Search Results for: insomnia

High Expectations: LSD, T.C. Boyle’s Women, and Me

Illustration by Homestead

Christine Ro | Longreads | May 2019 | 16 minutes (4,208 words)

I’m sweaty, exhausted, and red-faced when I finally emerge from my final acid trip. My apartment is a mess of objects my friends and I have tried feeling, smelling, or otherwise experiencing: loose dry pasta, drinks of every kind, hairbrushes, blankets. My voice is hoarse from talking or shouting all night. I’ve had more emotional cycles in the past 12 hours than in the last several months combined.

What made me want to drop acid wasn’t a friend or a festival, but a book. Specifically, T.C. Boyle’s new novel Outside Looking In. The book has its problems, but one thing it gets right is the intensely social experience of LSD. Even taken alone, even as a tool for introspective reflection, it rejigs attitudes towards other people. This can be a gift, or it can be a weapon. And as a woman, I’m especially aware of the potential for the latter. Read more…

The Unreliable Reader

Aditya Chinchure / Unsplash, Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Wei Tchou | Longreads | April 2019 | 11 minutes (2,983 words)

“I write this while experiencing a strain of psychosis known as Cotard’s delusion, in which the patient believes that they are dead,” the novelist Esmé Weijun Wang writes at the beginning of “Perdition Days,” an essay from her new book, The Collected Schizophrenias. (Read an excerpt on Longreads.) “What the writer’s confused state means is not beside the point, because it is the point,” she continues. “I am in here, somewhere: cogito ergo sum.” The passage moves swiftly, from first person agency (“I am writing”) to distanced third person (“the patient,” “the writer”) to the famous Descartes assertion, in Latin, “I think, therefore I am.” As a reader, it’s astonishing and a little unnerving to consider the immediacy of the prose, your intimacy with a speaker searching to find the correct vantage from which to narrate the strangely drawn, difficult-to-map districts of her mind.

That same authorial compulsion to navigate and survey pervades the book, which is notable for its subject matter alone: a first-person investigation of “the schizophrenias,” as Wang describes the four overlapping classifications of the mental disorder listed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, often shortened to DSM-5. (Wang was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, in 2013.) Wang approaches the work of writing about her mental illness as if she were reporting from a foreign place, returning to it diligently, pursuing dark corners as if to case the joint. She publishes email correspondences between herself and her physician, written in a period of psychosis. She considers her desire for motherhood through the lens of her time as a counselor at Camp Wish, a bipolar youth camp. She recalls scenes from her three involuntary hospitalizations, describing the trauma of those stays, as well as the slippery interviews on which those hospitalizations were based. Read more…

If You Were a Sack of Cumin

Two people walking down a destroyed Aleppo street, on August 28, 2014. Karam Almasri / NurPhoto / Getty

Khaled Khalifa | translated by Leri Price | an excerpt from the novel Death Is Hard Work | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | February 2019 | 18 minutes (4,899 words)


Hussein soon suggested that they toss the body out on the roadside, asking his brother and sister how confident they were that they would pass other checkpoints without trouble. They would be right back where they started if the next checkpoint agents discovered that their father was a wanted man. He added that the dogs were eating plenty of bodies nowadays, so what difference did it make? Why didn’t they just leave it or bury it anywhere and go back to Damascus?

Bolbol could tell that Hussein wasn’t joking this time; he wanted an answer, wanted his brother and sister to make a decision. Bolbol wanted to ignore him, but suddenly a great strength welled up inside him, and he declared he wouldn’t abandon his father’s body before his last wish was carried out. Fatima agreed and asked Hussein to speed up, even though it would be impossible for them to arrive at Anabiya that night in any case. The highway came to an end a few kilometers before Homs, and they would have to use the side roads, which were dangerous at night; no rational being would even consider traveling them in the company of a dead man. Read more…

Wrestling With the Ghosts In My Head

Getty / Photo illustration by Katie Kosma

Janet Steen | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,463 words)

One of them I think of as a malevolent flower growing in my head, unfurling petal by petal, causing great distress. Another variety is an ink spill in the skull, maybe if the ink were scalding hot, starting at one precise point and then spreading heavily into every cavity. The most common is the plain old nail underneath the eyebrow, always on only one side of the face, hammered upward and lodged there for hours or possibly days, depending on whether I got the timing right with the medication. For me that’s the Wal-mart of migraines, super basic, but it’s still a fascinating one. The pain seems to be contained in one area but is so intense and pulsating you could swear it’s everywhere. So I play games with it. I try to feel with my mind — which is funny, because it’s in my mind — where the exact line of the pain stops and starts.

I may as well do something with these long expanses of time when there’s really nothing to do but feel what’s happening up there. So I try to give myself over to it. Feel the contours of the sensation. It has a shape and a texture. It spreads and moves. It’s like a country suddenly forms and establishes a government up there. Each migraine episode, if you really pay attention to it, has a personality. Oh, this one really wants to take me down. On another day it might be more passive-aggressive. This one is the toxic narcissist, gaslighting me. Sometimes when I’m not sure how bad it’s going to be I like to say I’m flirting with a migraine, but it’s really the migraine that’s flirting with me, and then I finally cave and let it have its way.
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Lean On

Getty / Bloomsbury Publishing

Briallen Hopper | excerpted from Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions | February 2019 | 25 minutes (6,215 words)

I like to lean. Too much of the time I have to hold myself up, so if an opportunity to swoon presents itself, I take it. When I’m getting a haircut and the lady asks me to lean back into the basin for a shampoo, I let myself melt. My muscles go slack, my eyes fall shut, and there is nothing holding me except gravity and the chair and the water and her hands on my head. I feel my tears of bliss slide into the suds.

In photos I am often leaning. When I’m not resting my head on someone’s shoulder, I am hugging a column in a haunted castle in Great Barrington or bracing myself against a big block of basalt on a pedestal in a Barcelona park. At home alone, I improvise with bookshelves and doorjambs, but sometimes I need to lean on something alive. Seeking support on a stormy night, I run out into the rain and lean against the dogwood tree in front of my house until the wet bark soaks through my coat. The world is my trellis.

Ten years ago, I bought a Gordon Parks print of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward leaning against each other by lamplight on a big brass bed. They are sitting side by side, eyes closed, serene. He is leaning more heavily, his body slanted into hers, his head on her shoulder. She is resting more gently, her cheek against the top of his head. Her face is half-illuminated, half-eclipsed. They seem solemn and private and young. He is quiet in her shadow.

I hung the photograph over my bed. Next to it I tacked another 1950s Paul and Joanne picture I tore out of a book. They are leaning on a bed again, and he is still slumped against her shoulder, but this time the lean seems more in league with an audience. They are both meeting the photographer’s gaze and smiling small smiles. Her eyebrows are slightly raised; she might be sly or smug. She is holding a cup of tea in one hand, and his head, proprietarily, with the other. He is supine and sated and holding a glass of wine.

Paul and Joanne liked to lean for the camera. For their 1968 LIFE cover promoting Rachel, Rachel (she starred, he directed), they are layered on wall-to-wall carpet; she is reclining in the foreground, and he is her blue-eyed backrest. In yet another famous photo from an earlier era (Joanne is still in gingham, not yet in Pucci), they are leaning back to back with their shoulders against each other, their mutual pressure holding each other up, with an isosceles triangle of space between them, and a sturdy baseline of brick patio beneath them.

I like to fall asleep under images of leaning every night and wake up beneath them every day.

I like to believe that leaning is love.
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The Burrito That Brought Enlightenment

Nico's burrito. Photo by John Burcham

Most people have their favorite late-night food to comfort them or hurl them back in time: Jack in the Box tacos; Denny’s Moons Over My Hammy. For writer Cord Jefferson, nostalgia is a huge pollo asada burrito from Tucson’s 24-hour joint Nico’s. In a feature for Eater, Jefferson admits these might not be the world’s best burritos, but his lifelong attachment to them means he will, in his words, “stand up for when its goodness is challenged.” The virtues he extols for Nico’s extend beyond their delicious food, to the things that make us all love our late-night spots: ambiance, reliability, memorable, slightly ugly interiors. But for him, Nico’s also helped break the monotony of the affluent, elderly, largely white Tucson suburb where he grew up, and the restaurant embodies what he now considers the real Tucson.

It was around this time that I started going to Nico’s a lot. People at Nico’s were mostly young, and not so many of them were white (Tucson gets slightly blacker and a lot more Latino the farther south you go). More exciting than that, though, was the atmosphere, a raucous energy generated by the confluence of drunks and teenagers and insomniacs and drag queens and college students and stoners and people just getting off work and old men in Hawaiian shirts and straight-edge vegan hardcore kids and cops, and various combinations of those things. Nico’s presented a different Tucson than I’d ever known before. One that stayed up late. One that was diverse and lively. It wasn’t just a clubhouse for me and my high school friends like the Max, or wherever the smoldering “teens” of Riverdale hang out. It was a flophouse into which we were funneled along with hundreds of other night owls in a town that largely shut down after 9 p.m. We’d put in our order at the counter and then try to find a booth from which to wait for our food and people-watch. If there was nowhere to sit, we’d stand in the parking lot and eat.

Before long, we became chummy with the Nico’s staff. They gave us free food and didn’t hassle us when we filled up our plastic cups for water, which was gratis, with soda, which was not. A few times they even gave us beers, which weren’t on the menu and were presumably part of their own stash. Some friends of mine asked if their band could play an impromptu show at Nico’s, which obliged. The crowd ate nachos a few feet away from the drum kit while the lead singer perched atop a table and wailed on his saxophone. The night we graduated high school, a bunch of my friends ended up at Nico’s just before dawn. They sang karaoke on the intercom system and helped the employees mop the floors in preparation for breakfast patrons. (I would have been there, but earlier that evening I broke up with my girlfriend for the last time and walked home from a kegger crying melodramatically, like I was in an Aaron Spelling teen drama.)

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This Month in Books: Two Sides of the Same Gaslight

Ingrid Bergman holding a book in a scene from "Gaslight." (Photo by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images)

Dear Reader,

This month’s books newsletter is a bundle of contradictions, a cornucopia of counterintuitions. “I pursue sleep so hard I become invigorated by the chase,” writes Marina Benjamin in her memoir-cum-treatise on insomnia. “You’re not supposed to identify with monsters. But people are rarely disturbed by things they don’t already recognize in themselves,” says Guy Gunaratne in an interview about his debut novel, which revolves around a real-life act of terrorism perpetrated by someone who reminds Gunaratne very much of himself. And Gemma Hartley, recalling a time when she was sick in bed and her husband failed to prepare their son properly for school before it was time for her (still sick!) to walk him there, explains how different the emotional fallout of the mess-up was for the two parents. She felt guilty that her son would have a bad day at school, whereas her husband easily moved on:

Even though my husband had been the one on duty for the morning, I was the one left with the guilt of taking my son to school ill prepared…. Parenting mistakes aren’t a moral failing for him like they are for me. Dads get the at-least-he’s-trying pat on the back when people see them mess up. Moms get the eye rolls and judgment…. I was still expected to be the one in charge, even when I was incapacitated, because isn’t that just what moms are supposed to do? He wasn’t expected to have the morning routine locked down. He was still a dad — still exempt from judgment.

And as Hartley points out, the problem isn’t just the ‘care gap’ between the genders: It’s that even “talking about emotional labor requires emotional labor.” Moreover, when women do try to make men care, men will twist women’s own needs back on them, asking women to do their caring for them — to care about caring for them:

One woman, upon becoming overwhelmed with the emotional labor she was performing, told her partner the only way they were staying together was for him to go to a therapist. He asked her to find one and make an appointment for him.

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David Montero, meanwhile, marvels that the bigger and perhaps more disturbing part of Watergate is somehow the least remembered. Investigations into Nixon’s slush fund led regulators to the discovery that American firms had been bribing political parties around the world, to the tune of at least $1 billion dollars. The vastness of the wrongdoing left investigators feeling like they lived in an upside-down reality. “It was inconceivable to me,” the director of the SEC’s Enforcement Division Stanley Sporkin recalled, “that companies could be bribing all over the world, and the shareholders not know how they’re making their money.” And it wasn’t just the casual, widespread criminality that shocked everyone, but also the very real geopolitical consequences — entire elections seemed to have been swung (and inevitable subsequent government overthrows ignited) abroad by American corporate money. “Surely the public expects more than to have foreign policy made in the boardrooms of United Brands or Lockheed,” a congressman quipped on the matter. Laws were passed to outlaw international corporate bribery, but over time conservative thinkers reduced anti-bribery law’s purpose from the ideological necessity of preserving democracy to the amoral and quotidian goal of preserving market competition. And, as Tim Wu points out in his book on the subject, a nearly identical rightward shift happened in the interpretation of antitrust laws over the same period of time (and at the hands of the same conservative school of thought). Our reviewer Will Meyer writes:

…by the seventies, a Chicago School lawyer named Robert Bork stood at the center of unmaking the tradition pioneered by Brandeis and Roosevelt. Bork, starting on the fringes, argued that antitrust laws should focus on “consumer welfare” instead of ensuring competition. Explaining how this standard shifted, Wu writes, “the government or plaintiff had to prove to a certainty that the complained-of behavior actually raised prices for consumers.” Wu chronicles how, as Bork moved the goal posts for understanding antitrust laws, their enforcement began to slip as well…. Justice Scalia [wrote] in 2004: “The mere possession of monopoly power, and the concomitant charging of monopoly prices, is not only not unlawful; it is an important element of the free-market system.”

But I think the most counterintuitive statement in this month’s books newsletter comes from Lara Bazelon‘s new book about restorative justice for the wrongfully convicted, in which she writes that “seventy-eight percent of… exonerations did not involve DNA evidence. This finding surprises many people, as it seems at odds with the way that crime is prosecuted on popular television shows and in movies…” The foremost reason that innocent people end up being exonerated, she reveals, is the discovery of police and prosecutorial misconduct, by either one person or a small group of people over many years, which can lead to hundreds or even thousands of convictions being reversed.

And last but not least, in her review of Jean Améry’s recently translated 1978 apologia for the ever-maligned Charles Bovary, Ankita Chakraborty points out that Emma Bovary was a contradiction in terms, the kind of woman who only exists when a man is writing her:

wherever [Emma Bovary] went — and she went all around, everywhere — she was never questioned for her whereabouts or for her absence. In what world is a woman who so freely moves never questioned by society regarding her movements? Only in a world where the woman also happens to be a man.

Which feels to me sort of like the inverse of a remarkable study that Gemma Hartley cites — almost like they’re two sides of the same gaslight:

A 2011 survey in the UK found that 30 percent of men deliberately did a poor job on domestic duties so that they wouldn’t be asked to do the job again in the future.

With that disquieting information in mind during this most busy of emotional labor seasons, happy reading, happy counterintuiting, and happy holidays!

Dana Snitzky
Books Editor

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The Longreads 2018 Holiday Gift Book Guide

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Let Longreads help you with your holiday shopping! We’ve made a catalog of books we featured in 2018 that we think would make great gifts for everyone on your list.

Books about being alone and really owning it.

Patricia Hampl on the Ladies of Llangollen, who were famous for wanting to be left alone; Stephanie Rosenbloom on eating alone; and an interview with novelist Ottessa Moshfegh in which she strongly advises against leaning in.

Books about family. 

Meaghan O’Connell and Juan Vidal on the surprise and profundity of becoming new parents; Nicole Chung and Laura June on the complexities of family connection across the generations when grappling with adoption or estrangement; Christian Donlan on the grief and joy of parenting while gravely ill; and Issac Bailey on his family’s resilience in the wake of his brother’s imprisonment.

Books for the women in your life who are mad. 

Gemma Hartley on emotional labor, Brittney Cooper on black women’s eloquent rage, and Rebecca Traister on the political power of women’s anger.

Books of investigations, inquiries, and revelations. 

Karina Longworth reveals how Hollywood’s women were caught in Howard Hughes’ web of lies; Rachel Slade solves the sinking of El Faro; Alec Nevala-Lee unravels the joined-at-the-hip origin stories of Scientology and American science fiction; Susan Orlean investigates the mystery of the Los Angeles Public Library fire; Brantley Hargrove follows in the footsteps of a storm chaser killed by the largest tornado every recorded; and Tim Mohr chronicles the forgotten role of punk rock in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Books that explore the bounds of physical and mental health, illness and medicine, mind and body.

Porochista Khakpour, in a searing memoir about surviving a misdiagnosed chronic illness, questions the possibility of total recovery; Terese Maire Mailhot, in a lyric memoir about PTSD as a result of childhood trauma, attempts to reclaim her narrative and reconnect with her people; Christie Watson remembers her twenty years as a nurse before becoming a novelist; Kristi Coulter meditates on her newfound sobriety and a culture of silence around women’s addiction; Marina Benjamin ruminates on insomnia, plumbing the depths of sleep and wakefulness; and Michele Lent Hirsch studies the invisible lives of young women with chronic illnesses

Histories that challenge our understanding of the past.

Colin G. Calloway‘s biography of George Washington conscientiously locates him in a very Indian world; Julia Boyd points out that the Third Reich was a popular tourist destination; Linda Gordon explains the sway the KKK held in state governments in the early 20th century; Shomari Wills chronicles America’s first black millionaires; Peter Ackroyd reveals the history of gay London; and Stefan Bradley remembers the fight for civil rights in the Ivy League.

Books about dating and marriage.

Elizabeth Flock on the years she spent living with married couples in Mumbai to better understand their marriages; Kelli María Korducki on the feminist history of breaking up; Viv Albertine on dating again in her fifties. 

Follow the money.

Anand Giridharadas on the elite, Disneyfied world of Ted Talks and philanthropy as self-help for rich people; David Montero on the global corporate bribery network; Sarah Smarsh on growing up rural and working class. 

Fiction and memoirs that reflect on the way we live now, illuminating our present and hinting at possible futures.

Nick Drnaso‘s Sabrina is haunted by the menace of conspiracy theories and fake news; Ling Ma‘s Severance imagines a world in which office drones keep going to work and posting on social media even though it’s the apocalypse; Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah‘s Friday Black points out that being black in America already is a dystopian nightmare; Olivia Laing‘s Crudo was written in real time during — and is about living through — the collective traumatic experience that was the year 2017; Jamel Brinkley‘s A Lucky Man revolves around the lucklessness of black boyhood and manhood; Nafissa Thompson-SpiresHeads of the Colored People is a witty, darkly comic look at a supposedly post-racial America; Kiese Laymon‘s Heavy critiques a nation unwilling to come to terms with its traumatic past; Thomas Page McBee‘s Amateur tries to understand why men fight; and Sharmila Sen‘s Not Quite Not White explores how integral whiteness can be to our idea of Americanness.

Books of journeys, adventures, and migrations.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro on the scrappy New York teen who stowed away on a 1928 expedition to Antarctica; Laura Smith on vanishing as a way to reclaim your life; William E. Glassley on his geological expeditions to Greeland to uncover the world’s oldest secret; Lauren Hilgers on Chinese political dissidents building a new life in New York; Eileen Truax on Mexican immigrants living in fear of deportation in America; and Lauren Markham on Salvadoran teens seeking safety far away from home.

Books about faith.

Meghan O’Gieblyn‘s essays hinge on faith and feeling left behind in the Midewst; R.O. Kwon‘s novel The Incendiaries tests the fault lines of lost faith and violence; Jessica Wilbanks‘ memoir is a search for her childhood faith’s origins.

Cultural studies and criticism.

Maya Rao on the patriarchal mentality in the oil boomtowns of North Dakota; Elizabeth Rush on the first areas of the U.S. affected by rising sea levels; Elizabeth Gillespie McRae on the white mothers who violently opposed school integration in the South; Rowan Moore Gerety on daily life in Mozambique, one of the world’s fastest growing economies; Christopher C. King on Europe’s oldest surviving folk music tradition; Agnès Poirer on the intellectual life that flourished in postwar Paris; Alice Bolin on our obsession with dead girls; Michelle Tea on the perils of queer memoir; and Natalie Hopkinson on art as political protest.

Books that are about just one specific thing.

Susan Hand Shetterly on seaweed, Richard Sugg on fairies, Michael Engelhard on polar bears. 


Happy holidays!
* * *

Raised by Hip-Hop

Alex J. Berliner/abimages) via AP Images

Juan Vidal | Rap Dad | Atria Books | September 2018 | 37 minutes (7,440 words)


Depending on your perspective, there was a time you might have considered me an outright goon. Not a goon to the level of Bishop from the movie Juice, but one with savage tendencies nonetheless. When I was eight, the school principal sent me home for wearing a shirt that read “No Code of Conduct” in bold, black script. Ma’s English was shaky then, so its meaning was missed by her. I can’t say I fully understood its message either, but you wouldn’t have known it by the way the shirt corresponded to my general posture.

I was drawn to the counterculture. Music and art and skateboarding made me want to live louder, turn my life up for the world. Often that meant exposing my ignorance in the process. Like the single time I sported denim backwards because Kris Kross made it seem fresh for a stint. It wasn’t, and I got clowned. When you’re young, it’s permissible to have these gaps in your logic, to act out and never bug over potential repercussions. Everything is about the moment, and how to squeeze more out of it for its own sake. One more swig of the Cuervo; a last hit of the blunt; a bike to jack because I need a ride home and that red Mongoose looks like it flies.

* * *

Weeks before my parents’ marriage officially dissolved, my father showed up with a gang of bullet holes in Ma’s Accord. That was it. There was no more hanging on to blind hope, or attempting to make excuses for his behavior. Ma knew it, everybody knew it. My grandfather could have killed the man, and maybe I would have forgiven him if he had.

After they split, my father shoved off to the motherland. By now he was on the run—from his enemies and from the law—and had to leave the United States permanently. Ma lost the house and we moved into a small, two-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale. Our first day there, I was blown away by the large community pool and half-court basketball setup. What seemed like dozens of kids my age roamed freely about the complex, on BMX bikes and scooters. Many of them were first-generation Americans like me and my brothers. Their parents were from Haiti, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. Some worked construction, others in restaurants or the night shift buffing floors at the local hospital. Our building sat just behind the school I was to attend for my last couple years of elementary. “Here we will build a home,” Ma said. “Just the four of us.” The next day Ma took the belt to my ass after she found out I’d sprayed shaving cream all over the exercise equipment in our new gym.

I realized that my first language was inextricable from who I was and how I should perceive my place in the world.

Now I had no choice but to share a room. To save space, Ma found a triple bunk bed on the cheap. I was on top, Alejandro in the middle, and Andres on the pull-out with the built-in drawers. Sometimes Andres slept in Ma’s room, like a sweet, protective boyfriend. He was just a few years old, but he made a ritual of checking the windows and making sure the doors were secured at night. Time passed and not much changed. The three of us boys still stayed up late sipping sugary drinks and feasting on questionable television. When my brothers fell asleep, I’d sneak out to the living room to watch Def Comedy Jam and Spic-O-Rama in the dark. I’d found a hero in John Leguizamo, whose rage and distrust of authority mirrored my own. While I generally loved my Latin culture—from our food to our music and celebrations—I wasn’t always self-assured enough to embrace certain aspects publicly. I hated to stand out when I was younger, unless it was for some commendable deed I’d performed. Nothing bugged me more than when Ma spoke Spanish in front of my boys, even though most of them came from Spanish-speaking homes, too. It wasn’t until I saw Leguizamo’s one-man show that I came to fully own my identity. I realized that my first language was inextricable from who I was and how I should perceive my place in the world. Anything less was self-hate.

Anyhow, me and my brothers never talked about our father. They were too young to comprehend everything I’d seen. As far as I knew, they were never brought along on dates with side pieces. They didn’t watch our father get blitzed in the kitchen or witness his longtime friends turn homicidal. These were my secrets to own and interpret however I chose.

* * *

Soon, Ma began taking on more hours at the nail salon. With my father ghost and contributing nothing monetarily or otherwise, the pressure to earn more money grew heavy. Her tips went to food and utilities, her meager paychecks to everything else. There were times she would mail the check for the car note or the phone bill and purposely leave off her signature. The check would get sent back a week later with a reminder to sign and return, which bought Ma extra time to get her paper together. She couldn’t afford to pay a sitter when she upped her hours, so Ma now had to take us to work with her two nights a week. She’d pick us up from school and drag us to the salon; a client would wait as Ma got us settled in the back. For the next four hours or so, we’d yell obscenities, get into fistfights, ruin homework, and make it almost impossible for Ma to work uninterrupted. One night, after he’d scribbled over someone’s class project in permanent marker, Andres bolted onto the main floor, blood dripping from his mouth. The women looked on, their eyes wide with shock. Ma lost her cool and time suddenly moved slower. Point is, we could be terrible then, and I recall many bloody nights and total pandemonium. “Where is their father?” I heard a bemused client ask once in a voice just above a whisper. Long gone, I thought. Long gone.

My father was born in 1953 in the town of Moniquirá, about ninety miles north of Bogotá. The second oldest of six children, he lived with the burden of birth order on his shoulders. He and his older brother, like many older siblings, were strongly urged to look after the others—and mandated to throw fists when necessary, at school, or the yard. Petty disagreements often came to blows, and their skin grew thicker by the grade. For them, everything came second to preserving their name. Had they let someone slide for disrespecting a Vidal, it might have been perceived as charity, and so they took no shorts. They would never know any other way.

Nestled in the province of Ricaurte in the department of Boyacá, Moniquirá is surrounded by rivers, hills, and coffee plants, its fertile lands producing many natural resources. Bocadillo, a Colombian confectionery made with guava pulp and panela and wrapped in leaf packaging, is among its most well-known exports. My father’s father worked in the fields until he moved the family to Bogotá in search of opportunity.

Bogotá in the 1950s could be described as idyllic, depending on whom you ask. People might speak of the extravagant parties and dances and the magic of youth. Perhaps they would tell of their long treks around lush valleys and their weekends spent at a relative’s finca up in the mountains. But between 1948 and 1958, hundreds of thousands were murdered in the partisan warfare that came to be known as “La Violencia.” Like my mother, who was raised to the south in Santiago de Cali, my father was bombarded by the daily reports of bloodshed around the country. Though censorship from the government did what it does, and though the threats against journalists and news organizations became heightened during that period, there was no way to ignore what was happening—the chatter in the streets, the paranoia of schoolteachers who had loved ones on the outskirts of the city. But violence has seen varying levels of intensity in Colombia. More than fifty thousand lost their lives in the Drug Wars of the 1980s, during the reign of Pablo Escobar, and in the guerrilla warfare of the 1990s.

* * *

For my father, with time and age came anger. And many of his experiences helped breed a deep distrust in the law. Though he may have been a merciless shield for his brothers and sisters, it didn’t compare to how frantically my father protected his mother. When he was seventeen, he served his first bid in jail following an altercation. One afternoon, when he and his mother were coming back from the market, a man in his thirties directed a sly comment at my grandmother. My father, barely out of high school, confronted the stranger and demanded he retract his words. When he did not concede, my father saw red and beat the man stupid in the street, nearly killing him. The police came and they put my father away for two months. They said he was crazy.

While my father sat in lockup with slabs of torn flesh under his fingernails, Ma, three years his junior, excelled at Colegio María Auxiliadora, a private Catholic school for girls in the Valle del Cauca. The middle child in a family of five children, she was beautiful and studious, tall and thin with big brown eyes. As a teen, my mother made grown men stop mid-conversation. But it hadn’t always been so. My mother was such an ugly baby that her parents, wonderful as they were, hid her for the first year of her life. When friends tried to make plans to visit, my grandparents would find a way to evade their requests. The baby is very sick; the baby is sleeping. Their list of excuses piled up until they finally deemed it safe to parade my mother around like they’d done the others. By the time anyone saw her outside of her immediate family, my mother was already walking and showing off teeth.

As the years went by, my father would demonstrate his contempt for superiors and the simple functions of responsibility. He was bright and warmhearted at the core, but he was also a menace. He scolded well-meaning administrators, defied every order. It seemed jail had changed him for the worse. Instead of accepting those months behind bars as a wake-up call, he dwelled on the sweet reward of exerting control over another’s body if they deserved it. He’d tasted the essence of supreme power, and he concluded that it was good.

* * *

Never mind the agony inflicted; never mind the emotional scars that poor bastard would have to endure long after his bandages were removed.

Never mind the violence that reminded onlookers of the civil war in which their country was entrenched.

Never mind that parents and their small children were made to gaze upon a madman who equated justice with suffering.

Never mind the warm sun and the breeze that earlier that day had signaled to all the makings of a perfect afternoon.

* * *

My father’s contempt for authority got passed down to me, like a piece of jewelry I didn’t ask for. In time, I made a sport out of testing the olds. Teachers, guidance counselors, school security guards. Most got the gas face from jump. I didn’t thrive on their instruction; I seldom trusted their judgment and I questioned their intentions at a fundamental level. Where this suspicion came from wasn’t always clear. But part of it, no doubt, came from witnessing plenty of scum take advantage of their high positions. They were the broken pieces to a power structure we did our best to resist. Basketball coaches were the occasional exception, but they weren’t immune to our contempt either. If they said to go right, I might still break left, through the legs and behind the back. My boy Carpio, in an organized city league game one summer, snuffed a kid clean in the jaw for scuffing his Spike Lee Jordans. He got ejected and had to sit out the next game. It would have been easy to defend Carpio’s right hook had the two not been teammates. Homeboy was a damn savage.

* * *

At Silver Lakes, I was a lost one on an uncertain path to middle adolescence. No purpose, no plans. The only things we chased were girls, ill beats, and cannabis, which we got for the low from the Haitians on 10th Court. We filled our days with violence and whatever mischief we could find. We lifted from convenience stores like I’d done as a kid and picked fights with derelicts from other blocks. We bled; we pounded the pavement. When the summer temperatures cooked us like carne asada, we took to the Boys Club, with our raps and our sticky weed. It wasn’t long before I started slanging. I reached out to Carpio, who was the plug, and asked him to help me get rich. He mapped out some territory, and soon I was flipping nickel and dime sacks by the racquetball courts. I listened to Onyx and scribbled lyrics of my own invention on scraps of loose leaf as I waited for the burnouts to show up with cash. Admittedly, I was a horrible drug dealer. Nobody taught me how to not be careless with money and I could never save up. It was all dollar slices, movie tickets, and cassette singles. My only real currency was my friends, who I’d have died for if it came down to it. Although we showed love and cherished our brotherhood, we never fully realized just how dependent we were on one another. We rolled in packs of threes or more, at the ready for anything. We organized cyphers, slap boxed outside the bodega. We spent hours unpacking the gems of that day’s Rap City, who wore what and who unleashed the phattest 16s. Together, we represented power in numbers. We were rappers, poets, skaters, dope pushers, misfits, and sneaker heads; all attention-starved. Our lives revolved around hip-hop and what the music had helped birth in us: an appetite for more, more, more. I grew up with a hunger so big I thought of nothing else. Hunger for food, yes, but mainly for significance. Hunger for meaning. I looked for signs in everything; the nugget of truth in the dirty joke, the broader message in the freestyle. When an older boy, bent on proving his grit, put a knife to my neck at a bowling alley, I wondered if there wasn’t something more at play. Was this yet another sign that I was destined for jail or an early grave? I was, after all, my father’s son.

I’m not sure why, but to this day I have a fear that I will someday end up in prison. I don’t break the law; I pay my taxes. And yet, there’s this nagging fear that prison—and I realize the absurdity of this fear—will simply happen to me, regardless of my attempts to live well and right.

Anyway. Hard as Ma tried, she couldn’t get through to me back when. I gleaned what I could from those not much older, those heroes who, though not fully formed, seemed to occupy thrones and preside over planets. No one then epitomized the contrarian spirit better than the rappers and skateboarders we idolized.

* * *

In the Eighties and Nineties, skateboarding and hip-hop were the most natural of marriages. In their own way, each provided a kind of escape from the world we saw crumbling around us. Fathers went missing and mothers strove to keep their homes intact. Us kids, we went Casper, too, only on four wheels. We were aimless but we were free. And freedom was our faces to the wind.

My first board was the Marty Jimenez Jinx deck with the bat design and hot pink grip tape. It was damn beautiful and, for a while at least, I guarded the thing with all of my might. That is, until I got lazy and thought I could leave it outside the front door overnight. Someone caught me slipping and the goods were his for the taking. Thinking back, I can respect it to a degree. As much as it angered me then, and forasmuch as I’d wanted to punish the culprit, I knew better than to slip like that. I didn’t even deserve it if it could be taken from me that easily.

Skateboarding and hip-hop are institutions that, at a point in their respective histories (they’ve since been more heavily commercialized), spoke directly to the rebel soul of youth culture. They questioned systems, they asked the why of things, they railed against popular opinion. They encouraged individuality and valued personal expression. For those who felt shunned by society or by their parents and needed an outlet, these institutions were there. Skaters were the rejected geniuses who made a playground of the earth around them. They manipulated surfaces to serve their own needs. Groups like Pharcyde, Freestyle Fellowship, and the Beastie Boys helped define an entire era of hip-hop. They provided the soundtrack to the streets. Concrete Jungle, a 2009 documentary by Eli Gesner, encapsulates how both art forms helped inform each other—and how each went on to influence the masses in ways no one could have imagined.

Skateboarding and hip-hop are institutions that, at a point in their respective histories, spoke directly to the rebel soul of youth culture.

The best track ever to center on skateboarding is Lupe Fiasco’s 2006 breakout “Kick, Push.” Essentially a love song, “Kick, Push” focuses on the oddballs who found their freedom in skating and in one another. It’s the classic scenario: boy meets girl, they hit it off, girl leads boy to secret skate spot, cops shut it down. But even though cops ruin almost everything, the single, and the video, brought Lupe’s distinct perspective to the forefront. “Kick, Push” instantly became an anthem, a rallying cry for skaters and a certain breed of rap head. But Lupe made it known early that he never wanted to be seen as a face for the sport. He wasn’t rap game Lance Mountain speaking for a subculture. For him, “Kick, Push” was about exploring the relationship between hip-hop and skate culture, and the sense of community they foster when the two coexist. Embracing the power of juxtaposition has always been at the root of Lupe’s oeuvre. But his star status has often seemed at odds with what he was taught to value as a boy growing up in Chicago.

In “Hurt Me Soul,” another number featured on his debut album Food & Liquor, Lupe, born Wasalu Muhammad Jaco, addresses some of this tension and the conflicted feelings he once had toward rap. Because he was taught to value women and girls, he took issue with some of the first records he was exposed to.

Now I ain’t trying to be the greatest

I used to hate hip-hop, yup, because the women degraded

As an artist, Lupe has always existed between two worlds: the sacred and the profane. “I grew up juxtaposed,” he once told Entertainment Weekly. “On the doorknob outside of our apartment, there was blood from some guy who got shot; but inside, there was National Geographic magazines and encyclopedias and a little library.”

* * *

In my youth, I’d have related to this idea of juxtaposition, but somewhat in the reverse. Inside there was chaos and enmity. But outside, while there were side-eyes and stickup kids waiting to pull your card, there was also a world that felt beautiful and endless. There were other blocks in other cities in different states. And though I couldn’t touch them just yet, I took heart knowing they existed, and that someday I might set foot on them. Perhaps that small sense of hope sprung from lessons I was taught in Sunday school, the few times we attended. Though we didn’t grow up in what you might call a religious setting, Ma would tell you that ours was a Catholic home. Una casa Católica. She would make the sign of the cross over us before we set out for the world each day. But in ways, that’s where young Lupe’s path and mine would cease to converge. Lupe’s conviction calls back to his upbringing as a devout Muslim, and as the son of a Black Panther. Both of his parents saw to it that, no matter how harrowing the world was outside, there was always balance.

Before Lupe’s father passed away in 2007, he extended just one charge to his son, which he spoke to Lupe’s sister Ayesha. In a conversation with Cornel West at Calvin College’s 2009 Festival of Faith & Music, Lupe shared this charge.

“Tell Wasalu to tell the truth,” his father said. And then he died.

The truth: it’s what my friends and I were searching for in our brazenness, and in our misplaced rage. It’s what our mothers wanted us to encounter before it was too late, before violence and bitterness grew in us like a virus. When Lupe talks about living on the fringes, and when he rhymes about the teens kicking and pushing in pursuit of something real, it all rings true inside me.

The truth: it’s what my friends and I were searching for in our brazenness, and in our misplaced rage.

For my father, though, the idea of truth, and what it means to be invigorated by it, existed merely in the abstract. From the time he was young, ducking bullets—both real and figurative—became the norm. And manipulation was his tool. My father bent reality like that supervillain Mad Jim Jaspers. You might say it was passed down from his own father, whose penchant for deception saw no end. He was a creature of the bottle. My grandfather started his days with a tinto at sunrise and slowly worked his way up to the harder stuff, which he slammed back periodically until sleep. He lied, verbally abused his wife, neglected his kids. He didn’t model truth to his sons and daughters, like my father didn’t model truth to me and my brothers.

As junior high progressed, our circle grew smaller. People began to drift, relocate to other districts. Some got shipped to their parents’ country as a form of rehabilitation. Ma always made threats, but I never believed she would follow through. You’ll never, I said, after I’d gotten bagged for doing graffiti not far from our house. Domingo was with me, but the cops let him go since it was me they’d caught with the spray can.

* * *

I always made low marks in school, beginning around the sixth grade. One excuse was that the majority of my instructors rarely made the material compelling enough to keep me engaged. Again, Ma spoke very little English during these years, so the help I got at home was limited. The same was true for many of my friends who lived in homes where English was the second language. Even as our folks prized education and admonished us about its value, this was just a fact of life. We were mostly on our own. Few of us got any extra aid in our studies, whether from parents who were too busy keeping us alive or tutors who charged by the hour. Having a tutor was a privilege that not many people I knew had.

Things at school got progressively worse. Ma was getting summoned for parent-teacher conferences every couple months. I was either fighting, flipping off teachers, or napping through their lessons. And even though my spelling and vocabulary skills were on point—Ma loved to brag about my way with words—she knew something had to be done. In the middle of my seventh-grade year, the assistant principal was called upon to intervene. It was usually just Ma and a crabby old woman with horn-rimmed glasses, but this time it was more grave. As soon as Ma walked into the room, she could tell something was different.

“Hello, Ms. Vidal. I’m Mr. Albert.”

“How are you? Yes.”

“Good, Ms. Vidal, but we’re concerned about Juan.”

“Yes, yes. I very concerned.”

“He just can’t seem to stay on top of his studies. He’s a smart boy, but he seems to be showing very little effort.”

“Yes, it’s true.”

“Ms. Vidal, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?”

Ma freaked. You’d have thought Mr. Albert had told her I’d contracted some rare and incurable blood disease. Not to mention, Mr. Albert’s heavy Creole accent made matters seem all the worse.

“Oh my God! Is he sick?”

“No, no. Ms. Vidal, it’s OK. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is actually fairly common.”

“OK. OK. What do we do? Please tell me what do we do.”

“We, Juan’s teachers and I . . . well, we think he should be tested. This will help us determine next steps to ensure that your son succeeds academically going forward.”

ADHD cases climbed like mad in the late eighties and early 1990s. All across the country, rowdy teens were being tested routinely on the recommendation of agitated teachers and administrators. Doctors were diagnosing kids without blinking. Spacing out in class? Must be ADHD. Constant scrapping and undermining of those in command? It’s probably ADHD. Depressed? Sounds like ADHD to us. It was never the teachers and their lack of creativity that were the issue. According to them, it was the fault of the hormone-crazed students who believed they had better things to do than squeeze into a musky portable classroom and be fed half-truths.

A week after the conference, me and Ma sat in a cheerless doctor’s office waiting to be called in so I could take my Psychological Assessment. They asked Ma to come back in a few hours since the examination was going to take time to complete. The doctor hit me with mad questions out the gate, asking about everything from my relationship with my parents to my thoughts on life and my supposed inability to concentrate in Math. As he talked, I found myself trailing off, distracted by a number of things. To start, his mustache made him look like a square and sad sexual deviant. There were drab paintings on the walls—dolphins and badly drawn whales—and a candy bowl without any candy. Soon, I called bull on the whole thing.

“Juan, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?”

“Have you heard of Wu-Tang?”

“Yes. Do you like Wu-Tang?”

This instantly bothered me.

Not anymore, I said.

“What else do you like?”

With that, I decided to probe and test his knowledge of Shaolin’s finest.

“Ah, doctor, you know, the usual: ‘Runnin’ up in gates, and doin’ hits for high stakes / Makin’ my way on fire escapes.’”

“Really? Can you tell me more about yourself?”

“‘I was a man with a dream with plans to make cream / Which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen.’ ”

He finally caught on.

“Oh, these are song lyrics?”

“You said you knew the Wu, right? Well, I’m quoting ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ and you don’t know what’s what.”

“My apologies, I don’t know what a Wu-Tang is. Juan, let’s talk about school.”

He’d already lost my respect, and I saw no reason to give anything else he said much credence. When Ma returned, I was in the hall, ready to jet. She went inside to settle things with the doctor, and when she came back out, she seemed irked. She handed the woman at the desk a check and scheduled another visit for the following week. The next meeting was more of the same. The doctor went on and on and I quoted Fat Joe and Queen Latifah. Eventually, he saw that he was getting nowhere with me. As we were leaving, he offered a sincere goodbye, probably confident that he would never see me again. I channeled Montoya Santana from the movie American Me.

I said: “You know, a long time ago, two best homeboys, two kids, were thrown into juvie. They were scared, and they thought they had to do something to prove themselves. And they did what they had to do. They thought they were doing it to gain respect for their people, to show the world that no one could take their class from them. No one had to take it from us, ese. Whatever we had . . . we gave it away. Take care of yourself, carnal.”

Ma elbowed me in the ribs and the man stared into me blankly.

On the way home, Ma explained that because her insurance didn’t cover the full amount of the doctor visits, she had to come out of pocket for $600. She barely had that in her bank account, she said, and the rent was due. I was regretful for having made a joke of the whole mess. “I did this for you,” she said. “But you know I can’t afford this.” She told me they’d prescribed some drug called Ritalin, which, according to them, would help me focus and fight off distractions. Ma told them she would be in touch, but she had no intention of giving me drugs. She’d researched it and heard stories about the side effects of the medication—vision problems, insomnia—and decided to hold back.

“I’m not going to give my baby any damn pills,” she said. After that declaration, I never heard another word about ADHD or pills again.

* * *

I made enemies in those days. I could be cold and sharp-tongued, but I told myself it was mostly for survival. After Ma and Joe—yes, that Joe—had been dating for some time, we all moved in together. Soon they decided to pull Joey out of private school and have him join me at Silver Lakes. Joey was whip smart and athletic, and the Puerto Rican dimes couldn’t get enough of his spikey blond hair. They’d point and gawk and he’d turn red. At first, people would refer to Joey as “Juan’s White Brother,” but that stopped once he flexed his quarterbacking skills on Field Day. One of the few white boys on the intramural team, Joey was beastly when he snapped back to pass. Nobody was nicer. Before long, he had a rep, and he’d sometimes get asked to things I knew nothing about. Though we were as tight as brothers could be, in time we ran with different crews.

Toward the middle of the school year, Joey got invited to a party he wanted to go to and asked me to roll. I had my reservations. Life had taught me to be selective about the places I went without proper backup. None of my boys were going, and a jam with an unfamiliar crowd, in my view, called for more support. At the same time, I didn’t want Joey to go alone. The day before the party, I still hadn’t made my decision. “Well?” Joey shot during dinner. Ma broke the silence, promising that if I went with him, she’d cop me some new gear for the occasion. That was the end of the matter. An hour later, I was at the mall getting laced with denim and a Georgetown Hoyas T-shirt and matching Starter hat. As we approached the mall’s exit across from the Chinese spot, I saw a familiar face grilling me hard; it was a short and stocky Filipino kid who went to my school but was one grade above. He was standing around with his swarm of eighth graders. When me and Ma got closer, suddenly they were all staring me down. I didn’t know why. I knew they weren’t going to initiate a scuffle then and there, but I was prepared, my fist cocked at my side. The hate in their eyes seemed strange and unwarranted. In the car, I racked my brain trying to recall if I’d flapped my gums at anyone different that week. Nothing stood out.

‘Juan, have you heard of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?’ ‘Have you heard of Wu-Tang?’

The party was at the clubhouse of a development called Heathgate. I knew the area well but I never had much reason to visit, not until now. Ma dropped us off and Joey and I made our way inside. My Hoyas fit was fire and I felt fresh and clean. The music was pumping; there were strobe lights, streamers, and tables with an assortment of fare and refreshments. Boys and girls played the wall with their cliques. I thought, This isn’t so bad. At the least, I got some new digs just for stepping up. The DJ played decent mixes, and soon I built up the courage to hit the dance floor. There were girls from wall to wall. Later, when I was cooling down by the spread of cold cuts and soda, I caught a few boys eyeing me. At first, I didn’t make much of it. I soon realized it was the same crew I’d seen the day before, outside the Panda Express. Then the Filipino kid came into focus and I was seized with regret. I knew this had been a bad idea. We needed to leave, and swiftly. I walked over to Joey, who was talking to the DJ, and told him it was time. “Trust me,” I said. “Just c’mon.” Joey knew this wasn’t a drill, and he followed my lead without hesitation. I didn’t want to seem frightened, so we moved toward the door casually. The kids noticed that we were jetting and they gathered like moths to the flame. Everyone else was grooving, not a gripe in the world. Me and Joey speed-walked down the street in the direction of a nearby shopping plaza. I turned around and saw the boys in pursuit. There were six of them. We didn’t run; they didn’t run.

“Who are those guys?” Joey asked.

“I have no idea.”

“Why are they following us?”

“I have no idea.”

While I didn’t know much, it was clear that their intent was to stomp me out.

By the time we reached the plaza, we’d lost them. We snaked into a department store and disappeared through the back, where we climbed a wall that led into an adjacent neighborhood. When it was safe, we called Ma from a pay phone and she scooped us up. We never mentioned it again, and I never made the same mistake twice. Trouble seemed to always find me, even when I wasn’t looking for it. Sometimes I came out unscathed, and other times I wasn’t so lucky. But there was always a lesson; I just had to trust the voice in my head.

* * *

by eighth grade, Domingo, Tomás, and I had become inseparable. Tomás would boost liquor from his mom’s boyfriend and we’d hop on the bus for God knows where. The local bus was a gift for that season of our youth. As a practical measure, sure, but also as a window into human behavior. I saw it all on the number 52: violence, intercourse, every drug imaginable. Most people kept to their books or tunes, but others were far less reserved, mumbling to themselves or feuding with their lovers. The occasional brawl landed a little too close for comfort, but it was all telling. And while I stupidly got lost on a few occasions—I took the bus alone from time to time—I always had my Walkman. I learned to appreciate Dr. Dre’s Chronic for the masterpiece it is while adrift in the middle of downtown Miami.

The cyphers we’d hold in the back row are some of my fondest memories of riding public transit as a teenager. It went like this: Domingo would kick the beatbox and Tomás and I would take turns coming off the top or reciting lines we’d penned earlier. We’d wax poetic about each other’s mom, bust on a stranger’s off-brand shoes, and go into long tangents about how our skill was superior. I tapped into something valuable on those rides. For the first time in my life I came to see my voice as a kind of weapon, the most effective instrument at my disposal. I used it to dazzle my small audience with epic roasts and wisecracks about whatever came to mind. It was a remarkable thing to learn, even as I couldn’t fully know the doors it would open later.

* * *

The last summer before high school would begin, Domingo perfected his blunt rolling technique and Tomás got a job stocking shelves at Publix. I filled entire notebooks with lyrics and got away with more than I could hope to remember. Before I was fifteen, I’d been jumped twice and arrested three times; petty theft and vandalism. After that final arrest, the one for tagging, Ma’s patience was spent. She drove to the station in tears. The night before, she’d found a nickel bag in my wallet, so this was the start of my ending. She’d made a decision in her mind, another thing I wouldn’t know until later. On our way back home from the station, Ma told me the arresting officer, something Gugliotta, had said I was a good for nothing little spic and was headed nowhere. Naturally, Ma told him off. She’d defended me in principle, but I knew things had to change. I knew that if the officer, who supposedly represented some idea of honor and morality, felt this way, I should take heed. A month later, Ma came upon an article in the Sun-Sentinel. The same officer, Gugliotta, had been charged with two counts of burglary. Cops ain’t worth a damn, I thought to myself.

We were blazed on some North Lauderdale bud when Domingo said, “Look.” He took to the coffee table, corn chips snapping under his feet. Some of our boys were in third period by now and we laughed, pitied them in their lockdown. It was the year Black Sunday dropped and the Hill was showing out. “I Wanna Get High” rattled trunks all across a scorching Miami and shook our core type heavy. Compulsive truants, we’d ditched class that day to sing their praises, B-Real and Sen Dog’s raps emanating from our bodies like a spell.

“Look,” Domingo said, standing on his mother’s furniture. “It’s no secret that you’re all in need of something meaningful to believe in. I mean, really believe in,” he said. “It goes like this around these parts. You got it all. You’d think, what with your sunny beaches, your platinum and endless gold, your drive-thrus and stocked mini-marts, you’d be satisfied. Wrong. All this and you’ve fallen to boredom, toking all day and yearning for something lasting; a well-paved road,” he said, “a narrow path. More sex, more noise. Less of you people, though. You damn degenerates with your fast and random ways. As your leader, I’ve come to understand this,” Domingo said, “that perhaps we’ve been going about this all wrong. Forgive me,” he said. “What might be necessary is a fresh cause. A thing without the pitfalls of institutional belief,” said the ex-churchboy. “You know what I’m talking about. What we need, I’ve come to accept, is a new religion. Yes, gentlemen, lend an ear. One with better music, see, more beats; more electric guitar, maybe, more oboe. One for which our devotion might be better understood, shared by every heathen with a heartbeat. See what I’m getting at? Let’s shake things up. I’m hinting at a place. Some place where you would not be scorned when politely requesting a second fix of that delicious communion bread. Sound good to you fools? I’m talking merchandising efforts that dazzle, campaigns that tug at the core. We for something raw and revolutionary, something for us, who are far from prophets but evangelists of a new day. Talk to me. I’m preaching up in here and I think you love it.” We said, “Chill,” but he didn’t let up. “You love it.”

For the first time in my life I came to see my voice as a kind of weapon, the most effective instrument at my disposal.

“We bear witness, we picket,” he said. “We stumble into crowded supermarkets, high as all hell. High on life, we make eyes with fly strangers, the hope in our faces burning bright. Up, down, and around the block, winning lost souls in some holy dance. It’s bigger than man’s stupid reasoning, trumps pop psychology with the flick of a verse. It’s the brand of sainthood you’ve always desired and didn’t know it. Am I right? I’m bringing it right now and you love it. I know you do. Talk to me. You want a movement? Well, here it is. It’s time to stand for more than your inebriated self. Think about it. Find yourself immersed in something great, the sort of thing that might pull a poem out of you, maybe even a good one, with meter, like iambic or something. This thing we’ll fight for, this magnificent monster of a movement complete with mad bumper stickers and quality tracts, anointed handkerchiefs and ink pens; this thing with more grape juice concentrate; this thing that offers what no gang ever could, not ever; this with no name as of yet, more on that later, but a soul and heart that supersedes definition and encompasses belonging. Friendship and camaraderie,” Domingo said. “Cookouts and sing-songs. This thing, this bloody beautiful thing we build, could be undeniably, unequivocally, the jam.” I laughed my head off, Tomás made the sign of the cross. Domingo bowed and ran for the toilet. This is the kind of foolishness you spew when you’re dumb high and a poet.

* * *

When I think of my old crew, I also think of Odd Future. Led by Tyler, the Creator, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All is a kaleidoscope of talent, wits, and defiant disorder. Since first making a name for themselves as teenagers in 2007, they have remained outliers, a few dozen in-your-face skate rats with little regard for rules, pop tradition, or anything formulaic. They have been protested against and attacked incessantly for their lyrics, which frequently make references to murder, sex, and drug abuse. Tyler, Earl Sweatshirt, and a few others in the collective have come to represent disruption as a calling card. They are young and rich and free, they “skate hard and thrash black hoodies.” They won’t be tamed or bent against their will. They are skaters through and through. The ways in which they’ve challenged authority, especially on their early records, and in interviews, is on par with so many of the youth I know who came of age in challenging circumstances. They can be terrifying for those who don’t understand them, but affirming for those of us who do.

Odd Future more or less disbanded after members gained notoriety and started to branch out as single entities. But the same criticisms have followed Tyler and Earl, specifically, years into their successful solo careers. Neither has shied away from including violent and gruesome subject matter on their albums. As is often the case with these things, there is far more to unpack than what can possibly be understood at the surface. Both rappers, in fact, have attributed much of their anger and disillusionment to the void left by their absent fathers. The pain of abandonment is something the rappers still carry, however explicitly, as they have settled into adulthood. Much of their material explores these frustrations candidly, their deft and cutting verses serving as portals into the broader epidemic that is fatherlessness in America. But this is what ultimately powered the creative spirit of Odd Future when they started. “It made for good music when we were angsty teens,” Earl told the Los Angeles Times. “Daddy problems are tight when you’re trying to make angsty music.”

For them, it was about confronting personal demons while also creating something that resonated on the level of art. It becomes increasingly clear that, had OF members not gravitated to the counterculture early on, there might have been nothing else to help light their paths. In these art forms, they found a kind of refuge, a vehicle for their aggression. But this is the reality of millions of youth everywhere, not just rap stars or skaters raised in fractured homes. Every day boys and girls are left to make it work, to try and build their lives with pieces that don’t fit neatly together. This is why fathers on a whole have such positional power. Everything a father does matters. Their words, and their silences, are universes unto themselves.

To let Earl tell it on “Chum”:

It’s probably been twelve years since my father left,

left me fatherless

And I just used to say I hate him in dishonest jest

The counterculture took the place of a father I could no longer touch. Since things like school and religion couldn’t get through to me, I was being trained up outside of organized institutions. What I gravitated to were these movements that not only felt redeeming, but also freeing. They were almost everything I needed.


Excerpted from Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation by Juan Vidal. Copyright © 2018 by Juan Vidal. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

The Wheel, the Woman, and the Human Body

CTK via AP Images

Margaret Guroff | The Mechanical Horse | University of Texas Press | April 2016 | 35 minutes (4,915 words)

Angeline Allen must have been pleased. On October 28, 1893, the 20-something divorcée, an aspiring model, made the cover of the country’s most popular men’s magazine, a titillating journal of crime, sport, and cheesecake called the National Police Gazette. Granted, the reason wasn’t Allen’s “wealth of golden hair” or “strikingly pretty face,” though the magazine mentioned both. Rather, the cover story was about Allen’s attire during a recent bicycle ride near her Newark, New Jersey, home. The “eccentric” young woman had ridden through town in “a costume that caused hundreds to turn and gaze in astonishment,” the Gazette reported.

The story’s headline summed up the cause of fascination: “She Wore Trousers” — dark blue corduroy bloomers, to be exact, snug around the calves and puffy above the knees. “She rode her wheel through the principal streets in a leisurely manner and appeared to be utterly oblivious of the sensation she was causing,” according to the reporter.

It is unlikely Allen was truly oblivious, having already shown an exhibitionistic streak over the summer when she appeared on an Asbury Park, New Jersey, beach in a bathing skirt that “did not reach within many inches of her knees,” according to a disapproving newspaper report. (“Her stockings or tights were of light blue silk,” the report added.) Allen didn’t mind people noticing her revealing outfits — “that’s what I wear them for,” she told one reporter — and she kept cycling around Newark in pants despite the journalistic scolding. As another paper reported that November, “The natives watch for her with bated breath, and her appearance is the signal for a rush to all the front windows along the street.”

For a grown woman to reveal so much leg in public was a staggeringly brazen act. What was noticeably unnoteworthy by then was Allen’s choice of vehicle. Ten years earlier, all bicycles had been high-wheelers, and riding one had been largely the province of daring, athletic men. The women who had attempted it were seen as acrobats, hussies, or freaks; one female performer who rode a high-wheeler in the early 1880s was perceived as “a sort of semi-monster,” another woman reported. But by the early 1890s, the bike had undergone a transformation. Allen’s machine — a so-called safety bicycle — had two thigh-high wheels; air-filled rubber tires; and rear-wheel drive, with a chain to transmit power from the pedals. In fact, it looked a lot like a 21st-century commuter bike, and it had become nearly as acceptable as one. Even the fashion police who scorned Allen’s riding outfit didn’t object to her riding.

What had happened to the bicycle in the interim? Market expansion. In the 1880s, when bicycle makers had begun to saturate the limited market for high-wheelers, they sought products to entice other would-be riders, particularly men who had aged out of the strenuous high-wheel lifestyle. In the United States, where bad roads made tricycle ridership impractical, the sales potential for an easy-to-ride bicycle looked stronger than in Europe. In response, manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic created a profusion of high-tech two-wheelers, including models with foot levers instead of pedals; “geared up” bikes with chains and sprockets that spun the driving wheel more than once for each rotation of the cycle’s cranks; and a supposedly header-proof version with the small wheel in the front and the big wheel in the rear. Riders and makers started calling the standard high-wheeler an “Ordinary” to distinguish it from experimental models.

Several of the new bikes used geared-up rear-wheel drive as a way to bring the rider closer to the ground. The most influential of these was the English Rover, with a rear driving wheel only thirty inches tall that had as much force as a 50-inch Ordinary wheel. (Even today, American bicycle gears are measured in “gear inches,” which indicate how tall an Ordinary wheel of equivalent force would be.) At 36 inches, the Rover’s front wheel was slightly bigger than its rear one, but apart from that, the machine looked as streamlined as some models of fifty or a hundred years later.

Introduced in England in 1885, the Rover Safety Bicycle delivered the speed of an Ordinary, but with a greatly diminished risk of skull fracture from flying over the handlebars. The Rover’s manufacturer made some quick refinements, and a model with same-sized wheels caught on in Britain and inspired a fleet of imitators: low-mount, rear-wheel-drive bikes also called “safeties.”

The major US manufacturers weren’t impressed by this new low profile, though; they dismissed the safety style as a mistake. In 1886, after a two-month tour of England’s bicycle factories, the US industry titan Albert Pope expressed confidence in his high-wheeler: “I looked at nearly all the principal [English] makes and I could not find a point that was in any way an improvement over our own.” Echoed his lieutenant, George H. Day, who also made the trip, “Every innovation is regarded as a trap.”

But when imported safeties hit the US market in the spring of 1887, the machines found eager buyers; Pope and other American cycle makers scrambled to put out their own versions of the header-resistant contraptions. By November, the safety bicycle was established in the United States as the modern option for men, even though its low wheels evoked the comically old-timey velocipede of 20 years prior, as one bard made clear in the accented voice of an immigrant child:

In days of old, full many a time
You’ve heard it told, in prose and rhyme,
How down the street a wheelman came,
And chanced to meet his beauteous flame
Just where a pup in ambush lay,
To tip him up upon the way,
And make him wish that he was dead,
While gyrating upon his head.
In days of old
You’ve heard it told.
But nowadays, it’s otherwise.
The safety craze new joy supplies;
The boulders lose their terrors grim,
Stray cans and shoes are naught to him;
He laughs at rocks, he kicks the pup,
But, in the end, things even up;
For, as his maid he gayly greets,
Some unwashed urchin always bleats —
“Hi, look at der big man on der melosipetes!”

For a short time, Ordinaries and safeties coexisted like Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, with the bigger, older species continuing to inhabit its traditional niche while the smaller, nimbler creature carved out a new one. “I do not think that [the safety] will hurt the sale of the Ordinary bicycle,” predicted one US industry watcher in late 1887. “It will open the pleasures of cycling to a great many who have been afraid to venture upon a high machine.” The writer was thinking of physicians and other “professional men” for whom an Ordinary was too dangerous, but some enthusiasts suspected that the safety would also appeal to female riders. Offering women “a clumsy wheelbarrow of a tricycle” to ride while men zip around on slender bikes, wrote one sympathetic man, “is offering a woman a stone to eat while men have soft biscuit.”

And the safety bicycle’s low profile did intrigue many American women, especially after the spring of 1888, when makers offered a drop-frame version, in which the bike’s top bar scooped downward to make room for a lady rider’s long skirts. As one woman reported that year, “A sudden desire began to awake in the feminine mind to ascertain for itself by personal experience, what were those joys of the two-wheeler which they had so often heard boastfully vaunted as superior, a thousand times, to the more sober delights of the staid tricycle.”

With the safety’s smaller wheels, its ride was bumpier than the Ordinary’s at first. But then came the pneumatic tire. Devised in Ireland in 1888 by a veterinarian named John Boyd Dunlop, who was seeking a faster ride for his son’s trike, the air-filled rubber tube cushioned the road’s ruts and bulges in a way that springs and other early shock-absorbing devices never could. This marvel arrived in the United States by 1890 and became standard equipment on American safeties within a few years. “It permitted travel on streets and roads previously thought unrideable,” recalled an American journalist of the time, “and added to cycling a degree of ease and comfort never dreamed of.”

In the 1890s, bikes got lighter as well as more comfortable. The average weight of a bicycle dropped by more than half during the decade’s first five years, falling from 50 pounds to 23. And since new gearings were able to mimic wheels larger than those of the largest Ordinary, speed records fell too. In 1894, while riding a pneumatic-tired safety around a track in Buffalo, New York, the racer John S. Johnson went a mile in just over one minute and thirty-five seconds, a rate of nearly thirty-eight miles an hour. He beat the previous mile record for a safety by fourteen seconds, and the record for an Ordinary by nearly a minute–and the record for a running horse by one-tenth of a second.

The Ordinary — which had by then acquired the derisive nickname of “penny-farthing,” after the old British penny and much smaller farthing (quarter-penny) coins ─ became obsolete. High-wheelers that had sold for $150 to $300 just a year or two earlier were going for as little as $10.

The first safeties, meanwhile, cost an average of $150 during a time when the average worker earned something like $12 a week. At such prices, the new bikes targeted the same upscale demographic as the tricycle. But a strong market for safeties among well-to-do women goosed production, and competition among manufacturers reduced prices, making the bikes affordable to more would-be riders — and further fueling demand. In 1895, America’s 300 bicycle companies produced 500,000 safeties at an average price of $75, according to one encyclopedia’s yearbook. Even manufacturers were surprised at the demand among women, who thrilled to the new machine’s exhilarating ride. As one female journalist wrote, “If a pitying Providence should suddenly fit light, strong wings to the back of a toiling tortoise, that patient cumberer of the ground could hardly feel a more astonishing sense of exhilaration than a woman experiences when first she becomes a mistress of her wheel.”

It wasn’t just that women enjoyed the physical sensation of riding — the rush of balancing and cruising. What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women. Take clothing, for example. Starting at puberty, women were expected to wear heavy floor-length skirts, rigid corsets, and tight, pointy-toed shoes. These garments made any sort of physical exertion difficult, as young girls sadly discovered. “I ‘ran wild’ until my 16th birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels,” recalled the temperance activist Frances Willard in an 1895 memoir. “I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’” Reformers had been calling for more sensible clothing for women since the 1850s, when the newspaper editor Amelia Bloomer wore the baggy trousers that critics named after her, but rational arguments hadn’t made much headway.

Where reason failed, though, recreation succeeded. The drop-frame safety did allow women to ride in dresses, but not in the swagged, voluminous frocks of the Victorian parlor. Female cyclists had to don simple, “short” (that is, ankle-length) skirts in order to avoid getting them caught under the bicycle’s rear wheel. And to keep them from flying up, some women had tailors put weights in their hems or line their skirt fronts with leather. Other women, like Angeline Allen, shucked their dresses altogether and wore bloomers. The display that reporters had deemed shocking in 1893 became commonplace just a few years later as more and more women started riding. “The eye of the spectator has long since become accustomed to costumes once conspicuous,” wrote an American journalist in 1895. “Bloomer and tailor-made alike ride on unchallenged.” (For her part, Allen may well have given up riding, but not scandal; she progressed to posing onstage in scanty attire for re-creations of famous paintings, a risqué popular amusement.)

Bicyclists’ corsets changed too, though less publicly. The corset of the 1880s was an armpit-to-hip garment stiffened with whalebone stays, which helped the hips support heavy skirts that hung from the waist. But while corsets braced women’s torsos, they also weakened their wearers, squeezing women’s lungs and displacing other internal organs, making deep breaths impossible. Out of necessity, female cyclists looked for alternatives, and many chose another garment that had been advocated by dress reformers decades earlier: a sturdy, waist-length cotton camisole with shoulder straps. When introduced in the 1870s, this garment was called an “emancipation waist,” and it featured a horizontal band of buttons at the hem, to which drawers or a skirt could be attached. Later versions were named “health waist” or, finally, “bicycle waist.” One 1896 model included elastic insets; its maker promised the wearer “perfect comfort — a sound pair of lungs — a graceful figure and rosy cheeks.” All for $1, postpaid.

If women’s clothing constrained them, so did their role in society. More Americans than ever worked outside the home; by 1880, farmers made up a little less than half of the country’s labor force. But even among the urban working class, married women typically stayed home during the day to cook, clean, tend to children, and often manufacture homemade goods for sale. Meanwhile, their husbands, sons, and unmarried daughters toiled in factories, shops, offices, and other people’s houses. Many Americans came to believe that men and women naturally inhabited two separate spheres: men held sway in business, politics, and other public arenas, and women took charge of the home. For most middle-class women, respectability meant appearing in public only under certain circumstances ─ such as while shopping ─ and making as small an impression as possible. “A true lady walks the streets unostentatiously and with becoming reserve,” instructed an 1889 etiquette manual. “She appears unconscious of all sights and sounds which a lady ought not to perceive.”

In addition, an unmarried young woman didn’t go out without a chaperone, usually an older female relative. Being seen on an unchaperoned date, even at a restaurant or other public place, could be cause for social ruin. An 1887 etiquette guide warned against sailing excursions, for example, lest the boat be becalmed overnight: “A single careless act of this sort may be remembered spitefully against a girl for many years.”

The bicycle challenged all that. Wives who had stayed close to home — venturing out only on foot, by trolley, or, if wealthy, with a driver and horse-drawn carriage — were suddenly able to travel miles on their own. Being so mobile, and so visible, was a revelation to many. “The world is a new and another sphere under the bicyclist’s observation,” wrote one female journalist. “Here is a process of locomotion that is absolutely at her command.” If a woman’s sphere begins to feel too small, wrote another, “the sufferer can do no better than to flatten her sphere to a circle, mount it, and take to the road.”

As for unmarried women, manners mavens urged them to cycle only with chaperones, but the rule didn’t take. “New social laws have been enacted to meet the requirements of the new order,” reported one newspaper editor in 1896. “Parents who will not allow their daughters to accompany young men to the theatre without chaperonage allow them to go bicycle-riding alone with young men. This is considered perfectly proper.” According to the editor, the reason for this difference was the “good comradeship” of the bicycling set. Fellow enthusiasts looked out for one another on the road, he wrote ─ so in a way, every ride was supervised. The historian Ellen Gruber Garvey suggests a second possible reason: propriety already allowed unmarried women to ride horses unchaperoned. Bicycles, as a less costly equivalent, may simply have extended this freedom down the economic scale.

But the same things that made the bicycle liberating also made it threatening. Moralists warned that skimpy costumes and unsupervised travel would lead to wanton behavior. “Immodest bicycling by young women is to be deplored,” declared Charlotte Smith, founder of the Women’s Rescue League, a group that lobbied Congress on behalf of “fallen women.” “Bicycling by young women has helped to swell the ranks of reckless girls, who finally drift into the standing army of outcast women.” Smith reported that her tours of brothels and interviews with prostitutes confirmed this.

Physicians — who at the time shouldered responsibility for patients’ moral as well as physical well-being — had their own concerns. One visited New York’s Coney Island and saw a 16-year-old cyclist get drunk on wine provided by a beautiful but nefarious older woman. “She looked like an innocent child, but was away from home influence,” the doctor reported. Many physicians fretted that pressure from the bicycle seat would teach girls how to masturbate, a practice thought to lead to spiritual and psychological decline. Climbing hills on a bike could excite “feelings hitherto unknown to, and unrealized by, the young girl,” wrote one doctor in 1898. (Boys faced the same danger: pressure on the perineum would call their attention to the area, warned one doctor, “and so lead to a great increase in masturbation in the timid [and] to early sexual indulgence in the more venturous.”)

The bicycle’s peril was medical as well as moral. In the late nineteenth century, many saw physical energy as a finite resource that had to be carefully parceled out, not a power that could be renewed through exercise. The fashionable malaise of neurasthenia was only one of the disorders thought to be caused by a depletion of energies. Overexertion could also cause tuberculosis, scoliosis, hernias, heart disease, and other maladies, doctors believed. Safely sedentary middle-class women, who frequently suffered from varicose veins and other consequences of annual pregnancies, were prone to fatigue; one Boston writer called them “a sex which is born tired,” adding that “society sometimes seems little better than a hospital for invalid women.” Particularly for women in heavy dresses and constricting corsets, any activity that raised the heart rate could seem more likely to be the cause of fainting and listlessness than their remedy. Opponents of the bicycle latched onto this perception, arguing that riding would cost women more effort than they could afford. “The exertion necessary to riding with speed … is productive of an excitation of nervous and physical energy that is anything but beneficial,” Charlotte Smith warned. “If a halt is not called soon, 75 percent of the cyclists will be an army of invalids within the next ten years.”

But even as Smith made her dire predictions, Americans’ fear of cardiovascular exercise was beginning to lift. For decades, health reformers had trumpeted the benefits of fitness, and during the 1880s, the United States saw a spike in organized physical activity. Citizens of America’s growing cities tried new sports such as baseball and football, and exercise advocates built the first public playgrounds and pushed for physical education for both boys and girls. Doctors continued to caution against overexertion, but they acknowledged that, in moderation, fresh air and exercise tended to improve patients’ health. The high-wheel bicycle of the 1880s proved the benefits of regular exercise to those who could ride it; proponents made extravagant claims for the risky machine’s ability to restore well-being. “For constipation, sleeplessness, dyspepsia, and many other ills which flesh is heir to, not to speak of melancholy,─all are curable, or certainly to be improved, by the new remedy, ‘Bicycle,'” wrote a Texas physician in 1883. “It is always an excellent prescription for the convalescents, and nearly always for chronic invalids.”

Not everyone could take the prescription, though. High-wheeled cycling and rigorous team sports were acceptable only for young men. The new games deemed suitable for mixed company, such as lawn tennis and golf, were far less taxing — and therefore far less likely to lead to noticeable improvements in fitness. As for working out on your own, the recommended options were either too costly (horseback riding) or too boring (indoor calisthenics) to gain much popularity. As a result, many more Americans of the 1880s thought they ought to exercise than actually did it. So when the safety bicycle appeared at the end of the decade and Americans began riding in large numbers — an estimated two million by 1896, out of a population of about seventy million — few were certain how such vigorous physical activity would affect them.

Doctors were wary. Most US physicians believed that each patient’s condition was based largely on his or her habits and experiences, the weather, and other environmental factors. Good health was a reflection of proper balance among bodily systems and energies. “A distracted mind could curdle the stomach, a dyspeptic stomach could agitate the mind,” writes the medical historian Charles Rosenberg. It was a doctor’s job to know each patient well enough to restore balance when something was out of whack, using laxatives, diuretics, and other purging drugs to reboot the system. Even contagious diseases could not be treated in a cookie-cutter fashion, argued an 1883 medical journal editorial: “No two instances of typhoid fever, or of any other disease, are precisely alike … No ‘rule of thumb,’ no recourse to a formula-book, will avail for proper treatment even of the typical diseases.” To many doctors, advocating a specific drug to cure a specific disease seemed the height of quackery.

And just as there were no one-size-fits-all medical treatments, many physicians believed there were no one-size-fits-all exercise routines. While cycling enthusiasts rhapsodized about the safety bicycle’s benefits for riders of both sexes and all ages, doctors fretted that many of their patients would be harmed by the new machines. Even seeming success stories were suspect. In an 1895 paper on heart disease, one doctor reported that a patient who had panted for breath after climbing one flight of stairs was now able to cycle up hills with ease. “It would be wrong to conclude from this that cycling is not injurious,” the doctor wrote: there hadn’t yet been time to observe the bicycle’s long-term effects. Moreover, as an unfamiliar activity, cycling tended to catch the blame for pretty much anything bad that happened to a new rider afterward, up to and including death.

Logically, acute injuries were a concern. Though the safety bicycle did greatly reduce the risk of head wounds, it didn’t obliterate that risk, particularly among “scorchers” — thrill-seeking youngsters who hunched over their handlebars and pedaled as fast as they could. “It might seem almost impossible to fracture a skull thick enough to permit indulgence in such practices,” reported the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, “but the bicycle fool at full speed has been able to accomplish it.” Medical journals also noted the danger of road rash and broken bones.

More insidious than crash injuries, though, were new chronic complaints attributed to cycling. The bent-over posture of the scorcher was thought to cause a permanent hunch called “kyphosis bicyclistarum,” or, familiarly, “cyclist’s stoop.” Repeated stress to the cardiovascular system — that is, regular workouts — could lead to the irregular heartbeats and poor circulation of “bicycle heart.” Gripping the handlebars too tightly might cause finger numbness, or “bicycle hand,” and a dusty ride could trigger “cyclist’s sore throat.” Practically every body part seemed to have its own cycle-related malady; at least one New York doctor devoted his entire practice to treating such ailments.

Of all the physical woes attributed to the bike, the one that most strained credulity was the “bicycle face.” Characterized by wide, wild eyes; a grim set to the mouth; and a migration of facial features toward the center, the disorder was said to result from the stress of incessant balancing. A German philosopher claimed that the condition drained “every vestige of intelligence” from the sufferer’s appearance and rendered children unrecognizable to their own mothers. The bicycle face hung on, too, warned a journalist: “Once fixed upon the countenance, it can never be removed.”

The doctors raising these alarms were careful to state that many of the new diseases affected only cyclists predisposed to them — which would explain why so few of their fellow physicians might have encountered the disorders. “Whilst thousands ride immune, a small percentage will suffer,” wrote one doctor. Another, who blamed cases of appendicitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and the thyroid condition Graves’ disease on excessive riding, said it didn’t matter how many people believed that cycling had improved their health: “It would not affect my argument in the least if swarms of them had been rescued from the grave.”

Nevertheless, the more Americans took to bicycling, the more tenuous these claims of danger came to seem. The machine made physical activity both practical and fun. “The bicycle is inducing multitudes of people to take regular exercise who have long been in need of such exercise, but who could never be induced to take it by any means hitherto devised,” one doctor wrote in Harper’s Weekly in 1896. And all that activity had an effect. Riders quickly noticed improved muscle tone, increased strength, better sleep, and brighter moods. Women, especially, transformed themselves, wrote the novelist Maurice Thompson in 1897: “We have already become accustomed to seeing sunbrowned faces, once sallow and languid, whisk past us at every turn of the street. The magnetism of vivid health has overcome conservative barriers that were impregnable to every other force.”

The empirical evidence of cycling’s health value began to overtake conservative doctors’ concerns, as the rhetoric scholar Sarah Overbaugh Hallenbeck argues. Though many physicians continued to raise objections to the sport, their voices were increasingly drowned out by those of more observant — and pragmatic–practitioners. “The bicycle face, elbow, back, shoulders, neck, eroticism,” wrote one military doctor in 1896, “I pass as not worthy of serious consideration.” Rather than discourage bicycle use, most physicians came to cautiously endorse it. “So long as the cyclist can breathe with the mouth shut,” wrote one such doctor in 1895, “he is certainly perfectly safe.” Some went further, citing evidence of the bike’s benefits for heart patients, migraine sufferers, diabetics, and others with chronic conditions. In Chicago, the demand for injectable morphine dropped as patients with anxiety or insomnia “discovered that a long spin in the fresh air on a cycle induces sweet sleep better than their favorite drug,” the Bulletin of Pharmacy reported.

This shift paralleled a transformation in medical thinking during the 1890s, when American physicians increasingly embraced the scientific method. Some clinics in Continental Europe had adopted this evidence-based approach early in the nineteenth century, using statistics to determine the efficacy of treatments and evaluating patients’ conditions according to universal norms, rather than trying to divine what was normal for each individual patient. In the United States, however, doctors arguing for this approach were long in the minority. According to Rosenberg, the rift between medical traditionalists and empiricists “provided an emotional fault line which marked the profession throughout the last two-thirds of the century.” Only at the very end of the nineteenth century did a research-based, objective philosophy take hold at US medical schools.

It would be folly to suggest that the bicycle alone caused this transformation. Many other factors were at play, such as improved trans-Atlantic communication; an influx of European immigrants, including scientists; and a snowballing of evidence for new medical concepts such as the germ theory of disease. For centuries, Western healers had believed that contagion could erupt spontaneously, but between 1870 and 1900, researchers disproved this theory by isolating the microscopic causes of illnesses including typhoid, tuberculosis, cholera, diphtheria, meningococcal meningitis, plague, and malaria.

But even if the bike did not independently modernize American medicine, its unprecedented impact on fitness — and the clash this revealed between what doctors said and what experience showed — may well have accelerated the shift. Much as the bicycle triggered changes in women’s dress that high-minded advocacy could not, it bolstered scientists’ then-radical argument that what is good for one human body tends to be just as good for another.

To the bicycle faithful of the 1890s, this seemed to be just the beginning of the changes that the machine would bring about. The gulf between social classes would recede under the influence of this “great leveler,” one enthusiast wrote in the Century Magazine: “It puts the poor man on a level with the rich, enabling him to ‘sing the song of the open road’ as freely as the millionaire, and to widen his knowledge by visiting the regions near to or far from his home, observing how other men live.”

And while women may not yet have had full access to higher education ─ or even the right to vote — the unchaperoned, self-propelled bloomer girl seemed to be pedaling in that direction. “In possession of her bicycle, the daughter of the 19th century feels that the declaration of her independence has been proclaimed,” wrote one female journalist, “and, in the fulness of time, all things will be added to complete her happiness and prosperity.”

The first-wave feminist Susan B. Anthony was born in 1820, the year after Charles Willson Peale built his iron draisine. By the time of the safety bicycle boom of the 1890s, she was a snowy-haired eminence, too old to risk riding, but she had an opinion of the sport. “I’ll tell you what I think of bicycling,” she said in an 1896 newspaper interview as she leaned forward to lay a hand on the reporter’s arm. “I think it has done more to emancipate woman than any one thing in the world.”


From The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. Copyright © 2016 by Margaret Guroff. All rights reserved, with permission of the University of Texas Press.