Alternative Reality: An Alt-Weekly Reading List

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There have been a lot of eulogies for the alt-weekly lately, and understandably so. Over the past few years, we’ve lost a lot of them: the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, the Baltimore City Paper, Knoxville’s Metro Pulse, the Boston Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Missoula Independent. The list goes on.

But the story of alt-weeklies isn’t all about attrition. It’s also about resilience in the face of local media contraction. Around the country, alt-weeklies continue to publish deep investigations, irreverent features, and weird columns that you just don’t find in other publications, often by promising young writers who are discovering their voices. The work usually goes unnoticed because alt-weeklies have always operated under the radar. But in this regular reading list, I hope to rectify that.

Whenever I travel to a new town, the first thing I look for is its free alt-weekly, which can most often be found stacked inside a street corner box. Alt-weeklies help me get a read on my new locale, and at their best, they offer a kind of X-ray — social, cultural, political — on a city that you might not find in the daily paper.

Here are some stories which, I think, do just that — and more.

1.Miller Cane: A True and Exact History, Chapter 2, Part 4 (Samuel Ligon, November 8, 2018, Inlander)

Since mid-September, the fiction writer Samuel Ligon has been serializing a novel in Spokane’s Inlander, one of the country’s more robust, and adventurous, alt-weeklies. It’s a hard-boiled work with terse dialogue and staccato sentences. It tells the story of a guy named Miller Cane, who “has been making his living conning and comforting the survivors of mass shootings,” as an expository summary at the top of one part explains it. The installments, which are also broadcast on Spokane Public Radio, will debut every week for the next year or so. The first part jumps right into the action.

Miller Cane was six days into the Rosedale massacre when Heffner slid into the Legion Hall during an afternoon animal session. Miller didn’t recognize him at first, was focused on calming a howling beagle he’d just settled into a survivor’s lap. But the rage vibe was unmistakable, a disruption in the air over all the animal distraction, even as Heffner slouched and slunk and tried to keep himself small as he looked for a seat, finally taking a broken office chair by the coffee urns in back. It never would have occurred to Miller that a survivor from Cumberland would show up in Texas — a thousand miles away — at a completely different massacre. Maybe the man was just disturbed. Weren’t they all? Maybe his hurt came off as hatred. Miller had seen that before. But he couldn’t help wondering, just for a second, if the man might be another shooter, fresh on the scene to finish them all. He didn’t want to think that. Connie Lopez seemed to know something was off with the dude too, keeping an eye on him from her table in the center of the barroom as she chopped cilantro for chili.

The fourth part of the second chapter is the most recent installment to have been published. This is the sort of thing newspapers don’t really do anymore, and it’s a thrill to watch Ligon perform the high-wire act of writing a novel in public.

2. “Syed Irbaz Shah Wants to Be Deported, So Why Is He Still Here?” (Chris Walker, October 23, 2018, Westword)

Bureaucracy, like inertia, is a difficult subject to make compelling. But the rule doesn’t apply when it comes to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the story of Syed Irbaz Shah, a Pakistani national who was deported from the United States earlier this year but remains locked up in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Colorado because, to simplify a complex situation, he can’t get his passport.

The tension at the core of this tale is so ridiculous — and the chain of events that led to Shah’s imprisonment so serpentine — that you can’t help but continue reading to find out how and why Shah got into this predicament. Chris Walker, a staff writer for Denver’s Westword who covers local news and music, does a good job ironing out all the wrinkles in a story that amounts to a kind of low-key procedural thriller.

Today the Pakistani national remains in the Aurora immigrant detention center where he’s been held since February. While the circumstances surrounding Shah’s case are unusually complicated and technical, he, his family members and multiple lawyers believed that they could overcome any hurdles to get him out of the United States. Instead, they’ve become bit players in a Kafkaesque tale for our time, in which someone who desperately wants to be deported during the most deportation-loving U.S. administration in recent memory can’t seem to get himself booted across the border.

3. “Despite demolition efforts, blight spreads undetected throughout Detroit’s neighborhoods” (Violet Ikonomova, November 14, 2018, Metro Times)

In this deeply reported, 7,000-word investigation for Detroit’s Metro Times, Violet Ikonomova looked into the state of Detroit’s vacant houses and found that many more of them were blighted — and, therefore, abandoned — than the city’s Land Bank Authority had accounted for.

The apparently inaccurate blight calculation raises questions about the reliability of the data being used to guide the day-to-day demolition operations of the city and Land Bank.

In Detroit’s Grandale neighborhood, near West Chicago and Greenfield, Luther Johnson has been monitoring changes in the landscape for 50 years. From the well-manicured yard of the red brick Tudor where he grew up, Johnson looks directly onto a vacant lot where the city recently wrapped up a demolition. On one side stands a vacant house whose door appears to at one point have been pried open. On the other stands a worse-off vacant house, its backside crumbling and wooden bones exposed.

“They should have torn it down,” Johnson said of the ramshackle house. “And I don’t know why they didn’t — they tore this one next to it down. They should have torn that one down before they tore this one down because this one was looking better.”

The Metro Times, it’s worth pointing out, has been doing yeoman’s work of late. The paper recently broke the story on Marc Peeples, a 32-year-old man who was repeatedly harassed by three white women for the unseemly act of building a community garden on a vacant playground in a Detroit neighborhood — or, to put it another way, “gardening while black.”

4. “Dartmouth Coach Callie Brownson Is a Pioneer for Women in Football” (Dan Bolles, October 24, 2018, Seven Days)

Callie Brownson, the offensive quality control coach for Dartmouth College’s football team, is also “something else,” Dan Bolles writes in his cover story for Seven Days: “the first full-time female coach in the history of NCAA Division 1 football.” Bolles, an assistant arts editor and features writer for Seven Days, Burlington’s alt-weekly and one of the best newspapers in Vermont, spent some time with Brownson on the field, and he came back with some memorable scenes, as his lede demonstrates.

Dartmouth College quarterback Derek Kyler drops back in the pocket and surveys the chaos unfolding before him. The receivers to his right are locked down in coverage. Ditto the tight end crossing the middle of the field. But to the sophomore QB’s left, Drew Hunnicutt has shaken free of his defender and is streaking toward the end zone. In a flash, Kyler winds up and throws, hitting his wide receiver in stride. The pass is perfect, but it didn’t have to be. Hunnicutt didn’t have a defender within six yards of him.

“Hooooooly shit!” a woman’s voice erupts after the touchdown. “He was wide open! Wide open!”

Callie Brownson springs from her position under the goalposts, waving a laminated playsheet as she strides toward a group of defensive backs. “How do you let him get that wide open?” she asks in disbelief, practically teasing the dejected DBs, who mill around the field, heads hung low and hands on their hips.

Brownson, 29, has been written about by a number of outlets, but Bolles’s profile is an intimate, in-depth portrait, one that readers have come to expect from Seven Days.

5. “Who is the real ‘Lady in Blue’ of Seelbach Hotel?” (Lisa Pisterman, October 24, 2018, Louisville Eccentric Observer)

In Louisville’s charmingly named Eccentric Observer — otherwise known as LEO Weekly — the author and historian Lisa Pisterman took a look at the mysterious case of Patricia Wilson, who, in July of 1936, fell to her death down an elevator shaft at the Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville and is now believed to haunt the building. She is known as the “lady in blue.”

She didn’t receive word that said estranged husband died in a car accident on the way to meet her.

She didn’t throw herself down the elevator shaft in response.

She wasn’t found half-naked in a negligee and stockings.

No one heard her fall, and no one ran out in the hallway to catch Lt. Gov. Henry Denhardt stealing away.

She did fall at least six stories, and she died instantly, not hours later at the hospital. She was not penniless. She had a nice funeral, and she was buried in a quiet plot of her own. She was described as beautiful, sweet and well-liked. She was grieved by those who knew her.

She was a real person, and her name was Patricia Wilson.

Using a number of primary sources, such as city directories and coroner’s inquest records, Pisterman give us as detailed a look as possible at Wilson’s life, putting to rest many of the myths and rumors that have accumulated through the years.

6. “Twin Cities construction is booming, and human traffickers are coming to feed” (Susan Du, November 7, 2018, City Pages)

For City Pages, the alt-weekly serving Minneapolis and St. Paul, Susan Du reports that a construction boom in the Twin Cities has helped created a kind of underground economy of labor trafficking. Du hinges her story on a Honduran immigrant named Yimer Iriarte, who came to the United States and found work in the construction industry after much hardship.

Eventually he found himself building a house in Apple Valley, where his luck changed.

One day Ricardo Batres, a pint-sized, sweet-talking El Salvadoran man, walked onto the site and introduced himself as owner of American Contractors and Associates. He dazzled Iriarte with offers of a lucrative partnership, a room in a house free of charge, and—to celebrate the completion of their first project—a pleasure cruise down the Mississippi River.

They were treasures Iriarte, now 21, will never forget.

Yet time would quell his hopes. The house Batres rented for 10 workers came without heat and hot water, nor were they allowed to use the stove. The landlord eventually threatened eviction, claiming Batres hadn’t paid the rent.

It only gets worse from there.

7. “Marty Wolfson Was Broke and Homeless Until a Horse Saved His Life” (Mike Clary, November 13, 2018, Miami New Times)

Marty Wolfson doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a “Florida Man,” but his story is perhaps one that could only have come from the Sunshine State. In this sympathetic New Times profile, Mike Clary gives readers a textured look at Wolfson, the son of America’s first corporate raider who went on to become one of the most successful horse trainers in South Florida, only to lose it all when his lucky streak petered out. Clary sums up Wolfson’s weird life story in a tidy paragraph.

Ironies abound in the story of Wolfson’s fall from grace. He was a rich kid who ended up broke. He was a painfully shy young man who later posed nude for a national magazine. And for years he succeeded as a horse trainer before finding himself at a rural recovery farm where he was paired with a thoroughbred that raced but rarely won. In the end, the 11-year-old gelding would save Wolfson’s life by demanding nothing at all from him.

8. “Death of a Kinkster” (Daniel Villarreal, November 5, 2018, The Stranger)

In this disturbing piece, Daniel Villarreal investigates a death in Seattle’s gay kink community, in which a young man, Jack Chapman — otherwise known as “Pup Tank”– died after having liquid silicone injected into his genitals. Chapman was romantically connected with a man named Dylan Ray Hafertepen, “a well-known member of the Dom/sub pup play communities in San Francisco and, later, Seattle,” Villarreal writes. “To his pups, including Pup Tank and Pup Alpha, he’s called Master Dylan, but on Instagram and Tumblr, he’s widely known as Noodles and Beef.”

It may sound weird, but such injections are a fetishized form of erotic body modification. Some men fetishize enlarged scrotums as a sign of potency, much like the bronzed huevos dangling from the Wall Street bull. Some guys like to nuzzle gigantic silicone-enhanced ball sacks while giving head, or they enjoy feeling them slap pendulously against their asses while bottoming.

Since World War II, cosmetic surgeons and back-alley “pumpers” have offered liquid silicone injections as a quick and dirty form of plastic surgery. When injected, the body surrounds liquid silicone with collagen, permanently providing a rounder and fuller appearance, smoothing wrinkles and reshaping sagging butts and breasts.

Was Hafertepen responsible for Chapman’s death? Villarreal story digs into that question.

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Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Columbia Journalism Review.