love. But my friends fell well short of greeting the dawn.

“It’s past two,” they whined. “We’re going to bed.”

Half-drunk and fully alone, I put aside my wistfulness and whirlwinded around the apartment, cramming my crap into any bit of luggage that could hold it. Just before dawn, I staggered out of my dorm for the last time, dragging two rolling suitcases, a three-ton duffel and a Duane Reade bag full of sneakers. Unable to carry my Totally Awesome dorm room posters, I left them behind, and my dorm rooms were never Totally Awesome again. I hailed a cab for JFK and slipped into sleep.

Why JFK? You see, my freshman year I had a long-distance girlfriend—a high school squeeze whom I kept dating in order to have someone to yell at me once I got to college. To allow for periodic make-out weekends, the good people of JetBlue arranged a direct route from JFK to BNA, which began service the day I left for New York. Wishing the inaugural flight bon voyage were Nashville’s mayor, a congressman or two, and the kind of anonymous country band for which the Music City is renowned. As we taxied away, the grounds crew sprayed two arcs of water over the plane—a baptism for the new route. Direct service was cancelled after a year, but my god did I put it to good use.

No torture device is as brutal as the long-distance relationship, which leaves a man ripped ragged across two time zones. But at $90 a ticket, I could afford a JetBlue taxi back to Nashville every few weeks, allowing me to make the sort of attacks upon my girlfriend’s innocence that just aren’t possible over the phone. This kept us going for a while, but by May, the relationship collapsed under the fetid weight of teenage emotions. It was time to take high school W.M. back behind my memory barn and shoot him in the head.

When I went to the airport that long, ugly night, I wasn’t going directly to Nashville, but was instead hauling everything I owned to California, for a weekend with a friend in sunny San Diego. I swear this made sense at the time.

Trouble is, although I arrived at the JetBlue terminal just after dawn, I wasn’t flying JetBlue. When you hand a JetBlue employee another airline’s boarding pass, they make a face like you’re trying to squeeze their brain into a raisin box. After a few seconds of slack-jawed staring, I noticed my boarding pass said “SOUTHWEST.” I was halfway through asking what terminal I needed to sprint to when I realized something hideous.

Southwest doesn’t fly out of JFK. Southwest flies out of Islip. Islip is in Long Island.

I was not in Long Island.

I wish I could say that, upon this realization, I sprang into action. But in my life I don’t think I’ve ever sprung into anything. Instead, I trudged to the AirTrain, ready to treat myself to a long, despondent subway ride back to the dorm. A screw-up like me doesn’t deserve a cab. The AirTrain chugged around to Jamaica Station, and I slouched towards the E. And then I spied the LIRR, and the pieces fell into place.

Southwest flies out of Islip. Islip is in Long Island. The Long Island Railroad, by its very name, must go to Long Island. I can go to Long Island!

It was like the end of “Usual Suspects,” if that movie were about a kid trying to get to the airport, and Keyser Söze were his own stupidity. I called 1-800-Southwest and begged for salvation from myself. “Iscrewedupreallyreallyreallybad,” I blurted. “Are there any more flights that would let me make my connection in Chicago?”

“Get there in forty-five minutes,” said the magical phone person, “and we’ll get you on a plane.”

I dragged my two suitcases, my three-ton duffel, and the Duane Reade sneakerbag across Jamaica at person-like speeds, and found a train going my way. I sat down, took out my newspaper and—oh, rats. I forgot to tell you about the seersucker suit.

Soaked in rage-sweat, I flopped onto a bench. It was eight a.m.; my first flight was just leaving, and I was the only person in Jamaica traveling east. Across the tracks was a gaggle of grey-faced commuters, staring at the hungover boy in the wacky suit reading the salmon-colored New York Observer. With massive relief, I realized I was going to get away with it. Like a young person, I had made a moronic mistake. And like a young person, I would not be punished. I was the bizarro commuter, on his way to the west coast, and I was going to make my flight. I was going to make my connection. And I was never going to make this mistake again. Probably.

Only later did I learn the magnitude of my error. Not only was I not supposed to go to JFK—I wasn’t supposed to go to Islip. Although Southwest confined their New York flights to Long Island at the time, that day they had somehow secured themselves a gate at LaGuardia. It should have been an easy morning, but instead I went to the wrong airport. Twice.

W.M. Akers is a Tennessee playwright who lives in New York City. He writes about theater at AstorPlaceRiot.net.

Laura Baisden lives in Nashville, Tennessee.  She is a printmaker and illustrator who specializes in relief printing and letterpress.  She spends her workday designing posters at Hatch Show Print, and her evenings drawing and carving her own illustrations. 

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What’s your ultimate New York at night moment? Send us your own tale from the night; we’ll publish the best on this week’s edition of The Park Bench.

 

 

He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means.

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Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of 1469workshop.com)

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

 

 

White Settlers Wiped Thousands of Miles of Cherokee Trails Off the Map. This Man is Reclaiming Them — By Walking Each and Every One.

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These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.

Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall.

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”

Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound.

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”

“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”

* * *

On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.

Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.

Marshall entering his “man cave” at his house in Cowee, North Carolina.

And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.

Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.

Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.

* * *

Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”

A photo of Marshall in his twenties in Alabama, dressed in traditional Indian attire.

He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.

For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.

But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.

Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”

Marshall attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross a log in the Nantahala National Forest.

Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).

Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”

* * *

Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”

From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”

 

 

The Secret Story of the Groundbreaking Boxing Champ Who Lost His Title — Because He Was Gay

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This Latino immigrant moved to 1920s New York with nothing and took on the sports establishment. Then the establishment took him down.

On October 14, 1928, his last day as president of the National Boxing Association, Tom Donahue sent out a press release listing each of the reigning champions. The following day, before Paul Prehn, the new president, moved in his belongings or placed any personal photos on his desk, he released a statement with the sole purpose of taking away from a fighter what was earned in the ring – his title. Panama Al Brown, a boxer whom the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau described as “a poem written in black ink,” was an unwanted champion. 

In the years that followed, Brown danced circles around the best boxers, eventually becoming the undeniable king of the bantamweights. Yet boxing officials continued to look for reasons to deny him his status. His title reign was filled with dubious suspensions and blatant refusals by state commissioners to acknowledge that he was the best in his class. Eventually, Brown packed his bags and sailed to Europe. The fans there embraced him at first, but when they too caught wind of the whispers that swirled behind his back, most came to his fights hoping to see him lose. He was jeered, slurred, and spat on during his ring walks. After one fight, the Parisian fans surrounded him as he left the ring and beat him bloody and unconscious amid the ringside seats. The reason for the suspensions, the boos, and the hate on both sides of the Atlantic, was all because Al Brown, boxing champion, loved other men. 

Al Brown in 1927. (Photo by Agence Meurisse, courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France)

He was born on July 5, 1902, just as the Thousand Days’ War neared its end in a country known as the waist of the Americas. The coastal city of Colón, Panama, was a rugged place nature didn’t intend for habitation by large populations. Even the land-hungry sailor the area was named after, Cristobal Colón –Christopher Columbus – took one look at the hostile terrain and shook his head “no” before settling fifty miles to the west. Later, the quest for gold and the travel shortcut across this narrow isthmus attracted the masses in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Plans were drawn up for a railroad. Workers came from all over the world, including Brown’s maternal ancestors. Later, among the droves who came for jobs working on the construction of the Panama Canal was Brown’s father, Horace, a freed slave who arrived in Colón with nothing but the clothes on his muscular shoulders. 

After the U.S. took over construction of the canal, roads were paved, social clubs opened, and mosquito breeding areas were doused in oil, eradicating the pests but leaving much of the area smelling like a five-minute lube shop. Along with the improved infrastructure came segregation. Despite there being two schools closer to their home, young Al Brown had to attend one of the blacks-only schools on the other side of the dusty town. He read from English-language textbooks and developed a love of music from playing with rusted instruments. After school, he washed his white button-down shirt in the sink because, for many years, it was the only school shirt he had. 

“Miserable” was how Brown described his childhood. He was thirteen when his father died. His mother swept the dirty floors and scrubbed the soiled clothes of others to provide for the family. Brown did his share, bringing home prizes – a can of powdered milk – he won from his amateur boxing matches.  

Boxing was one of the more popular forms of entertainment during and following the canal construction. Hall of Fame caliber fighters like Sam Langford and Kid Norfolk headlined throughout the country. Boxing back then was a world where broken noses were fixed by the guys carrying the spit bucket. Orange peels were used as mouth guards, to prevent the teeth from shredding the insides of lips and leaving them looking like twisted pasta noodles. To prevent biting their tongues while fighting, boxers bit down on wooden matchsticks. The pre-fight and post-fight medicals consisted simply of the question, “How do you feel?”

The Strand Boxing Gym was where Brown started. It was a humid place where trainers smoked, drank, and everyone’s idea of fresh air was flapping a musky towel in your face. Pounding the bags with a dingy pair of Maynard boxing gloves, he found solace.

American boxer Al Brown around April 8, 1931. He would soon fight Eddy Baldock, unseen, on May 21 at Olympia. (AP Photo)

Following World War I, most of the top boxers left Panama. Prospects were few, so Brown hesitated only slightly before leaving Colón behind. He spent time at the docks, sometimes working as a stevedore. Mostly, he paced back and forth and studied the routines of the ships the way he would opponents in the ring. He looked for an opening where he might be able to slip in.  

When the Alvarado passed through the canal on May 21, 1923 on its way to New York, Brown lined up on the docks with a loading crew. Wearing two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and his father’s cap pulled down over his eyes, he joined the crew as they loaded the ship, his eyes scanning every corner of the vessel. Before the last round of goods were loaded, they nodded silently to him. Brown took one last look at Colón, and, under his breath said, “Goodbye Mom.”

Once underway, he was found and put to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Seated in a trench with a carving knife in one hand and a potato in the other, he twisted and turned the potato while chalky, foot-long spirals fell and filled bucket after bucket.  

A few weeks later, on Ellis Island, sweat coated the palms of his hands. Suspicious border agents seated behind elevated desks awaited with a round of questions, occasionally stopping to ruffle through papers and fix their eyes on him. The young boxer kept his cool and his answers short. 

When he stepped out into the sun-drenched street, he asked, “Which way to Harlem?”A stranger’s finger pointed north. It was about nine miles of brick and concrete from where he stood. With no money, he followed the trains that rumbled above on the Ninth Avenue El. 

When he reached 125th Street, it was that time of the day when the sun gets dunked into the Hudson. Weary and hungry, desperation increased as he looked for a boxing gym, or someone who looked like a boxer. The trolley cars became less frequent, the streets less crowded, and, as the night blanketed the city, it became obvious his first night would be spent on the streets. 

For two weeks, Brown roamed Harlem. A chance encounter with a former gym mate from Panama led to an audition before manager Leo P. Flynn and trainer Dai Dollings in a gym filled with many boxers from back home, who told Flynn and Dollings he was the flyweight champion of Panama. Doubting someone five-foot-nine could weigh only 114 pounds, Flynn asked him to strip down to his skin and be weighed. When the shirt came off and they noticed his muscles braided around his bones, they knew he was a future champion. Within a year, boxing in violet colored trunks with his initials on the front, Brown was ranked in the top three by Ring Magazine. Then his career stalled like a clogged toilet.

A series of events coincided to make his life miserable and his story great. His manager fell ill, his trainer’s son died, and the rumors about Brown’s personal life spread like mange throughout Lenox and Saint Nicholas Avenues and made their way into the boxing gyms. Brown was gay. He was “in the life” and patronized places like the speakeasy on 126th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the “rough queers” went, according to writer Bruce Nugent. Or six blocks up and to the right of that, where Edmond’s Cellar was “the place for men to flaunt their sister’s skirts and their mom’s wigs.” Other boxers stopped using the showers when he did. He was barred from the gyms. Unable to pay his rent, he was once again homeless. 

Brown showed up at the offices of promoter Eddie McMahon, (whose brother Jess, the grandfather of the WWE’s Vince McMahon, promoted wrestling). Under Eddie, Brown became a headliner at the Commonwealth Athletic Club in Harlem. Though popular with the uptown crowds, which included Langston Hughes, Brown had little luck securing the more lucrative and important fights held below 125th Street. 

He began boxing with the enthusiasm of a man stuffing envelopes. Then, following the murder of his friend, boxing champion Battling Siki of France, Brown headed for Paris. 

On November 11, 1926 at the Salle Wagram, Europe had its first look at Brown. Hours before the doors opened, a sold-out crowd lined up beneath the bright lights of the Salle and waited anxiously. Brown was the latest in a string of performers who became known as “Harlem in Montmartre.” While Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt ruled the stage, Brown was king of the ring. When he made his way down the carpeted aisle of the Troubadour-style hall in a sky-blue, silk kimono with white polka dots, his beige newsboy cap pulled down to side, he had no idea he was about to embark upon perhaps the most intense love-hate relationship any fighter ever had with his fans. 

In his Paris debut, Brown boxed like Muhammad Ali and punched like Joe Louis. A right hand thrown like a spear in the third, simultaneously dropped his opponent and the jaws of the ringsiders. After the fight, Brown hit the cobblestone streets and received congratulations everywhere he went. In Paris, despite being darker than his last name, he walked through the front doors of the pubs. 

His fights drew crowds the New York Times described as “fashionable” and, dressed in “evening clothes, with a brilliant display of jewelry, ermine and sables by the women.” In the audience were Picasso and Hemingway. After the fights, along the Rue de Martyrs or Boulevard de Clichy, the seductive sounds of a saxophone often came from Brown’s hands and lips. Having learned French as a child from his mother, who was of French-Caribbean ancestry, Brown easily got around Paris. The athletic boxer took to dance as easily as he did to boxing and even performed onstage with Josephine Baker’s La Revue Negré. Well-known in many parts of the city, once again, the whispers about his lifestyle spread. The premier attraction of the most macho sport was a regular in places where women dressed as men and same-sex couples held hands. Cheers turned to jeers and ring entrances were met with profanity, slurs and spit. 

Brown returned to New York and, under a new and influential manager, continued winning. When it came time for the NBA to crown a champion in 1928, he and Italy’s Kid Francis were the leading available contenders, and they met in a match TheNew York Times reported was “calculated to eliminate” one of them from the title picture. On the night of September 13, 1928, they faced off. Francis, called a “sawed-off Hercules and “the most dangerous challenger for the title” by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was no match for the “towering colored bantam with the extension ladder reach.” Brown became the first boxer from Latin America to win a world title, but it was soon taken away from him. 

On October 14, 1928, his last day as president, Donahue sent out a press release which appeared in the Times under an AP byline. Brown was listed among the champions. The very next day, the new president, Paul Prehn, issued a press release. 

“In the previous list Al Brown was recognized as the bantamweight champion, but now that championship is declared vacant.”

There is no definitive record of why he was stripped of the title, whether it was racism or homophobia or merely favoritism for others, but the decision to award it to him was not a popular one, and few protested it being taken away.

Once again relegated to club shows, Brown began to show signs of depression. He returned to Europe. The wins continued, as did the insults. Eventually, Brown beat everyone in his way and, begrudgingly, was acknowledged as champion in most corners. He came back to New York and defeated the reigning sensation, the Spaniard Gregorio Vidal, in 1929, after fifteen rounds and three knockdowns. But once again, those in charge of the NBA preferred to leave the title vacant. 

In contrast, fans in Europe flocked to his fights and the pay befitted a champion. Though he would do most of his boxing in Europe the rest of his career, he traveled often between the continents, keeping apartments in Harlem and Montmartre. In Harlem, he drove a 1929 Packard 645 Sport with six wire wheels. “A magnificent car that I might bring here if I stay long,” he told a Spanish reporter, who noted that Brown spoke with a lisp and dragged every “s.” In 1930, the Afro American reported that Brown, “Set Harlem Styles for Men.” His attire was called “feminine” and his “flowing coats, high belts and tams tickle observers on Seventh Avenue.”With wide belts, polished Oxfords, and colorful fedoras, Brown stood out like a Borzoi in a gym filled with bulldogs and pugs. 

In Paris, he kept a stable of slow race horses and once gave away a Bugatti. He also kept a medicine chest full of drugs. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in a Parisian nightclub or a Harlem speakeasy, in a room too dark to see the chancre sores, Brown contracted syphilis. Arthritis set in soon after. Painkillers and mercury pills became a daily routine. When his mother became bedridden, he delayed visiting her.

What would she say when she saw the raw sores that dotted his back, he thought. In those pre-penicillin days, syphilis had no cure. While he waited for the symptoms to fade, she exhaled for the last time. He didn’t attend the funeral. Instead, he stayed in Paris and got hooked on opium. 

Because of his illness and addiction, some of his fights were cancelled. When he fought Emile Pladner on November 14, 1932, he was drunk, high and sick. From about the eighth of November, Brown could not get out of bed. His vision was blurred, his head spun, and his stomach had trouble holding anything down. The day of the fight, he awoke with shivers and cold sweats and a temperature of 102. Still, he fought. That night, a Dr. Taubmann was called to his dressing room. The doctor prepared a syringe. “This will last ten minutes,” he said of the rush from the mixture of amphetamines. “Starting now,” he added before sticking the champion in his arm. It was clear to ring siders something was wrong with Brown. He threw few punches and there was no bounce to his steps. In the corner before the second round, his handlers held a fistful of smelling salts under his nose and told him, “Take him out now.”

Brown’s legs quivered unsteadily when he rose from his stool. At the center of the ring, an eager Pladner awaited. When Brown reached him, Pladner unleashed a left with fight-ending intentions towards Brown’s diaphragm. The punch traveled in a slight arc, gained maximum leverage, then, suddenly, was pulled down to the canvas with the rest of his body.

A split-second after Pladner planted his left foot for torque, Brown unleashed a right hand. Both punches were airborne at the same time. Brown’s punch was straight. Pladner’s took the scenic route. The straight punch landed first. It detonated on Pladner’s jaw. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. He looked awful when he got up. Brown looked worse.

When Pladner wound up to throw his next punch, Brown released an atomic right hand that carried every bit of energy he had left. It landed on the temple. Pladner was out before he hit the canvas. Before the referee finished the ten-count, Brown started to faint. He collapsed into the arms of his trainer who rushed over in the nick of time to catch him. 

Brown was admitted into a hospital, where he stayed for 48 hours. He woke to find a telegram on the desk beside him from his manager instructing him to check himself out and head over immediately to Sheffield for a December 1 match, followed by one in Brussels on December 3, and then another in Paris on December 8. 

One week later, an article in El Mundo Deportivo stated, “bad winds blowing throughout the house of Brown.” He was in a state of depression severe enough that he might quit the game. The cause for the depression was the death of his mother and his inability to visit her. Those close to him said Brown felt his death was imminent and that he wished to be high when it happened. 

Al Brown at the American hospital in Neuilly, France, 1932. (Photo by Agence Meurisse, courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France)

He was almost killed in 1934 by that angry mob who rushed the ring, kicking and punching him until the riot police arrived. Ringside reporters said Brown had thrown few punches and stumbled around the ring as though drunk. He grabbed and held on to his two-divisions-heavier opponent until the referee disqualified him for “stalling.” When he exited the ring, a mob blocked all paths to the dressing room and shouted at him. Within seconds, they pounced on him. When the attack was broken up, Brown had a dislocated clavicle and streams of his blood covered the ground. No arrests were reported, though one writer declared Brown was to blame for the fracas.  

He lost his championship in 1935 in a fight during which he spent the last three rounds crying and unable to properly defend himself because, he said, someone in his own corner had slipped some rat poison in his water bottle halfway through the fight. He returned to Paris with no intention of boxing. He found work as a tap dancer and sax player performing in front of crowds who preferred talking amongst themselves rather than watching him. Brown spent his days clutching his opium lamp. Always warm, that lamp – and that drug – did for him what his vaunted straight right used to: it bailed him out. 

Then one night the poet, Jean Cocteau, sat in the audience and asked to meet Brown, who he said comported himself in an elegant manner. Cocteau saw a younger version of himself in Brown. The dependency on his drug of choice, the way he clung to and relied on it like medicine, and the countless hook-ups with nameless individuals equally lost were all part of the road he traveled in his own younger days. Cocteau also knew the path out and would soon give Brown the directions.

Cocteau convinced Brown he needed to regain his championship and that he, for no money, would become his manager – his protector. With the financial backing of Cocteau’s close friend, Coco Chanel, Brown underwent detox and regained his title. Rumors once again surfaced, this time linking Brown with Cocteau. It was no secret that they shared an apartment and Brown was quoted as saying that what he liked most about Cocteau was the way the poet would slide into the bathtub after Brown was done and use the same bathwater the champ had used. They wore one another’s shoes and shirts and though they didn’t publicly confirm the rumors, they never denied them, not even when right-wing and fascist writers such as Robert Brasillach labeled Cocteau a “Jewified lover of Negroids.” Instead, Cocteau wrote a series of affectionate poems and articles about Brown, mostly for the journal Ce Soir. He wrote that “Al Brown’s methods astonished by their indifference to the rules.” Cocteau wrote of his own imprudence when, “adopting young souls who replace the true sons fate owed me but has not permitted me to have.” One of those souls, he wrote, “is so alien to the world of letters that he is almost more of a lyrical creation; I speak of former champion Al Brown.” There were enough writings to fill a book, which is precisely what Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo did, publishing Cocteau-Panama AlBrown Historia de Una Amistad (A Story of Friendship).

Under the guidance of Cocteau, Brown redeemed himself. He retired as champion and life was good until the beginnings of World War II. With the threat of German occupation looming over France, Brown left behind property, savings, Cocteau, and many friends. He returned to Harlem, and despite beginning to show signs of brain damage – headaches, a wobbly gait, slurred speech – he started boxing again. He sparred younger fighters, most of the time just covering up and letting them hit him. He stumbled out of the ring afterwards and, with an unsteady hand, collected his wage of one dollar per round. 

He was arrested for possession. Standing before federal judge William Bondy, he said his name was “Alfredo.” Someone in the courtroom whispered into Bondy’s ear. Looking down from the bench, he asked, “Are you Al Brown the former boxing champion?”

Brown lowered his head, and, in a soft voice, admitted he was. The room was silent while he told his story. He had left behind $280,000 in property in France with no way of reclaiming it, he told the court. Someone had recommended heroin, he said, so that the ring beatings wouldn’t hurt as much. 

The last few years of his life were spent in hospitals and on the streets. One cold night in 1951, a cop poked his club at an unresponsive man curled up on a mattress of litter on Broadway. It was Brown. They tossed him in a jail cell. When he didn’t wake up, they rushed him to a hospital. He had tuberculosis. When Cocteau found out Brown was on his deathbed, he recorded his memories of their time spent together and sent the tape to him via a reporter from L’équipe. It arrived just in time. 

On April 11, 1951, the booing ended, the insults went away, and the slurs stopped. A modest ceremony attended by few was followed by a burial witnessed only by the guy holding the shovel. His death, like that night in 1928 when he first became champion, went largely unreported. At least this time, the writers could be excused since Brown died alone in an empty room. With the tape player to his ear, according to Cocteau. 

* * *

This story is adapted and excerpted from Jose Corpas’ book, Black Ink. Sources include “Panama Al Brown” by Eduardo Arroyo; “Monstre Sacres Du Ring” by Georges Peeters; “An Impersonation of Angels, A Biography of Jean Cocteau” by Frederick Brown; “Professional Secrets, An Autobiography” by Jean Cocteau; and “A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939” by Florence Tamagne.

 

 

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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

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

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

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

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

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

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

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

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

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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