What is a Library?

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Quaint vestige of the Gutenberg era, or cutting-edge panacea for social needs? For a broad swath of the neediest New Yorkers, the humble public library is proving its business is about far more than just books.

“Harlem Shake in a library? Yes!” cries the caption of a YouTube video uploaded this spring by the regulars of the Queens Library for Teens.

The Harlem Shake at the Queens Library for Teens.

While watching dozens of teenagers decked out in parrot masks and Bugs Bunny costumes dancing, jumping and spinning on rolling chairs across the frame, anyone is likely to wonder: This was allowed in a library? And upon entering the space where the clip was filmed, many people do ask: This is a library? Aside from a few small shelves of test-prep materials, this 3,000-square-foot room holds no books.

The teen library sits at the corner of Cornaga Avenue and Beach 20th Street in Far Rockaway. It opened in a former retail space in 2007 to resolve the mounting complaints from patrons at the Far Rockaway library branch a block away, who grumbled that the horde of teens descending on the facility every day after school was just too disruptive. The teen library is open from two-thirty p.m. to six p.m. Monday through Friday and admits only twelve- to nineteen-year-olds—not their younger siblings, and not even their parents.

Kim McNeil Capers, the teen library’s director, laughs when she says, “Kids don’t come in here to find books. They come here to find a girlfriend!” That’s only partially true. Capers is a certified mental health counselor, and before she joined the library she supervised mental health programs for teens and children. Her face straightens when she adds: “When they come in here, we’re going to get them the help they need.”

Kim McNeil Capers, director of the Queens Library for Teens.
Kim McNeil Capers, director of the Queens Library for Teens.

It’s a common refrain among those working in New York’s public libraries these days: Because it’s increasingly difficult to pin down exactly what kind of help they’re supposed to offer, librarians have tried to make their mission pliable, and to offer whatever help people need, in whatever realm it may be. They’re hardly limiting their offerings to intellectual pursuits.

In fact, no librarians work at the teen library—youth counselors run the place. And though it’s devoid of books, the room holds plenty else. After the orange-sherbet walls, the rows of forty computers are likely to be the first thing you notice. On the opposite wall, magazine racks house seventy subscriptions, and interspersed with those are salmon-and-green padded chairs. Upon entering one recent afternoon, a group of about ten boys immediately pulled them into a circle to facilitate their noisy Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game.

When you get to the back of the room, you’ll come upon the teens’ most prized possession: a $70,000 recording studio, flanked by three editing stations. To one side of that is the gaming lounge, and to the other side a pool table, which will soon shift roles to serve as the foundation for a model town with a working model railroad. When the teens start to stream in, the air swells with friendly yelling, B.O. and the scent of fast food, but they aren’t chided for shouting or snacking. This is a place for hanging out.

Kim McNeil Capers (center), director of the Queens Library for Teens, is a certified mental health counselor.
Kim McNeil Capers (center), director of the Queens Library for Teens, is a certified mental health counselor.

However, what the teen library hopes to offer its young patrons is heftier than that. Far Rockaway struggles with high unemployment and the social issues common to areas with many low-income housing projects—problems that have only been compounded by the neighborhood’s isolated location on a remote barrier beach, not to mention Hurricane Sandy, which came through in 2012.

The teen library’s daily and monthly programs are tailored to this vulnerable population, hosting daily GED prep classes, an annual college fair, health classes, gang awareness programs, a chess club, CPR training, a Regents Exam prep club, a streaming radio station via the recording studio, an annual science fair, and scores of other activities.

The Queens Library for Teens is a reflection of what New York City’s libraries have come to believe about themselves: They are in a position to do more than just connect their patrons to books and content.

*   *   *

What is a library for?

That question has never been as difficult to answer as it is today. Just as the Internet has given way to identity crises within journalism, publishing, and music, movie and television distribution, it has also confused what used to be libraries’ central purpose: providing a singular portal to content for whomever cared to access it. With the World Wide Web blowing in and demanding recognition as the more singular portal to the world’s content, libraries’ painstaking cataloguing of information that is now largely Google-able is looking a bit less critical.

It’s an upheaval that calls for a more existential grappling than can be addressed by digitizing library content or installing rows and rows of new computers. Librarians have had to delve deeper and ask themselves fundamental questions about their role, such as, what can they offer that the Internet can’t?

“Libraries are aggressively moving into a range of services that aren’t necessarily related to book lending,” says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, a nonprofit research body that has published a series of reports about how technology is changing expectations of library offerings. “They are pretty radically rethinking their mission in the world,” he said.

Major cities like New York may be the most progressive incubators for the trend. Rainie adds, “There’s clearly something special that has happened in urban libraries, where they are thinking very seriously about the new services mix that they should offer to their patrons.”

Library employees from each of New York City’s three systems—New York Public Library (with branches in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx), Queens Borough Public Library, and Brooklyn Public Library—maintain that their institutions are in the midst of a role reappraisal.

“We’re evolving our service model,” says Thomas Galante, president and C.E.O. of the Queens Borough Public Library. He points to shifting budget priorities to illustrate. For example, when the libraries suffered deep funding slashes in the early 1990s and again in 2001, Galante and his colleagues delegated cuts based on where they’d have the least impact on circulation. Library locations with the most in-and-out book traffic stayed open six days a week, while those with more anemic circulations only opened their doors two or three.

Case Manager Yasmin Lopez's office sits behind the stacks at the Far Rockaway library.
Case Manager Yasmin Lopez’s office sits behind the stacks at the Far Rockaway library.

But by the time libraries saw funding pull back again in 2008, priorities had reversed. The system’s directors wanted to ensure that each of its sixty-two branches would open at least five days a week, so the books budget bore the brunt of the cutbacks as it was snipped in half.

“We know there are all sorts of other reasons why people walk through our doors—for programs, for computer access, for a place to get out of the heat,” Galante says. “We thought that was more important than having twice as many new books on the shelves.”

Brooklyn Public Library chief librarian Richard Reyes-Gavilan notes similar changes pervading his system. “I’d love to say we’ve made this conscious decision to sort of reevaluate our role in people’s lives, but really all we’re doing is responding to community needs,” he says. “Our physical spaces are situated across the borough to deliver informal, nontraditional educational experiences, and that’s what we’re really moving into.”

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief libarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, chief libarian at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Reyes-Gavilan explains that when making hiring decisions, “we’re not necessarily asking people anymore, ‘Tell us what experience you’ve had with reader advisory or cataloguing.’” Instead, he asserts, the system’s higher-ups are more apt to value experience in education or social services.

All three of New York City’s library systems are in the process of building out new departments and positions that more readily evoke a social worker’s job description than that of a traditional librarian. In September, BPL launched its new Outreach Services Department, which will eventually consist of five full-time staff members tasked with expanding services for immigrants, senior citizens and prison populations. In October, NYPL began hiring for the new role of “intake managers,” library employees who will help patrons sift through the growing number of programs, and who will maintain a hands-on role after doing so, contacting patrons when, for example, they miss classes for which they’ve registered. For its part, the Queens system has six full-time and two part-time case managers—all hired since 2009—who help visitors navigate the murky waters of government programs and services.

In the decade between 2002 and 2011, the number of programs offered across the city’s 206 branches jumped twenty-four percent, and the number of attendees at those programs shot up by forty percent, to 2.3 million, according to a Center for an Urban Future report.

These changes are making for an altogether different library experience. Galante says they have designated quiet rooms recently because “the rest of the library isn’t as quiet.”

“People tend to think of the libraries they grew up in,” he adds. “But those are very different than walking into a public library today.”

*   *   *

Over the past five years, Madlyn Schneider has helped transform Mail-A-Book—a library program based in the Queens Village branch that delivers books and other materials to New Yorkers unable to leave their homes because of age or disability—from a straightforward delivery service into the teleconferenced social life of dozens of Queens’ homebound residents.

Bonnie Sue Pokorny was just looking for something to read when she first contacted Mail-A-Book in the early 1990s. At that time, Pokorny, now sixty-eight, had recently been diagnosed with a rare neurological autoimmune disorder that came on quickly and brought with it frequent bouts of dizziness, fainting and overheating. She had always been active and independent; she’d raised three children by herself, worked full time managing the claims department of an insurance brokerage house in Nassau County, and ran a large late-summer street festival in Queens for thirteen years. But when her illness hit, it cost her almost more effort than she could bear just to sit up. Her doctors told her she’d never work or drive again.

But she had always been an avid reader, and at least that was something she wouldn’t have to relinquish. She learned that Mail-A-Book could help with that, and for the majority of the intervening twenty-three years she’s been bound to her Forest Hills apartment, it has.

But things started to change for Pokorny when Schneider took over Mail-A-Book in 2008. Schneider had previously worked in an administrative role at the library, which required her to spend hours sitting in boardrooms on conference calls and staring at Polycom teleconferencing technology in the center of the room. In her new role, she started to wonder: What else might the library be able to do for the roughly four hundred socially isolated patrons receiving book deliveries from her staff? She applied for a small grant from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and used it to purchase teleconferencing equipment. The library system agreed to foot the monthly bills for an 800 number.

At first, the Mail-A-Book teleconference chats happened only on Friday mornings, and were strictly book-related. Mail-A-Book users could call the 800 number to chat with other patrons about the books they’d read that week. As demand grew, the library added a Tuesday afternoon session. As New Year’s Eve approached, a woman on one of the calls complained that she dreaded the holiday for how lonely it made her feel—a sentiment shared by many on the call. So Schneider convened a telephonic New Year’s Eve gathering from home that year, and another the next day.

Schneider kept coming up with new possibilities for the library teleconferences: art lectures from docents at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art; collaborating on crossword puzzles via Skype; performances over the phone from musicians and comedians; emailed newsletters with patrons’ own art, poetry, recipes and book reviews; and, eventually, occasional in-person lunches in Queens diners for those Mail-A-Book members who could venture out.

The Far Rockaway library provides visitors with a host of services apart from book lending, including free Internet access.
The Far Rockaway library provides visitors with a host of services apart from book lending, including free Internet access.

Over the past few years, Pokorny’s phone-based social world has ratcheted to a level that might be more normal for a patron of the teen library—her Mail-A-Book commitments generally call for her several times a day. “Before, I was always trying to make sure I had a lot of projects in the house to keep busy, so the four walls weren’t climbing on me,” she says. “Now I don’t have time for my own projects. There’s always something going on.”

Pokorny got something else out of Mail-A-Book she hadn’t expected the program could provide: a new friend. She was introduced to Margo during a Mail-A-Book teleconference, and although they never met in person, the two of them were soon calling each other up three or four times a day. They took online classes together that they’d learned about through Mail-A-Book, and helped one another with the homework. “We had the same sense of humor, the same interests,” Pokorny says. “A lot of our experiences were similar.”

Margo passed away last December at seventy-seven.

“We became very, very close,” Pokorny says. “I had Margo in my life for maybe a year and a half before she died. I consider that year and a half very lucky, because you don’t make friends when you’re homebound. You might have acquaintances, but Margo and I were fast friends.”

Today, Pokorny is more tied up than ever in Mail-A-Book, and at this point, most of the services she receives from the library have little to do with books.

“With all the activities in Mail-A-Book,” she says, “I don’t have time to read.”

*   *   *

The consensus among New York City library employees about what exactly has happened within their institutions over the past decade starts to crumble when they acknowledge that the library is no longer the book-and-reading-centered body it used to be.

What, then, is the library becoming? QPL’s Galante rejects the suggestion that his libraries are becoming indistinguishable from social service agencies.

“People come to the library today to find a new job, learn a skill, take a GED class. These are all things that someone could dub as social services, but they’re not,” Galante says. “A public library today has information to improve people’s lives. We are an enabler; we are a connector. When it comes to social services, a lot of what we do is help people by referring them to places they can go.”

Sandra Michele Echols, interim manager for QPL’s adult literacy program, is of another opinion. She’s in the midst of writing an article about the direction public libraries are headed, and its working title aptly summarizes where she stands: “I Could Tell You Stories: Am I a Librarian or a Social Services Manager?”

Echols joined QPL in 2009 as the system’s first case manager, screening and referring library patrons to nonprofits and government organizations that could help meet their needs. She says the role of a designated case manager had been made necessary by the passage of the E-Government Act of 2002, a federal law that sought to allow citizens access to a wide range of government information and services via the Internet. The act was widely hailed as a boon to the working class, who’d now be less likely to have to miss a day of work for a visit to the DMV. But others, including Echols, complain that an unintended consequence of the act was that it put significant pressure on public libraries—particularly in a place like New York City, where, as a report from Comptroller John Liu’s office noted in April, nearly a quarter of households don’t have a computer.

“Now that the E-Government Act has been passed, it helps the working class do things really easily, but it alienated the poor and furthered the digital divide,” Echols says. “And now, social service agencies are telling individuals, ‘Go to your public library and have them help you print out your child support, or the application for housing.’ So that’s becoming a real specialty for librarians.”

Far Rockaway library volunteer Lawrence McBride sets up a game of oragami chess.
Far Rockaway library volunteer Lawrence McBride sets up a game of oragami chess.

The Far Rockaway branch brought in a case manager who set up her own office in the library building in early November. Sharon Anderson, the branch manager since 2008, says she had become so overwhelmed with requests for help filling out government forms, assisting with job applications, calling battered women’s shelters, and, in one case, finding a rape hotline, that it became necessary to situate a case manager in the building.

Anderson’s branch doesn’t exactly greet its visitors with the enforced hush most expect of a library, but it doesn’t shriek with chaos, either. The buzz of activity falls somewhere in between—it’s the sound of a space being utilized in layers. Bookshelves line the perimeter of the 6,300-square-foot library, allowing ample room for about twenty computers (all in use on a recent weekday afternoon); a set of gleaming white cubicles that house the Workforce1 Career Center, a job placement service run by the NYC Department of Small Business Services; a kiosk with information about the branch’s new Google Tablet lending program; and several tables where dozens of students cluster each afternoon for an after-school tutoring program funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers initiative.

“People walk in here and say, ‘This isn’t a library anymore!’ Well, you know what’s funny?” Anderson says, pausing to laugh. “It’s really not!”

She says that sometimes people complain about the level of activity in the building, but she hasn’t been surprised to discover that much of her job description requires her to raise her voice above a whisper.

When Anderson earned her master’s degree in library science from Queens College in 2004, she presented her thesis on what she saw to be a blurring line between librarians and social workers. “I started to see an evolution where librarians were getting away from sitting at a desk and checking out books,” she says. “I knew I was going to be taking on more of a social services role.”

Listening to music at the DJ station in the Queens Library for Teens.
Listening to music at the DJ station in the Queens Library for Teens.

As we talk, a woman in a red sweater and Iris Apfel glasses approaches Anderson’s desk and, pointing her cane in the direction of the street, complains that she’s been wrongfully stuck with a parking ticket. Anderson listens, then explains how the woman can contest the ticket by mail.

When the woman walks away, Anderson says she believes the changes in her library have been driven by “too many social issues and not enough social agencies,” combined with her institution’s broad mandate and its eagerness to adapt. “Part of our mission is to help people,” she says. “We’re just responding to the environment, and continuing to say, ‘Whatever your needs are, we’ll help you.’”

Of course, changes within libraries aren’t met with blanket acceptance. In a Pew Research Center survey of Americans’ expectations of libraries in the coming years, respondents were generally supportive of new technologies, apps and lending programs, but they weren’t sold on the idea that “libraries should move some printed books and stacks out of public locations to free up space for tech centers, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and cultural events.” Thirty-six percent of respondents said libraries should “definitely not” push books aside for these other types of programs, while thirty-nine percent answered that “maybe” they should. Only twenty percent were “definitely” on board with such changes.

Little surprise, then, that NYPL kicked up such fervent controversy when it announced its plans to renovate its flagship research library, the lion-guarded Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Forty-Second Street. The plans are Pew’s hypothetical made literal: in order to combine services from the Mid-Manhattan Library and the Science, Industry and Business Library into the building, books and other research materials will be shipped to a storage facility in Princeton, N.J., to make way for not only a new circulating library, but additional computers, group work spaces, an expanded children’s room with new programming, and the building’s first-ever teen room.

Ann Marie Warren holds up a certificate she received for completing a computer literacy course at the Queens Library for Teens.
Ann Marie Warren holds up a certificate she received for completing a computer literacy course at the Queens Library for Teens.

“Will Forty-Second Street remain a serene environment for scholars, serious readers, intellectuals and book lovers, or will it be converted into a noisy, tumultuous branch library?” Scott Sherman wondered in The Nation, in one of a series of articles that criticized the renovation plans.

John Lundquist, a former chief librarian of the NYPL’s Asian and Middle Eastern Division, was forced to retire in 2009, a year after the division was closed. Lundquist is concerned about the main branch’s renovation plans, but he stresses that he draws a strong distinction between the mandate of the city’s research libraries and its branch libraries.

“I feel that the branch libraries, and public libraries in general, are totally right to go in directions [in which they assume a] much broader social mandate,” he says. But the changes shouldn’t extend to research libraries, he says. The relocating of research collections to make way for other types of library spaces constitutes, he believes, “the tragedy of the dumbing-down of the research collections of NYPL.”

*  *  *

It’s the Monday evening before Thanksgiving, and the Far Rockaway branch is throwing a party. The tables that would have otherwise been host to after-school tutoring are pushed out of the way to make room for a few dozen chairs facing a makeshift stage where one-man-band Peter J. LaRosa regales the crowd of roughly fifty with big-band classics.

Behind the chairs where concertgoers sit, a line of volunteers scoop steamed vegetables, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing, and turkey out of tinfoil pans onto the line of plates moving past.

Two middle-age women in the audience, Shirley and Debbie (both declined to share their last names), have come to the library to see LaRosa, whom they once saw perform at a nursing home. They marvel that such a noisy event would be held in a library.

“I’m surprised they’d allow food in here with the books!” Shirley says.

Debbie nods in the direction of a group of youngsters jump-dancing to a Tony Bennett tune and chortles. “These kids don’t look like they’ll be looking at books after this.”

A woman shrouded in long dark hair, sunglasses, and wine-colored lipstick chimes in, telling me about the free jewelry classes she took at this library branch the week before. “And it’s not with the plastic stuff—they give you nice stones,” she says. “And you get to keep it.” She adds that the library’s programs are good for Far Rockaway. “Thank goodness they think of this stuff, because there’s not a whole lot else out here.”

But, she adds—and now she’s shouting to be heard over a tangle of teenagers wrestling over a cell phone—she misses having a quiet library where she can just go to read.

So what’s more important, I ask: A library that excels in the programs, or one that has mastered the quiet?

“Both,” she says, without missing a beat. “A library should be both.”

*   *    *

Katie Gilbert is a freelance writer based in New York City. She has written for TheAtlantic.com, Psychology Today, Institutional Investor, Willamette Week, and others.

Alison Brockhouse is an artist and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.

 

 

He Was Harassed for Wearing a Turban. Then He Built a Global Fashion Brand to Show the World What Sikh Pride Means.

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Harinder Singh’s cheeky clothing is making waves in India — and far beyond — by putting a hip new spin on his ancient and often misunderstood culture.

Harinder Singh will never forget his trip to Italy in 2002. Singh, then 33, and his wife, Kirandeep Kaur, 29, were eating ice cream as they explored the sights and sounds of Florence. The streets were crowded, a blur of people and textures and smells. At first glance, the couple blended in with the other tourists of the city: two people in love, eager to travel the world and appreciate a new culture. Then they heard the students’ jeers: “Bin Laden! Bin Laden!”

The group of around sixty school children were pointing at Singh, a white turban wrapped delicately around his head.

“Oh my God,” Singh said to his wife in shock. But instead of walking away, the couple approached the children. Singh told them that they were from India and practiced a religion called Sikhism.

“Me and my wife started talking about our first guru, the revolution, our faith, we touched on Punjabi music and they knew Punjabi music so we got a lead there,” Singh says with a laugh. “That very moment was an exam for us. We decided we should do something about our identity since there’s no awareness.”

Immediately after their visit, on the seven-and-a-half hour flight from Italy to India, Singh began the initial sketches for what he describes as the first Indian clothing brand dedicated solely to Sikhism and Punjabi culture. Fifteen years later, that concept – called 1469, in honor of the birth year of the first Sikh guru, Nanak Dev – has expanded into a million-dollar company with international reach. They have five stores in New Delhi and in Punjab, an Indian state bordering on Pakistan that is the heart of the Sikh community.

Almost 58 percent of the population of Punjab is made up of Sikhs, but in Delhi, Sikhs constitute less than four percent of the total population.

Standing in their 1469 shop in Delhi, the couple talk about the idea behind their business. “People in Delhi feel that if I speak Punjabi, I am backwards and not modern enough,” says Kaur, dressed in a light green sari, gold bracelets dangling off her arms. “To keep in touch with your roots, you need to know your mother tongue. I feel we are losing the pride.”

Artwork on the walls inside the shop. (Photo by Ana Singh)

Scarves and saris in turquoise, pink and yellow hues line the walls of the shop, located in Delhi’s Janpath Market, one of the city’s best-known shopping areas. Tables are scattered with metallic jewelry and small sculptures, patterned bags and calligraphy accessories. Upstairs, the walls are filled with various t-shirts, many of which display Punjabi phrases, musical instruments and Sikh symbols.

Mayur Sharma, a frequent 1469 customer and host of the Indian travel show “Highway on My Plate,” says his favorite products are the t-shirts, especially the ones with the phrases “Pure Panjabi” and “Trust me I’m Pendu,” – the word pendu meaning “villager” in Punjabi. Sharma came across the company a decade ago and, since then, has pretty much only worn their t-shirts, even on his television show.

“I admire Harinder and Kirandeep’s passion for the arts, culture and history of our beautiful state,” he says. “You can feel the love in everything they put out.”

T-shirts with the phrase, “Jab we met,” referring to the Indian film directed by Imtiaz Ali about a Punjabi girl who meets a Mumbai businessman on an overnight train to Delhi. (Photo courtesy of 1469workshop.com)

Punjabi culture is one of the oldest in India; the region has a rich legacy of poetry, music, food and art – in addition to being the birthplace of Sikhism. The Punjab was unified under the Sikh Empire in the nineteenth century, until the British annexed the region in 1849 after the Anglo-Sikh wars, administering the region as a province of its Indian empire until Partition in 1947, when the independent states of India and Pakistan were established. Punjab was divided, with Hindus and Sikhs fleeing to India while Muslims moved to Pakistan.

Kaur described the partition of 1947 as a shattering experience for the Punjab, creating social, religious and regional divides. She feels Punjabi art and culture took the biggest blow. Today, their brand aims to reinvigorate that rich culture.

Singh, dressed in a bright, turquoise turban and black v-neck with the word fateh – or “victory” in Hindi – emphasized 1469 is not a religious brand because he doesn’t believe in selling religion.

“Sikhism is a big part of it and we ourselves are Sikhs,” he says, “but, it’s a regional place because our artists are Muslim also, the music comes from Punjab, which is partly in Pakistan, and so are the handicrafts.”

Harinder Singh (Photo by Ana Singh)

Sharma says he is Punjabi, but not Sikh. He describes Singh’s passion for the culture as inspiring.

Singh’s clothing didn’t always center on Punjabi culture. He got his start in the world of fashion after graduating from the University of Delhi in 1988. He says he noticed that most t-shirts sold in India came from abroad – Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea – and were of dubious quality.

“I took an oath to myself to make a nice t-shirt for my country,” Singh says.

Models pose wearing 1469 t-shirts. (Photo courtesy 1469, via Facebook)

A year later, Singh started his own clothing company, Uni Style Image. He claims it is one of the first t-shirt companies in India’s history, and over the years partnered with major clothing labels across the world. In 2002, after over a decade with the company, grueling hours and time spent away from his wife and three children, Singh decided to leave to pursue other endeavors.

At the time, he had no idea he would eventually return to the fashion world as a pioneer of a wholly new concept centered on Sikhism and Punjab. But Singh also asserts he wouldn’t have it any other way. He describes being born into a Sikh family as a blessing.

“Our religion is so beautiful, so transparent, so clear,” he says. “It’s musical, it’s simple, it’s modern and it’s very lightweight.”

Singh observes that while 60 percent of their merchandise is sold to Sikhs and those within the diaspora Punjabi community, around 40 percent of customers practice other faiths. The brand is especially popular in Japan, where many customers buy the t-shirts online and in bulk, according to Kaur.

Clothing for sale in the shop. (Photo by Nicole Einbinder)

Going forward, Singh and Kaur hope to continue educating people, especially youth, about their heritage and faith. Kaur says they are working to bolster their online presence and plan to open new stores domestically, in the cities of Mumbai and Bangalore, as well as abroad in Canada.

“The best part about Sikhism is,” Kaur says, “it doesn’t tell you that you write this or read it and then become Sikh. It’s about the way you live.”

 

 

White Settlers Wiped Thousands of Miles of Cherokee Trails Off the Map. This Man is Reclaiming Them — By Walking Each and Every One.

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These routes once snaked through the towering woods of Appalachia, before they were lost to history. Lamar Marshall has spent a decade painstakingly mapping them, and their rich history.

Lamar Marshall cannot make it over the log. It lays across a small creek somewhere in the Nantahala National Forest outside Cowee, western North Carolina, as a bridge. His problem is a bruised knee, caused by a bang against his home firewood cord. Standing in front of the thick trunk, seeking another way across, he explains that while this particular log was not laid by ancient Cherokees, it does resemble the way they would fell logs to get across creeks like this. “They called ‘em racoon bridges,” he explains. If anyone would know this, it’s Marshall.

The former land surveyor, electrical engineer, and Alabamian anti-logging activist (in that order), is the world’s foremost expert on ancient Cherokee trails. At 68 he’s stocky, with a soft, even face, like a meatier Billy Bob Thornton, and long eyelashes. He speaks softly, with a southern drawl. In this forest, on a warm late-winter day, he wears spectacles and a hearing aid, but also a camo jacket and pants, a waist-pack stuffed with surveying gear and a pistol. It is often in this appearance, a hunter’s getup, that Marshall has personally mapped well over one thousand miles of Cherokee trails across Appalachia, compiling the mappings into a vast database, complete with historical annotations and Cherokee place names. And his boots are waterproof, he notes, as he carefully fords the creek.

Lamar Marshall.

There are certain attributes which are common to Cherokee trails. They tend to follow rivers or ridge-lines. They are often steep. Brett Riggs, an archaeologist at Western Carolina University with a specialty in Cherokee landscapes, equates them with a modern highway system in the way that they linked population centers (some are even replicated in modern roads). Horses, introduced to the tribe in the 18th century, were sometimes used, but mostly Cherokees travelled by foot, in soft-soled moccasins. Inside Marshall’s home there are photographs of him as a young man wearing nothing but a loincloth and these moccasins; he used to sometimes explore the woods of his native Alabama dressed this way. “It was just kind of a fun thing to project myself back into time,” he explains. “I always admired the native lifestyle. Maybe I played cowboys and Indians too much when I was little. I was always the Indians, I know that.”

Marshall’s project, a largely independent venture, has taken up nearly a decade of his life. It is no small feat. He has braved wasps, mosquitoes, ticks, chest-high nettles, rainstorms, hypothermia. Much of the routes are so steep that early Europeans avoided them. Though he has no academic credentials, he scours archives across the country for primary source materials that contain mention of the trails. It is an immense labor but he is nonchalant about his motivations. “I love the trails. I love walking on the trails, camping next to the trails. And feeling like right now: what did the first white people see when they came up here?”

Prior to his trails project, Marshall headed a conservation group in Alabama. He is an ardent environmentalist and near militant in his activism. But while his greenie cred would do well by any Greenpeace tree-hugger, Marshall is also a Republican, gun-owning, bear-hunting Creationist. But if the contrast seems odd, in Marshall’s mind protecting God’s work from the nefarious designs of the state might constitute the very essence of American patriotism. “Wilderness to me is the ultimate expression of freedom,” he says.

Those who benefit most from Marshall’s efforts are modern Cherokees. His work is funded by the Eastern Band tribe in western North Carolina, to whom all the mapping data will go. It will be used in schools. Riggs, the WCU archeologist, is helping Marshall make the maps interactive, with historical storylines and photos. “This is much more than just trails: it’s the ecology of the trails, the geography of the trails,” he says. “They don’t have this history. They just don’t have it.” Indeed, this is the first time that the trails have ever been compiled into a single source. Marshall also hopes to get some of them protected by the United States Forest Service, who he has collaborated with in the past – the North Carolina state is figuring his trail data into their upcoming forest management plan. Marshall plans to be finished with the whole enterprise in September, when he will hand everything over to the Eastern Band tribe. “This will help them maintain their cultural heritage,” he says. “They’re losing that.”

Tom Belt, a Cherokee language expert at WCU who is also Cherokee, describes the project’s impacts on the tribe as unprecedented. Like other native peoples, the Cherokees have long struggled to define their own historical identity and nothing is more crucial to that than landscapes. “It may be a town or a gas station to the United States or the state of North Carolina,” Belt says, “but at one time underneath it might have existed a very extensive culturally-based community that doesn’t exist now. That’s the kind of stuff we wanna know. What was the name of that place?”

Marshall consulting a topographic map near the Cowee mound.

Riggs, too, believes that compiling all of this data into a single source will prove empowering for the tribe, especially its young people. It is one thing to have a vague notion that some land was once yours; it’s wholly another to see it clearly laid out, and how ownership has changed over time. “When you take some place and you rename it you’ve asserted that, ‘This now belongs to us’,” he says. “If you can, even on paper, reverse that process so that you make it clear that there was a Cherokee landscape here, it gives Cherokee people a conceptual ownership that in many cases they are currently lacking.”

“We didn’t come into a blank howling wilderness,” he adds. “We took over this place.”

* * *

On May 28, 1830 the United States congress passed the Indian Removal Act. It granted permission to relocate Native Americans living in the east to the unsettled land west of the Mississippi. Some left willingly, but the Cherokee Nation – a collection of affiliated communities extending from Kentucky to Alabama – resisted. Conflict had existed for over a century between the Americans and the Cherokees and by now the federal government had grown strong enough to simply take them away. The eventual expulsion, which lasted from 1838-39, resulted in the death of over 4,000 Cherokees. The route over which they headed west is today called the Trail of Tears. Many perished in transit.

Today, Cherokees are found in three quasi-sovereign districts in Oklahoma and western North Carolina. But while most of their civilization was wiped out, burned down, built over or abandoned, it was not erased. Vestiges remain for those who know what to look for: graveyards, earthen mounds, houses, tree carvings; the imprints of a smudged-out, penciled-over peoples. Connecting all of these archeological sites is this vast network of trails, thousands of miles of footpaths trodden over centuries of travel.

Marshall entering his “man cave” at his house in Cowee, North Carolina.

And to flip through old maps of Appalachia is to witness the shrinking of a nation played out in faded ink. Treaties often followed conflict and, with each one, Cherokee land shrunk; the younger the map, the less territory is marked as theirs. Events are painfully clear in hindsight.

Marshall keeps these old maps in his home office in Cowee, where he moved eight years ago from Alabama. There is a small desk with four desktop computer screens squeezed between boxes of historical documents: traveler journals, survey plats, three-hundred-year-old land deeds. On the wall is a buck head and a sticker that reads, “I Am Not Ashamed Of The Gospel Of Christ.” Over time the maps get better, too. They are more clearly laid out, with properties divided into perfect squares. Text is less flowery and more legible. Topography is defined numerically. There are fewer and fewer Cherokee towns until there are virtually none at all.

Most of these maps were produced by the United States army. For Marshall’s purposes, they are critical. It is with these frail maps that he locates trails before setting out into the hard world to survey them. He brings one on every hike. He takes notes as he goes, looking to match his observations with any landmarks mentioned on the maps, and marks landmarks with GPS coordinates. When he gets home he plugs this data into his computer and, using GIS software, constructs digital versions. When a trail’s done, he moves to the next.

* * *

Marshall traces his fascination with the Cherokees to his childhood in Birmingham (“I hated the concrete, the development”). Survivalist books first exposed him to them. In his eyes, they seemed idyllic. “They didn’t have to go to school. They didn’t have to get a job in corporate America. They lived off the land. They were totally free.”

A photo of Marshall in his twenties in Alabama, dressed in traditional Indian attire.

He joined the Boy Scouts. He excelled. At eighteen, “emulating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn”, Marshall constructed a raft from oil drums. With two friends, he drifted down the Alabama River from Selma to the Gulf of Mexico. Later he would win a state championship for fur-trapping. His childhood Cherokee interest was reignited by an “old mountain man” named Garvin Sanford who, on occasional forays into the forest for edible herbs, would show him abandoned Indian villages. They would follow the trails to get there.

For much of early adulthood, Marshall worked as an electrical engineer and land surveyor. With his wife and three children, he built a 3,000-square-foot homestead in Blountsville, Alabama. Construction took nine months. Drinking water came from an outdoor aluminum tank; one day Marshall found a squirrel decomposing inside. They raised livestock, fished the river, grew produce. When his only son died at 18 from a heart complication, the family moved to a house in Alabama’s Bankhead National Forest. They had 100 acres. Marshall hung a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot and survivors will be shot again.” And another: “You believe in life after death? Trespass here and find out.” It was a frontiersman’s existence. For the first five years, they had no electricity.

But living in the woods provided Marshall with an intimate view of Alabama’s dimly regulated logging industry, which “nauseated” the lifelong nature lover. He did some digging and discovered how the management plan drawn up by the Alabama Forest Service had been “developed in collusion with the timber industry.” The tipping point for him came when loggers clear-cut a Cherokee sacred site known as Indian Tomb Hollow, decimating a burial ground. In conjunction with a local clan of Cherokees, Marshall and others rallied against the Forest Service, staging protests, making noise.

Thus, the conservation group Wild Alabama was born (it has since expanded and become Wild South). For over a decade, Marshall’s conservation group wrote petitions, staged protests, filed lawsuits, delivered public speeches, and published excoriating cartoons in the local newspaper satirizing Forest Service officials. This was his “guerrilla warfare” against corporate “tree racists.”

Marshall attempting, unsuccessfully, to cross a log in the Nantahala National Forest.

Marshall describes this part of his life like a veteran remembering war. “I envisioned a band of eco-warriors fighting for the last wild places of Alabama. Native American descendants rose up and we kicked ass for over a decade,” he says (the “descendants” refer to the various tribal organizations which often collaborated with Wild Alabama; Marshall does, however, claim to have three percent Native American ancestry).

Wild Alabama’s member pool represented an odd union of hippies, Indians, and rednecks; with a thick beard, dirty clothes and Cherokee ornaments, Marshall appeared as a hybrid of all three. Outdoor Life magazine called the group “the conservation conscience of a state that has traditionally lacked one.” The group boasted that its members could drink harder and shoot straighter than any naturalists around. Marshall once told a journalist, “Rattlesnakes have got fangs, porcupines got quills, skunks got the sprayer, and God Almighty gave Man the ability to invent the Colt 45 as his defense.”

* * *

Marshall approaches a huge earthen mound. It is an ancient Cherokee construction which sits in the middle of a wide empty field. Birdsong rings out across it and in the distance are rounded sloping mountains that are powdered white with snow. At the top of the mound, Marshall points down at the grass and says, “This is where the council-house sat. Here’s a depression that they believe was a fire-pit.”

From up here it is easy to imagine an earlier Appalachia: wide savannas thick with buffalo, the skies crowded with passenger pigeons, dense groves of chestnut trees, the brilliant red-black flash of an ivory-billed woodpecker – all of these species are extinct or sequestered elsewhere in the country. Savannas are gone. Towns are built over. Words are forgotten. There is a new country here. Marshall, in his camo gear, clutching an old map, sounding wistful, says, “The mountains haven’t changed.”

 

 

The Secret Story of the Groundbreaking Boxing Champ Who Lost His Title — Because He Was Gay

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This Latino immigrant moved to 1920s New York with nothing and took on the sports establishment. Then the establishment took him down.

On October 14, 1928, his last day as president of the National Boxing Association, Tom Donahue sent out a press release listing each of the reigning champions. The following day, before Paul Prehn, the new president, moved in his belongings or placed any personal photos on his desk, he released a statement with the sole purpose of taking away from a fighter what was earned in the ring – his title. Panama Al Brown, a boxer whom the poet and playwright Jean Cocteau described as “a poem written in black ink,” was an unwanted champion. 

In the years that followed, Brown danced circles around the best boxers, eventually becoming the undeniable king of the bantamweights. Yet boxing officials continued to look for reasons to deny him his status. His title reign was filled with dubious suspensions and blatant refusals by state commissioners to acknowledge that he was the best in his class. Eventually, Brown packed his bags and sailed to Europe. The fans there embraced him at first, but when they too caught wind of the whispers that swirled behind his back, most came to his fights hoping to see him lose. He was jeered, slurred, and spat on during his ring walks. After one fight, the Parisian fans surrounded him as he left the ring and beat him bloody and unconscious amid the ringside seats. The reason for the suspensions, the boos, and the hate on both sides of the Atlantic, was all because Al Brown, boxing champion, loved other men. 

Al Brown in 1927. (Photo by Agence Meurisse, courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France)

He was born on July 5, 1902, just as the Thousand Days’ War neared its end in a country known as the waist of the Americas. The coastal city of Colón, Panama, was a rugged place nature didn’t intend for habitation by large populations. Even the land-hungry sailor the area was named after, Cristobal Colón –Christopher Columbus – took one look at the hostile terrain and shook his head “no” before settling fifty miles to the west. Later, the quest for gold and the travel shortcut across this narrow isthmus attracted the masses in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. Plans were drawn up for a railroad. Workers came from all over the world, including Brown’s maternal ancestors. Later, among the droves who came for jobs working on the construction of the Panama Canal was Brown’s father, Horace, a freed slave who arrived in Colón with nothing but the clothes on his muscular shoulders. 

After the U.S. took over construction of the canal, roads were paved, social clubs opened, and mosquito breeding areas were doused in oil, eradicating the pests but leaving much of the area smelling like a five-minute lube shop. Along with the improved infrastructure came segregation. Despite there being two schools closer to their home, young Al Brown had to attend one of the blacks-only schools on the other side of the dusty town. He read from English-language textbooks and developed a love of music from playing with rusted instruments. After school, he washed his white button-down shirt in the sink because, for many years, it was the only school shirt he had. 

“Miserable” was how Brown described his childhood. He was thirteen when his father died. His mother swept the dirty floors and scrubbed the soiled clothes of others to provide for the family. Brown did his share, bringing home prizes – a can of powdered milk – he won from his amateur boxing matches.  

Boxing was one of the more popular forms of entertainment during and following the canal construction. Hall of Fame caliber fighters like Sam Langford and Kid Norfolk headlined throughout the country. Boxing back then was a world where broken noses were fixed by the guys carrying the spit bucket. Orange peels were used as mouth guards, to prevent the teeth from shredding the insides of lips and leaving them looking like twisted pasta noodles. To prevent biting their tongues while fighting, boxers bit down on wooden matchsticks. The pre-fight and post-fight medicals consisted simply of the question, “How do you feel?”

The Strand Boxing Gym was where Brown started. It was a humid place where trainers smoked, drank, and everyone’s idea of fresh air was flapping a musky towel in your face. Pounding the bags with a dingy pair of Maynard boxing gloves, he found solace.

American boxer Al Brown around April 8, 1931. He would soon fight Eddy Baldock, unseen, on May 21 at Olympia. (AP Photo)

Following World War I, most of the top boxers left Panama. Prospects were few, so Brown hesitated only slightly before leaving Colón behind. He spent time at the docks, sometimes working as a stevedore. Mostly, he paced back and forth and studied the routines of the ships the way he would opponents in the ring. He looked for an opening where he might be able to slip in.  

When the Alvarado passed through the canal on May 21, 1923 on its way to New York, Brown lined up on the docks with a loading crew. Wearing two shirts, two pairs of underwear, and his father’s cap pulled down over his eyes, he joined the crew as they loaded the ship, his eyes scanning every corner of the vessel. Before the last round of goods were loaded, they nodded silently to him. Brown took one last look at Colón, and, under his breath said, “Goodbye Mom.”

Once underway, he was found and put to work in the kitchen peeling potatoes. Seated in a trench with a carving knife in one hand and a potato in the other, he twisted and turned the potato while chalky, foot-long spirals fell and filled bucket after bucket.  

A few weeks later, on Ellis Island, sweat coated the palms of his hands. Suspicious border agents seated behind elevated desks awaited with a round of questions, occasionally stopping to ruffle through papers and fix their eyes on him. The young boxer kept his cool and his answers short. 

When he stepped out into the sun-drenched street, he asked, “Which way to Harlem?”A stranger’s finger pointed north. It was about nine miles of brick and concrete from where he stood. With no money, he followed the trains that rumbled above on the Ninth Avenue El. 

When he reached 125th Street, it was that time of the day when the sun gets dunked into the Hudson. Weary and hungry, desperation increased as he looked for a boxing gym, or someone who looked like a boxer. The trolley cars became less frequent, the streets less crowded, and, as the night blanketed the city, it became obvious his first night would be spent on the streets. 

For two weeks, Brown roamed Harlem. A chance encounter with a former gym mate from Panama led to an audition before manager Leo P. Flynn and trainer Dai Dollings in a gym filled with many boxers from back home, who told Flynn and Dollings he was the flyweight champion of Panama. Doubting someone five-foot-nine could weigh only 114 pounds, Flynn asked him to strip down to his skin and be weighed. When the shirt came off and they noticed his muscles braided around his bones, they knew he was a future champion. Within a year, boxing in violet colored trunks with his initials on the front, Brown was ranked in the top three by Ring Magazine. Then his career stalled like a clogged toilet.

A series of events coincided to make his life miserable and his story great. His manager fell ill, his trainer’s son died, and the rumors about Brown’s personal life spread like mange throughout Lenox and Saint Nicholas Avenues and made their way into the boxing gyms. Brown was gay. He was “in the life” and patronized places like the speakeasy on 126th Street and Seventh Avenue, where the “rough queers” went, according to writer Bruce Nugent. Or six blocks up and to the right of that, where Edmond’s Cellar was “the place for men to flaunt their sister’s skirts and their mom’s wigs.” Other boxers stopped using the showers when he did. He was barred from the gyms. Unable to pay his rent, he was once again homeless. 

Brown showed up at the offices of promoter Eddie McMahon, (whose brother Jess, the grandfather of the WWE’s Vince McMahon, promoted wrestling). Under Eddie, Brown became a headliner at the Commonwealth Athletic Club in Harlem. Though popular with the uptown crowds, which included Langston Hughes, Brown had little luck securing the more lucrative and important fights held below 125th Street. 

He began boxing with the enthusiasm of a man stuffing envelopes. Then, following the murder of his friend, boxing champion Battling Siki of France, Brown headed for Paris. 

On November 11, 1926 at the Salle Wagram, Europe had its first look at Brown. Hours before the doors opened, a sold-out crowd lined up beneath the bright lights of the Salle and waited anxiously. Brown was the latest in a string of performers who became known as “Harlem in Montmartre.” While Josephine Baker and Django Reinhardt ruled the stage, Brown was king of the ring. When he made his way down the carpeted aisle of the Troubadour-style hall in a sky-blue, silk kimono with white polka dots, his beige newsboy cap pulled down to side, he had no idea he was about to embark upon perhaps the most intense love-hate relationship any fighter ever had with his fans. 

In his Paris debut, Brown boxed like Muhammad Ali and punched like Joe Louis. A right hand thrown like a spear in the third, simultaneously dropped his opponent and the jaws of the ringsiders. After the fight, Brown hit the cobblestone streets and received congratulations everywhere he went. In Paris, despite being darker than his last name, he walked through the front doors of the pubs. 

His fights drew crowds the New York Times described as “fashionable” and, dressed in “evening clothes, with a brilliant display of jewelry, ermine and sables by the women.” In the audience were Picasso and Hemingway. After the fights, along the Rue de Martyrs or Boulevard de Clichy, the seductive sounds of a saxophone often came from Brown’s hands and lips. Having learned French as a child from his mother, who was of French-Caribbean ancestry, Brown easily got around Paris. The athletic boxer took to dance as easily as he did to boxing and even performed onstage with Josephine Baker’s La Revue Negré. Well-known in many parts of the city, once again, the whispers about his lifestyle spread. The premier attraction of the most macho sport was a regular in places where women dressed as men and same-sex couples held hands. Cheers turned to jeers and ring entrances were met with profanity, slurs and spit. 

Brown returned to New York and, under a new and influential manager, continued winning. When it came time for the NBA to crown a champion in 1928, he and Italy’s Kid Francis were the leading available contenders, and they met in a match TheNew York Times reported was “calculated to eliminate” one of them from the title picture. On the night of September 13, 1928, they faced off. Francis, called a “sawed-off Hercules and “the most dangerous challenger for the title” by The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, was no match for the “towering colored bantam with the extension ladder reach.” Brown became the first boxer from Latin America to win a world title, but it was soon taken away from him. 

On October 14, 1928, his last day as president, Donahue sent out a press release which appeared in the Times under an AP byline. Brown was listed among the champions. The very next day, the new president, Paul Prehn, issued a press release. 

“In the previous list Al Brown was recognized as the bantamweight champion, but now that championship is declared vacant.”

There is no definitive record of why he was stripped of the title, whether it was racism or homophobia or merely favoritism for others, but the decision to award it to him was not a popular one, and few protested it being taken away.

Once again relegated to club shows, Brown began to show signs of depression. He returned to Europe. The wins continued, as did the insults. Eventually, Brown beat everyone in his way and, begrudgingly, was acknowledged as champion in most corners. He came back to New York and defeated the reigning sensation, the Spaniard Gregorio Vidal, in 1929, after fifteen rounds and three knockdowns. But once again, those in charge of the NBA preferred to leave the title vacant. 

In contrast, fans in Europe flocked to his fights and the pay befitted a champion. Though he would do most of his boxing in Europe the rest of his career, he traveled often between the continents, keeping apartments in Harlem and Montmartre. In Harlem, he drove a 1929 Packard 645 Sport with six wire wheels. “A magnificent car that I might bring here if I stay long,” he told a Spanish reporter, who noted that Brown spoke with a lisp and dragged every “s.” In 1930, the Afro American reported that Brown, “Set Harlem Styles for Men.” His attire was called “feminine” and his “flowing coats, high belts and tams tickle observers on Seventh Avenue.”With wide belts, polished Oxfords, and colorful fedoras, Brown stood out like a Borzoi in a gym filled with bulldogs and pugs. 

In Paris, he kept a stable of slow race horses and once gave away a Bugatti. He also kept a medicine chest full of drugs. Somewhere along the way, perhaps in a Parisian nightclub or a Harlem speakeasy, in a room too dark to see the chancre sores, Brown contracted syphilis. Arthritis set in soon after. Painkillers and mercury pills became a daily routine. When his mother became bedridden, he delayed visiting her.

What would she say when she saw the raw sores that dotted his back, he thought. In those pre-penicillin days, syphilis had no cure. While he waited for the symptoms to fade, she exhaled for the last time. He didn’t attend the funeral. Instead, he stayed in Paris and got hooked on opium. 

Because of his illness and addiction, some of his fights were cancelled. When he fought Emile Pladner on November 14, 1932, he was drunk, high and sick. From about the eighth of November, Brown could not get out of bed. His vision was blurred, his head spun, and his stomach had trouble holding anything down. The day of the fight, he awoke with shivers and cold sweats and a temperature of 102. Still, he fought. That night, a Dr. Taubmann was called to his dressing room. The doctor prepared a syringe. “This will last ten minutes,” he said of the rush from the mixture of amphetamines. “Starting now,” he added before sticking the champion in his arm. It was clear to ring siders something was wrong with Brown. He threw few punches and there was no bounce to his steps. In the corner before the second round, his handlers held a fistful of smelling salts under his nose and told him, “Take him out now.”

Brown’s legs quivered unsteadily when he rose from his stool. At the center of the ring, an eager Pladner awaited. When Brown reached him, Pladner unleashed a left with fight-ending intentions towards Brown’s diaphragm. The punch traveled in a slight arc, gained maximum leverage, then, suddenly, was pulled down to the canvas with the rest of his body.

A split-second after Pladner planted his left foot for torque, Brown unleashed a right hand. Both punches were airborne at the same time. Brown’s punch was straight. Pladner’s took the scenic route. The straight punch landed first. It detonated on Pladner’s jaw. He dropped like a sack of potatoes. He looked awful when he got up. Brown looked worse.

When Pladner wound up to throw his next punch, Brown released an atomic right hand that carried every bit of energy he had left. It landed on the temple. Pladner was out before he hit the canvas. Before the referee finished the ten-count, Brown started to faint. He collapsed into the arms of his trainer who rushed over in the nick of time to catch him. 

Brown was admitted into a hospital, where he stayed for 48 hours. He woke to find a telegram on the desk beside him from his manager instructing him to check himself out and head over immediately to Sheffield for a December 1 match, followed by one in Brussels on December 3, and then another in Paris on December 8. 

One week later, an article in El Mundo Deportivo stated, “bad winds blowing throughout the house of Brown.” He was in a state of depression severe enough that he might quit the game. The cause for the depression was the death of his mother and his inability to visit her. Those close to him said Brown felt his death was imminent and that he wished to be high when it happened. 

Al Brown at the American hospital in Neuilly, France, 1932. (Photo by Agence Meurisse, courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France)

He was almost killed in 1934 by that angry mob who rushed the ring, kicking and punching him until the riot police arrived. Ringside reporters said Brown had thrown few punches and stumbled around the ring as though drunk. He grabbed and held on to his two-divisions-heavier opponent until the referee disqualified him for “stalling.” When he exited the ring, a mob blocked all paths to the dressing room and shouted at him. Within seconds, they pounced on him. When the attack was broken up, Brown had a dislocated clavicle and streams of his blood covered the ground. No arrests were reported, though one writer declared Brown was to blame for the fracas.  

He lost his championship in 1935 in a fight during which he spent the last three rounds crying and unable to properly defend himself because, he said, someone in his own corner had slipped some rat poison in his water bottle halfway through the fight. He returned to Paris with no intention of boxing. He found work as a tap dancer and sax player performing in front of crowds who preferred talking amongst themselves rather than watching him. Brown spent his days clutching his opium lamp. Always warm, that lamp – and that drug – did for him what his vaunted straight right used to: it bailed him out. 

Then one night the poet, Jean Cocteau, sat in the audience and asked to meet Brown, who he said comported himself in an elegant manner. Cocteau saw a younger version of himself in Brown. The dependency on his drug of choice, the way he clung to and relied on it like medicine, and the countless hook-ups with nameless individuals equally lost were all part of the road he traveled in his own younger days. Cocteau also knew the path out and would soon give Brown the directions.

Cocteau convinced Brown he needed to regain his championship and that he, for no money, would become his manager – his protector. With the financial backing of Cocteau’s close friend, Coco Chanel, Brown underwent detox and regained his title. Rumors once again surfaced, this time linking Brown with Cocteau. It was no secret that they shared an apartment and Brown was quoted as saying that what he liked most about Cocteau was the way the poet would slide into the bathtub after Brown was done and use the same bathwater the champ had used. They wore one another’s shoes and shirts and though they didn’t publicly confirm the rumors, they never denied them, not even when right-wing and fascist writers such as Robert Brasillach labeled Cocteau a “Jewified lover of Negroids.” Instead, Cocteau wrote a series of affectionate poems and articles about Brown, mostly for the journal Ce Soir. He wrote that “Al Brown’s methods astonished by their indifference to the rules.” Cocteau wrote of his own imprudence when, “adopting young souls who replace the true sons fate owed me but has not permitted me to have.” One of those souls, he wrote, “is so alien to the world of letters that he is almost more of a lyrical creation; I speak of former champion Al Brown.” There were enough writings to fill a book, which is precisely what Spanish artist Eduardo Arroyo did, publishing Cocteau-Panama AlBrown Historia de Una Amistad (A Story of Friendship).

Under the guidance of Cocteau, Brown redeemed himself. He retired as champion and life was good until the beginnings of World War II. With the threat of German occupation looming over France, Brown left behind property, savings, Cocteau, and many friends. He returned to Harlem, and despite beginning to show signs of brain damage – headaches, a wobbly gait, slurred speech – he started boxing again. He sparred younger fighters, most of the time just covering up and letting them hit him. He stumbled out of the ring afterwards and, with an unsteady hand, collected his wage of one dollar per round. 

He was arrested for possession. Standing before federal judge William Bondy, he said his name was “Alfredo.” Someone in the courtroom whispered into Bondy’s ear. Looking down from the bench, he asked, “Are you Al Brown the former boxing champion?”

Brown lowered his head, and, in a soft voice, admitted he was. The room was silent while he told his story. He had left behind $280,000 in property in France with no way of reclaiming it, he told the court. Someone had recommended heroin, he said, so that the ring beatings wouldn’t hurt as much. 

The last few years of his life were spent in hospitals and on the streets. One cold night in 1951, a cop poked his club at an unresponsive man curled up on a mattress of litter on Broadway. It was Brown. They tossed him in a jail cell. When he didn’t wake up, they rushed him to a hospital. He had tuberculosis. When Cocteau found out Brown was on his deathbed, he recorded his memories of their time spent together and sent the tape to him via a reporter from L’équipe. It arrived just in time. 

On April 11, 1951, the booing ended, the insults went away, and the slurs stopped. A modest ceremony attended by few was followed by a burial witnessed only by the guy holding the shovel. His death, like that night in 1928 when he first became champion, went largely unreported. At least this time, the writers could be excused since Brown died alone in an empty room. With the tape player to his ear, according to Cocteau. 

* * *

This story is adapted and excerpted from Jose Corpas’ book, Black Ink. Sources include “Panama Al Brown” by Eduardo Arroyo; “Monstre Sacres Du Ring” by Georges Peeters; “An Impersonation of Angels, A Biography of Jean Cocteau” by Frederick Brown; “Professional Secrets, An Autobiography” by Jean Cocteau; and “A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris 1919-1939” by Florence Tamagne.

 

 

That Time I Tried Topless House Cleaning

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After years getting paid to bare my breasts at more clubs than I can count, when my funds hit an all-time low I pioneered a cleaner brand of sex work.

Topless Housecleaning + Lapdance
Gentlemen, do you need a good, clean tease after a hard day’s work? I’ll clean your house and give you a (1) lapdance
$100/hr – have your own cleaning supplies – no blocked numbers.

When I arrive at the house of the first viable person to respond to my Craigslist ad, I knock on the door and take a step back. He opens it right away. Jim or John, suddenly I can’t remember. He’s young to have such a nice mini-mansion with a swimming pool and younger than I normally like to deal with. I like his work jeans and dirty white t-shirt, though. They feel kind of homey.

I step in, a little flirty, but all-business to begin with. I get him to show me the whole house, which serves the double purpose of planning ahead for cleaning and making sure there’s no one else hiding, ready to pop out for a gang rape later. Just when the tour is complete my phone rings. It’s my security detail — Possum, the hillbilly witchdoctor I’ve befriended, following instructions to wait for me to clear the house and call to be sure everything’s okay.

“Hey,” I say. “It’s all good in here. Call me in like an hour.”

Ayep,” Possum replies in his drawl.

I turn to JimJohn and start to pull my shirt off, then stop. “Business before pleasure, babe,” I say, making the little money sign with my fingers.

“Oh, of course.” He pulls a hundred out of his pocket and presses it into my hand. I shove it down one of my stockings as I take my pants off, because I have always believed that the safest place for my money is right against my skin.

* * *

I’d had eighty dollars left to my name when I drove into Greenville, South Carolina. Half a tank of gas and two blueberry smoothies later, it dwindled to sixteen dollars folded together in the bottom of my pocket. For some people, this might have been a problem, but not for me. I have the magical ability to walk into a strip club just about anywhere there is one and make a few hundred bucks just because I’m willing to get naked and smile at people.

Sex work is my trust fund. When I’ve been broke down on the side of the road with no money, when I’ve been a homeless teenager, when I’ve wanted to buy a house, a car, an education — sex work has always been there for me. I’ve done almost all the sex work: everything from street hustling to dancing in bejeweled gowns to foot fetish parties and erotic hypnosis. Whenever I discover a new form of sex work — the weirder or more interesting the better — I try to experience it.

I’m staying, with my dog, Spot, in my van down by the river next to Possum, who lives in a van that’s much bigger and nicer than mine. Possum drew me a map showing how to get to the two strip clubs he knows of: a big one, and a little one. Big strip clubs sometimes have things like rules and schedules and lots of competition and high house fees, which I don’t like. I decided to try the small one first.

The small one turned out to be a brothel with very little business, where I met some very beautiful, very southern women, including a 300-pound dancer named Hamhock who I wish I could introduce to every teenager worrying about their weight ever.

I was too fat for the big one, or the door guy was having a bad day.

I started to feel a little panic. That’s when the idea of topless housecleaning came to me — purely formed, rising sweetly out of my desperation — so I put up a Craigslist ad and here I am at Jim or John or whatever his name is’ house.

* * *

I do the kitchen first, like my friend Tania who actually grew up in a mansion and knows how to clean explained to me last night on the phone. I keep up a steady stream of flirting while I put his dishes in the dishwasher and move everything on the counter to one end so I can clean it. While I’m stacking his mail neatly I check out his name. Jim. The counter is dirty, covered in stains and puddles of dried-up food and glue and who knows what else. Scrubbing while bending over a counter in six-inch heels, back arched so that your ass sticks up pretty, is hard work. Especially while flirting the whole time with a man you hope is staring at your ass and not your sweaty face.

He asks about me, how I came to be a topless housecleaner. I don’t tell him that he’s my first, or that I’m broke, or that I live in a van. If you watch television you know what happens to broke homeless women: They give $20 blow jobs, not $100 counter scrubbings. Instead I make up a prissy story about finishing my Master’s degree and taking a year to drive around the country in an R.V. dancing. Of course I tried dancing here, I explain, but the clubs are just so dirty, and I’m way too classy to expose myself to such an environment. The crazy thing I’ve discovered is that the snobbier you seem, the more they will pay you.

Jim is amazingly empathetic about the nastiness of the local clubs. A classy woman like me obviously doesn’t belong in places like those. He follows me from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom to living room, staring while I wipe, mop, scrub and vacuum, all while trying to look like I’m not sweaty from doing this work in humid 90-degree weather. His story is interesting. All his time goes to his race-car business, which is like a dream, but lots of hard work. He bought this house two years ago, but hasn’t had the time or taste to furnish it yet, though he does find the time to indulge in the tradition of illicit hooch brewing down in the basement. Steely grey eyes and his young tough look contrast with his docile nature as he tamely follows me around his house. I’m beginning to think all men in the South must be gentlemen.

When I’m done cleaning I settle him on his couch, set my iPod to Depeche Mode, and tell him that he gets one free lap dance with his housecleaning and after that they are twenty dollars, just like in the club. He opens his wallet and peels off another hundred, right away, and tells me to just dance until that runs out.

“No touching,” I remind him as the song starts and I move in front of him. Soon I’m crawling all over him, undulating, brushing my ass across his hard penis through his jeans. He is begging me to let him touch me, and I’m reminding him that I’m not that kind of girl, although I make sure to sound a little confused.

“Come on,” he says, getting his wallet out. “What about for another hundred?”

I pretend to think hard, then: “Okay.” I take his hands and guide them over my body. “You can touch here — my ass, my thighs, my stomach, but no titties or pussy.”

“Two hundred?” he pulls two crisp $100 bills out of his wallet.

It’s not really a question for me. I’ve given this much contact for thirty dollars a song. I pretend to think long and hard, though. If I let on that I have no principles, I can’t pretend to sell them.

“Okay,” I finally say, pushing the bills down my stockings, “but keep your hands off the kitty! That is not for sale!”

He has gentle, well-practiced hands that he swirls around my nipples and brushes softly over my ass. I arch my back and gasp in pretend ecstasy. Soon he wants more again — a hand job, a hundred dollars.

I insist that I’m not that kind of dancer while I consider this through to its logical conclusion. A couple hundred more for a hand job, a couple hundred more for a blow job, a lot more for sex. It could be a grand, easily. But do I want to have sex with this guy? The thing is, I’m a lesbian. The other thing is, sometimes I think I could be bisexual, and every year or two I have a man sex experiment. I can get into men, and right now on this guy’s lap, I’m turned on.

My phone rings again. It’s Possum. “It’s been an hour,” he says, “are you okay in there?”

“Yeah,” I giggle, “I’m having a great time. I’ll be just another fifteen minutes or so.”

Awright.” He hangs up.

“Will you touch it?” Jim asks.

Do I look like that kind of girl? I’m a very classy stripper, I remind him.

“Oh, of course, of course. I’m sorry,” he says. “I hope you’re not offended.”

“No…” I cock my head. “Actually… I’ve always kind of wondered what it would be like to do something like that for money.”

“Well, here’s your chance to find out.”

“Hmm…I dunno. I couldn’t. Well…how much?”

“A hundred?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t.”

“Two hundred?” He’s got his wallet out, two crisp hundreds in his hand.

“Okay.” I grab them and shove them into my stocking. In my mind I’m counting and calculating miles. This makes 600, or is it 800? That’s, like, 5,000 miles of gas money! Or 2,000 miles and a month or two of groceries and stuff while I explore desert canyons and sky islands. What more could a girl need?

I slide down between his legs and he unzips his jeans eagerly. It is small, with a nice curve and for a second I love it and want to fuck him. Smiling, I bring my face close, admiring it like I’m about to lick it. He gasps and wiggles a little, and I take his cock in my hand. It’s already throbbing, and I just run my hand up it lightly, swirl some of the pre-cum back down it, run my fingers over the whole thing. He moans and half thrusts his hips. I love this. When I finally grab his cock, two-handed, and give it a couple strong, twisting strokes, he explodes right away. Perfect.

“Oh my god,” he says.

I giggle. “No, goddess.”

“Oh my goddess.” He smiles.

“Stay right there, I’m going to get you a washcloth.” I run to the bathroom.

While he cleans up, I pull my jeans and tank top back on over my fishnets and thong. I’m ecstatic and high from the rush of going from six dollars to 800 dollars in an hour with my hustling skills, but I know I won’t have really pulled it off until I’m in the van, driving away. I make myself look totally calm while I throw my iPod and cleaning stuff in the bag I came with, give him a goodbye hug, and tell him he should really call me again to clean the rest of the house.

I don’t start laughing until I’m in the van and Possum is driving us away. Then I fold over in my seat, laughing and clapping my hands with excitement.

“Possum,” I exclaim, “I love having a vagina!

Leaning back, I push my hips up to pull my jeans down and start fishing the hundreds out of my fishnets.

Possum looks over at me with my legs up on the bed, pulling eight $100 bills out of my thigh highs. “Holy shit,” he says, “I do believe I wish I had a vagina too.”

Checking “topless housecleaning” off my to-try list of sex-work gigs makes me enough money to get back on the road. The next day Spot and I get in the van and drive across the country until I find a beautiful desert-sky island in northern Arizona. I stay for a couple weeks, playing in a creek and tracking coyote, before I get low on money again and start over.

* * *

Tara Burns is the author of the Whore Diaries series. She lives in a little cabin in a big boreal forest and she is working on a memoir. Follow her @THEecowhore

 

 

The Day My Therapist Dared Me to Have Sex With Her

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah,” I say. “That.”

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

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

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

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

I shrugged my shoulders, only half looking up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nailed it.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two ways to find out:

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

2) Keep going to therapy.

* * *

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” I respond, flustered.

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

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

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

“Of course not.”

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

“I wouldn’t do that.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t therapy supposed to ameliorate my anxiety?

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lori’s great at forcing me to reflect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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