The Longreads Blog

Editor’s Roundtable: From WeEarth to The Aunt-o-Sphere (Podcast)

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On our June 14, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Editor-in-Chief Mike Dang, Audience Editor Catherine Cusik, Senior Editor Kelly Stout, and Books Editor Dana Snitzky shared what they’ve been reading and nominated stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Outline, and CrimeReads.


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0:36 The I in We. (, June 10, 2019, New York Magazine

“I have said it once, I will say it again: I want nothing to do with colonies on other planets run by start-upy white dudes.” – Kelly Stout

New York Magazine’s look at WeWork founder Adam Neumann and how, like other start-up founders before him, he has built a company based on cultural hegemony and a cult of personality. The team discusses the absurdity of late-stage capitalism as it is depicted in the piece, as well as the seemingly capitalist communism ideology behind WeWork, which seems to take all of the bad of communism, but none of the good. They also consider the jargon of start-ups and venture capital and question the use of the word ‘community’ as a misleading placeholder for the idea of a network.

12:05 The Making of a YouTube Radical. (, June 8, 2019, The New York Times)

“How to get someone to revert or… I guess blue-pilling isn’t a thing?” – Mike Dang

“Throw up the red pill.” – Kelly Stout

How do you use the Youtube algorithm against right-wing radicals? That’s the question answered by this piece from The New York Times. It follows the story of Caleb Cain, a young, white 20-something who considered himself liberal, but then found himself falling prey to the entertaining tactics used by right-wing Youtubers to gain audiences.

The team discusses the now common refrain that Youtube’s algorithm is dangerous and questions whether it is possible to use it for good. They talk about how we can’t wait around for Youtube to fix the problem and how the left-wing Youtubers who emerge in the piece, mimick the successful aesthetic choices of the right-wing to win back audiences. The team also talks about the strange feeling of watching people you know change their political views drastically and about the challenges of having constructive conversations about privilege in our ‘shut down’ culture.

21:19 There is nothing more depressing than “positive news.” (Joanna Mang, June 12, 2019, The Outline)

“I feel like the question underneath it all is what do I do with mental health management in my news consumption?” – Catherine Cusik

The team weighs the dangers of the trend toward positive news as examined in this critique from the Outline. They talk about Mang’s observation that those who are making money off of “unlikely animal friends” and “dads who beatbox with their babies” are also passively encouraging distrust of news outlets that publish stories about society’s problems, and turning viewers away from having to do anything substantive in response. They consider the idea that bad news encourages a liberal world view by compelling readers to action whereas a retreat from this type of news is a retreat into conservatism. Lastly, they touch on how awareness of this plays into Longreads‘ weekly recommendations.

31:44 The Rise and Fall of the Bank Robbery Capital of the World. (Peter Houlahan, June 11, 2019, CrimeReads)

“I do really love pieces that can teach me something in that tone… in an entertaining way while still covering all the bases. That’s like the sweet spot.”  – Catherine Cusik

In the ’80s in Los Angeles, a bank was robbed every hour of every day, reads the subhead to this book excerpt published by CrimeReads. The piece lays out the lesser-known history of a string of polite bank robberies in the ’80s and the convenience-oriented banks that located themselves next to freeway on-ramps, inadvertently creating the perfect getaway route for criminals. The team discusses using entertainment as an engagement technique and how when this is done in concert with sound reporting, it makes for an ideal Longreads pick.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

All the Obstacles in a Mother’s Way

AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

In Issue 71 of The Dublin Review, Dominique Cleary shares the myriad ways coworkers, family, and strangers overstepped their bounds by giving her mothering “advice,” and ultimately the way in which she was forced to choose between her job and raising her children. Spanning the time before and after she gave birth, each section is titled with a different offender — boss; male colleague; husband; mother — so that the essay’s structure recreates the neverending, exhausting cycle of obstacles put in womens’ paths, and the ways society tries to undermine female autonomy. People tell Cleary how to dress, how to structure her days, how her career will tank and how breastfeeding will cause her breasts “to sag before their time.”

Getting from Monday to Friday was like swimming the length of an Olympic-sized pool without coming up for air. I hated having to wait to see my children at the end of the day when they were tired and cranky. I was missing their milestones. First words and first steps were reported to me by the staff in the crèche, along with more perfunctory accounts of what they had eaten, whether they had napped and for how long, and the number and consistency of their bowel movements.

Under the Parental Leave Act my husband and I were entitled to eighteen weeks unpaid leave each for each child under the age of eight: seventy-two weeks in total. My husband didn’t want to avail of his rights. Men weren’t taking parental leave – not back then, anyway. He would lose traction at work, as well as income.

The leave was designed to be taken in large chunks, but it could also be taken piecemeal with the agreement of the employer. I sounded my boss out and made a formal request to take every Wednesday afternoon off, unless a case of mine was listed in the Four Courts on that afternoon. I could afford to do it this way, and it would ensure that I’d be present at my desk every day of the week.

My boss reacted with a low-grade vibration of disapproval. He cited ‘business exigencies’ and ‘inconvenience’, but in the end he let me take a small part of my entitlement in that way. I suggested I could take the rest of my entitlement in short blocks during court recesses. Months went by without a reply and I found the uncertainty stressful. Meanwhile, an employment agent called me out of the blue and offered me a job interview with a competitor. He made it sound like I was being headhunted, but I suspected that attempts were being made internally to move me out of the way. The thought of starting from scratch somewhere new was exhausting, so I declined the opportunity.

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MH370 Five Years Later: Will We Ever Know What Happened?

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - MARCH 03: Messages written on paper for passengers, onboard the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 during a 5 Years of Remembrance for Malaysian Airlines MH370 event on March 3, 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)

Three official investigations have failed to determine the probable cause behind the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370, a Boeing 777ER carrying 239 passengers and crew. Originating in Kuala Lampur on March 8, 2014, the flight was bound for Beijing, China.

As William Langewiesche reports in The Atlantic, what has been discovered to date is that the Malaysian government, concerned about a blemish to the reputation of their prestigious national airline, has been less than forthcoming about what they know about the crash — even to the point of deliberately allowing searchers to scour the ocean for debris in locations they knew were far from MH370’s final descent. The plane made a series of turns away from Beijing and flew for more than six hours before descending into the Indian Ocean at high speed after running out of fuel.

Perhaps the only saving grace is that it is believed that the passengers had all long since passed peacefully because someone had deliberately depressurized the aircraft. Was it a foreign government? Hijackers? Or was it a pilot with marriage problems who led an existence outside the cockpit described by people who knew him as “lonely and sad”?

Less than a week after the disappearance, The Wall Street Journal published the first report about the satellite transmissions, indicating that the airplane had most likely stayed aloft for hours after going silent. Malaysian officials eventually admitted that the account was true. The Malaysian regime was said to be one of the most corrupt in the region. It was also proving itself to be furtive, fearful, and unreliable in its investigation of the flight.

Accident investigators dispatched from Europe, Australia, and the United States were shocked by the disarray they encountered. Because the Malaysians withheld what they knew, the initial sea searches were concentrated in the wrong place—the South China Sea—and found no floating debris. Had the Malaysians told the truth right away, such debris might have been found and used to identify the airplane’s approximate location; the black boxes might have been recovered.

A close observer of the MH370 process said, “It became clear that the primary objective of the Malaysians was to make the subject just go away. From the start there was this instinctive bias against being open and transparent, not because they were hiding some deep, dark secret, but because they did not know where the truth really lay, and they were afraid that something might come out that would be embarrassing. Were they covering up? Yes. They were covering up for the unknown.”

The Malaysian report was seen as hardly more than a whitewash whose only real contribution was a frank description of the air-traffic-control failures—presumably because half of them could be blamed on the Vietnamese, and because the Malaysian controllers constituted the weakest local target, politically. The report was released in July 2018, more than four years after the event. It stated that the investigative team was unable to determine the cause of the airplane’s disappearance.

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School for Girls

Illustration by Xulin Wang

Jasmin Aviva Sandelson | Longreads | June 2019 | 28 minutes (7,121 words)

 

I loved being one of your girls. I wasn’t your favorite, but I didn’t need to be. What we had was different.

I found you on that hiking trip to the Spanish mountains. At first I was wary — at our all-girls’ secondary school you were never alone. But in the thin air we climbed together, lotioned each other’s backs, and hand-washed our socks side-by-side. By the end of the week we felt joined, invincible. Remember how we made those campsite boys pitch our tents? That’s not character-building, the male teachers sneered. We just laughed. We were girls: 13 and power-thrilled. While the others hauled their packs up the dusty hill, we lay together on sleeping bags. Your hazel eyes beamed noise and mischief, and I had found my place.

Back in London, I came to you each day, bounding to your classroom after lunch in the cafeteria. The others were with you, but that didn’t stop me. It made me want you more.

Before all the danger, we dashed about, frantic. We sprawled on desks or piled in a corner. You whispered about our classmates — plain girls, weird ones — and the four of us laughed in sly peals. It was both cruel and loving.

Five sounds like an unstable number, but it wasn’t. It was safe. Maybe because there was one of you, and four of us. We gathered at your house each Saturday, and I passed the journey — the bus, two tubes, and the uphill walk — listening to those songs you liked that I’d Limewired onto my iPod: Death Cab for Cutie, The Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay.

The others lived far away, too, some farther than me, but we all hauled our clothes and makeup across the city to get dressed in your bedroom for whatever we had planned: Smirnoff Ices in the park, a lax-bouncered bar, a house party with boys from our brother school.

We shook out our stuff on your big bed, which had space on either side like an adult’s bed, like my parents’ bed, not like my bed, pushed against a wall. We tried on each other’s things and crowded your full-length mirror as Jack Johnson sang through your iPod speaker.

“Pass the panox!” Ashley said, and you tossed the thumb-sized tube of medicated zit cream that you could only get in America, where your mom was from, and where you went every year. In the drawers that pulled out from under from your bed, you stored the things you brought back from New York: moisturizer with fake-tan, spray deodorant, and panoxyl.

We called it panox because we abbreviated everything.

“Emma, your skirt looks beaut,” I said, as you smoothed the white denim.

Oh em gee, totes,” Ashley said, dabbing her chin with the pad of her pinky.

We all spoke the same way, rhythms charged and exclusive like an electric fence.

Ashley was your best friend. She didn’t need panoxyl. Her skin was clear and framed by gold hair that reached the lean arcs of her waist. But even though she had all that I didn’t envy her. She didn’t crackle and sparkle like you did; she couldn’t combust into cackles like you and me.

As Ashley capped the cream, I sprayed the air around myself with your perfume and pulled on your leggings. I’d liked my legs covered since I was 6 or 7, back when my friends in gymnastics learned back handsprings while I was stuck with walkovers. In the cool gym, my thighs stayed pink when chill laced theirs with that wine-colored mottle. Mine touched all the way up. Theirs didn’t. To practice, I wore shorts over my leotard.

But you didn’t need leggings. Your legs were firm, cut with muscle down each thigh and behind the knees. I liked your legs. I also liked your straight white teeth — American teeth — and your full, flushed cheeks. I liked your honey-colored hair, the way the thick drape glinted in the light like amber. You were insecure about your stomach and hips — a little bigger than mine and the other girls’ — so I pretended not to notice when you tugged your shirt off your skin so it didn’t cling. To me, all parts of you, hard and soft, were lovely.

Once we were dressed, spritzed, and painted, the five of us — you, me, Ashley, Kat and Kay — trooped down three flights of stairs. In your kitchen, we piled around one corner of the wooden table that could seat 12, and ate whatever your mom cooked, something like pasta with tomato sauce, because she, like you, was a vegetarian. Your mom perched as we ate, not eating herself, but watching you chew with bird eyes, hard and blue. I was usually still hungry because she didn’t cook that much, so I’d buy a chocolate bar from the shop at the station. I always shared it around, but you never took any. Neither did Ashley. The two of you linked arms as Kat and Kay and I ate it up, square by square.

We also bought drinks at the station shop. Kat was 4’10 and looked even younger than 14, but she flashed her older sister’s passport and heaved our low-shelf vodka onto the counter. Glenns or Kirov tasted fine with enough Diet Coke. Kat and Kay bought regular Coke — “full fat Coke,” we called it. You glanced at them and clutched your own bottle closer.

At house parties, we’d flirt limply with whoever, but then you and I would run off. We peeked in bathrooms, jumped on boys’ beds, had swordfights with baguettes grabbed from bread bins, and gave each other hickeys. We looked each other in the eyes and laughed — laughter like a fist around our stomachs as we shook with devilish synchrony.

When we left one party for another, staggering down the sidewalk and dodging the cracks, I wanted to walk all night instead of going to some boy’s preened Hampstead house. I liked the in-between times best, and the befores and afters.

The afters looked like this: when we’d banked enough fun to last the school week, we all turned to you. We caught the last tube or you called a cab from Addison Lee, which we called Add Lee or just Add, and we lay our heads on each other’s shoulders as we waited to pull up at your front door. At the top of your house, in the “upstairs living room,” we flopped on those couches big enough to sleep four. The fifth, usually Kat, who was small and unfussy, lay on the carpet so thick she didn’t even need a sleeping bag. At home it took me hours to fall asleep. But beside you, my body unclenched and I slept deep and dreamless.

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Don’t Come Around Here No More

Chris Radburn/PA Wire URN:20884959

Rebecca Lehmann | Copper Nickel | Spring 2019 | 11 minutes (2,188 words)

 

I rediscovered the music video for Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” in the fall of 2015. My son was less than a year old, and I’d just returned from maternity leave to my job as an English professor in upstate New York. On Fridays, I’d put in my headphones, walk to campus, keep the light in my office turned off so nobody knew I was in, and write poems.

Sometimes a song I listened to on my walks would get stuck in my head, an earworm, playing over and over. This was the case with “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” and watching the song’s accompanying music video on YouTube only pulled me in further. The video, like many of Petty’s music videos, has seemingly little to do with the song. The song, from the 1985 album Southern Accents, tells the story of a breakup. Petty croons about a relationship gone bad, imploring a former lover to stay away, leave him alone: “I don’t feel you anymore. You darken my door. Whatever you’re looking for — Hey! — don’t come around here no more!” A creeping sitar riff repeats throughout the piece.

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Remembering Dr. John

Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

The first Dr. John died in August 1885. He was known by many names, as New Orleans chronicler Lafcadio Hearn noted in his obituary.

“Jean Montanet, or Jean La Ficelle, or Jean Latanié, or Jean Racine, or Jean Grisgris, or Jean Macaque, or Jean Bayou, or ‘Voudoo John,’ or ‘Bayou John,’ or ‘Doctor John’ might well have been termed ‘The Last of the Voudoos,’” Hearn wrote for Harper’s Weekly that November, “not that the strange association with which he was affiliated has ceased to exist with his death, but that he was the last really important figure of a long line of wizards or witches whose African titles were recognized, and who exercised an influence over the colored population.”

The second Dr. John just died on June 6, 2019. In a way he, too, was a wizard — at least in the sense that anything done wonderfully well cannot be told from magic. This latter Dr. John was also associated with New Orleans and exercised his own influence as a singer, songwriter, and musician.

Born as Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., Dr. John was part of the third wave of influence — first jazz, then rock, and then funk — to emerge from the Crescent City, a place more responsible for American popular music than any other. His career took off while he was in exile, trying to preserve the music he grew up with. It ended with the world acknowledging his efforts to broaden our vocabulary, musically and otherwise.

“I been in the right trip,” he once sang — a line written for him by Bob Dylan, “but I must have used the wrong car.”

Born on November 20, 1941, “Mac” Rebennack grew up attending gigs and recording sessions with his music aficionado father, who turned him on to New Orleans jazz greats King Oliver and Louis Armstrong.

“Well, my father’s records were what they called ‘race records,’ which was blues, rhythm and blues, traditional jazz, and gospel,” Rebennack told Smithsonian Magazine in 2009. “He owned a record shop and had a large black clientele. They would come by and play a record to decide if they liked it. I got the idea as a little kid that I wanted to be a piano player, because I remember hearing [boogie-woogie pianist] Pete Johnson. I thought why not just be Pete Johnson?”

Fats Domino’s guitarists taught the young Rebennack some stuff. Meeting the great New Orleans pianist Professor Longhair inspired him to become a professional musician. Rebennack was present when Little Richard cut “Tutti Frutti” at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Music Shop and Studio on North Rampart street. By the early 1960s, he was playing professionally, doing session work for such local luminaries as Art Neville and Allen Toussaint. Ace Records made him an A&R man at the age of 16.

By this time, Rebennack was also hooked on heroin and subsequently busted for possession. After his release from prison in 1965, he returned to a different world. It was already more difficult to play in mixed groups. “When the civil rights movement heated up, it became more dangerous to travel as part of these package shows,” he remembered. “Before then, we used to travel all over the South with no problem — me, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Chuck Berry, people like that — but then suddenly, we started getting hassled.”

Moreover, New Orleans was trying to clean up its seedy image, and many of its music venues, according to Rebennack, were “buckets of blood joints. It was not a wholesome atmosphere where you could bring your family along. There were gang fights. The security and the police would fire guns into the crowd. … Later [New Orleans District Attorney] Jim Garrison padlocked and shut down the whole music scene.” It was time to go.

Rebennack moved to Los Angeles, where he was soon playing sessions with Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Frank Zappa. “They recruited about half of New Orleans one time to go out and do The Sonny and Cher Show,” remembered Rebennack’s friend Coco Robicheaux. “They were all out there doin’ that, and Sonny was always after [Rebennack], ‘Man, I got a state-of-the-art studio, it’s there for you any time you want it. Y’all just lay around here, why don’tcha go do somethin’?”

Rebennack had an idea about a character someone could play, based on Jean Montanet. But he didn’t want to be Dr. John. He wanted his singer friend Ronnie Barron to do it. “I was never fond of front men,” Rebennack told the Smithsonian. “I didn’t want to be one.”

Barron was the reason Rebennack switched from guitar to piano. Years before, at a gig in Jacksonville, Florida, Barron was being pistol-whipped. “Ronnie was just a kid and his mother had told me, ‘You better look out for my son,’” Rebennack remembered. “Oh god, that was all I was thinking about. I tried to stop the guy, I had my hand over the barrel and he shot.”

“It just went right through my finger,” Rebennack said. “And my finger was hanging by a piece of skin. … They put it back on in the hospital and they sewed it back on very poorly and it never did work right.” When asked how he was able to play piano with a crooked finger, Rebennack quipped, “I try to avoid that finger when I play the piano.”

Barron was also responsible for creating a stage persona early on that inspired Rebennack.

“”I met Mac Rebennack when I was 15.” Barron once said.

I’d been aware of him since I was 12, and he had a good working band that played on the west side where I lived, in Algiers. New Orleans was a real fly-by-night town, where there was a big tourist crowd and people wanted to drink. They didn’t care about the music that much, just wanted to be entertained. So I created my “Reverend Ether” character, almost by accident. I made up this mythology about the voodoo and the gumbo. I’d shake the tambourine and say, “I’m gonna drop the truth on you!” I made up all this shit. This was before I worked with Mac, when I was working in a club on Bourbon Street. He’d come in and kind of watch what I was doing. … Mac realized the value in it, and after he hired me he wanted me to be the original Dr. John, because I already had a handle on the thing.

When Barron was hired by Sonny and Cher and moved west, he gave the Reverend Ether character to Rebennack.

Back in Los Angeles, Barron wasn’t interested in adopting Rebennack’s Dr. John persona. “Ronnie was like this good-lookin’ guy, liked to wear suits, he didn’t want to be no swamp thing,” Robicheaux said. “So they talked Mac into doin’ it. ‘You be Dr. John.’ And everybody loved it.”

Rebennack’s conga player told him, “Look, if Bob Dylan and Sonny and Cher can do it, you can do it.” And so Dr. John was returned to earth and put on a mission.

“I did my first record,” Rebennack said, “to keep New Orleans gris-gris alive.”

The first Dr. John was also a gris-gris man. According to Lafcadio Hearn, Jean Montanet claimed to be a prince’s son from Senegal, of the free-born Bambara tribe. As a youth, he was kidnapped by Spanish slavers. Given back his freedom, he traveled the world as a ship’s cook, finally settling in New Orleans. He became wealthy through fortune-telling and the folk magic practices that we now know as rootwork and hoodoo.

“By-and-by his reputation became so great that he was able to demand and obtain immense fees,” Hearn wrote. “People of both races and both sexes thronged to see him — many coming even from far-away creole towns in the parishes, and well-dressed women, closely veiled, often knocked at his door.” Before long, Montanet was worth $50,000 — enormous wealth for the mid-19th century.

The gris-gris originated in West Africa, and Montanet brought the practice with him. It takes the form of a fetish, carried by the user, for protection or benefit. They are often composed of an uneven number of bones, colored objects and stones, graveyard soil, salt, and other exotic ingredients such as bird nests. Gris-gris culture was already a part of Louisiana voodoo, brought to the state by enslaved West Africans, where it syncretized with elements of Catholicism. Hearn, a white man, described Montanet’s religion as “primitive in the extreme.”

If during his years of servitude in a Catholic colony he had imbibed some notions of Romish Christianity, it is certain at least that the Christian ideas were always subordinated to the African — just as the image of the Virgin Mary was used by him merely as an auxiliary fetich in his witchcraft, and was considered as possessing much less power than the “elephant’s toof.” He was in many respects a humbug; but he may have sincerely believed in the efficacy of certain superstitious rites of his own.

Rebennack had his own “notions of Romish Christianity”: He attended New Orleans’s Jesuit High School until kicked out for his musical preoccupations. Other forces connected him to Jean Montanet. “There was a guy the name of Dr. John, a hoodoo guy in New Orleans,” Rebennack once said. “He was competition to Marie Laveau. He was like her opposite. I actually got a clipping from the Times-Picayune newspaper about how my great-great-great-grandpa Wayne was busted with this guy for running a voodoo operation in a whorehouse in 1860. I decided I would produce the record with this as a concept.”

That record was 1968’s atmospheric, ominous, and thoroughly funky Gris-Gris. “One thing I always did was believe,” Rebennack told Mojo magazine. “I used to play for gigs for the Gris-Gris church. I dug the music, and that’s what I was trying to capture.”

“They call me Dr. John, known as the Night Tripper,” he sings on “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya,” in a raspy voice predictive of Tom Waits. (Rebennack once told a New Orleans paper, “I’m tripping through the shortcuts of existment to feel it and that’s good.”)

Got my satchel of gris gris in my hand

Day trippin’ up, back down the bayou

I’m the last of the best

They call me the gris gris man

“I always thought [voodoo] was a beautiful part of New Orleans culture,” Rebennack once said. “It’s such a blend of stuff; African, Choctaw, Christianity, Spanish.” He told the Smithsonian that he’d approached “some of the reverend mothers” and asked if he could perform the sacred songs. “But I couldn’t do them because it was not for a ceremony,” he said. “So I wrote something similar. One we used went ‘corn boule killy caw caw, walk on gilded splinters.’ It actually translates to ‘cornbread, coffee, and molasses’ in old Creole dialect.”

“It’s supposed to be ‘spendors’ but I turned it into ‘splinters,’” Rebennack remembered. “I just thought splinters sounded better and I always pictured splinters when I sung it.”

Coco Robicheaux had a more complex take. “Dr. John, he was very much interested in metaphysics. We had this little place on St. Philip Street. In voodoo they call the gilded splinters the points of a planet. Mystically they appear like little gilded splinters, like little gold, like fire that holds still. They’re different strengths at different times. I guess it ties in with astrology, and influence the energy. That’s what that’s about.”

Gris-Gris didn’t do that well commercially. “What is this record you gave me?” asked Rebennack’s label boss. “Why didn’t you give me a record that we could sell?” Still, the new Dr. John created a cult following by doubling down on the hoodoo visuals. He would appear onstage in a puff of smoke, decked in feathers (or merely body paint), robes, and headdresses. For a while, one of his opening acts was someone named Prince Kiyama, who would bite the heads off live chickens and drink the blood. Sometimes his backup dancers were nude.

It should go without saying that the new Dr. John’s act had as much to do with voodoo as David Seville’s 1958 hit “Witch Doctor” did to African shamanism, which is to say, not at all. When questioned about his Dr. John stage show later in life, Rebennack insisted that “it was very authentic,” and compared the abandonment of his dancers to “things that might happen in voodoo, where they’re taken by a spirit.” It seems more like the act was designed to appeal to his young, libertine audience rather than be an avenue of understanding a different, complex belief system. At any rate, he retired all that by 1976, when Rebennack appeared at The Band’s farewell concert (later immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s documentary The Last Waltz) to sing the charming, if not entirely wholesome, “Such a Night.“

America has always had two prominent cultures: the colonial and the communal. The colonial culture mimics or appropriates the voice of the underclass, manifesting itself in minstrelsy and coon songs, and even affecting civil rights–era folk music.

The communal strain of American cultural expression has been just as strong, but more fruitful. Think of Congo Square, the place in New Orleans where the first Dr. John and Marie Laveaux plied their trades. It was here that slaves were allowed to “gather, roughly by tribe, to play music, sing, and dance” in the 18th and 19th centuries. These rhythms, when combined with blues and European modalities and military marching band instruments, became jazz. Nothing like that had existed before. In the same sense, it’s how Louisiana voodoo was created out of a gumbo of multicultural spiritual and religious expressions to become something unique. Through the centuries, we have all gathered roughly by tribe. Sometimes it’s produced magic.

Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack embodied both of these cultures. His hoodoo schtick had a little of the “bone through your nose” stereotypes typified by artists like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins; it didn’t contribute much to cultural understanding beyond a new vocabulary of exotic words and phrases, which he had appropriated largely for effect.

But Rebennack was a musician — and more than that, a New Orleanian — through and through. He learned from black and white people, was shocked when a New Orleans auditorium wouldn’t let his white band back Bo Diddley, and dedicated himself to preserving that rolling, loose-limbed music he believed was dying. Later on, he often recorded with the Meters, the one band that epitomized New Orleans funk. Rebennack also revered his musical ancestors, recording tributes to Professor Longhair, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans’s great ambassador of jazz. “I’m trying to give props to Pops,” Rebennack once said about his Armstrong dedication. “I think we’re all supposed to give props to our elders.”  

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Aaron Gilbreath; Fact-checker: Jason Stavers

Sex Work and Workers: A Reading List to Get You Beyond Law & Order SVU and Pretty Woman

A group of sex workers and supporters are seen holding a banner during a demonstration in the Netherlands (Photo by Ana Fernandez / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories

The world’s oldest profession remains the most stigmatized, and it recently occurred to me that I still don’t actually know much about it. I have some friends who are very public about their sex work, but perhaps because I still have a certain post-Catholic prudishess, I’ve never watched any of their films or webcam stuff — I figure I’d either get squeamish seeing my friends in a sexual situation, or I’d ask a million very basic questions after, like, “So is there somebody to touch up your hair and makeup on set?” and “Do you get craft services and is it good?” and “How do you keep your nails that long and still do that?”

In addition to my out-and-proud pals who work in the adult film industry, I probably have some friends who do sex work and have never told anybody other than their clients. And I understand — they might face harsh criticism and even shunning by family and friends, the loss of their other jobs, eviction from their homes, and more.

You probably have some friends like that, too. The umbrella term “sex work” encompasses a wide variety of occupations. Dancing in strip clubs. Sugar daddy relationships. Street prostitution. Traditional, fully produced porn films. Personalized private images and videos in exchange for Amazon wish list fulfillment. Webcam sessions, old-school peep shows, erotic ASMR videos, and more. None of these things is exactly like the other.

The portraits of sex workers in popular film and television are typically idealized and sanitized or irrevocably grim and sex-negative. In researching this column, I wanted to focus on first-person accounts by sex workers from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And I was fortunate to find a relatively rare example of good reporting on sex workers.

1. “We Are Kinda Unbreakable” (Raye Weigel, Baltimore City Paper, September 2017)

Street prostitution, while loosely categorized under the same “sex work” umbrella as mainstream porn, is clearly more dangerous, more stigmatized, and potentially more punishing than most other professions. It is not glamorous. It is not highly lucrative. It is certainly not Pretty Woman.

Weigel introduces us to Rhue Cook, at her own desk in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore (GLCCB), ready to start her evening as leader of the Transgender Action Group community outreach night. According to Weigel, “The Human Rights Campaign compiled statistics about 53 known transgender homicide victims from 2013 to 2015. The number may be higher, however, due to a lack of accurate data collection on the subject or misgendering in reports. Forty-six of the victims were people of color, and at least 34 percent were likely engaged in survival sex work at the time of their deaths.”

Weigel, Cook, and a sex worker walk the streets, handing out condoms, support, and advice. The writer does a journalist’s most important job in a story like this: turning these community figures into living, breathing humans, and making them real to strangers who may read this article five minutes or 5,000 miles away from GLCCB HQ. 

2. “The Massage Parlor Means Survival Here: Red Canary Song On Robert Kraft(Red Canary Song, Tits and Sass, April 2019)

The sex work blog Tits and Sass was far and away the outlet most cited when I asked friends and Twitter followers for their favorite sex work essays. This author, Red Canary Song, is not an individual person but “a New York City based collective that supports Asian migrant massage and sex worker organizing in Flushing, Queens.”

The opinion piece addresses, in part, the high-profile arrest of Robert Kraft in early 2019. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, was charged with solicitation at a Florida massage parlor in a case law enforcement called a landmark human trafficking sting meant to rescue women victimized by an international criminal ring.

Like Charlotte Shane in Sports Illustrated, Red Canary Song calls bullshit, writing, “If this case was such a dire example of human trafficking, why [did the sting operation take] eight months? Why entrap and arrest ‘victims?’ This demonstrates either a lack of regard for the suffering of Chinese massage workers, or disingenuous targeting of high profile men through false claims of immigrant exploitation.” As usual, the sex workers face greater consequences than the clientele.

Red Canary Song advocates for “the funding of affordable housing, affirming healthcare, and food and cash assistance,” rather than throwing money at agents of what it sees as a sexist, white supremacist state and expecting said agents to treat migrant sex workers with decency. 

3. “What Mother’s Day is Like When You’re a Sex Worker & a Mom” (Maxine Holloway, Broke-Ass Stuart, May 2019)

Holloway, a new mom, is pretty happy to be a mother. But she faces particular stressors as a sex worker. She writes, “As I schedule appointments with pediatricians, talk with child care providers, and meet other parents at postpartum groups, I realize how grateful I am to be surrounded by people who love and support sex workers — and how difficult it is to open up.” She convenes a panel of sorts, interviewing three other moms who are also sex workers about everything from how to tell their kids about their profession to how to deal with parents who might judge their careers.

It’s really illuminating and I want you to read all the great quotes for yourself! But here’s one from adult performer Lotus Lain, whose daughter is in middle school:

“My friend Ana, who is also in the industry, is like a real sister, aunt, family member, and has seen my kid grow up since she was five. She has a cute nickname for my kid, helps with child care, and takes us to the beach when we are sad. I just didn’t expect that kind of depth and friendship out of this industry when I first started. “

Ckiara Rose, an environmental activist, sex worker, and mother to a 25-year-old son, speaks openly about a history that includes being stalked, enduring assault, suffering from drug addiction, and more trauma. But the temporary loss of her son to foster care looms larger than any of these struggles — which makes her current healthy relationship with him shine even brighter.

Gia DiMarco actually found her way to porn and other sex work because she was a mother who needed to provide for two small kids. She tells Holloway, “For me, being a sex worker has made me a better mom because it’s given me the ability to almost be a stay-at-home mom and still earn a good income.” Like Rose, DiMarco has experienced a custody battle in which her work in porn was used against her. She speaks about the extra need for privacy online, her self-conscious effort to never appear “too sexy” when picking her kids up at school, and the division of her personal life and her professional life.

4. “Sex Workers Are Not A Life Hack for ‘Helping’ Sexual Predators” (Alana Massey, Self, November 2017)

In an essay tagged to the then-recent New York Times article on Louis C.K.’s history of masturbating in front of women without their consent, Massey issues a powerful reminder that sex workers don’t exist to manage the hurtful impulses of men who want to violate boundaries. As a comedy writer, I found this line most poignant: “Sex workers are some of comedy’s most disposable people, which is made even worse by the fact that it’s a reflection of reality.” Massey’s own history of sex work puts her opinion into the grounded reality of her lived experience.

5. “Stoya: I Thought Female Sexuality Was An Okay Thing?” (James Reith, The Guardian, June 2018)

While I wasn’t on the phone when Reith interviewed the actress, author, producer, director, dancer, essayist, and activist known as Stoya, I know how difficult it is to distill the insights of a talkative, brilliant person into a finite number of words! And having worked with Stoya as well as having read some of her writing, I do believe she is both those things. This is a very good introduction to her philosophy and approach when tackling fraught subjects like sexism and sex work. She’s self-deprecating, thoughtful, funny, and accessible. She’s an intellectual, but she’s not a snob.

6. “What I Want to Know Is Why You Hate Porn Stars” (Conner Habib, The Stranger, March 2014)

Conner Habib is my friend, so there’s your full disclosure. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of them. In fact, he’s currently pursuing a Ph.D. program in sunny Ireland. A life in academia does not necessarily denote intelligence, emotional or otherwise, but Conner is deeply intelligent in many ways. He’s also been an award-winning gay adult performer.

In this essay for The Stranger, he writes movingly of lost love and of the seemingly fruitless effort to convince a boyfriend that porn is not inherently evil: “To him, me being in porn seemed out of place in the rest of my life. I’m a spiritual person and I went to grad school. I taught college English courses and studied science. The porn, for him, didn’t match up with all of that. I started to grow quiet. I didn’t like that I was growing quiet; after all, it was my big chance to talk about my job and my choices. But framed this way, in the form of contradictions, it didn’t seem right. ‘Contradictions’ was a word that meant I’d already lost the battle.

* * *

Years ago, I was invited to co-host an adult film awards ceremony with Stoya. She was an absolute delight, which always makes a job more pleasant. But I had never done comedy in front of a crowd of 400 sex workers (or any out sex workers, so far as I knew) so I asked her if she had any thoughts on what might suit this particular audience.

She gave me a great piece of advice, which I can summarize as follows: Never assume anything about sex workers — not their politics, not their family structure, not their religion or lack thereof, not their history with or without trauma, not their income, nothing.

From a hosting perspective, the show went brilliantly. The room was warm, friendly, smart, and silly. The sponsor, the blog and news website Fleshbot, made everything fun and good-hearted (thanks in no small part to then-site owner Lux Alptraum, a gifted writer and editor.) But I didn’t go on to learn much more about sex work afterward, not really. Not until now.

This particular column was an excellent reminder to me that if I say I respect someone or I say that I’m their friend, I ought to learn more about what they do, why they do it, and how it makes them feel. But that’s not just true for folks I’ve met and personally like — it is true for anyone from a community that I purport to regard with dignity and decency.

The work of unpacking one’s prejudices and fears never really ends, unless you end it. It can be tiring, annoying, and inconvenient. That’s good. Growth is often uncomfortable, physically and otherwise. But if it makes one a better friend or happier human, I’d say it’s more than worth it.

For more on sex work, more than I could possibly provide here, please become a reader of Tits and Sass.

* * *

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group,” which she also wrote. She also hosts the podcast “Where Ya From?”

Editor: Michelle Weber

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

A huge fire on the backlot of Universal Studios burns in the Hollywood Hills on June 1, 2008 in Universal City, California. (Trixie Textor/Getty Images)

This week, we’re sharing stories from Jody Rosen, Reeves Wiedeman, Rebecca Liu, Sara Rimer, and Will Hodge.

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‘Brokenness and Holiness Really Go Together’: Darcey Steinke on Menopause

Nefertiti, 14th century B.C., dark granite bust.(Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

Jane Ratcliffe | Longreads | June 2019 | 19 minutes (5,308 words)

By the time I finished reading Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life I had over nine pages of questions for author Darcey Steinke. She does, after all, explore a variety of topics through the lens of menopause: Sex; grief; the patriarchy; whales, gorillas, horses, and elephants; God; art; the transgender community; and, of course, women’s bodies, along with our minds, our spirits, our anger, and our animalness. She braids all of this into sparse, patient prose that’s somehow lush and explosive, not to mention formidable and exquisitely sensitive to all beings. [Read an excerpt from Flash Count Diary on Longreads.]

I first met Darcey back in the day, when I was a newbie writer and she was my scorchingly cool teacher. Dirty blonde hair, black tights, oozing brilliance, confidence and a bit of the daredevil, she kind of scared me. As it turns out, she is all of that — and also gigantically kind, funny, generous, and wise. The perfect combination to pull off a book like this.

Darcey’s menopausal journey begins with hot flashes so intense she, a minister’s daughter, believes God must be visiting her and ends with the bone-deep realization of her place within the divinity of nature. “I pray to the body, I pray to the lake, I pray to the whale,” she writes. In between she explores why there is so much scarcity and shame around menopause. Read more…

Bearing the Weight of My Grandfathers’ Old Clothes

Illustration by Homestead

Aram Mrjoian | Longreads | June 2019 | 13 minutes (3,320 words)

The first time I was mistaken for my father on the phone, I feigned annoyance. It was around 2004, I was 14 or 15 years old, and my family’s main form of communication was still the cordless phone mounted to the wall at the threshold of the kitchen, important numbers listed in thick pencil on a faded pad of yellow paper taped to the inside of the neighboring cabinet door. My mother and father also had cell phones, single-function dull silver models with green calculator screens and pixelated numbers, but these devices were strictly for work or emergencies. I was too young for my own phone, which was still an uncommon luxury among my friends, especially those still without a driver’s license. At home, the majority of calls we received were from telemarketers, and by my adolescence my parents had trained me to decline the onslaught of polite, prodding inquiries from unknown numbers, so that once or twice a day I hung up on an unfamiliar voice the moment they butchered our last name.

This time, though, it was a number I recognized, from a family member, someone who knew both my dad and me well enough to identify the distinct tones and cadences of our voices. She confused us anyway. I remember the static over the line, my momentary pause as I tried to make sense of this error. How could I be mistaken for my father? How could there be any confusion given the unsure wavering in my adolescent voice? Even as a teenager, I understood one distant moment of misidentification was neither some portentous sign of manhood nor a hint that I had matured in a more physical sense of the word. At least, I didn’t see it that way. Today, the feeling of being lost in adulthood is as constant as ever, like I am still an anachronistic version of my younger self, winging it day to day, uncertain of who I am and what the hell I’m doing. This mood was intensely magnified in my adolescence. My conceptions of masculinity and adulthood were out of whack with my perception of myself. It wasn’t simply that I wasn’t a man yet, but a larger question of how could I ever be half the man my father is, at all?
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