The Invisible Island

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Nearly one million people are buried in mass graves off of the Bronx. But the city prefers you know nothing about it.

Hart Island is a hard place to get to if you’re alive, but an easy place to get lost if you’re dead. Technically part of the Bronx, it sits on the westernmost edge of Long Island Sound, crowding the entrance to the East River. Between its abandoned prisons slowly sinking into the forest, its spools of razor wire, and the rise at its northern end called “Cemetery Hill,” the island does a terrific job of looking spooky.

Simply going near Hart Island is dangerous. First, there is the shoreline, which is shallow most of the way around and studded with sharp, submerged rocks. Then there is the current, particularly strong off the northern tip; and the wind, which comes in from the sound so hard and raggedly that it occasionally catches experienced captains by surprise. A map drawn in 1777 by the British Navy warned captains to avoid Hart Island as they left New York on their frequent raids to shell and pillage the Connecticut coast: “You Muft obferve not to borrow towards the Eaft-fide” of Throggs Neck Peninsula, lest the King’s ships strike the mud flat off  “Heart Ifland.”

A map drawn by the British Navy in 1777 showing Hart Island

The place has bedeviled boaters pretty much ever since. The Brookville, a schooner that spent most of the 19th century hauling freight along the northern coast, ran so far aground on Hart Island during the winter of 1879 that her owners abandoned her as a total loss. The Montauk Steamship Line’s Shinnecock ferry was carrying 150 passengers on its regular route from Rhode Island to New York when it struck Hart Island on the morning of July 15, 1907, in fog. It took seven hours, two tugboats and high tide to pull her free.

Sonar helps, but only so much. Dominick Cerbone grew up boating near City Island, which sits a half-mile west of Hart Island. Four days a week he takes fishermen out on the “Apache,” a charter fishing boat with modern navigation equipment. Sometimes he stops near Hart Island to cast lines for fluke, which like to burrow into the black rocky bottom, but he rarely lingers. Sailing near Hart Island, “you’re taking your chances all the time,” says Cerbone, 81.

Some boats wind up on Hart Island by means more criminal than accidental. On the night of November 27, 1855, someone scuttled the freighter Eudora Imogen off Hart Island by boring four holes in her bow. The bodies of William Palmer and Gilbert Pratt, the Eudora’s captain and mate, were never found, although their shirts were discovered onboard the sunken ship, slit open by a knife and soaked in blood. The only survivor was George Wilson, an African-American and the ship’s cook, who was arrested by a mob of City Island fishermen.

What ensued was among America’s first murder trials cum racially charged media circuses. Despite Wilson’s claim of innocence and the lack of inculpatory evidence, the New York press joined rowdy crowds at the Westchester County Courthouse in denouncing “the murderous negro” and calling for his execution. “That [Wilson] should escape conviction altogether, because the bodies could not be found, was unanimously declared to be a monstrous outrage upon all justice,” read a news story in the New York Times, which suggested that Wilson should be suspended by his wrists until he starved to death. “Hanging, or even burning alive, was too expeditious an exit.” The 4,000 people who came to watch the execution on July 25, 1856 enjoyed a “jubilee” atmosphere, the Times reported, including vendors selling beer, cider, oysters, clams, cakes, pies and cigars. They did not have long to wait, however. Wilson was hanged.

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The Eudora case was likely the last time a majority of New Yorkers knew where Hart Island was. In the century and a half since, the island has faded almost entirely from public view. But for those who do know it, Hart Island is a place synonymous with death, a place where New York can do the dark work of being a city.

A view of Hart Island today (Photo: Luke Rafferty)
A view of Hart Island today (Photo: Luke Rafferty)

Hart Island does not appear on the MTA’s subway map or the Department of Transportation’s bicycling maps. The AAA map in my car shows the blue dotted line of a public ferry from City Island to Hart Island, but the ferry closed to the public in 1976. Panorama, the room-sized Robert Moses-commissioned  sculpture at the Queens Museum of Art—which displays every street and nearly every building in New York City—excludes the island entirely.

From an airplane at night, Hart Island is invisible from the west. It can be seen only on clear nights, only from the east and by inference, when lights from the city bounce off the water of the Sound and leave the island backlit. It appears as negative space, the darkest ink spot on a page of black.

Hart Island can be found on Google Maps, which labels the northern half of the island “Potter’s Field,” a term commonly used to refer to a place where unknown or unclaimed bodies are buried. The location is no longer accurate, and the name never was. When the city bought Hart Island for $75,000 in 1868, the new potter’s field was set on 45 acres at the island’s northern tip. Administration was handed over to what was then called the Department of Charities and Correction, which operated a prison and a technical school for delinquent boys on the island. Inmates were given the job of burying the dead, a practice that continues to this day. The Department of Correction estimates that more than 850,000 people are now buried on Hart Island, noting that the actual number may be somewhere between 750,000 and a million, a standard deviation that is jarring when you think about it.

In the last few years the old cemetery filled up, so the burials moved to Hart Island’s south side. In 2010, there were 695 adults and 504 babies buried there. Four days a week, prisoners from Riker’s Island lay plain pine boxes into two mass graves. In the adult grave, coffins are stacked three high. It will be filled with between 150 and 165 bodies (depending on the number of extra-wide coffins), plus separate coffins for body parts, and covered with 36 inches of dirt. The other grave, for fetuses and stillborn babies, will be loaded with 1,000 miniature coffins buried five deep. Both trenches are already open, dug by a yellow Caterpillar backhoe.

In 1990, workers on Hart Island place coffins in a mass grave for babies, fetuses and amputated body parts     (© Claire Yaffa, 1990)
In 1990, workers on Hart Island place coffins in a mass grave for babies, fetuses and amputated body parts     (© Claire Yaffa, 1990)

And then there is the name. In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas cast the 30 silver pieces he received for betraying Jesus onto the temple floor, and then hung himself in shame. The priests, concerned that adding blood money to the temple’s treasury would violate church law, “bought with them the potter’s field to bury strangers. Therefore that field has been called the ‘Field of Blood’ to this very day.” We are lucky the name “potter’s field” stuck, since printing the alternative on maps would be rather purple.

Lots of unidentified people are buried on Hart Island, and lots of poor people, too. But not everyone interred there is unknown and destitute. The first person buried in the potter’s field died in Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island—then called Blackwell’s Island—with no relatives or friends to claim her body, but we do know her name: Louisa Van Slyke, and she was 24. It’s reasonable to assume that Slyke was laid in the ground by inmates because the wife of Fred Bartels, the island’s first warden, recorded the burial on April 20, 1869. Since then, Hart Island’s dead have included victims of yellow and typhoid fever; veterans who died in Veterans Administration hospitals (whose names were known, and who should have been buried in individual graves in a national cemetery); and the first child to die of AIDS in New York, who received the field’s only private grave and the only personal gravestone, reading “SC B1 1985″ [Special Child, Baby 1, and the year of death]; well-known writers and actors including Bobby Driscoll, who played Peter Pan in the 1953 Disney movie; and Lewis Haggins, who founded an advocacy group calledPicture the Homeless. Haggins was buried as an unidentified body in 2004 even though he had received food stamps, spent time in prison, and lived in city shelters, which meant at least three government agencies held his fingerprints on file. His friends later had him disinterred and buried elsewhere.

“Sometimes people wind up in city cemetery when they shouldn’t be there at all,” says Amy Koplow, executive director of the Hebrew Free Burial Association, which works to arrange burials for indigent Jews and keep them out of the potter’s field. “They’re not indigent. They’re not unknown. Sometimes they just slip through the system.”

One person who is buried on Hart Island who should not be is Laurie Grant’s daughter. Grant was an obstetrician and gynecologist with a successful private practice in Westchester County. Her pregnancy in 1993 was hard. She felt nauseous for months, became dehydrated and malnourished, and required a feeding tube. At 33 weeks she was admitted to Lenox Hill Hospital. Tests on July 12, 1993 found the fetus had no heartbeat.

Laurie Grant at a Mass for babies buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/CHart Island Project, 2012)
Laurie Grant at a Mass for babies buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/CHart Island Project, 2012)

Grant’s stillborn baby was delivered by Caesarian section. Grant nearly died. The epidural numbed only one side of her body, leaving the other half in stabbing pain. A few days later, a nurse asked what she wanted to do with the body.

“The city can arrange it,” Grant remembers the nurse saying.

“How?” Grant asked.

The city could take care of the burial, the nurse said. Grant would be able to visit the grave, which would be marked with a number instead of a name. Grant was grieving, malnourished and delirious with pain. She was on so much medication she was barely conscious.

“I don’t remember signing any papers. I was really out of it,” says Grant, who is now 59.

As a doctor, Grant easily could have afforded private burial in the cemetery plot her family already owned in the Valhalla area of Westchester County, a few minutes’ drive from her current home. Grant was too sick to think if it, however, and hospital staff did not ask her relatives about other burial options. So the baby’s body was placed in a pine coffin and buried in a mass grave on Hart Island.

Melinda Hunt, founder, Hart Island Project (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

Grant’s experience was typical, says Melinda Hunt, an artist who has been fascinated with Hart Island since the early 1990s, and went on to publish a book and produce a film about it. In 2011 she founded the Hart Island Project, a charity that helps families around the world search for relatives who went missing in New York, and who may be buried in the potter’s field. Many families were told by hospital nurses or social workers to “Let the city handle it,” Hunt says, maybe to smooth the ordeal’s jagged edges, and possibly to speed things along. Parents are commonly assured that the grave will be marked (which is sometimes true, but not always), and that parents will be allowed to visit the graves (which is almost never true).“It’s not explained that this is a mass grave and you can’t go visit it,” Hunt says. “If families were made aware of that, I think most would opt for a private burial.”

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Sometimes it’s adults who get buried on Hart Island by mistake. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the police department’s missing persons unit use personal records, prescription bottles and fingerprints to identify people who die in hospitals, nursing homes and on the street without identification. They do a good job. Of the nearly 1,200 people buried on Hart Island last year, only about fifteen were unidentified, says Dan Stevelman, deputy commissioner for operations at the medical examiner’s office.

But some advocates doubt whether officials are as diligent about tracking down next of kin as they are about identifying the deceased. Hunt regularly receives emails from family members who can easily afford an individual grave in a private cemetery, but who never received word that a loved one was dead. Leonard Melfi, an influential playwright in the 1960s, was buried on Hart Island by mistake when he died in 2001. His family had the body disinterred and re-buried in a private grave. Amy Koplow remembers a man who was buried on Hart Island despite his sizable pension from his career as a backstage technician at CBS television studios. The man had the misfortune of dying on Presidents’ Day weekend; that meant city employees responsible for locating his family did not get to his case until the man was already buried on Hart Island.

“His case got lost in the shuffle,” Koplow says. “There’s all kinds of rotten stuff that happens.”

Elaine Joseph’s daughter Tomika was born premature at Beth Israel Hospital during the blizzard of 1978. The baby suffered Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart deformation. Joseph was sent home to Brooklyn, and her baby was transferred to Mt. Sinai Hospital for surgery. There, the baby died. With the subways closed and all transportation to Manhattan shut down, Joseph called the hospital morgue for four days, getting no response. When someone finally answered, Joseph was told that she had signed papers allowing Tomika to be buried in the potter’s field.

Elaine Joseph, mother of a child who is buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)
Elaine Joseph, mother of a child who is buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

This was impossible, since the storm had prevented Joseph from ever getting to the hospital.

“People say, ‘Who cares about the potter’s field? It’s just a bunch of bums,’” says Joseph, 58, who went on to serve 23 years in the Navy and retire as a lieutenant commander. “Well, I’m no bum. My daughter was not a bum.”

Even families who know their relatives are headed for the city cemetery may not discover what burial on Hart Island really means until it’s too late. Laurie Grant, the OB-GYN, first tried to find her baby’s remains in 1997. She called various government agencies, but no one knew where the potter’s field was, or what New York City does with stillborn babies. Finally, someone mentioned Hart Island. The details were sketchy. It was a public cemetery for the poor. The Department of Correction was involved somehow.

“When I first heard about it, I said, ‘What the hell is Hart Island? Why would my baby be buried in a potter’s field?”  says Grant.

She called the Correction Department about a dozen times, she says, but received no reply. Grant didn’t know that the department keeps a log of everyone buried on Hart Island. Even if she did, the logbooks were still closed to the public. The books were not released until 2008, after Melinda Hunt pressed the Department of Correction with a Freedom of Information Act request, years of pestering and threat of a lawsuit.

“Getting anything done with the D.O.C. is a pain in the ass. And yes, please quote me,” says David Rankin, an attorney who volunteers his time to help the Hart Island Project. “You basically need a lawyer and be willing to sue to get anything out of them.”

In 2011, Grant heard Hart Island mentioned on NPR. She went online, found the Hart Island Project’s website, and searched the database for her daughter. The baby was listed with the wrong death date, and the year of death was recorded as 1994 instead of 1993.

“They make a lot of mistakes,” Hunt says. “You would not believe how many times they misspell Bellevue Hospital.”

All it took was a short, garbled conversation under heavy sedation, and a few incorrect pen strokes in a secret book, for Grant’s daughter’s body to go missing on Hart Island. From death to burial, it took a matter of weeks.

Grant’s attempts to see the grave have taken significantly longer. To visit, she must obtain a copy of her daughter’s death certificate from the city’s health department. Grant requested the certificate in March; five months later, she had received no response. Once she gets it, she will file a formal request with the Correction Department to allow her access to the island.

The department’s decision process regarding who may visit Hart Island and who may not occurs in secret, and no written policy exists, Gregory McLaughlin, the city administrator in charge of Hart Island, told the City Council last October. After much consideration and lapsed time, most close relatives of the deceased are allowed to go. In addition, a delegation of Picture the Homeless members and clergy is allowed to conduct a prayer service on the island every month. Journalists are barred, and the department does its best to prevent visits by people its leaders perceive as critics, including Hunt. The Correction Department threatened to ban Picture the Homeless from Hart Island unless the group removed a reference to “mass graves” from its website. (The department prefers the term “communal burial plots.”)

“This is ludicrous,” says Owen Rogers, a Picture the Homeless member who helped lobby for visits to Hart Island after the organization’s founder was discovered buried there. “Who ever heard of a cemetery you can’t go to, guarded by armed guards? It should not be run like a prison.”

Even if Grant eventually gets permission to visit Hart Island, she will not be allowed anywhere near her daughter’s grave. Instead, prison guards will escort her to a wooden gazebo a few steps from the ferry dock, where the Department of Correction allows people to gather during “closure and spiritual solace” visits.

“It’s nice and restful there,” McLauglin told the City Council.

Hart Island is probably the quietest place in all of New York City, and among the most beautiful. Most of the time, the only sound is the waves flapping against the shore. Sailboats, tugs and barges glide past. To the west, the Throggs Neck and Whitestone Bridges arc gracefully over the water, and to the east the peninsulas and inlets of Long Island Sound slip into the foggy distance.

“You could do a lot worse than getting buried on Hart Island,” says Michael Miscione, Manhattan’s Borough Historian. “These people may be forgotten for the most part, but they’ve ended up in a peaceful, lovely grave.”

Some family members who visit the gazebo find the place deeply depressing, however. It is far from any of the graves, and surrounded by former prison buildings.

“It’s disgusting,” says Elaine Joseph, who visited in March to commemorate the death of her baby.. “The buildings are crumbling, there are feral cats running around, it’s strewn with garbage. And they expect you to find solace from that? Well, I didn’t.”

Left: Sharone Palmer with a photo of her granddaughter, Chloe Mckayla Bellevue Palmer; right: Jeanne Frey holds the dress of her sister, Angelina. Both were still-born and are believed to be buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)
Left: Sharone Palmer with a photo of her granddaughter, Chloe Mckayla Bellevue Palmer; right: Jeanne Frey holds the dress of her sister, Angelina. Both were still-born and are believed to be buried on Hart Island (© Claire Yaffa/Hart Island Project, 2012)

Laurie Grant is preparing to file a lawsuit against the Department of Correction to win permission to visit her baby’s grave. She will argue that in addition to being left alone, the dead’s right to sepulcher includes the right to visitation from family.

“What they’re doing is wrong,” says Grant, who is now a board member of the Hart Island Project. “I think it’s a basic human right for the family to go and see the grave and pay their respects.”

The Department of Correction has two good reasons for keeping people off Hart Island. First, walking around it is dangerous. The twenty or so buildings there have not been maintained in decades, and most are falling down. A three-story prison that later was converted into the Phoenix House drug rehabilitation center has a tree growing through a wide hole in its roof. The walls of what may be a Union Army stable from the Civil War appear solid, but looking up through the windows, one sees only sky.

“The terrain is overgrown; there are no cleared roads that are safe to walk; there is no infrastructure for the public (bathrooms, water fountains, benches, etc…),” Sharman Stein, the department’s longtime spokeswoman, said in an email.

The second problem is the prisoners. Most committed only misdemeanors, Stein says. Their sentences are correspondingly short, and most hope to keep it that way.

“There’s kind of an understanding between the prisoners and the guards,” says Pat Walsh, a retired Correction Department prison guard who supervised burials on Hart Island in the 1960s and ’70s. “It’s a sought-after job because they’re not in the prison, they’re outside all day. They don’t want to lose their spot.” Even so, Correction leaders worry about possible violence between visitors and prisoners. Visitors also could leave drugs on the island, or weapons, which inmates could use to escape.

This is not an idle fear. So many jailbreaks have happened on Hart Island it’s a wonder why anybody stayed put. Inmate John Cavanagh escaped to City Island in January 1893 by walking across the ice, the Times reported. Joseph “The Eel” Farrell bragged that he escaped Hart Island’s prison once in 1919 by swimming to Long Island, and again in 1921 by swimming to the Bronx.

Three men imprisoned on Hart Island for misdemeanors gave guards the slip by hiding behind a barn on Nov. 14, 1913. They sprinted to shore and climbed into a waiting motorboat. From her house on the hill above the potter’s field, Mrs. Breen, the assistant warden’s wife, saw the men running in their prison stripes and sounded the alarm. What ensued was one of the earliest police chases of the automobile age, and certainly the slowest. Guards aboard the prison’s steam-powered ferry chased the motorboat down and leveled their guns. Everyone surrendered except an escapee named Louis Miller, who pushed a rowboat overboard and started for Long Island. Out of fuel, the guards returned to Hart Island, gassed up, and launched again, landing minutes after Miller ran up the shore and jumped in a waiting car. The guards commandeered a touring car, caught up and fired their automatics at Miller, who jumped from the car and into some bushes. The triple recapture was described by the Times as a “feather in the cap” of Hart Island’s brand-new warden, John J. Murtha, who was fired three years later for drinking whiskey and firing a revolver in his office.

Prisoners who didn’t escape Hart Island lived in danger of fire, torture and poisoning. It took 150 prisoners to extinguish a fire in the workhouse in April 1918. Fire destroyed another building in 1925; an investigation by the state Commission of Prisons described two prison buildings on the island as “tinder boxes.”

Conditions were especially bad at the Hart Island reformatory for delinquent boys. A City Council investigation in 1915 found that the reformatory’s guards regularly ordered boys to beat each other with clubs, kneel for hours in a room called “the cooler,” and perform “stand-up,” in which they were roused from bed and forced to stand in line half the night, for weeks on end. James Meeney, a reformatory inmate, told the council, “Why, we haven’t got a chance on the island.”

A few months later, some boys broke into the infirmary by forcing open a skylight and climbing down a rope. They stole all the drugs they could, hoping for morphine and cocaine but taking instead bottles of Belladonna, an herbal muscle relaxer that is fatal in large doses. The boys distributed the bottles to their friends during a baseball game. Within minutes, 46 children keeled over on the grass, clutching their stomachs and kicking. Dr. Armister, the reformatory’s surgeon, administered enemas and stomach pumps right on the field.

The Correction Department’s mishandling of the potter’s field started at about the same time, and continued until quite recently. In 1917 a Bronx grand jury found the practice of burying people in mass graves “insanitary, unsightly and revolting,” and called for the city to build a crematorium on the island. The earliest grave markers were made of wood. They burned up in forest fires, and the graves were lost. Later markers were cast in concrete, which should have helped matters. But when Hunt, the artist and founder of the Hart Island Project, first visited Hart Island in the early 1990s she took pictures of gravestones toppled over in the grass or moved far from the graves, making it impossible to know where the dead are located.

Getting to Hart Island has many steps. Clockwise from top left: prisoners and guards enter a restricted dock on City Island; they board a ferry; cross the western Long Island Sound; and travel via bus from the dock to the graves. (Photos: Luke Rafferty)
Getting to Hart Island has many steps. Clockwise from top left: prisoners and guards enter a restricted dock on City Island; they board a ferry; cross the western Long Island Sound; and travel via bus from the dock to the graves. (Photos: Luke Rafferty)

Other graves were lost in the effort to defend New York City from Soviet nuclear bombers. From 1955 to 1961, the Department of Defense operated a battery of Nike Ajax missiles near the northern tip of Hart Island. The battery included two underground magazines that stored 10 missiles each. In an attack, missiles could be transported to the surface using missile elevators (commonly, and incorrectly, called silos), pushed by two soldiers along waist-high tracks to a launch pad, and fired. No one knows which graves were destroyed during the battery’s construction, or how many bodies were lost.

For the Department of Correction, destroying graves became something of a seasonal event. Prison employees would open old graves using a bulldozer. Because bodies buried on Hart Island are not embalmed, and because many graves were dug below the water table, water seeped in and destroyed most of the remains and all trace of coffins. Inmates climbed into the open pits, picked up the few scattered bones and moved them to one side, making room for fresh pine coffins.

“Oh yeah. We used to reuse the graves in the summertime,” says Pat Walsh, the retired guard, who worked on Hart Island from 1968 through 1971.

The Correction Department has since stopped the practice.

“While I’m in charge there, we have not done that,” McLaughlin told the City Council last October.

In a place so few people have ever seen, where extreme and tragic things are commonplace, precedents once established take deep root. Perhaps because Hart Island operates in such obscurity, however, those traditions sometimes break down.

Long-standing practice holds that every mass grave on Hart Island receives its own number. The grave number and the position of each coffin is recorded in a logbook. That way, even if each individual coffin is unmarked, someone can go back years later and find every person buried there (provided the grave is left intact).

But in 1989, something strange happened. Inmates filled mass grave No. 50 with 1,000 baby coffins, and on June 28, they moved on to the next grave. This new grave received the same number as the last one: 50. After about 700 miniature coffins were buried there, the grave number was switched to No. 100. That number also belonged to an existing grave, dug in the 1970s.

“So which people are buried where? There’s no way to tell. It’s not in sequence at all,” says Hunt, who discovered the error twenty years later while studying the Correction Department’s burial logbooks. “It’s not like they had a bad day. This was a long time, and a lot of babies.”

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From 1869 to today, the Department of Correction has recorded each Hart Island burial in handwritten books. A fire on the island in 1977 destroyed the books from 1956 to 1960, plus most of the 1970s. No backup existed. About 25,000 people were lost, McLaughlin told the City Council. Also missing are two logbooks that tracked baby burials between 1977 and 1980, including the record of where Tomika Joseph is buried. For decades after the fire, the Correction Department continued to record all the burials in a single, handwritten logbook stored on Hart Island. Only in recent years did the department create a duplicate book, also written by hand, which is stored in the main prison complex on Riker’s Island.

“In 2011, the notion that we have any sort of handwritten logs for any city government-related” function, City Councilman James Oddo said at the Council hearing in October, “I don’t think it’s worthy of New York City.”

A handwritten log book of adults buried on Hart Island.
A handwritten log book of adults buried on Hart Island.

Recently, the Correction Department hired a private vendor to create a digital database of Hart Island burial records. The company started the work, but then stopped.

“What’s the difficulty?” Oddo asked.

“It’s money, frankly,” McLaughlin said. From its $1 billion annual budget, the department spends $500,000 to bury the dead on Hart Island, he told the City Council.

For the foreseeable future, then, Hunt’s database is the most complete  that exists, and the only one accessible to the public. It is based on copies made by Correction employees, who sometimes were not careful as they laid logbooks across the photocopier. Hunt stood over a desk in her office in downtown Peekskill recently, flipping through stacks of photocopied logbooks. On a page from April 1989, the left column of names is invisible because a Correction worker failed to fully fold the previous page. Thirty-six people wiped away by a staple. A book from the 1990s contains page after page of illegible handwriting. Poor penmanship has made thousands of names and grave numbers disappear. Other people are hard to find because guards printed the deceased’s first and last names with no space in between.

“Can you read that?” she asks, pointing at a photocopied book. “It’s chicken scratches.”

I asked Laurie Grant why she doesn’t avoid a protracted legal fight with the Department of Correction by simply requesting permission to get her baby disinterred by a funeral director, and then reburying the remains in her family’s private cemetery plot. The practice is quite common; about sixty to eighty disinterments happen on Hart Island annually, McLaughlin said.

Grant’s reason is that she knows too many of Hart Island’s secrets. With all the reused mass graves, disturbed grave markers and incorrect, missing or unreadable records, “I don’t trust their system,” she says. “They had the year and the date of death wrong. How could I know they found the right remains?”

Grant, Melinda Hunt, and others who want to open Hart Island to the public agree with the Department of Correction that crumbling buildings, lack of infrastructure and the continued presence of inmates create some unique logistical challenges. Bathrooms would need to be built, roads maintained, falling-down buildings secured. Prisoners would require closer monitoring, perhaps inside a fence surrounding the open graves. But given the department’s decades of screw-ups and mismanagement, critics wonder whether the department has another reason for keeping people away from Hart Island.

“What they don’t want you to see is what a mess it is,” says Hunt.

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It’s been 157 years since the Eudora Imogen sank, but Correction Department employees working on City Island still keep an eye to the east, looking for suspicious boats. Anyone caught on Hart Island without the department’s permission is officially trespassing on prison property, and can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. This creates an ironic feedback loop, since it is precisely such nonviolent prisoners who can volunteer to dig graves on Hart Island.

At seven o’clock on a recent Tuesday morning, I pushed off from City Island in a yellow canoe. With light wind from the north and no current, paddling to Hart Island took fifteen minutes. A few feet from the island, small waves threatened to push me onto shore. I used hard strokes and pressed the paddle blade into the rocky bottom to prevent the boat from touching land.

Hart Island as seen from a canoe paddled by the author and photographer (Photo by Luke Rafferty)
Hart Island as seen from a canoe paddled by the author and photographer (Photo by Luke Rafferty)

Even this close up, Hart Island’s west side reveals few secrets that aren’t visible from City Island with a good pair of binoculars. There are two docks, the southern of which is used as a ferry slip by the Department of Correction. Its headworks  are painted grey-blue, and its weathered wooden guideposts rock side to side in the waves. Large signs ring the shoreline, warning, “Restricted Area. No Trespassing. No Docking. No Anchorage.” A dozen small motorboats lie abandoned on the rocks, their red, blue and yellow hulls faded by the sun. In a clearing to the south sits a mound of loose dirt, a pile of plywood and two squat buildings, one with vines engulfing the walls and roof. On either side of the field, old prisons recede into the trees.

The view from Hart Island’s east side is quite different, resembling less an abandoned farm and more an abandoned town. Here is the building of rough grey stone that may be a former Union Army stable. A yellow brick smokestack rises a few hundred feet into the air, ventilation for the dynamo that once supplied electricity to Hart Island’s prisons, halfway houses and sanatoria. The last prison here closed in 1968, but its four-story, windowless concrete wall still dominates the shoreline; “PRISON KEEP OUT” is painted across it in fading white, each letter  about fifteen feet tall. The shore is a junkyard of truck engines, rusted pipes, blue boat insulation and chunks of walls with mortar still clinging to the broken bricks.

Then there are the graves. I couldn’t see much from the canoe because of the seawall, which is about seven feet tall, so I scrambled onto the taller rocks that line the shallows. Even there, I saw little because the prison guards had parked a white Correction Department bus parallel to shore, blocking the view. I saw four inmates dressed in white, one-piece jumpsuits. I saw two prison guards in blue collared shirts. I saw the yellow elbow of the backhoe’s arm, heard the machine’s diesel engine grunts, heard its alarm go beep-beep-beep when the operator drove in reverse. I heard men shouting over the machine, but I could not distinguish their words.

I was disappointed. To spend weeks talking to people and unearthing old maps and reading about Hart Island, to paddle a canoe into Long Island Sound, and then to see so little of the place itself felt like I had failed.

A view of Hart Island from the water (Photo by Luke Rafferty)
A view of Hart Island from the water (Photo by Luke Rafferty)

Then I realized that, actually, this was perhaps the perfect way to experience Hart Island, the genuine way. Melinda Hunt has spent two decades investigating Hart Island through photographs, film and public records, and she knows the island better than anybody. Yet there are still important things she can’t ever know, like how many people are buried there. Years after their babies died, Laurie Grant and Elaine Joseph don’t know if they have the legal right to visit the graves. Their children may be among the hundreds of thousands of people who have vanished into Hart Island’s ground.

“Nobody has filed a lawsuit like this before,” Grant says, “and we don’t know if we’ll win.”

So it seemed appropriate that even five feet from its shore, Hart Island remains a mystery, impenetrable. I bobbed in my canoe and strained to see anything through the trees and the rusted steel mesh covering the windows of the prison van. I worried the guards might spot me so close to shore, but they never looked up from their age-old task. In this place where past is present, nothing changed. The inmates continued laying coffins into a grave I could not see.

*   *   *

Christopher Maag is a freelance writer and contributing editor at Narratively. His work has appeared in publications including The New York Times, TIME, Salon, Popular Mechanics, The Huffington Post and ABC News.

Luke Rafferty is studying photojournalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He worked with Narratively as an intern this past summer, and hopes to work with the publication in the future.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now we’re here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gale McCray poses with his sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McCray waves at passersby.

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms, By a Man Who Cleans Them

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My job involves mopping up the urine-soaked garbage holes that exhausted motorists take for granted. But in another era, the public took great pride in the glory of roadside restrooms.

A bald man rounded the corner by the ATM machine. He was coming back from the bathroom with the look. I’d been at the gas station a couple months, so I knew the look. It’s a grimace with pursed lips that says: I feel dirty. We locked eyes long enough for him to shake his head. That little swivel filled me with anxiety. Our bathrooms weren’t filthy. For one of the busiest gas stations in Pittsburgh, they were OK. And no, that’s not good enough, but does an OK inner-city public restroom deserve a public shaming? Because that’s usually what accompanies the look, a cry of: That bathroom is disgusting! Then people within earshot make the look, too.

Expecting a scene, my muscles tightened as I rang up a customer. But the guy with the look didn’t embarrass me. He stood aside and waited. His blue, checkered dress shirt was tucked into khakis, and he sported a thin, whitish-blonde mustache that matched the ring of hair around his head. When the customer left, he leaned in.

“You need to clean that bathroom.” He raised his eyebrows and his forehead wrinkled. “It’s a mess. Big-time.”

I thanked the man and he left. The assistant manager was depositing money into the safe a few feet away. “Better go now,” he said, standing. He readjusted his glasses and checked traffic in the parking lot. “Go on, hurry up.”

Cleaning the bathroom quickly was imperative, but it was more complicated than the importance of sanitation. The gas station is located along Baum Boulevard, one of the East End’s main thoroughfares, and it’s one of those Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids – café seating, sixteen fuel pumps, and 23 parking spaces. The kind of mega-station where you stop for gas and end up buying a Philly cheesesteak, chips and a large Pepsi because a sign on the pump reminded you: the more you spend on food, the more points you get on your fuel rewards card.

It was almost three on a hot summer afternoon. All sixteen pumps were being used, Baum had traffic, and we were understaffed. I was one of two cashiers standing inside an octagon-shaped counter with four registers. The assistant manager said he’d watch my line while I cleaned, but that was wishful thinking. The gas station was too busy for managers to stand still. My mission was clear: clean the men’s room and return before the other cashier was overwhelmed by customers.

This was frustrating because I wanted to do a thorough job. I hated having an OK bathroom. People informing me of messes was embarrassing. Most were trying to help. I know this because the gas station chain where I worked asked customers to speak up when the restrooms were disgusting. There were three signs inside each one proclaiming our dedication to cleanliness and encouraging customers to inform us when the facilities were not up to par. The signs, the look, my interpretations, it’s all connected to the strange relationship society has with gas station bathrooms, the most common public restrooms. Just say the words to someone, “gas station bathroom,” and they’ll conjure up a grotesque image and make the look. It’s a stereotype linked to a phobia about public toilets, but even if you encounter one with slick, urine-coated floors and poop-stained toilet seats, it is highly unlikely that it will get you sick.

Gas station companies used to take advantage of this fear by promoting clean bathrooms. Gulf started the trend in 1933, and the advertisements were so effective that Texaco, which was the first gas station to build public restrooms, launched its Registered Rest Rooms campaign two years later. Texaco pledged to send bathroom inspectors to each location, and women were the target audience (executives believed that, though men drove, women determined when and where they stopped). Full-page ads showed smiling mothers and children heading into “Registered” rest rooms, with the tagline: Something we ladies appreciate!

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Gas station bathrooms aided mobility. Americans didn’t have to worry about where to relieve themselves while driving coast-to-coast for the first time. The stations promote cleanliness, and say, to men: Don’t pee in the alley! In some cases, the state of a gas station’s bathroom can speak volumes about the state of the neighborhood. If I worked at the gas station in the East End, then those bathrooms were the public restrooms for the fifteen diverse neighborhoods crammed into that corner of Pittsburgh. And they were just OK, which meant sometimes they were, in the words of the man with the whitish-blonde mustache who complained that summer day, “A mess. Big-time.”

When I heard that, I pictured a combination of things I had already cleaned up: an overflowing toilet, soiled underwear, and used needles. I pulled a mop bucket filled with hot, soapy water into the men’s room and looked around. I was incredulous. That guy had said “big-time.” Paper towels dotted the tile floor, a pile of toilet paper sat next to the toilet in the lone stall, the ground was wet around the urinal, and there were tar marks from dirty shoes. Did it need to be cleaned? Absolutely. But right now? I usually hit the bathrooms before my break, after the afternoon rush had died. This “big-time” mess didn’t warrant a change in routine.

As I swept, I cursed the man with the whitish-blonde mustache. His name is Chuck. The assistant manager said he had complained before. I got to know Chuck one afternoon a few weeks later. I entered the men’s room to check on its condition, and he was standing at the urinal. He did a double take over his shoulder.

“You guys gotta do a better job in here.”

Dirty shoes had created a trail that forked by the stall, but there was no preventing this; inner-city gas stations get heavy foot traffic. Everything else seemed normal, too: paper towels on the floor, snot rockets on the walls. It didn’t even smell that bad. Chuck advised me to watch the urinal flush, and then he stepped back. Water whooshed down as usual.

illu2“See that?” He pointed to the floor. “The water pressure’s so strong it shoots onto the ground, then people come in here, see it’s all wet and think someone peed all over the place. So they stand a few feet back because no one wants to stand in pee, and then they miss, and you got a messy bathroom.”

I felt conflicted. On the one hand, complacency for the bathroom’s “normal” state was unacceptable. The sign promising cleanliness made me responsible, and I wanted the bathrooms to be spotless. (When I was a boy, my dad, a bank manager, flipped out when I didn’t do chores perfectly.) On the other hand, cleaning the restrooms was a Sisyphean task, and the gas station was understaffed. I couldn’t leave the register to mop the bathrooms once an hour. And why should I go above and beyond? None of my co-workers cared. We were getting paid $9.30 an hour, and the bathrooms weren’t that bad.

I had been struggling with this for a couple months, and I expressed my inner discord to Chuck like a typical grad student – with snark: “Wow man, you really know a lot about urinals.”

It backfired. Chuck had managed gas stations for 31 years. He retired and became an Uber driver, and whenever he stops at a gas station, he pays attention to cleanliness, especially in the bathroom.

“That’s how I get a general sense of what a place is like,” he said.

The more I saw Chuck, the more I liked him. He was a father who had coached his daughter’s softball team, and whenever he stopped to get coffee, he’d point out something wrong with the gas station: litter in the lot, how the Redbox kiosk blocked the doors. Then he’d leave with a big smile. Because he knew. Part of the problem was management, but most of it was the people above them. Corporate. One of the reasons he got out of the gas station game. His unwavering “this is how it should be done” view reminded me of my dad, and I eventually regretted cursing him earlier in the summer. That afternoon, I pinned open the men’s room door with the garbage can and swept the trash toward the hallway. The restrooms were so tiny that it was common to see people waiting in line, and sweeping in front of the sink, I blocked the urinal and the stall. A construction worker walked in and stopped short of bumping into me. He was a tall, burly guy, wearing a neon T-shirt, with a tribal tattoo on his arm.

“I’m sorry sir, but the bathroom—”

“It’s cool,” he said, shuffling past. “I’ll just be a second.”

The yellow cone in the hallway read: “Caution Wet Floor.” It didn’t say the bathroom was closed. I had tried to prevent him from entering because I didn’t want him getting in the way. But he was so dismissive. “It’s cool. I’ll just be a second.” Translation: You’re a loser. Get out of my way. I dumped what I had swept into the garbage and brooded over the lack of respect some people showed for my coworkers and me. Verbal abuse from customers was part of the job. The manager warns employees of that during the job interview. But he doesn’t say a word about the looks of pity you get as you ring up bottled water. Then there are the people who can’t even meet your eyes. Sometimes, the disgust on their faces has traces of resentment.

It wasn’t always like this. The relationship between gas station employees and the public has evolved with the industry. I felt compelled to research the history because photographs commemorating Pittsburgh’s role are plastered along the first floor of a closed Ford factory across the street from where I worked. The images were a daily reminder that on December 1, 1913, Gulf opened the world’s first architecturally-designed gas station at the corner of Baum and Saint Clair Street, about a mile away. Before the Gulf station, car owners filled up in gravel lots where shanties were thrown together for cover and fuel was stored in giant above-ground tanks. The lots and the men who worked them stunk. Homeowners called these early gas stations stink pits, eyesores. No one wanted one in their neighborhood. Not even those who could afford cars.

Gulf general sales manager W.V. Hartmann changed the industry – and American roadsides – by convincing his bosses to hire a professional who could blend the gas station into the surroundings. Architect J.H. Giesey drew the blueprint, and Baum was chosen as the site because, as part of the Lincoln Highway, it was already known as Auto Row, home to car dealerships and the Ford factory. Gulf’s station had a red-brick pagoda-style building shaped like an octagon. It blended in with neighboring homes, and on its first Saturday of business, Gulf sold 350 gallons of gasoline for 27 cents per gallon. The success sent other oil companies scrambling to imitate.illu3

Gas station companies competed for territory, and quality customer service was promoted to lure motorists from competitors. With the help of ads like Texaco’s “Mr. Service,” the gas station attendant became an iconic occupation. When a driver pulled into a gas station, a crew of uniformed men pumped gas, checked oil and air, and washed windows. They also handed out maps and gave directions. Gas station attendants in each neighborhood were revered, not disrespected like today’s cashiers. After World War II, garage bays were built into store designs, and gas stations hired mechanics. In neighborhoods across America, men gathered at gas stations to learn how to fix cars. The bond between gas station employees and customers continued through the 1960s, but the industry changed again in the 1970s.

America had reached its peak with over 216,000 gas stations. But after two oil crises rocked the industry, chains scaled back in numbers. Gas station owners realized selling cigarettes, lottery tickets, and candy bars was more profitable than auto repairs. Self-service was the next big change. Attendants disappeared in the 1980s, except in New Jersey and Oregon where laws keep the job alive. In the 1990s, gas station owners embraced convenience stores, then fast-food, and the Exxon-McDonald’s-7-Eleven hybrids were born. The bigger gas stations got, the more their numbers dwindled. In 2012, there were just 156,065 fueling sites in the United States; this means gas stations have less competition and more vices to sell, and are busier than ever.

Studies have shown that the crazier a convenience store gets the less positive emotion is expressed by employees and customers. Tempers can flare in that kind of environment. Chuck said he didn’t tolerate mistreatment from either side of the counter when he managed. If a customer was rude to one of his employees, he asked the person to leave. “People you throw out usually come back in,” he told me over the phone. “And if you do it in front of other people, then they see what you stand for … But you have to show people respect whether they show you respect or not.”

My managers took a corporate, customer-is-always-right-approach, and preached having a thick skin. They said: bite your tongue. That’s what I found myself doing that first day Chuck complained. The construction worker finished urinating, washed his hands, and left. Now I was ready to mop. I wheeled the bucket into the doorway and set the Caution Wet Floor cone in front of that. Starting by the urinal, I plopped the mop onto the floor. Thwack! I was sliding the mop head around like a snake, trying to erase scuffmarks, when the bucket’s rusty wheels squeaked. Some guy was climbing over it. He wore a long, white T-shirt with blue jeans and had a Bluetooth in his ear. I told him the bathroom was closed.

“C’mon now, you telling me I can’t take a piss?” he said.

He cleared the bucket and entered the bathroom. I pointed out that the floor was slippery, but he waved off the danger.

“I can handle it,” he said. “Now watch out.”

I stepped back, and he slid across the floor like a child pretending to be a choo-choo train. His shoes left a black trail in his wake. Now I had to mop again. I wanted to scream. Curse. But I didn’t. I walked into the hallway to breath and was met by a teenager wearing a white tank top, shorts, and sandals. He asked permission to enter, and I waved him in. At the end of the hallway, the assistant manager had abandoned the other cashier, and the checkout line stretched to the fountain drinks along the back wall. The people waiting seemed frustrated. That’s a different look from the one elicited by a dirty bathroom.

* * *

This story was originally drafted as part of Creative Nonfiction’s Writing Pittsburgh project.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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