The Ins and The Outs

Along one of New York's most rapidly changing boulevards, a look below the surface exposes what—and who—is really driving gentrification in Crown Heights.

A hypothetical time-lapse video of Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, starting in the year 2000: The block is lined with dollar stores, bodegas and barbershops, a few hair-braiding salons, some humble restaurants. Many storefronts are shuttered; those open are kept afloat by local patrons, predominately African-Americans and West Indians. Crime is common in the neighborhood, the sound of gunshots familiar.

Over time, the scenery begins to change. Tree saplings take root in once-neglected sidewalk beds; foreboding iron doors morph into friendlier gates. At an increasing rate, young white faces begin to dot the screen, darting off to work in the morning and dashing back again at night. Boarded-up storefronts transform into fashionable bars, restaurants, and boutiques. Groups of cops suddenly appear, standing guard on street corners; more new businesses, and more whites faces follow, and follow.

This blurred process of change is known to urban dwellers across America, especially to those who move to Brooklyn, many of whom play a role in the process, tacitly or actively, including the authors of this story. In New York, few streets have changed quite so quickly or dramatically as Franklin Avenue has in recent years. When one speaks to those who do business and live, or have lived, in the neighborhood, a tapestry of stories emerges—some positive, others much less so—that is, at best, remarkably difficult to comprehend.

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Street scenes on a recent afternoon along Franklin Avenue
Street scenes on a recent afternoon along Franklin Avenue

Environmentally speaking, that Franklin Avenue gentrified at all should come as no surprise. The entire avenue runs for about three miles from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Prospect Lefferts Gardens. The gentrified portion stretches from St. Marks Avenue to Eastern Parkway, and resonates east toward Nostrand Avenue and west toward Grand Army Plaza. It is exceedingly pedestrian-friendly, one of the rare strips in New York where there is more sidewalk than street. Crown Heights itself is rich with a gorgeous brownstone housing stock and lies a short distance from Prospect Park, one of the most popular outdoor spaces in New York City. It’s also served by a bevy of subway lines, providing convenient access to and from Manhattan.

Since 2008, fifty-two new businesses have opened along Franklin Avenue north of Eastern Parkway, with sixteen of them arriving in 2012, according to the popular neighborhood blog, I Love Franklin Avenue. In the same span of time, thirty establishments closed, with eleven going last year.

Today, the avenue bustles with economic and social activity. A strong sense of community reigns, one comprised of a wealth of residents from different generations and walks of life, which is apparent to anyone who takes the time to visit, grab a cup of coffee and watch the world go by for a couple minutes.

Franklin’s new business owners tend to be well-educated, in their thirties or forties, and proud of letting their personalities speak through their establishments. Many live in the neighborhood.

Michael De Zayas, thirty-eight, bought an apartment just off Franklin Avenue in 2012 and, shortly after, opened a Parisian-style café on Franklin, Little Zelda, named after his sixteen-month old daughter.

“One of the inspirations for me,” says De Zayas, “was that I love to read the newspaper and have a baguette every morning, and you couldn’t do that here before.”

De Zayas, who holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, is not a career barista. He started out as a travel writer and then created a profitable custom t-shirt and sweatshirt company, which he recently sold. This fall, he also opened It Takes a Village, a non-profit community space for children to play and parents to congregate, across the street from Little Zelda. (He now has plans to relocate to a nearby building.)

Nearly one hundred families have already signed up, paying $35 dollars a month in membership fees. A majority of them are white, but De Zayas, whose father was born in Cuba, says he is working to bring in more families of different ethnicities. He hopes to purchase additional storefronts along Franklin and create other community spaces because, as he puts it, “I don’t want this to become Park Slope.”

“When I went into Park Slope with my stroller, I became invisible,” De Zayas says of his experience as a stay-at-home dad. “That isn’t the case here. People take the time to say ‘hi’ to each other. And a lot of my efforts are aimed at keeping that alive, at keeping the community engaged.”

Patrons outside Little Zelda, a cafe on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights
Patrons outside Little Zelda, a cafe on Franklin Avenue in Crown Heights

That anyone could worry about Franklin Avenue turning into Park Slope, one of the wealthier, more undeniably gentrified neighborhoods in the entire city, is telling in and of itself. Not long ago, Crown Heights was considered a no-go zone for business.

“You know, two years ago if you told me, ‘Come to Franklin Avenue,’ I would say, ‘You must be crazy,’” says Atim Oton, co-chair of the Economic Development Committee for the local community board.

In 2004, Oton, a forty-three-year-old from Nigeria, left behind a successful career in architecture to found Calabar, a small chain of stores selling middle to high-end African, Asian and South American imports. Oton’s first store was on nearby Washington Avenue. In the spring of 2011, a fire destroyed a chunk of Oton’s merchandise and forced her to close until June. With time on her hands she looked east toward Franklin.

“I had known that this area was changing, but I didn’t quite know what kind of change it was going to be,” she says. “So I came down here and looked around and said, ‘OK, this is a shopping street.”

Oton leased a narrow storefront at 708 Franklin where she pays less than $2,000 a month, a steal compared to a neighborhood like Park Slope where she’d pay as much as $12,000. However, the cost of commercial real estate on Franklin Avenue is rising quickly.

Atim Oton in Calabar Imports, her Franklin Avenue shop specializing in fair-trade imports from West Africa and Asia
Atim Oton in Calabar Imports, her Franklin Avenue shop specializing in fair-trade imports from West Africa and Asia

“We signed our lease in March,” said Henry Carter, thirty-one, who opened Excelsior Bike Shop in a former storefront church at 694 Franklin Avenue last year. “A friend who’s a real estate agent basically told me that similar sized places on the block are now going for twenty to twenty-five percent more than what we signed for.”

Business owners say that rising commercial rent has played a roll in pushing out long-standing establishments, and even a few of the newer ones that tried to capitalize on the change.

For instance, Climax, a store selling urban clothing at 775 Franklin, is moving to Fulton Mall in Downtown Brooklyn, a popular shopping destination among minorities, which itself is undergoing a radical redevelopment. Similarly, the Franklin Avenue location of Mazon Discount, a small chain of dollar stores that has been in the neighborhood since the 1990s, has seen business lag, and is now bringing in goods it hopes newer residents will appreciate, like pet supplies.

“We’re not dead yet,” said Abraham, a twenty-seven-year-old employee, who like several people interviewed for this article preferred not to give his full name. But, he conceded, “business is down. Everything started changing.”

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“Gentrification is here,” says Oton, the Calabar shops owner. “This is the avenue that is really dancing around it. We don’t want to talk about it. We’re afraid to have conversations about race and income and class. And that’s an American problem.”

popular local restaurant Chavella’s
Popular local restaurant Chavella’s

Others are less concerned.

“I actually don’t have many feelings about it,” said one white newcomer, a twenty-eight-year-old woman who bought an apartment in the area last year. “I like my neighborhood because it’s nice and it has fancy coffee, but also because it’s still not totally white, so it’s a little less of a shopping mall.”

“Though,” she went on, “I’m looking forward to the Section 8 rentals in my building going condo as well,” so that property values will increase.

“But also because owners tend to respect the building more,” she said. “There’s been a shady police presence here, and a shooting next door that is somehow tied to one of the units.”

To be sure, white residents aren’t the only ones untroubled by the change.

Barboncino pizzeria and restaurant
Barboncino pizzeria and restaurant

“When I came here eight years ago the violence was calming down, but it was still there,” said Kathy, a younger African-American woman who pays $700 a month for a two-bedroom apartment on Franklin. “Now I would say it’s like a Little Manhattan over here. A lot of Caucasian people moved in—a lot. You saw one, then you saw three, then you saw a billion of them. And I think that’s what really changed the neighborhood.”

A corner deli

But that doesn’t really bother Kathy. “If it’s for you, it’s for you,” she said with a casual shrug and a drag off a cigarette, before adding that she now shops at the Fulton Mall for cheaper prices.

Meanwhile, many white residents seem torn between embracing the change and lamenting it. As Cory, a thirty-year-old white man who moved to the neighborhood in 2007, put it, “There’s a Haitian restaurant shitbox next door that I’d never dream of going into.”

“Where’s the thing in between that and Barboncino?” he said, referring to a trendy Neapolitan-style pizzeria that opened on Franklin two years ago to the unfettered delight of the foodie community.

“It’s just a little strange,” Cory explained. “You go from four-dollar Chinese food sold from behind bulletproof glass to a twenty-eight dollar pizza and a Lambrusco in half a block. What fills the gap between them?”

He thought for a moment and continued:

“But it’s weird because I really like Barboncino. They do something well. The food is terrific, it’s worth it. I just get the feeling that they were thinking about where the neighborhood was going rather than where it was when they opened.”

Often, these conversations come back to race. Some white women say they used to endure racially tinged catcalls from men in the neighborhood, but not so much any more. Conversely, some long-term black and West Indian residents say they continue to feel cold-shouldered by white newcomers.

“White people pass by here, and they’re talking, but they won’t talk to you,” said Edward, a Trinidadian-born property owner in his sixties who went on to perform a pantomime of a white person passing a black person—suddenly speeding up and averting eye contact.

“Ah come on!” he said, exasperated. “Let me tell you something. I’ve lived here thirty-seven years, and now I start to see white people moving in. And I’m telling you the truth now, I start to feel like…‘But why are all these people moving in? And I think to myself, ‘Ah shit!’ The changes around here’—the police start to change; all this other shit, all these bicycle things, bicycle stands. All these changes the last two or three years, and I say, ‘But why?”

*   *   *

It would be a mistake to say that the change on Franklin came only from outside.

In the early 2000s, the avenue was still crime-ridden—”a hot, ugly, dirty, drug-infested street,” as once described by Evangeline Porter, the president of the Crow Hill Community Association.

Crow Hill, which was formed in 1984 and began attempting to revitalize Franklin Avenue in ’99, worked diligently to beautify the blocks, planting trees, removing graffiti, and asking homeowners to install gates instead of iron doors. They had no patience for the criminal element in the community or for those who littered and loitered on street corners. As one neighborhood observer put it, “If you look at the people who come to Crow Hill meetings, it’s not the guys who are getting stopped and frisked. It’s property-owning people, often women, often retirees, who’ve been here a long time, and who have very little nostalgia about what the neighborhood used to be.”

It wasn’t long after Crow Hill’s beatification blitz that white people began moving into the neighborhood. By 2008, the white population, though still a minority, had become a noticeable presence. Some got mugged, says resident Mike Fagan, a forty-three-year-old employee at a social service agency who is white and has lived in the neighborhood since 2003.

“There was a period,” Fagan said, “when the neighborhood attracted young, naïve white people who were mugged pretty frequently because they lacked street smarts and they couldn’t perceive risk. They brought an attention,” he added.

That “attention” was further heightened during the summer of 2009, when a string of fatal black-on-black shootings rattled the neighborhood. Concerned residents, local elected officials, and the Crow Hill Community Association (whose members declined requests to be interviewed for this story) made a vigorous, and successful, push to reapply an increased police presence, known in N.Y.P.D.-speak as an “Impact Zone.”

New York Police Department officers on a patrol shift at the Franklin Avenue subway station on a recent Saturday night.
New York Police Department officers on a patrol shift at the Franklin Avenue subway station on a recent Saturday night.

Impact Zones stem from “Broken-Windows” policing, a law enforcement practice that focuses on quality-of-life offenses like public urination, public drinking, graffiti and drug dealing in an effort to curtail the overall culture of street crime. The program was first launched by the NYPD in 2003.

Some in the neighborhood say that Franklin Avenue was targeted from the start. Others believe the Impact Zone has come and gone, and come back again. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the community’s reaction to the muggings and shootings of 2009 had a re-energizing effect on it. Police officers became a regular presence on the avenue, standing at street corners and creating an environment in which criminal behavior could not go unnoticed. For some, the surge in cops seemed suspicious, as if it was designed to hasten the change.

“It’s kind of like, ‘Wow, you didn’t come before when we were calling, but now you’re here everyday,” said Craig, a forty-year-old black man who has lived in the neighborhood for seventeen years. “When out here was rough, if you called the police you was lucky if they came at all.”

Other residents reject the notion.

“A real cynic would say it’s about policing the street for development,” said Nick Juravich, a twenty-eight-year-old urban history PhD candidate at Columbia University. “But it’s more complex than that,” added Juravich, a neighborhood resident since 2008, who is white, and the author of the I Love Franklin Avenue blog. “It’s about who can speak to the police and who can navigate the channels of communication.”

Whatever the politics of the Impact Zone, it worked. Street corner drug handoffs and gunplay are now rare occurrences on Franklin Avenue. But many say its tactics have proved antagonistic. Some residents say the police officers bring a “war zone” mentality to their beat.

“These are often young cops who are strangers to the neighborhood,” said Juravich. “It’s an adversarial position.”

For young minority men, law-abiding and non-law-abiding alike, the specter of stop-and-frisk—an intensely controversial NYPD tactic that allows officers to search suspicious individuals for contraband or weapons—became a menace.

Abraham Paulos, a thirty-one-year-old of Eritrean descent who has lived in Crown Heights on and off for seven years, says he had no trouble with police before the Impact Zone came in. But in 2010 he was stopped and frisked twice, and wrongfully arrested once, spending a weekend in Rikers Island jail in the midst of midterm exams at The New School, where he was pursuing a master’s degree in—irony of ironies—human rights.

Paulos, who is now the executive director of Families for Freedom, the nonprofit group that supported him through his court case, first came to the U.S. from Sudan as part of an asylum program for stateless refugees. He still resides here on a Green Card status, so the arrest resulted in a threat of deportation before it was eventually overturned.

“If I was white I would be a gentrifier,” noted Paulos, who said he felt safer in pre-gentrified Crown Heights. “But I’m not, so I’m a threat.”

While no one in the neighborhood denies that the Impact Zone has made the streets safer, some wonder if it has actually stopped crime or merely pushed it away.

Henry Carter, owner of Excelsior Bicycles, likened it to “putting a drop of soap into a petri dish full of dirty water. All the dirt shoots out, but it’s nice and clean in the middle.” (Neither the 77th Precinct nor the NYPD’s press office responded to requests to learn more about the successes or failures of the Impact Zone.)

*   *   *

“These guys—right here,” Sharon says angrily, standing on Franklin Avenue and pointing up to a banner reading MySpace NYC. “These guys are changing the whole block.”

Sharon is a thirty-nine-year-old black woman, a former construction worker who has lived in the area for twenty-eight years. MySpace NYC is a real estate agency that arrived in 2008, and is perhaps the most controversial, notorious player in the entire Franklin Avenue saga.

By all accounts, MySpace, which is the most visible real estate firm in the neighborhood, does much more business as a brokerage firm working with landlords than it does as a landlord itself. But rumors abound about shell corporations that principals of the company create and then use to purchase property. A undated marketing letter from a group called IDG Holdings but signed by a principal of MySpace informs building owners: “We buy properties ‘As is’ and in any condition and price range. We pay Top Dollar, in Cash, without any Broker fees. We can close as fast as 7-10 days…”

“They try to harass you into selling,” said a West Indian man named Mike, who owns a building just off of Franklin on St. John’s Place. Two years ago, he put his building up for sale, but subsequently withdrew it from the market. He claims that MySpace NYC agents have been hounding him ever since.

“They call you at all kinds of hours,” said Mike. “They’ve come to my house and I have to chase them away…They make offers to you: ‘Oh, we’ve got lots of cash. Let’s do it right now,’ like you’re desperate…Every day the same thing. You tell them no, and no don’t mean nothing!”

The fact that many real estate agencies that do business in the neighborhood happen to be Jewish-owned injects another level of ugly ethnic animosity into the debate. “The Jews” was a phrase that slipped off of many peoples’ tongues in reporting on housing for this story—a kind of shorthand for “real estate” among many blacks and Latinos. (Just a few blocks off of Franklin lies one of the largest communities of Hasidic Jews outside of Israel.)

“I think it’s like the Jewish underground mob going on,” said Sharon. “From what I know of Jewish people, they all stick together…They try to handle their own business.”

But as for the ownership of MySpace NYC specifically, Sharon elaborated: “They’re not regular Jews who wear black. They wear the jeans, the designer labels.”

MySpace NYC refused to respond to multiple interview requests, including visits to its Crown Heights office. Sharon says she knows of instances in which MySpace offered renters buyouts—sometimes $5,000, sometimes $10,000 or more—to leave their apartments.

A MySpace real estate advertisement (Photo courtesy Newyorkshitty.com)
A MySpace real estate advertisement (Photo courtesy Newyorkshitty.com)

“My friend Charice,” Sharon said—“her and her mother were the only people I know of who came out on top. Myspace came with a $10,000 offer, and her husband was like ‘You better go back and do your math.’ She told me she got $35,000, her mother got $35,000. They put it together and got a house in Queens.”

Sharon’s friend Raquel Cruz had a harder time of it. Cruz is fifty-one and of Puerto Rican descent, a gregarious mother of five who still cares for a thirty-four-year-old daughter who suffered brain damaged at birth. She and her husband are diabetic. She works as a maid and also does odd jobs—cleaning, shoveling, painting, can collecting—anything to get by. “I’m a street hustler,” she says, “but a good one, you understand?”

In 2008, after having been bought out of an apartment in Brownsville and twice accused of owing $10,000 in back rent from a landlord on Franklin Avenue, Cruz moved with her husband and daughter into a six-unit apartment building at 724 Franklin, where the tenancy was mostly Dominican and the landlord was black.

The situation at 724 Franklin was a mess, said Cruz. The Dominican residents paid a mere $500 a month in rent, far under market value, when they paid at all.

“They had been there for forty and fifty years,” she said. “I was the only one who paid my rent.” According to Cruz, the landlord, with whom she sympathized, didn’t take non-paying tenants to court because “he didn’t have the money for the lawyer.”

The hallways were filthy, strewn with trash bags that attracted mice and rats. In the winter months, the landlord struggled to keep the units heated. “He couldn’t pay for the oil because no one paid rent,” Cruz recalled.

In early 2010, overwhelmed by violations, the landlord sold the building and fliers went up in the hallways informing the tenants of where rent was now to be paid: 722 Franklin Avenue, the address of MySpace NYC, which had approached the landlord with the purchasing offer, Cruz says.

“They didn’t say, ‘You have to leave,’” she said, “but I knew that was their purpose, because I’d already been evicted by the Jews. I knew what they’re capable of doing.”

Raquel Cruz stands outside her former apartment building on Franklin Avenue
Raquel Cruz stands outside her former apartment building on Franklin Avenue

Across the street, Michael Kunitzky first caught wind of the sale when the owner of a deli he used to frequent in Cruz’s building told him he was packing up and moving to Florida. The deli has since turned into the Crown Inn, a popular neighborhood bar serving classic cocktails and pork belly sandwiches.

Kunitzky is thirty-seven years old and white. He moved into the neighborhood in 2005, and, soon after, opened LaunchPad, a free “community gathering place” that hosts screenwriting workshops and storytelling nights, and shares a space with It Takes a Village, directly across from Cruz’s old apartment.

The news of the deli’s closing piqued Kunitzky’s interest. “That was the first rumor,” he said. “A few months later they started getting people out of there.”

“It all happened so quick,” remembered Cruz, who had previously met Kunitzky at community events. “They relocated everybody.”

Most of the Dominican tenants had passed their apartments down from relative to relative and lacked leases, Cruz notes, so they were in no position to negotiate with MySpace NYC agents, whom Cruz says offered meager buyouts. “One went to Brownsville,” she said. “Another to Lincoln and Classon, another went to Union Ave.”

Concerned but unsure of what was happening, Kunitzky casually broached the subject with Guy Hochman, one of MySpace’s owners. “I don’t think he fully understood my feelings,” said Kunitzky. “He was complaining to me about the buyout payments. ‘Oh, you know, we’ve got to pay these people off, and it’s a pain in the ass.’ And I kind of gave him this strange look, like, ‘You’re crying to the wrong person, my sympathies don’t lie with you.’”

Cruz says she was offered $10,000 and three months paid rent at a two-bedroom apartment “with a little skinny kitchen” on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, with a rent of $1,300 a month, $400 more than she was paying on Franklin Avenue. MySpace also offered to pay for her moving costs and provide her with a permanent cleaning job. Cruz admits that MySpace also had done “nice things” for her in the past, such as offering her one-off cleaning gigs. “But they were nice to me because they had to be,” she says. “If they had treated me bad they wouldn’t have been able to get me out. They had to play me.”

She knew that she would struggle to afford the $1,300 a month rent, but she says she felt compelled to sign, pressured by the money and the fact that her neighbors were vacating.

“My husband said, ‘We’re not leaving,’” Cruz remembers. “He said, ‘Don’t go behind my back signing no papers.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.” And boom! I went and signed the papers behind his back.”

By this point, Kunitzky had confirmed his suspicions and confronted MySpace’s ownership in their office. “They made mention again that there were people in the building who were willing to take payments,” said Kunitzky. “I told them, ‘You’re taking advantage of people who don’t understand the economics of what’s happening,’ which was not very well received.”

“The day that it really escalated,” however, “was when Raquel was getting forced out,” he said of Cruz.

It was late one spring morning in 2010 and there was a commotion in the street. Cruz and her husband were ordering moving men to bring all of their furniture, which had been brought onto Franklin Avenue, back into their apartment.

“I had a deadline to move out,” Cruz said, “and I went over, something like a couple hours. And then they were telling me that they weren’t going to give me my money!”

“That’s when I ran and got Mike.”

When Cruz showed Kunitzky her contract, he became enraged. “That was the last piece I needed to see,” he said. “Her contract stated that she had to be out by, like, noon, and it was about 1 PM, so they were trying not to pay her. I went over there and just said to them, ‘Look, she’s not fucking going anywhere.’”

Kunitzky threatened to take legal action. He says he was then confronted by a MySpace employee, “an ex-Marine,” and by a man believed to be a MySpace owner. Punches were almost thrown.

“Everybody wanted to hit somebody,” Cruz recalls. “Chaos.”

Eventually, things calmed down and Cruz was assured she would get her money. Kunitzky took her aside to talk.

“Look,” he remembers saying, “this is completely up to you. You don’t want to take the money? You don’t want to leave? Rip up this contract right now.”

But Cruz did want the money, and she did end up leaving, a decision she now realizes she didn’t have to make.

“They played me, they played me,” she says.

Soon after Cruz left, the last holdout gave in and the building flipped completely. The property was renovated and the new residents, as Kunizky puts it, “appear to be in a much different socio-economic class than the previous tenants.”

A sign on a vacant house in Crown Heights
A sign on a vacant house in Crown Heights

Jonathan Boe, a former MySpace broker told a City Limits reporter in June 2011 that although he wasn’t directly involved with 724 Franklin, the renovation scenario, to paraphrase the reporter, “sounds familiar.”

“They love gentrification,” Boe was quoted as saying. “It’s getting tenants who are willing to pay higher rent.”

Cruz’s own higher rent at her new apartment nearly drove her into financial ruin. She never got the permanent job MySpace had promised her, she said, and she began pawning her belongings to stay afloat. Then, one day, she recalls, “one of the beautiful parts of the story” of her life took place.

About four months after moving, she was walking past her old apartment on Franklin Avenue on the way to a cleaning gig.

“My husband is always asking me ‘Why do you always look down at the ground?’” she says. “I tell him, ‘Because I have found nice things on the ground. I’ve found nice earrings. One time I found a one hundred dollar bill.’” On this particular day, Cruz found a letter that was addressed to her, covered in footprints. It was from the New York City Housing Authority. When she opened it she learned she had been granted public disability housing, which she had applied for years earlier.

“I was screaming,” Cruz said. “I was jumping for joy.”

The housing authority had been trying to reach her for weeks, Cruz says, sending letters to her old address. She had only one day left to respond before losing the spot in the Albany Houses, a public housing project a mile east of Franklin Avenue, deeper into Crown Heights.

“That’s where I am today,” Cruz said.

She only pays $82 a month in rent.

*   *   *

It is important to dispel the myth that gentrification is a natural process, says twenty-two-year-old Crown Heights resident Nick Petrie, “because it so conveniently leaves out very important actors in the process.” Petrie, a community organizer who has lived in the neighborhood since September, is working in his free time to bring awareness to some of these actors—those who push gentrification for profit—through a group he helps administer called the Crown Heights Assembly. The year-old Occupy-inspired organization has a goal of bringing new and longtime residents together to organize against what they see as predatory housing practices. Specifically, the assembly is focused on exposing what they consider to be collusion between deadbeat landlords and real estate companies that do business with them, like MySpace NYC.

Between fifteen and fifty community members generally attend the group’s monthly meetings, and about two hundred people are on their email list, reports another organizer, Ryan Richardson. In November 2012, the assemby staged a small protest outside MySpace’s Franklin Avenue office, demanding the company provide prospective tenants a legal rent history and compel landlords to stop displacing residents.

At a recent Crown Heights Assembly meeting, Petrie sat beside his upstairs neighbor, Sonja Bent, fifty-two. Both live in an apartment building at 577 St. Johns Place. Petrie pays $1,800. Bent pays $1,033 for the same amount of space.

Petrie, who is white, says he found the apartment through Craigslist. “The first time I learned it was MySpace” representing it, he said, “was when the logos were on the papers.”

Within the first month of living in the apartment, Petrie had dealt with rats in the walls, spotty heating and a ceiling that had collapsed four times, due to a water leak in the apartment above his—Sonja Bent’s.

Bent, who has lived in the apartment for eighteen years, is one of three remaining long-term residents who have refused to give in to the pressures to leave by the building’s landlord, Elcorno Martin, whose 142 reported housing violations rank him among Brooklyn’s “50 Worst Landlords,” according to city Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.

Petrie says he had no idea of the battles he would face from Martin in trying to get repairs.

“He effectively could take the place of a cartoon villain,” says Petrie. “Where some people might say, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll fix it,’ and they never do, he just yells at you.” Petrie says his apartment’s neglect is connected, literally, to Bent’s. It was leaking pipes in Bent’s apartment that caused Petrie’s ceiling to collapse. Bent, for her part, says she has requested repairs for years, and filed numerous complaints with the housing authority, none of which have led to any improvement.

Leaky pipes, though, are just one item on the docket of repairs-to-be-done in Bent’s apartment. The front door, which looks like it has not been painted in decades, is attached by one hinge. In the kitchen, a large hole in the wall under the sink goes straight through to the bathroom, which provides rats and even raccoons with easy access to the apartment. (Bent once battled off a raccoon inside of her apartment. “They come up from the basement,” says her daughter, Harmony, sixteen.)

A hole beneath the kitchen sink in Sonja Bent’s apartment
A hole beneath the kitchen sink in Sonja Bent’s apartment

The bathroom ceiling is dotted with black mold. A long, thin crack runs through the living room wall. The master bedroom is lit by freestanding lamps because the overhead light fixture has been broken for years. The dim lights are just bright enough to illuminate large water stains in the bedroom.

Bent takes this all as a not-so-subtle message from Martin to get out. But she is determined to stay, she says, not because she loves the building or the neighborhood, but because she wants to teach her children, by example, to stand up for themselves.

“I have four children at home with me, two out of the home, and if I leave now, what am I teaching them—just walk away?” Bent explained. “I have to teach them that just because the odds are stacked up against you doesn’t give you an excuse to walk away. I have to teach them to stand up and fight for themselves.”

*   *   *

The Crown Heights Assembly believes, in the words of Richardson, the organizer, that “none of this stuff is inevitable.” Local businessman  Kevin Phillip, who has no involvement with the assembly, would agree—to a point.

Phillip, forty-one, was born in Trinidad and owns two successful businesses on Franklin—vintage-themed sweets shop Candy Rush and a sandwich spot called Taste Buds. He is well known and well liked in the neighborhood.

Kevin Phillip, owner of Taste Buds sandwich shop on Franklin Avenue, sits and waits for customers on a weekday afternoon
Kevin Phillip, owner of Taste Buds sandwich shop on Franklin Avenue, sits and waits for customers on a weekday afternoon

“The only person I can say who’s really helping fight for the neighborhood is Kevin,” said Sharon, the longtime resident and MySpace NYC hater.

Phillip is also one of the few pre-gentrification business owners who saw the change coming and capitalized on it. An electrician by trade, he owns four trademarks as well as a building on Franklin Avenue, which he bought eleven years ago and has run multiple businesses out of.

“In a neighborhood that’s changing like this one, you have to be quick on your feet,” he said.

On the question of change he is, by all accounts, a realist.

“Reality is, if building owners sit down with Real Estate, and Real Estate says, ‘Look, I’ve got all these people looking for apartments, and you have what I need,’ it’s Business 101, basic math,” Phillip says.

In discussing the wave of economic interest that has swept over Franklin Avenue with people like Phillip, an attitudinal divide begins to emerge. Some think it doesn’t have to be so cutthroat and profit-driven; others say, “Maybe it doesn’t, but it is, so get smart.”

Of the impression that exists among some blacks and Latinos that “the Jews” are out to get them, Phillip, whose business partner is Jewish, shakes his head: “They want to make it like that. But it’s the wrong idea,” he says. “It’s totally the wrong idea…No one’s out to get anyone. They’re out to get their money. That’s what they’re out to get. This is America. America was built like that.”

Similarly, Phillip says of buyouts: “If you’re taking one, it’s like going for fool’s gold.”

*   *   *

What would it look like, then, what would it take, for a street like Franklin to transition from impoverished and crime-ridden to safe and enjoyable in a way that doesn’t wash out those in the lower economic brackets?

“I think it would take an enormous amount of work and action at many different levels,” says Juravich, the urban history doctoral candidate. “It would take concerted legal action. It would take political action. It would take public consciousness. It would take outreach.”

“But it happens every now and then,” he says. “Or it could happen.”

Michael DeZayas, who’s working to ensure the neighborhood doesn’t “turn into Park Slope,” agrees that it’s possible. Others are less sanguine.

“Everything is going to become another Park Slope because that’s the way that this works,” said one neighborhood observer.

Another, a thirty-year-old white woman named Mindy who moved to the neighborhood in 2006, recalled an incident last summer when she was approached in front of her apartment by a white guy in his thirties. “His whole presence screamed yuppie,” Mindy remembers, “and he said, ‘Excuse me, Miss, did you hear the loud music playing last night?’

“I said, ‘Of course. Is this your first summer here? It happens every Saturday night. It’s no big deal once you get used to it. Just part of the neighborhood flavor.’

“And then he was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got a young baby. I can’t be having her kept awake all night. It’s unacceptable and the police need to shut it down.’

“I just wished him luck,” Mindy said, dismissively.

The neighbor may not need it. In April, a group of investors led by Jonathan Butler, founder of the popular real estate blog Brownstoner as well as the artisanal Brooklyn Flea market, and including the Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group, purchased the former Studebaker service station at 1000 Dean Street, just off of Franklin Avenue, for $11 million. They plan on turning the building into a mix of commercial and creative spaces that should be completed in the summer of 2013, and will likely receive another $20 million in investment–a level never before seen in Crown Heights.

A view of Franklin Avenue from above
A view of Franklin Avenue from above

“Until now, we’ve seen maybe local and borough-wide entrepreneurs,” said Juravich. “But when you have Goldman investing, those kinds of folks have different imperatives, they have different kinds of connections.”

Around the time of the 1000 Dean purchase, a Long Island group bought an empty lot at the corner of Franklin and Eastern Parkway for over eight million dollars. Sixty-three luxury condos and more then eight thousand square feet of street-level retail are in the works.

“These are not differences in degree,” Juravich said. “These are differences in kind.”

With luxury development of that scale already rising, even the most die-hard community activists admit this stretch of Crown Heights may not have a place for low-income residents much longer.

“It took a bit of wind out of my sails, watching what happened in this neighborhood, watching how it happened,” said Kunitzky, the resident who tangled with MySpace. “I don’t know how to beat this. I don’t know how anyone can beat this machine.”

“I can see the flip side of it,” he went on. “Everyone likes to say, ‘But the neighborhood is so much safer now. And it’s so much nicer for everyone. And there’s such a better quality of life here now.’ And that’s undeniable.

“But I still think there’s a better and more ethical way to get from a broken down, crime-ridden, drug-ridden neighborhood to a place that is safe and enjoyable for everyone while still maintaining a sense of community ownership.”

Others accept what has happened to Franklin Avenue as just another cold reality, one that plays out through each borough of this city, and others, time and time again.

“Given how wealth and income and education are currently distributed, very few neighborhoods stay diverse for very long,” said Fagan, the social service worker. “So the edge of gentrification will be mixed, but as time goes on, it won’t be.”

“It’s a blurry line,” Fagan concluded. “And we lived in the blur.”

* * *

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

See the complete list of Editors’ Picks here.

* * *

Mo Scarpelli is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker and multimedia journalist. She likes hanging out with people until they forget she’s there, and filming or photographing the whole damn thing. Her work has appeared on the BBC, The Wall Street Journal, Africa Review and The Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @moscarpelli.

Memoir

Secret Life of an Autistic Stripper

I've always had trouble reading social cues, but in the strip club, where rules and roles are crystal clear, I finally learned to connect.

I walked past the stage and sat down at the bar, the neon lights illuminating my pink teddy, shadowed eyes, and crimson lips. I ordered my first drink of the night and took inventory of the club. There were a few listless customers scattered around, hunching over bar stools, and a dancer circling the pole.

I waved over a colleague, a transplant from Manchester with hair extensions that kissed her velvet garter belt. We grumbled about how slow business was until I spotted a paunchy man at the bar. He was short, with a tuft of gray hair and a slight smile that crinkled his eyes. He was also more animated than the others.

“Do you want to try?” I asked her out of a sense of politeness.

“You go,” she said, waving her hand.

I started off light, asking about his day and his job. His smile widened across his face as my eyes met his. I silently counted to 10 and reminded myself to look away for a second – best not to terrify him. After three minutes, I transitioned to more personal questions, moving steadily through the formula I’d perfected to curate conversation with customers.

He started complaining about his recent breakup, but it didn’t feel genuine, his eyes twinkling with eagerness. I switched my gaze to the top of his nose to put a boundary between us.

I could tell he was interested in spending money, but he’d be hard work. It was time to either close the sale or walk away. He’d take advantage of my time otherwise.

“Ready for fun?” I whispered in his ear to avoid his eyes.

I didn’t bother mentioning the private rooms. After two years in the industry, I knew which customers were worth investing in – not this guy. So, I led him into the corner, which opened up to the club like the bow of a ship, public and safe, for one quick dance.

* * *

Before working in strip clubs, I struggled to read people’s emotions through cues like facial expressions, postures, and tone of voice in real time. I processed events after the fact with tenuous evaluation, like peeling off layers of old wallpaper. At the time, it was not something I had words to explain, so I turned the blame on myself. Whenever I struggled to understand if someone was angry or bored, I went home and berated myself for being lazy, ditzy, and dumb as I obsessively evaluated the night. I just needed to try harder to be more present, I told myself.

One time, I went to a dinner party my sister hosted. A few of her colleagues and friends sat around her table while we snacked on hummus and bread, and someone asked about my recent trip to Europe. I rambled incessantly, illustrating the nightclubs, the hostels I stayed in, even how I bled through my powder-blue dress because I forgot to change my tampon. My voice was loud, a  pitch you use at a concert, not inside. I can see their faces now, wide-eyed and uncomfortable, but at the time they coalesced into one indistinguishable figure, Dave Matthews playing in the background taking precedent. Their distaste didn’t register until my sister pulled me aside and asked as kindly as possible to keep to “lighter” topics.

After dinner, we dispersed to the living room and I attempted to talk to my sister’s colleague, but I forgot to break eye contact, continuously staring wide-eyed while she spoke.

“You’re certainly a character,” she remarked, exiting the conversation. I didn’t realize until later that I’d made her uncomfortable.

I didn’t know what slow processing was then, but I was aware I felt embarrassed a lot, and lonely. Facial expressions, body language, and eye contact are the bones of communication and it’s quite difficult to build and maintain relationships without the ability to read them.

So, I meticulously designed a persona who nodded at the right time, rehearsed lines, smiled when appropriate, monitored personal space, spoke quietly. Before going out, I crafted notecards, scribbling how long to talk about acceptable topics and which to stay clear of altogether, like my period, in small talk. The persona was a mask that helped me appear to interact in the moment, but in reality I crept by, three paces behind everyone else.

* * *

I had just celebrated my 24th birthday in Australia when I started dancing. I settled temporarily in a bustling beach town at the edge of Melbourne and needed money to pay off my student debt. I considered a bar job, but decided to try stripping simply because it meant fewer hours.

When I walked into a club to ask for a job, to my surprise, I realized it was just a bar with the usual roles reversed: women approaching men. I was intrigued, but confused – how did they convince customers to spend money off-stage?

The manager looked at my petite frame and nervous smile, pointed her manicured hand to the dressing room and listed the rules: “Go get ready in there. You get one free drink. Don’t be late for stage. No sex. No drugs on the floor.” Simple enough, but nothing on how to monetize my time. I handed over my $40 house fee and walked into the sea of hairspray and naked bodies.

Hundreds of customers came and went during the 10-hour shift, sitting on plush couches and crowding around the bar. I approached 10 guys, mirroring my colleagues’ coy smiles, suggestive body language and light conversation starters, but I couldn’t tease out who wanted to spend. All but one dismissed me.

I sat at the bar to observe, sipping my free champagne. One dancer particularly stood out with her naturally frizzy curls and tattered black bra. She wasn’t the most glamorous, but every guy she spent more than a few minutes with agreed to get a lap dance, like she had sprinkled them with fairy dust. A few times, she walked away from customers within seconds, once even waving her hand in a man’s face to dismiss him.

From the bar, I saw her sitting alone on one of the upholstered couches that lined the back of the club. She was taking a moment’s respite after a dance to count her money before securing it around her wrist with an elastic band. I took a deep breath and approached her, brushing aside the fringe curtain separating the lap dance room from the bar. It was getting late, two hours before closing, and I was exhausted and frustrated. So far I’d brought in just $50, meaning a $10 profit after the house fee. I thought about packing up and never coming back, but I needed this to work out. My student loan wouldn’t magically go away.

She took one look at me and asked, “Your first time?”

“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.

She stared at me with a bored expression, so I got right to it.

“How do you know who wants to spend money?”

She turned around and outlined her lips with a beige pencil in the smudged mirror, advising in her Bulgarian accent: “I don’t always know, but here are a few things I’ve learned after five years in the industry: Don’t spend more than 10 minutes with them if they haven’t spent money. Five minutes if it’s busy. You’re not a free therapist. Make them pay big bucks if they want to dump their shit on you. Walk away from customers who want to get to know the ‘real you’ right away. They’re usually creeps.”

Before she left the lap dance area, she turned around and said, “And quit this nice girl bullshit. You sound like a child. Don’t try so hard to be someone you’re not, just be a hyped-up version of yourself.”

As she sauntered off, she looked back once more, “I’m Claire by the way.”

Her words wounded me, but I was impressed. She saw right through my mask. The rambling girl at my sister’s house was a distant memory, but, strangely, Claire must have seen who I was before I tried so hard to appear normal.

After we spoke, I didn’t reincarnate my older self, but I did carve another persona, Piper. I learned to showcase different parts of my persona based on the customer. It seemed practicing social skills paid off – I became a deft conversationalist, sometimes earning my night’s wage just from talking. I moved beyond the foundation I hid behind, laughing, smiling, and chatting more brazenly than before, enjoying eye contact with customers I trusted, dismissing ones I didn’t. Performing felt strangely comfortable, even though the job was foreign and challenging.

That conversation lasted minutes, but the advice made for a successful career. Slowly, Claire’s rules taught me how to read customers for signs of interest by attaching meaning to their words and actions, something most people learn unconsciously, but that I’d always struggled with.

The club gave me a controlled space to decipher the crinkle around people’s eyes for eagerness or raised eyebrow for arrogance, as if I was reading a script from a teleprompter. And when I was unsure, I had her original rules to catch me. Are they asking for my real name? Are they relaying problems in their life without buying a dance first? On the floor of the club, I spent hours practicing each weekend, and for the first time in my life, I learned how to cut through layers of language in real time, just like Claire, until it became effortless.

* * *

Eventually I moved back home to New York and started stripping full time. After two years of practicing by trial and error in the world’s most social job, the tricks I learned in the club seeped into my social life outside of work, and it got easier to notice social cues and use the same formula I used with customers to make small talk with anyone.

Most people I met outside of work told me I was a great listener, unaware of how much time I spent in my room practicing the correct reactions. I didn’t want anyone to know how much I struggled, so I let very few people get close to me – better than anyone finding out that I couldn’t really socialize, that I was a fake.

Nearly two years after I started dancing, my friend Sarah invited me to her birthday party. My least favorite social situation: a dinner party with unknown people. True, I was better at picking up more obvious cues like eagerness and anger, but group settings were strenuous – too many subtleties to keep track of. But I hadn’t seen my friend in a while and I missed her. I packed up my lace teddy and Red Bull into a discreet bag and headed over to the restaurant before work.

The hour and a half crawled by. There were six of us around a small table. I can’t remember the other people’s faces or even what anyone spoke about. I prayed no one would ask me personal questions.

“Sarah tells me you just got home from Amsterdam,” my friend’s brother said politely, turning in my direction. His words mixed in with the background conversation and it sounded like another language. I broke out in sweat.

“I am sorry, what?” I asked.

He repeated himself. A second later the words clicked. I smiled and looked at his nose instead of his eyes while chewing over my words and length of speech, trying to offer the version of my trip they wanted to hear.

Sarah got up to go to the bathroom. I quickly walked over to her and asked: “Were people bored when I spoke?”

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, nothing. But I have to go. I’m sorry, I have work.”

She looked confused as I hurried out the door. I didn’t really have to go to the club. I’d made enough that week to warrant a night off with my friends, but work felt easier than this social performance. I let out a sigh of relief as the taxi plowed across the Williamsburg Bridge.

I walked under the familiar lights to the dressing room. I squirted a dollop of foundation on my hand and painted the dark circles under my eyes. For a brief second, I wondered, Is something wrong? Surely work shouldn’t be more comfortable than a night out? But then I swallowed those thoughts and walked onto the floor to escape from myself.

I sat down at the bar and ordered a Hennessy on the rocks. The birthday was successfully buried, and I was buzzing from the bliss of escape.

I spotted a man at the bar – alone, tall, bald with a kind smile and a glass of whiskey in his hand. I ran through the formula and we connected right away.

“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.

“It’s an underrated drink.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Can I get you another one?”

Ten minutes passed. I suggested the private room and he agreed. The private rooms were where I connected with customers, sometimes in a way that was more intimate than my relationships outside the club.

There I massaged their shoulders, let them touch me, expressed vulnerability. I bantered for hours – something I was never able to do before. With fewer stimuli around, it was easier to focus and converse back and forth in a way that felt less strenuous than at the restaurant hours before.

“You have a strange rhythm about you,” he remarked, smiling as I cradled him. Customers who spent money like water didn’t care if I was odd; they wanted an experience. My weirdness was worth their paycheck.

After two hours, I excused myself for a moment to go to a bathroom where I got a message from Sarah: Miss you. Wish you didn’t have work. It’s not the same without you.

Below the message was a picture of the dinner crew, laughing with their arms wrapped around each other. I felt such a pang of loneliness and regret that I broke down in the doorless toilet stall, my eyeliner smearing like watercolor on canvas.

Why am I only alive at work? Why can I give so much of myself to my customers and so little to my friends? Maybe I was just being stupid because I was drunk, but I wanted to be an active participant in my life instead of walking around confused all the time, experiencing my days after they’ve happened, passive from the sidelines. I wanted connection.

Work was a temporary balm, but the interactions there were fleeting, not enough to sustain my longing for people. The force of my rotting loneliness hit like a tidal wave as the reality of how much I struggled to navigate social settings outside settled in.

I allowed myself just one sob before I fixed my face and performed for the last half hour. When I got home, I couldn’t get out of bed for days, my sheets disheveled with self-loathing.

Desperate for answers, I started scrolling through an online forum for women with ADHD, wondering if I might have an attention disorder, looking for an explanation. I started asking for advice, addressing some of my other issues first like getting lost in obsessive thought.

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.

“What is ASD?” I asked.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

I scoffed, but after I read articles on how autism manifests in women, there wasn’t room for doubt – the evidence was clearly outlined in the bullet points on my laptop.

Central to autism is a difficulty experiencing life in real time. Many autistic people can’t filter out information, which makes it difficult to zone in and focus. All those years, I couldn’t read people’s cues because I struggled to cancel out the world around me. At my sister’s house, the background music, the forks scraping on plates, the blue walls, all swam in front of people’s facial expressions.

But in the private rooms at the club, there were no outside stimuli. The rules were clear, the distractions minimal, so I could focus and interact.

Women in the ADHD forum invited me to the group for autistic women and there I saw myself a hundred times over. Scrolling through were women like me: sex workers, performers, artists, writers, all struggling to make sense of our invisible differences in our own socially awkward, wacky, and beautiful way.

I gradually pulled the blame away from myself and labeled the things about me that were naturally different, not defective. I stopped punishing myself when I got overwhelmed in conversations, stopped beating myself up when bright lights blanched out facial expressions and background noise canceled out people’s words. I took a deep breath and resisted pretending to listen and asked: “Can you say that again?” without apology. I forgave myself when I slipped outside of social norms and said something weird.

No more being sorry for things I can’t help. People would love me or not – frankly I was okay with the risk.

* * *

A few months later, I stood outside the club with a cigarette in my hand, looking over the busy highway at the deserted factories.

“Piper, you leaving?” my bouncer nudged in his Queens accent.

“Yes. I made enough tonight. I’m going out,” I said, smiling back at him.

He waited outside with me until Sarah pulled up in a rideshare.

“This is where you work?” she asked incredulously, her mouth ajar in the window of the car.

I laughed. She knew I was a stripper but had never been to the club. From the outside, it looked grim: tattered brown building on the edge of town. But it was home to me.

“I never said stripping was glamorous.”

I kept the window open as the club disappeared, letting the cold air whip my face, feeling a mixture of relief and excitement. Forums for autistic women advised pulling off masks that many develop to pass as non-autistic. The effects of camouflaging are toxic, they warned. I wasn’t sure I could go back to who I was. The rambling autistic girl at my sister’s house was dead, buried under years of performance.

“Did you have a good night?” Sarah asked.

“Yeah. I’m ready for a night off though.”

Who could I have been if I didn’t try so hard to pass? I’ll never know, but stripping provided a portal to who I might be without fear of rejection – a rare glimpse of the affectionate, brash, and funky edges of personality. But I still had so much to learn. There was vast, dormant space to grow into beyond my work persona.

The twinkling lights opened the doors to Manhattan, my body still moving from the music of the club. The possibilities of the night unrolled in front of me and I intended to savor them.

Memoir

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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Memoir

My Roommate the Prostitute

At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over.

It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow. It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt.

WTF?!! I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!

I’d made it clear when she moved in: no pets. “But I want a kitty so bad,” she said a couple weeks later. I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets.

It’s a friend’s, Jenny texted back. I’m only taking care of it for a few months.

Don’t give me that bullshit, I keyed my reply, then backspaced over it, reconsidering. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal.

We need to talk.

Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters. Jenny (not her real name) kept her eyes downcast, and when I told her she was being inconsiderate and disrespectful and this was not the way grown-ups behaved, she said, “I know. I’m sorry.” I’d expected an argument, but her posture was one of submission, as if I was her dad, or a schoolteacher. But I wasn’t her dad, and she was an adult woman, even if I was twice her age. I was left somewhat unsettled.

In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.

“Thanks for not being hard on me,” she said, before disappearing back into her room. “I thought you were going to kick me out or something.”

That conversation was the longest we’d ever had. We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. We were living in Gravesend, an unremarkable neighborhood in a remote part of Brooklyn, where restaurants, bars and coffee shops are scarce, and when the friend I’d been living with moved out, finding a new roommate wasn’t easy.

At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious. One man, a flashy young Georgian, took one look at the room and grew alarmingly aggressive as he tried to force his cash deposit into my hand, even after I explained that I wasn’t ready to make a decision just yet. He left just as I was about to call the cops.

So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: hair dyed reddish-blond, large earmuff headphones over her ears. She walked with a kind of childish languor, as if it hadn’t fully settled in that she was an adult. Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

Then she asked what she needed for moving in, and I told her: proof of employment, credit report, rent plus security deposit.

“Sweet,” she said.

I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease. Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. “He’s an artist,” she told me afterward, unsolicited, as if that explained something.

I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: stable enough to pay rent, normal enough not to stab me with a kitchen knife or steal my meager possessions. She wanted to be a writer and filmmaker, she said, and was hoping to get into NYU’s film school for graduate studies. There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.

It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. On days I worked from home, I’d hear her throughout the day, in short bursts of action — the turning of the microwave at ten, the fridge opening and closing at eleven, the doorbell with her lunch order at noon. It didn’t bother me; I barely caught glimpses of her. If she’d lost her jobs, it didn’t show so far: She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. But I wondered, if she wasn’t going to work, how was she supporting herself?

One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize. It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple. The man disappeared into Jenny’s room across the hall, and I felt a rush in my brain and gave an involuntary gasp.

There weren’t too many scenarios for why a young woman would be entertaining a vaguely Soviet-looking gentleman who looked to be about her father’s age. I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront.

How dare she — in my home?!

An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. She was wearing blue suede pumps and a very short, ivory-colored dress, somewhat crumpled, as if she’d just removed it from under a pile of laundry. She appeared to be going for a sultry, long-legged look, but she looked instead like a little girl wearing her mother’s discarded clothes. I felt instantly sad for her, and part of me wondered if I shouldn’t offer to help her somehow. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend? Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway?

I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did. This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress.

I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute?

More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me. Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? Still, I couldn’t stomach the thought, and the Internet validated my discomfort. On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: Don’t let your roommate turn tricks within your home. It’s dangerous, it’s illegal, and it can bring nothing but trouble.

I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad? Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review?

I imagined the conversation we’d have. “This isn’t a brothel!” I wanted to yell at her. “Where do you even find these guys?” Then I reconsidered, thinking I might speak to her in a more caring way. Sit her down for a talk. Maybe get some women’s organization involved. Point her in the right direction. Rescue her.

* * *

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave.

“I’ve been seeing some strange men around here,” I said.

She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. “What?” she asked. I was certain she’d heard me.

“I’ve been seeing strange men around here,” I said again.

“Oh, yeah.” She had a self-satisfied look, as if she was taunting me: What are you going to do about it? This was not what I’d expected. She’d been remorseful about the cat, and so I’d imagined a repeat.

“Friends of yours?” I asked, hiding my indignation, though I hoped she’d pick up on my mocking tone.

“Yeah,” she said. After a pause, as if realizing something, she added, “I’m friends with some older guys.” She took a sip of water from a glass in her hand, without breaking eye contact. “They’re harmless.”

Harmless. Was that an acknowledgment that they were not, in fact, “friends?”

She offered no further explanations, and we both retreated to our rooms. If at first I’d thought to treat her kindly, I was no longer inclined to. I’d given her the chance to explain. I had offered: Let us, as adults, discuss this situation. In return, she took me for a fool. I’m friends with some older guys. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction.

Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. Then, one evening, I was out with a woman I’d recently begun dating. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord.

“Somebody call 911,” she said. “Police, ambulance. I don’t know what’s happen.” My landlord is Chinese, and I often have a hard time understanding her, but her tone told me all I needed to know. There was trouble at the apartment. “You come home now,” she commanded.

Was Jenny hurt? My thoughts went to the men. I knew this couldn’t end well.

My date raised an eyebrow to me. “Give me a sec,” I said. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone.

I texted Jenny: Everything ok? Landlord says someone called 911.

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

I stared at that text, uncomprehending. I didn’t know anyone named Kaylee.

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

A few minutes later, my phone rang with Jenny’s number, and a young woman told me she was Jenny’s best friend. Jenny was dead. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. Kaylee, whose tone was so completely lacking in inflection she sounded almost robotic, told me she’d grown alarmed when Jenny didn’t respond to her texts and phone calls, and so she came by the apartment and convinced the landlord to let her in.

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings. Mostly I was relieved that I’d been spared the task of evicting her, and was now desperately hoping that my evening would not be spoiled any further.

I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring.

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

My date reacted as I expected. “Oh, my god! Are you O.K.?”

Of course I was O.K. The fact that my roommate was dead was unsettling, and I was somewhat shaken, but I wasn’t sad, or feeling any grief-related emotions. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her. Kaylee? A friend? I didn’t know Jenny had friends. An overdose? An overdose of what?

I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: roommate’s dead, body is still in the house. No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either. I’d be back in the morning, and get a new roommate in the coming days. There’d be no problem with the rent.

My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away.

* * *

In the morning I took the subway home, and remembered: My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us. I thought back to what I’d done the day before: got myself breakfast, worked, then lunch, then anticipated my date in the evening. I’d been annoyed that Jenny had left dirty dishes in the sink and a half-eaten chocolate bar on the kitchen counter for two days straight.

When I got home, the door to Jenny’s room was sealed with a strip of police tape. I also discovered that in addition to the cat, she’d had two large white rats, which I found sitting in tall mesh cages in another room, probably moved there by the cops. It appeared that someone had taken the cat.

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

“Hi Shulem, it’s Steve.” There was a pause. “Jenny’s dad.”

I felt momentarily caught off balance. Until that moment, I had imagined that Jenny’s death would affect very few people. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected. I knew she had parents, a little sister, extended family somewhere, but I knew so little about them they were almost unreal to me. Her entire life seemed confined to her room across the hallway, as if she mattered to no one but herself.

“I am so sorry, I am so terribly sorry.” The words tumbled out clumsily, lame and ineffectual. “I was so shocked. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you. I am so, so terribly sorry. This must be so devastating.”

I could hear him sniffling on the other end of the line. “She was a sad girl, Shulem.”

A sad girl? There were the signs, of course. And yet, she’d always seemed vaguely chipper, even after I’d started seeing the men come by.

It was heroin, Steve told me. Her boyfriend, who was an addict, had introduced it to her. Steve thought she must’ve been using for only a couple weeks. He asked if I’d noticed any changes recently, and I told him that I hadn’t.

“Jenny’s aunt will come by to collect some of her things,” he said. “We know Jenny wrote some poetry, so maybe we can find it on her computer.” He paused, then said: “I’m really sorry you have to deal with this.”

When I hung up, I felt guilty for feeling as unmoved as I did. I sat at the desk in my room, a blast of cold air from the air conditioning hitting my face, and thought about Jenny’s death, disturbed that I didn’t feel something more. This was a young woman, just beginning adult life, who’d lived with me for four months, and when I had heard she was dead, my strongest emotion was annoyance. Her father, at the same time, seemed to expect exactly that. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. As if he knew that someone like me would be affected only by the trouble of it all.

* * *

Over the next few days, I checked Jenny’s Facebook page, and was surprised by the outpouring of grief from friends — dozens and dozens of them — who’d tagged her name and wrote messages on her “wall,” in the language of tweeting, text-messaging millennials.

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

Here were people reminiscing about her, friends writing about the time she helped someone with a college essay, or about high school adventures, or that time they got passed-out drunk and high on that crazy spring break trip.

Two days later, her aunt came.

“This is the biggest nightmare of our lives,” she said, and then she, too, apologized that I’ve had to deal with it all. The aunt packed up some of Jenny’s things — her computer and a handful of personal items. She packed some of her clothes into a few large trash bags. “I think I’ll take these to the Salvation Army,” she said.

Still, out of the entire collection of Jenny’s possessions, she left most of it, a room full of belongings, and told me to throw it all in the trash. I stood in the room afterward, looking around at the things that make up a person’s life, but now no longer mattered. The bed that was ordered online just four months ago. The easy chair Jenny had brought from her childhood home in Westchester. A bunch of keys on a key ring, a bracelet of blue beads, a MetroCard, a bag of cosmetics. Things that, just three days ago, Jenny might’ve thought important, but now, poof — so inconsequential.

Later, I stood in the middle of her empty room, after I’d emptied the closets, swept and mopped the floor, and cleared out all her things. It looked just like it had before she moved in: bare, clean, uninhabited but inviting. I closed the door to look behind it, and noticed a taped-up card, from HashtagThePlanet.com: it hurts now. but it will get better. i promise.

It amazed me how quickly a person’s life could be dismantled, all these concrete physical objects discarded or recycled. I thought about how our physical possessions are like phantom lives: You can go into a person’s room and look at her bed, her desk, the flip-flops in the corner, the little trashcan with the empty coffee cup and dirty tissues, and almost see a living being, by the effects of one. But then, these things are collected, dispersed, in a kind of parallel death — three days, and a healthy young woman’s presence is scraped clean off the planet.

I left the note on the door, and kept a few of Jenny’s things for myself: a small hammer, a pack of AAA batteries. A lamp. Her easy chair. It made me sad, but I had little use for the rest, and ended up putting most of it out with the trash. There it all lay, right by the curb, plastic storage bins and large trash bags filled with the effects of Jenny’s everyday life; the contents of her drawers and closets, whatever her aunt had left — bed linen, hair accessories, underwear, a blanket and some pillows, a bright red blow dryer. The stuff sat on the edge of the sidewalk for a day or two, and through the window I watched as people passed, glancing at the items. Some stopped to pick through them, holding up items for inspection, taking what they pleased, until the pile was about half the original size. Then the trash collectors came and tossed it all into the monster-mouth of their truck, until nothing was left but a shattered light bulb that slipped out of one of the bags, now spread in tiny bits of glass among the fallen leaves of a nearby honeysuckle tree.

Hidden History

This Black Woman Was Once the Biggest Star in Jazz. Here’s Why You’ve Never Heard of Her.

Hazel Scott was a piano prodigy who wowed the worlds of music, TV and film. But when she stood up for her rights, the establishment took her down.

On a rainy September morning in 1950, jazz pianist Hazel Scott stood in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee hoping to clear her name.

The publication “Red Channels” had accused Scott — along with 150 other cultural figures — of communist sympathies. Failure to respond would be seen as an admission of guilt. But her appearance at HUAC had a greater purpose than personal exoneration. She believed she had a responsibility to stem the tide of paranoia that gained momentum by the day.

She told the committee’s members, “Mudslinging and unverified charges are just the wrong ways to handle this problem.” With the same poise she brought to the stage as a musician, she testified that “what happens to me happens to others and it is part of a pattern which could spread and really damage our national morale and security.”

Chin up, shoulders back, she warned against “profiteers in patriotism who seek easy money and notoriety at the expense of the nation’s security and peace of mind,” and that continuing down this road would transform America’s artists from a “loyal troupe of patriotic, energetic citizens ready to give their all for America” into a “wronged group whose creative value has been destroyed.”

Speaking with a voice that simultaneously conveyed clarity and nuance, strength and warmth, she knew what she was doing. She had been rehearsing for this moment her entire life.

* * *

Born in Trinidad, Scott was raised on music. Her whole family played and her mother, Alma, an aspiring concert pianist, taught music to help make ends meet. Unbeknownst to her family, Hazel Scott absorbed everything she heard until one day she woke her grandmother from a nap by playing a familiar hymn on the piano, two-handed and with perfect pitch. Her grandmother woke thinking, not wrongly, that she was witnessing a miracle.

Hazel Scott at the age of three or four.

Scott’s arc was fixed in the stars from that moment on. At three years old, she played parties, churches, and gatherings. But economic opportunity was hard to come by, and when her parents’ marriage fell apart in 1923, her mother decided she and Scott would emigrate to New York City.

Scott grocery shopped, prepared meals, and handled the household’s money. When word got around that, in her house, a child paid the bills, a gang of white teenagers broke in and demanded money. Scott refused to give them any. They beat her black and blue, and Scott still refused to turn over the cash. Finally, as police sirens grew nearer, the boys ran off with her blood on their hands.

Another time, Scott was playing near the trench being dug for the subway line that would become the A train when, according to Scott, a white girl from the neighborhood who she had been playing with told her to “Turn around so that I can brush you off and send you to school.” When she did, the girl pushed her into the trench.

The workmen who rescued Scott had the unmistakable look of “fear and guilt” in their eyes. “They, too, were white,” Scott later wrote in her journal. “They had witnessed the horrible act. They were involved and they resented it and me.”

Scott resolved never to be so naïve again — nor did she allow the incident to dictate her life.

She kept playing piano, kept stunning audiences, and impressed one person in particular. The story sounds more like legend than fact, but several sources, including Scott’s journal and the accounts of the parties involved, confirm it.

German-born, wearing a meticulous goatee and a pocket watch, and steeped in the traditions of European classical music, Juilliard founder Frank Damrosch was the very model of high culture in New York City. As such, his blood began to boil when he heard someone in the audition room improvising over Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C Sharp Major.” Marching down the hall to confront the blasphemer brash enough to attempt such a thing, he heard the ninths being substituted with the sixths. It was sacrilege, he thought, until he saw who was playing.

Since eight-year-old Scott’s hands couldn’t reach the piece’s intervals, she played the sixths to make it sound the way she intuitively knew it should. No one taught her how to do this. She wrote: “I was only reaching for the closest thing that sounded like it, not even knowing what a sixth was at that age.”

When she finished, the auditions director whispered, “I am in the presence of a genius.” Damrosch agreed and Scott was admitted to Juilliard. But her real education wasn’t in the classroom. It was in her living room.

In New York, Alma quickly became a successful jazz musician and befriended some of the Harlem Renaissance’s brightest stars in the process. In turn, they shone on young Hazel. She sat beside ragtime legend Fats Waller — whom she called “Uncle” — at the piano, while his hands strode syncopated rhythms across the keys. Piano legend Art Tatum became a close family friend and mentor to Hazel, advising her to dive deep into the blues.

Meanwhile Hazel’s mother, Alma, bought a brownstone on West 118th Street, opened a Chinese restaurant on the ground floor, and taught herself to play tenor sax. Her circle widened. Lester Young and Billie Holiday came over after hours. Young and Alma traded turns playing sax in the living room when she and Holiday weren’t gossiping in the kitchen. Holiday became like a big sister to Hazel, taking her under her wing as Hazel ventured out into the life of a working musician. In an article she wrote for Ebony, Hazel Scott recalled how, once, when “wondering where I was going and what I was doing, I began to cry.” Holiday then “stopped, gripped my arm and dragged me to a back room.” She told Scott, “Never let them see you cry” — a piece of advice Scott followed forever.

While still a child, Hazel Scott played piano for dance classes and churches. At 13 she joined her mother’s jazz band, Alma Long Scott’s American Creolians. When she outgrew the gig, her mother secured her a spot playing piano after the Count Basie Orchestra at the posh Roseland Ballroom. Watching Basie bring the house down, Hazel turned to Alma and said, “You expect me to follow this?” Stage fright or no, she played what would become her signature boogie-woogie style. The crowd adored her. From there, she took flight.

* * *

At the time, the majority of jazz clubs were segregated. Even the famed Cotton Club in Harlem, where Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway headlined, had a “colored” section. Blacks and whites almost never shared the stage. But in 1938, a shoe clerk from Trenton, New Jersey, opened a different kind of club.

Pianists (L-R) Count Basie, Teddy Wilson, Hazel Scott, Duke Ellington, and Mel Powell gathered around the piano at Cafe Society.

Cafe Society was “the wrong place for the Right people” according to founder Barney Josephson. He once said, “I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front.” It was there that Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” for the first time and became a legend, and it was there that Holiday got Scott her first steady engagement.

When Holiday canceled a standing engagement three weeks early, she insisted Scott take her place. By the end of the run, Scott was Cafe Society’s new headliner. Only 19 years old, she inherited the bench previously occupied by piano greats like Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson. But as The New York Amsterdam News reported, “Hazel more than holds her own, and demonstrates a style all her own.”

 

As it turned out, not only was Scott a brilliant pianist, she also had a hell of a voice: deep and sonorous, comforting yet provocative — the sort of singing style that makes you want to embrace the sublime melancholy that is love and life and whiskey on a midwinter’s night.

Scott at the age of nineteen.

And, she was beautiful. She wore floor-length ball gowns on stage and gazed out into the audience with almond-shaped eyes that seemed to communicate a deep knowledge of everyone they fixed upon. Like watching a painter paint or a sculptor sculpt, when Scott sang, you saw the song traveling through her, taking shape before emerging from her lips. And when she played her boogie-woogie, she grinned ear to ear, looking like self-possessed joy manifested. She was, in a word, irresistible.

Audiences flocked to see her. Fan mail flooded in. Josephson decided to open a second Cafe Society location, uptown for a swankier audience, with Scott as the marquee performer. New York’s finest showed up in droves, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who dropped in one evening for “some entertainment and relaxation,” as one reporter wrote. After the show, Mrs. Roosevelt asked Scott to join her for a late supper. Because she had already changed from her evening wear to streetwear, Scott begged off the invitation.

“I’m inviting you,” said Mrs. Roosevelt, “not your clothes.”

How could Scott refuse?

She was the reigning queen of jazz, a friend to some of the most famous names in the country, and all at just 22 years old.

Hazel Scott had conquered New York. Hollywood was next. But in a motion picture industry where people of color were usually restricted to playing maids, cannibals, or buffoons, was there room for Hazel Scott?

* * *

Nine black soldiers march down a hill to the sound of piano and drum. They are upright, dignified, ready to fight and die. Their sweethearts line the road, waving handkerchiefs and bidding their fellows goodbye. It’s 1943, and the question on the backlot is, “What should these women wear?”

The scene is from “The Heat’s On,” a patriotic 1943 musical. Scott is performing a rah-rah number called “The Caissons Go Rolling Along.” In conceptualizing the scene, the director intended to dress the women in what Hollywood assumed all black women would wear: dirty aprons.

Scott wasn’t having it. Her contract always included final script and wardrobe approval, ensuring she’d never play or look the fool. She told the choreographer she wanted that protection extended to the extras who shared her stage.

“What do you care?” said the choreographer. “You’re beautifully dressed.”

“The next thing I knew,” wrote Scott, “we were screaming at each other and all work had stopped. … I insisted that no scene in which I was involved would display Black women wearing dirty aprons to send their men to die for their country.”

Neither side relented, so Scott went on strike. For three days, the studio begged and pleaded for her to return to set. But Scott would not be moved. The more the clock ticked, the more money it cost, a fact of which Scott was well aware. Finally, the studio caved to Scott’s demands, and the women appear in the film wearing particularly fetching floral dresses.

 

Though she won the battle, Columbia Pictures was far from conceding the war. In the minds of producers who were used to dictating to African-Americans — particularly to African-American women — Scott’s public victory was more than they could stand. In the next two years, she was given small parts in two more second-rate movies. After that, she was finished with motion pictures.

“I had antagonized the head of Columbia Pictures,” wrote Scott in her journal. “In short, committed suicide!”

She packed her bags and headed back east — where love was about to sweep her off her feet.

* * *

Scott was once again wowing crowds at Cafe Society, when she caught the eye of a young politician. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., soon to become New York’s first African-American congressman, pulled Josephson aside, and asked for an introduction.

“Are you really interested in Hazel,” said Josephson, who considered Scott a daughter, “or are you just screwing around?”

Congressman Adam Powell and wife, Hazel Scott, pose for a White House Christmas greeting, circa 1946.

Powell assured him of his sincerity, Josephson made the introduction, and their romance caught fire — despite the fact that Powell had been married to nightclub singer Isabel Washington since 1933. For the next year, Scott and Powell pursued their love with reckless abandon, damned be the consequences. In 1945, he married Scott 11 short days after his divorce was finalized.

Her career in Hollywood dead, Scott started touring, winning rave reviews at concerts across the country and fighting discrimination throughout. In November 1948, she refused to play a sold-out show at the University of Texas because the audience was segregated, despite the anti-Jim Crow clause in her contract, which allowed her to cancel the booking without forfeiting her pay. And in February 1949, she sued a restaurant in the tiny town of Pasco, Washington, after she and a companion were refused service because, as the proprietor put it, “We don’t serve coloreds.” Scott won $250 in the suit, and donated the proceeds to the NAACP.

Scott was making around $75,000 a year during this time — making her one of the most successful musicians in the country, black or white. After five years’ continued success, Hollywood could ignore her no longer. In 1950, she came to break the color barrier on the small screen.

* * *

Scott sits at the keys of a grand piano in an elegant white gown. With a backdrop of Manhattan behind her, she looks like the urban empress she had become.

“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”

Broadcast on the DuMont Network, The Hazel Scott Show was the first television program to have an African-American woman as its solo host. Three nights a week, Scott played her signature mix of boogie-woogie, classics, and jazz standards in living rooms across America. It was a landmark moment. As a passionate civil and women’s rights activist, the show symbolized a triumphant accomplishment. As a career musician, her program took her to professional heights known by few, assuring her place in the pantheon of America’s greatest performers. To be sure, Scott had arrived at the success she had sought since playing that first simple tune in Trinidad as a three-year-old.

And then, just like that, it all came tumbling down. “Red Channels.” HUAC. Another star tainted by a whiff of Communism.

Hazel defends herself before the House Un-American Activities Committee, September 1950.

When she stood in front of HUAC, it only made sense to speak truth to power, to stand up for what she believed in. She believed herself the embodiment of the American dream, and she spoke in its defense. In an unwavering voice she told the committee, “the entertainment profession has done its part for America, in war and peace, and it must not be dragged through the mud of hysterical name-calling at a moment when we need to enrich and project the American way of life to the world. There is no better, more effective, more easily understood medium for telling and selling the American way of life than our entertainers, creative artists, and performers, for they are the real voice of America.”

But they did not hear her, did not believe her. And she in turn underestimated the power of fear, never having bent to it herself.

One week after her testimony, DuMont canceled The Hazel Scott Show. Concert appearances became few and far between. Even nightclub gigs were hard to come by.

Exhausted and unraveled, Scott went to Paris on what was to be a three-week vacation. Her sojourn extended to three years. To her, Paris became “the magic of looking up the Champs-Élysées from the Place de la Concorde and being warmed by the merry madness of the lights.” It was also “a much needed rest, not from work, but from racial tension.”

She played across Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East. Crowds still loved her, still swooned over her swinging classics. But it was not the same. Her spotlight had dimmed, and would never again shine on her the way it had in her halcyon days.

Eventually, Scott returned to America and slipped further into obscurity. In 1981 she passed away at 61 from cancer. Her albums are hard to come by now and her name never appears where it should, beside Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and others who we think of when we think of jazz. But for a while, she led them all, until a country twisted by fear pushed her past the point from which even she, the force of nature that she was, could return.

Hidden History

They Fought and Died for America. Then America Turned Its Back.

A quarter million Filipinos served for the U.S. in WWII, only to have their rights stripped at war’s end. Now, the last survivors are fighting for what's rightfully theirs.

Patrick Ganio had lived to see his country invaded, its defenses smashed, and his comrades fall on the battlefield. But he had lived, and that was no small feat – not after the Allied surrender and the torturous march that followed, 60 miles inland from their defeat on the Bataan peninsula, all the way to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Battered, wounded and starving, the soldiers who stumbled along the way were swiftly dispatched, run through with the blade of a Japanese bayonet. There would be no slowing down. To falter meant certain death.

Still, Ganio had survived. In a war that claimed nearly 57,000 Filipino soldiers and untold numbers of civilians, Ganio lived to see the dawn of the Philippine liberation. He was freed, allowed to go home to his family and rejoin the fight on behalf of the Philippine resistance. By 1945, three years of Japanese occupation were at a close, and the end of World War II was mere months away. All it would take would be one final push to effectively expel the Japanese Army from the Philippine Islands.

That’s how Ganio found himself once again in the battlefield, this time pinched between two mountain ranges on the rugged slopes of Balete Pass. Sniper fire whistled down from the peaks, where enemy fighters had barricaded themselves inside caves and pillbox bunkers. Control over Luzon, the Philippines’ main island, was at stake.

Propaganda poster depicts the Philippine resistance movement during the first year of Japanese occupation. (Photo courtesy the National Park Service)

Patriotism had first motivated Ganio to enlist back in 1941, fresh out of school at age 20. At the time, the Philippines were a United States territory — spoils from its victory in the Spanish-American War — and Ganio took to serving the United States military with zeal.

His father, a poor farmer, supported his decision to fight. He had always harbored high hopes for his bright young son. Ganio distinguished himself at an early age by learning to read using papers from the local Catholic church, and when it finally came time for Ganio to start school, his father cheered him on, carrying him to class atop his shoulders. He dreamt Ganio would escape the poverty that plagued the family. Ganio would have an education, a career, a future.

But the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, hit the Philippines like the opening blow in a one-two punch. Barely 10 hours later, as the U.S. scrambled to muster its defenses, the Japanese arrived on Philippine shores, ready to invade.

None of that shook Ganio’s resolve. He was convinced the Allies would win, never wavering, not even after their defeat at Bataan and his imprisonment and torture.

And yes, the war would be won. The battle in Luzon would prove to be a decisive victory, the last major battle in the Philippines and a crucial step toward Japan’s surrender. But it would not mark the end of the struggle for Philippine soldiers.

They would continue fighting for decades to come — only this time their goal was to reclaim the recognition stripped from them.

In 1946, barely a year after the war’s close, the U.S. government would repeal all the “rights, privileges, or benefits” given to Filipino soldiers like Ganio, essentially denying that they had been active in the U.S. military at all.

But as he scrambled through the rubble and brush of Balete Pass, Ganio could not know what was to come. His future, as far as he saw, was as bright as the one his father had envisioned for him. He had a career as a teacher waiting for him, and his wife had just welcomed their first child.

Amid the bloodshed and fire, Ganio could not even be certain of how the day would end. He couldn’t know that a bullet was barreling in his direction, destined for the back of his head, just millimeters from his brainstem. The war would re-shape his future in ways he could not yet comprehend.

* * *

The old man’s body contorted before her, assuming every painful position he had been subject to during his torture by the Japanese. Jimiliz Valiente-Neighbours, a Ph.D. student, was visiting Filipino veterans of World War II, hoping to answer a question: What did it mean to have served under the American flag? And now she was getting her answer, carefully reenacted before her, right down to the screams.

Five mysterious letters had launched her into this line of research: U-S-A-F-E. Valiente-Neighbours first noticed them etched on her grandfather’s grave during a 2008 visit to her family in the Philippines. As Valiente-Neighbours later discovered, the letters were a misspelling: for USAFFE, or the United States Army Forces in the Far East. No one had ever told her that her grandfather had served in World War II. That slice of family history felt hidden, and she was determined to find out why.

Before the Philippines’ independence in 1946, its citizens were U.S. nationals, and in the lead-up to America’s entry into World War II, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt made a proclamation. He ordered “all the organized military forces” of the Philippines to serve the U.S. military.

Americans and Filipinos who fought with the Filipino guerrillas. Left to right: Lt. Hombre Bueno, Lt. William Farrell, Maj. Robert Lapham, Lt. James O. Johnson, Lt. Henry Baker, and Lt. Gofronio Copcion. (Photo courtesy the U.S. Army)

Approximately 260,000 Filipino servicemen were mobilized — soldiers, nurses, recognized guerilla units and more. But after the war, the financial obligation of that mobilization loomed large. With the Philippines on the verge of independence, the U.S. Congress started to reconsider its commitment to Filipino veterans.

In February 1946, it issued the first of two Rescission Acts, both of which denied Filipino veterans the right to be recognized as active service members in the U.S. Armed Forces. In exchange, the U.S. offered the Philippine Army a sum of $200 million. It also paid compensation to Filipino soldiers disabled in the war and kin of those who were killed — sometimes at half the rate of their American counterparts.

Ultimately, Filipino servicemen were left stripped of their pensions, educational stipends and medical care under the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Just as important was the fact that the legislation seemed to negate any sacrifices the veterans made on behalf of the U.S.

President Harry Truman issued a statement re-iterating that Filipinos had “fought, as American nationals, under the American flag, and under the direction of our military leaders.” Yet, despite asserting that the U.S. had a “moral obligation” to the veterans, he signed the Rescission Acts.

As Valiente-Neighbours learned about these events, she started reaching out to Filipino veterans, and was surprised to hear some of them insist that they were U.S. citizens, even though they had never even set foot on American soil. But as they saw it, they had sacrificed life and limb for the U.S. What could be more American?

Valiente-Neighbours, now a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, ultimately met with 83 Filipino veterans. Many of them were heartbroken by the lack of recognition they received.

One leaned close to her tape-recorder and spoke to it as if talking to America itself. “I gave you my best years. You had my youth,” she recalls him saying. “And now, in my old age, you don’t recognize me.”

Valiente-Neighbours says the anguish was even more acute for the veterans who eventually immigrated to the U.S. “They could immediately see the difference in their treatment compared to American veterans, particularly their white counterparts.”

But for some of the veterans, the rejection they felt was also fueling a push to action. She remembers one veteran telling her, “I fought before, and now I’m fighting again.”

* * *

The moment Eric Lachica decided to act was the moment he saw his quiet, dignified father in a state of anguish. A Filipino sharpshooter during the war, Lachica’s father had approached the VA healthcare system for a check-up. He was turned away.

“That’s when I felt I should get involved,” Lachica says. And a few years later, at a reception inside the Philippine embassy in Washington, D.C., Lachica got his opportunity.

There, he spotted a man he recognized as a leader in the Filipino-American community: a World War II Purple Heart honoree, standing in a corner of the room, his hair conspicuously topped by a veteran’s hat.

His name was Patrick Ganio, and he had survived his near-fatal injury to become one of the most prominent activists in the fight for equity between Filipino veterans and their American counterparts.

Patrick Ganio shows off his copy of the Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo by the author)

“We fought the same war. We fought with the same lives there. There’s no reason why we should not have equal benefits,” Ganio says. To this day, he can still recite the Japanese military songs he was forced to learn as a prisoner: Miyo, tokai no sora akete

Ganio immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, and by the time he and Lachica met, Ganio had succeeded in pushing for the passage of a law that gave Filipino World War II veterans a path to American citizenship. Lachica, a community organizer himself, was impressed, and eager to join the fight.

Together, they successfully lobbied for benefits like healthcare, disability assistance and burial rights — a bittersweet victory for Lachica, who was able to bury his father in California’s Riverside National Cemetery when he passed away in 2002.

But there was always the question of compensation: Could a dollar amount ever reimburse the veterans for the years of disenfranchisement they endured? Lachica says that was the subject of bitter debate, with some advocates pushing for an absurdly high dollar amount — and others reluctant to ask for anything at all.

Then there was the problem of getting politicians to sign on. In 2007, Lachica was angling to get the support of a rising political star, Illinois senator Barack Obama, but felt Obama was reluctant. He was venting his frustrations to a meeting of expat Democrats in the Philippine capital of Manila when a woman raised her hand. She introduced herself as Georgia McCauley — a family friend of Obama’s from his childhood years in Indonesia.

Lachica and McCauley arranged to meet again in Washington, D.C., to confront the senator face to face. And as they made their way up to Obama’s seventh-floor office on Capitol Hill, Obama himself entered the elevator and was startled to see his old friend.

“He got kind of flustered,” Lachica says with a laugh. He suspects their visit left an impression.

Shortly after his election as the 44th president of the United States, Obama signed into law the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund. It awarded a one-time payment of $15,000 to the veterans who had become U.S. citizens, and $9,000 to those who had not. Ganio considers it one of his crowning achievements: “The final conclusion of my mission,” he calls it.

But the battle was not yet over.

* * *

A bill passes, a problem gets solved. It’s a tidy narrative, but one that rarely lines up with reality, as Cecilia Gaerlan was about to find out.

Her home state of California had taken its own steps to honor Filipino World War II veterans, amending its education code in 2011 to encourage schools to teach their stories.

But “encourage” turned out to be the operative word. Nothing actually compelled school districts to follow through. So Gaerlan, the daughter of a Filipino veteran, felt obliged to act.

“I realized that nobody was going to do it,” says Gaerlan, founder of the Bataan Legacy Historical Society. “And I had to do something. I could not wait for chance to happen, especially because the veterans were dying.”

The last veterans are now in their 80s, 90s, even 100s. Some, as Gaerlan discovered, had felt pressure not to speak about their wartime experiences. The post-war years were a time to rebuild, not rehash old wounds.

Even Gaerlan’s own father, who died in 2014, downplayed the suffering he endured. As a child, Gaerlan remembers him turning his war stories into slapstick and farce, complete with rat-tat-tat sound effects for the guns.

One story began with a Japanese guard trying to steal her father’s toothbrush — he had mistaken it for a fountain pen — and ended with her father being beaten on the head. But the way her father told it, the story unfurled like comedy. “Us kids, we thought it was funny,” Gaerlan says.

Only later, as an adult, did she discover the grim reality that her father survived the gruesome Bataan Death March. “And I cried. I cried. I didn’t really know,” she says. “He never told me about these things. I never knew what happened, and when I asked him — ‘Dad, how come you never told me? Is this true?’ — then he choked up, and yeah, he broke down.”

U.S. Army National Guard and Filipino soldiers shown at the outset of the Bataan Death March. (Photo courtesy the National Guard)

What happened in the Philippines hadn’t been easy to talk about. It was defeat. Invasion. Torture. Nothing like the triumphant narrative that emerged from America’s World War II experience of a rising superpower that faced the forces of injustice, and won.

Instead, Filipinos had long been dismissed as Americans’ “little brown brothers” — too primitive, in the words of one U.S. president, to develop “anything resembling Anglo-Saxon political principles and skills.” That perspective had filtered its way into the wartime accounts Gaerlan read, some of which depicted Filipino servicemen as lazy or cowardly.

Little had been written from the standpoint of the Filipinos themselves — something Gaerlan set out to rectify. She collected their stories and petitioned the California State Board of Education to actively teach the “shared history” the U.S. had with the Philippines.

Timing was on her side. California was in the midst of revising its state curriculum, and in July 2016, it approved a plan to integrate the veterans’ stories into 11th-grade history classes. That decision will likely have wide-ranging impact. Since California is one of the largest textbook consumers in the country, changes to its curriculum are often reflected in books across all 50 states, Gaerlan says.

And Gaerlan started to hear firsthand how her work was changing the narrative for the state’s Filipino population. At one event at the University of California, Berkeley, a young man approached her to share his family’s experience. “He told me, ‘You know, my grandfather used to dress up in his uniform every April, and I thought he was so weird. But now that I know his story, I have such great respect for him.’”

* * *

Celestino Almeda has a hard time sleeping at night. He is now 101 years old, contending with arthritis in both knees, prostate cancer and other ravages of age. But as he told one judge who heard his case, he cannot rest. Not until he gets recognition for his sacrifices.

Almeda’s lawyer, Seth Watkins, believes Almeda must have been one of the first Filipino World War II veterans to apply for the compensation offered by the Obama administration. Having received his U.S. citizenship in 1996, Almeda should have been entitled to $15,000.

His was one of 42,755 applications submitted to Veterans Affairs as of December 1, 2017. Less than half were accepted. Almeda’s was not one of them.

“You know, when a person’s dignity is violated, you become resentful,” Almeda explains. He says what bothered him most wasn’t not having the money. It was that, once again, the U.S. had denied his service.

In many ways, Almeda’s case is an anomaly. Fighting the VA’s rejection is a luxury afforded to only a few. Official statistics indicate that less than 28 percent of the veterans’ appeals are granted. “There aren’t very many lawyers out there who are willing to put the time into [these appeals], because they can’t make any money on it,” Watkins, his lawyer, says.

Watkins might never have approached the issue himself, had a Filipino veteran’s case not “dropped” into his lap as a pro bono project. That first case, on behalf of a female guerilla named Feliciana Reyes, forced him to investigate how the VA evaluates Filipino World War II veterans. What he discovered was a maze of historical documents, some of which may be perpetuating age-old discriminations.

According to Watkins, the government verifies a Filipino veteran’s service by first looking for the affidavit they had to sign at the end of the war. The affidavit is then cross-referenced with a second document, an official army roster. That’s where things get tricky.

“Basically, the original rosters were lost or destroyed,” Watkins says. The VA mostly relies on duplicates or revised copies, created at a later date. For Watkins, that raised the possibility that the rosters are incomplete. But then he stumbled across a report that suggested something even more damning: some names had been left off intentionally.

The once-classified report, “U.S. Army Recognition Program of Philippine Guerillas,” explains how Army personnel determined which Filipino veterans to include on the rosters, and how practical problems, like the language barrier, resulted in incomplete records.

One of the most stunning revelations was that certain veterans were disqualified using arbitrary standards. Some U.S. personnel, for instance, held the belief that, “excepting nurses, no women should be recognized.”

Despite what Watkins sees as evidence of gender discrimination, Reyes’s appeal continues to wind its way through the courts. Watkins fears that Reyes, now in her 90s, may never get the benefits she is owed. With no living spouse, if she dies, her claim dies with her.

Watkins did, however, manage to give Celestino Almeda some much-needed resolution. Though Almeda continues to fight for the release of documents related to his case — documents he and Watkins hope will help other rejected veterans — the VA agreed to settle Almeda’s compensation claim out-of-court, awarding him his full $15,000.

It was not an admission of wrongdoing, but it was a step in the right direction. It came just as Almeda was about to go to the U.S. Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the Filipino war effort. He could now do so as an officially recognized veteran of the United States.

“I am an American soldier,” he declared in his speech, reciting the opening lines of the U.S. Army Soldier’s Creed. Though his microphone was too tall, though his feet were unsteady, though he faced some of the most powerful people in the country, his words rang out strong: “I will never quit.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with 99-year-old World War II Filipino-American veteran Celestino Almeda in Washington, D.C., on November 3, 2016. (Photo courtesy the State Department)
Patrick Ganio’s Congressional Gold Medal. (Photo by the author)
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