The Underground Inferno that Created a Ghost Town

Fifty years ago, this prosperous Pennsylvania coal town was ripped apart by a devastating subterranean mine fire. Today, the flames still burn in Centralia.

The road is dark, sharp and slippery, winding through naked trees and into the wintry Pennsylvanian mist. Thick layers of clouds are concealing the hills, black rocks and silver birches lingering in the morning’s dim blue haze. The stillness of the early hours hasn’t broken yet. Lonely headlights are striking the highway’s glassy surface when I enter the borough of Centralia.

Rusted street signs are the only hint that a city was ever here. Overgrown curbs run along decaying alleys. Dead shrubs and brown weeds have cracked the blacktop, with snow patches and litter scattered everywhere the eye can see.

Centralia is the ghost of a ghost town.

Almost nothing is left of this former community of 1,400. A few buildings remain, most of them old row houses deprived of their neighbors, needing brick retainers to help them stand up without adjoining structures. The total population here was six people in 2014. Everyone else left after a long-lasting mine fire rendered the place uninhabitable, resulting in a government-mandated evacuation.

I stop the car at the corner of Locust Avenue and South Street, near the Saint Ignatius Cemetery, steps from the landfill where it all started.

I walk to the end of the street in the damp and cold air. An acrid smell drifts with the slight breeze. Sulfurous, it comes from the bowels of the earth – the pungent smell of burning coal. Steam is rising over the bare ground, freezing the grass in thin layers of brittle ice. Smoke wafts are growing between small cracks in the bedrock and I can feel the heat under my feet when I climb up the rubble to get a better view of the place.

Discarded tires and metal parts are mixed with cinder blocks and charred branches, making for an eerie mood in the silent morning. I lift a small rock from the ground and it’s so hot I have to drop it. Heat waves from the fire are clearly noticeable. Vapor seems to stick to everything.

A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.
A sign for Savitski Brothers Coal Company in Mt. Carmel, near Centralia.

I soon head back east to what was once Centralia’s main avenue, taking a look at the house of the town’s last mayor, Carl Womer, who died in May 2014. The house still stands on a recessed side street, but with its deed held by the state since it was taken by eminent domain in 1992, the property is bound to be destroyed in the near future.

I think of the lost history and forgotten memories as I walk by a long-dead tree, a sign reading FIRE nailed to its bark, pointing at nowhere in particular, as if the FIRE had engulfed the whole land and the world along with it, leaving nothing behind but ashes.

* * *

Pennsylvania has always been a leading anthracite coal provider, with more than sixty-eight million tons mined in 2013. Despite the growth of natural gas and renewable power, coal has endured, still accounting for thirty-nine percent of national electricity production and representing one of the largest employment sources in Pennsylvania, with 49,100 jobs and more than $700 million netted in tax revenue last year – even while the industry had to comply with ever-stricter regulations promoting clean energy.

Pennsylvania is also the state that is most plagued by mine fires, with at least thirty-eight recorded cases. Whether sparked naturally or human-induced, those blazes are well-known for being virtually impossible to extinguish. Most of the landscapes of the American West are actually the result of large-scale, ancient underground coal fires. Some, like Australia’s Burning Mountain, are thought to have been burning for 6,000 years.

A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.
A home on Troutwine Street in Centralia.

Coal consumption was already in decline when Centralia’s underground fire started back in 1962. Mining operators were struggling to keep profits up, fearing a looming economic crash and slowly downsizing their labor force. Small towns had been steadily shrinking for quite some time, their residents either moving to bigger cities or finding new jobs in different fields. In spite of this, Centralia was doing relatively well.

Then all hell broke loose.

* * *

It’s slightly past eight a.m. when I reach May’s Drive In Restaurant in Ashland, less than two miles south of Centralia. Ed Fuller is a seventy-four-year-old technician recently retired from the mining industry. He is also a former Centralian. He sees me first and waves at me from his table. We shake hands and I’m soon sipping a warm cup of coffee, the waitress scribbling my order on her notepad.

“You should try the French toast,” Fuller suggests.

I follow his advice and we quickly start eating, the windows fogging up as the room fills with regular customers – ladies with walkers, white-haired men in gym slacks, old couples sharing breakfast together.

“Every now and then I see people coming here after they’ve visited the town,” Fuller declares. “Most of them are disappointed. They’re expecting more of it.”

“Ghost towns are popular,” I say.

“I can understand why for some of them. Because you can still see the history. Like abandoned places in the West, with the gold rush and the river dams and whatnot. Those I can understand,” Fuller says. “But Centralia, I don’t. It’s just trees and empty roads.”

Ed Fuller is a man of few words. He gets straight to the point, a habit he acquired during his years in the Army. His stern look and tall build give him the stance of someone who’s lived enough not to care about being judged.

“I was twenty-two when the fire started. I was living with my parents on Park Street. My mother was growing vegetables in the garden — potatoes, cabbage and such.”

“How did everything happen?” I ask.

“You will hear different stories about it. Everyone has his own version. Kids played with fireworks. A truck unloaded live embers. The government secretly did it. But in the end, it probably all came down to one simple thing: The Borough Council didn’t want the town to stink for a Memorial Day ceremony.”

Even though many theories were brought up throughout the years to explain the disaster, the Department of Environmental Protection today officially admits the most likely cause was the willful lighting of the fire by local authorities.

A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.
A Plymouth Fury sits in front of an active body repair shop in Centralia.

“May 1962,” Fuller continues. “The dump had been nasty for a while and needed a good cleaning, so the Council hired firemen to set it on fire. Of course, dump fires were illegal in Pennsylvania and no one would ever agree to having anything to do with it, but it was how it went back then. All was fine until they tried to put the fire out. Nothing was working, even after flushing and dousing the place several times. The reason, you see, is that the dump was sitting on top of an old coal mine, and the fire had somehow spread to it.”

Outside, a fine rain has begun falling from the low rolling clouds. A delivery truck turns the corner and disappears in the fog.

“Nobody acted on it until the year after,” Ed continues. “Firefighters knew they wouldn’t be able to contain the fire so they asked the DMMI [Department of Mines and Mineral Industries] for help. The DMMI designed a trench to block the fire from expanding, but their administration was in bad shape at the time because of the recession and it took them a long time to dig the trench.”

The waitress fills our cups with fresh coffee. Fuller continues.

“In 1967 the USBM [United States Bureau of Mines] proposed a new trench design that would have worked far better than the first one…It was a good plan,” Ed states, his hands slowly clenching into fists. “It was a good plan.”

“Why didn’t it work?”

“Centralia was a small town. People had already started moving out, jobs were scarce, don’t you know. We were maybe 1,200 living there, almost all of us working in the mining industry. Not especially rich folks. The government had estimated the town’s value at $500,000. The whole town. The shops, the garages, the churches, the schools, all of it. $500,000. I’m not kidding. “The cost of the USBM trenches was $4.5 million. You can guess what happened next.”

E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.
E. 2nd and N. Oak Streets in Mt. Carmel, where many residents moved after the fire began.

Fuller pauses and looks at me, his eyes piercing mine like he wants to make sure I fully understand the implications of what he’s telling me.

“Do you know how much they ended up spending for the relocation of everyone after the town was evacuated?” he asks with a chuckle. “$42 million.”

We finish our plates, leave money on the table and walk outside. A storm has been forecasted in the afternoon and the air feels like it.

“How was it, living there?” I question.

“Before the fire, it was a quaint place,” Fuller replies, smiling. “Nothing special. Nothing fancy. Lots of Polish immigrants there. My mother herself was a Catholic Polish. There was a farmer’s market she dragged me at every Sunday after the mass at Saint Ignatius Church. I’d help her set the stand and she’d sold produce there. Sometimes I’d go up the hilltop to pick huckleberries with my younger sister…My father was a miner and we didn’t see him much, so families often helped us with our chores. The community was tight-knit. Everyone supported each other.”

Fuller greets a man watching us from his porch, his hands in his pockets and his gray hair flying in the wind.

“The hardest part is having nothing left to help me remember. People, when they get older, they like to reminisce…they go back to where they used to live and all. Me, I don’t have that anymore. There’s nothing left.”

The street dives down the hill, opening on the mountains. I stop a moment to glance around.

“What happened after the USBM decided to let the fire burn?” I ask.

“At this point things were becoming harder to ignore. Residents were having constant headaches and nausea from the fumes and the fire was getting close to their properties. Vegetables were burning in the gardens. Basements were warm enough to stop using heaters.

“Then in 1969 the government decided to build a fly ash barrier to seal the fire. Boreholes were drilled across town to monitor the underground temperatures and CO2 detectors were installed everywhere. That’s when people began moving out.

“In late 1979, ground temperature was measured at over 135 degrees near the mayor’s gas station,” Fuller continues. “It was so hot, steam was coming out, mind you. Obviously the gas was removed straight away from the tanks. The station became useless and got demolished shortly after. This was the first real casualty from the fire, come to think of it.”

Then Todd Domboski fell into a sinkhole.

Domboski was a twelve-year-old boy living on Wood Street, not far from the cemetery. As he was running toward a group of officials talking near the closed gas station, the boy’s attention was drawn by a wisp of smoke coming from a small hole at the feet of an ash tree. He got closer to the smoke. And the ground gave way.

Domboksi found himself crawling and pushing and yelling as he fell deeper into the 150-foot hole, clouds of foul-smelling steam spraying from below, the mud collapsing even further under him and the roaring sound of flames rising to his ears.

“The fire had weakened an old mine shaft structure and made the ground collapse where the kid was standing,” says Fuller. “The exhaust fumes and the heat would have killed him if his cousin hadn’t pulled him out.”

The swift reaction of Domboksi’s sixteen-year-old cousin, Eric Wolfgang, who ran to help him out of the hole, and the fortunate presence of tree roots, were the only things that prevented his death. One hundred and thirty-five degrees temperatures were later measured in the sinkhole, with enough CO2 concentration to kill anyone in mere minutes.

“This caught attention from television and newspapers and forced the governor to finally act on it,” says Fuller. “He came with a lousy buyout proposal to relocate the town elsewhere and offered owners as little as $25,000 for their houses. What can you buy for that sum of money? There were protests. We were all pissed because nobody was giving a damn.

“My wife Jodi and I had already purchased our home here in Ashland. You couldn’t have made her stay in Centralia for the world. She hated it. The smell alone made her sick.”

Fuller’s parents, however, were among those who opted to stay in Centralia.

Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.
Route 61 running through Ashland, another nearby town that former Centralia residents relocated to. The main streets of Centralia closely resembled these before the fire.

“My wife didn’t understand my parents for staying there,” he says. “She often tried to reason with them to make them leave.

“My father had built this house with his hands, you see. It was something they had worked all their lives for. They were proud of living there in spite of all that happened. They belonged here and they couldn’t afford to move anyway.”

* * *

At Ed Fuller’s house in Ashland, I sit at the kitchen table while he pours me a glass of water. Photos of his granddaughters hang on the walls. There is a tangy smell of varnish emanating from the wood paneling of the entrance hall.

“Two solutions were submitted: either excavating the fire for more than $600 million, or evacuating the city at the government’s expense,” Fuller says. “The outcome of the vote was maybe 350 to 200 in favor of the buyout.

“My parents and the folks who stayed after the buyout believed it was all a plot from the state to get the coal for free. They believed the government had started the fire on purpose so they could expropriate everyone in Centralia and access the coal underground.”

Ed Fuller’s not one for conspiracy theories himself. “I just think the government left us to ourselves and did nothing to help. It’s worse than if they had tried to steal the coal from us, after all. It’s just they didn’t care.”

Fuller’s parents stayed until the state used eminent domain laws to take control of most of Centralia in 1992. “They were too old to keep fighting, so they eventually accepted the expropriation,” Ed says. “They got a little money from it and went straight to a nursing home. My father passed at seventy-seven, a month before our house got torn down. It killed him. It really did.

“I’m glad he wasn’t there to see the demolition. I watched the wrecker crush the roof and the walls. It was one of the saddest moments in my life, seeing the place I grew up in getting flattened in a matter of minutes.”

“My mother joined him in ’96. They both went through this ordeal to end up dying in a nursing home. It’s so damn cruel.” There is palpable sadness in Ed’s voice. Anger, too. A helpless anger lamenting all that could have been done to save a part of his existence from vanishing.

Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.
Sunset at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in Centralia. This is the only remaining church in the town, and it still has a congregation.

Fuller’s parents were not the last residents of Centralia. A few who still refused to leave, even after the eminent domain action, finally won a lawsuit in 2013, allowing them to stay in their homes now that the fire was no longer considered a threat.

“Centralia would still exist if politicians had handled things right in the beginning,” says Fuller. “The fire would have been contained. Nobody would have had to go. And I would probably still live there.”

* * *

On a sunny afternoon, the remains of Centralia look like an ordinary piece of countryside, with streams twisting through hilly woodlands and deer racing from trail to trail. But on a foggy morning like this one, the area becomes much more dramatic, frightening even, a lonely Orthodox church overlooking the valley like a godsend, holding tight before the apocalypse.

Cast in the Appalachian ridges and valleys, roughly in the middle of Pennsylvania and about eighty miles northwest of Philadelphia, the town was originally built on a grid plan, divided from east to west by Locust Avenue and north to south by Center Street. Classic miner’s houses were the most common type of dwellings, townhouses attached to each other, with front porches and pointy roofs.

Many urban legends have been inspired by the town’s story, even if you’d be ill-advised to call it haunted in front of its current residents. Yet, with the 1,500 graves spread among three cemeteries making up the largest part of the local population, Centralia’s withering grounds can certainly feel ghostly. This image wasn’t helped by the popular “Silent Hill” video game series and horror movie, loosely based on the local events and attracting lots of visitors in the past year— to the displeasure of the last six people living there. “If you’re a reporter, please hang up, we don’t do interviews,” a recorded phone message announced until recently when calling Bonnie Hynoski, a fifty-seven-year-old fourth-generation Centralian and the wife of the borough’s current Fire Chief.

The abandoned stretch of Route 61 that used to lead to Centralia is today covered in graffiti, crude inscriptions and explicit drawings. WELCOME TO HELL, one reads at the southern entrance of the blocked-off highway, right in front of a large crack snaking through the asphalt in which it was at times possible to get a glimpse of the devouring red inferno below.

The road was found to be a safety concern in 1982 after it was determined that the fire burned directly under it. The coal pillars supporting its structure were gradually consumed by the heat, making the asphalt buckle and sink. In 1983, temperatures exceeding 850 degrees were measured in the crack that had opened between the traffic lanes and the DOT finally closed the road.

The warnings reminding that the ground is prone to sudden collapse don’t deter bikers and off roaders who come here to practice obstacle crossing or ramp jumping. “I pretend zombies are chasing me,” says Justin, twenty-five, a Geisinger Services clerk who rides his motorcycle in every weekend from Kulpmont.

The 4,000 feet of abandoned highway end on Locust Avenue near where John Coddington’s gas station once stood. A few months before the closing of the station, David Lamb, a motorcycle shop owner living on the same block as Coddington’s, learned his house’s cellar was the entrance of a bootleg mine shaft diving right to the bedrock, allowing toxic fumes to infiltrate everywhere in a 100-yard radius. The fire was moving south. This was the beginning of the end for Centralia.

A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.
A windmill farm is visible from the end of South Street in Centralia.

I try to locate Lamb’s house but cannot find anything but rumble and weeds, so I decide to walk to the eastern side of Locust Avenue to see the Odd Fellows Cemetery. The grass is browned and the tombs hidden behind untrimmed hedges. I’m alone in the world, keeping company to the dead.

A toy horse is tangled between the branches of a tree. I cannot help shivering as the fog gets thicker in the woods. I stumble on a rusted borehole enclosed in wire netting, emerging straight from the ground, still and dark in the back of the cemetery.

More than 2,000 of those boreholes were drilled across the town to monitor the fire temperatures and let the pressure evacuate from underground tunnels, despite the indication that they could actually supply oxygen to the fire and worsen the air quality. Joan Girolami, an East Park Street resident and mother of two, had one drilled near her swimming pool in 1978. The temperature measured by the Bureau of Mines was 746 degrees. This was three years before the Centralia: HELL ON EARTH bumper stickers were made. Three years before Girolami asked “do we have to have a tragedy […] before we get any help?” during a General Assembly meeting.

I leave the cemetery to see where the tragedy almost did happen on Valentine’s Day, 1981. I look at the snowy ground where Todd Domboksi was almost swallowed. I try not to think too much about the void underneath me.

A few steps north on Park Street used to stand a green bench, set near a former war memorial adjoining Locust Avenue and enclosed by a dry stone wall. The bench, along with several lawns and vacant lots, was maintained by a resident named John Lokitis until 2009, when he received an eviction notice for his 108 West Park Street home. When the town’s ZIP code was revoked in 2002, Lokitis painted it on a bench at the corner of Railroad and Locust: 17927 in white stenciled letters. Lokitis took care of his birthplace. He didn’t want it gone.

Today, forty feet of concrete curb is all that’s left of his house, demolished in 2010. Lokitis has since moved to nearby Milton but still doesn’t understand why he had to leave his home, inherited from his grandfather and completely spared by the fire.

Even though almost nothing remains of Centralia, every street is steeped in history. Here is where the Welsh’s candy store was. Here a beauty shop. Here the Zimbo’s Hotel. This was the Speed Stop, the motorcycle shop owned by David Lamb.

When the fire was confirmed in 1983 to have spread so much that it was impossible to put out, the dead zone, as it was called, was already easily visible from the sky at the southern end of town. The forest here was completely burned out. Bleached white trees were frozen in brown foliage and scorched ground – a black and white trail in the middle of the greenery. The earth had cracked, opening long crevices through the scrubs.

A complete excavation would now cost a staggering $660 million when a similar plan proposed in 1963 would have only been $277,000. Since putting out the fire was out of the question, a government buyout program was presented as the only viable solution for Centralians. The market value of their homes was very low and the $42 million help from the local administration wasn’t enough to pay a fair price for everyone’s relocation. But in the August 8, 1983 referendum, residents voted in favor of a relocation, considered the safest and fastest way to deal with the situation.

Appraisers roamed the streets with notepads, knocking on doors and meeting with the owners, writing notes about the locations, in or out of the 300-degree zone, east or west, near or far from other amenities. Widespread demolitions started. Houses were boarded up and codes were painted on each one of them. Bulldozers came and wrecked everything as fire hoses poured water over the dust. The fog and the smokes were still there.

The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.
The Odd Fellows Cemetery in Centralia. The landfill that was ignited is located directly behind the cemetery – ground zero for the fire.

In 1986, only fifty households were remaining, all belonging to people who refused to let their homes be sold for a pittance.

When Governor Bob Casey invoked eminent domain in 1992, he made sure the legal system would leave the eviction order active, even after the land takeover dispute was brought to the Supreme Court.

The remaining Centralians were now essentially squatters in their own homes, their titles transferred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Authorities didn’t bother enforcing the evictions though. “That would [have been] very bad publicity,” explained eighty-nine-year-old Mayor Lamar Mervine in 2005 to the Smithsonian Magazine, adding that no one would have risked another Waco-like siege.

By this time, the only indication of the fire burning underneath was a light sulfurous odor from time to time when the wind blew right. The only indication that a thriving town had been there were the twenty or so houses standing in a desolate field made of yellowed grass, torn down sheds, dead trees and anthracite rocks.

All were lost in the mist.

* * *

Teens are slowly gathering in Mount Carmel’s Vine Street Sandwich Shop, talking of school and social network apps as I finish my cheesesteak. Mark Sawicki is waiting for me outside, finishing a phone call with his brother. Sawicki is fifty-seven. He used to work as a coal picker in the nearby Harmony Mine. until a few years ago when health issues prevented him from going underground anymore.

“I can’t say I was sad,” he says with a smile, opening the door to his townhouse down the street. “It was probably the best thing that happened to me back then.”

“My family left Centralia back in ’72,” Sawicki declares. “We were living on Center Street. I don’t remember much of it, to be fair. Just the basketball field.”

“Why did you leave so early on?” I ask.

“My dad was a miner. It runs in the family, as you can see. He knew about mine fires. He knew something was up from the moment we learned the DMMI had trouble with the trenches.”

“Had he experienced an underground fire before?”

“You could say that. He started bootlegging coal in the 1930s. He was there when the Bast Colliery exploded a mile or so from Centralia in 1932. The word was someone had pitched a lit butt into a tunnel and the whole drift had caught on fire. The mine was flooded and blasted shut, but my dad often told us he could still see glowing embers burning at night in the 1960s, thirty years later.”

“Was this fire related to the one in Centralia?”

“It could have been. The Bast fire could have moved under Centralia with the time. I believe so. The coal seams are all linked under there,” says Mark, kicking the floor with his foot. “It’s possible that the fire went from vein to vein until it reached Centralia. It’s too late to tell anyway. It would make sense, though.”

The Bast Colliery theory has been discarded several times during ecological assessments of the situation and is today mostly considered a local legend. However, many are the miners who still believe the legend has some truth in it, even if none of them can really prove it.

Snow is beginning to fall outside, quickly piling up against walls and hedges. Sawicki coughs a lot. I can hear him wheeze as he offers me a cup of coffee.

“Was it hard for your family to leave?” I ask.

“You know, people come and go in places like this one. It’s all about the mines. Every city around here works the same. If the mines do well, people stay. If the mines don’t do well, people leave.”

Sawicki’s rasping voice is echoing in the house, the surrounding silence only broken by the refrigerator’s compressor starting and stopping in the kitchen.

“Would you have wished to stay?” I inquire.

“Not really. It’s where I lived for a part of my life, but that’s all,” Mark replies, but then adds: “I guess that without Centralia I probably wouldn’t have worked in the mines. I found [the fire] fascinating, you know. The idea of a fire burning right under a city, right under my street. Everyone compared it to hell and I was very intrigued by this…I wanted to know more about that. I wanted to see it… to understand it.”

“So the fire made you follow your father’s steps?”

“In a way. I never wanted to be a coal picker. I was just curious. My dad got me hired, I passed my miner certificate and there I went…It paid well but if you ask me, the money isn’t worth the risks you take down there.”

“Were you ever injured?”

Sawicki laughs and coughs again.

“Sure I was,” he says. “Broke my leg when a rock fell on me. Got smashed by a chariot. I couldn’t even count the minor injuries. In ’94 one of the guys I was working with died. The roof collapsed on him and he was trapped under a boulder with no oxygen. Accidents are part of the deal. That’s why the money’s good.

“I see young folks like you trying themselves at it almost every week. They never last. They put a little money aside and get the hell out of there as soon as they can. They’re the smart ones. The ones who keep at it are those who don’t really have a choice. Until they’re fired because there ain’t no work anymore, that is.”

Mark Sawicki himself was laid off from the mines twice.

“The first time was in the early eighties. The boss just gave me a pink slip on his way to his locker like it was nothing. The second time the poor guy was half my age and I had to show him how to do it. Both times were for economic reasons. The company didn’t really have a choice. They eventually hired me back.”

We watch a neighbor brushing snow off his car. We chuckle when a draft blasts the snow right back where it was. The rest of the town is at a standstill.

“Traditional mining is dead,” Sawicki says as he turns to his side and clears his throat. “My dad picked for maybe forty years. Back when he started, coal was the main source of energy in America…They were providing electricity for the whole goddamn country. It was all thanks to them. The radios, the TVs, the lights of course, the heating, everything. It was them. Guys like my dad, they worked like crazies and risked their lives every single day for everyone else to get those things…And yet as soon as those guys weren’t needed anymore, they just got tossed away like nobodies.”

Sawicki finishes his coffee and grins.

“You would think that when your town catches on fire someone would help you. Especially if you’re one of the people who helped build this country. Right? Well, it turns out you’d be wrong! You’re a coal picker, what do you think? You’re not important. Your house ain’t important. Your life ain’t important. You just get to work and die like a rat.”

Cough, again. Cough and ache as he goes to the bathroom, with the snow still falling and the wind still howling outside.

“What did you do after you were laid off?” I ask when he comes back.

“I was drinking pretty heavily back then. Almost cost me a divorce.” Now eleven years sober, Sawicki goes to AA meetings every other Saturday.

“After so many years in the mines, you come to miss it,” he says. “There’s a real brotherhood. You practically live together. When you lose that you kind of lose everything. From the ten or eleven people I knew that got axed back then, three of them were dead in a year. One crashed his car in a tree after drinking a bottle of vodka. Another one went into a coma and never recovered. Another one got into a fight and was beaten to death.”

“Working in a mine is a one-way business,” he continues.” You go down there and you never really go out. Even in your free time you’re there underground with your face all black and limestone in your lungs. Drugs and alcohol make you skip that.”

I think of the burned cans and broken bottles piling up near the Odd Fellows cemetery, of the empty cellophane balls and the old campfire traces.

“Centralia hasn’t helped the world to see coal mining as a good thing,” Mark Sawicki declares. “Explosions and mine fires are pretty common, but this was a real ecological disaster… It showed that coal picking was an ugly business and that everyone was only concerned about profit. The people, the land, who cares?”

He pauses and pulls a gray oxygen bottle from behind his armchair, apologizing as he puts a mask on his face and takes long, deep breathes of air from it.

“Myself, I thought of moving away from here. Countless times,” Sawicki adds. “Florida, maybe. Never had the heart to do it, though. Everyone I know lives here. I was born in Columbia County. It’s my home. I know it doesn’t mean much, but it means something to me.”

“It’s too late for me anyways,” he continues. “Working in the mines takes a toll sooner or later. You know you’ll die young the moment you start on the job. When my doctor told me I had the black lung, I wasn’t even surprised. Sometimes I feel good and then I start coughing and it doesn’t stop until I’m in the ER.”

We finish the pot of coffee and comment on a recent Pittsburgh Penguins hockey game to lighten the mood. I listen to Mark recount the story of how he met his wife. There is so much pride in his eyes when he points out his youngest grandson has said his first word.

The valley is cold and cast in white when I leave Mount Carmel.

* * *

A couple is walking in front of Centralia’s Municipal Building, a brown-tiled warehouse still used to store a thirty-year-old fire truck and an ambulance in case an emergency occurs in nearby Aristes. “It’s so sad,” the man, a German tourist named Rudi, says. “It’s like the city never existed.” We take pictures of the garage doors and talk about what it must be to live here today before parting ways.

One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.
One of the original vents installed in the area surrounding Odd Fellows Cemetery. These vents were installed in hopes that dangerous gases would be released here, and not into the homes of nearby residents.

I climb the Paxton Street steep slope at the town’s northernmost point. Life seems to come back here, maybe because of the soothing presence of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Church. Weekly services are still held there under the church’s blue and golden roof. Flowers blossom in spring. People gather and walk up the steep stairs to listen to the local minister’s lectures.

Something moves between the trees and a deer shows his head, careful and alert, steadily watching me as I crouch to the ground. No sound around but the wind.

The deer crosses the road and disappears into the woods.

I think of persistence and stubbornness. The years it took before the remaining residents ended up having the last word when they won their lawsuit in 2013, receiving a cash payout of $349,500 and the permission to stay in their homes for as long as they lived.

I walk down empty Locust Avenue, as cars dash by with their fog lights and their wipers on. Everything has been removed and erased.

Not even the time capsule buried in 1966 for the centennial of the town and opened last year by a group of former Centralians subsisted. The items inside the vault were almost all ruined by water that had leaked into it. One of the only things that survived water damage was a miner’s helmet and lamp signed by the men living there at the time — a cruel reminder of the town’s origins and demise.

Centralia was bound to die like it was born.

While Pennsylvania recently unlocked $1.4 million to put out another mine fire threatening Pittsburgh’s main gas pipeline and airport operations, budgets have been completely cut in Centralia. A few volunteers will help clean the borough from trash on May 16th, 2015, led by the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation. Windmills spinning on the horizon line, white and graceful, are a vivid sign that the region has moved on. Down below, the fire still burns.

I get back to my car and start the engine, warming my cold hands against the heat vents. A thin layer of ice is shining on the weeds, the ground sparkling like glitter.

This was a place where people lived.

This was a place people loved, loved so much that some would stay there in spite of the hell that burned below the earth and menaced to spill all over them.

This was a place people had to surrender.

The road is dark and sharp and slippery, streaming by the young twilight as music fills my ears in the coziness of the car. The mist fades away and with it the Borough of Centralia, the fires and the hills and the smokes and the doomed memories.

Memoir

Secret Life of an Autistic Stripper

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

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

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

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

“You go,” she said, waving her hand.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I’m struggling,” I said shyly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“I am sorry, what?” I asked.

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

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

“Not at all. What’s wrong?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Hennessy is a strong choice,” he commented.

“It’s an underrated drink.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within minutes, responses flooded that my symptoms resembled ASD.

“What is ASD?” I asked.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I never said stripping was glamorous.”

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

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

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

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

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

Memoir

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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Memoir

My Roommate the Prostitute

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to talk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I showed her the room.

“Sweet,” she said.

I showed her the bathroom.

“Sweet.”

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

“Sweet,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

How dare she — in my home?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The response came a few seconds later.

this is kaylee shes dead

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

Who’s dead? Who are you? Call me.

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

“Probably an overdose,” she said.

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

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

“My roommate’s dead,” I said.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

Later in the afternoon, my phone rang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

rip jenny (tear-face smiley)

cant believe shes gone i loved that girl

omg why???????

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

Two days later, her aunt came.

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Hazel Scott at the age of three or four.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

 

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

Scott at the age of nineteen.

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

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

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

How could Scott refuse?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Hello,” she coos, “I’m Hazel Scott.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the battle was not yet over.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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