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Aaron Gilbreath
Aaron Gilbreath has written essays and articles for Harper's, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, The Dublin Review, Brick, Paris Review, The Threepenny Review, and Saveur. He's the author of This Is: Essays on Jazz, the personal essay Everything We Don't Know, and the forthcoming book Through the San Joaquin Valley: The Heart of California. @AaronGilbreath

Hard Shell Tacos Aren’t As Hardcore Gringo As You Think

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Growing up in Arizona, eating Sonoran-style Mexican food with a family raised on Mexican food, I developed embarrassingly strong opinions, and what I thought of as a discerning palate, by my teen years. Opinion 1: Tex-Mex was trash. Opinion 2: Mission-Style burritos were an affront to all burritos, stuffed with worthless lettuce and rice. Opinion 3: Do not put sunflower seeds or squash blossoms inside my tamales. Opinion 4: Hard shell tacos weren’t true tacos, they were more vertical tostada sandwiches, a Frankenstein abomination that Taco Bell unleashed to give white America something “exotic” to eat without leaving the comfortable confines of its white world. Opinion 5: I was an asshole. Actually, #5 was a fact. I also still stand behind Opinion 2, but as an adult I can see that, like so many teenagers, I hadn’t read much food history. I ate. I opined. I talked out of my behind. Thankfully age has softened my opinions and high self-regard, and I have read what author Gustavo Arellano calls “taco history.” To that history Andrew Fiouzi at MEL Magazine has added an oral history of the hard shell taco that examines its origins, authenticity, and the way fast food appropriated it. Turns out, Taco Bell is still culpable, but hard shell tacos started as authentic Mexican cuisine, though certain details are hazy.

Arellano: Now, if you’re trying to talk about who created the taco shell in terms of mass marketing them, you could make the argument that George Ashley of Absolute Mexican Food did that, because in the late 1930s, way before Glenn Bell or Juvencio Maldonado [the first guy to apply for a patent to do hard shell tacos in mass quantities], he was selling these metal taco molds for making your own taco kits at home.

Pilcher: Of course, the next step was transferring the taco to the taco shell. Glen Bell, who becomes the founder of Taco Bell, claims that he invented this Mexican-American version of a Mexican dish for a fast food audience in the 1950s in San Bernardino, California. But in fact, we have the patent application for various versions of this taco shell that were filed in the 1940s already by Mexican entrepreneurs.

The fact is, my teenage years were fueled as much by Taco Bell tacos as by traditional red chile burros. But Enchiritos? I mourned the day the chain discontinued this weird, enchilada-like Tex-Mex item smothered in cheap red sauce. Nachos? Done right, they were divine, and by “right” I meant anything using shredded cheese instead of that liquid bowling alley cheese gringos pump from a metal drum. I eat Tex-Mex now, but I also know that taste is too subjective to hold over people, and comfort food and trash are universal loves that we must respect. Find your own liquid nacho cheese and claim it. I will: I love hard shell tacos, the kind filled with simmered ground beef, anemic iceburg lettuce, and waxy cheddar cheese. As much as I looked down on them as a snobbish teen and college kid, and as much as I still prefer real street tacos filled with birria, carnitas, and even — snort — pig snout, once in a while I want a shitty, white-as-rice hard shell. 

My wife grew up in parts of the Midwest with fewer authentic Mexican restaurants. She loves hard shell tacos, and her love reminded me how much I used to, too. The first time I went to Chicago, I sought out Chicago dogs and beef sandwiches. On our last day, we found a hot dog place that sold hard shell tacos, and we ordered a bunch of them instead of char-dogs. They were as cheaply made as we like, and it reminded me that I had always loved the tacos dorados that certain Phoenix Mexican restaurants sold, which where often made with corn tortillas and fried whole, individually, and tasted like the fried tacos my parents made, based on a recipe my Granny picked up somewere in southern Arizona. Sorry. I’m going on and on about myself, but what I’m tryin to say is that before I read Fiouzi’s piece, I knew where my culinary snobbery came from, but I didn’t know where hard shell tacos came from, and how they became associated with gringo fast food. Reading this brief piece will inform you as much as make fellow cheap-taco-eaters feel seen, though surely others will feel more justified in their snobbish hatred of the hard shell. We don’t care what those people think.

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Working To Live Often Means Giving Up Your Life

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

The gig economy and operations like Amazon and Uber demand flexible schedules and constant availability, including weekends, which destroys much opportunity for a set schedule outside of work. In the traditional work force, high salary positions often require long hours and porous boundaries, dissolving the barrier between work and life and eating up the off-time that once contained a social life. Workers pay the price: without schedules that overlap with friends and family, people don’t socialize as much, see their kids, or spouses, or ever relax, and this all takes a heavy toll on society. For The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz examines the many social costs of America’s work-life problem, and what she calls the cult of busyness.

When so many people have long or unreliable work hours, or worse, long and unreliable work hours, the effects ripple far and wide. Families pay the steepest price. Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.

It’s an enlightening but depressing piece, but essential if we are to survive what we have either opted into, or had imposed on us by the job market. Shulevitz compares this American paradigm to the failed Soviet experiment called nepreryvka, meaning the “continuous workweek.”

What makes the changing cadences of labor most nepreryvka-like, however, is that they divide us not just at the micro level, within families and friend groups, but at the macro level, as a polity. Staggered and marathon work hours arguably make the nation materially richer—economists debate the point—but they certainly deprive us of what the late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as a “cultural asset of importance”: an “atmosphere of entire community repose.”

I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity, and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.

As for the children, they’re not off building forts; they’re padding their college applications with extracurricular activities or playing organized sports. A soccer game ought to impose an ethos of not working on a parent, and offer a chance to chat with neighbors and friends. Lately, however, I’ve been seeing more adults checking their email on the sidelines.

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Old Dudes On Skateboards

Photos courtesy of the author

Aaron Gilbreath | Longreads | October 2019 | 36 minutes (8,980 words)

 

“It’s a very fine line between presenting yourself as a true skater and hardcore and being destructive.” ─ Lance Mountain

JR, one of my oldest, dearest friends, died in December. He was 43. We grew up skating together, during that golden age when Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, and Steve Caballero rode for Powell Peralta’s famed Bones Brigade skate team. Back in the mid-1980s, the Bones Brigade were not only discovering what these wheeled slabs of wood could do, they were releasing weird movies on VHS like The Search for Animal Chin and Future Primitive, where they skated ramps, pools, and steep roads, and clowned around. For kids like me, who didn’t relate to baseball or basketball, those movies taught us how to dress, taught us how to talk, taught us the many tricks we could do if we were willing to constantly injure ourselves practicing. My friends and I wanted to be the Bones Brigade, but most of us turned out differently.

Even though one old-school motto was “skate and destroy,” the Bones Brigade seemed kinder and gentler than most. They didn’t smoke, drink, or do drugs. Other pros did. Duane Peters, Christian Hosoi, and Jeff Grosso got lost partying. But no drug could give Lance Mountain and Tony Hawk what skating could. Vegan Mike Vallely put an elephant on his board to remind people of animals’ suffering. Rodney Mullen, essentially the inventor of street skating, spent lots of time reading in the library. Constructive rather than destructive was their identity and their art form. In hindsight, I wish we’d followed their lead sooner.

My middle-aged friends and I decided to honor our shared origins by sprinkling some of JR’s ashes at the Wedge, our old Phoenix skate spot, at the end of this summer. All my life, summer has been my favorite season. I’ve never wanted summers to end, especially this one, this way.
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The Thriving eBay Cheeto Community

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The human brain searches for recognizable forms in everything from clouds to wood grain, and a fervent online culture has arisen around the uniquely shaped puffed, machine-made cheese wads known as Cheetos. Collecting Cheetos that resemble Michael Jackson or a lobster claw almost makes collecting celebrity hair seem normal, but social acceptance isn’t the issue here. Each Cheeto is one of a kind. Some consider unique ones art. As food and agriculture journalist Tove Danovich shows us in her new piece for The Outline, people charge big bucks for a Cheeto shaped like a penis and a Cheeto shaped like a lizard. In 2017, a Cheeto shaped like Harambe, the gorilla who was shot in the Cincinnati zoo, sold for $99,900 on eBay, though the transaction seems to have been canceled. As Danovich always does so skillfully and humorously, she dives into the cheddary depths of this collector community, dusting herself in orange powder so we can sit at a safe distance enjoying the show. So how did this collector culture start, and who are the people buying these things?

The story of how Cheetos made their way to eBay is a circuitous one but it traces back to Andy Huot, the man behind an Instagram account called @CheeseCurlsofInstagram Huot is a weight-lifting enthusiast who often watches what he eats but one day in 2013 he had a craving for something crunchy and savory. He bought a bag of Cheetos. That’s when everything started falling into place. First he saw a perfect number seven. Then there was a Loch Ness monster, a Sasquatch, a hammerhead shark, and a T-Rex. “Once you find one, you see them everywhere,” he said.

He wanted to share his discoveries with the world, and so he started an Instagram. Within a few months he was added to one of the app’s “ suggested users” list and started getting thousands of followers a day. At its peak, his account had roughly 44,000 followers. He started an Etsy account to sell prints of his Cheeto photos, and was featured in an Intel commercial in 2016, making about $5,000 from what amounts to a hobby. (He tried putting the group of evolving Cheetos on eBay, but they didn’t sell.)

In 2016, Frito-Lay saw the kind of engagement Cheetos could get on the internet and decided to launch a search for artifacts to add to a “Cheetos Museum.” Contestants posted photos of their Cheetos on social media and uploaded them to the museum’s website. There were weekly $10,000 prizes for a month and one $50,000 grand prize for the best Cheeto shape. With more than 100,000 posts it was “one of the brand’s most successful digital engagement programs of all time,” Ryan Matiyow, senior director of marketing at Frito-Lay, told Marketing Daily.

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McDonald’s Starts Serving McTech to Survive in the Modern Age

McDonald's arches under renovation. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

In a fascinating story about food and innovation for Bloomburg Businessweek, Thomas Buckley and Leslie Patton write about how McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook has been implementing some revolutionary changes to the fast food chain’s business model. Easterbrook wants, they say, “to reclaim the company’s image as a beacon of innovation, a designation McDonald’s hasn’t enjoyed since roughly the Truman administration.” Despite pushback from some franchise owners, the multibillion dollar company is trying to pull customers back from places like Five Guys and Chipotle by adding Uber Eats, item customization, and hoping to remake stores into data harvesting systems. To show how these programs fit into the company’s history, the authors describe the technological innovations that allowed McDonald’s to expand from a single tiny California burger stand into a titanic brand that feeds 1% of the human population. Even if you don’t eat at McDonald’s, it’s interesting to read about the struggles of a seemingly ever-present global brand that, like Coke and Nestle, has shaped the health of our species, and diluted many countries’ regional identity to a form as dull and predictable as the pink slime that becomes a chicken nugget. Now the challenge is for McDonald’s to rebuild itself into what the authors call “the Amazon of excess sodium.”

Easterbrook’s strategy so far has been vindicated by the numbers. That tailwind is breathing new life into the business. Strong drives 40 miles from his home in Aurora, Ill., every morning to be at his desk by 6 a.m., where he and a handful of other masochistic early risers blast rousing tunes by Journey or Adele on a Bose sound system to get the day going. It’s a routine they began after moving into the new head office, a $250 million building replete with sofa pods in the red and yellow McDonald’s color scheme, an amphitheater, rooftop terraces, and thousands of antique and modern Happy Meal toys locked inside cased glass like priceless museum specimens. Easterbrook opened the office in June of last year in a bid to attract young, tech-forward talent.

In March, McDonald’s acquired artificial intelligence startup Dynamic Yield, headquartered in New York and Tel Aviv, for $300 million—the company’s largest acquisition in 20 years. The burger chain had been testing the machine learning software on drive-thrus at four restaurants in Florida, where screens automatically updated with different items based on the time of day, restaurant traffic, weather, and trending purchases at comparable locations. That technology has been deployed at 8,000 McDonald’s and counting, with plans to be in almost all drive-thrus in the U.S. and Australia by the end of the year, Easterbrook says. The deal signaled an ambition to align the chain with the same predictive algorithms that power impulsive purchasing on Amazon.com or streaming preferences on Netflix. In April, McDonald’s acquired a minority stake in New Zealand-based mobile app vendor Plexure Group Ltd., which helps restaurants engage with diners on their phone with tailored offerings and loyalty programs. The effort falls into the consumer-goods industry’s wider trend toward micromarketing, which has proved effective in driving sales.

In early September, McDonald’s said it was buying Silicon Valley startup Apprente Inc., a developer of voice-recognition technology. The idea is to help speed up lines by eventually having a machine, instead of a person, on the other side of the intercom to relay orders to kitchen staff. The deal for Apprente is McDonald’s third such investment in a technology business in the past six months as the company shakes off a tamer takeover strategy that for decades had focused on buying and selling restaurants from or to operators. McDonald’s is pursuing this new business model even as the latest burger trends steal the buzz from its offerings. Beyond fashionable vegan patties, a new and daunting foe is the fried chicken sandwich at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen (a Miami-based chain owned by the same company that controls Burger King), which became a national obsession when it was introduced in the U.S. in August.

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Your Healing Crystals Are Part of the Capitalist Exploitation Machine

AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

In another example of the first world sucking the life from the third world, the booming demand for so-called healing crystals is ravaging Madagascar’s landscape and putting its citizens —  thousands of whom are children — at risk in unregulated mines. Crystal healing is a lucrative industry. Some stones have sold for millions of dollars apiece. But there’s nothing lucrative about it for the Malagasy people who mine them. As usual, this multibillion dollar industry is built on the cheap, expendable labor of many poor villagers, and the consumers who buy healing crystals seem more concerned with finding them at low prices than with child labor. As journalist Tess McClure points out in her in-depth investigation for The Guardian, crystals’ popularity, and their frequent appearance in the media, has not created much transparency in the supply chain. McClure does our dirty work for us: She follows the trail from shops and American mineral shows back to dangerous, dusty holes in the ground. McClure is an intrepid reporter with a nose for off-beat stories involving social justice and environmental issues. She starts this one at the rose quartz quarries near the villages of Anjoma Ramartina.

At other times, this crater would have been busy with the sound of men at work – his sons and nephews, who would come to dig and then split the cost of stone they sold – but today it was silent except for Rakotondrasolo’s careful footsteps. They had stopped work: rains had been heavy, and they worried that the water made the cavern less stable. “I was afraid, and was afraid for my children because of this soil. It can collapse on them. I asked them to stop working here,” Rakotondrasolo said.

He threw in a handful of gravel and it tumbled to the bottom. Of his 10 children, seven worked with him in the mine. The boys started at the age of about 14. When they find a thick seam of quartz they smash it out of the rock, then chain the pieces together. Some blocks are small, but others are 100kg or even 200kg. The miners drag the boulders out of the hole, sometimes five people hauling together, up on to the grass embankment and toward the hill where lorries come to load them.

I asked where the crystals went from there. “To the ports,” Rakotondrasolo shrugged. He did not know. Somewhere overseas. A long time ago a client brought him a rose orb, cut and polished into a sphere, to show him what eventually became of some of the stones he had mined. But the buyers mostly say little about what the crystals are used for or where they end up. They pay him and leave – about 800 ariary, or 23¢ a kilo, he said – 17¢ for lower quality. It is not much when the money is split between the men at work: 800 ariary buys a cup of rice at the village market.

As Rakotondrasolo stepped away from the crater, a low hiss sounded behind him. We turned back to see a thin layer of red gravel, loosened from the wall, slide down into the hole.

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A Close Look at the Thing We Call ‘Celebrity’

AP Photo/Matt Sayles

How are certain people famous enough to be famous for being famous? And how do people famous for getting laughed at earn $28 million a year? For The Times Literary Supplement, Irina Dumitrescu looks at three books about celebrity to examine the phenomenon of celebrity itself, now and throughout history. This is a fascinating example of the way a book review becomes an essay about a larger subject. Its intelligence also echoes one of the subject’s many facets: the inverse relationship between earnings and what we consider “ability.” It’s easy to dismiss famous people like the Kardashians because they didn’t get famous by producing artful films or performing music, but their ability to, as Dumitrescu puts it, “absorb the energy of the world’s criticism and translate it into cash,” is a well-honed skill that deserves its own kind of respectful recognition, because if celebs didn’t provide the public with something, then we wouldn’t engage with them the way we do. We may laugh at people like the Kardashians, but they’re laughing all the way to the bank, so the question is: What do celebrities give us?

People turn to celebrities to feel emotion, connection, even transcendence. The emotions a star provokes can be just as gratifying if they are negative. Disgust, scorn and outrage provide their own satisfactions. A celebrity who is good at her job gives the public the opportunity to experience unruly feelings. She also arouses in them a desire for her true, “authentic” self. Marcus convincingly argues that celebrities do so by crafting their image carefully. Bernhardt enchanted audiences through precisely controlled movements, deliberately modulated vocal intonation, and the careful choreography of her performances both on stage and off. This was a woman who had herself photographed sleeping in a coffin, was reported to keep a menagerie of exotic pets, and apparently drank from a skull and kept a skeleton in her bedroom….

Celebrities feed the eternal hunger for newness without ever being truly new. Cashmore reminds us that Kim Kardashian found her teachers in previous socialites, in Anna Nicole Smith’s willingness to self-destruct for reality television cameras and in Paris Hilton’s nightclub and TV ubiquity (in fact, Kim started out on Paris’s show The Simple Life as a friend and stylist). For Cashmore, Madonna’s erotic revelations in the documentary Truth or Dare (1991; released in the UK as In Bed with Madonna) tolled the death bell for privacy: “Sit still for a couple of hours watching … and you’ll turn into an inveterate voyeur and spend the rest of your days as a restless, tormented spirit wandering through the arid wastelands of other people’s lives”. The shape of criticism has not changed much either. In an interview with George Ezra last year, Elton John – subscribing to our first narrative about modern celebrity and overlooking the lessons of the second – railed against reality TV “celebrities”: “For me a celebrity is somebody who is top of their game, a top film star, in music, whatever. I hate the word celebrity … You’ve got to work for it and the people that don’t work for it and get it instantaneously are the ones that go pfft”. As Cashmore points out, there has always been someone who thinks the current crop of stars is different and not working hard enough. Indeed, it is a reliable way of telling a person’s age: your generation is determined by the last parvenu you consider a genius and the first you think is a trumped-up mediocrity. This is one clue to the strength of the Kardashian brand. Cashmore describes Paris Hilton in the early 2000s as a shiny new toy, thrown aside once the novelty wore off. The fertile Kardashian clan, however, can always counteract boredom by bringing out a new model: a younger sister with big dreams and the entrepreneurial touch, a baby with an Instagram handle ready to be monetized.

Dumitrescu is a writer whose sentences sparkle with multiple truths, and whose intelligence treats this familiar American pastime not as a simple guilty pleasure, but as a phenomenon worth studying. Yet like most writers, she’s not earning a fraction of the big bucks the Kardashians do. That’s another sad facet of this essay.

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How The Cult of Masculinity Can Poison Creative Writing Programs

Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP

In certain Masters of Fine Arts programs, “MFA” seems to stand for Macho Fucking Aesthetic. For the Iowa Review, writer and educator Jennifer Colville shares her experience studying at one such program in the late 1990s. In the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, Colville finds herself working with an up and coming talent with one book: author Junot Diaz. This isn’t simply a story about Diaz, though. It’s a larger story about the way certain programs advocated very gendered aesthetics, favoring plotted, linear narratives with economic sentences, instead of more image-driven, expansive, associative, or metaphorical prose styles, ones the author considers more “feminine.” For female and non-binary writers, life inside such turn of the century MFA cultures meant reckoning with the celebration of male genius and masculine norms, seeing critical thinking downplayed, and dealing with widespread toxic masculinity, from faculty on down to classmates. Colville shares not only her grad school experience, she distills the vital lessons she took from it, the lessons the program did not intend to teach her, which she now applies to her own life as a professor, literary advocate, and writer.

Those of us who have grappled our way “up” into precarious teaching positions may say we hire less on the basis of fame and publication record and more on the basis of a candidate’s teaching record or thoughtful teaching philosophy. Yet this is easier said than done in a culture that still devalues critical thinking, and that doesn’t make an effort to produce good teachers by offering teacher training in the first place. Faculty who understand the importance of teaching from a variety of aesthetic, cultural, and political perspectives are necessary because masculinity and Eurocentric values have been encoded into our rhetoric and storytelling structures. They are still the defaults. A good MFA program and a good teacher will acknowledge and find ways to challenge this, will be mindful of the problematic culture our most vaunted programs are built on. I use Syracuse as an example with the caveat that Dobyns was a product of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where the age-old concept of reckless male genius was repackaged, macho barroom–style, under Paul Engle. Syracuse, in fact, may have gone through a productive struggle. George Saunders was one of the initial new hires, the one who apologized to me for not reaching out, who admitted his anxiety about approaching female students in the wake of the scandal. Gradually he helped to set a change in motion. A couple of years after he was hired Díaz left Syracuse, and a chain of brilliant and innovative women writers were hired.

Sexism is a deep unconscious vein. It’s embedded in our thought processes, our ways of communicating and telling stories. Traditional narrative privileges plot over details and in so doing trivializes the image, that conductor of the unconscious, of muted memories, dreams, and drives, those little loaded bombs of information, which if unpacked often contain secrets of the body, micronarratives of their own.

What if the creative writing classroom was a space in which critical inquiry was a given, a space for examining and questioning privileged forms or aesthetics, and the pedagogy that often reinforces them. Wouldn’t this kind of space feel safer, more welcoming for those of us brave enough to resurrect our moments, our details, brave enough to write the stories of our bodies. What kind of revolution might that unleash?

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How Thailand’s Rich Escape Prosecution

AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

As many Thai residents say, “Thai jails are only for the poor.” Exhibit A: the 27-year-old socialite named Vorayuth “Boss” Yoovidhya, part of the billionaire family who owns the Red Bull beverage empire. In 2012, he mortally wounded police officer Wichean Glanprasert while driving, then he fled the scene. Boss remains free. Glanprasert’s family mourn while wrestling with this accepted double standard. For The Walrus, Martha Mendoza follows the Red Bull family’s trail of shell companies, and Boss’ social media posts, to find how they not only protect their assets, but how Boss and other Thai elites evade prosecution while protestors and journalists routinely end up in prison for minor offenses.

Within weeks of the incident, Boss was back to enjoying his family’s jet-set lifestyle: he flew around the world on private Red Bull jets, cheered the company’s Formula One racing team from Red Bull’s VIP seats, and kept a shiny black Porsche Carrera in London with custom licence plates—B055 RBR, or Boss Red Bull racing.

An Interpol arrest notice was issued five years after the accident, but so far, it has effectively been useless. Boss is reported to have at least two passports and a complex network of offshore accounts, and with these tools, he’s able to travel the world with impunity. More than 120 photos posted on Facebook and Instagram, as well as some racing blogs, show Boss visiting at least nine countries since Glanprasert’s death. Stops include the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Osaka, Japan, where he posed, grinning and wearing robes from Hogwarts’s darkest dorm, Slytherin house. He’s cruised Monaco’s harbour, snowboarded Japan’s fresh powder, and celebrated his birthday at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London. This means that while authorities say they’ve had no idea where Boss was, his friends, family, and all of their followers seem to have had no doubt about his whereabouts and the good times he’s been having. One summer, in Japan, he posted a ten-second video of sausage and eggs decorated with seaweed eyes, tagging a young relative. His parents responded with a thumbs up.

In Thailand, many say that the justice system has two tracks: one for the elite and one for everybody else. This is seen not just through brazen killings, like that of Glanprasert, but also through financial schemes used by the country’s wealthy. During the time Boss hid in plain sight, an Associated Press (AP) investigation into his whereabouts simultaneously exposed how the Yoovidhya family has spent decades hiding its assets in offshore accounts. As Brooke Harrington, professor of sociology at Dartmouth, said in a 2018 interview with NPR: “The lives of the richest people in the world are so different from those of the rest of us, it’s almost literally unimaginable….National borders are nothing to them. They might as well not exist. The laws are nothing to them. They might as well not exist.”

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Truly Seeing the River: An Interview with Writer Boyce Upholt

Photo of the campsite on the Mississippi River Rory Doyle.

The Mississippi Delta is the name of the vast swampy bottomland that runs for 200 miles between Memphis, Tennessee and Vicksburg, Mississippi. The Mississippi, North America’s second-longest river, mostly created this alluvial landscape. Dense forests covered it. White money, forced Black labor, and government engineering seized, farmed, and tried to control it. For many people, the name evokes images of Tom Sawyer or the Blues or roadside barbecue joints. Author James C. Cobb’s book described the Delta as “The Most Southern Place on Earth.” Even though populous Memphis sits on its northeastern edge, and many Blues festivals take place there, for its size, the Delta is not a region many outsiders visit. It contains some of the US’s most searing poverty, some of its greatest natural beauty, the origins of Blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and some America’s most violent, racist history. Writer Boyce Upholt has made it his beat.

A Connecticut native who found himself in Mississippi, Upholt has written about the Delta’s groundwater for The Atlantic, about the Delta’s Indigenous cultures for Roads & Kingdoms, profiled Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the Delta’s last rural juke joint, for The Believer, and has explored one Delta island for the Oxford American. Once home to a murderous, moonshining frontiersman name Perry Martin, the legends associated with Martin cloak Big Island as much as its thick woods. This mix of wildness, lore, and neglect drew Upholt back for many trips, where he camped and brewed his morning coffee with Mississippi River water. His resulting travel dispatch “Beyond the Levee” brings this far corner of the nearby world to life, partly through Martin, a character who embodies the land itself. In a few brief pages, the piece explores two huge topics ─ America’s most iconic river, and the idea of wildness ─ and satisfies itself with providing not a volume but a window, a tantalizing glimpse, just big and deep enough. Upholt took the time to speak with me about this story, his work, and the Delta he loves.

***

I grew up in Arizona, and first learned about the Delta on a visit to an ex-girlfriend’s family farm in the floodplain in eastern Arkansas. It was pure chance I traveled there, but that vast land’s lush, tarnished beauty immediately gripped me. You grew up in Connecticut. How’d you get interested in the Delta?

It was chance, for me, too. After college, I wasn’t sure how to become a writer, so I joined Teach for America and took a job as a math teacher on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Then, after an unsatisfying yearlong stint in journalism, I decided to go work for TFA coaching teachers. I wanted to get somewhere “new” ─ to me at least ─ so when they offered me a job in the Delta I jumped. I wound up staying  for nine years, and I credit the place with getting me writing for real. There is such a rich history of storytelling and literature. I began writing a blog, then local magazines. Eventually I got an MFA and managed to find a way to write full-time.

In this Oxford American story, one person, Perry Martin, embodies this regrown patch of Delta, and then you become a new character in that story of development and environmental degradation, because you rewrite how we view the Delta’s character: wild or tame? Ugly or magical? How’d you first hear about Perry Martin and Big Island?

As someone who grew up hiking and camping, I found the Delta’s farmland beautiful but orderly: it’s a giant garden, nature contained and restrained. Then, in 2015, I wrote a profile of John Ruskey, a Mississippi River guide who is based in the Delta. We went out on the river, and I became obsessed.

The Mississippi sits amid a vast, wild landscape that almost no one knows is there; the river is at once a national icon and something we have completely forgotten. I kept writing about the river, kept exploring. In 2016, I did a weekend canoe trip with three friends down the backchannel along the west side of Big Island, which is one of the wildest, quietest stretches on the river. As a guide, I used Rivergator, an online text that John compiled. He offhandedly mentions a history of moonshiners on the island, and eventually, though conversations with locals, I began to fill in the details.

Back to that 2015 profile you wrote: What about the River fueled your initial obsession?

I will always remember that first campsite: we were on this wide sandbar that was covered with coyote and bird tracks. All night, I could hear the sound of trucks driving on the levee, which was just a stone’s throw away; I could see a glow on the horizon that was Angola Prison. And yet I felt completely remote and isolated, surrounded by the water, in this un-human space. I wanted more of that. But I also just kept finding interesting little tidbits: abandoned steamboats sitting along the riverside; attempts to catch and process invasive carp; a rapidly changing ecosystem. It still blows my mind that no one has written the book I’m working on: a look at what we’ve done to this river and the effects we’re seeing now.

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions.

Let me ask you about that book you’re working on: Why haven’t other people written it yet? Would it fit into the distinctive literary nonfiction cannon that includes Eddy L. Harris’ memoir Mississippi Solo, Mary Morris’s memoir The River Queen, or more like John M. Barry’s Rising Tide, and John McPhee’s River chapter in Control of Nature

The latter books, definitely. I’m not a huge fan of the adventure memoir. The landscape has so much to tell us, so why focus so narrowly on ourselves? There’s a difference, in my mind, between a trip ─ a paddle downriver, a hike along a trail ─ and a ramble. In the latter, your path is unclear; you make unexpected detours; you return to the same places, sometimes, looking at them in new ways. This, in my mind, makes for a much more interesting book. Great Plains has been a huge inspiration: Ian Frazier spent a few seasons driving around the middle of the country, often seemingly at random, and from that mess he pulls out this compelling history of a forgotten place. Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams is another great example; he sees this wide swath of the Arctic on various scientific expeditions.

As for why that book hasn’t been written, I’m not entirely sure. Maybe because people don’t think of the river as a place, just a line of water. But there is a whole valley around it, that was a part of it, and was regarded as the country’s first Wild West. That valley was cut off by the levees; now even people who live just a few miles away rarely see it. It’s easy to overlook the environmental problems there, until they well up into floods, like this year.

Your Twitter bio says “i wander around and write stuff.” People often wonder how writers find their stories. So you found the Big Island story by writing another story. But as a wanderer, do you find many stories by chance, or do you have some process that lets wandering lead to discovery?

There’s no real process besides paying attention: paying attention to what sparks my own curiosity; paying attention to what small dramas connect with bigger issues and questions. I have a lot of Google Alerts. I read blogs and newsletters. I flip through newspapers and listen for what people are saying when I’m on the road. (Latif Nassar’s ideas on where to find stories are spot-on, by the way.) Honestly, the hardest part can be deciding which of many ideas deserve my commitment. Lately, I’ve been spending more time reporting before I even decide to pitch, to make sure stories have depth.

You describe your interest as a writer as “how we shape place, how place shapes us.” Lots of writers have beats or themes they fixate on: music; sexual politics; war. What does your interest in place say about your nature or worldview? Or your approach to writing and reporting?  

Really, I wish I had a clearer beat. I’ve always been fascinated by landscapes, both human-made and “wild” (though that’s a problematic word). Scratch the surface of a landscape and you find all kinds of history. Paying attention to the history of places often reveals connections: we are connected to the land itself, to a larger ecosystem, and to a long chain of people who, through the generations, have crisscrossed the world. In terms of how I write and report, these sorts of stories often demand that I get out and be on the ground, so I can be a tour-guide through strange, misunderstood corners of the world. It also means I have to find a way to include myself in the story without becoming too solipsistic. I’m not sure I always succeed.

Travel writing used to be a very popular genre, filling many magazines’ pages. That’s changed a lot. But some of my favorite kinds of travel stories are the kind you just described: where a bit of the author’s personal narrative leads readers to unfamiliar parts of our world and reveal larger connections. What are your thoughts on travel writing and the travel dispatch as a form, one not pegged to any news or event, but that has something to say?

It’s among my favorites, too, though when done poorly it’s awful. There are many pitfalls. I  try to stay particularly aware of my privilege: as a middle-class, cis-gendered, heterosexual white guy, I have so many legs up in terms of getting a publication to pay me to write about a place. Often, we’d all be better served to hear from someone from that place. The river, as a place, poses less of this conundrum, though I try to honor indigenous traditions that existed along the Mississippi ─ and in many cases persist ─ as well as the way Black laborers, often enslaved, did so much of the physical remaking of this place.

Yes, the Black labor that cleared the dense Delta hardwoods also drove America’s lucrative cotton economy: the legacy of their forced labor and dehumanization remains. Poverty still plagues so many people of color here. Is it difficult to explore nature apart from humanity in this region?

In any region. I don’t really believe there is such a thing as “nature” apart from humanity. Humans are animals, after all. And human beings have been living on this continent for tens of thousands of years. They cleared forests, built monumental structures, actively manipulated the environment. The idea of an empty wildness came later. (John Muir argued that the Native and Hispano migrants should be kept out of his beloved Yosemite by soldiers; they spoiled the view, he thought.) I always come back to a quote from the critic Raymond Williams, from the “Ideas of Nature”: “[T]he conquest of nature . . . will always include the conquest, the domination or the exploitation of some men by others. If we alienate the living processes of which we are a part, we end, though unequally, by alienating ourselves.”

Also, have you seen the photo of the lush old-growth bottomland forests in Lucy Braun’s canonical 1950 book The Deciduous Forests of Eastern North America? A towering canopy with vines trailing down the stout sweet gum trees. Makes me wish I could tramp through just a few acres of woods like that, though just a few. It’d be exhausting.

I haven’t, but it’s gorgeous. You can do it, though! It’s not old-growth, but there are plenty of acres that look much like this inside the levees, along the river. I wish there were more of them, and what we’ve got left is at risk. The only way we’ll get there is if more folks go out and explore and appreciate them!