Search Results for: Daniel A. Gross

The Classroom Origins of Toxic Masculinity

KC Noland / Youtube, Saul Loeb / Getty

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | January 2019 | 8 minutes (1,974 words)

Covington Catholic High School, St. Michael’s College School, Georgetown Preparatory School. All three are Catholic, mostly white, mostly rich, all-boys, and all three have recently made the news. At Covington, student Nick Sandmann went viral after a video emerged showing him, surrounded by a bunch of white classmates in the same glaring MAGA hats fresh off the same anti-abortion rally, mocking Native American Indigenous Peoples March attendee Nathan Phillips. At St. Mike’s school — Canadian, suggesting we may be less nice than we are similar — several students were charged after a video appeared on social media in which their fellow classmates were assaulted, one with a broomstick. Eight boys were eventually expelled after several incidents were investigated, all, according to reports, involving football and basketball players. Georgetown Prep, meanwhile, made the news when Christine Blasey Ford accused U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assaulting her when they were teenagers while fellow Georgetown student Mark Judge watched. “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter,” she said. The quote reverberated across social media once again after the Covington video went viral.

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Where Have All the Music Magazines Gone?

Getty / Collage by Katie Kosma

Aaron Gilbreath| Longreads | December 2018 | 25 minutes (6,357 words)

When other writers and I get together, we sometimes mourn the state of music writing. Not its quality — the music section of any good indie bookstore offers proof of its vigor — but what seems like the reduced number of publications running longer music stories. Read more…

Alexa de Paris

Warner Brothers, Getty / Corbis / Collage by Katie Kosma

Miles Marshall Lewis | Longreads | November 2018 | 14 minutes (3,622 words)

When I first heard the song “Alexa de Paris” by Prince and the Revolution in the spring of 1986, I was only a year younger than Alexa, and I had no idea who she was. No one ever said. Alexa Fioroni was a painter who taught and traveled the world, but most notably, she danced. Born in Oklahoma City, she moved to the South of France with her mother after her parents’ divorce in the 1970s. She took ballet lessons there from a South American expatriate at 9 years old. By 14, she had enrolled in an intensive study program at the Opéra National de Paris, the only American pirouetting around, later advancing to the Conservatoire de Paris dance school. She remained elusive to me until I began researching this essay. As I listened to the orchestral strings and guitar solos of the song’s gorgeous symphonic rock back then, Paris was just as much a mystery to me as Alexa Fioroni.

Because what was Paris to a 15-year-old black boy from the Bronx? Beyond a vague familiarity with the Eiffel Tower, I had zero points of reference. None of the personalities well known to me much later meant anything to me then: Frantz Fanon, Serge Gainsbourg, Jean-Luc Godard, Aimé Césaire, François Truffaut, Brigitte Bardot. The advanced placement English classes at my public high school didn’t teach négritude. They eventually got around to existentialism — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus — but not until senior year. James Baldwin lived in France, but I hadn’t read James Baldwin. Black Boy had blown me away back in sixth grade. For years, Richard Wright might’ve been the only black writer I was aware of (aside from Alex Haley), but nobody told me he’d lived in Paris. My parents didn’t have passports; my grandparents didn’t have passports.

That wasn’t always the case. Faded vacation photographs from Paris lay buried somewhere in a photo box at the bottom of a closet in our three-bedroom apartment, pictures of the trip my mom took with a girlfriend as a high school graduation gift in 1969. By 1970 she’d be a married mother, a yawning chasm stretched between the 18-year-old Evander High School student she’d been and the 19-year-old South Bronx homemaker she’d so quickly become.

* * *

My first impressions of Paris, my first time bothering to consider the city as a real place with real people walking around it came from Under the Cherry Moon, the romantic comedy Prince filmed on the French Riviera in late 1985. The movie wasn’t set in Paris. I didn’t understand that at the time. A soundtrack album, Parade, preceded the film by four months, and I pored over the packaging in my bedroom for all the clues I could find about this follow-up to Purple Rain. The packaging of the album — yes, a vinyl disc meant for turntables, enclosed in a cardboard sleeve finely designed with cover art — contained black-and-white photos of Prince and the Revolution collaged with strips of pages from a French novel. But I didn’t know French then — I skirted through Italian classes with a string of D’s. The page ribbons could have come from a porn magazine, a cookbook, or some instruction manual.


 

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The Parade album-liner photomontage fixes the Venus de Milo amid guitarist Wendy Melvoin, bassist Brown Mark, and keyboardist Matt Fink as if Aphrodite had joined the Revolution. Prince placed the melancholy piano piece “Venus de Milo” at the end of Parade’s side one. A statue of the Greek goddess is actually on permanent display at the Louvre museum in Paris. French by association I suppose. Parade also featured “Do U Lie?,” a whimsical bit of café jazz complete with accordion and introduced by a French girl explaining, “Les enfants qui mentent ne vont pas au paradis.” Children who lie don’t go to heaven. Prince flattered the object of his affection on the chorus to one of my favorites, “Girls & Boys,” with “vous êtes très belle” and talk of kissing on the steps of Versailles. (Where was that? I wondered.) Plus, the majestically beautiful instrumental “Alexa de Paris” was the flip-side bonus to Parade’s “Mountains” single. Orchestral arrangements conducted by the late Clare Fischer gave Parade more of a European feel than any of Prince’s seven previous albums — the French horns, the trumpets and trombones, the violins and violas.

Because what was Paris to a 15-year-old black boy from the Bronx? Beyond a vague familiarity with the Eiffel Tower, I had zero points of reference.

* * *

Piano practice swallowed a lot of my hours in the 1980s. An older Jewish woman a few buildings away offered lessons. My mother and father forced me out of my comforting cocoon of comic books and TV addiction to learn the piano for 12 months. I was 9. They promised I could drop the private class after a year if I wasn’t interested anymore. I wasn’t. But by the time Parade arrived I’d discovered sheet music to songs I felt like learning and came back to the piano. I’d spend just enough practice time after school to learn Janet Jackson and Doug E. Fresh and Prince songs by heart. Mostly Prince songs. My grandmother’s upright piano could never be pitch-perfectly tuned, but furniture movers hauled it from her South Bronx apartment straight to my bedroom anyway for those childhood lessons. I learned “The Beautiful Ones” on that out-of-tune Kemble. “Paisley Park,” “Pop Life” and “God (Love Theme from Purple Rain)” too. By the time I mastered the chords of “Under the Cherry Moon,” its namesake finally showed up in movie theaters.

Prince’s tragicomedy bombed, but that didn’t matter. In my mind I was following in his footsteps: learning his songs; writing terrible lyrics; taking the Truman High recording studio class taught by the choir director (a white rap producer who managed Doug E. Fresh); having sex; acting pretentious. I fantasized about moving on to guitar, or songwriting, or whatever else necessary to grow up to be just like Prince. I was 15, I had time. But with Under the Cherry Moon, Prince now knew something I definitely didn’t. He knew France. I had to get there.

* * *

I made it into college by the skin of my teeth. I returned home from Atlanta after freshman year for my first summer break and met a beautiful girl on the uptown 6 train. This was when I still marked my life and times by whichever Prince album occupied the record stores, and so it was the Year of Batman, 1989. (It was also the year of the first De La Soul album, 3 Feet High and Rising, and the year of Do the Right Thing, but with my 18-year-old obsessions, that hot summer could only have been the Year of Batman.) We peeked at one another when the other wasn’t looking, over and over, as the train stopped and started on its way to the terminus at Pelham Bay Park. We never spoke. We waved a week later at Times Square station, surprised to see each other again in another borough. I still couldn’t speak. I wasn’t much good at courageous flirtation. I’d heard Prince suffered from shyness and I could relate. When I finally saw her again — apricot skin, smiling eyes, round face draped by thin extension braids — I found my courage. Simone was a rising senior at the performing arts high school downtown, the one from Fame. Her youth didn’t make me any braver.

Simone danced in the video to Young MC’s “Bust a Move” that summer. I’d play the cassette single on a loop in my boombox back down at school and think of her. She sang, she danced, she acted. Simone idolized triple threats like Debbie Allen and Vanessa Williams, full of artistic plans and schemes. We spent the summer of Batman at the Sound Factory nightclub downtown dancing to “French Kiss.” She modeled clothes for me at Emilio Cavallini on Madison Avenue, where she worked. Right away I had romanticized my idea of her — some ingénue artiste — out of all proportion, killing any possibility of an authentic relationship. Friend zone, meet unrequited love. A pretty girl from the Bronx with dreams, so different from the handful of girlfriends in my brief history with love, Simone suffered my awkward advances through graduation and her first few years at Sarah Lawrence College.

There was no one more appropriate to introduce me to Paris than Simone, studying abroad in 1994 at the École Normale de Musique conservatory. “Do the Boodiewop” somehow failed to catapult her girl group Ariél onto the radio in ’92, but the trio’s full album remained a work in progress. The pipe-dream illusions of my own imaginary music career ended in college. I hadn’t rehearsed any Prince songs into memory since “Scandalous” back in the Year of Batman; I’d left my atrocious song-lyric poetry aside. When Simone invited me to stay at her studio in the 13th arrondissement, I was a first-year law student in New York City and an aspiring music journalist trying to build on a Vibe magazine internship from the previous summer. I was also still aspiring to sleep with Simone four years after first peeping at her on the 6 train.

I prepped myself for Paris with some rental videotapes from Tower Video: oldies like April in Paris, Funny Face, and An American in Paris. I don’t remember anything about them now; none made an impact. Terence Trent D’Arby mentioned 18th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac in his album notes as a personal hero, so I left for France reading The Chouans — another work of art that entered in one ear and out the other. I touched down at Charles de Gaulle airport in platform shoes and Gap bell-bottoms because (thanks Lenny Kravitz) how else could one arrive in Paris for the first time?

This was when I still marked my life and times by whichever Prince album occupied the record stores.

Rubbernecking from the backseat of Simone’s Martiniquan girlfriend’s red Fiat, I soaked in all the beige buildings with their decorative architecture, the crowded cafés, twentysomethings like me dressed in black and dragging cigarettes. But saying overmuch about the sights and smells of the city rings false to me. The truth is, I’d flown more than 2,000 miles across the Atlantic to get laid. France wasn’t my first time abroad. Two years prior I visited my college girlfriend studying in Madrid and already experienced my first fish-out-of-water feelings with Spanish culture. Nine months back, I’d flown to London alone for a week as a graduation gift. Still, in many ways, I was 23 going on 19, with an immature, naïve sense of entitlement telling me international travel was some kind of given. France eventually turned out to be a liberating place for me years later, for reasons that would’ve been unfamiliar that first time around. But as an eight-day vacation, visiting a crush I hoped to seduce in the most romantic city in the world, my Parisian experience went only as deep as I could receive it at the time.

Imagine Hippopotamus as the Olive Garden of Paris, an appropriate enough place for hungry young adults on a budget. My palate at the time wasn’t too far advanced beyond Chef Boyardee anyway. Out on the town with Simone, night number one, I ordered a saumon fumé expecting something like the Southern salmon croquettes I grew up on. I can’t remember what fish I expected canard to be. I’d never eaten smoked salmon or duck before. Hundreds of francs wasted. I thought we’d hail the French equivalent of a Manhattan yellow taxi, but Parisian cabs only lay in wait on certain street corners, so we walked back to her apartment sightseeing and people-watching. At her studio she introduced me to the music of an Icelander named Björk. I’d waited all night for the dessert of Simone’s lips, and before falling asleep together, she served them up. They tasted like a French kiss on the steps of Versailles.

Simone made me laugh constantly; our time together always a sitcom. She was the most talented woman I’d ever dated at that point, and cute enough to get cast in a Kwamé video. What magnetized me the most was her artist’s life, her hustle, her self-actualization. She was my first artistic love, a reflection of what I started daring to see in myself. The next morning she had an appointment at a recording studio, singing on the demo of some French musicians. I stayed behind, folding open the wrought-iron shutters in her window frame to stare out onto the Asian Quarter. James Baldwin (I’d gone from never reading him at all to reading everything he’d ever written) once said, “Our crown has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” Many black American men my age never expected to live past 25. Both my hubris and my upbringing told me otherwise. Hands folded behind me, I stood in the sunlight of Simone’s window wearing my crown.

In the future, I’d become a lot more intimately familiar with the city, but in retrospect, Simone took me around to almost everything worth seeing in a week. A Louvre exhibit explored how ancient Egypt influenced Western art. We paid respects at the graves of artists who really didn’t mean all that much to me (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust) and those who did (Richard Wright, Jim Morrison), walking the winding paths of Père Lachaise cemetery. We shot each other on camera climbing the iron stairway of the Eiffel Tower. The Notre Dame was closed for restoration, but the gothic Sacré-Cœur church gave us a solemn candlelit moment at the highest point in Paris one rainy night. And I braved the Métro by myself for the first time in search of Nutella crêpes, the Moulin Rouge, and New Morning, the site of my favorite Prince bootleg tape. I peered through the nightclub window with the strains of his June 15, 1987 aftershow ringing through my ears.

* * *

Like those Magic Eye posters so popular at precisely that moment in the ’90s, I could always pick out the 3D Prince significance from any 2D locale if I stared long enough. Night number seven, we saw a wack noir movie, Romeo Is Bleeding, on the Champs-Élysées and passed the Nova-Park Élysées luxury hotel on our way to the theater. I knew from Prince biographies that he stayed there in June 1985, holed up in a penthouse suite playing with new synthesizers while his management tried cajoling him into enjoying his first real trip to Paris. I once wrote something about all Prince’s lyrical references to Paris or France and topped out at almost 20. (By contrast, I can’t remember Michael Jackson, that stranger in Moscow, ever mentioning Paris.) Made-up utopias like Paisley Park and Uptown were central to Prince’s work, places where freedom reigns and anything goes — most of all dance, music, sex, and romance. Western history has forever promoted the French capital as a land of liberation, tolerance, equality, sex, and romance. This might account for his Paris obsession in songs like “Sign o’ the Times,” “Condition of the Heart,” “Cindy C,” “Sexy M.F.,” and others. What’s so funny, so typically workaholic Prince is that once he actually got to vacation in Paris, young and rich and famous enough to enjoy anything the city had to offer, he chose to stay in his hotel room playing keyboards.

By mid-August he was back — explaining to his girlfriend Susannah Melvoin why she wouldn’t be costarring in Under the Cherry Moon and proposing marriage in a suite at the Hôtel de Crillon. The beautiful ones celebrated for days at places I couldn’t afford with law school loan reimbursement checks: dinners at Maxim’s and La Tour d’Argent, partying at Le Palace. Soon he was off to Côte d’Azur to film a movie. He was 27.

I once wrote something about all Prince’s lyrical references to Paris or France and topped out at almost 20.

There was no Prince on the night I gambled on going beyond kisses. We’d eaten earlier in the Marais district, at an LGBTQ-popular restaurant called Foufounes (French for Pussies). I’d almost given up on the would-be love affair. At home we split a bottle of wine and aired everything out. Off and on for over four years — through Broadway plays, Alvin Ailey dance shows, movies, dinners — I’d been chasing Simone whenever I was back from college. Even after I committed to someone else: the college sweetheart I’d already been with since the year we first met. Simone always put her dreams above settling down with anybody and I always refused to accept what she was saying.

“I just felt too much pressure to live up to your idea of who I am,” she confessed. Years passed before I saw the truth she kept trying to tell me in different ways. She also just wasn’t that into me, there was that too. Ego and my emotional learning curve made all of that hard to accept. But. On the night there was no Prince, there was Miles Davis and his 18-minute blues, “Star People.” I warmed a bottle of body oil on her electric stove and lay slick, massaging fingers all over her shoulders, back, arms, backside. Then she let me go further. Not completely further, but further. Saturday morning, we woke up spooning and laughed easily.

Years later in an erotica anthology entitled Wanderlust, I published a short story, “Irrésistible,” buffing up the ballad of Simone and Miles with a spritz of sentimental Krylon spray paint. I’d renamed her Solange way before Beyoncé became a thing, a name Simone loved, the name of her Martiniquan girlfriend’s mom. “Irrésistible,” like our affair, ended like this:

In my final moments in Paris at Charles de Gaulle, Solange and I stood at the gate holding hands silently. When my final call was announced, we both smiled. She kissed me twice on the cheeks before I boarded the plane. I turned back to look at her a final time—recalling Charlene’s tears when I left Spain months ago—but Solange had turned to walk away. I turned again and stepped onto the plane.

* * *

Color her peach and black: A pretty mademoiselle in a skintight dress shimmies in a crowd of nearly 20,000 screaming Parisians. The sister dances, excited as all hell, next to her flamboyant teenage cousin Luc. And Prince is onstage — spinning, doing splits, leaping off pianos through “Housequake,” “When Doves Cry,” and “The Cross.” “Hot Thing,” “Purple Rain,” and “1999.” Her very first concert is the Bercy stadium Sign o’ the Times Tour stop, and she’s having the time of her life. Some months down the line she’ll ask a friend to design a dress for her 18th birthday inspired by protégé Jill Jones in the “Mia Bocca” video. Her brown eyes, heavy-lidded like some French-Caribbean femme fatale, hardly blink during the hour and a half drummer Sheila E. bangs her skins and dancer Cat Glover jacks her body across stage and our hero takes guitar solo after guitar solo.

I wish I’d known Christine then; we’d never see Prince together live in concert. Two thousand miles away in the Bronx that day, I might’ve been registering for summer school to make up a math class. In the Year of Sign o’ the Times, I had no idea the woman I’d marry one day was shaking her fanny and screaming for my idol over in Europe while I was fighting my way out of high school with both fists.

“Yesterday I tried to write a novel,” Prince once sang (in 1982, on “Moonbeam Levels”), “but I didn’t know where to begin / So I laid down in the grass tryin’ to feel the world turn.” My stab in the same direction came in 1995, trying to write a novel of my own, at 24, while living in south London studying abroad. Don Draper’s French mom-in-law on Mad Men once dropped a quip about her daughter I’ve never forgotten: “This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament, but you’re not an artist.” I spent most of those months in my Tooting Bec flat proving to myself that my talent outweighed my artistic temperament; my novel was the result. Naturally I can’t bear to read it now, but I finished it, and the completion pulled me out the other side of something.

Law school, in retrospect, and even at the time, was a plan B. I skipped the bar exam by the end, graduating instead into the wave of cultural critics documenting the continuing movement of hip-hop into popular mainstream culture. Eventually there were books I was prouder of: a memoir told in essays about my upbringing in the Bronx; an examination of funk pioneer Sly Stone’s 1960s-hangover album, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. After Simone, I dated a few writers and editors, a wine sommelier, a yoga teacher. When “Irrésistible” got published, I left Simone a copy with the doorman of her Chelsea apartment building; I hadn’t seen her in two years. And by then I’d moved to France.

How else did I grow up after those first days in Paris? Like many of my favorite stories, this isn’t really about me, it’s about Prince. I’ll say this though. The year Prince divorced his second and final wife, Manuela Testolini, the Year of 3121 had I still been keeping track of such things, I married Christine — the mother of our Paris-born 1-year-old son — at the city hall of suburban Arcueil, France, in the spring of 2006. Christine: the Martiniquan girlfriend of Simone who’d picked me up in her red Fiat the fateful day of my first visit to her country. Our origin story as a couple belongs to another essay, from a less impressionable, far less wide-eyed time in my life. And our wedding song was Bebel Gilberto’s dreamy bossa nova, “Samba da Bênção” — not “Alexa de Paris.”

* * *

Miles Marshall Lewis is the Harlem-based author of Promise That You Will Sing About Me: The Power and Poetry of Kendrick Lamar (St. Martin’s Press), due next year. His essays, criticism and celebrity profiles have appeared in GQ, The New York Times, NPR and elsewhere.

Editor: Danielle A. Jackson

Copy editor: Jacob Gross

The House on Mayo Road

Dougal Waters / Getty Images / Collage by Katie Kosma

Dur e Aziz Amna | Longreads | November 2018 | 11 minutes (2,986 words)

The spring I turned 12, I moved to an all-girls school, and my family moved from a tiny two-bedroom in the outskirts of Pindi to a huge house in the heart of the city, 30 minutes from Pakistan’s capital. I remember walking into the vast emptiness of the new house, my shoes leaving imprints on the dusty floor. It was a January afternoon in 2004, and the sun came in through windows we would later find to be full of cracks. The garden sprouted weeds. My two brothers and I ran upstairs, knowing our parents would take the downstairs bedroom by the front door. There were two rooms on the second floor, both with their own bathroom. I told my mother, “Ammi, I’m the eldest, I want the bigger one.” She glared at me and said, “We’ll see.”

As we moved in over the next few months, I understood why Ammi had been in a foul mood. For me and my brothers, the house meant lots of space. It sat a stone’s throw away from GT Road, the historic highway that once ran from Kabul to Chittagong. It had a garden in the front and a yard in the back, large enough for us to set up a badminton net. For Ammi, the move brought months of scrubbing, washing, organizing. “Don’t think they ever cleaned this place, the old bastards,” she said under her breath as she threw a pail of water onto the grimy marble floor, the air alive with the smell of wet dust.

Built in the 1960s and given to senior employees in Pakistan’s civil service, the house was meant for officers who would hire an entourage of help to sweep the cavernous rooms, take cobwebs off the high ceilings, clean the furry grit that collected on the fans, and water the wild jasmine that bloomed every March, turning the living room fragrant. The lady of the house, the begum, often stayed at home to supervise and entertain. My mother had gotten her first teaching job months after I was born, charming the nearby school principal by telling him that Anna Karenina was her favorite book. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” she told me years later. “I never finished the book, but that was its first line.” I turned the sentence over in my head, a bit miffed by Tolstoy. I felt like we were happy in our own way.

In the years to come, Ammi continued teaching English at a school nearby. She would come home later than us most days, then take a nap during which we tiptoed around the house, knowing that even the slightest sound might disturb her. Once, when we went to wake her up, she made us lie down next to her and asked, “Do you wish you had one of those mothers who stayed at home all day and took care of you?” We gave emphatic nos, because we thought Ammi was quite all right.

Soon after we’d moved in, the house splintered into two worlds. There was the world downstairs: that of morning parathas, Quran lessons, and structured TV hours (one hour a day, from 8 to 9 p.m.). Here, we came dressed in our ironed school uniforms: a maroon tunic for me, white shirts and maroon ties for my brothers. Here, we acted like the good kids our parents knew us to be. After guests left from dinner parties, my parents sometimes said, “Did you see their kids? So ill-mannered.” We, on the other hand, sat in a tight three-headed row in the drawing room, speaking when spoken to, taking no more than two kebabs even when offered.

At 9, we were sent to bed, the staircase a portal to the other world. Despite my initial desire to bag rooms, we had all taken to sleeping in the bedroom my brothers shared, its walls a freshly painted blue. My room was sea green, my favorite color, but we were conscientious kids, and my parents said it was wasteful to keep two fans going. For several hours each night, we sprawled around on the bed, sometimes talking but often not. The room always had dozens of library books lying around. In a childhood shaped by discipline, books were one thing we were allowed to be obsessive and unruly about. The librarian at my mother’s school always let us check out 50 books at a time. “Jamila’s kids, such readers,” she’d marvel to her colleagues.
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Partners in Crime: The Life, Loves & Nuyorican Noir of Jerry Rodriguez

Photo courtesy the author / Kensington Publishing / Collage by Katie Kosma

Michael A. Gonzales | Longreads | November 2018 | 19 minutes (5,320 words)

It was the third week in August 2004 when my best friend of 23 years, the screenwriter, playwright, and noir author Jerry Rodriguez, called me to blow off steam. Although he never told me the reasons, he and his girlfriend were breaking up. She was an attractive light-skinned woman from the West Coast, a respected editor, music critic, and novelist with hair that belonged in a shampoo commercial and a Colgate smile. A moody Cancerian who proudly represented “The Bay,” she’d known Tupac personally and could recite the lyrics to Too Short songs. Jerry was sick with cancer off and on throughout their three-year relationship and was still ill when his girlfriend decided it was over.

Diagnosed on Good Friday 2001, a few weeks after noticing a swelling on the top of his right foot, the disease steadily progressed. “She said I have to be gone by Labor Day,” Jerry sighed. “I’ve already started packing.” I sucked my teeth. “Well, that still gives you a few weeks to figure it out,” I answered, trying to sound reassuring. “It’ll be cool, man, don’t worry about it. I’ll come by and help you tomorrow.”

“Thanks, man.” Jerry’s voice was deep and serious. A lover of Sinatra, he sometimes carried himself in that stoic Frankie way. He’d watched a lot of tough guy movies with Bogart, Cagney, Lancaster, Widmark, and Mitchum as a kid. In the living room sitting next to his dad, he became a lover of film dialogue that he could recite verbatim.

That phone call came a week after Jerry turned 42. Born under the sign of Leo, he was a natural leader who usually had a big roar, but not that evening. I came over the next day while his now ex-girlfriend was at the gym. There were white moving boxes scattered throughout the beautifully decorated apartment. Outside, it was Hades hot, but the space was comfortably chilled by an air conditioner. Theirs was a dwelling I knew well, having been over for dinner parties, Sunday nights watching The Sopranos, Monday evenings viewing 24, and dog-sitting when they were out of town. Next to the front door was a long, wide cage containing Jerry’s furry white ferret Bandit. I could smell the Café Bustelo brewing.

Brooklyn Hospital was across the street, and the sounds of sirens were constant. Jerry would usually be talking about some new project or telling me about the folks from his day job at a Bronx drug clinic, but that day he was church-mouse quiet. Glancing at him, I sipped the strong coffee and placed familiar books in a box. I knew exactly what was coming next. After a few false starts, he blurted, “Look, if I can’t find a place right away, can I come stay with you for a little while?” I looked at him and smiled, knowing that in New York City, apartment-hunting-time “a little while” could mean anything from six months to six years.

For the previous few years, since my girlfriend Lesley passed away suddenly, I’d lived alone in Crown Heights. The last thing I wanted to do was share space with anyone. Still, how could I say no? He’d always been there for me, especially after Lesley’s brain aneurysm. The afternoon of her funeral, after everyone was gone, Jerry and I stood together in the empty New Jersey graveyard as my mind tried to process my plight. I was afraid to go home and face the empty Chelsea apartment Lesley and I shared, and Jerry understood my dilemma. “Let’s go to the movies and see The Iron Giant,” he said casually after we’d slipped into the limo back to Manhattan. I smiled for the first time since claiming her body at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For the next two weeks, he visited me every day after work.

All of that came back to me as I contemplated his question about moving in. “Of course, you can stay with me,” I answered, “but is the ferret coming too?” Then it was Jerry’s turn to smile.
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Stripped: The Search for Human Rights in US Women’s Prisons

Illustration by Wenjia Tang

Adam Skolnick | Longreads | September 2018 | 36 minutes (9,904 words)

“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky

“God’s mercies are infinite. They are new every morning.”
— Lamentations 3:23

Though its pews were packed, the courtroom was silent as a sanctuary. Most onlookers who filed into Pierce County Superior Court in Tacoma, Washington, on January 25, 2013, were residents of nearby Gig Harbor, a community shaken by a shocking crime, here for the final act: the sentencing.

In the front row, Kay Nelson watched nervously as her sister, Karen Lofgren, the defendant, prepared to make her final statement. The sisters lived two streets apart. Nelson’s children were like older siblings to Lofgren’s two daughters, who were just 6 and 9 years old. Conservative and Christian, Nelson had always been an advocate for tougher crime laws, and until her sister landed in Lady Justice’s crosshairs, she could have never fathomed praying for a judge in criminal court to show mercy on her behalf.

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An Inquiry Into Abuse

Corbis Historical / Getty

Elon Green | Longreads | August 2018 | 16 minutes (4,019 words)

Roger Morris was standing on the South Lawn of the White House. It was early 1969, and Richard Nixon had only been in office for three or four weeks. Morris was a holdover on the National Security Council from Lyndon Johnson’s administration, staying on at the behest of Henry Kissinger. Morris and his colleagues had been invited to fill empty spots on the lawn during a ceremony involving a visiting head of state. “I was suddenly aware of this figure, very close to me on my right,” Morris said. “I looked over and it was Pat Nixon.” Morris decided that, though he’d never met the first lady, as a courtesy he ought to say hello.

When the event concluded, Morris turned to Nixon. “I just want you to know how much I am enjoying my work. It’s a pleasure to work for a president who is so well-informed in foreign affairs,” he said. Morris wasn’t just blowing smoke. He found Nixon quite knowledgeable about his own portfolio — Africa, South Asia, and the United Nations. As Morris told me, “[Nixon] knew a lot of heads of state in Black Africa, personally and well, for years.” And it wasn’t uncommon, he said, for Nixon to point out mistakes made by Richard Helms, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, during briefings.

Nixon looked at Morris rather quizzically. “Oh dear,” she said. “You haven’t seen through him yet.” Morris, stunned, could only nod.

Pat Nixon was formidable. That year, during a visit to Vietnam, she became the first first lady to enter an active combat zone since World War II. But her relationship with the president could be a challenge. “No question it was a tough marriage,” Bob Woodward would tell Nixon biographer Fawn Brodie in 1980. “Even the people we talked to, who were very defensive about him, just felt that he didn’t treat her very well.”

Alexander Butterfield, the Nixon aide who revealed the president’s secret taping apparatus, told Woodward not long ago that the first lady was “borderline abused.” Nixon would ignore her when they were together. “I wanted to shake him. ‘Answer her, goddamn it; she’s your wife!’”

There have also been darker reports, many of which were rounded up in Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan’s 2000 Nixon biography, The Arrogance of Power. For instance: Allegations that Nixon “kicked the hell” out of Pat in 1962. That, after telling America that the country would not have him to “kick around anymore,” the former vice president “beat the hell” out of her. That, in fact, she had been so injured “she could not go out the next day.” That, on an unspecified occasion, one aide or perhaps more “had to run in and pull [Nixon] off Pat,” who sustained bruises on her face.

That Nixon struck his wife while he was president.

‘Oh dear,’ Pat said. ‘You haven’t seen through him yet.’

The allegations have, for the most part, been in the public record for decades. (The Nixons’ daughter, Tricia Nixon Cox, unequivocally denied the allegations made in The Arrogance of Power in 2000.) But they remain relatively unexamined, particularly considering the severity. The scrutiny is not commensurate with the accusations.

For years, journalists and historians have mostly danced around the reports, gently poking and prodding. Nixon chroniclers tend either to acknowledge that the reports exist without assessing their reliability, or they ignore them altogether. A conspicuous absence of specifics in the public record — dates, locations, and documentation — may be to blame for this, and, especially when writing about allegations of abuse, one must write with care and caution.

What can be said with confidence is the truth of the matter has not been been satisfactorily resolved. With the benefit of distance and perspective, it’s worth giving the alleged incidents a second look and considering their sources more closely, because allegations of abuse are taken more seriously today than they were a half-century ago — or even more recently, when this history was being written.

***

In 1962, Nixon was running for governor of California against Edmund “Pat” Brown. He’d spent the previous eight years as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon was suited to the position. “Eisenhower radically altered the role of his running mate by presenting him with critical assignments in both foreign and domestic affairs once he assumed his office,” wrote Irwin Gellman, one of the great Nixon chroniclers. “Because of the collaboration between these two leaders, Nixon deserves the title, ‘the first modern vice president.’”

The gubernatorial campaign was contentious. “Nixon had charged that Brown was soft on communism and crime, while the governor claimed that the former vice president was interested in the governorship only as a stepping stone to the White House,” the Los Angeles Times recalled years later.

Brown told Fawn Brodie, in her Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, that during the campaign he heard that Nixon “kicked the hell out of her, hit her.” The book was published in 1981, which makes this, I suspect, the earliest on-record accusation of its kind.

In a recording of the interview from July 1980, which is held with Brodie’s files at the University of Utah, Brodie and the loose-talking former governor wonder if the alleged abuse — they had both heard the rumors — was physical or purely emotional; they’re uncertain. This is what follows:

BRODIE: Were you aware of Pat as a campaigner, in the campaign, at all? Was she —

BROWN: I don’t think she campaigned. She may have gone to a few women’s parties. But we got word, at one stage of the campaign, that he kicked the hell out of her. He hit her or some damn thing. Did you ever hear that?

BRODIE: That story keeps surfacing.

BROWN: Some of the guys that were on the plane with the campaign came to me confidentially and said, “Nixon really slugged his wife. He treated her terribly. He hauled her out in the presence of people.”

BRODIE: He slugged his wife in front of people?

BROWN: Well, in front of one of the press that was supposed to be friendly to him. He got so angry.

BRODIE: He hit her.

BROWN: But I can’t prove that. I never used it.

Brodie disliked Nixon. As Newell Bringhurst recounted in Fawn McKay Brodie: A Biographer’s Life, Brodie called her subject a “shabby, pathetic felon,” “a rattlesnake,” and a “plain damn liar.” When, in November 1977, Brodie’s husband, Bernard, was diagnosed with cancer, she paused her research, quoting her husband saying: “That son of a bitch can wait.” (Brodie herself would die of lung cancer in January 1981, never entirely finishing the manuscript.)

In a recent conversation, Bringhurst called Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character Brodie’s weakest book. “It’s not a balanced biography at all,” he said. “She went into that — into the research and the writing — with a biased perspective.” It’s true, and understandably so: After Nixon was elected president in 1968, after promising to end the war in Vietnam, Brodie’s son was nearly drafted. When Nixon, several years later, attempted to smear the leaker of the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, a RAND Corporation colleague of Bernard Brodie’s, it was salt in the wounds.

Brodie had for many years taught college classes on how to write a biography. And yet, said Bringhurst, “she violated, in many ways, the very canons that she tried to teach her students: You have to have some empathy and perspective for the person you’re writing the biography on.

The allegations have, for the most part, been in the public record for decades. But they remain relatively unexamined, particularly considering the severity.

Brown wasn’t the only source for accusations leveled against Nixon during that period. There’s a quote from Frank Cullen in The Arrogance of Power by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, who, to their great credit, explore the allegations in greater detail than any biographers before or since. Cullen, a Brown senior aide, said he had heard that Nixon “beat the hell [out of]” Pat in the wake of the gubernatorial loss.

By the 1962 campaign, Cullen was an old hand at politics. He’d volunteered on John F. Kennedy’s congressional campaigns in 1948, and stayed on for the Senate run in 1952. In 1960, during Kennedy’s campaign for president, Robert Kennedy introduced Cullen to Brown, who would appoint Cullen assistant legislative secretary. (In 1972, Cullen helped coordinate the visit to the United States by China’s table tennis team that was later famously called “ping-pong diplomacy.”)

***

Other people have made accusations about Nixon. In March 1998, in a talk he believed to be off-the-record, Seymour Hersh told an audience of Harvard’s Nieman fellows about “a serious empirical basis for believing [Nixon] was a wife beater. … I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases.” Hersh would reprise the charge three months later during appearances on CNBC and NBC.

More recently, Hersh wrote about it in his memoir, Reporter. A couple hundred pages in, he writes that a few weeks after the resignation:

I was called by someone connected to a nearby hospital … and told that Nixon’s wife, Pat, had been treated in the emergency room there a few days after she and Nixon had returned from Washington. She told her doctors that her husband had hit her. I can say that the person who talked to me had very precise information on the extent of her injuries and the anger of the emergency room physician who treated her.

After receiving the tip, Hersh called John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s White House counsel. Ehrlichman not only declined to wave Hersh away from the story, but said he knew of two other instances of abuse: one from 1962 — presumably the instance referenced by Cullen — but also one that occurred during Nixon’s presidency. (Hersh, in an interview with me for the Columbia Journalism Reviewsaid his hospital source was a doctor.)

The biographers Summers and Swan, who interviewed Hersh, also talked to John Sears, who worked for Nixon in 1968. With Sears, who was suspected of being Deep Throat, it’s essentially a high-level game of telephone: Sears heard from Waller Taylor, a senior partner at Nixon’s law firm, that in 1962 Pat Nixon was hit so hard “he blackened her eye” and “she threatened to leave him over it.”

Sears, now 78, told me he was surprised by Taylor’s story because he himself had neither seen nor, until that point, heard of such abuse. Still, he said, “I saw no reason [Taylor] would make up such a thing. He was a friend of theirs.” This seems to be true. Summers and Swan note that Taylor’s father had been an early supporter of Nixon’s, and Taylor himself introduced Nixon to trickster Donald Segretti. Segretti, however, disputes the latter point. “I’ve had a lot of things over the years made up about me that are just complete fantasy. This sounds like one of those stories,” Segretti said. “I do not know who this Waller Taylor was, [and] I never met President Nixon.” (For good measure, without prompting, Segretti also denied authorship of the “Canuck letter.”)

Sears recalled telling the story to Patrick Hillings, who succeeded Nixon in Congress: “He said it was quite possible; the whole business of the loss in California had made them both upset, and that Nixon had finally agreed to move to New York and get out of politics. But there was a lot of problems in and around that.” Hillings, said Sears, didn’t attest to the truth of the allegations, “but he thought it believable.” (I asked John Dean, who succeeded Ehrlichman as White House Counsel, if he knew about the abuse allegations. Dean’s name doesn’t come up in any of these stories, but historically he’s been quite critical of his old boss — he cooperated with the Senate Watergate investigators — so I assumed he would be candid. “I have zero knowledge of RN striking his wife,” he emailed.)

Seymour Hersh told an audience about ‘a serious empirical basis for believing [Nixon] was a wife beater. … I’m talking about trauma, and three distinct cases.’

The game of telephone continues with a quote from William Van Petten, a reporter who covered the ’62 campaign. Van Petten told a writer named Jon Ewing that he found Nixon to be “a terrible, belligerent drunk” who “beat Pat badly … so badly that she could not go out the next day.” Van Petten, Summers and Swan write, was informed this had happened before, and that Nixon aides, including Ehrlichman, “would on occasion have to go in and intervene.”

What to make of it all? For his part, John Farrell, author of last year’s Pulitzer finalist, Richard Nixon: The Life, dismisses much of this, asserting that the sources are not to be trusted. “Richard Nixon fired John Ehrlichman. Nixon fired John Sears, too,” he said. (Sears said he left under a “mutual understanding.”) However, he allows, “Pat Hillings would have known. Pat Hillings was incredibly close to the Nixons. But he’s not with us anymore.”

Summers, who conducted the interviews with Ehrlichman for The Arrogance of Power, doesn’t believe that Nixon having fired Ehrlichman tainted the source. “In the sense that one assesses the credibility and character of someone who’s talking to you, I found Ehrlichman a credible interviewee, and not a vindictive interviewee.”

***

On August 8, 1974, 61-year-old Nixon resigned the office of the presidency. He was in poor health, exhibiting persistent phlebitis and shortness of breath. In September, he would be admitted to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, where he was given a blood thinner. Scans revealed evidence of a blood clot that had moved from his left thigh to his right lung.

Then, in October, after what one of his doctors later described as “groin pain and the persistent enlargement of the left leg,” Nixon went back to the hospital. He would remain there for three weeks and lose 15 pounds.

Sometime during this period, again according to Hersh, Pat Nixon was taken to a local emergency room. Evidently, her husband had attacked her at their home in San Clemente, California.

I called Hersh to see if he could shed more light on this. “That’s ridiculous,” he said, “I’m not interested. Bye bye.” Mentioning that he had a guest in his office, he hung up.

So I asked Anthony Summers for more information, anything really, about that hospital visit. Did he and Swan attempt to verify Hersh’s source? “I have a very vague memory that we looked for a doctor at the San Clemente hospital.” Did he find the doctor? “I don’t recall.” He suspects the answer is buried in his notes, which aren’t retrievable.

***

Something to consider, when assessing the plausibility of the abuse allegations, is there’s little doubt that Nixon struck others. According to Farrell’s biography, during Nixon’s 1960 campaign for president, on a swing through Iowa, the strained candidate

vented by violently kicking the car seat in front of him. Its enraged inhabitant, the loyal [Don] Hughes, left the broken seat, and the car, and stalked off down the road. At an otherwise successful telethon in Detroit on election eve, Nixon once again lost his temper, and struck aide Everett Hart. Furious, Hart quit the campaign. “I was really mad,” Hart recalled. “I had had a rib removed where I had had open heart surgery, and that is where he hit me.”

Hart, said Farrell, spoke to Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s secretary, over the phone about the incident, and said he could not forgive the man. Woods summarized the phone conversation in a memo currently in Nixon’s archives.

More than a decade later, in the summer of 1973, Nixon, mired in the Watergate scandal, visited New Orleans to give a speech to a veterans group. It was expected to be a friendly audience. As Nixon walked toward the convention hall, reported the Washington Post’s magazine, “he wanted nothing in his way, in front or in back, before he got at the crowd inside.” However, “breathing on him from behind was [Ronald] Ziegler and the clump of TV cameras, mics, and newsmen that inevitably followed.”

An angered Nixon, as Michael Rosenwald wrote last year, “stuck his finger in Ziegler’s chest, turned him around, and then shoved him in the back hard with both hands, saying ‘I don’t want any press with me and you take care of it.’” It was even caught on tape, which was fortuitous because a Nixon aide later denied the incident had occurred at all.

***

The earliest chronological firsthand accusation is also the most shocking. In 1946, Nixon ran against Jerry Voorhis, a five-termer in California’s old 12th congressional district. Despite his incumbency, or perhaps because of it, Voorhis ran a terrible campaign. To boot, there were reportedly phone calls to prospective voters from an anonymous caller inquiring, “Did you know that Jerry Voorhis is a communist?”

Nixon destroyed him. In his account of the defeat, Farrell includes a quote from Zita Remley, a Democratic campaign worker of whom a Long Beach paper enthused in 1960 that, were she to ever faint, “it’s certain that she could be immediately revived by fanning her with a political brochure.” Remley found Voorhis “very white and sort of quiet. … He just sort of put his head in his hands.”

Something to consider, when assessing the plausibility of the abuse allegations, is there’s little doubt that Nixon struck others.

Farrell mentions Remley once more in the book, in the endnotes, where he accurately describes her as a “Democratic partisan” who claimed to have “firsthand knowledge of the anonymous phone calls.” However, he writes:

Remley, at least, is a troublesome source: a Nixon hater who fed at least one demonstrably false story about Nixon’s taxes to the press and claimed (more than 20 years later) that Nixon slapped her outside a public function — an assault that, if verified, would have ended his career but that she didn’t report to the police at the time.

Remley talked about the slap in question with Fawn Brodie, who wrote about the knotty tax business:

[Remley] had become a deputy assessor of Los Angeles County with the job of checking veterans’ exemptions. In 1952, just after the election, Nixon sent a notarized letter to her Los Angeles office requesting a veteran’s tax exemption, which was granted only to veterans who, if single, had less than $5,000 worth of property in California or elsewhere, and if married, $10,000.

As Brodie (who misspelled Remley’s first name as Vita) tells it, Remley knew that Nixon bought a pricey home in Washington, D.C., and denied the request. The powerful political columnist Drew Pearson found out and published a damning story.

Nixon was upset about it. In RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, he wrote that Pearson’s column was “teeming with innuendo and loose facts” and claimed that Pearson retracted the column three weeks after the 1952 election.

That sets the scene for what followed later that year. Brodie writes:

When Nixon was speaking in the Long Beach auditorium, Mrs. Remley went to hear him. Arriving late, she listened from near the open door. As he emerged he recognized her. In a sudden fit of rage, he walked over and slapped her. His friends, horrified, hustled him away in the dark. There were no cameras or newsmen to catch the happening, and Mrs. Remley, fearful of losing her job, told only a few friends.

Farrell doesn’t buy it. “She really detests Nixon,” he said. “She could have ended his political career right there by filing a complaint. And yet she never did. There’s no hospital report. There’s no police report from that incident. It’s just her talking, years later, to Fawn Brodie.”

Those doubts are among the reasons Farrell chose to exclude the Remley incident from the book’s text, “to signal to the reader that I didn’t believe it.”

Of the allegations more generally, Farrell continued: “In the period after Watergate, Nixon was accused of everything — some of it quite fanciful — and it’s significant, I think, that you had three of the greatest investigative reporters, Woodward and Bernstein and Hersh, and not one of them put it in print in their long investigations on Nixon.” Neither Woodward nor Bernstein responded to repeated interview requests.


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***

Farrell is right that, given the opportunity to thwack Nixon about this, the otherwise fearless trio declined. Maybe that means something. After all, if “Woodstein” and Hersh couldn’t nail him, who could? But maybe it just says something about the nature of investigative journalism; chasing dozens of consequential stories at any given time, and they don’t all pan out. Which doesn’t, of course, make them false. It just means the threshold for publication — a hospital report or a doctor’s testimony, perhaps — wasn’t met by deadline.

Decades later, we’re left having to deal with a handful of hazy stories, and wondering about the motives of the men and women telling them.

Of all the allegations, it’s Zita Remley’s that really gnaws at me. I am willing to concede, as Farrell contends, that Remley lied about Nixon’s taxes, even if there’s evidence she just made a dumb mistake. What I keep returning to is this: What did this obscure campaign worker stand to gain from accusing the still-living Nixon of slapping her? It certainly wasn’t fame. From what I can tell, Remley’s death in 1985 didn’t even merit an obituary in the local papers.

As we’re seeing now, the women who accuse powerful men — Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes — do not reap windfalls. Their lives do not seem measurably improved by sticking their necks out. (Quite the contrary. Stormy Daniels, for instance, was recently arrested for touching undercover detectives in a strip club — charges that were later dismissed.)

Now, imagine doing this 40 years ago — which is to say, 20 years before Monica Lewinsky was dragged through the mud and Bill Clinton left office with an approval rating of 66 percent.

What’s the upside?

***

“This is an agonizing subject for me, because I heard some of the same stories, from a much earlier period,” said Roger Morris. A source suggested I talk to Morris, who resigned from the National Security Council in 1970 when Nixon ordered the bloody Cambodian “incursion.”

Morris wrote 1991’s Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician, which charts Nixon’s life and career through the election of 1952. He heard stories in Whittier, California, where Nixon moved at the age of 9, and Washington. The tales, always off-the-record, were passed along by friends and acquaintances, often elderly Quakers. (I asked if there was anyone I could talk to; Morris said they were all dead.)

As we’re seeing now, the women who accuse powerful men — Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes — do not reap windfalls.

“I had heard stories about the physical abuse of Pat Nixon as early as the Congressional years, which would have been ’47, ’48, ’49, and much of 1950,” Morris continued. “They had these terrible, raging fights, at high decibel.” Per the descriptions he heard of altercations at the Spring Valley home, Nixon had “manhandled” his wife, “not necessarily beaten. It was a violent relationship, in that respect.”

Morris didn’t hear the stories when he was in government, but only much later, starting in around 1983, when he began work on the book. He could never nail down the details, so, while his book includes accounts of the marriage becoming increasingly strained, there’s no reference to physical abuse. “I didn’t have any real, solid verification. I did not have any eyewitnesses.” Which is not to say his sources were bad, or distant; among them, Morris said, were in-laws of the Nixons. “They were plausible people, serious people.” He believed the stories, but lacked what he felt would be necessary for inclusion — eyewitnesses, testimony from doctors, or hospital records. (That’s to be expected, and it’s one of the inherent difficulties in writing about abuse.)

“If you ask me if this is probable — could it have happened? Absolutely. It is consistent with too much testimony of what we know about their relationship. It was stormy. It was given to outbursts of anger, profanity. It was not based on abiding, mutual respect,” Morris said. There had once been a great deal of love between them, “but as in many marriages, it was depleted and exhausted.”

Just before we hung up, Morris added: “We’re living in a very different era now, and I do think historical figures ought to be judged whole, as it were, against the setting of their times, but also against the setting of posterity.”

Elon Green is a writer in Port Washington, New York.

***

Editor: Kelly Stout
Fact-checker: Samantha Schuyler
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Read more…

We Stand on Guard for Bieber

Dominic Lipinski / AP, Illustration by Katie Kosma

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | August 2018 | 18 minutes (4,330 words)

Stratford, Ontario, doesn’t announce itself. The first time I traveled there, in mid-February, I drove into its center before knowing I was actually in it. I had not noticed a sign. All I had seen were miles of flat snowy farmland — the odd silo, field upon field — a row of frosted evergreens lining the horizon. Stratford, population 31,465, is like any other small tourist town in Ontario — shabby strip malls, magisterial churches, brick Main Street, overpriced eateries. Like so many Canadian cities, it’s the kind of place where a kid could be born and, happily enough, have just as much chance of staying as leaving.

People generally visit Stratford in the summer for its renowned Shakespeare festival, but I went during the off-season. A couple of miles ahead of the town center, my boyfriend and I passed what appeared to be a school bus holding zone — about a dozen of them, parked like blocks of life-size Legos — before arriving at the Stratford Perth Museum. It was 10 a.m. on a Saturday, the opening time for the press day of the “Steps to Stardom” exhibit, which traced Justin Bieber’s life, all 24 years of it, back to his Stratford childhood. It was quiet. The exhibit scarcely announced itself either, aside from two festive planters flanking the entrance, each festooned with curlicued silver-sprayed twigs wrapped in bows and billowy purple gauze, a color that, for those in the know, announces JUSTIN BIEBER as surely as it might have once announced royalty. In the next room, even quieter, the “Railway Century” exhibit politely stood by with its black-and-white photographs of the industry that had built the town that had built Justin Bieber. Read more…

El camino al asilo

Cuando amanece, Marfil Estrella mira por la ventanilla del autobús que la llevará desde San Salvador, El Salvador a la Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala. (Fotos: Danielle Villasana)

Alice Driver | Longreads | Junio ​​2018 | 21 minutos (5,300 palabras)

AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH

“Quiero terminar la primaria.” — Karla Avelar, 40 años, fundadora de la Asociación Comcavis Trans, que lucha a favor de los derechos LGBTI en El Salvador.

* * *

“Mujeres, no se dejen engañar” vociferaba el cansado predicador de ojos amarillentos, su sombrero apuntaba hacia adelante con dramatismo, ideal para su sermón sobre ruedas, el cual duró todo el camino desde San Salvador, capital de El Salvador, hasta Ciudad de Guatemala. El hombre recorría el pasillo y se detenía a tocar a mujeres y niñas en la cabeza o en el brazo. “No dejen que los hombres las engañen” gritaba elevando su biblia tan alto que las gastadas hojas rozaban el techo del autobús. Sin embargo, no tocó a Marfil Estrella Perez Mendoza, de 26 años. La joven descansaba contra la ventana su rostro redondo y lleno de esperanz y observaba lluviosa mañana gris mientras el predicador pasaba a su lado sin ponerle la mano encima. ¿Cómo se dice asilo en inglés? preguntó Marfil en un susurro.

Marfil Estrella nació en Cuscatlán, El Salvador, en un cuerpo que nunca sintió suyo. Al nacer se dijo que era varón, y a los 15 se declaró gay ante su familia, quienes, en respuesta, optaron por desconocerla. “Me dijeron que era una avergüenza para mi familia, que me olvidara de que tenía familia, que me olvidara de ellos, que me fuera entonces,” explicó. Como le sucede a muchos miembros de la comunidad LGBTI en El Salvador, su familia la echó a la calle y sus estudios se se interrumpieron de manera repentina cuando cursaba tercero de secundaria, pues no tenía el dinero necesario para seguir estudiando. Huyó a San Salvador y se quedaba a dormir en los parques, donde conoció a otros chicos gays. “Vi a una persona transexual y dije ‘yo quiero ser como ella, quiero ser como ella,’” relató. Durante la época en que Marfil vivió en la calle, dejó crecer su cabello y empezó a vestirse con ropa de mujer, pero no tenía un medio para ganarse la vida, por lo que comenzó a perder mucho peso. Con el tiempo se convirtió en trabajadora sexual, que es una de las pocas alternativas que tienen las mujeres trans de El Salvador para ganar dinero. Read more…

The Road to Asylum

As dawn arrives, Marfil Estrella looks out the window of the bus that will take her from San Salvador, El Salvador to Guatemala City, Guatemala. Photos by Danielle Villasana.

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2018 | 21 minutes (5,300 words)

DISPONIBLE EN ESPAÑOL

“I want to finish elementary school.” — Karla Avelar, 40, founder of the Comcavis Trans Association, which advocates for LGBTI rights in El Salvador

* * *

“Women, don’t be deceived,” boomed the weary, yellow-eyed preacher, his sombrero tipped forward with a drama fitting for his bus-ride sermon, one that would last all the way from San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, to Guatemala City. As he made his way down the aisle of the bus, he stopped to touch women and girls on the head or the arm. “Don’t let men trick you,” he shouted, holding his bible up so high its well-worn pages brushed the roof of the bus. He didn’t touch Marfil Estrella Pérez Méndoza, 26, whose chosen name translates to Ivory Star. As she rested her round, hopeful face on the bus window, dark eyes peering out into the rainy grayness of early morning, the preacher passed by without laying a hand. “How do you say asylum in English?” she whispered.

Marfil Estrella was born in Cuscatlán, El Salvador, in a body that never felt like her own. She was assigned male at birth, and at 15, she came out as gay to her family. Their response was to disown her. “They told me that I brought shame on the family, that I should forget about them, and that I needed to leave,” explained Marfil Estrella. Like many members of the LGBTI community in El Salvador, her family forced her onto the street, and her schooling ended abruptly at ninth grade because she had no money to continue. She fled to San Salvador and slept in a park where she met other gay boys. “I saw a transsexual, and I said, ‘I want to be like her! I want to be like her!’” she recalled. She lived on the street, grew out her hair, and began to dress in women’s clothes, but she had no way to earn a living and consequently became very thin. Eventually she started to do sex work, one of the only options available to trans women in El Salvador to earn money. Read more…