Alternative Reality: ‘Dark Window’

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I look forward to winter ever year, mostly because I like the snow, which quiets a city down, makes it more peaceful. I am aware my opinion may be an unpopular one — and that the snow makes life difficult and perhaps even impossible for the many homeless people in New York City (where I live) and beyond. Snow is no joke for those who are on the streets. I thought about that as I read Doyle Murphy’s long, keenly observed profile, in St Louis’ Riverfront Times, of a 22-year-old transgender woman named Jazmin, who is homeless and doubts that she will make it through the winter alive.

Several of the stories in this list highlight the ways in which cities have abandoned those who need them most. In addition to Jazmin in St. Louis, there was Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old man with schizophrenia who was shot and killed by Santa Fe police in his apartment last year, as Aaron Cantú details in his investigation for the Santa Fe Reporter.

Other stories veered from that theme. In the Charleston City Paper, Maura Hogan wrote a fascinating piece on the history of the city’s Garden and Gun Club, the defunct establishment that now lends its name to the magazine. Steven Hale of the Nashville Scene filed a sobering dispatch on the execution of David Earl Miller, Tennessee’s longest-serving incarcerated person on death row, who chose to die by electric chair. Debra Andres Arellano, in Maui Time, wrote an uplifting personal essay on a 51-day workers’ strike at the Sheraton Hotel in Maui that ended with better pay for union members.

For Boulder Weekly, Will Brendza wrote an interesting analysis on a new system that requires emergency medical responders to work from their vehicles all day, often without the possibility of downtime outside of their ambulances. And the Chicago Reader’s Maya Dukmasova interviewed a number of mayoral hopefuls who may not even make it onto the ballot in February but who have interesting stories nonetheless.

I came across many unique stories in alt-weeklies around the country for the third installment in this regular reading list.

1. “Downtown Businesses Consider Jazmin a Nuisance, But the Streets of St. Louis Are Her Home” (Doyle Murphy, November 28, 2018, Riverfront Times)

Doyle Murphy, a staff reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, paints a sympathetic portrait of Jazmin, a 22-year-old transgender woman from the Milwaukee area who is homeless and spends much of her time panhandling in a McDonald’s drive-through. Murphy follows Jazmin — also known as “Jaz” — through the city as she hops on an unlocked Lime scooter, buys K2 and has an uncomfortable run-in with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a 43-year-old ex-convict named Courvoisier. Jaz is witty and loquacious — “It’s not Missouri,” she says of her chosen state, “It’s misery.” A portentous air hangs over this profile with the grim reality of a long St. Louis winter underway.

In another world, the 22-year-old would be finishing college about now, maybe starting a career. Her dream car is a Chrysler 300 “with the SRT” or a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta — “I don’t know why.” But she does not see a future that includes any of this. Instead, she wonders if she will survive the winter. “The way things are going, I think I’m finna to wind up dead.”

2. “How the Garden and Gun Club upended Charleston’s starched social order in just a few short years” (Maura Hogan, December 12, 2018, Charleston City Paper)

You may be familiar with Garden & Gun, the Charleston-based magazine that was founded in 2007 and has since raked in a number of National Magazine Awards. It’s the publication of choice among those who are too dainty for Guns & Ammo and perhaps too snooty for Better Homes & Gardens. But were you aware that its namesake is a former Charleston nightclub that one might describe as the Studio 54 of the South thanks to its louche atmosphere?

A recent cover story in the Charleston City Paper — South Carolina’s only independent alt-weekly — looks at the legendary club, which is now home to a restaurant called Hank’s Seafood. Its legacy lives on not just through the magazine that borrowed its name, as the theater critic Maura Hogan makes clear in her in-depth investigation.

From its Hayne Street locale to its original home two blocks away on King Street, the always-teeming, ever-joyous nightclub once reverberated so strongly throughout the city that it dramatically altered Charleston’s cultural and social landscape. It did so by encouraging a party-hardy, wildly convivial commingling of demographics that in Charleston cut an unprecedented swath through race, sexual orientation, social status, and income level — and tolerated nothing less than harmony throughout.

At the Garden and Gun Club, differences were checked at the door, so that Spoleto artists, Broad Street lawyers, freshly-out young gay men, Charlestonians of all races, and taffeta-wrapped socialites could get down, get down with anyone and everyone, on the frenetic, teeming dance floor. Side by side, they could belly up and raise a glass at the well-stocked, hard-liquor-fueled bar. They could costume up to great effect for the legendary Halloween party. From wall to flashing, flesh-pressing wall, they could express anything and everything — that is, except for judgment.

3. “The Execution of David Earl Miller” (Steven Hale, December 7, 2018, Nashville Scene)

Steven Hale, a staff writer for the Nashville Scene, recently bore witness to the execution of David Earl Miller, Tennessee’s longest-serving incarcerated person on death row. Miller chose to be executed by electric chair, forgoing a lethal injection. He and three other incarcerated people had filed a lawsuit asking to die by firing squad, “but the suit hasn’t been successful so far,” Hale writes, and Miller ran out of time. Hale describes Miller’s execution in an appropriately clinical tone, but he can’t help feeling unsettled.

Having witnessed Billy Ray Irick’s lethal injection in August, I underestimated how unnerving it would be to feel familiar with the whole production — to know the conference room where a TDOC staffer would offer coffee, to remember the route to the execution chamber, and to notice subtle changes in the prison’s lobby. On Thursday night, there was a Christmas tree covered in lights, and a new sign at the security desk reading, “You can’t have a good day with a bad attitude, and you can’t have a bad day with a good attitude.”

Miller’s similarly sanguine last words: “Beats being on death row.”

4. “Dark Window” (Aaron Cantú, December 11, 2018, Santa Fe Reporter)

Aaron Cantú looks at the short life of Anthony Benavidez, a 24-year-old with schizophrenia who was shot and killed last year in his home by Santa Fe police after a SWAT team was called in after Benavidez stabbed his social worker. For reasons that are unclear, one of the two officers who shot Benavidez turned off his body camera before entering the apartment — in apparent violation of SFPD policy. Rather than going to court, Benavidez’s family settled with the city last month for $400,000, paid for by Travelers, Santa Fe’s insurance carrier, which, Cantú writes, “will try to settle civil suits against the city even if the officers involved are criminally charged and prosecuted.” Widening the scope of his story, Cantú wonders how this setup protects the citizens of Santa Fe.

The only accountability for the killing so far comes from the city’s insurance carrier, a business that has the final say in legal complaints against SFPD officers. One law professor believes these private insurers, who bear most of the financial responsibility when cops in small and mid-sized towns get sued, may be the most powerful entities when it comes to regulating police behavior.

Mayor Alan Webber refused to be interviewed for this story. In a written statement, City Attorney Erin McSherry said: “The settlement was a financial decision determined by the city’s insurance carrier,” and that it was “not an admission of any wrongdoing by the officers or the city.”

With no one from the city offering a detailed explanation, a more fundamental question hangs in the air: If the bloodless calculation of a faceless insurance company is a family’s best option for justice from police violence, to whom are the city and police truly accountable?

5. “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (Debra Andres Arellano, December 12, 2018, Maui Time)

Union workers at the Sheraton Hotel in Maui recently ended a 51-day strike after negotiating better hourly pay and safer working conditions, among other things. It was one of the longest strikes in Hawaii, writes Debra Andres Arellano, who recounts the workers’ saga in a moving personal essay. The piece includes reflections from some who joined the picket line, including Virgil Seatriz Jr., a bell clerk at the Sheraton who describes how the strike brought workers closer together.

“Before, we would just show up to work, swipe in, swipe out, either nod or say hello to other departments. Now, we almost know each other by name, no matter which department you worked at,” Virgil explained. “There’s a sense of ‘ohana now where you consider your coworkers your brothers and sisters.” He added, “Before the strike, I think we would just let things go with the flow and voice our opinions individually than as a whole. As a whole we can now voice what’s right or wrong, not individually.”

6. “Waiting for an emergency” (Will Brendza, December 13, 2008, Boulder Weekly)

In Boulder, Colorado, emergency medical responders have, under a newly implemented model, been relegated to their ambulances for 10-hour shifts, often without the possibility of a lunch break or any sort of downtime outside the vehicle. That’s because American Medical Response, the medical transportation company that provides emergency services in Boulder and elsewhere, not long ago decided to eliminate EMS stations in favor of a system known as “street corning posting,” in which ambulances are parked throughout the city ready for action at all times. The system apparently increases efficiency despite that it may be draining and unhealthy for responders.

It is becoming more and more common across the state of Colorado, according to Will Brendza’s piece in Boulder Weekly.

It’s simply more effective to keep EMS locked and loaded, prepped and positioned to respond, than to trifle with the cost of EMS stations and the challenges they present. Street corner posting is becoming the industry standard in Colorado, and whether or not it is popular among ambulance crews seems to be irrelevant.

7. “Overlooked mayoral hopefuls share bold visions for Chicago” (Maya Dukmasova, December 13, 2018, Chicago Reader)

Chicago Reader staff writer Maya Dukmasova spoke with some of the lesser-known candidates who may or may not be on the ballot in Chicago’s mayoral election early this year. They include a brazen pastor named Catherine Brown D’Tycoon; 87-year-old Conrien Hykes Clark, who wants to take on the city’s drug problem; and a police officer named Roger L. Washington. Even if they don’t make it that far, it is still refreshing to hear from them — and, as Dukmasova writes, it will “say little about the viability of their ideas or the seriousness of their commitment to the city.”

As we met with and interviewed the Chicagoans who dream most vividly of taking up the city’s highest office, it became clear that, if nothing else, most of them are acutely aware of the problems faced by ordinary people here. They may not have the campaign funds, party backing, or name-recognition needed to win this election, but they also don’t stink of the bullshit that tends to envelop the “viable” candidates who calculate statements to sound as inoffensive as possible while withholding most actionable opinions and commitments.

8. “As Long Beach Luxury Development Booms, the Poor Get Left Behind” (Joshua Frank, December 13, 2018, OC Weekly)

In Long Beach, California, a surge in luxury development has led to increased rents so onerous that many residents are forced to leave their homes. It is a story that has become all too common in metropolitan areas throughout the country. In his cover story for OC Weekly, Joshua Frank walked through Long Beach and interviewed a number of residents about the city’s housing crisis.

Off East Fourth Street and Redondo Avenue, Jeremy Rodriguez was served a 60-day notice to vacate in early November, when his one-year lease was up. Despite always paying his rent on time and never having been in trouble with his landlord, he was provided no reason for the eviction and offered no option to stay. Rodriguez, who manages a craft-beer tasting room in Long Beach, is now forced to find a new place for his child, girlfriend and small dog in the middle of the hectic holiday season.

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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.