Tales from the Night

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.

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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.

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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

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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. 

*   *   *

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.

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

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

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

This is where it all started.

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

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

Here in the tunnels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Collective imagination took over quickly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

The rumbling feels closer. Something moves somewhere.

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

I walk away holding my breath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looks away, tears rolling down her face.

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

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

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

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

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

Soon she will give them to her daughter.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It encompassed Isaac’s entire way of thinking.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there were the others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was the tunnel’s way of saying hello.

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

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

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

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

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

The few Mole People left today survive in hurt.

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

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

But this is their city. This is their home.

These are their minds wandering and their time slipping.

Their hopes and their thirsts until the sun goes down.

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

The Hidden Queer History Behind “A League of Their Own”

The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League did everything it could to keep lesbians off the diamond. Seventy-five years later, its gay stars are finally opening up.

Josephine “JoJo” D’Angelo was in a hotel lobby in 1944. An outfielder for the South Bend Blue Sox — a team in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (A.A.G.P.B.L.), founded the year prior — she had dark, curly hair. Even if you didn’t know her last name, her looks hinted at her Italian heritage.

The hotel was likely decorated with muted colors in the modernist style of the previous decade. Thanks to World War II, there were supply shortages and rations, which put a hold on new design in the early ’40s. All available supplies needed to go toward the war effort.

The story was similar in baseball. With most of the Major League Baseball players deployed, executives decided to fill the gap with female players, paving the way for the A.A.G.P.B.L.

But in the hotel that day, D’Angelo was approached by one league executive and told that she was being released from her contract. This was devastating for the right-hander who’d batted .200 in her two seasons with the Blue Sox. She’d been playing since she was a little girl, and had spent her days working in a steel mill in her hometown of Chicago while devoting evenings to playing ball, before attending a tryout for the league at Wrigley Field. That scene was made famous by the film “A League of Their Own,” with hundreds of women traveling from around the country to the brick ballpark with the ivy-covered outfield wall.

Why was D’Angelo being cut from the thing she loved most in the world? When she told the story later in her life, she gave the reason: “a butchy haircut.” It was a haircut she says she never even wanted, one she was pressured into getting by the hairstylist who assured her she would look lovely with her dark curls trimmed into a bob.

D’Angelo had broken one of the cardinal rules of the A.A.G.P.B.L.: “Play like a man, look like a lady.” But she wasn’t the only one. Connie Wisniewski was told she’d be kicked off her team if she chose to get a close-trimmed cut. Multiple recruits were immediately handed tickets home after they showed up to spring training with bobs, and “Dottie Ferguson was warned by her chaperon against wearing girls’ Oxford shoes, because they were excessively masculine-looking,” writes Lois Browne in her book Girls of Summer: In Their Own League.

Members of the Fort Wayne Daisies baseball team, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

Players had to attend charm school and wear lipstick on the field. Their uniforms had skirts instead of pants — not great for sliding, but deemed appropriately feminine by league owner Philip K. Wrigley. All of this was chronicled in “A League of Their Own.” But there was one thing the movie left out: the reason for these requirements.

Though it was never explicitly stated, historians and players alike say the rules were in place, in part, to prevent the women from being perceived as lesbians. Many of the women actually were gay, including D’Angelo, which is another part of the story the movie didn’t tell. By not including a gay character’s story in “A League of Their Own,” the film does to the history of the league what the owners tried to do its existence — erase lesbians from the narrative.

* * *

When Terry Donahue met Pat Henschel in 1947, Donahue was a 22-year-old catcher and utility infielder in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. She grew up playing ball with her younger brother, Tom, on their family’s farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. “She claimed that she was five-foot-two. She was about five-foot,” Henschel tells me over the phone from the home she shares with Donahue. “She had dark hair, blue eyes, and was very attractive, and she was wonderfully liked.”

Donahue was in Nova Scotia for the winter when she met Henschel, who was 19 at the time. The two women hit it off, keeping in touch when Donahue moved back to the U.S. to play for the Peoria Red Wings. “She was a utility player, and the catcher on her team broke her thumb or her finger,” Henschel says. “The manager came up to her and said, ‘Have you ever caught?’ And Terry said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘Well, you’re going in tonight.’” The first game Donahue ever caught ended up being a 19-inning game. The next day was her birthday.

“The only things [women] can’t do, we can’t hit as far and we can’t throw as hard, but we certainly can make all the plays that you see in the Cubs’ ballpark. Or the Sox,” Donahue told the Kane County Chronicle in 2010, referring to the Cubs and White Sox, Chicago’s two major-league squads.

Left, Terry Donahue’s baseball card. Right, Peoria Redwings team photo in 1947 – the year she met Pat Henschel. Donahue played in the team from 1946 to 1949. (Photos courtesy All American Girls Professional Baseball League Players Association)

Today, Donahue, who has Parkinson’s disease, is 92. Henschel is 89. For seven decades the two told almost everyone, aside from their inner circle, that they were best friends. The Chronicle story calls Henschel Donahue’s “cousin and roommate.” But the truth was much more than that. For 70 years theirs has been a love story, originating in a time when the only love stories we were allowed to tell were those between a man and a woman. Try to ask most former players about the issue and they clam up. “I don’t think it was really even talked about, frankly,” Henschel says.

In the ’40s and ’50s, homosexuality was not discussed much; it wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed it from the list of mental illnesses. The players could have lost more than just their baseball careers if they had been open about their queerness. They could have lost their families, occupations, and reputations, too. In those days, “you had to be very discreet, and we were,” says Henschel. “No one was even aware of it because we got so careful and no one would have even imagined anything at all.”

That stigma has carried on for decades. As Ila Borders, the first woman to play for a men’s professional baseball team since the Negro Leagues, wrote in her memoir, Making My Pitch, “I remain certain that my professional career would not have been possible had I come out.” In 1994, Borders, a left-handed pitcher, became the first woman to receive a college baseball scholarship. She was the first to start an N.C.A.A. baseball game and the first woman to get a win in collegiate baseball. She then played for the independent, otherwise all-male St. Paul Saints and Duluth-Superior Dukes.

“In 1994 few in baseball — or in the country — were ready to accept a gay player, male or female,” writes Borders. Indeed, that same year, the book SportsDykes: Stories From On and Off the Field was also published. In her essay, “The Lesbian Label Haunts Women Athletes,” Lynn Rosellini writes, “To most lesbian athletes … coming out is not yet worth it.”

“If a woman plays hardball, people figure she’s likely gay,” writes Borders. It’s why, during her baseball career, she constantly had to answer questions about whether she dated men, and had to reassure the public that, despite the fact that she played ball, she was not gay. She understands today that talking about being a gay athlete is a double-edged sword, in a way. There’s the stereotype that women athletes are all lesbians, which is both inaccurate and unfair. And yet, there’s also the truth that there are many athletes who are also lesbians.

“I was deeply ignorant of my small place in the history of women athletes and the whole gay rights movement,” Borders writes of her playing days as a closeted homosexual.

But this stereotype existed long before Borders was even born. Some A.A.G.P.B.L. players cited masculine clothing or appearances as tipping them off about a woman’s sexual orientation, a stereotype that still exists today and may or may not be accurate. “The lesbians, they dressed like men with those big pants and big shoes, most of them. … [T]hey had boyish bobs,” Dottie Green, a former A.A.G.P.B.L. player and chaperone told Susan K. Cahn in her book Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth Century Sports. Or, as Dottie Ferguson Key put it, “tomboyish girls” who “wanted to go with other girls” signaled it with their “mannish” shoes and clothing.

A.A.G.P.B.L. players (left to right) Daisy Junor, 27, South Bend; Dorice Reid, 19, Chicago club member; Dodie Healy, 19, Chicago club member; (top) Gene George, 20, Peoria club member, fraternizing in a bunk room over a sports magazine, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

It was this perception of female athletes as unfeminine and unfeminine women as lesbians that led Wrigley, a chewing gum manufacturer and president of the Chicago Cubs, to insist that his players be appropriately feminine in appearance.

But the A.A.G.P.B.L. went even further than that, instituting a policy against fraternizing with other teams. The given reason was “to sustain the complete spirit of rivalry between clubs,” but Browne writes that the real reason that teams imposed stiff fines on players who violated this rule was the fear of lesbianism. When the affair was between teammates, chaperones would refuse to let the suspected couple room together and gauge the reaction of the players to confirm their hunch. In one case, the suspected lovers were so angry about being barred from becoming roommates that team manager Johnny Gottselig considered it proof of the affair. One manager released two of his players because he thought they were gay and was worried they would “contaminate” the rest of the team.

In another case, a married player was rumored to have fallen for one of her teammates. “That player converted this young married woman in just two weeks,” said Fred Leo, who was the League’s publicity director and, later, its president. Another time, Leo said that a married player was discovered to be in a relationship with a woman who was unassociated with the league. Leo claimed he notified her husband, who came and took her home.

“Knowledge of gay women in sport ranged from a hazy, unarticulated awareness to an informed familiarity or personal involvement,” writes Cahn. “Often an athlete’s initial awareness of lesbianism developed from seeing women ‘pairing off’ or getting ‘very clannish’ with each other.”

However, many of the players came to the league quite sheltered. They often arrived from small towns or rural areas and were quite young when they left home. As a result, it was not uncommon for new or younger players to be completely blindsided by the relationships between their teammates. Dorothy Hunter entered the League in 1943, when she was 27. Hunter, who was from Winnipeg, Canada, said she had “never heard of lesbianism,” so her teammates regaled her with tales of lesbian love affairs. “They told me they had wedding ceremonies. Well, I just thought they were giving me the gears because I was a green Canadian.”

But many of the players were unattached. If straight players were married, many of their husbands were off at war or were left back at home on farms or in factories. The players’ grueling schedule and constant travel made dating difficult. It was in many ways the perfect environment for gay women to become involved with each other. But in some cases, the near-inability to date was a welcome reality. It made staying in the closet easier, because there was no time for dating and so there was no need to make excuses. This was something that Borders discovered, too, when she was playing ball in the 1990s.

“Playing baseball allowed little time for dating,” she writes. “When people tried to set me up, it was easy to say, ‘No thanks, too busy.’”

These restrictions kept some women out of the league altogether. One of those women was Dot Wilkinson, often regarded as the greatest softball player of her time — and perhaps all time. Wilkinson was a hard-playing catcher for the Phoenix Ramblers. She joined the American Softball Association (A.S.A.) team in 1933, when she was just 11 years old.

“Softball has meant more to me than I can ever tell anybody,” Wilkinson says in the documentary film “Extra Innings.” “I love that game. I never thought about anything else.”

Wilkinson was recruited to play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. “They came to Arizona to offer us some contracts,” Wilkinson said. “They wanted to give me $85 a week [equivalent to $1,240 today] to catch. I didn’t want to leave the Ramblers and I don’t like being away from home so I didn’t go.”

But it was more than that. Wilkinson didn’t want any part of the curfews, the charm school, the chaperones, or the mandatory dresses. She played in Levi’s or her shiny satin uniform shorts, and she liked it that way. She also knew that the league was actively discouraging players from being perceived as exactly what Wilkinson was — gay.

“Softball was my first love and it still is,” said Wilkinson. But she had another love, too. In 1963, Estelle “Ricki” Caito, a star second baseman, joined the Ramblers. Wilkinson and Caito played together for two seasons, until the A.S.A. disbanded. But they also began a relationship that would last 48 years, until Caito’s death in 2011.

“We were born at a time when we were all in the closet and that was just the name of the game,” Wilkinson said. “And you had to live with it and that’s what we did.”

* * *

It is the obituaries that offer the most publicly available clues to some of the players who spent their lives with other women. The most telling evidence is often in veiled language or titles that are open to interpretation. In at least one case, a player had a “special friend.” In others, their relationships are more explicitly acknowledged.

Mabel Holle played third base for the South Bend Blue Sox, and like teammate JoJo D’Angelo hailed from Illinois. Holle’s father was a semi-professional pitcher and she grew up playing ball with her siblings. She attended the mass tryout at Wrigley Field, becoming one of the original members of the league in 1943. During the season, she was traded to the Kenosha Comets. Her contract was not renewed in 1944, forcing her to try out again. This time, she didn’t make the cut. After leaving the league, she became a physical education teacher. In Holle’s 2011 obituary, written after she died at 91, there’s this: “Holle is survived by her longtime partner, Linda Hoffman.”

Babe Ruth and Millie Deegan, 1938. (Photo courtesy The Diamond Angle, via Archive Today)

Mildred “Millie” Deegan played 10 seasons with the A.A.G.P.B.L., from 1943-1952. She is rumored to have impressed Babe Ruth with how far she could hit a softball, and it is said he squeezed the biceps on her arm when he posed with her for a photo. In 1944 the Brooklyn Dodgers invited Deegan and two other women to their spring training camp. Leo Durocher, the Dodgers manager, told the Daily Oklahoma in 1946, “Deegan spent a whole week training with the Brooklyn Dodgers at their Bear Mountain, NY camp. If she were a man, she no doubt would have been a Dodger.”

Deegan died of breast cancer in 2002 at the age of 82. Her obituary in the New York Times mentions Margaret Nusse, “Ms. Deegan’s companion and her only survivor.” Nusse, known as “Toots,” was a softball legend herself. According to the now-defunct NJ Divas Fastpitch site, Deegan and Nusse were partners for almost 50 years. The two shared their passion for softball: Deegan was the coach for the Linden, New Jersey, Arians and Nusse was the manager. Nusse passed away just six months after Deegan died, at age 85.

June Peppas was a pitcher and first baseman from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who played in the A.A.G.P.B.L. from 1948-1954. The player known as “Lefty” had spunk. Fort Wayne Daisies manager Harold Greiner relates a story in Browne’s book Girls of Summer: “Once there were some men out in the street, and some smart aleck said something. I didn’t hear what it was, they’d watched till I wasn’t nearby. Anyway, all of a sudden I hear ‘Wow!’ I turned around and saw that June Peppas had decked the guy — and I mean she really decked him. He crawled away.”

The A.A.G.P.B.L. meant a lot to Peppas. She was the first chairperson of the Players Association Board and two-time A.A.G.P.B.L. All-Star. Polly Huitt was Peppas’s partner for 46 years before she passed in 2007, nine years before Peppas died at the age of 86. The two operated a printing business in Allegan, Michigan, called PJ’s Printing, from 1975-1988. They sold the business and retired to Florida where, according to Peppas’s obituary, they enjoyed “golf and an active social life.”

Fort Wayne Daisies player Marie Wegman arguing with umpire Norris Ward, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

One of the best pitchers to ever play in the A.A.G.P.B.L. was Jean Cione. The girl from Rockford, Illinois, played 10 seasons in the league. In that time she threw three no hitters, had three 20-win seasons, and had an unassisted triple play — something that has only happened 15 times in Major League Baseball since 1909. Cione spent her rookie year in 1947 with the Rockford Peaches and finished with an astonishing 1.30 ERA. “She was a lot fun to be with,” Cione’s partner Ginny Hunt told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle after her death in 2010. “If you didn’t ever experience watching a baseball game with her, you really missed something. It was a treat to watch a game with her. She analyzed every play.”

Catcher Eunice Taylor and her partner of 45 years, Diana Walega, owned and operated a pet supply store for 40 years. Outfielder Barbara Sowers was with her “loving companion” Shirley Ann Weaver for 45 years. And there are many more, players with “longtime,” “beloved companions,” whose names I have chosen not to include here out of respect for the fact that they were likely still closeted during their lives. Their obituaries, which are historical documents, offer us glimpses into their lives and are open for us to interpret.

* * *

“Our relationship is one of the best,” Pat Henschel says of her partnership with Terry Donahue. “We’re very lucky and we know it.”

Photos of the women throughout the years give a glimpse of the life they’ve had together. In their younger days, they look like they could be sisters as they pose in front of a Christmas tree in a picture that might have been taken in the 1960s. They each sport short, dark hairstyles and wear sleeveless turtleneck shirts. In another, they are perhaps in their 60s and they dance together in front of a fireplace. They are both laughing. Their hairstyles have not changed in the decades between the two photos except to turn from brown to gray.

Members of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League and an umpire, 1948. (Photo courtesy State Archives of Florida)

They are ready to tell the world the truth about their relationship. Donahue’s great nephew, Christopher Bolan, is working on a documentary about their life together. Another photo shows the two of them doing what they had only ever done behind closed doors: they hold hands, weathered and wrinkled by the years they’ve spent together, and they kiss each other on the lips. Their eyes are closed. It is sweet. It is intimate. But they hid this truth for as long as they did because, for most of their lives, they had too much to lose by coming out.

But today, Henschel says, “They either accept it or they don’t.”

* * *

Fifty years after the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League ended, Ila Borders was making history. She had ascended to a level that no woman ever had before. She was playing — and succeeding — in men’s professional baseball. And then, she quit.

We are sitting together in the stands at JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida. We’re watching a group of women play the championship game at the team’s Women’s Fantasy Camp, where Borders is coaching. “It got to me,” Borders says about being in the closet. “It’s why I quit. It’s the worst thing on Earth to hide who you are.”

That, Borders says, is why she ultimately came out — for the next generation of girls who want to play ball, so they can be themselves, no matter who they are, and so history doesn’t have to repeat itself.

Borders looks out onto the field of women whose uniforms are streaked with dirt. “If you are a ballplayer, it’s O.K. to play hard and just be yourself,” she says. And she’s finally at a place in her life where she truly believes it.

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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The Great Unsolved Mystery of Missing Marjorie West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One night I was layin’ down…

I didn’t care what she didn’t allow

I would boogie-woogie anyhow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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