Author Archives

Rebecca McCarthy
Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer

Climate Messaging: A Case for Negativity

A home on stilts sits amidst coastal waters and marshlands along Louisiana Highway 1 on August 24, 2019 in Grand Isle, Louisiana. Since the 1930s, Louisiana has lost over 2,000 square miles of land and wetlands, an area roughly the size of Delaware. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | September 2019 | 14 minutes (3,656 words)

An ex-boyfriend once told me that if someone were to make a movie about his life it would begin with a pregnant woman riding a Coke machine out of a hurricane. That woman was his grandmother, pregnant with his dad during Hurricane Audrey, which killed at least 416 people, spawned 23 tornadoes inland, and effectively destroyed Cameron Parish — currently the largest parish in Louisiana and one of the least populated. Cameron was hit again in 2005 by Hurricane Rita, which wiped out my ex-boyfriend’s house, and then again in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. It was in the news more recently when it was revealed the area has the highest percentage of climate change skeptics in the country.

I was indignant, not about the polling but about the way it was presented. The economy down there is heavily reliant on shrimping and oil. Young people generally move forty miles north up to the city of Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish and the land in Cameron is forecast to be some of the first in the United States to disappear into the sea — a much-cited football field of the state is lost to the Gulf of Mexico every hour and the land is turning to lace. It’s not that people in Cameron are just supernaturally stupid, I said to this ex-boyfriend over the phone, the problem is that most everyone who had the means and believes in climate change has already left. He’s a coastal engineer working on a project to restore the state’s wetlands, so it’s not like he’s indifferent to this, but he told me not to get worked up.

“We are stupid,” he said. Read more…

United States of Conspiracy: An Interview with Anna Merlan

Mike Rosiana / Getty

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 17 minutes (4,461 words)


On March 13, 2019, a twenty-four year old construction worker named Anthony Comello drove to Staten Island and backed his pickup into a Cadillac owned by the head of the Gambino crime family, Frank Cali. When Cali came to the door, Comello shot him. Comello was arrested a few days later in Brick, New Jersey, and upon his appearance in court, it became clear that he was a believer in the confusing and ever-shifting conspiracy theory, QAnon — whose adherents believe President Trump is locked in a mortal battle with a “deep state,” which they contend is running child sex trafficking rings (among other things). A photo from the arraignment shows that Comello had written the letter “Q” on his hand, along with “MAGA FOREVER” and “United We Stand.”

A mob boss, a cadillac, a murder, a town called Brick, New Jersey — all of those things make sense when itemized and grouped together. In 2019 it’s not even that surprising that a member of QAnon was involved. But, barring new information, what is surprising is the simplicity of the actual motive — Comello wanted to date Cali’s niece and Cali disapproved.

“Life is so much more random than we would like it to be,” Anna Merlan told me over the phone, when we were talking about Cali’s murder. “Everything is so much weirder and less meaningful than we would like it to be and I constantly see people that I talk to grappling with that idea — that maybe there isn’t a grand narrative under the surface animating everything.” Read more…

Against Hustle: Jenny Odell Is Taking Her Time at the End of the World

"Orb of Ambivalence," Jenny Odell, digital print, 2017. "This print collects people from 1980s-era computer ads and catalog images. In the original image from which each person was taken, he or she was touching a computer, keyboard, or mouse."

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | April 2019 | 14 minutes (3,693 words)

“I almost got locked in here once,” Jenny Odell tells me as we step into a mausoleum. We’re at the Chapel of the Chimes, which sits at the base of Oakland’s sprawling Mountain View Cemetery. The chapel first opened in 1909, and was redesigned in 1928 by Julia Morgan (the architect of Hearst Castle) with Gothic flourishes that mirror the Alhambra in Spain — rooms are filled with glass bookshelves, marbled hallways spill out into courtyards, skylights abound, and once you’re inside it’s difficult to find your way out even if you, like Odell, come here on an almost weekly basis. The books that line the walls are not actually books, they are urns. It’s essentially a library of the dead — the acoustics are perfect and there’s no sound inside save for our footsteps. The Chapel used to keep cages of canaries scattered around, but people wouldn’t stop setting them free. Read more…

Atlantic City Is Really Going Down This Time

Illustration by Matt Chinworth

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,579 words)

Atlantic City covers the northern third of Absecon Island, a barrier island made up of an alarming amount of sand. It is a bad town to die in — there are plenty of vacant lots but no cemeteries. In many places, if you dig down more than eight feet you hit water. A couple blocks away from the beach, the Absecon Lighthouse is built on a submerged wooden foundation for exactly that reason — so long as you keep wood wet and away from oxygen, it won’t rot. “We haven’t tipped yet,” said Buddy Grover, the 91-year-old lighthouse keeper, “but it does sway in the wind sometimes.”

“The problem with barrier islands is that, sort of by definition, they move,” said Dan Heneghan. Heneghan covered the casino beat for the Press of Atlantic City for 20 years before moving to the Casino Control Commission in 1996. He retired this past May. He’s a big, friendly guy with a mustache like a push broom and a habit of lowering his voice and pausing near the end of his sentences, as if he’s telling you a ghost story. (“Atlantic City was, in mob parlance … a wide open city. No one family … controlled it.”) We were standing at the base of the lighthouse, which he clearly adores. He’s climbed it 71 times this year. “I don’t volunteer here, I just climb the steps,” he said. “It’s a lot more interesting than spending time on a Stairmaster.” The lighthouse was designed by George Meade, a Civil War general most famous for defeating Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. It opened in 1857 but within 20 years the beach had eroded to such an extent that the water was only 75 feet away from the base. Jetties were added until the beach was built back out, but a large iron anchor sits at the old waterline, either as a reminder or a threat.

A little more than two years ago, when I was an intern at a now shuttered website called The Awl, I went out to Atlantic City to cover the Trump Taj Mahal’s last weekend before it closed for good. My first night there I met a woman named Juliana Lykins who told me about Tucker’s Island — New Jersey’s first seaside resort, which had been slowly overtaken by the sea until it disappeared completely. This was a month before the election. The “grab ’em by the pussy” tape had just broken, it was pouring rain, the city was on the verge of defaulting on its debts, and 2,000 casino workers were about to lose their jobs. At the time — my clothes soaking wet, falling asleep in a Super 8 to the sound of Scottie Nell Hughes on CNN — it was hard to understand what Lykins was saying as anything other than a metaphor for the country. I missed the larger menace and focused on the immediate. Trump was elected obviously, but Tucker’s Island wasn’t a figurative threat; it was a very straightforward story about what happens to coastal communities when the water moves in. Read more…

Will Amazon Finally Kill New York?

On December 12, activists built this sad box tower at an anti-Amazon press conference held on the steps of City Hall. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images. Illustration by Katie Kosma.

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | Month 2018 | 10 minutes (2,519 words)

In May of 2017, Mayor de Blasio unveiled Jimmy Breslin Way, a street sign dedicating the stretch of 42nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue to the late reporter. It was a strange press conference — half eulogy, half lecture — a chance for the mayor to laud Breslin and scold members of today’s media by whom he often feels unfairly maligned. “Think about what Jimmy Breslin did. Think about how he saw the world,” said de Blasio. He left without taking questions. What was he talking about? Did he imagine he and Jimmy Breslin would get along? In 1969 Breslin wrote a cover story about Mayor Lindsay for New York Magazine, “Is Lindsay Too Tall to Be Mayor?” was the title. Lindsay was an inch shorter than de Blasio.

In 2010, Heike Geissler took a temporary position at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig. Geissler was a freelance writer and a translator but, more pressingly, she was the mother of two children and money was not coming in. Seasonal Associate, which was translated by Katy Derbyshire and released by Semiotext(e) this month, is the product of that job. (Read an excerpt on Longreads.) It’s an oppressive, unsettling book, mainly because the work is too familiar. The book is written almost entirely in the second person, a style that might’ve come off as an irritating affectation with a lesser writer or a different subject. Here, it’s terrifying — you feel yourself slipping along with Geissler, thoughts of your own unpaid bills and the cold at the back of your throat weaving their way through the narrative. It’s not just that this unnamed protagonist could be you, it’s the certainty that someday she will be you. “You’ll soon know something about life that you didn’t know before, and it won’t just have to do with work,” Geissler writes. “But also with the fact that you’re getting older, that two children cry after you every morning, that you don’t want to go to work, and that something about this job and many other kinds of jobs is essentially rotten.” Read more…

The State of the Bookstore Union

Illustration by Vinnie Neuberg

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | October 2018 | 13 minutes (3,497 words)

The Strand is the largest and most divisive of New York City’s independent bookstores. For its customers, it’s a literary landmark, a convenient public bathroom in Union Square, and one of the last places in Manhattan where tourists can see real New York Bohemia up close — like Colonial Williamsburg, but with poor people (booksellers) instead of settlers. For its employees, the store has more often been an object of resentment. Patti Smith worked there briefly in the early 1970s, but told New York magazine she quit because it “wasn’t very friendly.” Mary Gaitskill worked there for a year and a half and described it, in a thinly veiled story from Bad Behavior, as, “a filthy, broken-down store” staffed by “unhappy homosexuals.” In 2005, an anonymous employee ran a (pretty dumb) blog called “I Hate the Strand” and the reviews on the store’s Glassdoor page are still largely negative. “Employees who were so miserable they joked about torching the building,” wrote one former employee. “Honestly, shut up with the tote bags,” wrote another. (About twenty percent of the Strand’s revenue comes from merch. They sell a lot of tote bags.)

I worked at the Strand for a little over two years and honestly I liked it! I’d worked as a bartender previously, but by the time I was hired as a bookseller five of the seven bars at which I’d been employed had shuttered, either because of rising rents, the death of the owner, or, in one case, because too many of the regulars died or moved away. The Strand offered stability and a less traumatic day-to-day experience. I liked my co-workers, I attended fewer funerals, and I didn’t have to stay up until 4 a.m. every night when I had class in the morning; although because I was hired at $10 an hour, I still had to bartend on my days off to make ends meet. The store unionized in 1976 with the UAW, and it’s one of the only places in New York where bookselling — a notoriously ill-compensated industry; the drunken, wistful uncle of Publishing — can be a sustainable, long-term career for people who are not independently wealthy. The unionization has also given the store a measure of leftist cred that management has been quick to monetize: #Resistance merchandise lines the walls — ”Nevertheless She Persisted” tote bags, Ruth Bader Ginsburg magnets, and a t-shirt that reads “I Love Naps But I Stay Woke.” Read more…