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The Billboard

Longreads Pick

When artist Stephanie Montgomery told the police that she was raped at work, neither they nor her manager helped, so she sought justice her way.

Published: May 30, 2019
Length: 33 minutes (8,330 words)

How the Hand Painted Rock ‘n’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip Came to Be

Photo by Weho City, Flickr Rock N’ Roll Billboards of the Sunset Strip Exhibit Reception - July 30, 2013

Driving down the Sunset Strip has always felt a little like being in a magazine. The billboards loom and beckon, towering and untouchable and yet still totally in your face. Today they advertise luxury brands and new TV shows, but once upon a time—back when the Sunset Strip was at the heart and soul of rock ‘n’ roll—they were hand painted musical monoliths, larger-than-life variations on album art and psychedelic interpretations of soon-to-be hit records. As Hunter Oatman-Stanford put it, “in the 1970s, you knew you’d made it big if your record label paid for a hand-painted billboard on the Strip.” The hand painted rock billboards on the Strip were an art form specific to LA’s car culture, intended not for gallery walls but to be seen through a windshield at cruising speed, and preferably with the convertible top down.

According to the Los Angeles Times, each billboard took roughly ten days to produce, with costs ranging from $1,200 to $10,000. Craftsmen would hand paint the illustrations on individual wood panels at warehouses in Mid City, before ultimately reassembling the pieces on location in the wee hours. And they were by nature ephemeral—each was destroyed after its contract ended.

Luckily for us, a photographer named Robert Landau documented many of the billboards during their roughly decade-and-a-half heyday (from 1967 to the advent of MTV in the early 1980’s). Landau was a teenager living with his dad in the hills above the legendary Sunset Strip Tower Records when he first started documenting the fleeting masterpieces, shooting with a Nikkormat camera and Kodachrome film. A few years ago, he published a complete catalog of his photos with Angel City Press, and in a few weeks the billboards will finally grace museum walls, when an exhibit of Landau’s work opens at the LA’s Skirball Cultural Center.

Over at Collectors Weekly, Hunter Oatman-Stanford has interviewed Landau about his work and the billboards themselves. Below is a short excerpt:

Collectors Weekly: Who started the music industry’s billboard trend?

Landau: As far as I can tell, it was the Doors in 1967 for their debut album. I talked with Jac Holzman—the head of Elektra Records who signed the Doors—while writing my book. In 1967, he had just come out here from the East Coast and opened an office on La Cienega Boulevard, not far from Sunset Boulevard, and it occurred to him that billboards were being used for everything except promoting records and music. A lot of radio stations where popular disc jockeys worked were farther east on Sunset, and he knew they drove on the Strip, and that the entertainment industry in general was based there.

The Doors were really into it; the whole band even climbed up on top for a photo shoot. Jim Morrison was quoted as saying he thought it was cool he’d be hanging over the Strip like a specter. I think at that time, it cost about a thousand dollars a month, which was quite a bit of an investment then. Elektra signed on for a year, and they had several different billboards. Little by little, the other record companies caught on.

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Billboard Artist of the Year: The Making of Whitney Houston’s Debut Album (1986)

Longreads Pick

How Clive Davis and Arista won the battle to sign Whitney Houston—then went searching for songs for her debut:

“Two years later, Griffith got a call from a friend. Had he ever heard of Whitney Houston? She asked him. He remembered her name immediately from the show he’d seen and said so. ‘You better move fast,’ she cautioned. ‘She’s negotiating with Elektra for a deal.’ The news shook him up. ‘I said, “Uh-oh – I better check this out,”‘ he recalls. As it turned out, Houston was performing that very weekend at another New York club, Seventh Avenue South. Griffith called Houston’s manager, Gene Harvey, and had his name put on the guest list.

“‘So I went down, and I was completely floored,’ Griffith says now. ‘She was mesmerizing. I couldn’t believe she had grown so much in that two-year period. She went from a teenager to a woman. She had a mature look, her voice was more mature, she had obvious star quality. It took no genius to see it – all you had to do was just see her and you knew. I’ll never forget, she sang the song “Tomorrow” from [the musical] Annie, and it was a showstopper. After I got up off the floor, I just knew that I had to bring her to the label.'”

Author: Bud Scoppa
Source: Billboard
Published: Feb 1, 1986
Length: 10 minutes (2,556 words)

The Strange and Dangerous World of America’s Big Cat People

Illustration by Zoë van Dijk

Rachel Nuwer | Longreads | March 2020 | 28 minutes (7,033 words)

You can listen to our four-part “Cat People” podcast series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

It’s a gloomy April afternoon in rural Oklahoma, and I’m sitting on the floor of a fluorescent-lit room at a roadside zoo with Nova, a 12-week-old tiliger. She looks like a tiger cub, but she’s actually a crossbreed, an unnatural combination of a tiger father and a mother born of a tiger and a lion. That unique genetic makeup places a higher price tag on cubs like Nova, and makes it easier, legally speaking, to abuse and exploit them. Endangered species protections don’t apply to artificial breeds such as tiligers. Hybridization, however, has done nothing to quell Nova’s predatory instincts. For the umpteenth time during the past six minutes, she lunges at my face, claws splayed and mouth ajar — only to be halted mid-leap as her handler jerks her harness. Unphased, Nova gets right back to pouncing.

With her dusty blue eyes, sherbet-colored paws, and prominent black stripes, Nova is adorable. But she also weighs 30 pounds and has teeth like a Doberman’s and claws the size of jumbo shrimp. Nova’s handler, a woman with long brown hair who tells me she recently retired from her IT job at a South Dakota bank to live out her dream of working with exotic cats, scolds the rambunctious tiliger in a goo-goo-ga-ga voice: “Nooooo, nooooo, you calms down!” Nova is teething, the handler explains, so she just wants something to chew on. The handler reaches for one of the tatty stuffed animals strewn around the room — a substitute, I guess, for my limbs. In that moment of distraction, Nova lunges. She lands her mark, chomping into the bicep of my producer, Graham Lee Brewer.

“Ooo, she got me!” Lee Brewer grimaces as he attempts to pull away from the determined predator. Nova’s handler has to pry the tiliger’s jaws open to detach her. After the incident, the woman conveniently checks her watch: “OK, you guys, time is up!”

I paid $80 for the pleasure of spending 12 minutes with Nova, but I’m glad the experience, billed as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, is over. On our way out, we pass more than a dozen adult tigers yowling and pacing cages the size of small classrooms. Nearby signs solicit donations. You are their only hope. Sponsor a cabin or compound today! In the safety of our car, Lee Brewer rolls up his sleeve, exposing a swollen red welt. “Look at my gnarly tiger bite,” he chuckles. “I tried to play it off but I was like, this fuckin’ hurts!”

It’s not the first time I’ve seen this world up-close; I spent the better part of eight years investigating wildlife trafficking around the world. During my travels, I visited farms in China and Laos where tigers are raised like pigs, examined traditional medicine in Vietnam, ate what I was told was tiger bone “cake,” and tracked some of the world’s last remaining wild tigers in India. Almost everywhere I went, tigers were suffering and their numbers were on the decline because of human behavior. Until recently, though, I had no idea the United States was part of the problem. Read more…

Shelved: Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk

Frans Schellekens / Getty

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,966 words)

 

On the evening of May 29, 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley and his roadie Keith Foti picked their way down the steep, weedy bank to Wolf River Harbor in Memphis, Tennessee. Buckley, wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and heavy Doc Martens boots, waded into the water singing Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” After about 15 minutes, a boat passed. Concerned about their boom box getting wet, Foti moved it out of harm’s way. When he turned back around, Buckley was gone with the undertow. His body wouldn’t be found for days. He was 30 years old.

Jeff Buckley had mastered that most singular of instruments: his own voice. Possessing the same incredible range as opera icon Pavarotti, his phrasing could be anguished or exquisite; his breath control was phenomenal. Beyond that, he was the soul of eclecticism: Raised on prog rock, he dabbled in hair metal, gospel, country, and soul. Once, during a live performance, he improvised in the ecstatic style of Qawwali devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — someone Buckley once described as “my Elvis” — over the riff from Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

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Through a Glass, Tearfully

Illustration by Hannah Li

Maureen Stanton | Longreads | January 2020 | 26 minutes (6,448 words)

In the early 1990s I joined a stream of people strolling past the AIDS quilt spread across a gymnasium floor in Lansing, Michigan, the room quiet but for our muffled sniffling. I hadn’t expected the quilt — a patchwork of many quilts — to affect me so powerfully, the clothes and artifacts and mementos stitched into tapestries, with dates of births and premature deaths, soft beautiful tombstones.

Humans are the only creatures who cry for emotional reasons. Animals do not shed tears of emotion; apes have tear ducts but only to “bathe and heal” the eyes. Crying makes us human. In the 1956 film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, people who’d been replaced by aliens could no longer cry, a telltale sign that they were not human. In one scene, a man carries a pod containing the alien replica of a small child. “There’ll be no more tears,” he tells the child’s mother.

***

Some people are super tasters or super smellers, or even super see-ers, with an uncanny ability to remember faces. I am a super crier, or maybe a super empathizer. An astrologer once said that my soul bears the karmic burden of feeling others’ pain as if it were my own. This is apparently because of the placement on my birth chart of the comet Chiron, “the wounded healer,” named after a Greek centaur who could heal everyone but himself.

Once, in Columbus, Ohio, I choked up at Taco John’s, a brand new mom and pop joint, all spiffy with shiny stainless steel, but empty of customers. I could see the work and sacrifice the family had made to realize their dream — opening a taco shop. I could feel their hope when I walked in the door, but I could calculate the meager profit from my order against the cost of utilities, salaries, supplies. I could see their dream failing.

I nearly lost it again at Karyn’s Kitchen, a food truck in someone’s yard along the road to my house in Maine. Karyn probably figured she’d snag summer traffic on the way to the beach, but who wants to eat in someone’s yard? I ate there once out of pity — her husband’s “famous” meatloaf, which she served with mashed potatoes, steamed carrots, and two slices of white bread with a pat of margarine. When I asked her to heat up the cold gravy, she microwaved it until the plastic container melted and handed it to me like that. When I drive by Karyn’s yard now, I can’t stand to look at the empty space where her dream failed.

A woman in a laundromat once yelled at her small son, “No one wants to hear you,” and I got a lump in my throat.
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Guns and Marriage

Photo by Dwight Eschliman / Getty, Illustration by Homestead Studio

Simone Gorrindo | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,400 words)

The little boy and I looked out through the sliding glass door at the men in the yard. We both watched as his father, Jack*, picked up a rifle from the patio table, the other men gathering around him. My husband was among them. Jack aimed at an old Kevlar vest sitting in the weeds, and I instinctively took a step backward, but the toddler drew closer, pressing his hands to the glass.

Neither of us startled as the shot rang out through the rural subdivision. In the year and a half that Jack’s son had been alive and my husband had been in the Army, we’d both grown accustomed to the sound of gunfire.

I heard these gunshots on base, as common as the sound of birds, and saw men ruck-marching down the main roads before daybreak, M4s clutched to their chests. But here in the South, I’d become most intimately acquainted with guns in west Alabama backyards like Jack’s, where soldiers shot inanimate objects for weekend entertainment while chicken thighs sizzled on the grill.

Jack put down the gun. Through the glass, I could hear his voice shake as he pretended to make a call over an imaginary radio, fuck and shit splicing the rehearsed lines. The huddle of men around him broke into laughter. I started to laugh, too, but then I realized: He was doing an impression of my husband losing composure during a mission. I was only vaguely aware of what these missions looked like, but I knew that tremor in Andrew’s voice, and Jack was mimicking it perfectly.


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The moment Jack was recalling was a dangerous one, of course, the instant in a mission when things go south (nothing ever really goes as planned, my husband had said to me once). Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life. There were days I wished he could tell me more, and others I had to put my hand up like a warning and say: I can’t. I was blocking the image of what could happen to him. Just as much, though, I was looking away from what he might be doing to someone else.

Jack handed the rifle to Russel*, who kicked the Kevlar vest aside, brought the gun to eye level, and fired a shot into the young pine trees lining the fenceless backyard. Between the trees, I could see the world that lay beyond: other identical, fenceless backyards, kids waging water gun wars in the hot afternoon.

Jack’s wife looked over at me from the kitchen, the light from the windows illuminating her bare face. “They’re just shooting at the ground,” she said. The worry must have shown in my eyes.

“They were,” I said. Russel fired another shot into the trees.

She groaned as she walked over to me. Hailey* had grown up in a 3,000-person town in Idaho and had been terrified to drive the interstate when she first got here. But she didn’t bat an eye at guns going off in her backyard.

She slid open the door. “What the hell?” she yelled in a no-bullshit tone I could never muster with the guys.

The men all turned around with the same slightly amused, slightly bewildered expressions on their faces. Jack muttered something under his breath before taking the rifle from Russel.

When Andrew and I left to go back to our house in Georgia on the other side of the Chattahoochee, I asked him if it was safe for Russel to be shooting into those trees.

“That was stupid,” he said as he pulled out of the driveway.

“But he hit the trees, right? I mean, he’s a good shot,” I said.

We paused at a stop sign. Andrew looked over at me. “He could easily miss, Simone. Anyone could. And at that range, a small tree like that might not stop the round. You know that, right?”

Here was a catch-22 I was learning to live with: I wanted to know my husband, I needed to know him, but I survived emotionally by knowing as little as possible about a huge part of his life.

I didn’t. I knew nothing about guns. I’d spent my childhood in California’s Bay Area and had worked as an editor in New York City before moving to Georgia. In my liberal, urban corners of the country, I’d never had the opportunity or need to even touch a gun; they had been something to oppose, to lament, the occasional shot heard from a safe distance at night. Where I’d grown up, owning a gun was about as sinful and strange as voting red. And I had come of age in the era of mass shootings, was just 13 when I watched the news about Columbine unfold on the television for weeks. Something in me had cemented then: a distaste not just for guns, but also for the people who owned them, championed them, fetishized them.

But I was a long way from home now. Guns were on the hips of men shopping for instant mashed potatoes; at every social gathering we were invited to, on top of refrigerators, in kitchen drawers, on shoe racks and in closets. I knew I should learn how to handle one. Andrew had offered to take me to the range before, but the prospect filled me with dread, a queasiness that I suspected had less to do with my upbringing and more to do with that warning hand I put up in the face of my husband’s stories. Shooting a gun, I sensed, would put me in closer touch with what my husband did for a living. It could satisfy a curiosity that might be safer to ignore.

***

Ladies’ Night, read a wrinkled flyer that hung by the front door of Shooters. A few of the salesman nodded at Andrew and I as we entered and walked quickly through the aisles of guns for sale to the shooting range in the back. The thin fabric of my dress clung to my thighs. As far as I could tell, I was the only lady here today.

 

The guy manning the gun rental counter was younger than the men up front, and he seemed to be the real beating heart of the place, the territorial guard dog standing between the range and the rest of the world. He looked as though he’d spent the best years of his adulthood behind that counter, growing out a thick beard, letting his plaid button-downs get snug around the waist. On a leather string around his neck, he wore a crucifix patterned with the American flag.

“You military?” he asked. They always knew.

Andrew nodded, sliding his California ID across the glass counter. Beneath it were rows of handguns, gleaming like wedding bands.

“The left coast, huh?” the man asked skeptically as he studied the ID. He looked up at us. “I’m from Minnesota originally,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “The communists live there too.”

Andrew gave him a weak smile. This talk had surprised us when’d first arrived — could the stereotypes really be so accurate? But we’d gotten used to hearing this kind of thing with some regularity: communists, Yankees, traitors. People had teasingly called us every one of these names, simply for being from somewhere else, a fact that was as impossible to hide as our race or sex.

Andrew chose the lowest caliber weapon they had on offer — a silver revolver —  and got us some “eyes and ears,” protective glasses and ear protection. We signed a few waivers and bought some overpriced ammo. It was almost time to start shooting; there was just one more thing.

“Pick a target,” the man said, nodding toward the area behind us.

We turned around. Neatly stacked in a wire rack were typical targets for a buck apiece. For two dollars, you could purchase a skeleton or goblin or bloody zombie bride. A bear-size man approached and grabbed a target that was above my line of sight. As he walked away, I caught a quick glimpse of it: A bearded cartoon in a Keffiyeh sneered at me, a Kalishnakov clutched in his hands.

“Is that — ?”

“Yep,” Andrew said with a finality that I knew could only mean: Let’s not talk about this here.

Andrew opened a heavy door that led to a vestibule, a kind of portal between the range and the rest of the building. The moment Andrew opened the next door, the air turned humid. The cement room smelled of sweat. Empty bullet casings rolled under my steps as I followed Andrew to the shooting stands, where a row of men stood, their backs wet with perspiration. Most of them looked, from the back, like suburban dads, their bodies and T-shirts softened by age. Their guns went off in startling waves. My shoulders jumped with each blast.

“These aren’t working!” I yelled at Andrew, pointing to my ear muffs.

“It’s the sensation,” Andrew yelled back. “You’ll get used to it.” It was a sensation more than a sound, an unsettling tremor moving through me.

“Shooting is athletic,” he yelled, setting down the gun in front of him. “How you hold your body matters.” He demonstrated: left foot forward, arms taut but slightly bent, the way a batter might ready himself at home plate, except forward-facing. I mimicked him, and he gave me a thumbs-up.

“All right, tell me three of the basic rules of gun safety,” he said. He had drilled these into me on the ride over.

“Treat every weapon as if it is loaded.” I began dutifully. “Never point the weapon at anything you don’t intend to destroy. That seems like an important one,” I said, stalling.

Andrew waited.

“And … keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you’re ready to fire.”

“Good. Now line your eye up with the sight, and make sure that red dot you see is just below where you’re aiming.” He paused. “Release the safety,” he said, doing it for me. “Take a breath, and then pull.”

“What if it goes spinning out of my hands?” I yelled.

Andrew laughed. I took a breath, and, just as I closed my eyes, I heard Andrew tell me to keep them open. I pulled the trigger.

Nothing. I opened my eyes and pulled again. And again.

“What am I doing wrong?” He took the revolver from me and shot off a few rounds.

“You’re afraid,” he said gently, handing it back to me. “Don’t be.”

I paused, regained my stance, and tried again. Nothing.

“Pull a little harder,” Andrew said.

I pulled again. My finger was starting to cramp.

“I can’t,” I said, and let the gun slip gently out of my hands onto the counter. The barrel pointed toward us.

Andrew scooped it up. “Never point a gun, loaded or unloaded, toward anyone.”

“Sorry.” I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.

‘Sorry.’ I felt myself blush. Maybe the fact that I was unable to shoot meant we could abandon our mission, go home, and do something I was good at, like reading books.

Andrew left then and returned with a Glock .45. It was heavier and somehow more serious looking; by comparison, the silver revolver seemed like a prop out of an old Western. He showed me how to load the first couple bullets.

Just pull the trigger, I told myself. I squinted, located the floating white dot and then, after a moment’s hesitation, went for it.

The force of the shot went through me instantly, the gun kicking back against my hands, through my arms, into my shoulders, and then out of my body.

Some people describe their first time shooting as exhilarating, a rush, the top of a roller coaster before you plummet. I understood the appeal of a rush, the kind of moment that requires surrender. But this was different. This was asking me to trust — not the gun or the men running the range or Andrew, but myself.

“Keep shooting,” Andrew said.

I adjusted my feet, tightened my arms, and pulled the trigger again. The same bone-rattling power surged through me.

“Wouldn’t you rather at least have some familiarity with guns?” Andrew had asked when I’d turned down the range in the past. But why? I wasn’t interested in hunting. I’d spent my life strategizing how to avoid violence, not engage in it. If I needed to defend myself, the only weapons I could imagine wielding were mace or a good old house key wedged between my fingers. Guns had never felt like a realistic or viable option, perhaps because they had never been real to me. They had always been, for me, more idea than object, a symbol of an irrationality in the human heart. The notion of them as tools of utility or purpose — or fun — was outside of my understanding. But moving to the South and joining the world of the Army had forced me to acknowledge that guns were not only real; they were common, as unremarkable on a man’s hip as the cell phone in his hand.

I unleashed a few more shots, put down the .45, and looked at the target: I hadn’t gotten a single bullet on even its far borders. And somehow, I was exhausted.

“I’m going to take a breather,” I yelled over the noise.

From the safety of the vestibule, I watched Andrew. He shot round after round, a swarm of little holes appearing around his target. After a rocky childhood and a string of tempestuous relationships, I felt like I’d found home when Andrew came into my life. We had fallen in love, in part, because we each felt seen by the other. He gave me a sense of belonging, of wholeness, of all my fractured selves coming together. He made sense, so I made sense. But the longer he was in the Army, the less sense he made to me, and the more I began to wonder how well I had seen him after all. I knew my husband better than anyone, and yet, this part of him — the part that shot guns for fun and went eagerly into combat — felt like a story someone else had told me, a narrative I was straining to understand. Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.

Those parts of him were the back hallways of his life I was not allowed to visit, and the shadows that obscured them made me feel uneasy, unsure of who he was, who we were — who, even, I was.

I had not wanted him to join the Army. Years before, when he’d first mentioned the possibility at the beginning of our relationship, I’d even told him I’d leave him if he did. Why on earth did he want to seek out violence? He remained silent about it for two years after that, but then recruitment pamphlets started appearing in our home, and I found notepads on his nightstand filled with workout regimes. He wasn’t going to give up on this desire, which was so strong and enduring some might say it was a calling. If I wanted Andrew, I would have to say yes to the Army.

Nine days after we married in a New York City courthouse, he shipped off to boot camp. His sudden departure, his decision to do things I did not want to think about, felt almost like a betrayal. My husband was the kind of man who brought me flowers, who asked forgiveness when he made a mistake, who’d walked a mile in the sticky summer heat of Brooklyn with a bookcase on his back, carried it up two flights of stairs, and lined it with my treasured books to surprise me. His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.

***

A month after our day at the range, Andrew brought a gun into our home.

“That was scary easy,” Andrew said as he walked into our bedroom, where I was sitting on our bed, reading a book. He took a black handgun out of a crumpled brown bag and set it down on our faded paisley comforter. I’d known this was coming. Initially I’d pushed back, but ultimately, I’d acquiesced. Guns were a part of Andrew’s daily life and world, after all. Even so, the unloaded 40-cal felt like a threat to my cozy home, my marriage. I didn’t want anything to do with it.

Because Andrew had purchased the gun from a friend, he wasn’t legally required to register it in his name. It was free-floating in the Georgia atmosphere now. Andrew believes in gun control. He supports background checks and thinks owning a gun should be a tested, licensed activity, like driving a car. He also likes guns. His father got him his first BB gun at age 8, and his first .22 rifle at 12. On family road trips, Andrew’s father took him out to shoot it in the Nevada desert. Andrew had told me those stories in the early years of our relationship, when he was a classics student tending bar to support himself. But I’d ignored them, or blocked them out. Instead, I’d absorbed the chapters of his childhood spent on a commune, the afternoons running shoeless in the woods. I envisioned these parts like a film reel, a story about Andrew that matched the man I fell in love with.

But his father saw in Andrew what he’d always wished for himself: physical strength, a native athleticism, an electric current of intensity. Andrew remembers being 8 years old, riding in the passenger seat of his father’s Toyota, rotating Chinese meditation balls in his palm that his martial arts teacher had given him. At a stoplight, his father put a hand over Andrew’s to stop the movement. “Be careful with those,” he told him. “You’ll become too peaceful.” Though everyone in our liberal families was taken aback when Andrew joined the Army, I imagine his father, who died when Andrew was 18, would have been pleased.

His very presence anchored me. He was thoughtful and gentle. He was tender and loving. He was also a killer.

Andrew handed me the gun. It felt cool in my hands. I stared at it, trying to quiet the dissonance I felt. It was the same sensation I experienced when I picked him up from deployment in a parking lot late at night and I could sense immediately, even in the dark, that he was different, that I was different. I felt it, too, during the fights we’d started having since coming to Georgia, clashes over politics and world views that made me question when we’d stopped seeing eye to eye, or if we ever had at all.

“I think I’ll stay away from it,” I said, and handed the gun back to him, though I wanted to say more: Why would you bring this into our home? This is a part of your world, not mine.

But our lives and livelihoods were intertwined. Violence put food on our table. As his wife, I owned the gun as much as he did. In the past, I had pushed to understand: Tell me what you like about guns. Tell me why you think we need one. And long before that: Tell me why you need to join the Army. Now, holding this gun, I was asking nagging questions of myself: Tell me why you’re letting a gun into your home. Tell me why you allow violence to put food on your table.

I didn’t have an answer. I only knew that sometimes I’d pushed Andrew so hard I’d pushed him away. When he first joined the Army and told me the kind of work he’d be doing in a rapidly deployable combat unit, I asked, in a tone like a slap, “Why would you want to do that?”

He’d considered my face for a moment.

“You look ashamed,” he’d said sadly.

***

Here was the greatest surprise: Sometimes the gun set me at ease. A few weeks after Andrew purchased it, someone pounded on the door at 2 a.m., and I felt a swell of warmth as Andrew roused and moved toward the nightstand.

When Andrew discovered the intruder was a friend walking home drunk from a bar, I was embarrassed. I’d felt real affection for the gun, for my husband as he reached for it without hesitation. I knew he was thinking far more of me than of himself; or, more likely, he was not thinking at all. I saw, in that moment, how love and violence are inextricable for him, linked not by philosophy or ideology, but by instinct. Maybe it is like that for all of us. We fiercely defend, of course, what we love.

But “defend” is such a sanitized word, the kind civilians use in patriotic talk about the military, the sort of language I use when I don’t want to think about what Andrew really does. Inside the Army, they talk freely — enthusiastically — about killing. The Army trains its soldiers to kill, and they’ve gotten very good at it. According to months of interviews U.S. Army historian Major S.L.A. Marshall conducted with servicemen during World War II, fewer than 25 percent of soldiers aimed and fired their weapons with the intent to kill. Marshall’s methods have been scrutinized since he published his findings in 1947, but his studies impacted the military’s approach to training. After World War II, the military focused on conditioning its soldiers to kill, training them to overcome their hesitations through muscle memory-building “kill drills” that simulated combat as closely as possible. In “Men and Fire in Vietnam,” Maj. Russel W. Glenn estimated that, just a few decades later, around 90 percent of troops in combat were shooting to kill. Now, after 18 years of nonstop war, we have the most seasoned, all-volunteer wartime Army the U.S. has ever seen. These soldiers are professionals, and killing the enemy in combat is a duty. But, as in any career, it’s also a purpose and a skill that is celebrated.

Several months after Andrew brought home the gun, we drove to our friend Robert’s* for a weekend barbecue in Harris County, a rural area north of Columbus. He owned a small prefab house that was dwarfed by the acres of surrounding land. The men liked to congregate there; it was a vast, legal, unsupervised place for shooting.

Robert brought a long plastic case out of his closet a few minutes after we arrived. The guys swarmed as he lay it on the kitchen table, while the women barely glanced up from where they sat on the floor, playing with their babies. In the case sat a semiautomatic tactical rifle, a civilian version of the kind the men used at work and overseas. Its presence set me on edge in a different way than handguns and hunting rifles did, but once it was in Robert’s hands, something quieted in me. He handled it with a kind of familiar care, as though it were a beloved instrument he routinely played.

I listened as the guys talked shop about guns, trading in narrative as they always did: stories about wild boar hunting in the Texas prairie land, stalking deer in the north Idaho mountains, camping out in the vast public lands of the Arizona desert, their rifles piled in their truck beds. For most of them, these were the only places they’d known outside of the cities and countries where the Army had sent them. For some, these were still the only spots in the world that felt right to them, their time with the Army just a way station on their journeys back home. Guns were a part of these men’s greater story, the one they’d been given and created for themselves. It was so hard for me to grasp, but I knew some of them would feel, stripped of their guns, without a home in the world.

Our formative years were shaped by such drastically different rites of passage, it was a wonder that we could converse at all. But we did. I even loved some of these men. They stood in the line of fire for my husband without a second thought, and more poignantly, they stretched to understand me: the woman who was raised without God or guns; who’d reduced these men when she met them to “white males from conservative rural areas”; who drank a little too much at these barbecues and unwittingly became enraptured as she listened to them talk about their lives and witnessed their love for one another. They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. “What are you writing right now?” one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.

They stretched to know me because I stretched to know them. ‘What are you writing right now?’ one of them asked me with timid intimacy at a military ball. I struggled to explain.

Watching the guys in Rob’s dining room, I thought about those afternoons Andrew had spent in the hot desert with his father, those lifetimes he’d lived before I loved him. There was something sacred in those memories that I couldn’t touch. It had taken me some time to realize, but I could not always reach Andrew. And maybe that was okay. In those times, the work of loving may be failing to understand him but choosing to love him regardless, to go to the bookstore with him and share in something we both understand and enjoy. It was allowing both of us a kind of grace; sometimes, I only gave it to us grudgingly. He was better at setting aside, at bringing me close again. He had long ago taught me that other essential ingredient to loving that I still had to work so hard at: letting go.

At dusk, we drove home through the bleak back roads of Columbus, passing aging billboards that advertised fireworks and condemned abortion. The sun was setting. When we’d first arrived, I’d hated almost everything about the city — the heat, the conservative politics, the slow-moving post office lines — but I loved that big sky, the way the sunset softened the whole city. Andrew was leaving the next day for a three-week training. These goodbyes had become routine at this point, less painful, but I still felt like something was being ripped from me when he left. The ground I walked on was less solid, the scenery in my world less vibrant. I put my hand on the console between us. He reached for it and squeezed.

*Names has been changed to protect privacy.

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Simone Gorrindo is a writer and book editor living in Tacoma, Washington with her husband and two children. She is writing a memoir about the secret lives of women on the home front of America’s longest war.

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Editor: Krista Stevens
Fact checker: Steven Cohen
Copy editor: Jacob Gross

Stumbling Into Joy

Jill Douglas/Redferns

Kate Hopper | True Story | August 2019 | 46 minutes (9,120 words)

 

“[Playing music together provides an] opportunity of stumbling into joy, of having an essentially unedited, fresh, and electric experience . . . [which] is key to the girls’ futures.” —June Millington, member of Fanny, cofounder of the Institute for the Musical Arts

 

 

Finally, after eight months of trying to address the pain on my own, I had my gallbladder removed. It took another six months for my digestion to stabilize, and when I finally felt better, I was relieved, but also a little shell-shocked. What had just happened?

I shifted into taking-stock mode. I was almost forty-four years old, and ideally I still had half of my life ahead of me. How did I want to live it? And what were my regrets? Luckily, I didn’t have many. I was happily married, with two wonderfully spunky, smart, healthy, and kind daughters. My work as a writer, editor, and coach, despite not paying very well, gave me great pleasure. I reasoned that even the hard stuff I’d experienced in my life, which I would have gladly avoided if given the chance, had taught me something and had, as the saying goes, made me stronger.

Read more…

Under the Influence: Deeper Than Beauty

courtesy of Jakiya N. Brown / courtesy of Mina Gerges

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | October 2019 |  8 minutes (2,145 words)

Part two in a three-part series on the influencer economy. Read part one, “White Lies.”

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It’s hard to find an influencer who doesn’t fit the profile. I could’ve spoken to a blond female beauty Instagrammer easily. Or a blond male gamer, even. Everything else was a nightmare. Try coming up with a tech influencer who is not a man. Or a man of color who is anywhere near grooming but not drag. In order to find the Travelingfro, Jakiya Brown, an African American woman Instagramming the globe, I had to go to a series of black culture sites. I might have discovered Mina Gerges, who lives in Toronto like me, if I ever walked rather than ran through a Sephora (he’s in the new Canadian campaign), but it was a Twitter callout that eventually brought us together. Surprise: “gay, genderqueer Egyptian beauty influencer” isn’t much of an archetype. Now I’m actually questioning whether being an influencer is a real thing either.

“You don’t do influencing,” Brown explains. “That, to me, that’s not a job.” She sees influencing as a side effect of admirable skill in one area (or, in the famous cases — from Kim Kardashian to Gigi Hadid — of having a name already), a way of selling brands on the attention you already have. She remembers working in beauty marketing several years ago and getting a flood of barely legible, text-style emails from beauty bloggers demanding free products. It was an easy no every time. Speaking of easy nos, I slogged through a sea of influencer-speak — I am now immunized from ever using the word “journey” again — to parse how Brown and Gerges slogged their way through a sea of sameness to get the influencing industry to say yes to them. Here’s how they got past the filters by appealing to reality.

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You may already know Gerges for his “celebrity recreations,” a series prompted by a break up. Some guy ditched him in 2014, but not before mocking Gerges for being effeminate, and the first thing he thought of was that image of Beyoncé with mascara running down her face from her “Why Don’t You Love Me” video. “So I did that,” he says. The response was polarized. Social media stars were big with The Youth at the time, but they weren’t as pervasive in the mainstream as they are now. Gerges had some people thinking he was hilarious, others thinking he was weird: “When I saw peoples’ reactions, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I think I’m on to something.’” So he went nuts, producing scrappy imitations of everything from Kim Kardashian’s intricate Cavalli at the 2015 Met Gala (beige curtain, paint) to Beyonce’s twinkling Givenchy (garbage bag, rhinestones). In January 2015, Buzzfeed’s David Mack picked up his site — “Bow down, Instagram bitches” — and that was it. Gerges’s discount replicas were everywhere from Time magazine to Kim Kardashian’s fingertips, and people even started to copy them (that part was annoying, he says). He began to think he could make a living from this thing.

At the same time, Gerges was in recovery, having started his account while struggling with anorexia. “It became so amplified by the culture around Instagram,” he tells me. “Thin, muscular, white men having hundreds of thousands of followers.” He was proof that looking right could make you popular. As if to double down on this cliché, as he got well and gained weight, commenters stopped praising his work and started criticizing his body. It got to the point that he couldn’t look at his own reflection without comments like “What the fuck happened to you?” running through his head. He searched online for other men who might be struggling like him — nothing. “I realized there were no men talking about it,” Gerges says. “We’re conditioned to just take it and be quiet because men shouldn’t be vulnerable.”

He tried to figure out a way to work with Instagram so he didn’t have to hate both the platform and himself. After five months, on February 19, 2018, he had it: Gerges posted a series of images of himself shirtless and disclosed his eating disorder to his followers. He explained how he got sick at the age of 20, how he would starve himself, how he would spend hours at the gym, how he never felt satisfied. The post was covered in Teen Vogue and Paper and has since received almost 11,000 likes. “It took a very long time, because I was horrified to do it,” Gerges explains. But it wasn’t a fairytale ending. A year later he was considering deleting his Instagram account entirely. His work had turned increasingly vulnerable and he was increasingly bullied. And he would later find it impossible to make a living off his site, having sent out media kits and getting rejected left and right. He had a bad experience with an agent (he jokes that he’s now both Kris Jenner and Kim Kardashian in one). On top of all that, he felt discouraged watching all these white cis influencers constantly being hired. “There was not a single brand that wanted to work with me,” Gerges says, “not a single one.”

Then the brands got a kick in the ass. As the media awoke to representation, it confronted various industries, including the fashion and beauty machines, on their lack of diversity. Up-and-coming designers of color were more inclusive in their campaigns and on the runway, and old-school companies were shamed into progress. Fashion magazines started approaching Gerges; he landed the gig with Sephora and, more recently, an underwear campaign with Calvin Klein. That which had isolated him then — his gender, his sexuality, his race, his body type — now made him indispensable. In the aftermath of the Sephora campaign, Gerges told me he was researching Egyptian culture through history in order to come up with ways to queer traditionally straight historical narratives. He plans to get a friend to photograph him on film — “I don’t edit any of my photos,” he says, “I think that’s another way for me to introduce an element of vulnerability and honesty” — which he hopes to unveil as an Instagram series, probably at a scientifically suboptimal time for maxing out the likes. Because aside from not Facetuning his images, he doesn’t rely on apps to tell him when to post or how to hashtag. “My value is not that I have, like, a, fucking whatever percent engagement rate,” he says. “My value is my story, my value is who I am.”

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Before Jakiya Browne started @travelingfro, she had a lucrative marketing career in New York with L’Oréal and Coty, for which she scouted talent online. “I would stay on YouTube, like, all day watching these bloggers,” she tells me. But even back in 2014, finding influencers who weren’t interchangeable was a bit of a chore. “The ‘I just got out of college, I fell into YouTubing, now I’m a millionaire’ — we didn’t really want those types of girls,” Brown explains. On one of the influencer trips she hosted, however, she met the kind of woman she realized she herself wanted to be, the kind of woman who creates and sustains a brand outside the confines of an office. “It wasn’t like, ‘I want to become an influencer,’” she clarifies (she will repeat this a few times during our interview), but she was tired of the corporate grind and wanted to travel.

Brown quit her job in 2016. She roamed the world for a year, which sounds impossible, but she supported herself with the “substantial” savings she had amassed over her career and supplemented that with consulting gigs for smaller beauty brands. Still, she had a strict budget: $1,000 a month. In places with a lower cost of living, like Mexico and Eastern Europe, it wasn’t hard to stick to that. Otherwise, she stayed with people she had met during her marketing career. “I just started getting scrappy,” she says, “which is like: creative on how not to spend money.” Once Brown grew a following, her room, board, and transit were covered by sponsored posts. “People were always like, ‘How did you get these brand partnerships when you had like 3,000 followers?’” she says. “I know how to convince them that it’s more than just numbers.” That she was a black female traveler was “low hanging fruit” — there weren’t that many women of color in the travel space — but her high engagement helped too. She only had a few thousand followers but got hundreds of comments per post, which means that a brand could appeal to a market that wasn’t entirely white, and this market would bring sustained attention. Brown thinks she earned her audience’s loyalty by being honest not only about the good, but also about the bad, like whether or not she had the stamina to keep traveling indefinitely. That, and she was good on camera (Brown was an early Instagram Stories adopter), which many influencers weren’t: “If you couldn’t talk to your audience like your friend, and you were super awkward, people disconnected.”

The Travelingfro is now a brand that has had more than 100 clients, offering courses, consulting, and workshops to help “tired nine-to-fivers” find the freedom to “do the things they love, like travel the world.” Last fall, Brown took some time to refine her brand, which included researching literature on digital marketing. In that time, she realized she could marry her marketing and social media experience in order to teach influencers the business side of things. As she wrote in a recent post sponsored by Numi Organic Tea, “Keep building. Show up even when no one shows up. Keep going when everyone thinks you should stop. Keep following whatever it is inside that keeps you from giving up. Watch what happens.” Why a tea company? Because tea is part of her morning routine. Brown only works with brands as long as they work with hers. “If you’re working with, like, detergent one day, and then like plant food the next day, and then like these boots the next day, and then AmEx cards the next day, you’re a walking billboard,” she says. “I’m not about that.” She’s about keeping expenses down, rolling contracts, spacing out your earnings to account for dry spells — in short, being practical. “No exchanges,” she adds. “Like a backpack? I can’t eat that.”

As a marketing veteran, Brown used to know the industry standards, such as they were — companies apparently have piles of cash for influencing that they divvy out arbitrarily — but she doesn’t care anymore. She prices according to how much time and work goes into her posts. “If I feel like I am worth $2,000 for two Instagram stories, that’s what I feel,” she says, to which I say: Jesus. But that’s not even on the high side: at one point, Brown revealed that within a recent quarter she made $50,000, which happens to be my annual income. “You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, things are great, I’m rich,’” she says. “Then something happens and you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m broke.” (Usually I’m just broke.) Apparently influencers serially undervalue their worth, particularly influencers of color who see an overrepresentation of white faces. Brown thinks the opposite should be true — in any other industry, the rarer something is, the more valuable it tends to be.

* * *

Neither Brown nor Gerges set out to be influencers, which is probably why they are so good at it. Instead of conforming to the industry standard, they exploded it. Gerges injects the beauty field, which has been largely marketed as white and female, with Middle Eastern queerness. Brown, a black woman traveling the world, also dominates a space that has been overrepresented by white bodies. Which makes her all the more savvy about how precarious it all is. “Instagram can pack up and go any day,” she says. “You do not own that space. You don’t even own the content on there.” I hate to use this term (especially since she didn’t), but Brown diversified in order not to stake her entire livelihood on one platform. Most influencers, however, in her experience don’t have a plan B — a book or a workshop or some other source of income. “They’re all kind of riding this wave,” she says. “Until there is no more wave.” Gerges is doing everything he can to ensure that he is not one of those people. For him, the work goes way beyond appearances. “It’s not just an aesthetic or a filter that you toss on every photo,” he says. “It’s about a larger idea.” Whether or not anyone else can see that is out of his control. But influencing on its own is definitely precarious considering the dilution of the industry by superficial infiltrators who pose as something more. “I hope that people can get to a point where they can differentiate between what’s actually authentic,” Gerges says. “And what is just fabricated to look authentic.”

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.