Category Archives: Featured

In Praise of Cowardice

Emily Weinstein's ancestors

Emily Meg Weinstein | Longreads | December 2017 | 22 minutes (5,522 words)

For Ruth Weisenfeld Diamond (1921-2014) and Samuel Meyer Diamond (1919-2008)

I.

First, it came for my grandfather, then for my grandmother. Death comes for us all, but still Jews toast, l’chaim! To life!

When my mother and her brother cleaned out their dead parents’ apartment, they found their father’s Bronze Star from the war.

“Do you know what was in the box with the Bronze Star?” my mother asked me.

“A Nazi Iron Cross.”

“How did you know that?”

“Grandpa showed it to me a bunch of times.”

“Where did he get it?”

“Off a dead Nazi.”

That makes it sound like my grandfather killed the Nazi, but he didn’t. He never fired his gun, not once in the whole Allied advance.

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Server, Busser, Manager, Spy: Inside the High-Stakes World of Restaurant Oppo Research

With the rise of crowdsourced restaurant reviews on Yelp and its many peers, you’d think old-school, print-media critics would be a thing of the past by now. You’d think wrong: as Jessica Sidman shows in her Washingtonian story, restaurant owners go to incredible lengths to identify prominent critics like the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema, in the hopes of manufacturing a flawless, multiple-star-worthy experience. A lot of the energy is spent preemptively, creating and updating dossiers with blurred photos of critics and detailed notes about their culinary (and other) quirks. But there’s also a field-level aspect to these operations — the intricate choreography that kicks into gear as soon as Sietsema or another top critic enters the house.

To communicate about a critic, some restaurants have their own code words. One Italian joint called Sietsema “Neapolitan,” because it didn’t sound too weird to say out loud in the open kitchen. Others, including the kitchens of Fabio Trabocchi, refer to Sietsema as “Papa Bear.”

“I heard ‘Papa Bear in the house,’ and it’s like a fire drill,” says a sous chef for one of Ashok Bajaj’s restaurants, which include Rasika and Bibiana. The sous chef was in the middle of butchering 150 pounds of salmon for a large banquet that night, but when the alert came in, sous chefs kicked line cooks off their stations and began preparing Sietsema’s lunch themselves. (In other kitchens, the executive chef might take over complete prep of a dish. That way, only one person is to blame if the review is terrible.) “It is a huge wrench in the operation, because what you’re basically doing is interrupting the regular flow of service to stop and concentrate on one table and the other tables surrounding.”

With the executive chef orchestrating, the sous chefs prepared triplicates of every component of every dish. Nerves, as always, ran high. “I’ve burned more shit trying to cook something perfect for Tom Sietsema than I ever would have if I didn’t know that he was there,” the sous chef says.

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The Complicated Politics of Rescue and Recovery

(Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As traffic fled Houston before Hurricane Harvey, a line of trucks towing small, flat-bottomed boats made their way into the city. The Cajun Navy would save hundreds of lives from flooded neighborhoods, and instead of rejecting their help, the government embraced it, entrusting much of the evacuation to this rag-tag band of individuals, preferring them over the Red Cross, and in some cases, the National Guard.

Miriam Markowitz followed the Cajun Navy for GQ in the days after the hurricane, when it became clear that the resources needed simply weren’t adequate. The Navy itself is small but organized. Begun in the shadow of Hurricane Katrina, it’s helped residents of Louisiana with almost yearly flooding, and travels to nearby states for help during big storms or hurricanes. It’s the kind of help that comes in the moment, and the Navy uses a walkie-talkie app to dispatch boats to specific locations. Even local Louisiana politicians are on board with the independent rescue squad:

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Restoring Neon City

Photo by Philip Kromer CC-BY-SA 2.0

At Curbed, Stephie Grob Plante profiles the artists of Austin, Texas who create new neon signs and restore old signs to their former, glowing glory.

Sharon and Greg list signs of theirs that are gone like they’re listing names of the long dead. They’ve been making signs in Austin for three decades, and many of the businesses they’ve served have shuttered. South Congress Mexican restaurant Manuel’s was Sharon’s first neon sign, however, and it’s alive and kicking. “Same neon, still working, and it’s over 30 years old.”

The process of restoring the State Theater’s 1935 marquee blade was particularly intensive, say the Keshishians. For starters, the original neon letters were uranium, which isn’t made anymore for safety reasons. Greg and his team removed all remnants of the old neon; completely gutted the inside of the porcelain enamel sign, including the electrical wiring and neon transformers; shoved out 79 years’ worth of pigeon poop; replaced the electrical components; made the majority of the neon from scratch; and polished the porcelain enamel.

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The Human Cost of the Ghost Economy

(Arno Masse/Getty)

Melissa Chadburn | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (3,090 words)

Last year I worked undercover at a temp agency in Los Angeles. While I took the assignment for an article I was working on, I’d also been unemployed for over a year. It seemed I was in that middling space of over-qualified for entry-level jobs, under-qualified for the jobs I most desired, and aged out or irrelevant as a labor union organizer, where I’d gained the bulk of my work experience.

One altered resume later I joined a temp agency and became the biggest ghost of them all, a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi. I’d found my squad, a cadre of screw-ups, felons, floozies, single moms, the differently abled, students, immigrants, the homeless and hungry, the overqualified and under-qualified, all of us ghosted by the traditional marketplace.

***

There is a story about an invisible hand that guides the free market. There is a story about ghosts. There is a story about a ghost economy. The distance between the main employer, the company that hires the temp agency, and the worker who fulfills these gigs, allows for the same type of casual cruelty that is exchanged between people who meet on online dating apps.

***

Temp jobs began after the second world war, offering work at companies like Kelly Girl, a billion-dollar staffing company based in Michigan, on a short-term basis. Today, the temporary or “on-demand” industry employs over 2.9 million people, over 2 percent of America’s total workforce. As temping has grown, the quality of jobs has deteriorated, and temps now earn 20 to 25 percent less an hour than those who work as direct hires, according to government statistics.

I joined a temp agency and became a member of America’s invisible workforce: people who ship goods for big box stores like Wal-Mart or Marshalls, sort recyclables for Waste Management, fulfill online orders for Nike, bottle rum for Bacardi.

To think of The Ghosted is to think of injustice, a cataloging of fist-fights, tuberculosis, detention centers, scabies, crabs, lice, roaches, hot plates, Section 8 housing, laborers hiding under blankets in the backs of trucks, children lying stiff against the tops of trains, assembly lines in windowless heat-filled rooms — a type of economic violence many consumers try to close their minds to. We do not want to think of them because of what it says about us.

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Finding My Identity By the Light of My Mother’s Menorah

motimeiri/Getty, Mahmoud Maghraby/EyeEm/Getty

Santi Elijah Holley | Longreads | December 2017 | 10 minutes (2,481 words)

 

Every year it was the same thing. My mother and brother and I would trim the Christmas tree, place our presents underneath, and then gather around the kitchen table to light the menorah. My mother was Jewish, but non-practicing and certainly not Orthodox. She didn’t care much for the faith, either as a religion or a culture, but she’d been raised by two Jewish parents and she wanted to instill in my brother and me some modicum of respect for the tradition. But she also didn’t want to deprive us of Christmas. My mother may not have believed in ancient scripture, but she did believe in family.

On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, the three of us spun the dreidel and read stories recounting the triumph of the Maccabees and the miracle of the lights. We ate latkes and applesauce and gave each other chocolate gelt, while our Christmas tree blinked in the living room behind us.

Another tradition of ours — at least of mine and my brother’s — was making a mockery of the menorah-lighting blessing. Neither of us spoke Hebrew, but the lighting ceremony involves a nightly recitation of blessings and praise to the Lord. My mother would light the shamash candle, then begin to recite the Hebrew aloud, urging my brother and me to follow along. Rather than mimic these unfamiliar and strange words, we made up our own words, routinely replacing “kidshanu” with “kitty condo,” in tribute to the elaborate piece of furniture frequently occupied by our two cats. My mother glared at us every time and told us to knock it off, though she knew we would do the same thing the next night, and the night after that, and each and every one of the eight nights.

Our menorah was a cheap and simple one. It hadn’t been passed down through generations; it wasn’t forged by a Hasidic blacksmith, nor smuggled through continents and across oceans into the New World. It was plated a gold color, but it didn’t have the heft of solid gold. In all likelihood, my mother bought it at a discount at Kmart during the one and only week they sold Hanukkah items. After the holiday she would put the menorah back in storage, along with the dreidel and books, and we’d then direct our attention exclusively to Christmas. My brother and I knew ours was an atypical holiday tradition, but that knowledge only bound us closer as a family and provided a temporary adhesive to our otherwise fractured family.

My brother, Nathaniel, is eight years older and has a different father. His father is white; mine is black. That makes me two halves — a half-brother and half-black. Since my mother is Jewish, I’m a full-Jew, in accordance with the centuries-old law. (According to another old law, from 19th and early-20th century racial classifications, one drop of African blood makes me full-black, but I’ve never been able to discern which side — the black side or the Jew side — prevails.)

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How We Got There from Here

Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M., 1985. (Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Anna Armstrong | Longreads | December 2017 | 12 minutes (2,903 words)

 

“Jefferson, I think we’re lost.” — Little America, R.E.M.

The distance between Rodeo and Santa Cruz is just over 90 miles. For the most part the drive is unremarkable — urban, industrial cities and rural, unincorporated towns along the Eastshore Freeway, shaping the wasteland east of San Francisco Bay. But then the interstate gives way to Highway 17 and you begin the ascent to another world. The road is a thin, curlicue curved by the green Santa Cruz Mountains.

As a child I made this trip many times with my parents in our wood-paneled station wagon packed tightly with my five siblings and me — my gaze resting out the window, tracking the miles by the three-minute pop songs on the radio while an endless imaginary flat-panel saw tethered to my slight wrist sliced through the redwoods. Our destination? The historic Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

The winding highway was a signal that we were close to the magical unworldliness of rickety wooden roller coasters, salty ocean breezes, barefoot children, bikinied girls, sun-kissed boys, a symphony of voices, crashing waves, tinny arcade bells, the smells and tastes of corn dogs and candied apples — and far, far away from the broke-down, shuttered place of stillness, silence, and late-to-bloom fondness in the rearview mirror. What separated Santa Cruz from Rodeo was not just miles but a tangible joy you could hold in your hands. Coming home sunburned, exhausted, happy — sleeping through the curves of the highway, waking abruptly in time to see the straight line to home.

June 1985. I was 17 years old and newly licensed. I was preparing to make the trek from home to Santa Cruz in my very first car, a 1972 Chevy Malibu that braved a Black Flag bumper sticker in a town that just didn’t get it. The destination? A very different type of spectacle: A rock ‘n’ roll show. The Athens, GA band R.E.M were scheduled to play the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium.

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The Nearly Impossible Journey of a Long-Term Survivor

An Inuit youth pulls an infant on a sled along a snow-covered street in Inuvik in Canada’'s Northwest Territories on April 3, 1974. The round building looming in the background is a Catholic church. (AP Photo)

On June 24, 1972, three boys decided to leave their residential school in Canada’s Northwest Territories and walk from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk (“Tuk”), in a bid to avoid punishment for stealing a pack of cigarettes from their dorm supervisor. Without a highway connecting Inuvik to Tuk, the boys had no idea they were undertaking an impossible journey of 90 miles over boggy tundra. At Granta, Nadim Roberts tells the story of Dennis, Jack, and Bernard — just one example of the horrific toll residential schools have exacted on Inuits, the Inuit community, and their traditional ways of life.

From the pond, the boys walked in the direction of the highest hill, where they could see power lines unspooling to the north-east. The 69,000-volt transmission lines had been strung the previous month. ‘These lines go all the way to Tuk,’ Dennis told his friends. He and Bernard were from Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. If they followed the power lines, they’d be home in a few hours, Dennis said. School would be over soon anyway, and if they left now, they could avoid getting in trouble.

Residential schools had existed in Canada since 1831, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a significant number of them operated in the north. These government-sponsored religious schools were established to assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture by ripping them away from their families and communities. When Western European colonization and evangelization finally arrived in the Arctic, what had been a relatively unscathed Inuit culture began to change rapidly. Bernard’s biological parents had been part of the first generation of Inuit that passed through these schools. It was in such an institution that they first met and fell in love.

Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge. Rather than teaching students how to hunt, skin game, and build igloos and kayaks, residential schools taught a curriculum used for white children in Alberta.

By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication. The young Inuit who went through the residential school system experienced an assault on their traditional identities that had shattering consequences: they are often referred to as the ‘lost generation’.

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Second Life: A World that, for Some, Allows Full Participation

Photo by Alicia Chenaux (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

At The Atlantic, Leslie Jamison profiles several long-term, hard-core users of the immersive, virtual reality platform Second Life. In the game, you create a fantasy alter-ego and your “selective self” resides in a virtual world that allows you to leave behind everything you don’t like about yourself and your real life. Weary of your teal-blue lozenge pool? Install another.

Some critics of Second Life easily dismiss it as escapism. Despite the fact that Jamison herself struggled to embrace the virtual land of imperfect perfection, she discovered that for some, it can offer a kind of refuge from the hassles and frustrations of everyday life — an oasis of belonging regardless or age, status, or whether or not you have a physical disability or a mental illness. As she notes, “Second Life recognizes the ways that we often feel more plural and less coherent than the world allows us to be.”

Gidge Uriza lives in an elegant wooden house with large glass windows overlooking a glittering creek, fringed by weeping willows and meadows twinkling with fireflies. She keeps buying new swimming pools because she keeps falling in love with different ones. The current specimen is a teal lozenge with a waterfall cascading from its archway of stones. Gidge spends her days lounging in a swimsuit on her poolside patio, or else tucked under a lacy comforter, wearing nothing but a bra and bathrobe, with a chocolate-glazed donut perched on the pile of books beside her. “Good morning girls,” she writes on her blog one day. “I’m slow moving, trying to get out of bed this morning, but when I’m surrounded by my pretty pink bed it’s difficult to get out and away like I should.”

In another life, the one most people would call “real,” Gidge Uriza is Bridgette McNeal, an Atlanta mother who works eight-hour days at a call center and is raising a 14-year-old son, a 7-year-old daughter, and severely autistic twins, now 13. Her days are full of the selflessness and endless mundanity of raising children with special needs: giving her twins baths after they have soiled themselves (they still wear diapers, and most likely always will), baking applesauce bread with one to calm him down after a tantrum, asking the other to stop playing “the Barney theme song slowed down to sound like some demonic dirge.” One day, she takes all four kids to a nature center for an idyllic afternoon that gets interrupted by the reality of changing an adolescent’s diaper in a musty bathroom.

I heard about a veteran with PTSD who gave biweekly Italian cooking classes in an open-air gazebo, and I visited an online version of Yosemite created by a woman who had joined Second Life in the wake of several severe depressive episodes and hospitalizations. She uses an avatar named Jadyn Firehawk and spends up to 12 hours a day on Second Life, many of them devoted to refining her bespoke wonderland—full of waterfalls, sequoias, and horses named after important people in John Muir’s life—grateful that Second Life doesn’t ask her to inhabit an identity entirely contoured by her illness, unlike internet chat rooms focused on bipolar disorder that are all about being sick. “I live a well-rounded life on SL,” she told me. “It feeds all my other selves.”

Some people call Second Life escapist, and often its residents argue against that. But for me, the question isn’t whether or not Second Life involves escape. The more important point is that the impulse to escape our lives is universal, and hardly worth vilifying. Inhabiting any life always involves reckoning with the urge to abandon it—through daydreaming; through storytelling; through the ecstasies of art and music, or hard drugs, or adultery, or a smartphone screen. These forms of “leaving” aren’t the opposite of authentic presence. They are simply one of its symptoms—the way love contains conflict, intimacy contains distance, and faith contains doubt.

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I Must Be One of the Best, Because I’m Not One of the Worst

A U.S. marine watches children play in Ramadi, in Iraq's Anbar province. (AP Photo/Todd Pitman)

Are there atheists in foxholes? How do we justify our participation in wars that kill civilians, often children? At The American Scholar, veteran and author of Redeployment Phil Klay turns his writer’s eye on himself in this essay on war, faith, and fatherhood, and reckons with his own complicity.

I was in a different position. My job in the Marine Corps meant that I was generally a spectator rather than an actor in the war. I was never faced with the responsibility of leading men in combat, never responsible for the direct act of killing, never faced with what Marlantes has described as “a situation approaching the sacred in its terror and contact with the infinite.” Instead, I had the images of those children in my head, and for a young man, fervently believing in the mission and in the potential for the Marine Corps to turn around Anbar Province, they confirmed me in all I believed. A Special Forces veteran later told me why, for him, killing people in Iraq felt less morally troubling than killing people in Afghanistan. “Iraq may have been a giant clusterfuck,” he said, “but al-Qaeda did always make it easy.” In other words, al-Qaeda was so grotesquely, absurdly evil, you could not help but compare yourself with them and assume that you must be good.

So rather than challenging my Christian faith or provoking deep questions about who I was as a man, what kind of war I was in, and what sort of country I was a citizen of, the children made me feel like I didn’t have to justify myself at all. When I got home, those children were a useful tool for propping up my image of myself as a decent human being. Confronted with a man who voiced contempt at the notion that anyone would fight in a war that had caused such horrendous civilian casualties, I told him, “I carried injured Iraqi children to medical care with my own hands! What have you done for Iraqi civilians recently? Posted snarky comments on Facebook?”

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