The Superhero Saga of Brooklyn’s Weirdest Burger Joint

When a comic book fiend realizes his longtime dream of opening a superhero-themed eatery, a battle of epic proportions is only just beginning.

I. Call to Adventure

Steve Bala can remember the day back in 1982 when he unwrapped his first two “G.I. Joe” action figures. A few weeks later, “G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero” comic books premiered on shelves, and it felt like destiny. When the Saturday morning cartoon hit the airwaves, the battle cry “Yo Joe!” entered his heart through his eardrums.

Twenty-six years later, the trademark war whoop of the Joes still took Steve’s breath away. He made a pilgrimage every Wednesday to Midtown Comics near Times Square to browse the latest graphic novels and figurines — some “G.I. Joe,” some “Star Trek,” some from the world of Stan Lee or the D.C. universe. He had two “G.I. Joe” tattoos, one a back piece. Gainful employment as a grown man had become a means to fund his toy-buying habits. And his apartment boasted rows of warriors and spaceships. He’d broken up with a close girlfriend a few years earlier when she told him, “If we get married, this stuff has to go.” Steve had responded, “G.I Joe since 1982. You, just a couple of years.”

Yet all this nerd stuff had finally done something more than drain his paychecks and imperil his relationships.

The sign on Grand Street, in the heart of hipster Brooklyn, read “ACTION BURGER,” a graphic splash above glass double doors that seemed ripped from a comic book, a vector art explosion serving as a siren call to geeks: Enter a world of Adam West’s Batman and muscle-green Hulk and Wonder Woman deflecting bullets with her bodice. It was 2008, and these icons of the Baby Boom generation were long past their dusty stage. Inside the store was a dry erase board with a menu writ in markers — Hero Burgers, Action Fries, Action Rings. It was a comic nerd’s dream, a diner with greasy food and superhero décor fit for a caped crusader.

Standing outside his restaurant shortly before the March 1 opening, Steve shook his head, believing that Action Burger was his dream and fearing his dream wasn’t going to work. He’d spent two years planning and five months building this monument to his one true love: comic lore. Almost finished, the place pulsed with a kind of nerd power. Early press had revealed enthusiasm for Steve’s concept. “This place is going to vibe very well with the Williamsburg bed-head boys,” wrote one commenter on Eater, a website that obsessively chronicles restaurant openings. But the whole thing felt tenuous.

Steve exhaled, thinking back to the day he’d first conceived of Action Burger. It happened one afternoon in 2006 while he was slinging drinks — his favorite in a series of underachieving jobs — at a dive bar on East 6th Street in Manhattan called Cherry Tavern. “I love pop culture stuff,” he’d thought. “And I love food.” He froze, as if struck by a ball of energy. “Why not combine the two?” For Steve, it was a mystic brew of elements that rose up and glistened like a star, better than if the Justice League teamed with The Avengers to join the forces of Iron Man and the Green Lantern.

He’d found his business partners in Joseph Cortes, an original founder of a Manhattan burger chain called Lucky’s Famous, and Victoria “Irene” O’Neil, his cousin. It was them against the world — until it was them against each other.

The restaurant came to life backwards, in many ways. In their eagerness to open shop, Steve, Joseph and Irene rented a storefront at 513 Grand Street and spent two months rehabbing the space before filing the papers to form a company. “At the beginning, it was all very good,” Steve remembered. But as they neared their scheduled opening in March, the dynamics changed. According to Joseph, Irene “tried to push us out after we basically built the Grand Street location.” From Steve’s perspective, “She got it in her head that she didn’t want me as a partner, but I could manage the place.” Irene took a more practical point of view. “I was the sole investor,” she said. “You know what sole means? All my money was in that business.”

Her words echoed in Steve’s head as he stood before the store, admiring his creation but feeling like the hero who’d ridden his horse into quicksand. He’d poured his best ideas into this place…but Irene had ideas of her own. Their corporate documents, which had created 200 private shares of “Action Burger Corp.,” had named Irene as the sole shareholder — a bombshell to Steve and Joseph, who’d lost their legal standing as owners. Brightly lit and ready for business, Action Burger felt like an extension of Steve, but he realized that he soon might be Anakin Skywalker: a hero minus a few limbs.

They opened in the midst of the argument about ownership. Within days, Steve and Joseph had reached their thresholds and agreed, together, to abandon the project. “I took my name, which is Action Burger,” Steve said. “And I took all my stuff.” As customers entered the establishment expecting service, Joseph removed his recipes, and Steve removed his memorabilia, which gutted store and officially severed their involvement. Irene was shocked at her cousin’s abandonment, which left her alone to run the business. “That was my life savings,” she said. “And he took that from me.”

513 Grand remained closed intermittently for the next month, with “Under Renovation” signs posted while Irene struggled to revise the concept, invent new recipes and hire new staff. “She tried to continue it, but she didn’t have the passion for it,” said Steve. “She hired other people that she didn’t know to reopen.”

Watching the fallout from a distance might have proven validating for Steve — evidence that he was a necessary ingredient — if only Irene hadn’t continued to use the name he created. Each misstep sullied the name “Action Burger” and closed the door on his hope that, someday, he’d try this again. By April 11, 2008, Irene reopened the restaurant, and Action Burger received its first review. The critic from Serious Eats began, “I’m not going to spend a lot of time dwelling…” and went on to describe the burger as having “an odd smokey flavor and a tough patty.”

Perhaps this reviewer should have waited a few more days to sample the wares. On April 17, food safety inspectors walked into the store and cited a dozen health code violations, from lacking a permit to operate to evidence of live mice and rats on the premises. The ensuing publicity led to Action Burger being placed on New York state senator Jeff Klein’s “Dirty Dozen New York City Restaurants of 2008.” It was this knockout that shuttered the business.

Game over? Not quite. Advertising at New York Comic Con, the massive fan convention that took place in April that year, had always been part of Steve’s grand plan. And now he watched as Irene’s marketing vendor distributed Action Burger fliers to convention-goers — attracting a crowd to the just-closed restaurant. Comic fanatics, some dressed in bulky superhero costumes, cabbed across town from the Javits Center over the Williamsburg Bridge, only to discover the restaurant shuttered. “We were all pretty pissed and wasted a bunch of time and money,” wrote one fan in a comment section. It hurt Steve to see his cousin bungle the tactic and upset the geeks who should have loved his idea.

Steve’s dream had been not only destroyed but dishonored. He couldn’t return to his previous life; the Cherry Tavern had already hired his replacement. Bala family gatherings were now torturous affairs, with Irene present and tensions still high. Steve kept telling himself that if he rode out the drama and made it to GIJoeCon, an annual “G.I. Joe” collectors’ convention he’d attended for seven years running, he’d find some peace. The convention began in Dallas on June 26, and he’d already booked a ticket and set aside the $500 he needed to purchase a box set of action figures only available to JoeCon attendees. Then, shortly before the trip, something exploded in his head.

He felt the shock of it, like a bang from a two by four, and the left side of his face went limp. He couldn’t walk. He slurred his words to the 911 operator. He was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s in Greenwich Village and diagnosed with a brain aneurysm. As he lay there, fully conscious but phasing in and out of cogent thought, he could focus on little else but the fact that he was missing JoeCon. “That is what I regret,” he said, much later.

Gradually, he regained his speech and relearned to walk. Since Steve and his family had no history of traumatic brain injuries, the root causes seemed a mystery, other than the fact that this happened when everything else went bad around him.

But at least Steve didn’t obsess over Action Burger any more. It’s as if the injury opened a window in his head, and the thought flew out. Steve didn’t dig for information as his cousin moved to reopen the restaurant. He didn’t observe when a profile appeared on Merchantcircle.com for a new business at 513 Grand called “Comic Burger.” He didn’t feel emotion when it became clear that Irene intended to realize Steve’s vision without him. She’d invested too much and couldn’t walk away.

Irene refinanced the mortgage on her residence in the Bronx to free up approximately $150,000 in additional equity. The restaurant reopened and passed health code inspections with a perfect score on November 20, 2008. An article entitled “Second Chances” appeared on Eater about the refurbished Comic Burger. The reporter, Amanda Kludt, noted that the décor looked “exactly the same” as before. With the restaurant reincarnated, unmistakable similarities between Action Burger and Comic Burger made it clear that Irene had been more than inspired by Steve’s idea; the concept, she believed, was hers.

One of the first customer reviews of Comic Burger posted to Yelp was a one-star rating dated April 12, 2009: “The waitress/lady who took our order was really creepy. I couldn’t tell if she’d just blown a bunch of Xanax or had a lobotomy.” Several reviews noted the lack of enthusiasm rubbing off into the customer experience: “what is up with these jokers”…“I really, really want to like this place”…“I felt really uncomfortable eating in there”…“misses the mark HORRIBLY!” The restaurant churned along for another year, and when Comic Burger gave its last gasp and shut for good in March 2010, few mourned its passing.

* * *

II. Crossing the Threshold

Steve hadn’t met anyone who could match his single-minded devotion to fictional characters in far-flung worlds until he met Vlane Carter.

Vlane, who was dating Steve’s sister at the time, was a sci-fi author and fanatic gamer who’d spent a decade perfecting his point-and-shoot skills playing the Xbox video game franchise “Halo.” Indeed, saving the future-world of “Halo” was almost a nightly ritual for Vlane. He’d even bulked up his upper body in subtle emulation of Master Chief, the game’s famous hero behind the golden visor. Through the strategic battlefields of “Halo,” Vlane explained, “I was able to develop my mind over the years.”

So when Steve pitched Vlane about his vision for happy superhero hamburger-land, the project had been on the backburner — almost four years after the Irene disaster. Steve told so many friends about the first Action Burger that it almost became a running joke. No one in his right mind would attempt the same idea again. To them, the possibility of reviving Action Burger was the lie Steve told himself so that he’d never have to leave his job at M&M/Mars, where he now stuffed candies into store displays as a product placement specialist. But something in Steve’s words, perhaps his trove of comic book knowledge, captured Vlane’s attention. And when an idea catches in Vlane’s mind, like besting a new game, it germinates and expands and becomes the only thing that matters. “I get these ideas man,” Vlane said. “So many ideas. But this was, like, the biggest.”

Vlane, above all things, was an implementer, a man who brought business strategies into reality like Master Chief thwarted alien invasions. He ran a street marketing business placing magnetic vinyl posters onto vehicles. Calling his removable ads “truck tattoos,” he sold them with the line: “Turn your naked vehicle into an advertising machine.” Vlane had also MacGyver-ed a method of installing LED signs into the front and back windows of SUVs. That neither of these two concepts had blossomed into profitable ventures was immaterial. Failure was not to be feared but studied like game tape, an attitude that Vlane had developed perfecting his “Halo” gameplay.

Steve told Vlane about Action Burger in March 2012. So what if Vlane had no previous restaurant or food service experience? Steve had bartended at the Cherry Tavern, and that was experience enough for the both of them. Like “truck tattoos” or Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series, Action Burger was now a go for launch. By June, they were scouting for places. By August 1, they’d found the location. By September 1, the site was theirs.

When keys traded fingers and they entered the premises, The Double Rose’s — corner café for the senior citizens of East Williamsburg — ceased to be, and the 800 square feet became Action Burger, back from the dead. Steve, once again, stood in command of his dream. Salivating at the door of this place, which had been closed for just a few days, Steve swore he could “taste the action” in the smells that remained.

Burger in hand, purchased from some unnamed competitor a few blocks down the way, Steve strode heroically across the tiles of his new domain. His body looked pre-molded like an action figure’s: squat and hefty, yet somehow sculpted in the upper body, with a rounded nose, sideburns like Wolverine and hair gelled in place permanently. He wore his trademark outfit: T-shirt and a pair of cargo shorts. Vlane donned the same uniform. Yet Vlane added polish with his weightlifter’s physique, trimmed mustache and clean-shaven head. Side by side, laughing and pushing one another, they resembled Bebop and Rocksteady from “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

Steve and Vlane examined the guts of 292 Graham Avenue, which savings and credit and $100,000 of invested risk had bought. Nearly every asset in Vlane’s financial arsenal had been tied into the restaurant. He had sold his 2008 Cadillac Escalade for $26,000 and refinanced the mortgage on his Bronx home to free up $45,000 in additional equity. The rest of the $100,000 he’d pooled with Steve had come from credit cards and personal savings. It was a sum that covered their security deposit and a few months’ rent, plus menus, food supplies and cooking equipment. They each owned fifty percent of the business.

Together, Steve and Vlane were gambling men defying a national downswing in new business entrepreneurship that had reached a sixteen-year low in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to the cultural mythos of the startup and near worship of charismatic founders like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, fewer and fewer people were actually going into business for themselves, though many more were playacting by watching TED talks and using words like “disruptive.” As Steve and Vlane high-fived, small businesses around them were collapsing so frequently that the failure rate within three years was at eighty percent.

Surveying the fading navy-blue paint job, which would have to go, over the waist-high wooden paneling, which could stay, Steve could hardly believe all this action had sprung from an idea in his brain. He waltzed into the kitchen, a mash-up of industrial appliances crowding the smoke-stained walls, which must have been white at some point in the last century. The stainless steel of the deep fryer barely shone through the film on its surface, which, if it could speak, would speak of fifteen years of bubbling mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers. Steve lit the grill, the blue flames flickering and forming their gentle cones. The wide silvery surface, perfect for cooking bacon and burger patties, gathered warmth.

Then the grease pan ignited in the far back corner under the grill, and flames spread in waves, catching layers of backlogged grease from decades of diner cooking. Steve’s eyes grew wide as the fire spread from its molten base and danced up a pipe that led to the overhead exhaust system, which clearly hadn’t been cleaned recently. A blaze poured onto the grill like flames from a dragon’s throat.

Vlane smelled smoke and came running. He found Steve standing pensively, considering the situation — and still eating. “I’m a very relaxed person,” Steve explained later. “To overreact, to get paranoid about something, is to invite chaos.” But the kitchen was a firestorm. “What’s happening?” Vlane screamed. In his blitzkrieg effort to open the restaurant, Vlane was tapped out to the fullest extent of his credit. To see the kitchen ablaze, it was as if he’d soaked that money in kerosene. They’d just started paying on their insurance policy, which cost them a reasonable $3,000 per year; imagine what a fire the first day would do to premiums.

“Pull the Ansul!” Vlane shouted, which meant triggering the Ansul chemical fire suppression sprinklers that the previous owners had installed above the grill for emergencies — to avoid burning down the building. Heat made waves in the air that forced them to step back into the other room, but Steve could see, through the smoke, that the fire was contained to the fan and grill.

Steve shook his head no, vetoing the Ansul, and Vlane’s face filled with rage. The Master Chief didn’t appreciate defiance. “It’s only where the grease is,” said Steve. “The kitchen’s all metal and tile.” Steve understood that pulling the Ansul would drench the kitchen in flame-retardant foam that would cost their newborn business about $1,000 to refill. One grand seemed a stiff price to pay just to light the grill.

Steve finished the last bites of his burger as Vlane ran outside in a panic. To Vlane’s relief, no signs of smoke could be seen from the street. Vlane’s instinct was to call the fire department, but Steve told him to quit it. Tossing his wrappers into a wastebasket, Steve noticed a fire extinguisher beneath the register. Luckily for Action Burger, the tank still had pressure. Steve grabbed it like a soldier and stepped, literally, into the line of fire. He wielded the nozzle like A Real American Hero and snuffed out the monster.

Later, as Vlane cleaned the white flakes from the grill and out of the exhaust fan, Steve papered the windows with old comics that he’d found in boxes at his parents’ place. Using faded pages from “The Incredible Hulk” and “Wonder Woman,” he wrapped Action Burger like a gift and steadied himself for a few weeks of gut-and-build renovation.

* * *

III. The Road of Trials

When the doors opened on September 19, 2012, walking inside Action Burger felt like walking into the bedroom of a ten-year-old boy named Steve in 1985. His dream was unleashed. Walls were painted the fluorescent yellow of Wolverine’s spandex. G.I. Joe figurines stared from behind plastic toy displays. Covers of “Robin” and “Justice League” comics masked the building’s old wooden panels. They were emblazoned as wallpaper beside a sign bearing the restaurant’s official new tagline: “Taste The Action.”

To place their orders, Action Burger customers advanced to a counter the color of Captain America’s body suit. The menu was its own branded adventure. Customers chose between “Villain Food” (burgers, crispy chicken or anything fried) and “Hero Food” (turkey burgers, veggie burgers or anything grilled). “This was my way to try to teach kids to eat better,” Steve said. “Hero is the healthier food, and anything villain is the worst food.”

Trading cards and toys that had previously overflowed in boxes and piled up in the corners of Steve’s apartment…and his storage unit…and his old room at his parents’ place….gained a second life on the shiny tables. “It’s my house brought here,” he said. “And this is only the smallest fraction of what I’ve got.”

Three arcade games, sourced from some corner of Vlane’s garage, dominated the front windows. Vlane, ever the competitor, offered customers a deal to battle him in the 1990s classic “Street Fighter.” Beat him in three games and you got a free order of fries. Days into their opening, Vlane remained unvanquished. “I could play any character except for Zangief,” he bragged. “But I specialize in Ryu.”

As rabid fans displaying their memorabilia, Steve and Vlane had innocently sidestepped U.S. copyright restrictions, which otherwise required written permissions from Marvel, Hasbro and countless other entities whose characters were displayed throughout the store. Several copyright precedents existed to shelter guys like Steve, including his right to display his own memorabilia so long as he wasn’t charging for admission. The core franchise featured in Action Burger was, in fact, their own intellectual property: Vlane’s “BioSapien” comic series.

Front and center on the menu were “BIO-Action” food creations — all based on characters from Vlane’s sci-fi universe. Self-published, the “BioSapien” series features Jaden Marino, a teenager who is bioengineered to stop an alien invasion. The crowning achievement on the “BIO-Action” menu was “The Jaden” burger, a culinary interpretation of Jaden Marino’s good and evil natures. The fifteen-ounce foodstuff contained two turkey burger “Hero Food” patties, plus a three-ounce “Villain Food” beef patty placed in the center.

This phantasmagoria of sight and taste and touch may have seemed like play for Steve and Vlane, but Action Burger was not their hobby; it was a business with a federal tax ID number, and the financial risks were very real. The livelihood of the restaurant depended on $500 in daily sales, which was reachable only by achieving a pace of fifty orders per day. Anything less meant going out of business within six months, which meant Steve and Vlane sitting in bankruptcy court.

Although Steve and Vlane had founded a geek oasis that they considered to be “kitsch,” many of the young professionals patrolling East Williamsburg considered Action Burger to be garish. Accustomed to the more subtle design aesthetic of bistros and boutiques that lined Bedford Avenue, some local residents were jarred by the liberal use of secondary colors and Comic Sans.

When Gideon Kalischer, a Williamsburg resident who worked for Google, first saw Action Burger, he became so distracted by the signage that he got into a fender bender; the red-and-yellow awning of the store held his eye long enough for him to plow his 1998 Toyota Camry into another sedan. No one was hurt, and, fortunately for Gideon, the accident went unreported. Nonetheless, the incident sparked a fan-like obsession with Action Burger — an interest, like so many passions of his generation, at once mocking but also sincere. “I’m always ready to talk Action Burger,” said Gideon. “But it’s really difficult,” he continued, “because you have to go into the backstory about how the burgers are based off the comic book that the owner wrote himself.”

Sampling the food and going on Internet adventures to research the “BioSapien” world, Gideon became perplexed as to what an obscure graphic novel series had to do with a pit stop for hamburgers. (Vlane had invested $25,000 into “BioSapien” but, by his own estimates, he’d sold just 600 issues.)

Customer traffic was light in those first few weeks, with Steve reduced to standing on Graham Avenue in his cook’s apron and giving away comics to attract interest. A young cartoonist named Sahve Greef, eighteen, who’d just graduated from high school, passed by and recognized him from a previous Comic Con. She asked about displaying her artwork in the store.

Sahve stood diminutive, almost elfish before him, with an emo-style hairdo that swept over her left eye. Talented and shy, he sensed that she was of his ilk, one of the comic book crowd. “What are you doing with yourself?” he asked. “Do you need a job?” Sahve began working for tips as a delivery person. Within weeks, she was ringing in orders for $8 an hour behind the register. Steve proudly displayed her artwork beside his “G.I. Joe” memorabilia. “She is the son I never had,” he told people.

Steve and Vlane had, in fact, rushed the opening of Action Burger so that they could troubleshoot on the fly and perfect the restaurant by October 11, the first day of New York Comic Con 2012. 100,000 comic fans were expected to swarm the streets of New York. Despite the 2008 fiasco, Steve knew the convention could be their springboard.

To draw pedestrians to their booth, Vlane hired three models to dress as Bellona, the female love interest of “BioSapien,” donning scarlet wigs and silvery jumpsuits. (This gimmick, known as using “booth babes,” is largely opposed by gender rights advocates and has been banned at several conventions. But New York Comic Con hadn’t prohibited the practice, and Vlane couldn’t argue with the results.) Prowling the convention floor, they handed out 20,000 flyers in three days, and, when the doors of Comic Con 2012 closed on October 14, forlorn fans jumped in cabs and headed straight for Action Burger. More than thirty-five people descended on the store and sold Action Burger out of most items. Four groups of people came from Comic Con who hadn’t known each other beforehand. But, by the end of their meals, they were friends and compatriots. For Steve, that Sunday was confirmation of everything Action Burger could be: “A community unto itself.” October 14 also represented the first profitable day for the restaurant.

Reviews started pouring in. “Best. Burger. Joint. Ever,” wrote Thrillist. “Great food, great burgers and comics,” said Tony Tantillo from CBS 2 News. Orders surged. Traffic on Action Burger’s Facebook page spiked, with the total number of “likes” rising from 15 to 380 in days. Negative feedback was confined to mostly Yelp rants, where Vlane posted essay-long responses to customer complaints. “Seriously, you’re leaving drunk reviews on yelp?” Vlane wrote to one customer. “That is so low (like Lex Luther low).”

Following the Comic Con boom, Action Burger averaged fifty-four orders per day. They hired a second fulltime cook and a dishwasher/prep cleaner. Though Steve and Vlane were still treating themselves like free labor, forgoing salaries to invest the maximum back into the business, their gamble appeared to be paying off. They were tasting the action, and it tasted good.

* * *

IV. Apotheosis

By November 2012, Action Burger had emerged as a full-on novelty in Williamsburg — a destination restaurant for both tourists and locals. A geek in London listed traveling to New York and eating at Action Burger on his bucket list. Sahve had been promoted from delivery person to all-around helper: cashier, cook and custodian. Steve and Vlane each continued to give the restaurant eighty to ninety hours per week, but the pace made them proud. Steve could work any job, from food prep to delivery, and so could his partner, although Vlane avoided the grill following his trauma with the grease fire. Through a combination of online orders and in-store traffic, Action Burger posted two consecutive months of profit. The business seemed on solid enough ground for Vlane to lease a new Cadillac Escalade, which he nicknamed the “Action Truck.”

Business crested as Action Burger headed towards the New Year. Confident in their outlook, Steve and Vlane closed the store for Christmas, the first day off since their opening in September. Never ceding to the weather or exhaustion or birthdays or holidays, they’d stayed open even on October 29, 2012, the day of Hurricane Sandy.

Then traffic became scarce, and online orders dropped in the month of January, right as they’d hired a new delivery person and a second short order cook. “We had too many employees and not enough customers,” Vlane said.

As Steve tells it, so long as the money was flowing, the Master Chief could tolerate Steve in charge. “He was supposed to be the back end,” said Steve. “Taking care of paperwork. Taking care of the licenses. Promoting his book through the store.” But when the money slowed to a trickle, Vlane couldn’t let the business flounder. “I had to jump in and change everything,” Vlane said. To float the business through the winter, Vlane invested a sum that he’d received in a recent settlement from a lawsuit.

The Master Chief expanded the menu in January and again in February and again in March — always adding new creations, never taking away. He blazed ahead like Thor with his hammer, ignoring studies that advised restaurateurs never to exceed seven appetizers and ten main courses. Those who contradicted him were “stuck in an old way of thinking.” The most expensive new burger was the $17 “Dark Energy Knight,” which, Vlane admitted, few ordered. Their top seller continued to be the standby: Action Burger and fries, which cost $8.

This empire-like offensive of more Action Burger, and more stuff inside Action Burger, contradicted Steve’s approach to running a restaurant. “You can always add to a business,” said Steve. “You can never subtract.”

With the new movie “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” starring Dwayne Johnson, set to premiere in March 2013, Steve shifted his focus into making March a themed month at Action Burger for “G.I. Joe.” Steve envisioned the store going through novel iterations in its décor with the release of new movies, like “Star Trek: Into Darkness” in May and “Man of Steel” in June. Sahve posted original Joe artwork on the walls, including an ink print of the ninja warrior Snake Eyes. Steve dusted off his “G.I. Joe” decals and put up his Cobra banners. He dug out his old Joe comics and refreshed the toys in the display cases. “Oh, it was beautiful,” said Steve. “People loved it or hated it. But they came in, and they talked about it.” Announcing his entrance in the store with a loud “Yo Joe!” for a month was enough to distract Steve from the reality that Vlane was now manning the guns on every level of the enterprise.

Master Chief now stalked his menu like a hunter; his passion for reconceiving its entrees, its arrangement, verged on obsession. Putting his self-taught art direction skills to work, Vlane personally designed each menu to capture the attention of any individual who glanced at the Action Burger logo twice. Vlane believed so deeply in his methods that he put the new menus on his credit card and hiked around Williamsburg in ten- to fifteen-degree weather distributing them for eight to ten hours per day.

Concurrently, Vlane launched a street marketing campaign with his Action Truck. He covered his white Escalade top to tail with magnetic decals that screamed the latest updates on Action Burger and “BioSapien.”

“I’ve never seen a restaurant with a moving billboard like that,” said Gideon. Two LED signs blinked and scrolled accompanying messages, which were sometimes hard to read behind the glass. Several of these “truck tattoos” featured artwork from his sci-fi series but many more consisted of pixelated shots of Action Burger entrees. “They looked horrible, the pictures of the food,” said Steve. “And I knew professional photographers who wouldn’t even charge. He just wants to take them all with his cellphone.”

Vlane suction-cupped a dispenser to the Action Truck and filled it with menus. He parked the SUV at strategic locations and counted the number of menus remaining at the end of each day. He documented a dozen spots around Williamsburg where his “hit rate” was highest. The Action Truck gave out, according to Vlane, fifteen to thirty flyers per day, with the most active spots being the street parking areas in front of neighboring businesses like Barcade, a video-game-themed bar.

Owners of these businesses, nonplussed by Vlane’s cleverness, wrote him heated emails asking him not to market directly to their customers. Barcade, by a long shot on a sniper rifle, was the most effective place for Master Chief to park. Patrons of the bar, on average, took more than sixty of his menus in six hours — until Barcade employees expressed a conflict with Action Burger and Barcade both having arcade games. “They just kind of threatened and left hints that they don’t want me parking there anymore or something could happen,” said Vlane. “It became very aggressive in terms of the email conversations,” he continued. (The ownership of Barcade offered no comment on these accusations despite repeated requests.)

Charging headlong, blasting through pessimism, Vlane saw Action Burger franchises in his future. His dream was to get the store featured on the ABC show “Shark Tank,” where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to venture capitalists. Vlane felt that his restaurant, his truck tattoos and the “BioSapien” series constituted a triple threat. Legally, he tied “BioSapien” into Action Burger with a 70,000-year contract — in the series, 70,000 represents the number of years that aliens are advanced beyond the human race — mandating that every Action Burger franchisee in the future use his series and its characters. “If the restaurant does well, the books do well; if the books do well, the restaurant does well,” Vlane opined.

Vlane developed a genuine gift for muting outside opinions when, he felt, they constrained his creativity. “He has ideas that really can’t be,” said Sahve. “It’s insane, and Steve kept pushing for practical.” The roof in the basement of Action Burger leaked from the old pipes each day as water backed up from the street. Steve, wary of the health code history of the original Action Burger, wanted to fix the potential hazard. But Vlane preferred more and better menus, additional entrees and new marketing tactics.

By May 2013, their conversations became shouting matches in the leaky basement. Vlane and Steve drew battle lines for their competing visions, and each recruited allies to their sides. Sahve aligned with Steve. Vlane’s new girlfriend sided with Vlane, obviously. And Steve and Vlane both angled for the allegiance of Wilson, the restaurant’s primary cook. “There is no Action Burger without Wilson,” Sahve explained. Steve encouraged Wilson to begin a work stoppage to force Vlane’s hand in rehabbing the basement. Vlane encouraged Wilson to develop a new line of rice dishes and enjoy freer reign in his dominion.

The final battle occurred in the basement on the day that Wilson finally sided with Vlane. Steve sat thunderstruck, stunned like Thor when he discovered Loki (his own brother) behind the plot to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters. It was July, not one year from the day they opened, and Steve had lost control of Action Burger. He threw down his apron and left.

Sahve now stood vulnerable, having fought on the losing side of the Game of Thrones. Vlane resented her friendship with Steve and treated her for what he believed her to be: a spy. But Vlane had his own network of intelligence. He had installed an app on his smartphone that pulled a direct video feed from the store security cameras, which gave him eyes on every square inch of Action Burger. To test her loyalty, Vlane told Sahve to text him immediately if Steve returned to Action Burger.

As expected, Steve stepped back into the restaurant about a week after the blowout, and Sahve undermined Vlane’s command. She waited until Steve had left to text the Master Chief. Vlane rewound the security footage to confirm that Sahve had, indeed, defied him — and fired her. “Just to get back at me,” Steve said. “That’s the only reason he fired her.” When Steve returned to hammer out an agreement with Vlane, Steve rehired his protégé. Although she was grateful to have a job again, she sensed something temporary in the arrangement. Slyly, piece by piece, she brought her artwork home.

Steve made Vlane an offer to buy out his shares in Action Burger. When Vlane refused, needing Action Burger to boost “BioSapien,” Steve’s journey as an owner had reached its terminus. Vlane bought out Steve’s shares instead. Clearing out his toys with tears in his eyes, Steve hugged Sahve and walked past the original hero/villain menu placard. “It’s still a beautiful dream,” Steve said. “But it turned into a nightmare.” Parked on Powers Street, the Action Truck flashed its text at no one as Steve turned the corner.

That month, Action Burger received approval from the State of New York for a liquor license. Vlane fired Sahve and moved forward with a new line of liquor milkshakes and infused smoothies. Gideon and his friends gathered to read this roster of new releases in the new menu, of course, which Vlane devoted weeks to fine-tuning. “Just as soon as we forget about Action Burger,” said Gideon, “a new menu comes out or a new item comes out or there’s a new decal on the Escalade.” The milkshake madness, which filled two pages, boasted drinks like the “Gravity Tide,” a thirty-two-ounce blend of Amaretto, butterscotch schnapps and an “action shot” for $24, or the thirty-two-ounce “Ten-Miles-On-Treadmill,” a blend of vanilla ice cream, oatmeal cream pie, strawberry short cake, chocolate chip cookies, Oreos, vanilla cookies, granola bars, pecan pie, butter crunch cookies and Butterfinger candy bars for the price of $19.

* * *

V. The Ultimate Boon

On the evening of June 20, 2014, pulsing fluorescent lights lit Graham Avenue an alien blue. The concrete shook with a bass beat, and one could barely see through the Action Burger windows, which were bedecked with four-color graphic signs advertising the Pretzel Burger Frenzy, the Pizza Burger Parmigiana and the Toragon crispy chicken beef burger extravaganza.

Inside was what Vlane called a “lounge atmosphere,” or a mash-up of battle sounds, projector screens and cords snaking underneath tables to four video game consoles being played simultaneously. He branded this concept “Action Burger After Dark.” Gone was Sahve’s art on the walls. Gone was the comic kitsch, aside from a lone poster featuring a roundup of “X-Men” villains. In their place was a smorgasbord of current and obsolete game systems.

With Steve’s departure, Vlane had developed a new customer base. Dry-eyed gamers had pushed out the former crowd of comic buffs. “His strong point was comics, and my strong points were video games,” said Vlane. “I had to do what’s natural in me.”

In a surprise turn of events, Vlane described how he’d trained himself to cook in the kitchen by pretending it was a video game. “You have to look at it like that, or it’s just an annoying job,” he said. When an order for the Toragon came in, he threw a crispy chicken patty in the fryer like a timed mine and set two beef patties on the side of the grill as ammunition. He’d multitask, careful to never let things burn because burning is losing.

By Vlane’s admission, his vision for Action Burger hadn’t moved past the experimental stage. “Profit is…I don’t know when the profit is going to come,” he said. “It’s just kind of balancing off the big mess from last year. Everything is still at a loss.” Though Vlane’s tactics could certainly grab attention, they didn’t always inspire the intended reaction.

“I don’t want to mock him,” said Gideon. “I don’t wish him bad. I hope he succeeds in business. But it’s just so bizarre.” Where customers like Gideon saw absurdity, Vlane saw his competitive advantage. “I’m about new ideas and new concepts that no one’s trying yet,” he said. Vlane could brainstorm like a virtuoso, but he was also loathe to self-edit, as if editing symbolized an old form of thinking. He piled up his mind like Legos: one idea on top of the next.

In trying every tack, he saw some of his methods succeed. By partnering with Seamless.com and Grubhub.com to create a more competitive pricing model, online orders rose 60 percent between 2013 and 2014. Local hip-hop artists packed his restaurant once a month for the “Saturday Morning Music Live” events, where flows about Superman were met with cheers in the cramped quarters — bodies on laps — as “Star Trek” played in the background. On a Thursday night ritual called “Action Game Night,” Vlane bated customers with the promise of a free round of shots if they beat him in any of the “Halo” multiplayer scenarios. Stacking the teams four players to two in the customers’ favor, Vlane still crushed his rivals.

Action Burger had achieved what Steve once called impossible — lasting a year without him. “That was his mindset,” said Vlane. “And that’s what he believed, and it was like religion or something.” No Steve Bala, no Action Burger; Steve had internalized that conviction through his experience with Irene. He continued to live just two blocks away and sometimes walked past the store. One time, Vlane caught him on the security cameras checking the health department grade in the window. “He just stared at the ‘A’ like he couldn’t believe it,” said Vlane, “like it was a ghost.” According to Sahve, Steve had “kind of called the fire department and the health department” after he left the business to report violations. (Steve wouldn’t confirm or deny this claim: “I’m not allowed to discuss these things due to the agreement Vlane and I signed.”) Vlane ended up paying fines and shelling out the money to fix the pipes in the basement.

Like a tub with a leak, Action Burger was still being drained of funds. But, at the present rate of decline, it would take several years before the death stroke. Vlane had capitalized well, and the cushion bought him time — and a chance to get the enterprise locked and loaded in the style of Master Chief.

* * *

VI. Master of Two Worlds

Steve lives a few minutes from Action Burger in a building that looks like a little red schoolhouse. He answers the door and leads me up the stairs to his Batcave. Here is the stimulus behind Action Burger, the source of personal inspiration that he’s tried, and failed, to recreate elsewhere. His living room stands as a shrine to American gods, with comic books ringing the walls, “Star Trek” figurines and a Cobra banner, the red snake flaring its hood. “It’s still a major part of my life,” Steve told me on the phone a few weeks earlier. “I’m still collecting comics every Wednesday. I’m still going to movies that are based on comics. I just saw ‘Transformers,’ and I completely hated it.”

He opens another door, and it’s like Dorothy entering the land of Technicolor. More than 300 figures, still “carded” in their plastic bubbles, stare back. Toys line every surface of his room like a fresco, floor to ceiling — twenty-fifth anniversary figures on the left; “G.I. Joe” A.R.A.H. (A Real American Hero) sets from 2001 and 2003 in the middle; and original Joes from 1982 to 1984 on the far side behind boxes and boxes of comics.

“There’s not a Joe that is up here that I actually don’t have also loose,” says Steve. He knows their backstories. He knows their favorite weapons. He knows their real names and the origins of their Joe affiliations. “They’re O-ring,” he says. “That means there’s still a rubber band inside, holding them together.” He’s seen it happen, the O-rings burst, and the figures, still mint condition, fall into a mound of limbs. The idea hurts, for some reason. We fill these dolls up with more than we care to admit. On Steve’s futon is a “G.I. Joe” bedspread, and I know without asking that this was his childhood blanket.

His complete sets of “G.I. Joe” figurines could fetch upwards of $600 each. If this entire room burns to the ground, he’ll lose almost $20,000 in tangible assets, mostly stored in those intricately painted statues made of PVC plastic. “I actually want to play with my figures all the time,” he says, “but it’s hard for me to do it.” Being an adult curtails his ability to imagine.

“I would eventually, down the line, like to do it again,” Steve says, bringing it back to the restaurant. “But it’s something I’ll have to do on my own.”

* * *

Robert W. Fieseler is a journalist and essayist who graduated co-valedictorian from the Columbia Journalism School and is a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing. His work has appeared in The Big Roundtable, The Brooklyn Ink and THE WEEK.

Aaron Renier is a cartoonist living in Chicago, Illinois. He has written two books and is finishing his third. He helped start theinfinitecorpse.com, a growing online comic always open to new submissions.

 

 

The U.S. Tested 67 Nuclear Bombs in Their Country. Now They’re Dying in Oklahoma.

After a series of military experiments devastated their homeland, Marshall Islands residents were permitted to immigrate to the U.S. But they didn’t know their American dream came with a catch.

This article is the winner of Narratively’s inaugural Untold Story Award contest. We scoured the world for important stories about under-the-radar people and communities, looking for pieces that deserved in-depth, long-term reporting. Our esteemed panel of judges chose to assign this story.

Lately, Terry Mote has been going to a lot of funerals. There were at least five in the early spring, sometimes on consecutive weekends. The elderly get sicker when the weather changes, he’s noticed – though the friends dying lately aren’t all that old, and they aren’t dying just because of the weather.

One breezy evening in April, on a weekend with no funeral, Mote’s kitchen filled with steam and the snapping sound of hot oil. He’d driven a hundred miles the previous day, to Oklahoma City, to buy bitter melon and small fish that he placed delicately into the frying pan with a pair of tongs. They were among the things he missed from the Marshall Islands, where he grew up. Fresh seafood is hard to find in the dry, windy city where he lives now – Enid, Oklahoma, a hunkered-down prairie town at the eastern edge of the Great Plains.

To Mote (pronounced “mo-tay”), a hundred miles isn’t so far. For some 2,000 years, his ancestors found their way in the 750,000 square miles of south Pacific Ocean punctuated by the narrow coral islets that make up the Marshall Islands. They navigated by the stars, charts made of sticks, and a mysterious technique for reading patterns in the water, known as wave piloting. In more recent years, about a third of all Marshallese – some 20,000 people – have made a further journey, across the Pacific to the United States. Mote is one of them.

Many leave the islands in search of the same things as other migrants – work, education, health care. But an unusual shadow trails the Marshallese. Following the Second World War, the United States used the islands as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons program, detonating more than 60 bombs over a dozen years. The largest, the “Castle Bravo” test, blew a crater 6,510 feet wide in the lagoon of Bikini Atoll and ignited a fireball visible from 250 miles away. Children on neighboring islands played in the ashy fallout, which fell like snow from the sky.

Today, thanks to a treaty signed when the Marshall Islands gained independence from the U.S. in 1986, Marshallese citizens are allowed to live and work in the States. Between 2000 and 2010, the number here grew by 237 percent. This mass migration is driven in part by poverty and lack of services in the islands. But it’s also a legacy of the U.S. occupation and the various damages it left behind. And it’s accelerated by climate change, which has started to drown the low-lying archipelago.

Momie Louis shows Terry Mote her passport in the Enid Public Library. Mote takes time off work to help Marshallese residents fill out applications for work permits and register for driver’s licenses.

Terry Mote arrived in Enid in 2007, after spending two nights at the airport in Honolulu, eating from vending machines while he waited for a standby spot on a flight east. Coming to the U.S. was just a matter of saving money for the plane ticket; the door was open. It was only once he arrived that he realized how many other doors lay between him and the life he’d imagined. It was as if he’d been locked in the hallway of a beautiful house: inside, but not really.

Mote and many other Marshallese in the U.S. live in a precarious state of in-between. Granted residency but not citizenship, the Marshallese have virtually no political influence and rank as the single poorest ethnic group in the U.S. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (or welfare reform) eliminated federal health care funding for Marshallese by excluding them from the group of “qualified aliens” who are eligible for benefits. That means that Marshallese citizens who live, work and pay taxes in the U.S. are ineligible for Medicaid and Medicare unless states opt to provide it. Oklahoma has not done so.

Mote loves Enid, but life is more difficult than he anticipated. Rent and groceries are expensive, and there is the problem of the funerals. Few of the elderly Marshallese in the city live into their 70s, according to Mote and other residents I spoke with. Instead, they’re dying young – of diabetes, kidney failure and heart disease, illnesses they might have been able to manage under other circumstances. Often they leave behind families saddled with medical debt.

Mote described the struggle in his community as part of a legacy of broken promises made by the U.S. – promises that the islanders displaced by the nuclear program would be able to return; that those relocated or sickened would be provided for; that the testing was for “the good of mankind.” America tested 67 nuclear bombs in the islands, Mote reminded me. “Then they’re just going to let us die over here?”

* * *

The way Mote tells it, he chased an old car tire to Oklahoma. He grew up in a town called Arrack in Majuro Atoll, a ring of 64 volcanic islands. He and his 13 siblings lived packed into a small house made of wood scraps painted various colors and collected by his father, a construction worker. There was no electricity, and when it rained, water came through chinks in the walls. Mote’s father often drank away his paycheck. “If we were lucky, there was food,” Mote recalled.

Mote was close with his mother; she taught him to cook and to weave, tasks usually reserved for women. He walked to school, several miles one way down the skinny island’s single road. Sometimes he walked all the way home for lunch. When there was no food at home he climbed coconut trees. One day on his way to school he picked up a tire. He rolled it down the road, and ran after it. He did the same thing on the way home, and the day after, and the day after that, chasing the tire back and forth. Time flew quickly that way. Mote himself became faster, until he was the fastest runner in his school. Years later, he would represent the Marshall Islands at the Micronesian Olympic Games, and ran on the 4×400 relay team that still holds his country’s record.

Mote is 41 now, with a round face and a demeanor that shifts between earnestness and jest. He is one of nearly 3,000 Marshallese living in Enid, a town of 51,000 built on oil and wheat. Marshallese citizens’ special status in the U.S. is based on a treaty called the Compact of Free Association (COFA). In exchange for giving the U.S. military control of their territory, COFA allows citizens of the Marshall Islands (and of the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau; collectively they are known as the Freely Associated States) to move to the U.S. and work without visas or green cards. The thousands who have taken advantage of the treaty have formed tight-knit communities in Springdale, Arkansas; Costa Mesa, California; Spokane, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and elsewhere. In Enid, there’s work in meat processing plants and at big box stores.

Before moving to the U.S., Mote worked as a curator at a museum, traveling to outer islands to collect folktales. His first job in Enid was at the circulation desk of the public library. That’s where I first met him, on a warm March afternoon. He wore beige slacks, a red and white checked shirt, and wire-rimmed glasses. He carried his briefcase, in which he keeps copies of his family’s official documents. It was Saturday, and he was helping several young Marshallese men fill out applications for work permits. Mote works for the county health department as a translator and adviser. He also acts as an emissary between the Marshallese in Enid – many of whom don’t speak English – and the rest of the city. In effect, he’s become his community’s public representative.

By American standards, Enid is wholly ordinary: a quiet, sprawled city of single-story homes on grassy lots, with a modest stretch of shops and restaurants downtown. There’s a symphony orchestra, a local newspaper and a number of churches. Grain elevators, meatpacking plants, and strip malls border the town before it falls away into farmland; to the south lies Vance Air Force Base. Enid was once home to the now-closed Phillips University, a religious school responsible for drawing the first Marshallese to the town in the 1970s. To newcomers from the humid islands, however, landlocked Enid is plenty strange, starting with the weather. Several other residents told me, in varying tones of incredulity, about seeing Marshallese walking through the snow in flip-flops.

Most of the islanders in Enid live on the city’s eastern flank. On a wide thoroughfare there, sandwiched between a defunct pharmacy and a long-closed auto supply shop, is a squat brick building housing the Enid Community Clinic. The clinic provides limited care to the uninsured, free of charge, funded largely by an annual charity ball. The staff volunteer their time. Aside from emergency rooms and another charity clinic, it is the only source of care available to many in Enid’s Marshallese community.

Inside the clinic I met Daina Joseia, a 63-year-old woman wearing a loose, floral-print dress of a style worn by many Marshallese women. Joseia smiled easily, but she seemed frail and tired. She moved to Enid in 1999, seeking care for various physical ailments – too many for me to write down, she said. Once she arrived, she found she couldn’t afford insurance. She often feels scared or ashamed to see a doctor because she’s uninsured, but she’s sick enough that she can’t avoid it. She has a lot of bills to pay. The day we met, Joseia had a large sore on her back.

School nurse Karry Easterly checks on Jorine John, age five, who has come to school with rashes on her face and arms. Unless Marshallese children were born in the U.S., they are unable to receive Medicaid in Oklahoma.

Joseia believes her ill health might be connected to something she saw in the islands when she was a little girl: an enormous flash of light, she told me through an interpreter, “a real bright color, like a fire.” It wasn’t until she was an adult that she understood what she’d seen.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear bombs on or near two atolls at the northern end of the Marshall Islands – an area that became known as the Pacific Proving Grounds. The largest weapons test, a hydrogen bomb set off on Bikini Atoll in 1954, detonated with more than a thousand times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. Though Bikini Atoll had been evacuated, the wind blew radioactive fallout onto several inhabited islands, and perhaps much further away. (A few days later, a doctor in Tennessee reported that cattle in the state showed unusually high levels of radioactivity in their thyroids.) Officially, the U.S. claimed only three inhabited islands were seriously affected by fallout from Bravo. But an internal report declassified in the 1990s suggested that radiation from that and subsequent tests may have affected as many as 13 atolls.

On neighboring islands, many health effects were immediate: radiation burns, damage to stomach linings, low blood cell counts. Others surfaced gradually in the following months and years. Rates of leukemia, breast cancer, and thyroid cancer rose. Children were born deformed, or had their growth stunted.

“In a nation that lacks a single oncologist or cancer treatment facility, the Marshallese experience extremely high rates of cancer; degenerative conditions associated with radiation exposure; miscarriage and infertility; and, the birth of congenitally deformed children,” environmental anthropologist Barbara Rose Johnston wrote in a 2013 report on the legacy of the tests. According to a 2012 report by a special rapporteur for the U.N., those health issues were “exacerbated by near-irreversible environmental contamination,” which in turn led to “indefinite displacement” for many Marshallese.

According to Dr. Neal Palafox, a cancer specialist at the University of Hawaii who worked in the Marshall Islands for nearly a decade, the weapons testing damaged more than flesh and bone. It constituted a form of cultural trauma, too. Palafox believes the U.S. chose to conduct the testing where it did because residents had little power to push back. “Not for a second does anybody believe that there was any kind of informed consent,” Palafox said in an interview. There is some evidence the U.S. knew that the winds had shifted before the Bravo test in a direction that endangered inhabited islands, yet proceeded anyway. Afterward, many of the people most heavily exposed to the Bravo fallout became test subjects in Project 4.1, a classified medical study of radiation exposure run by the U.S. government. Later in 1954, the Congress of the Marshall Islands requested a halt to the testing, which the U.S. rejected on the grounds that the islanders “had no medical reason to expect any permanent after-effects on the general health of the inhabitants.”

Joseia remembers the sickness that followed the bright light. She remembers women giving birth to babies that “didn’t look like human beings.” One man I met in Enid described infants born looking “like jellyfish.” Another woman, Joelynn Karben, told me she remembered infants born after the nuclear tests as incoherent lumps of flesh, like bunches of grapes. Her own brother was born missing part of his skull, and her mother died from what she thinks was thyroid cancer.

The bombings are deeply etched in the islands’ collective memory, and some people I met in Enid blamed them for all manner of illnesses. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of Joseia’s health issues are directly related. The sore she had on her back the day we met was actually a symptom of her diabetes, a nurse told me later – though that, too, is linked to the U.S. military presence in the islands, specifically to the dietary changes that accompanied imports of processed, sugary foods.

More than 90 percent of the food in the Marshall Islands is imported from the U.S. now. Before the U.S. occupation, the Marshallese ate mostly fish, breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus, a knobby fruit resembling a large pinecone. World War II and the nuclear testing that followed damaged local crops and created a stigma around local foods, which residents of islands affected by fallout had been warned by the U.S. not to eat. Some people were forced to relocate to desolate islands where growing food was impossible. Imported white rice, canned meats, refined sugar, and other cheap, processed foods filled the gap. Diabetes rates soared.

* * *

In Enid, it seemed like almost everyone I met had diabetes. In fact, the Marshallese have the second highest rate of Type II diabetes in the world. While the illness can be controlled, it becomes gruesome if not properly managed. Complications can escalate to blindness, nerve damage, and serious infections, which can require amputation.

Joseia’s diabetes is acute. Her kidneys are failing, and she needs dialysis. But there’s nowhere for her to get it in Enid without insurance. When her condition gets bad enough she can be admitted to an emergency room – but only in a crisis.

The Marshallese diet is heavy on white rice, pasta, and canned meats. This is in part traced back to the fact that the bombings ruined the traditional island foods, and Marshallese grew up eating processed foods imported to the islands by the U.S. Today, they have one of the highest rates of type two diabetes in the world.

“If she drinks lots of water and takes care of her diabetes, she could be around for a while. But that may not happen,” said Janet Cordell, the nurse who runs the community clinic. Cordell is a frank, energetic woman of 69, with short-shorn gray hair and pale olive-green eyes. Besides Joseia, she has two other patients with failing kidneys and no access to dialysis.

Born and raised in Oklahoma, Cordell has worked with the Marshallese since the 1980s. At first, most of the Marshallese she met in Enid were young people who’d come for college or to start families in the U.S. Now the elderly are following, many hoping for more advanced medical care than what is offered in the islands. Without a way to pay for that care, what they’re really doing is “coming to die,” Cordell said.

With patients, Cordell exercises a practiced blend of patience and bossiness. Many doctors get frustrated with their Marshallese patients, and consider them “noncompliant,” she said. Cordell prefers to describe them as “non-interventional.” For both financial and cultural reasons, they’re unlikely to go to the doctor or take medicine unless they’re very ill, which makes preventative care and managing chronic conditions like diabetes particularly challenging. Many of the conditions Cordell’s Marshallese patients seek treatment for, including diabetes, are diseases associated with poverty. Though she’s seen a handful of cases of leprosy and tuberculosis, most of the illnesses she treats aren’t unusual – they’re just more severe, because treatment is often delayed or interrupted.

Janet Cordell visits Jorvain Aiden, age 70, in her home in Enid, Oklahoma. She regularly visits the homes of the Marshallese in Enid to assist with residents’ health issues.

But Marshallese also bear the rare burden of radiation-related illness. Cancer kills more Marshallese citizens than any other disease but diabetes, and according to a 2004 report by the U.S. National Cancer Institute, it is likely some radiation-related cancers have yet to develop or be diagnosed in people who lived on the islands between 1948 and 1970.

While Cordell and I were speaking, another elderly woman with diabetes came into the clinic. She didn’t speak English, but a man accompanying her explained that she’d moved to another city, and hadn’t seen a doctor in three years. She was starting to go blind. Cordell checked her charts. The woman had come to the clinic once before, in 2014, when she’d been diagnosed. According to the charts, she’d never returned for a follow-up appointment.

“It is very challenging, taking care of the Marshallese,” Cordell told me later, with a long sigh. She makes a lot of home visits, bringing patients their lab results or dropping off prescriptions – though sometimes it’s hard to find the person she’s looking for, because Marshallese families in Enid move frequently. Cordell doesn’t schedule appointments in the mornings, knowing that many operate on “island time,” meaning late. She maintains a small roster of doctors who will sometimes see uninsured patients with serious conditions for free. She is blunt with her patients about the risks of foregoing care. “I don’t sugarcoat it a lot,” she admitted. “I usually will just say, ‘If you don’t come back, or if you don’t go to wound care, they will have to cut your foot off.’ I know that sounds like scare tactics, but it isn’t. It’s just a fact.”

Cordell, while forgiving of her patients, reserves her frustration for America’s health care system. In the 1980s and early ’90s, Marshallese had access to Medicaid and Medicare through COFA, before losing it in the welfare reform package. The change in status was confusing, particularly for people who had and then lost coverage. Oklahoma legislators could “get off their butts,” Cordell said, and use state funds to insure low-income people who’ve migrated under COFA, as Oregon did in 2016. But Cordell finds that hard to imagine, since state legislators have refused to expand Medicaid even to citizens under the Affordable Care Act.

The insurance gap ripples out to the whole city. It increases the load on local emergency rooms, and makes it harder to contain contagious illnesses. “We’re one of the only civilized countries that doesn’t have [universal] health care. That’s ridiculous. It is ridiculous,” Cordell said flatly. “They don’t care down in Oklahoma City.”

* * *

Bringing Oklahoma’s growing Marshallese community to the attention of state lawmakers is one of Terry Mote’s projects. Marshallese living in the U.S. can’t vote (unless they go through the lengthy process to become citizens), and as a result they have no political representation. “We’ve been absent from community involvement for some years,” he said. “We’re quiet people.” In 2015, Mote founded the Micronesia Coalition – a group of more than two dozen Marshallese pastors, community leaders, schools, and health care experts, aimed at improving the health and wellbeing of Enid’s Marshallese. In 2016, Mote helped organize a trip to the state capitol to lobby for expanding insurance coverage. “It was a historical moment for the Marshallese community,” Mote told me proudly.

Mote had an ally in the state Senate: Republican Patrick Anderson, whose district included Enid. Anderson introduced bills in 2015 and 2016 to give COFA migrants state-funded insurance coverage, modeled on the legislation enacted in Oregon. But the bills languished, and never received a vote. Anderson retired last year.

His successor, Roland Pederson, told me he “wasn’t really aware of the situation” regarding Enid’s Marshallese population until recently. “I know they’re a vital part of the Enid community, and provide a huge workforce,” he said. “I would just say that I haven’t really reached out and connected with them.” Pederson added that he’s committed to learning more and being a representative for the community, and he sounded genuinely curious as he asked me a number of questions about the challenges they face. Pederson said he wasn’t opposed to extending health benefits to COFA migrants – but he thought the money should come from the federal government, since it was a federal law that originally cut off their benefits.

On June 21, Hawaii’s congressional delegation introduced legislation to restore Medicaid coverage for citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS). “We have a moral obligation to provide FAS citizens living in Hawaii and across our country with access to medical care,” Senator Mazie Hirono said in a statement. The legislation is one of more than 20 similar bills introduced in Congress since 2001. The Republican congressional majority is not likely to embrace an expansion of the program anytime soon; instead, the GOP has proposed deep cuts to Medicaid as part of its rewrite of the Affordable Care Act.

According to a 2013 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office, covering COFA migrants through Medicaid would cost $20 million a year. That’s less than a twelfth of the cost of a single, $244 million weapons test conducted in May involving a simulated threat missile launched from the U.S. base on Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.

* * *

Mote spends a lot of time in the car. Two nights before he went to Oklahoma City in search of bitter melon, he drove an hour west of Enid to meet with a Marshallese couple who’d asked for help navigating a marital issue. The next morning, as he got back in the car to take me to meet other Marshallese families, his eyes were bloodshot from lack of sleep.

We spent the morning driving around town, criss-crossing railroad tracks, searching for people who’d moved since Mote last visited them. Enid’s enormous grain elevators slipped in and out of view on the horizon. All together, the pale concrete towers can hold more than 65 million bushels of wheat. “Where the wheat grows and the oil flows” is the town’s old tagline. But many of the elevators stand empty now, and the collapse of oil prices in late 2014 and 2015 hit the city hard.

After knocking on a number of doors we finally found the home of Stanley Jamor and his wife, Lorit. Jamor’s family was relocated from Bikini Atoll in anticipation of the nuclear testing, and split up on different islands. Some inhabitants of Bikini were sent first to Rongerik Atoll, a barren island so sparsely vegetated that they soon began to starve. Then they were moved to a tent camp beside a U.S. airstrip on another island. Many Bikinians, including Jamor’s parents, ultimately ended up on the small island of Kili.

In 1968, the U.S. government told the former residents of Bikini their island was safe to return to. “There’s virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible effect on either plant or animal life,” declared the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. About 150 people living on Kili returned to Bikini in the early 1970s – only to be re-evacuated in 1978 when testing revealed “incredible” concentrations (in the words of the U.S. Interior Department) of the radioactive element cesium 137 in their bodies.

Today, Kili is barely habitable for the 700 or so people who still live there. Unlike other atolls ringed around calm lagoons, Kili is a solitary island buffeted on both sides by waves that make fishing and sailing all but impossible in the stormy season. There is little space on the 200-acre island for farming, and so most food is shipped in.

Rising seas attributed to climate change pose a more vexing problem. Flooding has become a regular nuisance on Kili and throughout the Marshall Islands, where the average elevation is less than six feet above sea level. Saltwater seeps into the groundwater, already depleted by drought, and ruins crops. Majuro, the capital, has been alternately parched and drowned. In 2016, the capital had to ration water, and several times it’s been saturated by king tides – high, predictable tides that rarely touched Majuro in the past. On the narrow, flat islands, there’s no high ground to retreat to. The rising water is coming even for the dead. Graveyards near the coastline have eroded, headstones and bones washed out to sea. For people living on Kili and other islands, migration might one day be a necessity rather than a choice.

Jamor, who is 41, left Kili so his children could get a better education – the island doesn’t have a high school – and for better medical care. Theirs was one of the families that lost Medicaid coverage when it was stripped from the Marshallese in the 1996 welfare reform act. Jamor is still frustrated and angry about the loss. Like other Marshallese who work in the U.S., he’s paid taxes – and he believes that the U.S. owes his family and others for the damage and disruption of the nuclear testing. “The promise is broken,” he said, matter-of-factly. “America promised the people of Bikini they would take care of them.”

(A Nuclear Claims Tribunal, funded by Congress and overseen by Marshallese judges, was established in 1988 to compensate victims of the nuclear testing. But as of 2009, with more than $45 million still owed, the fund had been depleted. Even if fully funded, it’s not clear families like Jamors’ would qualify.)

Jamor used to work for the meat-processing company AdvancePierre, cleaning machines in the middle of the night. But when we spoke he was struggling to find a full-time job with health benefits. He and his wife were living with their three children and several grandchildren. One of his sons works at Advance, as the family calls it, and is the sole earner in the household.

Meatpacking, which provides some of the most readily available jobs for the Marshallese in Enid, is brutal work. “It’s cold, cold, cold,” said a woman named Joelynn Karben whose first job in Enid was at one of the refrigerated processing facilities. The job required her to stand for hours, and sometimes her hands got so stiff that she went to the bathroom and held them under hot water. She worked for four months before quitting. “I’ll never go back there again,” she vowed.

* * *

Fellow Marshallese started asking for Mote’s help years ago, while he was serving as a pastor at his church. He fielded a steady stream of requests for help paying for groceries, rent, medical care, and with navigating bureaucratic hurdles in the way of driver’s licenses or work permits. Because he was a pastor, people shared troubles with him that they were too ashamed to confide in their friends.

His family had their own difficulties. Mote worked for years to bring his mother, wife and kids to Enid, skipping lunches to save money for their airfare. His mother is diabetic, and she had to be hospitalized once for severe respiratory problems. She was also uninsured. Soon Mote began receiving collection notices for thousands of dollars. He was shocked. “My family, we never had anything. And we never owed anything to anyone,” he said.

Health care in the Marshall Islands is limited, but it is provided by the government. Mote hadn’t understood that higher-quality care in the U.S. came at such a price. He was working as an interpreter for the Enid police, helping the department communicate with Marshallese families, many of whom didn’t speak English. He was living paycheck to paycheck. There was no way he could pay his mother’s bills. At night he was afraid to fall asleep, because he thought someone might come to arrest him.

The realization that seemingly all of the Marshallese families in Enid had the same struggles as his own family was, for Mote, “emotional.” The community bore its burdens in silence. Who was there to complain to?

The Marshallese and the white community in Enid run like railroad tracks, parallel to one another. Religion glues each together, but for the most part they worship at separate churches. There are few Marshallese-owned businesses in town, save for one beauty parlor. “We do our own thing. We don’t really get out,” said a 28-year-old woman named Nerum who I met at the community clinic.

The separateness leads to stereotyping, and even wild speculation. When I asked a bartender in Enid if she ever interacted with people from the islands, she laughed. “They live with, like, 20 people to a house. The women have hair down to their waists, and they wear flip-flops in the snow,” she offered. A man whose family has been in Enid for generations told me he’s heard rumors that Marshallese couples are polygamous, because it’s hard to tell who’s married to whom in households where a number of relatives live under the same roof. Quickly, he added, “I’m not saying it’s true, or that I believe it.” (While polygamy was once practiced on the islands, it’s no longer condoned.)

“Some people don’t know who we are,” Joelynn Karben said simply when I asked her about the relationship between the Marshallese community and other Enid residents. If one person makes a mistake, everyone is blamed for it, she told me. She referred to a drunk driving incident in February, in which a young Marshallese man hit and killed a local teacher while fleeing from police; online comments she saw later made her feel that the whole community had been indicted. Similar finger pointing occurred during an outbreak of typhoid fever in 2015.

But the tracks do cross, particularly in Enid’s schools. One morning I listened to Enid High School’s “Multi-Cultural Choir,” composed mainly of Marshallese students, rehearse. They sang the national anthem of the Marshall Islands and a few other songs. Later, during a lull in class, a few boys clustered together and sang Marshallese songs in perfect three- and four-part harmonies, led by one boy with a ukelele.

Later, I met Joan McIntyre, the high school’s head nurse. She reckons she’s the primary source of medical care for many of the Marshallese students. They get sick with the same things other kids do, she said, but their symptoms are worse, and they take longer to recover. McIntyre treats a lot of infections: cuts and boils that go untreated, and fester. While we were speaking she received a note about a student with a “lemon-sized” swelling under her eye, which she deemed “pretty typical.”

“Not necessarily Marshallese, but anybody who doesn’t have access to medical care, they let things go,” McIntyre said. “These people are very, very poor, and so they don’t have access to insurance, and they don’t have the money to go to a doctor. Or if they do go to a doctor they don’t have the money to get the prescription.” She believes the U.S. has a responsibility to provide care to the Marshallese: “I feel very strongly about that, because the issues they have are not going to go away.”

* * *

Mote is an optimistic guy, and a relentless jokester. He claims that “tired” is not part of his vocabulary. He hesitates to speak badly about anyone.

But watching Enid’s Marshallese families get sick so often, listening to them fret about coming up with rent money, going to all the funerals – it does wear on him. He constantly fields requests for help, but there’s only so much he can do; his toehold in the city bureaucracy is still tenuous. He’d like to run for a seat on the city council, but without citizenship he’s ineligible. Mote believes that if Oklahomans understood more about the history and culture of the islands, they might be more sympathetic to the plight of their people. But he also acknowledges that Enid, which is more than 80 percent white, “has a lot of issues with race” to overcome first.

“I don’t want to blame someone,” Mote said, when I asked what he thought the U.S. owed the Marshallese. “But yes, I feel frustrated sometimes, to see all these people getting sick every day, dying every day… If the state is not going to help us, and the government is not listening to us, who will help us?” He went on, “Do we just scatter our stuff and leave Oklahoma?”

Terry Mote prays at the beginning of a class he teaches to the youth group at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Enid, Oklahoma.

The day after picking up melon and fish from Oklahoma City, Mote invited me over for dinner, and to meet his family. When I arrived, sunlight was raking the grass of his front lawn. His mother sat in the kitchen peeling oranges; his wife stood at the sink, cleaning the fish. His son, Oakie – named for the state he was born in – confirmed that his father does a fair share of the cooking, adding that he’d made corned beef hash the previous night.

As the fish sizzled, Mote told me a Marshallese legend, about how his people learned to sail. One day, long ago, the twelve sons of a woman named Loktanur decided to race their canoes to determine who would be the next chief. As the young men prepared their boats for the race, Loktanur approached with a large bundle in her arms. She asked her eldest son, Timur, to carry her with him. But Timur worried that her heavy load would slow him down, and he refused. So did the next-eldest, and the next, and so on, until she got to her youngest son, Jebro, who agreed to take her in his boat.

The brothers took off, paddling furiously. Loktanur unwrapped her bundle. It was a sail. She helped Jebro to hoist it, and taught him to tack, and the wind pushed his canoe far ahead of his brothers’. So it was that Jebro became the chief – and, later, took up residence in the night sky as the constellation some know as the Pleiades, where he guides other sailors of the Marshall Islands.

I asked Mote what the story meant to him. He looked at me in surprise. I expected him to say something about generosity, about kindness. Instead, he said simply, “Take care of your mother.”

 

 

Welcome to Moonlight Rollerway, Where Nothing Has Changed Since 1956

This California roller rink has held an Organ Night every Tuesday since Eisenhower. And the diehards are determined to keep waltzing and rexing until their legs won’t carry them any longer.

Every Tuesday night, Lillian Tomasino laces up her roller skates, puts her arms around her partner, and glides in sweeping circles across the floor of Moonlight Rollerway. Holding each other like ballroom dancers, she and Tom Clayton move effortlessly to the jaunty, classic tunes played live on a Hammond organ above the Glendale, California, rink. Despite the fact that she’s recently had spinal surgery, and that her bad knee keeps acting up, and that Tom, one of her regular skating partners, suffers from partial paralysis – Lillian is 86 years old, after all, and Tom’s 72 – they are among the most graceful skaters on the floor.

Moonlight Rollerway (formerly known as Harry’s Roller Rink) opened in 1956 and occupies a building that was originally built as a factory for aircraft parts during World War II. Although there are traces of the intervening decades – a disco ball, gold tinsel, a rainbow carpet from the 1980s, a digital photo booth – owner Dominic Cangelosi, 80, has made a point of keeping the place’s character largely true to its original form. But what is perhaps most remarkable about Moonlight Rollerway is the fact that it is one of the last rinks in the country to feature a live organ player – as was standard in the ’50s – and that some of its current regulars have been coming since it first opened in 1956.

Dominic, the owner of Moonlight Rollerway, plays the organ there every Tuesday night. He has volumes of sheet music and is happy to take requests. His favorite songs to play are “In the Mood,” “Unforgettable,” “It’s a Small World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and the theme from “I Love Lucy,” which he says is particularly popular with skaters. Some of the regulars are such fans of Dominic’s playing, that back in the days when he moved around from rink to rink, they followed along.
Dominic, the owner of Moonlight Rollerway, plays the organ there every Tuesday night. He has volumes of sheet music and is happy to take requests. His favorite songs to play are “In the Mood,” “Unforgettable,” “It’s a Small World,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and the theme from “I Love Lucy,” which he says is particularly popular with skaters. Some of the regulars are such fans of Dominic’s playing, that back in the days when he moved around from rink to rink, they followed along.

Cangelosi isn’t exactly new to Moonlight, either. He started playing organ at the rink in the ’60s, and in 1985, he used his life savings to buy the place. Some folks are willing to drive long distances to hear him play – one man even comes up from San Diego on occasion, which can take as long as three hours one way. Ron Hines, a retired California Highway Patrol officer, calls ahead each week to see if Dominic will be there that night, and will decide against skating if he’s not.

Betty welcomes guests to Moonlight Rollerway. There’s a thorough list of rink regulations at the door: No hats, no jackets with wording, no gum, no “in and outs,” etc.
Betty welcomes guests to Moonlight Rollerway. There’s a thorough list of rink regulations at the door: No hats, no jackets with wording, no gum, no “in and outs,” etc.

Lillian, the rink’s oldest “regular,” makes the hour-long drive to Moonlight from Orange County every Tuesday without fail. “I was born in 1930, and I’ve been skating since I was four years old, out on the street,” she says. “I started skating at Harry’s in the fifties. I’d take the bus and go on the weekends, or as much as my mother would let me go. All the rinks in those days had organists.”

Lillian has been coming to Moonlight since the rink opened, in 1956. She will be 87 at the end of July.
Lillian has been coming to Moonlight since the rink opened, in 1956. She will be 87 at the end of July.

Roller skating has been around for more than a hundred years in the United States. Its popularity ebbs and flows, in large part due to fads and the economy. Prior to labor laws, when most people worked much longer hours, it was considered to be an activity for the elite, who wore formal attire while skating. After the economic boom of the twenties brought more Americans to roller rinks, popularity then dropped during the Depression when skating was again too costly for most, but rose again after World War II, and again in the ’70s and ’80s when roller-skating-themed movies like “Roller Boogie” came out. More recently, roller derby, a contact sport in which teams race around a track, gave it another boost. New rinks are still being built around the country, and according to trade group Roller Skating Association International, over 40 million people in the U.S. skate per year.

A modern-day patron inspired by the ’50s, when organ music at rinks was the norm.
A modern-day patron inspired by the ’40s, when organ music at rinks was the norm.

Although roller skating is currently en vogue, and is not likely to die out entirely even when it’s not, organ music at roller rinks may eventually disappear. “With Elvis Presley, the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll, organ music at rinks began to fade out,” says Dominic. “I keep the organ music going because that’s the way it used to be, and a lot of people who come here like to skate to the organ music.” Dominic says that once he retires, there are talented organ players who could continue the tradition. He doesn’t have anyone in mind at the moment, but he’s confident he will find someone when the time comes.

Dominic at the organ during an Organ Night in 2011.
Dominic at the organ during an Organ Night in 2011.

Of course, organ music is popular with the older generation, in part because it’s what they grew up with. “The things you did when you were young are all tied to the music you heard at the time you were doing it,” Kent Iverson says of the music’s sustaining power. In fact, when Dominic goes on break from playing the organ, and a DJ starts playing rock music in the interim, the “old guard” (Tom, Ron, and Lillian, to name a few) typically leave the floor. “It hurts my ears,” Tom says.

Tom has skated for 69 years. He’s been partially paralyzed on his right side since birth, but that doesn’t stop him from going to the rink every Tuesday, and going swing dancing with his wife twice a month. (He also taught his wife how to skate.) As a child, Tom learned to walk after he learned to skate, even though doctors told him it would be impossible. He has lived in Glendale his whole life.
Tom has skated for 69 years. He’s been partially paralyzed on his right side since birth, but that doesn’t stop him from going to the rink every Tuesday, and going swing dancing with his wife twice a month. (He also taught his wife how to skate.) As a child, Tom learned to walk after he learned to skate, even though doctors told him it would be impossible. He has lived in Glendale his whole life.

The regulars here are known for a certain style of skating called “rexing,” which they perform primarily to organ music. To “rex,” one skates backward, either alone or as a pair, in a figure-eight or hourglass pattern, employing specific footwork. There’s also “spot rexing,” which is similar, but only uses a 16-foot circle, as opposed to the whole rink. Back in the old days, folks would spot rex together in a long line of people, in synchronized fashion – sometimes as many as ten or twelve people in a row.

Organ Night at Moonlight has traditionally been a rexing night, rather than, say, a dance skating night (although Dominic has been known to provide organ music for dance skating as well). Rexing and dance skating patterns clash, and therefore it’s not ideal for the two types of skaters to share the floor – they could easily run into each other if not paying close attention.

“A lot of young folks don’t skate anything like we did,” Lillian’s former skate partner Dave Schwam, an expert rexer, once said.

There’s always a floor guard on duty (dressed in referee stripes) to check on skaters if they fall, and to enforce regulations.
There’s always a floor guard on duty (dressed in referee stripes) to check on skaters if they fall, and to enforce regulations.

“The scene was pretty wild,” says Lillian. “When you came to the skating rink in those years, there was no supervision. There’d be fights and arguments, and people would settle it outside. You don’t see that anymore – the teens today are much milder than they were in the forties and fifties.”

The atmosphere at Moonlight today is fairly tame; it is a noticeably diverse group of people, skating harmoniously, playing pinball, or perhaps gathering for a birthday party. Friends skate hand in hand, and the older skaters often offer assistance and skating tips to wobbly newcomers.

Younger skaters today don’t seem to have a big interest in rexing – in fact, they scarcely know what it is – even if they do come to the rink regularly. Mostly they ask for advice on the basics (going forward, backward, turning around); they’re there to have a good time, and less so to work on the craft.

Kent, 57, has been skating at Moonlight since the early ’80s, and is particularly fond of rexing, which he says is a dying art. “When I first started, there was a guy in his nineties who skated – slowly,” he says. “He always wore a suit and tie. I think about this now and it really amazes me.” Kent regularly reaches out to less experienced skaters to assist them with their form.
Kent, 57, has been skating at Moonlight since the early ’80s, and is particularly fond of rexing, which he says is a dying art. “When I first started, there was a guy in his nineties who skated – slowly,” he says. “He always wore a suit and tie. I think about this now and it really amazes me.” Kent regularly reaches out to less experienced skaters to assist them with their form.

“Today, generally you see folks who are coming for the first or second time, they thought it would be fun to do, they try it on… In some cases, there are people who come for a couple of months, and then their life takes them somewhere else,” says Kent, who is one of the youngest rexers at Moonlight. 

Kent and his wife, Sondra Segall, make it a point to help people who are struggling on skates so that they feel welcome, and are therefore more likely to come back another week.

Ron Hines, 77, has been skating since he was five years old. He calls the rink every organ night before coming, to make sure Dominic will be playing the Hammond. He also doesn't come when the weather (and therefore the skate floor) is cold, because it affects the skating.
Ron Hines, 77, has been skating since he was five years old. He calls the rink every organ night before coming, to make sure Dominic will be playing the Hammond. He also doesn’t come when the weather (and therefore the skate floor) is cold, because it affects the skating.
Rachel, pictured here at age seven, has been skating since she was 12 months old. Dominic, Moonlight’s owner, is Rachel’s godfather; Betty, at the door, is her grandmother; and her mother, Kimberly, works as a cashier and at the snack bar. Kimberly skated when she was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant with Rachel. She switched Rachel's shoes with the skates from a Build-A-Bear doll when she was a year old, to teach her how to skate. Rachel is now 13, and she is into a fairly new kind of roller skating called “sliding.” It requires fiber glass wheels, and skaters “skid” sideways with their feet parallel.
Rachel, pictured here at age seven, has been skating since she was 12 months old. Dominic, Moonlight’s owner, is Rachel’s godfather; Betty, at the door, is her grandmother; and her mother, Kimberly, works as a cashier and at the snack bar. Kimberly skated when she was eight-and-a-half-months pregnant with Rachel. She switched Rachel’s shoes with the skates from a Build-A-Bear doll when she was a year old, to teach her how to skate. Rachel is now 13, and she is into a fairly new kind of roller skating called “sliding.” It requires fiber glass wheels, and skaters “skid” sideways with their feet parallel.

“Some highly skilled, highly trained skaters realized that if I could help new people, they certainly could help new people,” says Sondra. “And now there’s a whole pack of skaters finishing the Advanced Backwards Skate, and instead of leaving the floor, they turn toward the spectators and encourage people to come out onto the rink and try skating backwards for Beginner Backwards Skate.”

Bob and Jane, pictured here in 2011, used to come to Moonlight nearly every week and always skated as a couple. Bob even kept coming to skate after breaking one hip, and then the other. He finally had to retire his skates a couple years ago.
Bob and Jane, pictured here in 2011, used to come to Moonlight nearly every week and always skated as a couple. Bob even kept coming to skate after breaking one hip, and then the other. He finally had to retire his skates a couple years ago.

Lillian has now outlived two of her long-term skating partners. Frank, with whom she had skated since the ’80s, passed away in 2012, and Dave, whom she had known since they were teenagers, died in late 2016. Although these days skating can cause Lillian significant pain, she has no intention of hanging up her skates anytime soon. After her spinal surgery in October 2016, she was back on her skates within six weeks. “My friends talk about [me skating at my age], and they think it’s great. I don’t give up too easy. As long as I can do it, and I can get out in public. That’s the main thing—’cos I’m at home a lot. The senior centers are too tame for me.”

Frank and Lillian were skating partners since the ’80s, up until 2012, when Frank passed away.
Frank and Lillian were skating partners since the ’80s, up until 2012, when Frank passed away.

Lillian, skating with Dave, one of her former partners, in 1985. Dave was sidelined about ten years ago due to a broken hip, but he continued coming to Moonlight every Tuesday to watch the skating, and joined the group for coffee at a local diner after the rink closed at 10:30 p.m. He passed away in 2016. (Video by Mr. & Mrs. Video, courtesy of Lillian Tomasino)

Lillian’s knee problems now often prevent her from being able to skate by herself, so she waits at the sidelines for one of her unofficial partners to swing by – usually Tom or Kent. Even when in pain, Lillian determinedly presses on. She and Tom typically save the final skate of the night for each other. As Dominic announces the last song at 10:25 p.m., Tom locates Lillian, rolls over to her, offers her his elbow, and they glide onto the floor of the rink together one more time.

Lillian on the sidelines, waiting for one of her partners to skate with.
Lillian on the sidelines, waiting for one of her partners to skate with.
Mary Lou runs the concession stand at Moonlight on Organ Night. She knows all the regulars and keeps track of how everyone is doing.
Mary Lou runs the concession stand at Moonlight on Organ Night. She knows all the regulars and keeps track of how everyone is doing.
The rental counter at Moonlight Rollerway.
The rental counter at Moonlight Rollerway.
Lillian laces up her skates at an Organ Night in 2017.
Lillian laces up her skates at an Organ Night in 2017.
An Organ Night in 2017.
An Organ Night in 2017.
A skater stretches before getting out onto the rink.
A skater stretches before getting out onto the rink.

 

 

My Secret Life of Shame With the Last Name ‘Fuks’

Going through my childhood with a last name nearly identical to the mother of all curse words was utter torture. But only after my family changed it did the regrets really begin.

I was a serious child born to serious people.

In gym class at P.S. 100 – a school situated in one of the roughest areas of the South Bronx in New York City – two fellow fourth graders are taking turns smacking the back of my head while I attempt to complete our required 60 sit-ups.

This is far from the first time something like this has happened to me. By then I’d been physically abused on two coasts. I complain to the gym teacher.

Instead of punishing the delinquents, he imparts an aphorism: “Saddle a kid with a name like Fuks, in this neighborhood, and you’ll either break him or force him to develop one hell of a sense of humor.”

“What’s a sense of humor?” I ask.

He shakes his head in pity and walks away.

“Papa, the kids are bullying me because of our last name,” I tell my father, who’s of Russian descent, and Jewish, at home later that day.

“Why? Fuks is a good name. You should be proud!”

“Yeah, but everybody calls me ‘Fucks.’”

“Correct them. Tell them it’s pronounced Fooks, or Fyooks.”

“Do you even know how to pronounce our last name?” I ask.

“Yes. I know it’s not ‘Fucks’ and you should never let someone call you that.”

Naively, I heed his advice. The next day I make the mistake of correcting a student, who looks 35 and stands nearly six feet tall, on the pronunciation.

“It’s technically pronounced ‘Fooks.’”

“Well, it’s ‘Fucks’ now, muthafucka,” he replies. “You got a problem with that?”

“No problem at all. I agree, ‘Fucks’ sounds so much better. Let’s stick with that. Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

As a kid, the challenging last name compounded my many other issues. My pencil-neck – working against the laws of physics – propped up a disproportionately massive head, which was capped with a 1980s anchorman haircut. (Imagine the plastic helmet hair on a Lego action figure.) My ears possessed a wingspan so wide they practically flapped on windy days. Of course, none of these characteristics escaped the notice of my classmates, who reveled in torturing me over anything that made me stand out. I’m fairly certain I’m the only man in history to have had the honor of being branded with the sobriquet “Dumbo Fucks.”

My family lived in housing projects. Our apartment was on the 13th floor, which developers are known to avoid numbering as such for fear of bad luck. They must have figured: “These people will be living in the South Bronx. If they had any fear left in them, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

Mama still reminisces about how this was her favorite apartment – mostly because the rent was cheap. But she didn’t have to attend P.S.100 and, later, middle school at I.S. 131. She didn’t have to dodge rocks thrown at her head while walking home as kids yelled, “Fuck you, Fucks! You corny-ass muthafucka! Look at them kicks! You wearing old-man shoes, you dumb commie fuck!”

After witnessing the high value my peers placed on kicks, I experienced an epiphany: “Perhaps it’s not my last name, it’s the insufficient coolness of my footwear that’s at the root of my problems!”

Much to my surprise, I manage to convince my parents to buy me a pair of top-of-the-line, rich cobalt, high-top Filas – sneakers that carried a bit of cache in the ’80s.

The school is abuzz as I debut the Filas. Kids gather around me in admiration. In fact, three students are so smitten with the sneakers, they hold me down and snatch them right off my feet, leaving me to finish out the rest of the school day in socks.

“You’re fucked now, Fucks! You dumb commie bastard!”

Turns out it wasn’t the sneakers.

I wasn’t the only one being tortured for my moniker. My grandfather, whose first name happened to be Motel, made the unfortunate decision to start a limo business and name it “Motel Fuks Limo Corporation.”

“Say I just want the fucking without the motel or the limo?” some of the many prank callers would say to my befuddled grandparents. “Do I have to buy the bundle or is it à la carte?”

Why did my parents cling to Fuks for so long? Their hypothesis seemed to be: “Children who ridicule our son for our last name may be unique to the South Bronx.” Discussions of changing it were tabled until we carried out a proper field test with a move out of the neighborhood for a brief spell among the beach denizens of the Bay-Area city of Concord, California. There, as an eight-year-old, I experience what it’s like to be attacked by a mob of about a dozen third graders.

The group beating is incited by an innocent remark I make when a classmate snipes, “How come you’re Jewish? My momma says Jews killed Jesus and everybody should be Christian if they want to be good people.” I respond, “Screw you and screw your Jesus. What did Jesus ever do that was so great?”

Suddenly, a fist grazes my right temple, and I’m surrounded by a chorus line of pre-pubescent goons playing “Kick The Jew,” while a few others take turns pushing me around, tearing at my clothes. Eventually, I fall to the concrete floor, pick myself up, and launch into a race for safety behind our playground monitor.

Californians aren’t nearly as laid back as you’d imagine.

The move to Concord was a bust. Failing to gain a foothold due to the unemployment crisis, my parents resettled in the Bronx within a year, and we stayed put until I turned 13, when they were able to scrounge up enough money for a down payment on a modest cape, landing us in the predominantly white, status-chasing, middle-to-upper-middle-class Northern New Jersey suburb of Fair Lawn.

“We’re in a new town again,” my father says to me before he drops me off on my first day of school there. “You have a chance at a fresh start. Now, don’t fuck this up.”

Adjusting to Fair Lawn was its own special nightmare. By that point, I had marinated for such a long time in the Bronx, I became convinced I was black – and no one could tell me different.

The incongruity with my appearance is startling. Opening the door to homeroom class, I make my quasi-grand entrance sporting a mauve nightclub shirt adorned with shimmering streaks of silver sparkles, gray-colored dress slacks speckled with black dots – bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Dust Bowl tornado – and a brand new pair of Air Jordans, still holding out hope it was the sneakers that were the problem.

In what proves to be a futile effort to rebrand myself, I take to wearing a necklace touting my name in cursive gold letters: “Allan.” But as word spreads of my appearance, I once again gain infamy as “Fucks,” the biggest dork anyone has ever seen.

“The kids in Fair Lawn are worse than the ones in the South Bronx,” I say to my father a few weeks into living there.

The next morning, he slaps a pair of boxing gloves in my hands and brings me to the garage where he’s just hung a punching bag.

“Punch hard” are his only words to me.

Papa wasn’t exactly an avid reader of Dr. Spock.

* * *

By the time I was 16 my parents had been able to thoroughly test their hypothesis and reach the conclusion that kids all across the country, hailing from every income level, race, and religion, will verbally abuse you if your last name is Fuks.

Finally, Papa caves. A family meeting is called to make the big change. The only stipulation is that the new name must begin with the letter “F.”

“I bought a gold chain with an ‘F’ and I’m not returning it!” my father proclaims at the meeting. (You weren’t a real man in our family unless you wore an identifying chain.)

We throw a bunch of Irish “F” names in a hat because, as my mother says, the Irish are, for the most part, better liked than the Jews. She also felt that with our pale skin, most people wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

One by one, we take turns picking them out.

“I got Flanagan!” says my younger sister.

“Mine says Flaggherty! Ooh, I love the sound of Flaggherty!” I exclaim.

“Tough shit,” my father says suddenly. “We go by majority – your grandmother, mother, and I picked out Finn, so from now on your name will be Allan Finn!”

To this day, I have no idea why we went through that barnyard raffle contest method of deciding our fates if the adult unit in the room had already chosen a name.

“Now don’t fuck this up!”

* * *

The most dramatic effect of the Finn outcome was on my grandfather, who also changed his first name to Michael, though he passed away shortly thereafter. Michael Finn was born a Jew and died an Irishman.

In my case, college becomes my tabula rasa: anonymity, a foreign experience. No one knows of my former last name outside of a few Fair Lawners, and no one cares. The trauma cuts so deep that I’m on the verge of tears when I’ve gone my entire first day on campus without hearing a single derisive comment. For the first time, I am invisible, which is what I thought I had wanted.

In actuality, it wasn’t invisibility I was seeking, but rather, notoriety on my own terms. Between my unchecked body dysmorphia, low self-esteem, and a paralyzing depression that had taken root in my college years, unbinding myself would prove a lifelong challenge. Maybe that’s why I gravitated to stand-up comedy. Getting onstage and exposing my demons granted me the opportunity to take this challenge head on, and enabled me to finally discuss the more painful aspects of my life, including my divorce, the death of a beloved friend, and the mistakes I’ve made that have cost me some of my most treasured relationships – none of which were at all based on my last name.

“Finn” was pulled out of a hat, and the absurdity of that was never lost on me. The more I ruminated on my original last name, and the reasons we changed it, the louder this strident voice grew within that said: “You’re whitewashing your past, your family name, and your true identity. When will you stop pretending to be someone you’re not?”

The first name change was a capitulation to bullies, xenophobes, and conformists. I rather like the idea of reclaiming it. So I did.

Reverting back to it has been strange and surreal – the memories the name summons are far from pleasant. Yet, there’s a certain gratification to seeing my real name on a comedy lineup. I’m no longer hiding from others or myself.

Fuks is the name that was handed down to me from a long line of tough, proud people who survived discrimination, pogroms, and the Holocaust. If someone doesn’t like it, tough shit. I don’t give any Fuks.

 

 

His Biggest Hit Sold More Copies Than Any of the Beatles’. So Why Haven’t You Heard of Him?

In a life bookended by tragedy, Prince Nico Mbarga poured joy into his music, including the most popular song in African history. But his own story has never been told — until now.

Twenty years ago the man who recorded one of the most successful songs of all time was thrown off a motorbike by a car in Calabar, Nigeria. He hit his head on the road and was rushed to the hospital, where he lay for two weeks, in and out of consciousness, but deteriorating all the time. On June 24, 1997, Prince Nico Mbarga was pronounced dead.

“Sweet Mother,” his 1976 one-hit wonder, had sold at least thirteen million copies across the African continent – more than The Beatles’ bestseller “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” But no global media outlet thought to cover the life and death of the artist behind Africa’s most popular song.

 

Today, the only internet accounts of his life reach around four paragraphs and bookend Mbarga’s career with two big political events of the time: the Biafran War in 1967 that saw him, at 17, flee across the border to Cameroon, where he mastered the guitar; and the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Nigeria in 1983, with his band’s Cameroonian members among the two million West Africans forced to leave the country.

Politics, however, rarely frames lives quite so neatly.

Over the last few months, I have tried to piece together a more textured story: traveling to Mbarga’s hometown to talk to his childhood friend, his wife and his mistress; tracking down his former band members from Cameroon to France to the US; prodding the memory of his octogenarian producer; and reading rare transcripts of his interviews.

Twenty years after his death, this is the obituary that never was.

* * *

The first place Mbarga knew, the town of Ikom was the last stop on my journey. In a modest bungalow there I met Esame, his widow, and Ojong, his best friend, on a warm evening on the cusp of the wet season. On plastic chairs in the shadow of his mausoleum, they told me about Nico Mbarga and the place he called home.

The son of a Cameroonian father and a Nigerian mother, Nico Mbarga was born in nearby Abakaliki on April 8, 1950, but grew up in Ikom. In the 1950s it was little more than a series of administrative buildings, houses and farms clumped around Cross River, surrounded by tropical rainforest, right on Nigeria’s eastern border with Cameroon. Ojong remembers early mornings with young Nico on the river, fishing for tilapia and catfish, and days spent in the shade of the forests, setting traps for birds. Today Ikom is still fairly remote – the tarmac roads coming in and out quickly crumble into dirt – but back then it was positively isolated. The only way goods such as bicycles and sewing machines made their way to the village was by lighters on the river from Calabar, more than 100 miles to the south. But even in rural Ikom, all the flux of being in a British colony in Africa in the mid-twentieth century – and the trappings of modernity it entailed – had its effect.

The Cross River in Ikom, Nigeria, the town where Mbarga grew up.

Nico’s father drew a salary sawing timber, so Nico himself was able to go to primary school (perhaps fewer than one in five children did at the time). More exciting for Nico though, his music-loving father bought a Phillips radio. For if anything was to capture the mood of the new country emerging in Nigeria’s faraway and growing cities, it was the highlife music he could now hear from home. From Bobby Benson’s “Taxi Driver,” to EC Arinze’s “Saturday Night,” to Rex Lawson’s “Yellow Sisi,” highlife was a music of young men in big towns, marveling at cars, dancing at nightclubs, chasing single women. There was something, a new confidence, beyond the lyrics too. From miners’ football clubs in the Zambian Copperbelt to the newspapers of the intelligentsia on Ghana’s coast, Africans were making colonial tools their own. Highlife took western instruments – the trumpets and saxophones of big jazz bands – and set them to local, offbeat rhythms. It was a genre well-suited to a country preparing for independence, and its optimistic sound was to suffuse all the music young Nico would go on to create. (Even his later song “Oh Death,” with the opening line “Oh death, everybody hates you,” is impossibly cheery.)

His father, from a long line of xylophone players, taught him the instrument, a handheld version with metal tines plucked by the thumbs. But Nico wanted to make a sound more like the western instruments of highlife, so he built his own xylophone from dried-out plantain skins and scooped bark. “It was completely something that he innovated,” Ojong recalls.

Nico Mbarga’s best friend Ojong, left, and Mbarga’s widow, Esame, right.

Despite the celebratory mood of the country, however, Nico’s childhood was not easy. His father died of a sudden illness, and the family he left behind – his wife, three sons and a daughter – became reliant on Nico’s mother, a peasant farmer. They downsized, becoming tenants in a compound in the middle of the village, and though Ojong remembers a mother dearly trying her best – caregiver with one hand, breadwinner the other – things were difficult. As a teenager, Nico tried to do his bit, playing sets in nearby small villages, but there was little money in it.

Thus when the Biafran War broke out in 1967, Nico Mbarga wasn’t so much fleeing for his safety – the rest of his family stayed in Ikom – as pursuing his ambitions in music. The civil war put a sharp stop to eastern Nigeria’s vibrant music scene, but the hotel gig economy was still running over the border.

In Mamfe, Cameroon, he met Lucy, who today lives in a half-built mansion ringed by palm trees on the outskirts of Ikom. I had been slightly nervous about meeting Lucy myself, remembering my first call back in London with Esame, Mbarga’s wife: “And I’ve been told about someone called Lucy as well, who is that?”

“Oh that is his concubine,” she responded matter-of-factly, “I will take you to her.” My worries were eased by their laughing and hugging as they greeted each other. Then a smiling Lucy recounted the moment 50 years ago that she met Nico Mbarga: a charming, handsome, if slightly short and dirt-poor 17-year-old. “As I first see him, I love him, eh? Even my mother did no gree, she said, ‘He’s a small boy, he don’t have money,’ but I said, ‘No, that boy is my choice.’”

Indeed, despite the objections of her parents, and their own struggles to buy even “a money for pot” to boil water, she would soon have the first of her two children with Mbarga.

Working as a “band boy” for a Congolese cover group in Mamfe, carrying instruments for concerts at hotels in nearby towns, Mbarga came to learn and love Congolese rumba. With its staccato guitar, spontaneous spoken asides and high-pitched harmonies, it had the whole continent dancing the soukous and the kara-kara. Mbarga, always dedicated, taught himself the conga, the drums, the bass and, most importantly, the finger-picking style of Congolese electric guitar.

When the three hard years of the Biafran War came to an end, he looked to launch his career back in Nigeria. After one failed border-crossing by road, in which Lucy and Mbarga were arrested by officials and sent to prison for three days for not having passports, they successfully made it across a second time, going “the bush way” in 1970. They came to Onitsha, a trading town on the banks of the Niger River, with at its center one of the largest markets on the continent. And while the money this brought has always attracted writers and musicians – today there are shops stacked high with thousands of albums in paper covers, posters for studio rentals everywhere, and music filling the air – the 1970s was Onitsha’s heyday, fuelled by Nigeria’s petrol boom and the good mood of people just relieved to get on with their lives again. It was, as Chinua Achebe wrote, “the esoteric region from which creativity sallies forth at will to manifest itself,” and the home of some of Nigeria’s great highlife musicians.

“We loved the place,” Lucy almost shouts. “From there, God blessed him.”

Lucy, Nico Mbarga’s first love.

Mbarga thrived. He formed his group, Rocafil Jazz, signed a contract to play every Sunday at Onitsha’s Plaza Hotel, and began to mix with stars like Stephen Osadebe and Bobby Benson. Then, in 1973 he was picked up by EMI and recorded his first hit “I No Go Marry My Papa,” about a daughter disagreeing with her parents over the choice of her husband, surely inspired by Mbarga’s brush with Lucy’s parents. It sold reasonably well – “I did not know that I would make such an amount in my life,” Mbarga said of the modest success – and in it you can hear the beginnings of something, a mix of influences, that would come to define his music.

Odion Iruoje, then a producer at EMI, recalls working with a 23-year-old Mbarga “who knew what he wanted,” very able at “directing his boys.” By all accounts the non-smoking, non-drinking Mbarga, who studied law on the side in Onitsha, was a man of real self-possession.

He was not to be deterred, therefore, by the stalling of his career after his first single. Mbarga was dropped by EMI for failing to create any other commercial hits. Instead, around 1974, tired of “I love you, you love me, my baby,” he wrote “Sweet Mother.”

It was a love song from a son to a mother that, in its old-fashioned way, never actually once says “I love you.” Instead, it’s a grateful son praising what his mother did for him as a child: drying his tears, putting him to bed, feeding him, praying when he’s ill:

When I dey hungry my mother go run up and down / she dey find me something when I go chop oh! / Sweet Mother a-aah / Sweet Mother oh-e-oh!

And if “Sweet Mother” was dedicated to all mothers and the things they do for children, it was inspired by the loving sacrifices Mbarga saw his own mother, a widowed farmer, make after his father died. The lyrics began, “Sweet Mother, I no go forget you, for dey suffer wey you suffer for me.”

Mbarga sent a tape to Odion Iruoje at EMI, who remembers hearing the song for the first time and knowing that “it was the magic.” On the agreed date for recording, however, Odion had to fly to London to record at Abbey Road, and some other EMI officials told Mbarga that the song was “too childish” for them to record. Affronted, Mbarga did not come back. So it was only two years later when the small, Onitsha-based producer Rogers All Stars heard “Sweet Mother” at the Plaza Hotel, that the song found a label to release it.

Rogers All Stars is now in his 80s, slightly frail and very soft-spoken, still working in his Onitsha studio with which he now shares his name. And though his memories sometimes come to him in a slight haze, he still clearly recalls the day Nico Mbarga came to the producer’s house uninvited early one morning to introduce himself. They bonded over Rogers’s collection of Congolese records, and Mbarga invited the older man to come see him one day at the hotel. “I could see he was a star,” Rogers says.

For six months Mbarga – now calling himself Prince Nico Mbarga – Rocafil and Rogers All Stars worked on “Sweet Mother,” rehearsing daily from seven in the morning until one in the afternoon. It was, says Rocafil rhythm guitarist, Cameroonian Jean Duclair, “real every day work,” as they made change after change, turning it from a gentle “cha cha cha” to a more upbeat highlife sound, adding little dance breaks, and crafting a song marked more and more by the drive of Mbarga’s Congolese-style finger-picking lead guitar.

Finally satisfied, the band travelled across the country to record, and after a heavy night in a Lagos hotel, with all but Mbarga drinking and smoking, recorded it live at Decca Studios – hung over for sure, but they had practiced so much it hardly mattered.

It took a few months to really take off. Nigerian radio host Benson Idonije rates the fact that it eventually did as one of his finest achievements. At the time, he explains from his house in Lagos, he had just launched Radio Nigeria Two, the country’s FM station. After shows he would often drop into bars to wind down the night. On one of these evenings in late ’77, he remembers, there was a song released by an obscure label from Onitsha, that got everyone up to dance. With an inkling that his audience might like the song’s message, he found it, undiscovered, in Radio Nigeria’s gramophone library, and played it that evening. “I started getting calls from everywhere,” he says. From then on, for months nearly every request Radio Nigeria received was for “Sweet Mother.”

“You have hit jackpot,” Jean Duclair remembers being told by their producer, with the record suddenly selling out in the shops. On a 20-seater Mercedes bus bought by Rogers, Mbarga and his band toured the country, up north during the wet season, down south when the rains stopped. And though culturally Nigeria can be a divided place, Jean remembers Nigerians everywhere demanding “Sweet Mother” – “it was like a national anthem.”

Album artwork. (Courtesy Mbarga’s producer, Rogers All Stars)

Soon they were touring all across West Africa – Togo, Cameroon, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso – and even as far east as Kenya. As Jean Duclair recalls, the band members were scared to leave the plane when they saw the crowds waiting for them at airports, wearing Rocafil Jazz t-shirts, screaming Mbarga’s name.

And what was the reason for its success? Certainly, with its Congolese guitar-picking, its West African highlife beat and its pidgin lyrics, “Sweet Mother” had something for people all over.

Yet even beyond that, perhaps what it really caught was differing shades of Africa at the time. For, by the 1970s, these were societies that – after the profound changes wrought first by colonialism, then by the liberation movements that challenged it, and finally by the mixed records of those same movements once in power – had reason to feel both excited and uneasy at the new continent these encounters had created. It was a creative tension at the heart of “Sweet Mother.” In its style, with its hybrid English and its electric guitars calling its listeners to dance, it was unquestionably modern; but in its content, with its heartfelt praise for the nurturing role of mothers, “Sweet Mother” nodded to a more traditional life. It was a contradiction that Mbarga embodied himself. He was a man who would later, in “Green Revolution,” bemoan the flight of the sons and daughters of the land for the lure of the city – singing, “let’s go farming, and be self-sufficient!” – while he himself performed on stage in Nigeria’s biggest towns in his famous three-inch platform shoes. As his best friend Ojong would say, “He’s a blender.”

Or perhaps it was just a great tune.

Regardless, Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz were completely unprepared for the popularity of “Sweet Mother.” While numerous online reports of Mbarga’s career have Rocafil Jazz falling apart when, in 1983, Nigeria’s President Shagari ordered the country’s two million undocumented migrants to leave – amongst them Rocafil’s Cameroonian musicians – no former band member I spoke with recognized that story. Instead, it was something much more mundane: money. On its release, they were a local band that practiced in a small compound in Onitsha, playing Sunday gigs at the Plaza Hotel with instruments that Rogers All Stars himself had bought for them, and with no contracts in place. It was always an issue with the potential to cause problems. After a loss-making and slightly demoralizing tour to London in ’79 – playing at venues like St. Pancras Town Hall and the African Centre to half-empty European crowds – the members of Rocafil Jazz complained to Mbarga that they were underpaid.

Mbarga was, according to Jean Duclair, unwilling to give an inch, and the mood soured. Before a scheduled trip to Japan, unable to agree on their percentages, Rocafil disbanded. Though they later re-formed, changed members, re-formed and disbanded again, the band never quite gained the same momentum – there was even an actual physical altercation, broken up by the police, after a New Year’s Eve hotel show in 1980. Meanwhile, convinced that Rogers All Stars hadn’t given him his share of the royalties, Mbarga unsuccessfully took his producer to court. (Everyone did eventually reconcile – Rogers refers to Mbarga as “like a son.”)

In the end, not much of the money made from “Sweet Mother” ever made it back to any of them. Royalty payments were limited by the hundreds of pirate recordings of the song, as economies across the continent began to suffer and record stores started to make their money by dubbing cassettes.

No one involved with “Sweet Mother” is now living a life that would suggest they were behind one of the top twenty bestselling songs in history. Mbarga’s family live in a pleasant but modest bungalow in Ikom; his former band members like Jean Duclair still struggle to raise funds for their musical projects; and his old producer, Rogers All Stars, though he owns a four-story building in Onitsha, admitted to many mistakes in trying to protect “Sweet Mother” from piracy. “You can see,” he says in his dusty office, exaggerating slightly in a room that still dwarfs his fragile frame, “you can see how poor we are.”

With the money he did receive from “Sweet Mother,” Mbarga moved back to Ikom, built and managed the Sweet Mother Hotel – where he would perform every Sunday – and married a local girl, Esame, the daughter of the owner of the only petrol station in town. He also built the house where she still lives today.

The former Sweet Mother Hotel in Ikom.

Lucy and their two children also moved to Ikom. Indeed, while Mbarga eulogized about mothers on stage, he did not quite show so much respect to the mothers of his own children. “His only weakness was temptation,” says Rogers. For alongside Esame, his wife, and Lucy, his first love, he had numerous other lovers. Even a track on his first album,
“Christiana,” two songs after “Sweet Mother,” is about a girl he was courting in Onitsha. It was an attitude he alluded to in “Sweet Mother” itself, asking before one of its many instrumental breaks: “You fit get another wife / you fit get another husband / but you fit get another mother? No!” Not that, when pressed on it all these years later, neither Lucy nor Esame seem to mind that much.

And if Mbarga disappeared from the music scene, it was not through lack of trying. Esame recalls that he would sing, play air guitar and compose songs even when they were eating. He would go on to produce 17 albums and records after “Sweet Mother,” all with the same highlife beat and Congolese style guitar. In fact, he didn’t even rate “Sweet Mother” as one of his best songs, preferring “Simplicity” instead.

But while the lives of some artists darken as the fame fades, there is no such twist here. Mbarga lived a satisfied life, caring for his own mother, supporting his two “wives” and spoiling his children with gifts. He was, on the accounts of both Lucy and Esame, a loving father, “too sweet” to punish his kids, always willing to dance with them. “He lived a happy life,” Esame says.

It was Mbarga’s desire to carry on his music that saw his end in Calabar 20 years ago. If his childhood witnessed the enthusiasm of early independence, his death seemed a cruel symbol of what the impoverished Nigeria of the 1990s had become. After a ten-year hiatus, the original band was back together for a 50-state tour of the U.S. and Mbarga was on his way to pick up visas. His car ran out of fuel – a scandalously common occurrence in one of the world’s largest oil exporters – so he hopped on an okada (motorbike taxi) to complete the journey and, once in Calabar, was thrown off by a car. In the hospital for two weeks, visited by his band members, his friends, his children and his first love Lucy – who held his hand as he drifted in and out of consciousness – he died with Esame at his side. Back home in Ikom, his elderly mother fell down when she heard the news, and did not get back up. She died too shortly afterwards.

It was a fitting end for the two of them. Mbarga never forgot all that his mother did for him when he was a boy – leaving their home every day before dawn to work on a rented plot, growing bananas and yams, trying to raise four children – and he spent his life paying her back for it. She was, by all accounts, delighted with “Sweet Mother,” his timeless dedication to her. When Rocafil Jazz were in Onitsha, she would come down every month to watch them practice, dancing with a broom in her hand, and inviting them all back to Ikom so she could feed them up. As she aged, he took care of her, as Lucy remembers, refusing to eat until she had, and talking to her morning and night. After all, he did say in his bestseller, “If you forget your mother, you’ve lost your life.”

* * *

As I traveled throughout Nigeria, I noticed Nico Mbarga moving from a human being who had lived here on earth to, on a small scale, an icon in the making. The things he touched and made in life were slowly fading away: the Ikom compound where he grew up with his mother had been knocked down, leaving just an empty plot; the multitrack records of his “Sweet Mother” studio session in Lagos had long been thrown away; his Sweet Mother hotel, under different ownership now, was completely rundown.

In their place, in Ikom, Mbarga is newly remembered by a statue erected early this year. It’s a golden Mbarga in his platform shoes, standing his guitar on a plinth, looking out over the traffic of “Mbarga Junction.” Nearby, shaded by Ikom’s many red-blossomed African tulip trees, is Sweet Mother Road. And if it is sad in a sense – Lucy cried the day the statue was put up, as if it were final confirmation of his death – it does at least constitute a well-earned recognition for Mbarga at last.

Which leaves just one final question: Why have Mbarga and “Sweet Mother” been so ignored elsewhere? While the continent’s cultural contributions are generally marginalized, some African music does make it outside, from Fela Kuti’s afrobeats, to Ali Farka Toure’s Malian blues, to Ethiopia’s otherworldly-sounding jazz. The music that makes it to western ears is usually tough and cool, if not explicitly political, reflective of what many perceive must be a dark political mood.

Yet none of this music, brilliant and rich as it is, has proved as popular with Africans themselves as Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz’s ten-minute ode to mothers. It is played at weddings, as newlywed brides about to leave their homes for the first time dance with their mums to say thank you, at birthday parties celebrating the long lives of family grandmothers, and at Mother’s Day church services, the only secular song amongst the hymns, with worshippers swinging in the aisles adding their own “hallelujah!” to Mbarga’s lyrics. The “Sweet Mother” ideal, the all-consuming mother, not eating until her children are fed, not sleeping until they sleep, crying when they are sick, might be a little conservative, but it has deep cultural roots.

The Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe wrote that discovering the jubilance of Congolese rumba in the 1980s – a time of impoverishment, of brutal wars, of cruel leaders – taught him to look beyond the mere facts of political life. In Africa, he argued, “music has always been a celebration of the ineradicability of life.” More than anything, it was the genre that articulated “the practice of joy before death.” In the west perhaps, we have only wanted to hear music from the continent about the facts; in its joyful way, “Sweet Mother” captured something else: the suffering, the love, the human relationships between those facts.

Maybe we should listen harder.

* * *

For more on the story of Prince Nico’s life and legendary hit from Sami Kent, listen to the BBC radio documentary, Sweet Mother, here.

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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* *

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

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