Search Results for: knife ax

Shovel, Knife, Story, Ax

Illustration by David Huang

Erika Howsare | Longreads | May 2019 | 18 minutes (4,826 words)

I am going to tell you a bunch of stories about killing and death, but the first one is a story about a story. It was short, and my neighbor was the storyteller. He told it to John and me ten years ago, the first time we met him. After hello, his very next words to us were: “I once killed a copperhead on your kitchen table.”

Taken aback, we laughed. In those days, we had no killing stories of our own. Now, things are different.

Hear the self-defense in this one:

One morning last June, the day of the solstice, I had a little time on my hands. We had a vet appointment at 10:30 and it was 10:18, a bit too soon to wheedle the cat into the car. I brought some things down to the basement of our old house to put them away.

In the underground chill I deposited the laundry basket on top of the washer, turned back toward the stairs, and heard a little sound. Like a soft slap, an object slipping onto the floor. I looked. There are often animals in the basement, birds and crickets and mice. This was a snake. Read more…

What Happens If I Don’t Like Fiona Apple?

Getty / Photo illustration by Longreads

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | May 2020 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

Even the way I first listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters was oppositional. It wasn’t intentional. I knew I needed about an hour to listen to it all the way through. I knew I couldn’t really do anything else in order to give it my attention. So I took Fiona Apple’s inside record outside. At four in the afternoon in Toronto, the sun was piercing and it was open-coat weather, a strange way to listen to Apple’s nicotine voice and bedroom lyrics. Walking in the middle of a day so bright I needed to squint even through sunglasses, “Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long,” bounced out of my headphones, a jazzy paradox. As everyone knows by now, the album was made by a shut-in, a “messianic figurehead,” according to the New Yorker, who hadn’t produced an album in eight years. A backstory all the better for conjuring the image of a mythical genius at work on an inevitable masterpiece.

I didn’t get it.

Claustrophobia is the overarching theme, even if it isn’t, of the album that came out of Apple’s exile. And during a crisis in which we all feel that same thing, it was inevitable that the concept would eclipse the music itself. It’s also understandable that not answering Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ call would feel particularly alienating — Slate music critic and Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste author Carl Wilson, who I contacted for this column in befuddlement, said that even he was surprised by how much attention Apple’s fifth album was getting. But in the present atmosphere, with physical connection forbidden, every other kind of connection becomes that much stronger. A man singing on his balcony in Rome unites a building, and a woman pounding on a piano in her home in Venice Beach unites the rest of us. Most of us. In normal times, having the dissenting opinion is a point of pride. In pandemic times, where all you want is to not be alone, it’s a cause for concern. Which is why it felt so important to figure out why I didn’t much like Fetch the Bolt Cutters.

* * *

Technically I started listening to Apple’s album before that walk. Motivated by the unanimous praise, I went to YouTube and played the first track, “I Want You to Love Me.” But the second I heard whatever that sound is, I don’t know, a keyboard and cymbals chucka-chucka-chucka-ing, I thought, “Fuck, no.” I am not listening to that experimental shit. Later, in a more studious frame of mind, I persisted. And after about 20 seconds, that sound liquefied into a cascade of piano trills which would be familiar to any ‘90s Apple-ite. At the risk of sounding reductive, this is kind of how Fetch the Bolt Cutters goes if you aren’t feeling it; verses of relief surrounded by weird shit that plays like the opposite of an actual melody. In between hangs the kind of Apple-isms that have always clanged in my ear — mouthfuls of the kind of poetry that was once limited to high school but now stalks us all on Instagram — not to mention the insufferable repetition of words and phrases and the obnoxious holding of never-ending notes like “youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.” At the end of “I Want You to Love Me,” Apple discharges a lengthy, high-pitched throat warble that reminds me of Andie MacDowell’s dolphin-like vocalization in the 1991 Bruce Willis flop Hudson Hawk, a squall that causes Sandra Bernhard to sneer listlessly, “Just shoot her.”

I’m not going to make you suffer through much more of my non-critical thinking around music, but there’s definitely a sensation with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, if you listen to it from start to finish, of a knot being untied, of the songs relaxing into something more digestible as you pass the halfway mark (Editor’s note: “Are the songs relaxing into something more digestible, or are you relaxing into the songs?” Author’s note: It’s not me, it’s her). What doesn’t morph is the subject matter, which, restricted as it seems to Apple’s interpersonal grievances, seems all too confined for a project that was already confined in its production. The whole thing just struck me as too insular for how sweepingly it was being lauded. And despite the claims at raw unprocessed sound, those dog barks on the title song are so strategically placed I was more tickled by the actual dogs barking behind the fence I passed while listening to it. But then you can’t deny the added texture Apple’s voice has acquired with age and her own liberation from her old song strictures. The song I momentarily hated the most on the album, for the opening repetition of its title (“Ladies,” sixteen times!), is also the one I liked the most. Despite the clunky lyrics — “ruminations on the looming effect and the parallax view” — some subterranean motor seems to power this track through the history of music, from folk to rap to whatever, sailing between genres like there’s nothing to it. When people talk of genius, when Pitchfork gives the album 10 stars, I hear a glimpse of that here.

That’s the tension. If I just thought everyone had bad taste, or was dumb, I wouldn’t be tortured by disliking Fetch the Bolt Cutters. My lack of connection to it suggested I was missing some substantial sliver of intellect, which is something I can’t abide as someone who never really feels smart enough. So I groped for a music critic to explain it to me. But if I felt alienated from this particular cultural event, critics didn’t seem too concerned about inviting me in. “She sings, scats, lightly raps — and proceeds to curl her voice into an extended-vocal contortion à la Yoko or Meredith Monk, over a Reichian piano loop, signaling an avant-garde inclination,” Jenn Pelly wrote at Pitchfork. Wait, what? That isn’t critical analysis, it’s critical flexing. At The New Yorker, Carrie Battan’s use of the term “feral authenticity” to describe Apple’s oeuvre — based on her penchant for avoiding the public —  recalled my mother’s duo-syllabic reaction to Apple (“hippie”) but not much else. So, I emailed Carl Wilson. Then I called Wilson; that’s how desperate I was for Wilson to explain what was wrong with me. “I feel a little stymied by your question,” he rightfully responded, “how can I tell you how to like something you already know you don’t like?” 

But then he proceeded to write the kind of email that should have been an article, the kind of explanation that’s the reason Wilson is my favorite music critic. That space between the music and the person listening to it? He writes the bridge. Wilson explained that the reaction to Fetch the Bolt Cutters felt “disproportionate” because of Apple’s absence for so long and because it is “of the moment in its theme and feel.” That includes its lyrics on the sort of gender issues we are currently confronting — not to mention Apple’s transcendence of musical boundaries, mixing disparate genres from cabaret to hip-hop — and that raw home-recorded style that opposes today’s ubiquitous hyper-produced singles. Wilson also noted the self-selection of music critics. And that most of the reviews I read on Apple’s album were by white women, on a beat that has famously had a dearth of female voices as a whole, does imply her music still hasn’t shaken that decades-old Lilith Fair connection. 

“Personally, I wasn’t a huge fan back when — like you, I kind of felt that she was good but not great, maybe a little too self-conscious and strained to be great,” Wilson explained. But then he heard Apple’s fourth album, The Idler Wheel…, in 2012. That’s when he thought she had finally self-actualized (upon his suggestion, I listened to that album too and, indeed, the last track, “Hot Knife,” would not sound out of place on her new record). On Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Wilson noticed the piano that Apple forefronted in the past melded into layers of rhythm and percussion and vocals, her monotonous deep bluesy voice fracturing into a wider range of pitches. “To my ears that’s really opened up the space in her style, which I used to find too suffocating,” he wrote. “It has an immediacy that I find really rare in music right now, allowing by turns for both vulnerability and rapture.”

After all of that, Wilson’s final words could have very well been all he had written: “[M]aybe you just find Fiona Apple a bit much.” The irony is that the same thing I critique her for — for being too solipsistic, for making it all too self-centered — is the same reason I can’t hear her straight. My reactions to art are as impulsive as my consumption is lonely. It’s why, ultimately, I can’t trust critics’ taste though I can trust their analysis, and why I can’t trust the artists themselves, only their art and my own experience of it. If you think about it, it’s a little crazy to believe in your gut when your gut is at least in part influenced by exposure: “acquired taste” is a thing for a reason. And yet I always seem hellbent on independently deciding on the quality of everything. If nothing else, I am entirely secure in my judgment, because, the thinking goes, I may not know much about anything else, but I know myself perfectly. 

I know, for instance, that I have a particular aversion to hippies, and that during the making of this album, Apple chanted around her house with various other musicians, banging on a box of her dead pet’s bones. I know I am intimidated by the blues and by jazz and reject them because of how stupid they make me feel, a symptom of my more general difficulty with engaging in art I don’t at least marginally understand. I know I have a particular aversion to beautiful women in the arts, because it’s never just about the art. I know this particular beautiful woman has dated powerful men — most notably the director Paul Thomas Anderson, as he got more and more famous — and that never means nothing, good or bad. And I know I resented Apple as a teen for being publicly tortured when she was publicly everything girls like me tortured ourselves for not being — good enough, but, more importantly, the right package to cover up for it (as Apple herself sings: “I resent you for never getting any opposition at all.”) I know all of this, but I feel it more.

Unfortunately, you can’t think yourself out of the way you feel.  “A lot of the record is about feeling confined, emotionally and societally,” Wilson explained, “and about thinking of ways to liberate yourself.” But had Fetch the Bolt Cutters not alienated me musically, everything around it would have. I’m skeptical of blanket accolades; that something can appeal so globally suggests a lack of originality. And I can’t escape (liberate myself from?) the fact that being told another artist has achieved perfection is, as they say, triggering. The idea that someone has unlocked everything they are capable of and created something that is so purely them that it transcends time and space, God-like, to become an indisputable piece of perfection — it’s the thing every artist wants, for all their neuroses and all their intellect and all their values to coalesce into this object that by virtue of being so essentially them is essentially the rest of us as well. It’s incredibly rare, but you see it in work like Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, for instance, or Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, both of which have had the added advantage of being recognized for their greatness. But this rarity makes each new proposed addition to the canon seem less believable than the last. 

More than that, though, it plagues every other artist. Every time we hear that someone else has achieved mastery, or at least been recognized for achieving it, we’re reminded that we haven’t and likely never will (let alone be acknowledged for doing so). That’s the deepest feeling of isolation for an artist of all of them, that chasm between them and immortality. That’s the one they fear most that they (I) will never breach.  

* * *

I listened to Fetch the Bolt Cutters on a Spotify mix, so the album ended and then rolled into “Criminal,” Apple’s Grammy-winning 1997 single and perhaps her best known. Hearing that smooth lyrical piano and that even smoother voice felt like slipping into sweats after a long day in a pencil skirt; I think I may have sighed aloud. (Apple wrote “Criminal” when she was 17 and maybe that says something: that my music appreciation is stuck at that age.) The song, about how bad she felt for getting things so easily by virtue of her sexuality, recently resurfaced in Hustlers, with Jennifer Lopez making her entrance as stripper doyenne to Apple’s adolescent croon, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl.” That was another piece of popular culture that was unanimously praised that I was only so-so about. The difference is that I felt no tension there. I know films, and I could explain why I didn’t like Hustlers much. Because of that, because I had a reason, I allowed myself to dislike it. And until my editor mentioned it, I didn’t think that had anything to do with my gender. But now I’m starting to think it does — men never seem to require permission to opine, they don’t feel the need to be informed to do so. Which is not to say I shouldn’t — it’s to say they should. Because it means meeting a piece of art halfway, respecting the spirit in which it was made, and respecting the artist who made it.

As much as I continue to feel dissatisfied with my response to Fetch the Bolt Cutters, I’m less troubled after speaking to Wilson and researching Apple herself. A Rolling Stone profile from 1998 reminded me that when she was a kid, she carried around this quote by Martha Graham: “No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s the same quote I used in a column last August. And according to her New Yorker profile from March, Apple continues to display a photograph of Graham on her piano, the one she played on Fetch the Bolt Cutters. So even if I couldn’t connect to that album, I could, in a way, connect to the woman behind it, another isolated artist, unrested, just trying to keep marching.

* * *

Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.

O! Small-Bany! Part 4: Fall

Illustration by Senne Trip

Elisa Albert | Longreads | April 2020 | 22 minutes (5,474 words)

The first time I get rear-ended is at a stoplight on the corner of Central and North Lake, around 4pm. One minute I’m on my way to school pickup, the next minute I’m disoriented and sobbing. The at-fault is a 19-year-old dude in a Jeep full of friends. He is nonplussed. He asks, without affect, whether I am okay.

“No!” I scream. “What the fuck?”

My car is badly damaged. I can’t stop sobbing. No airbags deployed. I am worried the dude will get back into his car and flee, so I photograph his license plate in haste, and call the cops. I cannot for the life of me stop crying. My rage and fear and shock and sadness are a tangle. The Jeep doesn’t have a scratch on it. It’s raining. The dude and his friends huddle under a shop awning, laughing.

The cop tells me to calm down: “It’s not that big a deal, ma’am.”

Later, when I call the cop oversight office to suggest that this particular cop go fuck himself, the oversight officer will watch the body cam footage and promise to speak to the cop in question about sensitivity in traumatic situations.

For some reason, I refuse an ambulance. (“Some reason”, ha: I am more terrified of institutional health care than I am of getting back into a smashed up car and driving away with whiplash and a concussion.)

I spend days in bed, in the dark, alternating heat and ice. A haze of phone calls from insurance agents, a hailstorm of Advil, rivers of CBD hot freeze.

You can get rear-ended anywhere. It wasn’t Albany’s fault, per se. But it’s so easy to blame Albany. Fucking Albany! This was God’s way of telling me I’ve done my time in this hopeless shithole of a city, right? Or maybe this was God’s way of punishing me for never utilizing public buses. Or maybe this was God’s way of shaming me for having my kid in private school. The thinks you think when you’re stuck in bed, in the dark, without distraction, for days on end! Meditation is a billion times harder than crossfit, and constructions about “God” are tough epigenetic habits to break.
Read more…

What Do We Do With Feelings Now That They Don’t Matter Anymore?

CSA Images / Getty / Illustration by Longreads

Sarah Miller | Longreads | March 2020 | 7 minutes (1,800 words)

A few months ago I was visiting my brother in suburban San Diego, a place that always makes me wonder if the world should just start over. My sister-in-law and niece and I were in the car together, and my iPad started playing over the stereo, by accident, the song “Funeral” by Phoebe Bridgers.

I had never even heard of Phoebe Bridgers until three months before this happened, when I was visiting New York City and the song played in the Cobble Hill outpost of the store BIRD as I was leafing through $150 T-shirts. (I bought one, because it was the nicest T-shirt I have ever seen, and because I had a job with a salary, and I figured I would probably never have one again, so why not?) The song made me cry. I didn’t want the salespeople to see this so I had to take cover in the corner of the shop for a minute and pretend to be looking at a pair of shoes — which, as worth it as the T-shirts at BIRD are, the shoes are useful only to look at to hide the fact that you’re crying.

I binge-listened to the song during that whole trip and then after, and then for a few months forgot about it, until the day when it just started playing in my sister-in-law’s car. I started to turn it off but my sister-in-law said, “Oh just leave it,” and I started to remember how much I liked the song, because it is so skillfully sad, and just lays you out, when my niece started making fun of it. “What is this? Jesus Christ, ‘I’m so blue all the time’!?” she quoted the song in an exaggerated sad-sack tone of voice, mimicking its bleakness. “This is sooo depressing. Why do you LISTEN to stuff like this?” She listened again for a moment and recommenced her assault. “Oh my God — she just said ‘We might just kill ourselves,’ What is WRONG with this person?”

Nothing would be better for the world right now than if we all stopped trying to achieve things and said, ‘We no longer believe work will set us free, it is the opposite, in fact,’ and behaved accordingly.

I felt simultaneously enraged and sad — the way I feel a lot of the time, the way that is my knee-jerk reaction to so many things. First of all, she was making fun of something I liked, and I felt exposed, particularly because I’m not a Phoebe Bridgers fan, per se — like I’m not a Moon juice-fasting 30-year-old living in Echo Park — and listening to her, I guess, I felt like my niece might think I was trying to pose as one.

I had kind of wanted my relationship to “Funeral” to be private. I felt like liking this song tapped into parts of my personality that would be difficult to explain, and that most people who knew me wouldn’t understand. Mostly, I was upset because the song is so brutally sad. It’s about someone dying, but it’s also about how when something sad happens and you’re already a depressed person you’re less like, “Here is a sad event that made me sad,” than like, “When someone dies or something else bad happens I merely see more clearly how sad I am all the time.”

The saddest part of this sad song is the chorus, the very part my niece singled out for ridicule: “Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time and I guess that’s just how I feel. I always have, and I always will, I always have, and I always will.” The repetition at the end is the knife in the heart. It’s at once maturely resigned and immaturely petulant. The singer wants to be understood and sympathized with, but she also knows it doesn’t matter, because it won’t change anything.

I don’t remember what I said to my niece. I do know that I was trying really hard not to show too much sadness or anger because my niece, of course, hadn’t done anything wrong. It was my problem, not hers, that I was so upset. Her attack was full of youthful, energetic certainty, which is appropriate, and expressing the enormity of my sadness and anger would have been in no way appropriate. I’d like to add that she is not generally someone who bothers me, so there was no need to serve as an adult curb to her developing personality. Plus, her mother seemed annoyed enough. She said something like, “It’s a sad song, surely you’ve heard sad songs before?” and then kind of looked at me like “Sorry.” I shook my head and said, “It’s fine,” and was sure that I would get over it soon, since nothing had really happened.
Read more…

“We Are Not Lost Causes”

Universal Images Group / Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Mark Obbie | Longreads | March 2020 | 45 minutes (12,427 words)

The three young men sauntering down a city sidewalk showed no signs of alarm as a thin man in a dark hoodie hopped out of the passenger side of a gold Honda minivan. They did not flinch as the man rushed toward them on foot while the van, its windows heavily tinted, continued on past.

This neighborhood on the northeast side of Rochester, New York, has ranked among one of the poorest and most violent in the United States. But it was the trio’s home. A year earlier, one of them, Lawrence Richardson, had been jumped and knifed nearby after exchanging insults with a group of guys he didn’t know. He hadn’t looked for that trouble, and the same was true today. Richardson and Cliff Gardner, his coworker at KFC, had spent the afternoon preparing to look for better jobs. On the city’s southwest side, they stopped at the Center for Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit where Richardson had worked for a year on anti-violence and community-improvement projects, and where he still volunteered now and then. After encouraging Cliff to create a résumé, Richardson suggested they catch a bus to the northeast side, where Richardson had grown up. He wanted to introduce Cliff to Kenny Mitchell, his best friend and fellow Teen Empowerment youth organizer.

The three hung out at Mitchell’s second-story apartment, then walked to a corner store for some snacks. They were just returning to Kenny’s when they encountered the van and its passenger.

Moments later, three calls hit 911 operators in quick succession. Callers described a chaotic scene with two bodies crumpled on the ground while a third, trailing blood up the stairs to Mitchell’s apartment, lay at the feet of his panicked father.

Read more…

25 Movies and the Magazine Stories That Inspired Them

Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez on the set of 'Hustlers' in New York City. (Photo by Jose Perez/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)

As more publications pursue blockbuster stories with film and television potential, producers in Hollywood and the magazine industry are taking their inspiration from successful article-to-film adaptations of the past that have achieved box office success.

Here are 25 gold-standard film adaptations of magazine articles, published over the course of half a century as cover stories, features, or breaking news, as well as direct links to read all 25 stories online.

Legacy magazines with well-known print editions dominate this list, as do the nonfiction writers that legacy magazines accept and champion. Many of these writers’ names will be familiar to readers, as will the majority of the magazines and films themselves, in many cases because celebrated journalists inspired these major motion pictures at the peak of their careers as writers and reporters. Name recognition in one industry reinforces name recognition in another, and — despite the incredible diversity of feature-length nonfiction being published today by new voices most mainstream audiences have yet to discover — institutional support still tends to elevate known veterans.

While the talents of all of the writers on this list are undeniable, there are also well-documented structural biases that account for why so many of the writers represented here are overwhelmingly male, white, or Susan Orlean. These stories belong on any narrative nonfiction syllabus on their own merit, but I hope these samples are still just the beginning, and that new filmmakers and magazine writers can start to work together far more often on a greater breadth of material, with sufficient editorial guidance and studio backing to support them.

This list is by no means exhaustive. I’ve limited this roundup to favor adaptations (loosely defined) based primarily on magazine-style features, including only a couple of films based on award-winning newspaper investigations. The list of new film and television adaptations based on popular books or podcasts, let alone reporting that has helped support the explosion in streaming documentary formats, would run even longer.

It takes time, access, imagination, and resources to be able to realize ambitious true stories like these in their original form as narrative magazine features. It would be a welcome change to see greater diversity in the production pipeline in the coming years: in the subjects of narrative stories, in the publications considered for exclusive source material, in the creative teams that are given studio support, in the agencies brokering deals, in the awards and recognition that elevate new work, and in the storytellers who are given the resources to write long.

Writers are the lifeblood of all of these industries, and will always play a pivotal role in any production that is based on a true story.

* * *

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Based on Can You Say…Hero? by Tom Junod (Esquire, 1998)

Once upon a time, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life—maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us—I’ve just met you, but I’m investing in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

Hustlers (2019)

Based on The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler (The Cut, 2015)

While evolutionary theory and The Bachelor would suggest that a room full of women hoping to attract the attention of a few men would be cutthroat-competitive, it’s actually better for strippers to work together, because while most men might be able keep their wits, and their wallets, around one scantily clad, sweet-smelling sylph, they tend to lose their grip around three or four. Which is why at Hustler, as elsewhere, the dancers worked in groups.

Beautiful Boy (2018)

Based on My Addicted Son by David Sheff (The New York Times Magazine, 2005)

Nick now claims that he was searching for methamphetamine for his entire life, and when he tried it for the first time, as he says, “That was that.” It would have been no easier to see him strung out on heroin or cocaine, but as every parent of a methamphetamine addict comes to learn, this drug has a unique, horrific quality. In an interview, Stephan Jenkins, the singer in the band Third Eye Blind, said that methamphetamine makes you feel “bright and shiny.” It also makes you paranoid, incoherent and both destructive and pathetically and relentlessly self-destructive. Then you will do unconscionable things in order to feel bright and shiny again. Nick had always been a sensitive, sagacious, joyful and exceptionally bright child, but on meth he became unrecognizable.

Read more…

Searching For Mackie

A portrait of Immaculate, "Mackie" Basil in Peter and Vivian Basil's home in Tache, British Columbia. All photos by Andrew Lichtenstein.

Annie Hylton | Longreads | February 2020 | 20 minutes (8,310 words)

This story was produced in collaboration with The Walrus.

As Peter Basil remembers it, the week leading up to Father’s Day, in June 2013, began like any other; he’s since replayed the events in his mind like a recurring bad dream. Peter recalls standing in the kitchen of his modest split-level home in Tache, a First Nations village that lies deep in the wilderness of northern interior British Columbia. His younger sister Mackie, then in her late 20s, followed him around as he made a pot of coffee.

“Promise me you’ll take care of my baby,” Mackie asked Peter, referring to her 5-year-old son.

“Yup,” he replied.

Mackie trailed Peter to the living room and sat next to him on the L-shaped couch, under high school graduation photos of herself and her sisters.

“Promise me you’ll take care of my baby,” Mackie repeated to Peter.

“Yeah, geez,” he responded. “Should I be worried? Are you coming back?”

“I’ll be back,” Mackie promised.

Read more…

Telling Stories In Order to Live: On Writing and Money

Sarah Menkedick | Longreads | January 2020 | 14 minutes (3,866 words)

I made the decision to write full time in the summer of 2008. I was leaving a teaching position in Beijing, and moving back to Oaxaca, Mexico, my husband’s hometown. I said I was going to “live from writing.” I had no idea what that really meant, but it was a leap I wanted to take.

We lived in a $150-a-month apartment in a scruffy colonia on the outskirts of the city. The financial bar I had set for myself was around $500 a month. I met this at first by grading practice TESOL exams online. This meant hours upon hours of listening to nervous Koreans analyze Harry Potter or explain worm digestion. I was so bored I pulled out enough of my own hair to give myself a bald spot.

From here, I moved on to writing practice TESOL exams, then practice SAT exams for a Korean contractor who worked for the Princeton Review in Asia. This took less time and paid more, leaving hours of the day free for me to write overwrought and purplish essays about my travel experiences. Nights, Jorge and I ate tlayudas in a nearby señora’s garage and drank forties of Corona. A few months into my full-time writing life, I got a gig as a blogger and editor at a travel site. I learned WordPress and basic HTML and got to publish my overwrought and purplish essays on a platform for an actual audience. In the meantime, I started my second personal blog, named for — cringe with me here — a Julio Cortázar short story. My blog allowed me to publish experimental essays in Spanglish and wax philosophical about the old man at the market who carved wooden airplanes. It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

My writing sucked for a long time in diverse ways, with the occasional sentence or paragraph or maybe even mini-essay that was half decent and resonant with the promise of the actually good. In late 2009, I went to a goat slaughter at an old hacienda in Huajuapan de Léon, a dry and dusty city a few hours from Oaxaca. The slaughter was an annual event in which local herders brought their goats to be killed en masse, their meat and skin and blood and bones all put immediately to use.

It allowed me, in other words, to suck.

The scene at the hacienda seemed straight out of the 1700s. The killing was more humane than I’d expected; one swift knife in the throat and the animal died instantly. Hundreds of goats were killed simultaneously so that none had to anticipate suffering. In courtyards around the hacienda, women carved the skin from the bones and hung it like underwear to dry, men etched out internal organs and tossed them in blue buckets. Kids raced around playing tag in bloody huaraches. I took notes nonstop in my little notebook. We returned to the city late at night, and the next morning I woke up at six and started writing.

It took me three days to complete a narrative of the experience. I wrote with a concentration, intensity, and focus I’d never had before, but for which all the sucky writing of the past year (and the previous decade, in bits and pieces) had prepared me. On a whim, I applied to six MFA programs and submitted the goat essay as my writing sample. One by one the rejections rolled in, until only one school was left. I not only had to get in, I had to get funding, which wasn’t guaranteed, so I figured it was probably all over. Then one day I returned from my run and opened my email and there was an acceptance from the University of Pittsburgh, guaranteeing me full funding for the duration of the three-year program. I screamed. I jumped around the apartment screaming. I dragged Jorge out of bed and we ran down the street to our friends’ apartment and we all drank shots of mezcal at nine in the morning. I would have three years to write, full-time, funded.

In 2010 Jorge and I moved back to the U.S. for my program. The following year, I got an internship at Harper’s Magazine and started Vela, my own magazine of nonfiction writing by women. The idea of the magazine was to counter some of the frustration I’d felt in New York at the narrowness of what might be called the legacy literary world, its white, male Ivy-Leagueness. I invited five women writers I knew and respected to participate, and the concept was for us to have a collective portfolio of our skills. I was idealistic in the way of the clueless outsider. I just wanted our small group of women to show that we could write. We published stories about abusive relationships. About the Zapatistas. About stepparenting. About chronic illness. About gold mines in Peru and gangs in Ecuador and the lingering impacts of genocide in Cambodia. None of our work was paid. Our crew put in hours and hours of writing, of editing each other’s work, of copyediting and designing and promoting and participating in epic rambly email threads. All of us had day jobs: grad school, teaching, editing. We wanted to prove to ourselves and the gatekeepers that we could do it. And we did.

One by one, we grew more successful: We published in major magazines. We won grants. Some of us went on to write books, others got teaching jobs. Meanwhile we opened the magazine up for submissions. Had we been a standard literary journal, pay would’ve been a nonissue. Literary journals rarely pay and if they do, they pay enough to subsidize, say, a new pair of jeans. But we operated in a liminal zone — most of us didn’t consider ourselves journalists and we didn’t define our magazine or its mission as journalism, but most of our work wasn’t in the more academic or highly “literary” essayistic style either. We were somewhere between literary journalism and travel writing and essay writing and narrative, and this ambiguity of genre had been part of the point in the first place: to push on the boundaries of those categories. It seemed clear that journalism had to be funded and well-compensated. Literary writing, less so, although why wasn’t exactly clear. I got hundreds of emails after we’d opened to submissions from writers who demanded to know how much we paid. Many of these emails consisted of semi-belligerent offers to write “guest posts” about personal travel experiences for a certain fee. When I said we didn’t pay, I often got angry rants in response, once from a woman who had no significant bylines or books, but who charged upward of $2,000 for her writing workshops. She called our magazine a scam. Meanwhile, I read the explosion of think and opinion pieces on paying writers. I was about to graduate from my MFA program and become a full-time freelancer. By this point, five years into “living from writing,” I wanted to be paid for my creative work. I knew I wouldn’t write for my own magazine if it didn’t pay. And so we ran a Kickstarter exclusively with the point of paying writers, and we raised $28,000. With that money we were able to publish some extraordinary work from writers we might not have gotten otherwise: two essays led to major book deals, others led to grants and to longer, more in-depth journalistic stories with bigger magazines.

Ultimately, our biggest mistake was not budgeting any money for ourselves: We’d been bombarded with commentary about the importance of paying writers, but not editors. The latter worked for a paltry stipend or no salary at all. None of us had the time or the desire to take on a full-time business role. Instead, we put the magazine on hiatus while we tried to figure out future funding and plans. In the meantime, dozens of other magazines sprouted up, all in that space between journalism and the literary essay. Most of these advertised boldly and proudly that they paid — but upon investigation, the pay was $50. Maybe $100 or $200 for a long-form piece. The conversation about “writing for free” continued, now focused on the insult of being asked to write “for exposure,” with the usual rants on Twitter and think pieces making the rounds. The idea of an experienced writer being asked to do her professional work for a major media corporation for “exposure” is ludicrous and insulting. But all the bombast and pressure and rhetoric around writing “for free” ignores a few key realities: Many professional and experienced writers are being asked to write for very little, which is somehow celebrated as “payment” but is in fact nowhere near a functional wage; and many inexperienced and early-career writers might not be doing work that merits payment. The latter is a reality not many people want to discuss. My early work sucked. No one would have paid for it, and I wouldn’t blame them. I wrote hundreds of thousands of pages that would, were I to print them out, fill an entire room of my house. Little snippets of them ended up published. The 70,000-word book I wrote for my MFA thesis ended up as a 7,000-word Harper’s Magazine story. Bits and pieces of work I’d written about Spanglish and Mexico and my marriage ended up as an Oxford American essay. But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line. It wasn’t simply that it sucked. It was also that I wrote it for myself: to find out how I saw, what I cared about, how I strung my ideas and scenes together. I wrote it for the basic purpose of trying to figure out what mattered and how to convey that it mattered on the page.

But most of this work was compost — stinky, rotting, coffee-ground and broken-egg essays feeding richer work down the line.

I believe — I stake my existence on believing — that art should be compensated, and compensated with a living wage. This is not a given, which is why I live in Pittsburgh, why I have a part-time job that miraculously provides health insurance. I no longer write “for free.” I have started, in fact, demanding more pay for almost every piece, knowing that as a woman I’ll likely be offered less, and knowing that if I don’t ask I surely won’t get it. At the same time, writing with money as the end goal and predominant measure of value changes the nature of the game. Maybe this isn’t always negative; commercial pressure can work as a valuable creative restraint, forcing writers out of solipsistic indulgences. But thinking only of where a piece will sell, what I can write to make the money I need — urgently need, right now — to pay for our roof, also makes me wonder why I am still doing this. Why live this life of a writer, so poorly compensated in money and acclaim, so uncertain, so competitive, so crazy-making, if I’m not even doing it because I believe in it? If I’m not doing it because I’m writing something I have to write to figure out what it means to be human? Why do it if it’s just a job?

And yet at the same time, of course it’s just a job — this is the secret I didn’t know when I began. It requires the same grind and tedium as a job. The same negotiations for pay and promotion. The same boredom and frustration. But sometimes I need to remember that if it is just this, the meaning can bottom out — then I wonder, why do it at all. There has to be some risk, some leap that may not necessarily be compensated. That is uncertain and scary. Writing that matters is often risky — its saleability may not be immediately obvious, its style may be unconventional, it may break with standard forms and narratives. It does what it has to do to figure itself out. Certainly, there is phenomenal writing that doesn’t necessarily follow these rules, that may pop up within very familiar genres and categories. There is also plenty of writing that flaunts convention and fails to achieve anything of importance. Yet writing for a living often means writing, ultimately, what the market will bear. It means internalizing the stylistic and rhetorical and intellectual underpinnings of the literary behemoths, then shaping one’s work in their image. It means putting the cart of audience — and the style of “high magazine-ese” — before the horse of the idea, of the struggle to make sense of the intractable. It can shrink the work into manageable and predictable frames, and this can explain why so much of what is published and shared feels so familiar, and fails to generate that feeling of the whole world having been rattled and made new.

The other day, I went to a talk by a well-known writer who has become a guru on the business of writing, and she talked quite a bit about audience: She hinted that writers who don’t consider their audience aren’t savvy enough businesspeople, and maybe even self-centered or obsessed with prestige. But I wondered how it is possible to create authentic work, with that essential spark of the urgent and the curious, that is centered first and foremost on an audience’s imagined desires. Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

Trying to derive a work from the question Who’s the audience for x and what will they like? instead of from a thorny idea, or an overpowering emotion, or a story that feels vital seems to me to quash the work’s life and purpose. It becomes purely commercial.

I Skyped the other day with my little brother, a fellow artist who lives in Sweden and works as a barista and reaps all the benefits of the Scandanavian welfare state while flailing around trying to make a career out of music. “I know it’s bad when you’re Skypeing me at 1:30 p.m.,” he told me, meaning productivity, career-obsessed me, normally squeezing every last drop of potential wordage and progress out of the day, must be having a crisis if I am sitting in slippers in my backyard at 1 p.m. talking to him. He grinned through a mouthful of frozen pizza. I went on one of the flights of what-is-this-life fancy I can only indulge with him. I talked about Richard Powers’s The Overstory, and how after I read it I had that uncanny feeling of both how limited my work and life are and how profound and big the true mission and scope of art can be. It simultaneously made me want to give up — if I can never do that, why bother? and to forget all my woes and keep going, with a realigned compass focused not on publication but on that feeling I had each night I put The Overstory down. Why live this life, why embark on this madness of writing full-time, constant rejection, constant financial stress, the constant tug of pettiness and ego, if I’m not doing it because I’m trying to get at that essence of connection or meaning or mystery that makes a reader put down a book and just sit for a while and stare, or cry, or call her mother? Why do it if not for that? That, at the end of the day, has very little to do with money.

At the same time, when I have finished a piece of writing now, I am fully aware of the skill and the expertise required to create it — I cannot imagine publishing it for free. It is my livelihood. I need it to be recognized with adequate pay. I need the pay to fund my existence. The pay becomes the recognition and validation that reinforces the meaning of the work. The job and the passion blur in confusing ways, helixed so tightly it’s hard to unwind them. The irony is that the further I get into my career and the more I really need and demand money, the more I come to question what this means for my writing, what I believe and care about as a writer, what I am exchanging for what. It becomes harder and harder to write in that pure void of ideas and perseverance without knowing when the money will come and from where, trusting that eventually, if the work is good enough, it will come. Trusting that if and when it does, it means I’m doing it right. That it’s “worth it.” Eventually, the money has always come, but it has always not been enough, and I have always kept at it anyway believing eventually it will be, and on and on.

Recently, I started a newsletter. I did it in part because of all the pressure to kick off the promotion process for my second book, but also because for years now I’ve been wanting to write the kinds of essays I used to write: introspective, heartfelt, unabashedly Midwestern in spirit, with guest appearances by my dad and Annie Dillard. I didn’t write them and didn’t start the newsletter for years because I wouldn’t be paid, and I thought I should be concentrating only on what I could sell. Yet in starting the newsletter I rediscovered the joy of writing as a fundamental way of being in and moving through the world. It felt so unexpectedly good. I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

No professional writer or artist should be working for free. But neither should they be writing for $50 or $150 or $200, or for a paltry monthly stipend. Instead of painting a stark dichotomy between paid and unpaid work, I wonder if we could think of artistic careers as moving along a spectrum or timeline, from early work that might be funded by other means — MFAs, day jobs — to beginning work that might be paid a small amount, to professional work that should be paid a living wage. A publication offering $50 for an essay can’t announce “We pay!” as a sort of uniform accomplishment; the mere act of paying doesn’t necessarily make the work more valid nor does it properly compensate the work. When the focus becomes so much on the act of payment as a type of validation, not only do other metrics of value get lost — creative freedom and exploration and support — but what it means to pay meaningfully and fairly gets lost as well.

I wrote what I wanted, what came from the gut, without any nagging train of thought in the head about who would read and where that would position me and how that would advance my career and what opportunity would open up. I just wrote for the joy of paying attention to my everyday life, thinking about what matters.

I don’t regret writing for free all those years when I was figuring out how to write. But I have more complicated feelings about writing full-time now for what amounts to barely a living wage. I find it much harder in the early middle of my career to sustain and justify this work — I’m not a 28-year-old graduate student who can live on the same pizza for a week anymore. I have a child. I have a freaking mortgage. I went out for a beer the other night with a friend, also about 10 years into her writing and editing career, very accomplished and very financially unstable, and she said, “We’re too far in now to back out!” It’s true. It feels like we can’t give up. But the path forward is so uncertain — success looks so distinct for each particular artist and may not have any correlation with money. I was whining and moaning with my husband the other night about my career and when I would “make it” and he said, “Maybe you have made it,” and I realized that yes, maybe I have. Had anyone told me in graduate school I’d be writing for the magazines I write for and publishing my second book, I’d have let my head fill with self-congratulatory fantasies of greatness. Now, I spend most mornings writing at a plastic table on our front porch with a fitted sheet as a tablecloth. I am constantly hustling. Sometimes I am fulfilled in the way people can be fulfilled by a single word: writer. Often I am keening anxiously toward the future. This is an object lesson in the human condition of forever wanting more and never being aware of what is going on right here right now, but it’s also a lesson in the improbability and uncertainty of “living from writing” or from any art, of how really going at it with passion and dedication offers no guarantees or certainty or promise of stability. Yes, many artists and writers accept this as common knowledge — perhaps even as a badge of honor — starting out, but there is a very big difference between knowing it at an idealistic 28 and knowing it at 36 with a child, uncertain health insurance, and a house. I am fully aware now of the precise contours, dimensions, nooks, crannies of the gap between my ideals and financial and commercial realities. Much time is spent navigating that gap, possibly as much time as I spend writing.

Writing for free, or for very little, is something I would not and cannot do now — and yet at the same time, I long for the inhibition of that time when my writing wasn’t so hitched to my ability to pay for childcare or buy groceries. I have found it the most difficult to sustain my belief in the larger purpose of what I am doing when I am also desperately trying to get it to pay me and pay me enough. Yet at the same time, I do see progress: I am making a living. I am living from writing, my writing, still the writing I want to do and also writing I sell. But the balance is delicate and fragile. It is not so much between writing for free and writing for pay: it is between writing that makes the act of writing worthwhile, that feels somehow essential to deeper human understanding, and receiving sufficient money for this writing — between the very solitary act of making something I need to make out of a personal urgency and the needs and desires and economic whims of thousands of other people. This is the cost and the meaning of “living from writing.” I keep doing it, because I don’t know what else to do, because I am not qualified to do anything else, because I have come this far and I don’t want to give up now. I keep doing it in the hopes that someday that elusive balance will be struck between financial stability and creative freedom. In the meantime, I try to keep my compass as finely tuned to the north of what troubles me, moves me, confuses me, even as I draw up Google spreadsheets, as I write the tentative notes to editors asking for just a little more, as I cling to that ledge of living from writing and keep trying to peek over the top.

* * *

Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America, forthcoming from Pantheon in April 2020. Her first book, Homing Instincts, (Pantheon, 2017), was long listed for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. Her work has been featured in Harper’s, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Guernica, Oxford American, The Kenyon Review, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. She was a 2015-2016 Fulbright Fellow in Oaxaca, Mexico, and a 2019 Creative Nonfiction Writing Fellow. Follow her on Instagram @familiasantiago. Visit her website at http://www.sarahmenkedick.com.

Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Addiction’s Seismic Effects on a Family

Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk

Sarah Evans | Longreads | December 2019 | 9 minutes (2,405 words)

 

“Get the fuck out of my life.”

Sam’s voice wobbles and cracks, confessing to youth and vulnerability that his venom-filled words otherwise mask. The door slams in my face, as my youngest child runs — literally runs — to meet his drug dealer. I heave a sigh and head to bed for the night. We won’t see Sam again tonight, and maybe not tomorrow either.

***

It wasn’t always like this, but I can construct the map that has led us here. Snippets of his childhood haunt me. Tonight I get lost in a memory of a hot summer night when my kids were spinning around like tops in the backyard under the strings of light that crisscrossed our backyard. I can still hear the peals of laughter escaping Sam, barely out of toddlerhood. His pace picked up, making my stomach flip-flop just watching him. His older sister, Mia, came to an abrupt halt and sat down next to me.
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Naked City

Illustration by Homestead Studio, based off Oksana Latysheva & Vivali / Getty

Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,411 words)

“No man is an island.”

John Donne

There is a theory that the mind is a collection of symbiotic identities, some conscious, some unconscious, that form an uneasy alliance for the sake of survival. Truthfully, that’s my theory, although I think I read something similar once. I am now working on a new theory, that New York City is similarly a collective, that what looks like a group of entirely separate individuals who happen to walk past one another all day long is actually one great organism.

I find this idea reassuring, because life here can make you feel not just unimpressive, not just peripheral, but entirely negligible. I have lived in New York for more than 22 years, which I am sorry to say is more than half my life. In that time, I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread? How does everyone seem to know one another, and where is everybody going? Why is the line at Sarabeth’s so long? Why are the libraries closed on Sundays? Was there a memo about wearing Hunter rain boots? Why are dogs not allowed in my building? Every day, I am confronted by mysteries. But if New York City is actually dependent on every last person within its boundaries, deriving not just energy but also narrative structure from all who move through it, then maybe I’m not negligible after all.

I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread?

I have tried to explain to others the feeling I get on a typical day in the city — that we are all characters in some sort of Yiddish short story, but it’s unclear who are the heroes and who are the villains, whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, who are the stars, and who are merely the background. You see and hear so many things in a day. So I’ll start from the beginning — the beginning of yesterday, that is, and go through one whole day, and hope that you’ll come along for the ride.

***

Yesterday began like many others. I was in the check-out line at Zabar’s, and I overheard an exchange that intrigued me. A middle-aged woman in nondescript, baggy clothes, her hair a combination of layered bohemian chic and I-don’t-care gray — a West Side classic — was talking to another woman, who was younger.

“We’ll go downtown to my place, we’ll have a cup of coffee, and we’ll talk. Later, I’ll put you in a cab. Sound good?”

I composed a silent plea. Take me too. I can’t think of any place I’d rather go than downtown to your place, for a cup of coffee. I felt strongly that this woman had curtains — big silk curtains — and her apartment had a sitting room and a poodle or two sprawled on the rug. Her place had a view of a public garden, and there was primrose in bloom, and maybe a fountain, and people smoking, and other people kissing, and a few in the midst of lovers’ spats, and rain kissed the earth, just there, in that garden. A cab! Is there anything to excite the imagination more than the hailing of a cab after someone unexpectedly asks you over for a cup of coffee? I wanted the younger woman’s problems, whatever had invited the older woman’s concern. The word “downtown” had become a cashmere shawl, one I wanted to be wrapped in immediately.


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The checker put my groceries in the bag. I trudged home, feeling blue. Once again — not at the center of it, not where the action was, the discourse, the problems, the connection. At home, I made myself some coffee, but there were no silk curtains, no poodles, no conspiring or commiseration.

***

A short time later, I traveled south to my dance studio, Steps, which sits in a hub of Upper West Side activity. You’ve got the Beacon Theatre just across Broadway, the Ansonia just south, and next door, Fairway Market, which is a holy pilgrimage in itself. I’ll say just this: Fairway has an entire room devoted to cheese. Also: things you didn’t know you wanted, because you didn’t know they existed. Artichoke paste. Lambrusco vinegar. Garam masala. Chocolate latte balls — $1.25 a bag.

On the elevator at Steps, I witnessed an altercation. A young, paunchy man wearing earphones got on before this other woman and almost held the door for her. I say almost because he held it for a second, then let it go too soon, before she was safely inside, so the door banged into her. She didn’t need a hospital or anything, but there was no question he was in error. The elevator takes approximately three hours to get from the lobby to the third floor — where the classes are — and back. Catching the elevator is therefore a big deal, as is holding the door for that one last person who is desperate not to wait three more hours for the next ride. The woman quietly harrumphed. Message received. Wild-eyed, the paunchy man said, “I HELD THE DOOR FOR YOU.” She did not accept the falsehood. “You did NOT hold the door for me,” she replied. “You let the door SLAM on me.” Enraged, he replied, “I am not talking to you.” “It sure sounds like you are!” she shot back, and he became so angry that I prayed the elevator was almost at the third floor. I didn’t fear for her safety, but maybe a little I did. When she walked off the elevator, he cursed her. I don’t mean he used foul language, I mean he cast a hex. Sarcastically. “Hope your tendus aren’t all sickled!” he said.

You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.

Performing arts shade! (A tendus becomes sickled when you point your foot in the wrong direction, which is a gross dance error, the equivalent of a social gaffe while interacting with, say, the queen of England. You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.) All at once, I felt kinship with both the aggressor and the victim in this elevator standoff. I don’t know exactly what defines New Yorkers, but it has something to do with our ability to keep the rhythm of these altercations without missing a beat, like children playing double Dutch.

***

In the sunshine of Studio II, a motley collection of dancers was warming up for the 10 a.m. ballet class. The teacher is tall and blond and haughty — so imperious her instruction borders on camp. She speaks with a British-implied accent and adorns her daily performance with an array of hairstyles and lipsticks. Her smile is lopsided and sudden, just enough to alert us that her condescension is mostly for show. She has a fabulous accompanist and sometimes there are 100 people taking class. It’s ballet with a cabaret atmosphere, and I suspect people love this teacher because she makes them feel like party guests. The spectrum of humanity attends. At the barre, one sees principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, so immaculately sculpted and graceful that they strike one as circus performers or possibly even figments of the imagination. Also at the barre: an elderly woman in a wig who carries her ballet shoes in a plastic bag from the liquor store.

We are all freaks in this room — spiritual cousins of sorts, worshipping at the same church. Here we find rapport and community, gossip and disdain. The mighty sylphs chat with the old loons, and the rest of us try to figure out where on this spectrum we fall. Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.

A tiny woman stood behind me at the barre. She smiled and said hello. She knew me from the playground I frequent with my child. How was life? How was school? What grade was my daughter in now? Good. OK. Second. Her girls were fine, she said, except for one thing. What was that? I asked. They were both enrolled at the School of American Ballet (S.A.B., as it’s known around here), and they weren’t happy. The School of American Ballet is a “feeder school” for New York City Ballet, which, for many people, is the pinnacle of the art, the highest goal, the shiniest of prestigious places. It’s also known for being a hotbed of sexism, not to mention a place keen on anorexia as a way of life. Still — New York City Ballet! My daughter takes class at another, saner place, but even at 7, she’s heard of S.A.B. It’s where the perfectly turned-out, smooth-bunned, pearl-earring-bedecked baby giraffes are going when they make a sharp turn and head into Lincoln Center. I researched when the annual audition day was — sometime in early spring. I don’t know what made me do it, except of course I do: At the center of New York City’s ineffable glory are cosmic sources of radiation — Times Square, the Chrysler Building, the grandiose arrangements of limelight hydrangeas in the main hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the School of American Ballet.

“Maybe we should go, just to see what the school looks like, Mommy,” Lydia said. “But what if you get in?” I asked. “I won’t go,” she said. “But how could you say no to S.A.B?” I asked. Then we both laughed and immediately remembered that neither of us wanted her at S.A.B. Mostly we remembered that. The other part of us remembered the tiny angels in the second act of the New York City Ballet Balanchine Nutcracker. They hold candles and wear floor-skimming wire hoop skirts, and they shuffle so rapidly across the stage that they create the illusion of floating. Lydia and I were given tickets to the dress rehearsal last year, and at the time, Lydia leaned over the balcony and said, “I want to skim the floor in a hoopskirt.” But only kids who go to S.A.B. can be angels in the New York City Ballet Nutcracker.

Lydia’s own dance school is not far from Lincoln Center. One day I saw a dancer departing the school and rounding the corner. As she passed under the Leonard Bernstein Way street sign, I caught sight of her T-shirt, which read Sing out, Louise, and I promptly fell over and died. This is a line from the Broadway show Gypsy, which has lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who for theater folk sits at the tippy top of Mount Olympus, with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter flanking him. What was great about the shirt was the shorthand — if you love the shirt, you and the wearer can be best friends. You can hug on the spot without formal introduction. (An exception to the no-eye-contact rule generally in play on the NYC streets.) I decided to get one of the shirts for Lydia for Christmas. (Gypsy is about the mother of all stage mothers. Whenever Lydia thinks I am getting too involved in her life, she pointedly whispers, “Sing out, Louise.” I immediately clam up. Smart kid.)

Greta is the biggest personality of the dance moms at Lydia’s school. She is tall and skinny — a gazelle in human form. She is a dancer herself, and her daughter, who takes jazz at Lydia’s school, studies ballet at — wait for it — S.A.B. From Greta, we get all the dirt: who’s dating whom and who’s fighting whom and which former artistic directors are showing up just before curtain to torment the dancers backstage (Peter Martins). She tells us inside things. For example, New York City Ballet dancers aren’t allowed to wear their stage makeup outside the theater, they have to wash it off before they go home. The makeup is copyrighted or licensed or something. It’s in their contracts. Greta makes me feel both closer to and farther from the action. She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine. I sometimes think The New Yorker exists exclusively to evoke this feeling.

***

In the late afternoon, I had an unpleasant errand — my yearly mammogram. I was headed downtown on the Second Avenue bus, when suddenly, it was nearly black outside; raindrops scattered on the windows like bullets. An omen. Weill Cornell Imaging is in a dreary medical tower on York Avenue. This neighborhood depresses me. If the earth were flat, and you walked to the edge of it, you’d be on York Avenue. It is just so far from anything that feels life-affirming. New York City’s heartbeat can best be felt on the West Side, pulsing through an artery that runs south through Times Square and north past Carnegie Hall, all the way up to the Metropolitan Opera House at 65th. Meanwhile, York Avenue is as far east as you can get without falling into the East River; it’s like a freezing cold finger — no blood flow.

She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine.

For a mammogram, you go to the ninth floor. This is Breast Land, where every staff member has been schooled in keeping people calm. When you can, please sign here, and How are you doing today? and Would you care for a chocolate or a bottle of water? You stumble along, get your locker, wipe off your deodorant, put a pink robe on, and breathe deeply along the hallway to the next waiting room, where you sit with the other naked-but-for-their-pink-robe ladies and stare out the window at the 59th Street Bridge, which from this close-up looks like a metal brontosaurus. This is the same bridge that Woody Allen lifted to iconic grandeur in the movie Manhattan, but when you look at it from Weill Cornell, amid the steam rising from the manholes on York and the sparse sidewalks around it, it just looks like an angry brontosaurus. Then the breast people call your name and your heart beats faster. A technician in pink scrubs leads you into the next little room, the one with the machines, and asks how your day is going, and rubs you down with freezing gel for an ultrasound, or covers your nipples for a mammogram.

Remember how I said New York is best described as a Yiddish short story? (Are there short stories in Yiddish? I feel that my people tend to run long.) What happened next could really happen anywhere, but somehow, it managed to be nutty in a way I ascribe to this city. You need to know a detail about me first. Two years ago I had a rib removed. It was the third rib, it was under my left breast, and it grew this tumor called a hemangioma — the same as those little strawberries you see on some newborns’ heads. The only way to make it stop growing was to take it out.

“The tumor has fractured your rib,” the thoracic surgeon told me. He prodded me in the chest with his forefinger. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He prodded again. “That has to hurt.” I hadn’t noticed. I had a 4-year-old. I was tired. The jabs, however, got my attention. “Now it hurts,” I said, ever the people pleaser. “’Course it does,” replied the surgeon.

So he took the whole rib, and in order to make my breast sit up properly, he put in a fake rib. The fancy term is “chest wall repair,” but no one outside medicine has ever heard of the “chest wall” so I call it a “fake rib.” A few months after that, I had my first mammogram. If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard. Or, as the tech put it, “Your breast is round and the machine is flat.” Or, just imagine a pain so intense that you find yourself clutching the sides of a cold metal machine as tears roll down your cheeks and your soul hovers above your body and everyone prays for the end. After that, I went home. A day later, my fancy “chest wall repair” broke. My fake rib detached from its fake bone anchor and descended into the void of my chest, causing an alarming bubble of air to rise up through my breast like a balloon every time I inhaled. So I had to do the thoracic surgery again. The second time, the surgeon put in Gortex, which he said he hoped would be more durable. Hoped? Back to yesterday.

If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard.

I reminded the technician in pink scrubs that I didn’t want my left breast scanned, on account of how the last mammogram broke my fake rib. It had been discussed already, I told her. Pre-arranged, all in my file, I told her. I was just reminding her. She was silent. So I said, “We’ll skip the left, OK? We’ll just do the right.” I stopped talking then, because she was reading my file with concern.

“We can’t screen one breast on a two-breast prescription,” she said.

“Why not?” I asked. “The right breast is one of the two breasts, right?”

“Doctors don’t like it when we change their orders,” she said. “If you want to scan the one, you have to scan the other.”

“But it was pre-arranged,” I croaked.

“She sent a two-breast prescription.”

“She didn’t mean to,” I argued.

“She must have forgotten.”

I began to sweat and wheeze. (If you have never had a rib crushed by a mammogram, you’ll have to trust me, once is enough.) She went to get her supervisor. The supervisor came in to tell me that they could not screen one breast on a two-breast prescription. We were getting nowhere. But then she said that a crushed rib was better than missing a malignant cell and so both breasts had to be scanned anyway. This made sense, and I began to imagine a cycle in which every year I put in a new rib after crushing the last one in the mammogram machine. The room started to tilt as I pondered my choice. The supervisor then said they did not wish to traumatize me, they wished only to make sure I was healthy. I think by then they realized that “healthy” was not, at this particular moment, the right word for me. I was floundering, somewhere near total incapacitation. It was now 6:30 in the evening. The office had begun to clear out. I could hear people saying “good night” and closing desk drawers. I was all that stood between the supervisor and the end of her day. I was alone with her — her and the machine — at the edge of the world, a brontosaurus roaring just beyond the window, black rain engulfing the medical tower.

“I can’t do the left breast,” I muttered, mostly to the wall. I cried. Tears ran. I wheezed again, then hiccuped, then I laughed. I told them not to worry, it was just the pink scrubs, the pasties, the fake rib, the large dinosaur, the end of the world. It was too much, you know? They nodded. They knew.

“We won’t press hard,” the supervisor said. She kept up her patter as she smoothed my pasties and squeezed my breasts into the flattening device, as though coaxing me into a straitjacket. They scanned both breasts. After, they gave me a Hershey’s kiss and a bottle of water.

***

Gusts of wind swept me up First Avenue. I joined the wet commuters on line for the 67th Street crosstown. I was full mammogram chic by now: sweaty, smelly, hair stringy and askew, rivulets of mascara pooling in the tiny lines near my eyes. I felt about as far from the ineffable radiance of the city as possible. I took out my phone to text Courtney, the mother of a little girl in Lydia’s class. She was watching Lydia, and I wanted to tell her that I was on my way back to the West Side.

“How was it?” she asked. (Courtney has had mammograms.)

“A brontosaurus tried to kill me,” I replied.

“Meet us at Santa Fe,” she wrote. “71st and Columbus.”

“‘I’ll get you a margarita,” she added. (Santa Fe has the largest, iciest frozen margaritas in existence.)

Twenty minutes later, I stood around the corner from the restaurant, waiting for Courtney and the girls. A spotlight illuminated a white satin pantsuit hanging in the window of a Columbus Avenue boutique. It was a one-piece, long-sleeved with a plunging lapel. It looked like a Star Trek uniform, but one that you’d wear to the Grammys. I stared at it for a long time, even as the storm threatened to drown me. The hem of my ancient linen pants was torn; I’d long since chewed off my lipstick. Hunger tore at me. I felt faded and chalky, as if my human color had been washed off by the rain. I wondered who was going to buy that suit. Where would she wear it? Probably, she owned Hunter rain boots and had a poodle. Maybe a greyhound. Her building definitely allowed dogs — she would never have moved there otherwise.

Courtney and the girls arrived and we walked into Santa Fe. The host led us to a booth. The girls told me about feeding the turtles in Central Park. Then there was the eating of french fries, and telling the kids to speak more quietly, and restaurant crayons — four to a set, in a tiny cardboard box. Then the married couple at the next table interrupted our conversation.

“Sorry,” the wife said. We don’t mean to keep staring, but there is a dog right outside the restaurant staring in.”

Sure enough, there was — a puppy with big black eyes and a soaking coat. He was tied to a post outside, the very definition of forlorn.

“He belongs to that woman at the bar,” the wife continued. “Poor dog!”

Courtney, who is about seven feet tall with a waterfall of honey blonde hair and a model’s face to match, stood up abruptly, and with a sort of movie star whoosh, gathered her jacket and rushed outside, the girls on her heels. They clumped around the little waif, patting and stroking and soothing. A few minutes later they returned to the table, where I’d remained, transfixed.

“I think the dog’s owner has been adequately shamed now!” Courtney said, as the restaurant gaped at the ill-fated dog. Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants. Sure enough, the embarrassed owner stood up from her spot at the bar, paid the bill, and went out to tend to her shriveled canine, even as she rolled her eyes at the collective presumptuousness that had forced her hand. It was like when someone scurries up or down the subway stairs on the left-hand side. This, with good reason, is not allowed in New York City. One travels up or down on the right-hand side in order to avoid head-on collisions and bodily harm. If a person — often a tourist — wanders to the left, a large crowd will force him to the right in a collective act of censure. For the greater good, of course.

Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants.

In the restaurant, surrounded by dog lovers and people-shamers and candlelight, the stars moved suddenly into position. Swaddled by the rhythms of an untameable city and its undomesticated regulars, the patrons of Santa Fe seemed a Hirschfeld tableau come to life. I was — for a flicker of a second — inside the city’s ineffable glow. I absorbed the warmth totally, like a cat stretching in a pool of sunlight. It was not just the food for a hungry stomach, it was not just the soundtrack of voices mixing with the flickering candlelight, it was not just the hasty alliance of animal lovers doling out opprobrium, nor the pleasurable flush of communal agreement spiked with the recognition of our tyranny and hubris. It was all of those things, yes, but it was also something more, something capturable only by some vestigial sensory organ as yet undiscovered by anatomists. Around me, the city’s plot lines merged into one great circular lane, and inside me, the five senses (and the vestigial organ) arranged themselves in symbiotic formation to produce one thing: joy. I felt mysteriously part of the city’s narrative in some way I hadn’t been a moment before. It was perfect. Then I blinked, and it was gone.

I read once that there is something called “archaic understanding” — something that children have more of than adults. We lose it gradually, but it returns in streaks of primitive insight. An understanding of things in their deepest, mythic sense. Intuition — as brief and bright as a flash of lightning.

We walked home under lamplight glowing in the mist. Some piano music tinkled out of an apartment on 71st. Perhaps it was a party somewhere nearby. The streetlights mixed with the rain like watercolors, and we pushed on, blood cells pulsing through the mighty organism. The sound of the piano retreated — into some corner, behind a curtain, up the stairs in an alley one street over.

There is a line in Peter Pan about Mrs. Darling, and it goes like this: “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover, there is always one more; and her sweet, mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right hand corner.”

Like Mrs. Darling, this city is defined by something it will not relinquish. This something seems to be in plain sight just often enough to keep us charged in its pursuit. We race along the city’s streets, we chat and disperse and we hurry on again. Sometimes we stall in the midst of an eddy, looking up, just to spot it — the city’s kiss. Then it is time to retreat, to go home and heat the pan for dinner, linger over drinks, wonder what comes next — all the while secure in the knowledge that tomorrow, we’ll make another play for it — that one lovely kiss that shapes our days — because it will never be ours.

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Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross